More Things Matter Less

Two people I didn’t know died recently.

I learned about them, their lives, and their deaths, from grieving friends.

Their deaths were unexpected.  One from a chronic health problem that deteriorated rapidly.  The second also “natural,” but without warning.  Both had young children.  Both left grieving families, friends, and colleagues

Natural causes.  A phrase we’ve all heard thousands of times.  Two words that don’t convey the pain death leaves in its wake.

I began to think of death a little differently not that long ago.  It was something I heard on a show that has become a big part of my life.  The Rich Roll Podcast.  Rich is an ultra-endurance athlete, a vegan and an inspiration.  He challenges himself and his listeners to be their best selves.  His guests share their lives with Rich because he’s authentic, curious, and humble.  He radiates warmth and trust.  He’s become a fixture in my life.  Like a friend I’ve never met.  Although I did meet him once.  Travelled across the country to hear him speak and met him briefly afterward.  Bought a t-shirt which I still have.  Very worn, and very torn, I still wear it proudly.

A year or so ago, one of Rich’s guests spoke about aging, and longevity – with a focus on people around my age – forty and fifty.  Not old, but not young.

The guest said something like ‘Nature doesn’t need you anymore.’

Thought provoking words.  Not spiritual, not healing, not sugar-coated.  Evolutionary.  We are all animals.   Dying is wired into our DNA.  And by our forties and fifties, most of us have had children, and aren’t going to have any more.  Nature – cruel, merciless – doesn’t need us.

A lot of things don’t need us.

Work doesn’t need us.  If we are lucky, we have careers in which we are fortunate enough to make contributions – to our co-workers, to our organizations, to the world at large.  But, at work, each of us is completely replaceable, regardless of what we do.  You and I might be missed.  But we’re not necessary.  Not essential.  We’d be replaced and the machine would grind on.

Things don’t need us.  We surround ourselves with so much that is non-essential.  So much plastic, so much made overseas, so much packaging.  Inert crap, that adds little value to our lives.

The news cycle doesn’t need us.  It gorges, spits out, and moves on.  Trump today – gone tomorrow. 

The planet doesn’t need us – alive, we drain it, suck out its exhaustible resources.  Every second we breathe, we’re part of the problem.  Dead, we return to the earth.  Giving a little bit back after all we’ve taken.

But if a lot of things don’t need us – a lot of people do.

Our communities.  Our friends.  Our families.  Our children.

Not knowing that I’m writing this – never knowing anything that I write about – my five-year old daughter just started talking about death. She said to me “I bet you die right now.”  I reassured her and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

I did not tell her that nature doesn’t need her father anymore.  She’s five.  She still needs her dad.  Needs to cover my face in shaving cream like she did a couple of hours ago.  Needs to paint my nails pink and spray me with perfume like she did right after that.

And I need her.  For as long as I can hang on. 

Which is another reason Rich Roll has become a mentor and inspiration.  Nature is merciless.  Accidents happen.   Diseases ravage.  Aging never stops, and always takes a toll.  But there are things we can do that increase our chances – increase our chances to live longer, be healthier, and find contentment in whatever path or paths we choose along the way. 

More things matter less than ever to me now.  Things I used to be passionate about like baseball and politics.  Not that long ago they were central to my life, now they exist on the periphery.

But if many things matter less, then a few things matter more.  My family.  My friends.  Seeking rewarding work – not working for rewards.  Reading. Writing. Running.

And living a life with pink nails, and a shaving cream head.

Getting Back

I travelled for work this week. 

Long hours.  Little sleep. 

No reading.  No running.  No family. 

Mentally drained.  Physically weary.

I work with good people.  Dedicated.  Smart.  Engaged.  Kind.  If I must be away from home, those are the people I want to be with.

Still, it felt great getting back.

Hugging my wife and daughter.  Sleeping in my own bed.  Waking up, drinking coffee, and reading.

Returning to normal, after a few days of not normal. 

Not normal meant five days without running.  Instead, I traded running for sleep.

That doesn’t happen often.

So, it felt wonderful to lace up my trail shoes this morning.  A clear sky.  A cold day.  Well below zero with a biting wind.

To run with no other purpose than to run.  To move my legs, inflate my lungs, and clear my head.  To appreciate the beauty of the forest along the path I’ve run a hundred times before.  An isolated path with traces of snow, alongside a stream of icy water.  The crunch of frozen dirt underfoot.  No people, no phone calls, no stress.  Blue Rodeo in my earbuds.  More than a band.  Poets and philosophers of life and death, joy and pain.  Songs about navigating back to normal when your world strays.

A one hour run.  Never fast.  Or slow.  Just a run.  A little bit of uphill, a little bit of downhill. 

Like most of our days, most of the time.  Normal.  A bit good, a bit bad.  Usually somewhere in between. 

We are all desperate for normal now, almost a year into Covid.  Lockdowns and masks.  No travel.  Distant family.  Those damn arrows on the floors in grocery stores.  I hate those arrows.

Anger at those who break the rules.  The temptation to break them ourselves – to ignore the arrows, visit a friend, travel.

A virus jolted us out of normal.  We took too much for granted for too long. And now we wait for vaccines, and double-mask our faces, and challenge ourselves to be more patient than we’ve ever been in our lives.

If only it was as easy as a run, along a trail, on a cold winter’s day. 

What You Have Endured

I ran 12k hard this morning.  I finished gasping for breath, tasting blood in my lungs, with legs that felt like they were encased in cement.

It hurt. 

Which was entirely the point because I was racing.  A virtual race.  The only kind of race our Covid world allows.  No other runners, no spectators, no finish line.  Just me and my GPS watch.

If I had not signed up, this morning’s run would not have hurt.  I would not have pushed myself to run maximum effort for nearly an hour.  I would not have subjected myself to voluntary pain. 

I would not have relaxed.

Hurt and relaxation.  Essential elements of running hard.  Essential elements of living.

Running brought a good friend into my life years ago.  An accomplished runner and even better person.  I was Luke, and he was my Yoda.  He was smooth, I was ungainly.  He ran fast effortlessly – I did not.  I equated speed with pain – my body clenching, tightening, straining.  My friend helped me understand that less was more, that letting go, breathing, unclenching, loosening, relaxing, allowed me to run smoother, stronger and ultimately, faster.  It was both counterintuitive and made perfect sense.  And it worked.  My best runs, my fastest times were under his tutelage.   

I thought of him today when I ran, struggling for speed, fighting to hold the pace.  Hurting and relaxing.  Relaxing and hurting. 

Running is a wonderful metaphor for life, but not a perfect one.  When running hurts too much, I can choose to slow down – even stop – I can make the pain go away.

We can’t do that in life.

There is pain.  For all of us.  Pain that comes and goes, pain that ebbs and flows.  Chronic pain.  Pain in our bodies.  Pain in our souls.  Fleeting pain.  Pain that heals.

Pain that reveals. 

Pain reveals our weaknesses, in our bodies, in our psyches. 

Pain hurts.

So relax. 

Breathe.  Walk.  Meditate.  Read.  Listen.  Sing.  Hug.  Pray.  Love.  Share.  Give.

And then – stop relaxing.  Do things that hurt.  Run hard.  Lift weights.  Cycle until your legs are on fire.  Take a cold shower.  Hold your breath until your lungs explode.  Do something that makes you want to scream – do it because you can – do it because you control the pain.

Do it because when you choose to suffer – you can relax.  It is within you.  It is in your breath.  It is in every fiber of your body.  Pain and peace are not opposites.  They are not mutually exclusive.  They are in all of us, always.  Co-existing.  Waxing.  Waning.  Teaching.

Pain teaches us to relish its absence.  This afternoon my daughter and I played in a park, walked in our neighbourhood, and saw some of her friends.  All those moments were just a little more precious because hours before I ran hard and made myself hurt. 

And then the hurting stopped.  Not long after my run, my body felt better.  My lungs didn’t taste like blood anymore.  Instead, it was as if my airway had tripled in size and oxygen was being pumped into my chest.  The air I was breathing was cleaner, fresher, more potent.  My legs stopped hurting.  Instead, they ached – good aching – the aching that only comes from pushing past comfort.  Aching that satisfies.

Relaxing in the midst of pain teaches us … teaches us that we can relax in the midst of pain.  We don’t have to enjoy pain.  We can hate the pain.  But we can co-exist with it.  We can conquer it.  The next time it happens to you, you will emerge on the other side.  Maybe scarred, maybe scared, maybe aching everywhere.  But you will be stronger, better, and more equipped to deal with the next time.  And all the good moments – joy, fun, normalcy, Netflix, will be that much sweeter, for what you have endured.

Addiction.ca

I cannot remember the last Saturday morning when the first thing I did after pouring my coffee wasn’t looking at homes on Realtor.ca.

I like our house.

Sometimes I love it.

Our neighbourhood is fantastic – trails and a park – young families and retirees.  A genuine community.

And yet, Realtor.ca beckons.  Constantly.  Not just on Saturday mornings.  The app on my phone means constant checks throughout the week. 

Chasing the perfect home. An extra bathroom.  A magnificent view.  Something more walkable too – schools, stores, coffee-shops – ideally would be just a short stroll away.

The next best thing just around the corner.  Because the next home will make everything better.  Parenting, life, and work stress will disappear when we add another toilet.

It’s ridiculous of course.  Most of us grew up sharing bathrooms, in homes without walk-in closets and jacuzzi tubs.  We survived just fine.  We didn’t know any different.

I think of my grandparents.  Children of the First World War.  Young parents themselves during World War II.  They suffered.  Their infant daughter died soon after birth in the dark autumn of 1944 in occupied Holland.  War raged while they mourned and battled for survival, and struggled to raise their surviving daughter.  My mother.

Many decades later my grandparents retired to a small bungalow in very small-town Ontario.  One bedroom, one bathroom.  They took pride in that home.  My grandfather spent thousands of hours in his garden.  Sometimes I helped him.  Today, when I work in our backyard – a sun-drenched property with apple trees, pear trees, and garden boxes which overflow with tomatoes – I think of how much my grandfather would have loved this home.  I wish he was alive and bedside me.  And I feel guilty for ever thinking about leaving. 

Leaving a place my daughter loves, adding a hundred thousand dollars to our mortgage, and an hour a day to my commute, all for the sake of looking outside and seeing the ocean and the mountains.

The draw of that view is powerful.  The desire for an extra bathroom is real.  So is the reality that the things I want come at a cost. A cost that may not be worth paying. 

Still, it’s hard not to look. 

Addiction.ca

When Inner Storms Swirl

I’m almost fifty years old and I still seek my parents’ advice.  Their wisdom rarely fails me.

Almost fifty.  Decisions matter more than ever.  When I was thirty, thirty-five, even forty I still felt time and life stretched forward far beyond what I could see.  Or imagine.

No longer.  Not when I’m just months away from half a century.  By the numbers I’m closer to the end than the beginning.  Closer to the end of my career.  Closer to the end of my life.  Fifty sneaks up on you.  But 50 is a number that does not lie.

Decisions are supposed to get easier as we age, drawing on maturity and life experience to guide us forward.

Fat chance.

Decisions get harder.  There’s more at stake.  Less time to play with.  Maximizing every moment matters more than ever.

But what does maximizing mean?

For a few days this week it means being by the ocean.  In a hotel with big windows and long views.  A hotel just a few steps from a sandy beach.   

A hotel with one bedroom, one bed, and a four-year-old tossing and turning all night.  Maximizing means me getting out of bed when I’m still tired, escaping to the living room, and reading and writing, well before 5 a.m. when it’s too dark to see the ocean, and too cold to be warmed by the fireplace.

And it’s quiet.  Quiet helps – helps with making decisions, helps with maximizing.

Quiet does not provide answers.  But quiet lets you listen to the inner-voice.  To the collected wisdom of friends and family.  To the doubts that eat your insides when the path forward isn’t clear.

And it rarely is.  Big decisions have big consequences and are rarely straightforward.  Big decisions are not a flashing red 99 on a scale of 1 to 100.  Big decisions are often 50 – 50.  There is no clear right answer.  There is no clear wrong answer.  When we agonize over these choices, we work to tip the scale – to get to 51.  Or higher.

Sometimes we are right.  Sometimes we are wrong.

And sometimes we realize that there is no right, and no wrong.  That 50-50 means that there is good and bad in whatever path we choose.  And those paths often flow from within.  Do we seek comfort and contentment – or strive for challenges where growth requires pain? 

Maybe the closer I get to 50, the more comfortable I am with 51.  With accepting that consequential decisions are made – must be made – when inner storms swirl.

No storms swirled around us this week.  The ocean and sky competed for the prize of bluest and most beautiful.  The sun warmed everything.  Inukshuks lined the shoreline.  Parks reverberated with children’s voices and laughter.  Ice cream sundaes were devoured.  Wine was savoured.  Life was relished.  Family was maximized.

I got a few days closer to 50.  And a lot closer to 51.

A Walk in the Cemetery

I had a few hours of free time this morning.  It’s rare for me to be alone, and away from home.

So I went to a cemetery.

A cemetery, near a forest by a church.  A beautiful church.  An old church. 

Smoke from the forest fires raging south of us obscured the sky. 

No one else was around.

It was like walking through a P.D. James novel.

Our world feels very obscured.  There is no clarity.

Cemeteries provide clarity.  Death provides clarity.  The on switch is flicked off.  1 becomes 0.  Light is dark.

The cemetery was quiet.  Peaceful. Tranquil.  Mostly grey with splashes of flowers.  Immense trees loomed overhead.  I saw an infant’s grave.  I saw many birth dates far to close to the birthdays of people I love who are still alive.  Loved ones I treasure beyond description.  The people I do not ever want to lose.

As I write this, our dog is hours away from being euthanized.  I’ve written about her in the past.  Not always glowingly.  But her absence will create a void in my life.  In my wife’s life.  In my daughter’s life. I will always remember the golden beauty who was with me when I was alone, and lonely, and a little bit scared of what the future held in store.  I’ll remember long walks along the beach, stones thrown into the ocean, and hot summer days laying by the water, a book in one hand, and my Maggie beside me.

I’ll remember this day.  Some glorious free time with something awful looming.  And yet I’m still enjoying myself.  A coffee in a café.  My laptop in front of me.  Nowhere I need to be for 90 whole minutes.

The where I need to be is my daughter’s pre-school.  To pick her up.  Earlier this week she was terrified before her first day.  My wife and I felt her fear.  Agonized over it.  Needlessly.  Because she came home and told us, “I love pre-school.”  She asked to go every day.  Kids grow up fast.

Today, when I dropped her off, she greeted her teacher with glee, overjoyed to tell her about the new doll her granny bought her.  Almost forgetting dad was beside her.  Maybe actually forgetting, because I had to ask for a hug and a kiss before she bounded into the classroom.  I was so proud of her.  And so conscious that my little girl is growing up. 

My days often feel very obscured.  The smoke of work, the smoke of stress, the smoke of life.  Who has time for clarity when life moves a million miles an hour, Covid keeps us from one another, and fires blacken the sky? 

Clarity might be unattainable.  Or maybe it is does exist, but it is precious because it is both fleeting and hazy.  Like a walk in a cemetery on a day filled with both life and death.

POSTCRIPT

Dad picked up his daughter and bought her a Happy Meal for lunch.

Maggie died peacefully, in her home, surrounded by love.