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


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?”


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.


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.


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.


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.)


 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?


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?


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











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

  1. nicuhelpinghands says:

    Wow! This is a thought provoking post. Interestingly enough during my year long bout with stage 3 cancer I NEVER asked myself what if I only had one year left to live in a way that meant “so what do I want to do with it”. Strange to me to think about that now. I worried about dying for sure until my treatments started and then I plunged in with both feet ready to do battle – never stopping to long where the weariness and fear overtook me because I was scared I would give up. But now, as my dear son prepares to leave home for college in 8 days I find myself asking alot of questions but the big one is “Was it enough” – Did I do enough? Love enough? Nurture enough? Teach enough? Understand enough? Say I love you to the moon and back again enough?

    So if I was told I had only one year left to live I would make sure that everything I did, if I asked myself “Was it enough” could be answered with the word YES. Regret is the thing I don’t want to see when I look back at life.

    Love you to the moon and back Barbara. And I am quite certain that your daughter would give more than 12 days to spend with her precious mother in Iowa – although you might have to start each day with the question “What will make you happy today” – I mean it is Iowa after all 🙂

    • Barbara Pagano says:

      Lisa, “Understand enough. Teach enough. To the Moon and Back enough.” I’ll be adding this “did I do enough?” to part of an upcoming chapter in book. Thank you for this insight. I’ll give you full credit! Barbara

Would love to hear what you are thinking.