Discover The Wild Heart of Your Life: Sleep Under a Railroad Trestle.

From stormy archipelagos, I brought my windy accordion, waves of crazy rain, the habitual slowness of natural things: they made up my wild heart. - Pablo Neruda
From stormy archipelagos, I brought my windy accordion, waves of crazy rain, the habitual slowness of natural things: they made up my wild heart. – Pablo Neruda

My best professor in graduate school at the University of Georgia was an alcoholic. He rarely showed up for class; office hours became a joke.

But when he did turn up, disheveled and bleary eyed, it was ‘game on’ for me and my fellow doctoral candidates.

We were going to get another blistering. He would raise his voice and degrade us. We’d cower. He’d tell us again and again how we were breaking his heart with our respectful, compliant lives.

We couldn’t wait.

Other profs in the department of Counseling and Human Behavior offered rigorous coursework in counseling methods and techniques, challenging practicums and thesis advisement.

This guy cared less about all that. His concern was about us living our unimaginative, tedious lives. It irked him to no end.

“How in the hell can you help others live their best lives

when you’re miserably failing at your own?”

“Don’t tell me you’re living a great life or even trying. . . because you are not. 

In fact, you are the most boring, pathetic group of students I’ve seen in a long time.”

We loved him. Partly because no one else in the department seemed to care how we were crafting our lives. But most of all, because his plea to “give life more” was so easily overlooked in our busy, well-constructed, high-achieving lives.

A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages. - Tennessee Williams
A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages. – Tennessee Williams

Are You Breathing Just a Little, Getting Things Done and Calling It a Life?

As smart, capable individuals in our late 20s and early 30s, we weren’t “failing” at living life. Yet we constituted a dutiful and obedient group – checking off lists and courses, doing research (stupid research), writing papers and worrying about our futures.

Yep, not an adventurous soul in the bunch. At the end of class one day, the professor concluded with a shaky pointed finger, but a steady voice:

 “You are lacking in a determined spirit to disengage from normalcy.”

No syllabus or list of recommended reading existed for our cherished class. No presentations or term papers required. We listened to our professor talk about life – mistakes, regrets, limited horizons, unlived dreams, messing up bad but learning something.

Once in a while he gave an assignment. Elevators became human behavior laboratories.

  • Assignment 1: Enter an elevator with 4 or more people, go to the door, turn around and face the  group. Keep ongoing eye contact. Do not move or talk.
  • Assignment 2: Enter an elevator with one or two people. Do not inhabit your own space. Instead, stand very close to another individual. If ask to move, go stand close to the other individual.

Today, a stepped-up assignment might include going bare-breasted in those elevators. But, in Georgia unlike other states, that’s illegal.

Our professor didn’t want us arrested. All he wanted was to tickle our recklessness and allow us to break a few customary rules.

After a while, we took nervous delight in these activities. It wasn’t enough for the professor.

Like a caring parent, our beloved teacher explained mid-semester how he still feared we lacked definition for “getting out of our rut” so he assigned the following:

  1. Sleep under a railroad trestle.
  2. Make love in the woods.
  3. Panhandle until you get $25.
  4. Get drunk.

Strongly encouraged to do all four as soon as possible, we did not have to report back on completion of the assignment. Interestingly, we never shared outcomes with one another.

So after all these many years, I will tell you that there’s a ton of poison ivy along the wooded banks of the Chattahoochee River. (No drugs or alcohol were involved. Could I hear a wild cheer here?)

When I sense life getting dull, predictable or constrained – when I allow life to be much less exciting than it could be – I hear my professor’s scolding voice.

I am thankful he’s chews me out for not living fully.

Who’s chewing you out?

Is Your Life Great?

A new year is beginning and whether or not you need to reexamine a life depends on your answer to this question:

Is Your Life Great? Yes or No.

If “yes,” continue on your amazing way.

If “no” or “sorta,” read on for ways to stir up your one-and-only life and choose 2015 as the year you go to the edge – whatever that may be for you.

I find smart people with busy lives are the ones who brush off the idea of actually making changes to their lives. Oh, they realize life could be better. They want life to hold more. And they often know what needs to be done. They can articulate this.

But, they never get around to refining or remodeling for a vigorous life. Because, you know, they are too busy doing stuff.

Others simply take life the way it comes to them.

Some drift in and out of purposeful pursuits, lose momentum and return to half-life living.

My professor would be livid. He never used the word ‘wild’ but I’m sure he’d be proud of me as I propose a call for the “rewilding” of adult lives.

No one has gotten more out of touch with “going wild” than the Post50 group. We’re tamed and oblivious to spontaneous wild abandonment.

If you think that occasional joint you smoke counts for being ‘wild,’ you’re mistaken. The experience simply makes you talkative and snacky.

And the course you’re taking on “Finding Your Soul’s Purpose” is pure cerebral jibber-jabber until you take a chance and do something out of your ordinary.

It may be  easy to understand what with the mortgage, scary stagnant retirement savings, elderly parents, the kids or unemployment that going ‘wild’ sounds forbidding.

But really a dose of wildness won’t get you arrested or make you crazy.

What will make you crazy is to look back twenty years from now and wonder why you didn’t even try to live the life you wanted.

Stay With Me from Smith's debut album, The Lonely Hour, has sold 6 million copies, becoming one of the best selling singles worldwide.
Stay With Me from Smith’s debut album, The Lonely Hour, has sold 6 million copies, becoming one of the best selling singles worldwide.

Here’s how the English singer-songwriter, Sam Smith puts it.

The thought of being sixty years old and thinking I could have tried harder makes me sick. –  Sam Smith, CBS Sunday Morning Interview, 10/12/14.

Learn to be Wild and Still Have a Dishwasher.

The joy of picture book bedtime reading is a renewed activity in my life. My three-year-old grandson, Liam, is choosy about his books. If interest wanes while I read, he lands airplanes on the page or drag races hot wheels on the arm of the chair we share.

But when we turn the first page of, “Where The Wild Things Are,” the planes and cars go still. He’s rapt and bagged on launching into this imaginary place. So am I.

The author, Maurice Sendak, finally declares, “Let the wild ruckus start!” and Liam’s grandmother would race him for a chance to join the brawl ”to be so happily wild.”

In another book about wildness, “Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life,” George Monbiot takes readers on an enchanting journey around the world to explore ecosystems that have been “rewilded.” These areas are freed from human intervention and allowed—in some cases for the first time in millennia—to resume their natural ecological processes.

His TED Talk describes seven examples of successful rewilding. The entrance of wolves back into Yellowstone National Park is one. This environmentalist and journalist reserves most of his focus on “rewilding” to nature.

But, in the context of living richer and wilder lives of adventure, Monbiot reminds us that this young word, ‘rewilding,’ is for humans too.

I love that word ‘rewilding.’ But a Google search might scare you off.

There is the small but growing segment of people choosing to opt out of civilized comfort and the conventional economy. Adherents of “Rewilding”, as the movement is called, instead live in rural areas where they seek to subsist off the land, hunting and fishing and gathering wild plants for food, and build their own dwellings from materials they find there.

The concept of ‘rewilding a life’ can be about re-engagement with nature. But the essence of any good and exhilarating wild revolves around a singular component – ‘controlled recklessness.’

Can you cultivate wildness carefully and with respect? I think you can. For most of us, it’s the best approach.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, climbers who reached the top of the majestic El Capitan’s Dawn Wall yesterday, seem to bond with fear in abnormal, extraordinary quests to tend to their wild hearts.

Some individuals chuck it all to be wild.

Ben Saunders found himself scratching at the walls of his office for a wider space beyond ends up in 10 weeks walking from the north coast of Russia to the North Pole, and around to the north coast of Canada for 10 weeks.

Most of us aren’t in that league of explorers.

I love large scale mental and physical challenges but satisfying most wild hearts don’t hinge on these.

That may be comforting to some of you.

Lost in Rome.
Lost in Rome.

Three Ways to Crack Open Your Wild Heart.

As important as it is to believe we are capable of more in our endeavors, it is also important that we believe our lives can be more.

Post50, you have all the brains in your head you need. You have amazing instincts. You have an amazing lifespan before you.

For the most part wildness is a mystery. Where is your wild heart? What makes up your wild heart?

To discover the wild heart of your life, first examine the orderly, controlled, managed life you  live and only then, take steps to expand the scope of your existence.

Be amazed at what you’ll discover in one of the exercises below:

  1. Imagine that you are living in a world of greys, beige and black. In fact, picture your life as a large abstract 6’ x 6’ oil painting. Suddenly, yellow appears and you smile. What is that yellow?
  2. On a 3×5 card, describe two versions of your life.  One you are living; one you want to live. (Roz Savage did this and 14 months later was rowing the Atlantic so be careful here. She now holds world records for ocean rowing, including being the first woman to row across three oceans alone.)
  3. What habits and routines are preventing the best that is in you? Make a list. What do you see? Anything on that list feel like a shackle? Anything worth giving up?
January in Rome walking along the Tiber River.
January in Rome walking along the Tiber River.

Take a Chance While You Have the Chance.

I began this new year in Rome alone for 9 days.

In a spontaneous decision I boarded a flight from JFK to Rome. My step-son, Herb, part of the Delta crew on that December 29th aircraft, had a 72-hour layover. We would welcome 2015 in a city neither of us knew well.

I took a chance that a seat on Herb’s flight back might not be available. Sure enough, the plane was full.

Flight privileges, a sweet perk of the airline industry, only work when seats are left or paying passengers don’t show. The number of available seats leaving Rome for the United States on Delta the first week in January plummeted by the hour.

Let’s be honest. “Stuck” in Rome is a kind of cruel kindness. In a swift stroke of events, I’m on my own and alone, yes. Then suddenly it seems as if the gods of “what’s good for Barbara” sauntered by and took charge. They told me exactly what to do.

What happened next didn’t have the hog-wild elements of Cheryl Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but everyday was tinged with changing internal and external landscapes.

I walked, I slept, I dreamed, I thought, I read and walked some more. I left each morning to purposely get lost. I was suspended in a kind of introspection that only walking outdoors in a city with a river bestows. I was rich in solitude and the loss of normality.

I fell in love with a city for the first time in my life. I became no one and anyone to hundreds of people wearing puffer jackets or full length minks with a pair of UGGs.

Each day was unknown. On two days I made a point of not saying a word out loud only listening to bells, birds, and voices in beautiful lilts I did not understand.

I went wild.

I returned home stronger and surer than I had been. And carrying more knowledge of myself – where I was, what I wanted for my life and my future.

All this was unexpected. The results of an impromptu choice. I had not been struggling with life choices, purpose, happiness or fumbling with my life’s meaning.

Life simply gave me more than I ever expected and I have a clearer and simpler sense of my truth and value.

So here’s advice for your new, busy, highly constructed year ahead: Leave the door open for the unknown. Take a chance. Grow your life with a wild heart.

Instead of the watch and wonder approach to living your life, it’s better to try, to experience, to engage, to endeavor.

Do not lack in a determined spirit to disengage from normalcy.

My professor’s list was good for a moment in time long ago. Still, you might start with that. Just watch out for poison ivy.

“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen” ― Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
“There should be a place where only the things you want to happen, happen”
― Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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