Category Archives: Living Your Best 3rd Third of Life

“One Year to Live” – My Class in San Miguel de Allende

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Two months ago when the waters of Santa Rosa Sound were choppy and the day so grey I could barely see the boat house at the end of the dock I was taken back in time and place.

Today reminds me of a time when my daughter, Elizabeth, and I were making our way southward on a 42-foot sailboat in mid-December.

Trapped by weather in Frazer’s Hog Cay, a small anchorage in the Berry Islands in the Bahamas, our early rise and assessment of the radio weather broadcast brings a realization that we aren’t going anywhere again this day – Day 3.

Simple pleasures of sitting outside in the cockpit or a walk on the near small island were not possible. With slanted, hard-driving rain we can’t even see that island. The dinghy tied at the stern fills with water and bobs furiously. Ugh.

So, what to do? Grab another cup of coffee at 7:15AM and decide how to live your best life in 42-feet of space below decks.

The engine drones to keep the faulty battery system powered. The fresh water supply diminishes as does our fuel. And our food? Well we have a lot of good olives I sneaked on board so we’ll be fine.

No television; no means of calling friends and family. With the hatches closed, the air is stale.

Let’s be miserable. This seems a good choice.

“What will make you happy today?”

I singsong the question to Elizabeth in her bunk face down in a pillow overwhelmed with disappointment. She doesn’t answer. I try a couple more times.

Then I ask myself, “What will make me happy today?”

Okay.

I can lay in my bunk and finish my book and then start another. Clean the stove. Clean the head. Listen to music (with an eye on the power.) Think how wonderfully stress free it is not to be in high preparation mode for Christmas. (Turns out we missed everything about that holiday including the stress.) Fold my clothes which are in major disarray tumbling out of the shelves. Re-arrange the olives.

What will I do to be happy today?

Our fate unfolds. We would arise early, dissect weather reports and be stuck for three more days.

We learn to ask and answer that question, “What will make me happy today?” with as much enthusiasm and positivity as we could muster.

Elizabeth knew I would sing the question over and over until she answered so she might as well get her head out from under that pillow.

Soon we would scrap our boat’s bottom on the rocks as we navigated the narrow, shallow passage only good at high tide and be on our way to Nassau. On our way!

This was an experiment in living each day – making choices given what you’ve got – and I haven’t forgotten how hard we struggled to make each day count. (Elizabeth made a pie one day. Miracle!)

But what if instead of one day to decide how to live, I had to consider a longer time.

A year perhaps …and then not be on my way.

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One Year to Live

Before I came to San Miguel de Allende three weeks ago to stay for a while, I sign up for a book discussion group led by Val Ward, teacher of Sociology and Psychology in England.

From 11-1pm for four Wednesdays at St. Paul’s Church on Calzada Del Cardo anyone interested was invited to gather to discuss Stephen Levine’s book, A Year to Live published in 1997. The author shares his insights in a year-long experiment living each day as if it were your last.

I figured, I’m new in town. Why not give this a try? I’ll leave if I don’t like it.

Last Wednesday I walk into a room of fifty people – more men than women. I wasn’t the youngest one or the oldest. Emma Jean, 90, is the oldest. She’s decided to look at her life one year at a time.

We laugh when she quips, “I have a short bucket list and most days I can’t remember it so it’s good that I live in the moment.”

From places including Latvia, Panama, NYC, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida and Colorado, some people had been in San Miguel de Allende for as much as 24 years. I was the newbie at one week. Some stay for 6-month increments; others are here “forever.” Some work while others make art or do what they choose.

Why did they come to a class on ‘One Year to Live?’

  • I want to live an “informed life.”
  • I would like to make my mind “shut up” telling me what to do and let me be in charge.
  • I would like to learn something.
  • I would like to start a new life.

The guy with a scraggly pony tail is here because he doesn’t want to leave a mess behind. A woman in her early 60s says she has  lived a life of busyness and frustration. She wants to change everything about it.

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What if You Had One Year Left?

The author, Stephen Levine, has accompanied the dying to the threshold over the last twenty years. In their last year, he says, many people feel as if they have a second chance at growth and healing. This renewal often occurs because they have been given a terminal diagnosis but can also occur because their natural wisdom inspires them to open more profoundly to life.

No one in our discussion group shared a terminal illness diagnosis. All appeared to be inspired by the concept of considering how to live life better.

In the book, the author presents his findings about how individuals feel and what they would do if facing death:

  • Many feel overwhelmed by a sense of failure with a closet full of regrets.
  • Some express remorse about neglecting spiritual growth.
  • Many felt they had little authentic joy.
  • Some would change their work situation or quit.
  • Most would study some long-admired skill even without the promise of making money.
  • Many acknowledged a love of nature that they allowed to go dormant.

Levine states that most all those individuals he has worked with or interviewed would adopt a gentler pace of life, change their surroundings and be less preoccupied with social ambitions. “They would move to the country; another country; the city; build new homes; tear down old ones.”

Sitting in the St. Paul pews in this discussion group were individuals who had not been selfish with their lives. Many spent much of their time and energy and often resources making other people happy or doing what they were supposed to do.

Some express pain and anger at themselves for a lifetime of diminishing their own needs.

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Now What Would They Do?

This morning one year to live or less is a reality for many. By the end of the week, many more.

In my group, individuals participate freely, take notes, smile, listen intently and do their homework.

“I have just given you the sad news that you have only one year to live,” said Val at the end of Session 1. The homework was to spend time to really think hard about what you would do if you had only one year.

Here are some of their answers:

  1. Pack bags and travel. (Popular idea. Two would get on a cruise ship immediately.)
  2. Write letter to friends and family telling them what they had meant to them.
  3. Get resources together to fund a grand-daughter’s college education.
  4. Have a big, big party. (More than one of these!)
  5. Go back to England to see the trees.
  6. In the African tradition, spend 24 hours mourning.
  7. Get my wills ready to roll. (This gentleman paid double to ensure he would be cremated in whatever country he died. If the country prohibited cremation, he was to be taken to the nearest country that would allow it. He wanted to double check it all.)

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 What Would I Do?

It is Saturday afternoon 3 days after class. I sit outside in a lush green outdoor space far away from family and friends. The sun shines, butterflies flit, the beautiful fountain gurgles and the firecrackers explode (typical Mexican afternoon sound.)

I have chosen this as a geography of place to stir my soul, invite newness to my days, finish writing a book and learn more about me as well as others.

I haven’t thought about having only one year to live ever. My current excellent health masks this idea.

But here goes:

  • First, I would be mad. Why did I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go? I’m not ready yet.
  • Second, I would gather two grandchildren closer. I would do some 4-year-old things and 5-year-old things.
  • Third, I would ask for twelve days with my daughter to go on some outlandish adventure that stretched our physical capabilities. Something new that presented great challenge. We have rafted Chile’s Futaleufu River, one of the premier whitewater rivers in the world and hiked ‘The W’ in Patagonia. Perhaps she’d bicycle with me across Iowa.
  • Fourth, I will bring my husband to a lovely home I rented here in San Miguel for a while, not to make him love it here. But to help him understand why I do.

It doesn’t matter if I don’t get to do all these things. My life would not be more deeply lived if I did them. But to imagine having only a year is to create depth – to find a kind of self-expression – that we should not waste our time.

The irony of the question –what if I only had one year to live? – is that I very well may.

Possibly, if I just do more of what I did on the boat in the Berry Islands I will continue to create my one lifetime as I want it.

What can I do today to make me happy?

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What Would You Do?

Dear readers. Did you think I would end this post without asking?

You can make it a slow thought to ponder. You can shout from the rooftops that it’s a hypothetical question. You can use the question to create urgency and awareness.  You can be joyful that the moment is yours to contemplate.

You have one year left to live. How will you live it?

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I invite you to make a comment and join me on Facebook. Special thanks to all of you who continue to forward posts. I appreciate that!

All Photos by B. Pagano

 

 

 

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Posted in Living Your Best 3rd Third of Life, Productive Longevity, Productivity, Self-Management | 2 Comments

Still Living in the Moment? Wishing on a Star Can Bring You Much More Joy and Happiness.

Last month I pulled off a surprise celebration for my husband’s 80th birthday. My remarks to a crowd of over 80 well-wishers (actually it was more like a TEDtalk and I had a great time giving it) were a retrospective of his life’s accomplishments and a tribute to the values he lives.

Afterwards, the crowd was definitely in-the-moment. The time together made us all happy.

The past and the present worked together to make this occasion a success. Nothing was missing. Nothing more was needed.

At the threshold of the last third of life we often view our lives in this combination – the past and the present.

We know there is a future to unfold. But we feel we have time to deal with that. We’ll figure out how to be thrilled with the last part of life soon.

But not now. Now we need to perform our Downward Dogs, take another trip to Newfoundland, lean in to a still demanding career, take a nap, get the kid through college, digitize 1800 photos or volunteer to teach math to an eighth grader who appears to care less.

Ahead, however, is a transition that involves role change, redefinition and activity shifts. It’s a biggie. Maybe the hardest you ever experienced.

Thumbing through your college year book marveling at how far you’ve come isn’t going to light the way.

Neither is living in the moment. What will light the way?

The clarity and fever pitch energy needed to live out your best life begins upon a star.

So grab your cork mat and zoom toward the night sky. From this panorama gaze at life and the possibilities before you.

Wish your possible futures. Hold it for as long as you can.

Ho Hum for Mindfulness

When it comes to higher levels of well-being and a better ability to navigate the future, the past and the present may not be nearly as important as putting your brain in a future-state.

I say this at the risk of insulting many readers participating in the soaring popularity of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when one pays purposeful attention to the present moment. It can be achieved through meditation or simply by observing your surroundings without judgment.

What does Mindfulness get you? What doesn’t it get you?

Among its theorized benefits are self-control, objectivity, affect tolerance, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.

From politicians to CEOs to engineers, Mindfulness is big business. Corporations are investing and building cultures on mindfulness at Nike, Target, Genentech, Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, General Mills, Ford Motor Company, Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, Cargill, Plantronics, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Hearst Publications, to name just a few.

In addition to courses, Google has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, has built a new venture, the Obvious Corporation, a start-up incubator and investment vehicle based on mindfulness. Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio tries hard to inspire the political arena toward mindfulness. Good Luck Tim!

If you are a fan of being-in-the-moment, I’m with you. But not all the way, all the time.

Because purposely spending time in the future reigns absolute as the better way to begin your 3rd third of life.

Think Prospectively

I’ve done my share of leader-led dream-binging in various settings where the woo factor was high. I mostly hate the dream-it-do-it thing so my mind wanders to my store list or when I’ll find time to get my oil changed. When it came time to share, I’d make something up.

What did it matter what I wished for? The belief in the laws of attraction have always been lost on me.

How does thinking about the future shape your present and future behavior?

According to Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field of Positive Psychology, we have been underestimating the impact of the future. Humans are, by nature, “prospective,” he says. “It is anticipating and evaluating future possibilities for the guidance of thought and action that is the cornerstone of human success.”

Prospective psychology refers broadly to the mental representation and evaluation of possible futures. This ability shapes emotion which in turn shapes motivation.

Let’s try to make this real for us lay people. Using prospection we generate positive ideas that lead to anticipation that triggers emotions that will guide us toward the future.

Got it? Hang in and you will. I promise!

What makes prospective theory revolutionary is not the idea that human behavior is guided by emotions, but the idea that human behavior is guided by “anticipated emotions.”

Catching, crystalizing your simpler clearer vision of life…that you must always keep working to grasp. -Georgia O’Keeffe

‘What’s Next?’ The Brain Loves This. 

Looking into the future consciously and unconsciously is a central function of our brain. For the past century most psychologist and neuroscientists assumed the brain liked to peruse the past or ruminate the present.

Turns out our mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past.

Research on our orientation toward the future is fascinating:

  • In Chicago researchers pinged nearly 500 adults during the day to record their immediate thoughts and moods. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past. And the few thoughts about a past event involved consideration of its future implication.
  • When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times.
  • Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen
  • In addition, a research study done at the University of London by A.K. McLeod, and Conway in 2005 concluded that subjects with expectations of future positive experiences were more likely to measure higher on a scale of subjective well-being.

In last month’s New York Times article, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, affirms that prospection– our contemplation of the future – is what makes us wise.

“When we consider our prospects,” he states, “We thrive.”

Shall we conclude then that staying in the moment is being oversold? That the past can guide you but the future can guide you better? M-m-m-m-m.

Still bearing fruit in old age, still remaining fresh and green. -Psalms 92:14

Future Time Perspective

One approach to leaving mid-life is to think of the future as loss and diminishment. That’s pretty understandable from my point of view.

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On a recent visit, Liam, my grandson eyed a charcoal portrait of me in my early thirties. He looks back and forth from me to the picture with five-year-old eyes.

Is that you?

Yes.

When did you change faces?

Okay, it’s a fact. I don’t look like once did. Chances are you don’t look you’re your high school graduation picture either.

(And we certainly won’t get into the fact that the charcoal is of me in the nude.)

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At the threshold of leaving midlife, “loss and diminishment” blaze a true trail not only of our physical being, but of our emotional lives. Adult development requires us to adjust to the ‘empty nest,’ re-enter the workforce, get kicked out of the workforce, become caretakers for parents, and experience the death of partners and friends.

When those experiences happen as the amount of time left to live recedes, individuals can shift away from a focus on future-oriented goals according to developmental psychologists, Carol Magai and Beth Halpern.

In case you don’t already know but I bet you do, the growing-older experience brings time with limits and horizons that include our deaths; it can all get a little complex. Living in the moment is a known place – a safe place – to rest our weary souls.

But staying in the present could be at the expense of generating an enthusiastic embrace of the paramount goals of productivity and enthusiasm in later life.

Yep, There’s Endorphins Involved

Prospection offers a different approach. At the core of prospection is the act of anticipating.

Remember anticipation? Most people anticipate happy experiences.

Just thinking about the future and positive things gets us all – well super excited and happy. Prospection sends endorphins to our brain and motivates us. Perhaps you are hard pressed to think of any grown-up anticipation possibilities.

I know two little people who don’t know any better than to think future-happy thoughts.

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In a recent week-long visit, my two grandchildren, Liam and Lucy, received presents each day. (Yes, I’m indulgent.)

When you bring a colorfully wrapped package into the room (ostensibly to share), no matter what these children are doing they stop as if on the invisible dime. They race across the room, come as close as they can to their GG (me) who holds the pretty box and look up with big bright dancing eyes!

Excitement exudes from their pores; they jump up and down; they squeal with delight.

What’s in there? Is it for me?

 We’re over-the-moon happy even though we don’t know what’s in the box.

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Are Liam and Lucy delighted with their presents? Does the joy last?

Sometimes it actually does, but not all the time. (They still love the Magna-Tiles; glitter play dough was a bomb.)

But to witness those moments of high desire – just the thought of what could be – and the emotion that ensues is a wow and made me ask myself when was last time I felt like that?

When’s the last time you felt that? Close to that? Somewhat close to that?

To stay open to dreams and possibilities is one of the most important skills for living your 3rd third.

But Prospective Psychology suggests that it’s more than just staying open to dreams and possibilities. This is about creating an emotional climate of positive, joyful, curious, exciting feelings as you stand at the threshold of the last part of your lifetime.

  

Forecasting Your Life

My friend, Susan, faced dying of ovarian cancer by participating in treatments and experiments around the globe. Susan would never talk about her imminent death even with her family. The subject was off limits.

But she would talk about the team of experts she had tracked down that offered a different procedure with possibilities for extending her life.

Nothing worked.

Finally, she changed her approach. Within days of landing in Atlanta after her last failed treatment in Germany, she sold her house in one upscale neighborhood and bought another in a more upscale neighborhood. It was a grand, big house but not decorated in her style.

From then on her designer skipped along side the gurney at Emory Hospital flipping Susan fabric samples and paint chips as she was wheeled into the operating room for this or that. The conversation was animated and focused on the task of decoration.

Later coming out of the anesthesia, Susan would see the selected fabric samples and paint colors spread out on before her on the white hospital sheet. The decorator showed up and they started in again making final selections.

This happened over and over for each room of the house. Many friends, me included, thought it was a little odd and unusual to spend time in the future tense with so little present time remaining.

I found the courage to ask. “Susan, why are you doing this?”

She looked at me as clear eyed as the day I first met her making a keynote presentation to C-suite leaders. Her response reflected conviction and it was obvious she was well-thought through.

“Barbara, this house is my future and decorating it makes me happy.” Then she softly added, “And it gives me hope.”

Susan moved into that house and lived three months.

Though her chances of ever living there were slim, she chose to see it as a possibility. From that perspective, she flourished.

Seeing yourself in a future possibility can move the spirit, gather emotional well-being and create hope. I learned from Susan that the dream never is as important as the anticipation of the dream.

The emotions of anticipation are powerful, not powerful enough to cure a disease perhaps, but powerful.

The idea of prospection may never become a best practice or assume the popularity of “living in the moment.” But in my work the vast majority of individuals facing the last third of life give their future short shrift … and are sorry about it later.

Most feel they are doing okay figuring out life after retirement. But they are not doing as well as they would like.

If they had it all to do over again, they would have thought less about what they would do and more about what life could be.

Gong.

The Wishbone

One of the highlights at Thanksgiving in my family was the breaking of the turkey wishbone. My mother hid the wishbone in the gravy and dumplings. Whoever got the wishbone selected his or her partner in this wishing tradition.

Everyone, adults and children, – this large gathering of kinfolk  – wanted that wishbone.

Each person pulls on the wishbone while making a wish. The one who gets the larger piece will get his or her wish.

At the conclusion of the meal, the competitive and often body twisting event began. Shouts of encouragement! Coaching from the sidelines! It’s hard to imagine all the fuss over a small turkey bone.

But it was about wishing – an opportunity to express a desire or hope for something to happen.

“If you come at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

We need tools for the transition ahead. Forecasting your future could be one of the most effective tools yet for making your best effort toward living your best last third of life.

I believe there is more joy and happiness to be found in the future than anywhere else.

My fervent wish is that you believe this too.

Gong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not This Life . . . That Life

Nothing is forever, it was true. - from Miss Jane, A Novel by Brad Watson
Nothing is forever, it was true. – from Miss Jane, A Novel by Brad Watson

I have not posted in a while. I couldn’t.

I lost my endeavor.  I didn’t feel like it.

Besieged is how I have felt. Priorities I carefully chose suddenly began to compete for my energy. The necessities of participating in life (and moments of trying to figure it out what was happening) made even the creative possibilities I set in motion impossible.

I was deprived of clarity.

It happens all of us. Life is like that.

So I began days not with a to-do list but no list at all.

The space that allowed was not my undoing but my deep privilege. It’s been 7 months.

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Ambushed by Desire

What hit me was an intense longing.

I wasn’t unhappy. In fact, life was good. (more…)

Posted in Living Your Best 3rd Third of Life, Productive Longevity, Self-Management | 19 Comments