Make the Most of Your Time

A New Chapter

Through the years, I have come to regard life as poetry. Between each hopeful sunrise and blushing sunset, the universe expertly weaves a melodic sonnet that perfectly reflects the infinite beauty of all that surrounds us and flows through us.

The prerequisite for this harmonic perspective, I believe, is an awareness of life’s poetic moments. When recognized, such a moment can teach a lesson, validate a decision and even serve as a compass. The most powerful experiences can affect you forever, as was the recent case when I was decluttering my bookshelf and found an unfamiliar hardback called My Time by Abigail Trafford.

Thinking the book was a potential candidate for the donation box I was filling, I wondered, “Hmmm. What’s this one about? I don’t remember reading it. Where did I get it?” I slipped it off the shelf, opened the front cover and saw familiar handwriting. The inscription from Christmas 2004 read …

Make the most of your time. Mom xxxooo.

My Time Message

I drew a quick breath and read the book jacket. It said, in part, “This generation (ages 55 to 75) is the first to experience the period of personal renaissance in between middle and old age. (The author) skillfully guides us through the obstacles of My Time and shows us how to reinvent ourselves in these bonus decades.”

Immediately, I felt the power of the moment. I had stumbled upon a posthumous note from my mother! No, it was not one that she wrote during the last weeks of her life and entrusted a family member to deliver at an opportune time (as were most of the notes that have fueled this column). This note was more profound, more ethereal than that. Written more than a dozen years ago, the message waited patiently inside that important book until I was ready to embrace it.

And, indeed, I was ready. The timing was so precise, so perfect that it left me awestruck. Clearly, it was synchronicity at its best.

Mom’s death in December 2013, in the very room where I now write these words, affected me deeply. Early on, I didn’t know how I could carry on without her. Even when the feeling passed that I may as well have died, too, it took many agonizing months to reach that place of “the new normal,” which in recent years has become the coveted nirvana for anyone suffering a loss.

Piled atop my grief about Mom were the passing of my sweet, old Springer Spaniel in September 2016 and a problematic shift in leadership and organizational culture at my longtime workplace. There was little I could do about the sorrow surrounding Katie’s death except wait for time to work it’s magic. At the office, I took the advice I had always given others. If you are unhappy, it’s up to you to make a change.

A transfer to a different job in the same state department helped for a while. In fact, voluntarily moving into a position with much less responsibility gave me time to focus on myself for the first time in a decade. I joined Weight Watchers and began to take long, purposeful walks in the evenings after dinner. The pounds I had accumulated through years of stress eating and a sedentary lifestyle began to melt away, and the solitary walks gave me time to think. It was on one of those walks that I suddenly realized I had finally passed a previously elusive milestone. There actually was going to be life after Mom for me! It took more than three years, and I honestly didn’t see it coming, but I had finally arrived at the summit of my long journey. It was such a surprise, such a defining moment, that I almost expect to see an “X” marking the spot on Ryegrass Road in our neighborhood.

Around that time, some disconcerting issues at the office led me to another realization. A different job, on what was essentially the same organizational chart, was never going to restore the joy I once took in my work. After much soul searching, I decided to leave public service as soon as I could develop a viable plan. The biggest obstacle, of course, was my budget. Retiring before age 65 meant a financial sacrifice. I went on the hunt for a low stress, private sector job to supplement my pension. The day after I picked up an application for a position that fit my criteria, I found the book. That moment … that indescribably poetic moment … changed everything; most importantly my attitude. I threw the job application in the trash, stopped planning an escape and started planning a life.

My Time

Just 15 pages into My Time, I began taking notes on post-its and pasting them like tabs so I could easily return to certain passages. Information about the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, directed by Dr. George Valliant, captured my attention like nothing else had in a very long while. I could see myself in the stage called Generativity, which typically involves giving back, and in the stage called Keeper of the Meaning, which involves tying the past to the future.

Both personally and professionally, I highly value the future as well as the past. I’ve often said that raising two children who I regard as superlative adults is the single most important thing I have ever done or will do on this planet. And, as a leader, mentoring my staff and preparing them for their turn at the helm is consistently at the top of my priority list. Equally important is passing on family history at home and imparting lessons learned at the office.

Until I saw myself in Abigail Trafford’s book, I didn’t regard my interest in heritage and legacy as anything other than a personal passion. Now I understand that it’s part of life; part of being human. It’s an especially great motivator in one’s later years when most of us begin to truly grasp the reality that our time here is limited.

My Time didn’t change my mind about retirement. What My Time did was inject excitement into the possibilities of life after retirement. I am blessed with a well-developed sense of Generativity. I am the Keeper of the Meaning; that’s so me. Doggone-it, I still have something to give! What an incredible awakening! Between now and the end of the calendar year when I step out of public service, I intend to transform these cherished gifts into my new life’s work. I intend to dream and hope and create. I intend to take risks. I intend to live.

Sometimes I wonder why Mom gave me Abigail Trafford’s book. Here is what I know. At Christmastime 2004, Mom was in the midst of a health crisis. We had lived together for three years, I was taking her to see specialists of all kinds, and she was enduring a laundry list of tests to determine the cause of her distressing symptoms. We wouldn’t know for two more months what the problem was and how to address it. Once we did, her health improved, and she lived another nine years. But on Christmas Day 2004, when she gave me that book, she probably thought she didn’t have much time left herself. I imagine she looked back on her life, regretted the things she didn’t do, and wanted me to live with enthusiasm after she was gone. Mom didn’t talk much about her deepest, most personal thoughts, but gestures like this one were worth a thousand words.

I know I never read My Time until now. Not only was I busy taking care of Mom, but it just wouldn’t have interested me. When I unwrapped that Christmas gift a dozen or so years ago, I had just hit my 50s, still had a long career in public service ahead and was still zealous about my work. How grateful I am that I kept the book all these years. How poetic that I randomly picked it up at a major crossroads in my life. How I appreciate Mom for somehow nudging me from the other side …

Make the most of your time.

I will, Mom. I promise you. Your baby girl isn’t ready to settle into a rocking chair just yet. To borrow a popular quote attributed to writer Hunter S. Thompson, I don’t intend to arrive quietly at my final destination. I will “skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a Ride’!”

Dream (8)

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I’ll Think About That Tomorrow

Dressed in a stylish black mourning gown, Scarlett O’Hara weeps as she closes the ornate door of her empty mansion.  She has just buried her young daughter, made promises at the bedside of her dying sister-in-law, and watched helplessly as her dashing husband disappeared into the morning mist.  Seemingly everything she holds dear is truly Gone with the Wind.  In the throes of this profound loss, she falls back on the mantra that has carried her through life’s most difficult moments.  “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.”

I’ll think about that tomorrow.

It takes her only seconds to remember what is left in the world that matters, regain her characteristic strength, and end the classic 1939 film on a hopeful note.  “After all,” she says triumphantly, “tomorrow is another day!”

Tomorrow (5)In the 12 years we lived together, Mom and I strived to be like Scarlett.  It was almost second nature for me since Scarlett has long been my favorite fictional heroine.  In one moment, she could be the flirtatious belle of the barbecue and, in the next, the determined head of a family shattered by the death and devastation of the Civil War.  My bookshelf is home to English and non-English versions of this Margaret Mitchell classic and the sequels that followed decades later.  I’ve bravelyTomorrow (3) whittled down my prodigious collection of commemorative plates from 36 to four, but I won’t part with my copy of the typewritten script from the David O. Selznick / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production.  In 1993, when Mom posed for a picture with Dracula at a Universal Studios souvenir store, I had my profile photo-shopped into a provocative still with Rhett Butler.  Even my lively Springer Spaniel, Katie, bears the true first name of this strikingly beautiful, smart protagonist.

Mom and I repeated Scarlett’s “tomorrow” mantra frequently enough that it earned a place in one of Mom’s farewell cards delivered to me posthumously.  Not just any card.  The last one; handed to me by my sister on the day we scattered Mom’s ashes at the Oregon Coast.  Time to move forward, Mom seemed to be saying.

Reading the card again just now, I am pleased to know that Mom saw in me the qualities I try hard to cultivate – optimism, hope, a grateful spirit and the courage to face life-altering challenges.  Serendipitously, I needed to be reminded of that after a rather taxing week, the details of which are better left for exploration in an appropriate column on some future Sunday.  Suffice to say that I am in awe of Mom’s incorporeal ability to support and uplift me from across the great divide.

Tomorrow (2)To be honest (another attribute regular readers of this column know that I value), sometimes I fall from grace and neglect to count my blessings.  Mom did, too.  Indeed, the reason that this weekly discourse is subtitled “Nothing left unsaid” is rooted in worry.  Virtually every time a doctor diagnosed or even suspected a new malady, Mom and I would immediately assume the end was near.  Our indulgence in fear ushered us through an extravagant number of meaningful conversations; hence, there was nothing left unsaid between us.  However, the fear also rendered us the cowards that Julius Caesar spoke of in Shakespeare’s play about the legendary Roman ruler.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.  Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Mom and I knew that astute passage as well as any royal thespian, but we couldn’t seem to help ourselves.  We sometimes fretted, stewed, fussed and cogitated until we were mired in depression.  I tended to rebound more quickly than Mom, but each time we eventually found our smiles again.

When I felt that familiar, unwelcome anxiety creep into my thoughts this past week, I tried to tamp it down with techniques like deep breathing, prayer, focusing on daily miracles and the many other relaxation tips one finds in the best meditative books money can buy.  That didn’t do the trick, so I stopped worrying about worrying and joked that agonizing over things that may not even happen is in my DNA.

Simply acknowledging my intrinsic nature helped relieve some of the stress but, as it turns out, my wisecrack wasn’t really a laughing matter.  The notion that worrying is hereditary actually is more fact than fiction.  Studies have shown that a gene known as COMT predisposes us to be either warriors or worriers.  Warriors are stimulated to action by battle or, more commonly in everyday life, by a great challenge.  On the down side, they don’t do as well as worriers when it comes to routine productivity.  Conversely, while worriers may excel on a day-to-day basis, they are more likely to suffer a meltdown under high stress.  A casual observation made by some of my female co-workers this past week – that women worry and men don’t – may also be true.  The COMT gene controls estrogen, and worriers typically have higher estrogen levels.  Hmmmm.

If you think I’m gas-lighting you (to borrow a colorful phrase from Mom’s vernacular), google “warriors vs. worriers.”  You’ll find some intriguing information posted by the likes of the New York Times, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and Andrew J. Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium.  Trust me.  As I browsed through the material, my eyebrows arched like Scarlett when she comes upon a fascinating idea.

Fascinating is also an apt description of my experience writing this column.  I didn’t intend it to be therapeutic but, so far, it has been just that.  By writing about the trials and tribulations of caregiving, as well as the joy of living and laughing with my mother, I am steadily working through the indescribable pain of losing her and am also ensuring that our family’s memories of her are forever catalogued.  I hope that, at the same time, I am touching and helping others who are caring for or grieving for a loved one.  This week, though, I sense a subtle shift.  Today’s column is not about the past; it’s about the future.  Tomorrow (1)My future.  It’s about the need to effectively cope with whatever may come, and it’s about letting go of fear.

As I said earlier, I am in awe that Mom is still able to reach out and walk with me through uncertainty.  Her final farewell card reminded me of my own tenacity and strength of spirit, which I will draw upon as life marches forward.  Her final words, scrawled beneath the prose of Dierdra Joi Zollar, reaffirmed that worrying today never solved a single one of tomorrow’s problems.

Mom, I hear you loud and clear.  Instead of fretting when something is weighing too heavy on me, I will summon my inner Scarlett.  I’ll flounce the skirt of my make-believe green velvet portiere dress, defiantly lift my chin, and willfully declare,

On second thought, I’ll think about it tomorrow.