mortality

Letting go of money (and an old friend) in Italy.

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I’ve honed cheap-skatery to a fine edge. I re-use foil and Ziploc bags, self-administer haircuts, pedicures and even Brazilians — attaining a Jedi-level of self-grooming. Hell, I’d even drill my own teeth if I could, and have occasionally been known to file my own choppers when rough.

It pains me to spend money, so a month-long trip to Italy with my husband Dave to celebrate his retirement promised to be a little uncomfortable. Not that we’d be living like senators, mind you; we got a cheap flight and Dave had chosen reasonable Airbnb rooms with kitchens so I could cook some of our meals. Also, we’d be taking public transport whenever we could.
No, it was all the unanticipated extras that made me wince: cab fares, toilet fares, and paying for water (water!) in restaurants. It was also the sad realization that even though the Euro was down, it was still worth more than a dollar, so a €30 dinner was actually $33.73.

When we arrived in Florence, known for its well-crafted and inexpensive leather goods, I’d reached a Scrooge McDuck level of frugality — at least in my head. A well-deserved leather jacket and briefcase for Dave and beautiful saddlebag purse for me brought no joy, only Eyeore-like thoughts. “We can’t afford this.” “We’re pillaging our emergency fund.” “We’ll bounce our checking account.”

I put a good face on it and tried to enjoy the rich chaos of Rome, lushness of Florence and quirkiness of Venice, but by the time I got to the gritty city of Naples, I knew my attitude stunk and could use a change of clothes. It took the death of a friend to shame me out of my pinch-faced parsimony.

Andy Jones was a new acquaintance. A jazz-loving, energetic man who had just celebrated his 88th birthday, he sparkled with vitality and optimism. He still worked as a greeting card salesman and began every day with 1,000 sit-ups (you read that right) and a seven-mile walk. He'd recently been giving away his old suits — not to divest himself of possessions, but so he could buy new ones to impress the ladies.

We thought Andy would live forever. There is a Japanese word that describes him exactly —
“genki.” Roughly translated, it means enthusiastic, energetic, lively — game, ready to go. That was Andy Jones.

He found our group of friends through a shared love of music, and we spent many Friday nights gathered around the piano, singing songs from the Great American Songbook — Andy’s favorite era. He went from being shy and requesting songs, to singing them with gusto.
We loved getting to know Andy and looked forward to many more gatherings.

When Dave learned on Facebook that Andy had passed away of a heart attack, we were both stunned. And here we were in Italy, unable to attend the funeral, and filled with sadness.

An inescapable truth of Rome is how impermanent we all are. The ruins of Italy have outlasted the life spans of their creators by thousands of years. The many statues and monuments are for people long-gone and mostly forgotten. The cosmic clock stops for no one — not the citizens of ancient Rome, not Andy, not for me.

Andy Jones wrung every drop of juice out of his 88 years, so why wouldn’t I do the same? Here I am in Italy with the man I love. We’re both in good health, and have an emergency fund to plunder. How about I buy some expensive gifts and that sexy dress from Florence? Or, fully enjoy the dizzying views from The Path of the Gods over the Amalfi Coast; bask in romantic, peach-colored sunsets over the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and ogle over Michelangelo’s David? Must I be the Grinch Who Stole Our Italian Vacation? I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should and, I’ll bet, Andy couldn’t have either.

The heavy chains of miserliness fell from my shoulders. I didn’t look at the receipts anymore or question Dave’s purchases and decisions to use a cab instead of walking. Best of all, I could finally drink in the richness of Italy with abandon and, mind you, €5 bottles of wine.

 

How to live like you’re dying.

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The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

~ Psalm 103:15-16

When my daughter Louise was 15 years old, she decided she was ready for all-night coed sleepovers. This led to loud, dramatic discussions in which I was labeled as “unfair” and “overprotective.” Exasperated and out of options, I was inspired to explain my position in a different, more visual way.

I got out a piece of poster board. On it, I drew a long line width-wise. I labeled the left “0.” The right, I marked with with “80.” I explained to Louise, “This is a timeline of your life if you live to 80.” I placed a tick mark at the center of the line and one to the left of that and explained “Here is you at age 40, and you at age 18.” Then, I put a mark at 15 (her age then) and, using a red marker, connected the marks from 15 to 18. “This small bar represents the amount of time you have here before college; three short years.”

Finally, from 18 to 80 I drew a bright green bar. “The green bar represents all the time you have left in your life to do whatever you want. You’ll be on your own and there’s nothing I can do about it. You can be a stripper, a heroin addict, or a prostitute, if that’s your passion. So, how about you let me be your Mom for the next three years and not fight me so much?” She was silent as she took it all in. Things calmed down a little after that.

Numbers are powerful things. They do not lie.

At age 50, it was with my own timeline in mind that I considered quitting my corporate day job and becoming a jazz singer. On one hand, I could cruise comfortably until retirement, with good pay, benefits, and a pleasant job; on the other, take the incredibly scary leap into my lifelong passion. I contemplated the likely balance of time left to me, realizing I most certainly had less time before than behind me. My life was startlingly finite. So, I jumped.

I know a guy who toils at a barely tolerable day job. He is in middle management with a team of 11 and reports to a disinterested boss who was promoted to the position my boss should have received. Day after day he fades a little. Though he delights in his garden when he comes home, he does not have time to fully enjoy it. He’s too tapped out for friends or hobbies. He’s tired of his life.

His husband also works a job he would like to leave. His passion is selling used items on ebay and he’s brilliant at it. He buys low and sells high. He makes good money. With my boss' organizational skills and his husband's sales ability they could probably both quit their day jobs and make a killing in the re-sale market. Fear keeps them stuck.

I want to show him the timeline before it’s too late.

In my Buddhist practice I am instructed to ponder my own death during meditation. This is not morbid. For Buddhists, it is an exercise designed to remind us of the fleeting nature of our lives and to live meaningfully, mindfully, with purpose. It is over all too soon.

What is the nature of your life?
You are but a wisp of vapor
that is visible for a little while
and then disappears.

~ James 4:14

A few years ago, Tim McGraw sang a hit song titled “Live Like You Were Dying.” In it, he encounters a man on his deathbed who describes how his terminal diagnosis changed the way he lived:

And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
And he said “Someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.

It is funny how pondering my own demise and the change it inspired has made life so much more vibrant and joyful. I have never been more engaged, excited, and fully alive than when pursuing my passion. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning.

It turns out, death is a great motivator.