The Way It Is

May 20th, 2014

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I was out driving one day, years ago, with my son Nick. He was young, maybe seven, and he’d been thinking about the state of the world.

“Hey, Dad?” he said. “Seems to me like everything is … getting worse. You know?” He looked over at me from the passenger’s seat, and I nodded. Go on, I’m listening.

He thought hard for a moment, gazing out the windshield at his sifting thoughts, then added, “But … it also seems like everything is getting better.”

I loved it. He was examining his view of the world, articulating it, testing it, sorting it out.

We each have our own worldview, consciously aware of it or not.

Your worldview is not what you think you believe or want to believe. It’s what you do believe. It drives your attitudes, decisions, and actions, moment to moment, day to day, year after year. It is the lens through which you see everything.

When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite ruled the world with an authority greater than that of presidents or kings. Every weeknight, after finishing his report on the CBS Evening News, he would leave us with his famous signoff line, “And that’s the way it is on …” whatever the date was that day.

And for millions and millions of Americans, that’s the way it was.

You have a Walter Cronkite in your head telling you how it is, not just once an evening but constantly, in a 24/7 real-time newsfeed. Your inner Cronkite scans everything happening in your world, searching out those events that confirm your personal view of the way it is, and ignoring or downplaying all other information. It filters your reality and colors every thought and perception you have.

A car cuts you off in traffic. Depending on your worldview, either you say “Oh well” and shrug it off — or your inner Cronkite supplies its confirming punch line: “… and that’s the way it is.”

If I’m going through a tough time, you can tell me “Things will work out” or “Look on the bright side,” and I may try to listen. But if I’ve got a worldview whispering inside me that says, Nothing ever works out in the long run, or Life’s a bitch and then you die — then I might hear your words but I can’t grasp the music. My inner Cronkite is drowning it out with its in my ear: “Nope, that’s not the way it is. Here’s how it is…”

“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

When God closes a door, He opens a window.

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

Everything will be okay in the end.

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

What goes around comes around.

Money doesn’t grow on trees…”

So many different versions of worldview!

For far too many, that inner Cronkite is unconsciously and unquestioningly inherited in childhood, from parents, teachers, church, television. By cultural osmosis. The unexamined lifelens.

That was what I so loved about Nick’s rumination: he was examining it all, carefully and consciously. He was asking, “What do I think?”

When I was a teenager, a friend’s father told us one evening, “Remember these high school days, guys — they’ll be the best days of your lives.” He was jovial and friendly as he said it, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable. It was only later that night, as I was going to sleep, that the penny dropped and I realized what he was really saying:

“It’s all downhill from here, boys … And that’s the way it is.”

That’s why it made me feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t believe that. I still don’t.

In the four decades since that encounter, despite losses and setbacks and tragedies, my life has overall gone uphill, not down. My friend’s life, alas, has not followed the same course, but has been a drama of drugs, alcohol, and crippling disease. He has an amazingly positive attitude in the face of all his difficulties, but I can’t help wondering if he was not infected terminally with his father’s fatalistic worldview.

Driving to town one day in the fall of 1982—this is three years before Nick was born — I happened to tune the car radio to an interview with the futurist John Naisbitt, who had just published his breakout book, Megatrends. Captivated, I pulled over to listen to him read an excerpt from the last chapter. The book’s closing line hit me like a thunderclap:

What a fantastic time to be alive!

This was not an easy time in my life. I’d lost a child, was struggling financially, and my first marriage was headed for the rocks. Yet the moment I heard Naisbitt declaim those seven words I knew that deep down inside, that was fundamentally what I believed to be true.

It still is.

How do you see it? What, for you, is the way it is?

Not Postponing Happiness

May 13th, 2014

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So I was driving down the highway, thinking about things, not paying any attention to where I was.

My first book was finished. My coauthor and I had it in the hands of a literary agent who was shopping it to publishers in New York. (This was many years ago.) Nobody had picked it up yet, but I felt sure this would happen any day now, and not only that, but that it would be published and hit the bestseller lists.

As I drove, I was dreaming about how good that was going to feel, knowing that this thing my friend and I had worked on so hard was going to be in the hands of so many people, touching so many lives, making such a difference out in the big world.

And then I heard myself say out loud:

“Man, when that happens, I’m going to be so happy!”

The implications of that remark were so disturbing that I instantly slapped on my turn signal, yanked the wheel to the right, and pulled off the highway. Gliding into a rest stop, I parked, put on the brake, and sat there thinking about what I’d just said as the cooling engine went tink tink-tink tink.

“When that happens, I’m going to be so happy.”

It was a beautiful summer day on Interstate 81, somewhere deep in that luscious green stretch of mountain countryside stretching north to south from central Pennsylvania to Virginia. Gorgeous as it was, though, I had not been enjoying it, not the slightest little bit. Why not? Because I hadn’t been there.

Where had I been?

Nowhere.

For the past hour or so I’d been busy thinking about some imagined circumstance in some imagined future that would (I imagined) make me feel happy. Projecting myself into some fantasized future, I’d projected myself right out of reality. I’d been holding my own happiness hostage to a hypothesized future, and in the process keeping myself inanimately frozen like a prehistoric insect in amber, a fossilized citizen of that land of nonexistence called Someday.

I call Someday the eighth day of the week: the day that never comes.

When I say, “I am going to be happy,” the message my subconscious receives is, “Right now I’m not happy, and I won’t be happy until that future comes.”

Which, of course, it never does—because it is always “right now.”

Jim Carrey, the comedian, wrestled for a long time with deep depression. In recent years Carrey has become a devoted friend and advocate of Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, the bestselling book that so beautifully articulates the essential value of existing in the present moment and not allowing our ego to stretch us like taffy into projections of the future and ruminations over the past. Introducing Tolle at an event for the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment, Carrey told the audience:

“If you’ve read The Power of Now, if you know his work, and you’ve been looking forward to hearing him this evening … you should go back and read it again, because you obviously missed the point.”

This got a big laugh and a round of applause — and it was a really good point.

Sitting there on the side of Interstate 81, it occurred to me that I had obviously missed the point.

Sure, it would be great when and if the book got published. But why not be happy right now?

The first condition of being happy is to be as fully present as possible, in the moment, right now, right here. Because this moment, right now, right here, is where happiness happens. The only place and time, in fact, where happiness happens.

(The words “happiness” and “happen” come from the same root. Aha. A clue.)

Parents with active careers know how easy it is to miss out on the most important moments in a child’s life. Hence the classic busy executive’s lament, “I watched my kid growth up on video.” But it’s just as easy to miss out on your own life the same way. Don’t watch the moments of your existence passing by from the distracted distance of the video camera in your mind.

That day on the interstate I was traveling from Massachusetts, where my sweetheart lived, to Virginia, to see my sons. Traveling from one good place to another. But right then I wasn’t in Massachusetts and I wasn’t in Virginia. I was somewhere in between … on the road.

Something like where I was with our book.

I’d had a wonderful time writing the thing. But that place was now behind me, and I was now on the way toward that eventual place where I would be enjoying the experience of our book being out in the world. And that place lay ahead, in the future.

As it turned out, in the far future.

As it turned out, that summer not a single publisher bought our book. Not that fall or winter, either.

As it turned out, every publishing house our agent approached turned it down.

That winter our agent kicked the manuscript back to us with dozens of pages of notes and suggestions. It wa a long winter. We spent months revising it. The months stretched out into a year, then more than a year. Finally, two full years after the day of that summertime roadside reverie, we signed a contract with a publisher, and six months after that our little book, titled The Go-Giver, was published. And in fact it did end up on some bestseller lists, and it did go on to touch a lot of lives. But not till some thirty months after that bucolic day on Interstate 81 when I’d imagined it happening.

I’m sure glad I decided not to hold my own happiness hostage to the future.

Thirty months is a long time to sit on the side of the road.

Which makes me wonder: Are you by any chance sitting anywhere on the side of Interstate 81, or any other highway, imagining how nice it will be when you arrive?

If so, I have a thought to share:

If you can imagine how nice it will be when you arrive, then don’t wait to enjoy it, because you’re already there.

Deep as an Ocean

May 6th, 2014

A guest post from my wife, Ana Gabriel Mann, on milk, soup, and love as deep as an ocean.

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This morning I awoke to realize that the milk was spoiled.

We had bought the milk to make my mom’s favorite homemade tomato soup, from a recipe that her mother, my grandmother, taught me forty years ago.

For the better part of the past five years I’ve been making my mom’s favorite lunches, dinners, Western omelette sandwiches, clam chowders, and anything else she wanted so we could both feel better about the fact that my husband and I could no longer take care of her at home. (And to give her a much needed break from the truly awful food at the nursing home where she had now taken up residence.)

Every morning when I awoke I would plan my day around making and bringing her lunch and her adored hot fresh coffee. I took no phone calls, made no appointments. By noon I would be sitting with her and visiting while she ate, watching her enjoy every bite.

During those visits over lunch, she and I would review every last memory we could dig up. Some days we had truly remarkable conversations about virtually everything of any importance between us, going all the way back to her childhood and, sometimes, all the way forward to her death. She told me things about her life that I had never known. We discussed at length our views of God and the afterlife. She witnessed my tears in those moments when I told her that after she was gone, I would miss her every day for the rest of my life. We talked about anything and everything we could think of — and yet the entire time we were talking I knew that the moment she was gone, I would start to think of the many questions I had never asked, the myriad of things that still went unsaid.

That’s just how it is, I eventually realized. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t say everything.

In the last several weeks of her life her appetite waned and she ate far less. The last two weeks, it was soup that she wanted most, and especially her favorite, her mother’s homemade tomato, made with fresh whole milk.

During this time her pain increased, and the medications given to ease her pain also sedated her and made her sleep many more hours than she was awake. Still, she sat up whenever I came, to have some soup and visit about whatever was new in my life.

One Tuesday near the end of March, John wrote the most beautiful blog about Sylvia. He referred to the place we had arrived, where we were still holding onto her but knew we were near the end of this time, as “where the string meets the knot.”

I held her hand that night, fed her soup by the teaspoonful, and told her about John’s blog post and his metaphor about the string and the knot.

She smiled deeply and said, “That is exactly where we are, Honey.”

She knew, and I knew, that the days of sitting together were numbered. As much as I was fully adult in my understanding, I felt a deep and childlike urgency, a desire to freeze the moment so I wouldn’t ever have to face the inevitable. I had reassured her that I would be sad but that I would be okay, too, to which she replied, “You’ll be fine. You’re strong, like me.”

On Thursday night, it happened: she could no longer swallow the soup. Even the smallest sips made her cough and choke. I brought the thermos of hot soup back home that night; pouring it down the sink, I knew I had made the last meal. The gravity of the moment made me numb. It was as if the house had collapsed.

On Friday I went without soup, we just sat together.

On Saturday morning my most loyal friend, my dear Sylvia, my mother, passed quietly. That morning the sky broke open and delivered a torrential rain.

Simple routines are the guard rails of our lives. They inform us of the fragile, ever-present boundaries between the safe and secure and the chasms of the unknown. We seldom realize their strength until they’re gone. Making home-cooked meals for my mom made me feel that even though I couldn’t control her illness, I could at least bring her company and comfort.

It allowed me to feel that I could somehow control the situation … until I couldn’t.

For the first few days that I didn’t make soup, I felt lost. It wasn’t the soup, really. It was me. I was adrift upon an open sea. Grief coming in waves I couldn’t control, waves I simply had to ride.

Finding the spoiled milk on our refrigerator shelf this morning was a punctuation mark, a period at the end of one sentence and the start of a new one. Much as you may want to hold onto a moment and make it last forever, you can’t. The only moment you can truly possess is the one before you right now.

The spoiled milk made it clear that I’d already set foot on a new path. A path, perhaps, where making homemade soup will serve as a sweet reminder of the power of simple routines, and of love as deep as an ocean.

To Change a Nation

April 29th, 2014

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Can one woman with a courageous heart and entrepreneurial passion change a nation?

Before answering that question, let me back up eighteen months.

In November 2012 I received an email from a Lithuanian woman named Neringa Oboleviciute, then living in London. Neringa was writing to tell me and my Go-Giver coauthor Bob Burg about a dream she had to bring The Go-Giver to her native country in a Lithuanian edition.

“Your book can change my beloved country,” she wrote. “Even if it’s just for a couple of people — every life is so worthy.”

She went on to explain, in passionate detail, exactly what this mission meant to her:

“On March 11, 1990, Lithuania had the courage to be the first Soviet Republic to declare its independence. A year later, in mid-January, when Soviet Army and tanks came to fight our country back, people came to protect TV station and parliament — without guns. I remember staying with my mum and my little brother at home when my dad went to one of the main governing places in my town. They stood next to each other, sang hymns, prayed, shared food, helped to stay warm in the cold night. The people who went risked their lives; they did not think of themselves; it was not just about them, it was about others, about their kids, future generations.

“And this is how Lithuania protected its independence. Fourteen people died because tanks drove over them or Soviet soldiers shot them, and hundreds were injured. It’s sad and inspiring at the same time, because hundreds or thousands could have died if they would have reacted. However, they responded instead. People did not fight back using guns. It was sharing, giving, standing for each other that won a revolution.

“When I look back at my grandparents and parents, they were very so brave. They had hopes, and faith, and they helped and trusted each other.

“Sadly, today Lithuania has highest suicide rate in the world. But the truth is that deep inside of every Lithuanian I still see that person who is brave and giving.

“We cannot change history, but we can change the future. We need to look forward and start creating a successful story based on great values and helping each other. No matter what happened, the time has come to forgive, let go, and start something beautiful — by thinking about others first again.

“People are saying that young people will emigrate and the country will disappear. I do not believe that! I believe Lithuania can fly again, but only if we help each other fly higher. Only if we realize that our own success depends on how much we help others.

“I saw people [in the UK] start questioning their minds after reading your books in English. It also gave great value to me — which I would like to share with those that I love so much.

“As I said, even if one person changes way of life because of reading Lithuanian version of your book, I will be happy.

“I would greatly appreciate your advice of what my next steps should be to make this dream come true.”

We wrote back and encouraged her, telling her what we tell everyone who writes us asking about having the book appear in their language: that this would need to be contracted by a publisher in their country with our publisher, Portfolio/Penguin, in New York.

“I will find a publisher,” she replied, “and will come back to you again.”

We didn’t hear from Neringa for the next year and a half.

Then, a few days ago, she wrote once again to bring us up to date on her journey.

Prior to her first email, back in 2012, Neringa’s dream had been to become an economist. After securing her Master’s degree in economics she was working in London as an analyst in the Internet marketing industry, as a stepping stone toward a career in economics.

Reading The Go-Giver had pushed her to a crossroads moment.

“I had to choose between my two passions,” she wrote, “economics … and the book.”

The book, and her new mission, won. Soon after writing us, she left her career track behind in London and returned to Lithuania, book in hand.

Once back in her homeland she contacted two Lithuanian publishers. Both passed. (“One of them didn’t even want to hear the book’s title.”) When they saw how determined Neringa was, though, the second publisher offered advice, suggestions, and even their professional connections, adding that she could call them any time with more questions.

Which she did. “Since our first meeting,” she wrote, “they’ve been there to guide me.”

She started talking to everyone she knew and everyone she met about her dream of bringing The Go-Giver to Lithuania.

At first it was hard to do this, she admitted, “without being afraid of people stealing my idea. I had to step over myself and still do it. As you say in the book, sometimes you feel foolish, you look foolish, but still do it — only in my case I guess it was: sometimes you feel vulnerable, you look vulnerable, but still do it.”

Even without her asking for it, people began offering their help, too.

“I am still shocked how many people offered their contacts and suggestions. It’s as you said in the book: you get what you expect. If you stop expecting people to steal your idea and wish bad for you, they all start living your dream with you. Now all my friends want this book to go wild in Lithuania. It’s crazy!”

She contacted the foreign rights agent who handles the international rights in Europe for The Go-Giver, and they agreed to sell her the Lithuanian rights — if she could have a publishing company ready to buy them and the necessary distribution channels lined up.

Which was a problem. Because she still didn’t have a publishing company behind her.

So she did something that still makes me smile every time I think about it.

She built one herself.

Neringa founded her own publishing company (naming it Kitas Gestas, Lithuanian for another gesture) and signed a contract with the largest distribution company in Lithuania. Her company’s catalogue of books, for the time being, includes a total of one title.

“I thought I’d left my work in economics behind,” she added in another email today. As it turned out, not entirely. As she wrote her new company’s business plan and worked up projections, that economist’s training of hers proved quite useful after all.

Neringa has completed the translation herself and has professionals lined up to do the editing, layout, and cover graphics. She is talking with journalists about advertising and planning a website and Facebook page for the book.

There is also a distinctly go-giver dimension to her business plan: she will use a portion of the profits from her Lithuanian edition’s sales to distribute copies free in jails, orphanages, and other institutions in need.

Neringa’s brother has invested in the venture and become part of the company, working on online promotion. Her mother, a senior accountant, is on payroll to manage the finances.

“This has become our long-dreamed-of family business,” says Neringa. “It’s amazing!”

This week our U.S. publisher, Portfolio, signed a contract with Neringa’s new company. It’s official. A Lithuanian edition of The Go-Giver, in hardcover, is on its way, planned for release and wide national distribution by this fall.

So … can one woman with a courageous heart and entrepreneurial passion change a nation?

You tell me.

Your Dog Is Right

April 22nd, 2014

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Do you sometimes worry that you’re a fraud? That secretly, you are not as capable, or as smart, or skillful, or honest, or noble, or whatever, as people (especially the people who matter to you) think you are?

Let me ask it this way: Have you ever had a dream where you suddenly realize you are in public without any pants on? Or you’re taking an important exam and have no idea what it’s talking about? Or some other, similar dream, where you all at once find yourself unprepared, ill-equipped, exposed?

(A recurring dream of mine: I am on stage, violin at my chin, before a huge audience, orchestra and conductor poised behind me. All are breathless in anticipation, awaiting the first note as I light into an especially demanding violin concerto. And it occurs to me: I don’t play the violin.)

I don’t think it has anything to do with actually being a dishonest person or with low self-esteem. I think it’s about having the honesty and humility to face the fact that even our best accomplishments are mostly a mystery even to ourselves.

Especially to ourselves.

Last week I compared writing and living to diving off a cliff. Diving off a cliff, I might have added, with no pants on. This has to be why highly accomplished writers, actors, and other artists so often say they have the secret fear that one day the world will suddenly wake up and realize they are a sham. For example, guess who said the following:

“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now.”

Or this one:

“You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie?’ And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Both confessions remind me of my favorite bumper sticker:

“Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

In The Last Battle, the final book of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, the children discover that in Aslan’s Country (Lewis’s storybook version of heaven) there is a real England, the essential, pure England of which the version we know here in this mortal life is a mere shadow.

Perhaps each of us is like that. Perhaps there is a true, essential, fully realized you that exists in some dimension beyond this one, a you which you can sense and which aspire to be, a you that your life is about approaching ever closer to, yet still knowing we aren’t there yet.

But here’s the thing: That essential you? It’s right there, right now, and always has been, pulsing just beneath the surface of all your first drafts, no matter how rough they are.

You truly are the person your dog thinks you are.

That’s why your dog—and everyone else who cares about you—are here. To make sure you see that.

P.S. Maya Angelou and Meryl Streep.

Diving Off a Cliff

April 15th, 2014

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Today I started writing a book.

This morning when I woke up I had no idea how it started. It’s a book about a well-known CEO (alas, can’t reveal the name just now) whose story I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly how to tell. Today in the shower a thought came to me and I wrote it down:

“In English grammar, they have what they call first person and second person. First person is when I talk about me. Second person is when I talk about you. I think grammar may have it backwards. Anyone who has had any measure of genuine success knows that focusing on myself comes second. Focusing on you comes first.

“So here’s the thing. I’m going to tell you my story. But the point is not to tell you my story—it’s to offer whatever experiences and perspectives I can in hopes it may help you work out what your story is, and muster the courage to live it.”

Right now I have no idea if these hundred words are good, or so-so, or awful. That’s not false modesty. I truly don’t know. I have no idea if they will end up being the way the book starts, or even whether or not they will appear in the book at all. But that’s not important. What’s important is taking that first step — that one that takes you off the cliff and into freefall.

That’s what writing is like: flinging yourself off a cliff every day, without knowing if there’s a net there or not.

Living is like that, too.

They’re similar in a lot of ways, writing a book and living a life. Each book starts with a blank page. So does each day. And no matter how long you’ve been doing this (writing, living) you really have no guarantees that this time, you know what you’re doing, and no sure-fire formula for how to do it.

You have tens of thousands of examples before you — books that others have written, lives that others have lived. That’s helpful, but not as much as you’d hope. None of those books is the one you’re writing now, none of those lives the one you’re living now. So you’re still faced with that blank page and the challenge that you’re going to put something down on it that may turn out to be mediocre or worse.

Here is what George Orwell commented while writing 1984, widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language:

“The rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.”

Ernest Hemingway (no surprise here) put it a little more simply:

“The first draft of anything is crap.”

I look back at my twenties and thirties as my life’s first draft. There were some good ideas in there, but also an awful lot of missteps and minor disasters, even some major ones. There were moments and episodes that still make me cringe. As far as I can see, Hemingway was right on.

Still, there’s no getting around it. You have to start, or it won’t get done.

I’m deliriously happy with my life today. But I couldn’t have this life with having dove off the cliff and taken a stab at that first draft.

This, I think, is what stops so many people from writing: the fear of putting down something that’s no good. But that’s essential. In fact I think it is the unwillingness to suppress that reflex for in-the-moment self-critical judgment, self-editing, second-guessing, and revising-as-you-go, that smothers most good writing (and perhaps a good deal of living) in the crib. It’s probably the biggest thing that separates those who aspire to write from those who actually do.

In a word: courage.

It takes courage to write a book. It takes courage to live a life. It takes courage to let yourself be vulnerable. To let yourself look foolish. To let yourself fall. To let yourself feel.

Joan Didion wrote, “I write to find out what I think.” I think we live to find out who we are.

There’s no safe way to do either one, but in both cases the result is real — and worth it.

Finding Time

April 8th, 2014

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My father was a university professor, music scholar, and choral conductor, and very active in all three careers. He had an office at home where he worked on manuscripts and corrected papers. He loved his work, and had a lot of it. But as a child, every time I went to knock on his door, whether it was because I needed something or just wanted to tell him the latest juicy bit of five-year-old’s news, he never once said, “I’m busy!” or “Can this wait?” or even “Just a minute.”

He would drop whatever he was doing and give me his full attention.

It still amazes me how he was able to do this. He always seemed to have time. But where did he find it?

For years I have struggled with the feeling of not having enough time. What some might call a “poverty mentality,” not in relation to having enough money but to having enough time. I think I’m starting to understand how my father did it.

There’s even some fascinating science behind it.

A few years ago, some researchers approached a few dozen complete strangers on the street with envelopes containing a little cash, either $5 or $20. The subjects were instructed to spend their little windfall by the end of the day. There was a catch, though: half were told they had to spend the cash on themselves; the other half were instructed to spend it on someone else.

Interviewing the people after all the money was spent, the researchers found that one group derived far more happiness from their little spending spree than the other. Can you guess which one? Of course you can.

The people who got more joy from their money were those who spent it on others.

So what does this have to do with time? Bear with me.

In another study, researchers had one group of subjects spend a certain amount of time on others, while two other groups spent the same amount of time either on themselves or just wasting it doing nothing much. The results? The first group, those who spent their time on others, came away with an increase in what the researchers called their sense of “time affluence.” (The study is titled, “Giving time gives you time.”)

Don’t you love that? Time affluence.

That’s what my father had. Even though he was always very busy, he was time-wealthy. He always had time to spare.

It’s taken me years to figure this out, but I eventually realized that it is when I feel the most pressed, most under the gun, most up against what feels like an impossible deadline, that I most need to take a big breath and stop thinking like a time pauper.

When I’m feeling pressed, instead of struggling to cram three hours of work into the next twenty minutes, I’ll put my work down, go find Ana, and take those twenty minutes to see if there’s something I can do to make her day just a little easier.

By giving a little time away, I’m making myself more time affluent. When I then go back to my work, I’m in a much better place to use what time I have far more effectively. Net result: by giving time, I get more time.

As an Indian proverb says, “They who give have all things; they who withhold have nothing.”

Have you ever felt impatient and found yourself muttering, “Hurry up — I haven’t got all the time in the world.”

But what if you do?

Fiat Lux

April 1st, 2014

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You know how a baby’s smile lights up a room? It’s as if there’s some vast light source hidden behind a screen, and that little round face is a tiny window letting a smidgeon of the billions of gigawatts out there spill into the room we’re occupying.

You don’t have to be an infant to let that light spill out. Adults do it too — at least to the extent they retain enough of their baby selves intact.

This weekend Ana’s mother, Sylvia, slipped out of the room forever and escaped back out to that illuminated space behind the screen.

She left a great deal of light behind.

During her stay at the nearby nursing home over the past four years, Sylvia was eventually promoted to a room at the front of the building with a large bedside window with full sunlight access. (The nursing-home equivalent of the top executive’s coveted corner office.) Every day when we would go to visit her, we would walk by that window on the way into the building and peek in. Most days we would be rewarded with her beaming face and an enthusiastic wave of the hand. There was as much sunlight streaming out of that window as there was going in.

Sylvia’s roommate’s husband used to visit every day. After his wife died, he kept right on visiting. How could he not? Sylvia was a beacon that prevented many a ship from foundering upon the rocks of loneliness. One nurse’s aide had a visit not long ago from her out-of-state daughter. In the twenty-four hours they had together, what did she do? She brought her daughter in to visit Sylvia.

And this was on her day off.

My job over the past few years was to bring Sylvia fresh hot coffee in a thermos (“Ah, the good stuff”), sit and visit, spill the news about my latest book project, and tell her how much I loved her daughter. Easiest job I ever had.

The day she died, a torrential rain came gushing out of the sky. When the man from the funeral home gently covered her body and rolled it out the side door on a gurney, Ana burst out the door to hug her mom for the last time. When she turned back, she saw nine or ten nurses and staff lined up by the door weeping.

But the weeping was for ourselves and our loss — not for her. She’s busy lighting up her new digs.

Sylvia-smiling-199x300When someone dies people say “Rest in peace.”

I’m not so sure that’s how it works.

I have the feeling Sylvia is kicking up her heels right now in that light-world beyond the curtain, doing a whole lot less resting and a whole lot more radiating.

Meanwhile, for you and me she has left this lesson behind:

Let your light shine.

Let it spill out into the room. It’s the reason you’re here.

Being There

March 25th, 2014

Dancing feet3

It’s Tuesday evening. I’m at home. Ana is over at the nursing home, being with Sylvia, her mom, who is in her last days.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while you might remember Sylvia. I wrote about an experience she shared with me once here, and again when she first went into the hospital, more than four years ago, here.

Over the past four years we have had hours of conversation, shared dozens and dozens of books (Sylvia is a ravenous reader), and she and Ana have unpacked entire luggage stores’ worth of suitcases stuffed to overflowing with memories and reminiscences. But the time for reading books has turned its last page, and the energy for conversation has dimmed.

What Sylvia needs right now is not someone to sit and talk to her, but someone simply to sit by her bed, hold her hand, and be fully present.

In her twenties Ana was a professional dancer who performed internationally with a dance company. Dancing came easy to her, but counting did not. According to her, she had a really tough time keeping the math running on those beats. Fortunately for her, she was able to compensate for what could have been a fatal handicap: while she may have been weak at counting the steps as she danced, she was strong at being present to the rhythm of the music—and in dance, the movement is only as powerful as its relationship to the music.

It’s not about count, but about flow.

It’s about being present with the movement of the dance.

This is what she’s doing right now. Being present with the movement of the dance.

Being present is such a valuable thing. Not just in dance, and not only when sitting with someone at the cusp of laying this life down and opening the first chapter of a new one. It’s useful every day.

“Life is available only in the present moment,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Taming the Tiger Within. Or to put it another way: if you’re busy counting the beats, you might miss it altogether.

I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time with someone who is very close to the end of their life, but if you have, you may have noticed that things seem to become extremely simple. There’s not a lot of fussing about the past or fretting about the future, because there simply isn’t room. The present moment is so freighted with the enormity of the fact that we’re here at last, at the point where the string meets the knot.

The truth is, though, that it was always that simple, and is always that simple. Taking a small sip of water, giving a slight pressure to the hand holding yours, saying “I love you” once again (either in words or simply a smile of the eyes), is an enormity of the moment.

I’ll try to remember that, every day, and think of it as a gift from Sylvia: being present with the movement of the dance.

A Choice of Perspective

March 18th, 2014

conductor-hands-sized

Positive perspective is less an inborn trait than it is a skill. Like any skill, it can be learned, practiced, and mastered. And it’s not something that requires you to go up on a mountaintop or into a deep retreat and struggle with it for weeks or months before you emerge a transformed person.

It’s something you develop in small bites, every day. Something you build, like a muscle, by exercising it moderately and consistently.

How? By the choices you make in how you see the everyday events around you.

“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them. It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.”

So said the Greek philosopher Epictetus. So, what views do you take? What reactions to you have? That’s what positive perspective is: a choice.

Or more accurately: a long series of little tiny choices.

Late in life my father traveled to Omaha to attend a music conference, where he not only gave lectures on Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew but also conducted a performance of this magnificent masterwork.

At the time, this was a rare thing for him. He had been an active conductor for many decades in his earlier years. Now in his seventies, he worked almost exclusively as a scholar and teacher, and he seldom performed.

It was a glorious trip, and he returned home flush with triumph from his week of being revered as the grand old master of Bach. He was, however, soon returned to earth, when my mother, her trademark wry wit tweaked by some trivial household task or other that he had managed to bungle, remarked, “Oh, Alfred, don’t be an asshole!”

He nodded serenely and said, “You know, that’s exactly what they called me in Omaha. Only there they pronounced it, Maestro.”

My mother of course was utterly charmed (as always). So was I. And why not? What a wonderful way to demonstrate the sly superpowers granted when you adopt a positive perspective.

A rule for living: You get to choose how you see things. (And hear them, too.)