What would I be doing today if I only had thirty-seven days to live?
I love that question. I hate that question. I forget it often. I remember it constantly. That question keeps me grounded and honest, but it also is something I resist because it insists I live here, and not there—that place when I’ll finally be ready and enough. And have permission.
That question is all about living in the now. It doesn’t give two shits about what happens later. In fact, it has the audacity (in this world that loves vision and asks annoying where do you see yourself in five years questions…) to suggest that NOW is all we have—now is real, whereas then is a mirage that seduces us with something that may or may not ever materialize.
I stumbled upon this magnetically repulsive question years ago after picking up Patti Digh’s book Life Is A Verb. The premise of her book revolves around her own intimate exploration of that question—one that was framed by the sudden diagnosis and death of her stepfather that occurred within a thirty-seven day window. Helping him to live—and die—in that brief period of time brought her face to face with her own life and how she was (and was not) living it. It was a reckoning.
“The time frame of thirty-seven days made an impression on me. We often live as if we have all the time in the world, but the definite-ness of thirty-seven days was striking. So short a time, as if all the regrets and joys of a life would barely have time to register before it was up.”
If you were to sit with this question for any length of time, you might imagine where it ultimate took her: the realization that life was about living each day with more intention. Fully inhabiting the life we have been given each new day as if it were a gift, and making choices from that space and place.
What she concluded about her life, wasn’t about creating whole-scale change (although this might be the case for someone else), but rather about being more present to her experience and her desires, and using that awareness to inform her daily decisions. To be intentional and deliberate.
This is an active endeavor, not a passive one. Ergo her title: Life Is A Verb.
It’s about not waiting another day to make that thing, say those words, take that action—not in a frantic, irresponsible or desperate manner, mind you, but in a deliberate one. Actively moving toward the life you want to be living. Each day. And then get up and do more of that again, for as many days as you are given.
I’ll give you an example of how this looked for me. Years ago, after hearing one too many amazing stories from a friend about the travel and adventures she went on with her family, I lost it. In one of my more caddy moments, I made a snide remark to another friend about how she must have a trust fund, and how it must be nice to be able to afford all that travel, and how she was so lucky and I was so wretchedly miserable and Maine-bound and tight-budgeted. Wah, wah, wah.
Thankfully, I was talking with one of those friends. You know, the ones that won’t buy what you’re selling, and know you well enough to call bullshit on your whining? So she listened to my woe-is-me story that day and then she said quite plainly, “Oh Lael, you’re jealous! Look at you—you want to travel!”
YES! YES! YES! Something in my soul did a double fist pump and then high-fived my friend.
But no sooner had I plugged into that outlet in myself, did I then I sever my own cord, telling myself I couldn’t afford it. I piled on other excuses that felt more noble, like having young children who needed me, a business that didn’t pay me to take vacation, and needing to build up our savings and put money away for retirement. And just for good measure, I started to shame myself by saying how lucky I was just to have a job and a family. And my health. And a home. What kind of a selfish person would ask for more than that? Look at me—a greedy bitch.
Which, of course, was an thoroughly ineffective strategy, throwing all this guilt and shame on top of a raging desire…not a winning move.
But you know what was? Driving my ass to the post office and picking up an application for a passport, that’s what.
With all my whining and kvetching, what I had failed to realize is that if someone had literally given me a plane ticket that very day, I wouldn’t have been able to physically leave this country because my passport had expired.
That was me, answering that question and living life as a verb: Lael-ing.
One year (and multiple applications) later, I finally had a passport in my hand, as did each member of my family.
That one simple act broke the damn on my desire and set me in motion. Later that fall, I spontaneously joined my husband in New Orleans at a conference he was attending for a week, falling right on our anniversary. Four months after that, our family rented a VW Westfalia, travelled up the coast of California and camped out in the canyon lands for two weeks, after having spent months together as a family pouring over maps and planning our trip with unbridled anticipation. A year after that, we went on our first family trip out of the United States skiing in Canada (thank you passports!). And two years after that my husband and I bought tickets to go to Paris for our 20th wedding anniversary.
We marveled at all of this because we hadn’t seen this coming—we just kept taking steps toward it, watching the road unfold before us with each deliberate step. All because I finally picked up that damn passport application that broke the seal on my excuses.
It was symbolic and it was active. It had me living in my desire, and not wait another blessed day to take action on something that mattered deeply to me.
This is not a novel or original idea, I realize. In fact, years ago, I heard a Native American storyteller speak about the importance of saying “some form of a yes“, suggesting that it really didn’t matter what you specifically did, just as long as you are doing something that is a nod to start moving in a direction. More recently, Shonda Rhimes touches upon this very thing in her book Year of Yes, when she talks about her personal philosophy of doing her way into her dreams. She calls it “laying track“. There’s that verb again.
Perhaps my most favorite illustration of this invitation comes from a line in the movie, Shawshank Redemption, when Tim Robbin’s character says to Morgan Freeman’s character that it comes down to a simple choice: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” At the time they were both in prison, talking about his dream of spending the rest of his days in a far away beach town in Mexico called Zihuatanejo. And as we watch beyond this scene, we see how that character gets busy living, moving toward this dream, literally brick by brick.
I get to do this work with my clients every day, helping them find the hairline cracks in the cement of their logic, unearthing the symbolic actions and their “some form of a yes” that will begin to move them toward what they want so that they are no longer postponing their joy or waiting for the “someday”—their versions of Zihuatanejo —out there in their future.
One of my clients said it best, quoting a line from a movie I’d never seen: “I don’t want to save anything for the swim back.”
With every passing year of my life, I find this question is getting louder and louder in my mind. At the age of 48, as I’ve personally lived through a handful of life’s cosmic 2×4 moments and have witnessed so many of my family, friends and clients face down illnesses, accidents and death, life seems to feel even more precious and fleeting.
What would I be doing today if I only had thirty-seven days to live?
I used to think that question was morbid and overly-dramatic. I used to feel selfish, entitled, ungrateful for wanting to answer that question. I used to think that question didn’t apply to someone like myself—someone who was healthy, happy, and fulfilled. Now I see it as deeply in service of cultivating and sustaining that very thing—my health, my happiness, my fulfillment. As a daily act, not a desperate measure.
I find I am rising up to answer that question more frequently and more boldly. I am still afraid. I am still not sure. I am still not ready. But something in me is starting to trust that I am enough as I am. Something in me has given me permission to want what I want.
And somedays I whisper to myself, just to make my soul smile: Zihuatanejo…