37 Days

amelia earhartPatti Digh is recording the answers of readers to the question “What would you do today if you had just 37 days to live?” Some of these answers are masterful pieces of writing. I read them over, several times, and then I asked myself what I would do.

I know what I would not do: work, travel, or party. I’ve done enough of these things to realize they are substitutes to fill an empty space in us that is better filled with simpler, more generous, more thoughtful, instinctive, joyful and sensuous activities. As you can see from the graphic reproduced with yesterday’s article, I’m pretty organized (perhaps even anal) about what I do and intend to do with my time. As long as I believe I have more than 37 days, I will continue to do these things I now know I am meant to do, in a disciplined and well-paced manner:

to play,
to love,
to learn,
to converse,
to give (ideas, energy, knowledge, capacities),
to be self-disciplined in maintaining my health and expanding my personal capacity,
to write,
to reflect, and
to be attentive.

This, I’ve finally come to understand, is who I am.

Perhaps this is who we all are. When I study the behaviour of wild creatures, when I read about how the most knowledgeable and intelligent and admired people in the world live, when I listen to and read the advice of indigenous people, people connected to all-life-on-Earth, it seems to me that this is what they all do. It has just taken me, poor disconnected and confused civilized human, a lifetime to discover what they knew all along.

Recently I’ve been focused on “love, conversation and community” as the means to make the world a better place and to find meaning and purpose to one’s life — to be of use, as my friend Dave Smith puts it. I try to be of use, every day, and to work towards creating what I call “working models” of a better way to live and make a living. Hence my recent passion for identifying and assisting in the creation of Natural Enterprises (self-managed places where people work together responsibly, sustainably, joyfully, and meaningfully) and Intentional Communities (self-managed places where people live together responsibly, sustainably, joyfully, and meaningfully). Natural Enterprises in a Natural Generosity Economy built around Natural Communities. And within these communities, I try to let-myself-change, to adapt and be more authentically myself, and to help others do the same.

But if I had only 37 days to live I think I would suspend these important activities, these model-building and model-being projects.

My father is not well, and he has been told that he may not have long to live. He has always been my model, and I am like him in many ways. He has, for the last year or so, been “setting his lands in order”, as Eliot puts it in The Waste Land just after he describes the thunder fable of the Upanishad: Datta, dayadhvam, damyatagiving, sympathy, self-control. The fact that these three ancient thunders parallel so closely my modern love, conversation, community mantra gives me pause. When I was younger and learning to write poetry my father stepped me through The Waste Land to explain what it meant. He taught me well.

But when it is time to set one’s lands in order, it is also time, I think, to suspend love, conversation and community activities, in favour of quieter, more solitary pursuits. To try to jam a lifetime of such activities into a 37 day orgy of frenzied living, to the point of self-exhaustion, would I think be selfish, futile, and unfair to those left behind to pick of the pieces.

Given only 37 days, there is not enough time to love. Not fairly anyway, for those who would then lose that love. When I started thinking about Patti’s question I thought at first I’d like to spend the time with all those I’ve come to love. But then I concluded that was self-centred and cruel. Love is a drug, after all, for better and for worse, and a co-addictive one. And I’m not really sure I know what love is, anyway, and to try to find out in 37 days strikes me as, at best, ungracious. The words of the Joni Mitchell song Amelia came to mind:

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds
At icy altitudes

This mingled retelling of the Icarus legend and the more modern legend of Amelia Earhart is, in a way, as much my soul song as Neil Young’s Will to Love, the song about a salmon swimming upstream through much hardship and danger to find the one he knows he’s meant to love. Idealists like me are, most of the time, all talk and no action. Give us what we say we really want and we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Too late anyway. With only 37 days there is no time for such addictions, or to find what I’ve “never really” been or done.

Likewise, I wouldn’t travel to any of the faraway places on my list of places I’d like to see. Too far away for just a short visit, and besides, there are plenty of beautiful, undiscovered places right here.

My father thinks the wild animals have it right. When you know your time has come, your instinct and your responsibility is to go off by yourself, rest, contemplate, and be at peace with the world.

And that’s what I would do. With 37 days left, I would go off into the forest near where I live, by myself, with a comfortable tent and a bed to sleep on, good walking shoes, practical clothing (as little as necessary), my guitar, vegan food, drinking water, pencils and paper. No electronic or communication equipment except a camera, and no books. I would compose and play and sing songs, and write poetry and a few stories. If I had any wisdom I wanted to impart I would do so in creative writing, through stories, not writings like this. I would invent games that could be played in the wild, without leaving a footprint. I would pay attention with all my senses and all my instincts and all my heart, and fall under the spell of the sensuous, Gaia’s spell. I would run and dance and swim. I would meditate, and I would fast. I would breathe deeply, and explore and learn and discover the miniature truths of the forest. I would sleep soundly. I would be nobody-but-myself.

I would not count the days.

Category: Being Human
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9 Responses to 37 Days

  1. mattbg says:

    I agree with what you said about working, travelling, and partying. When you have any time available to you to do something other than your usual routine, I think it’s far more useful to use the time to remove some of the friction from your normal routine. You could do this by forming new habits, which the time off gives you the patience to start. Or, you could just reflect on how you do things and why you do what you do to look for ways that you could do them better. Taking two weeks to improve the cadence of the other fifty weeks is far more useful to me than a “get out of town” vacation where, after a couple of weeks, you come back to something that you didn’t like enough to stay with before you left. On top of that, it’s expensive, disruptive and may just add other stresses when you realize that it’s all over, the buzz wore off two days after your return, and you now have bills to pay.There’s an argument to be made that travel broadens your mind. It can, but I don’t think many people use it in a way that would broaden their mind in any meaningful way. More often, I think a lot of people have a honeymoon period with a new location that is in no way representative of life in that place and it just makes them feel worse about the place they live for the majority of their days. From that perspective, you’re more likely to broaden your mind by reading a non-fiction book by an author from that place (unless you’re on a “no words” vacation — I like that idea, too, by the way).

  2. Dear Dave–I love this post. It speaks so clearly to our do/be dichotomy. As much as some of us have and continue to work on it, the dichotomy still shows up when we really look at the limitations of lifespan.Karen Crone and I are collaborating on a whole piece for Patti’s invitation as well. Bringing up lots of juicy stuff!I posted an article on the Virtuatl Tea House about some wolf wisdom the other day that you might find interesting, after reading this post! It’s called ‘We live because we live’.Thanks for being, today, Dave–Beth

  3. That final comment about “not counting the days” is spot on!

  4. Siona says:

    I love this post too. What would it take for you to do this, now, as if your 37 days were about to begin? What makes you love this version of life more?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. The first version of this post included Siona’s question. Then I decided to remove it, to see who would ask it. My answer to the question is that you use a different strategy for running a marathon than running a sprint, and that the best marathon runners keep just enough back to be able to sprint the last short distance to the finish line. But if the length of the race is kept a secret by the organizers until you see the finish line, or the chequered flag, your strategy will be never to sprint until you see it.Or until you realize that just because everybody-else treats life as a race, doesn’t mean it is.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    For me, depends upon what you mean by “party”. If that’s a euphemism, as it is in much of North America (and perhaps elsewhere) for drinking to the point of being stupid and getting “out of yourself”, I agree with you. But if it is to go and be with others from time to time during those days to talk, listen, enjoy some good tastes, share some music or games, engage in some interesting conversations and listen and watch, then I think I’d party some as well as spend some important amounts of time in nature and in reflection. I would certainly focus on paying attention every moment.

  7. Siona says:

    Thank you, Dave, for creating the space to see who would fill it in. I feel sweetly honored. :)

  8. EJ says:

    This is a difficult question. I would like to answer as proudly and bravely as Dave. But its all hypothetical until we’re really there ourselves. I think I would shed a lot of tears, do a lot of hand holding (or hand clutching), spend sleepless nights agonizing. Perhaps finding peace (or exhaustion) in the end. Sort of like those tragic love lost or death of beloved poems and songs – very pretty as abstract experiences. But when you’re there yourself with tears,snot, and red rimmed eyes tragedy isn’t as nice/interesting. I am not at all this kind anxiety ridden, sentimental person in my everyday life. Although I think a bit about death almost everyday, it is still a very scary concept.

  9. What a beautiful piece of writing and how inspiring. You’ve really won me over with this blog over the past 4 years I’ve been reading it. You have such grace and are so articulate. I hope that someday I can write with the depth and knowledge that you do.

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