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What if this were your last year to live?

Would you go out and party, travel the world, do all kinds of things you've always wanted to explore but were afraid to do? Would you spend more time with your family and friends, perhaps be in nature more often? Or would you keep living exactly the way you have been?

We may not even have the answer, but it is the question that cuts to the core of our existence here, for it asks what it means to be happy and at peace. Our culture frowns upon death, and we've conditioned ourselves to look the other way whenever this most universal and natural event we all share comes up in conversation, but as Keith Olberman recently said so passionately in his special comment about his ailing father, when we're talking about death what we're really talking about is life.

Enter A Year to Live.


The secret to life is to die before you die and find there’s nothing to be afraid of.

- Eckhart Tolle

Based on a book by poet and teacher Stephen Levine, study groups have sprung up around the country in which people come together with a hypothetical date of their passing in mind, sharing their experiences of what it would be like to have only one more year to live. I first heard about it when my friend Johnny did it a couple of years ago, an experience that seemed profound and transformational, to say the least. It entered my sphere again a few weeks ago when my partner's good friend Barb visited from New York, announcing she had just embarked on that same journey. (The two of them got to meet, with Johnny perhaps delivering the most poignant line of the weekend: "Congratulations on your diagnosis!")

As this visit was a sort of a "beginning of the end" for her, the weekend took on a slightly more immediate feeling, though wrapped in an almost timeless gypsy-like abandon. These two descriptions may seem paradoxical, but I think it was our "driftyness" that brought a lot of focus and attention to what was important: the experience itself. Without any schedule or plan it felt as if we were just more able to be in the present moment and enjoy each other and the things we encountered.

It was interesting that without much thinking we were drawn to fresh air, whether it was a stroll through the botanical gardens, a hike along Lands End, or wave watching on the beach. There's something simple and profound in nature, something that cannot be described in words, inviting you to turn off your brain, take a deep breath and forget about anything but the present moment.

If I had to sum up the weekend in three words, I'd say we had good food, good laughs, and good conversation. Nothing particularly revolutionary, but a helpful reminder of what makes our heart bounce and our soul dance, nonetheless. And in the grand scheme of things that might ultimately be all the universe is asking of us. If nothing else, it feels like a good entry point into the world we all come from and will eventually all return to.

One of the "heady" things we did do was set up a blog for Barb to share her "last" year with the rest of us. She's been blogging for a few weeks now and I'm delighted to say that it has brought me great joy and inspiration to read her observations and follow her "decline." Sounds a bit morbid, I know, but there's actually a lot of beauty and joy emanating from her words, as if indeed her "diagnosis" were a blessing. Her blog so far has run the gamut from legal aspects of dying to Buddhist contemplations to reflecting on her friends and family.

I'll leave you with an excerpt from perhaps my favorite posting so far, a living will written by her friend's aunt Vivian Shaw who passed away in 2006. It's worth reading her whole Personal manifesto on death, but I'll leave you with one section that gets straight to the heart of it all:


I "believe" that we are in the universe as the cells in our  bodies are in us.  There is a time to be born and a time to die.  All  sentient beings contain within themselves the seeds of their own  dissolution.

Life and death are not opposites.  Birth and death are two "ends"  of a transitory continuum.  Death is built into the nature of  biological life with the same care as birth.

We are here for a brief flash in the spectrum of time.  Then, we  merge again with the mystery of "Being."  Although we relinquish our  separateness, we remain – in some way – a part of the mystery.


crossposted at A World of Words

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:12 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Ikiru , Akira Kurosawa (10+ / 0-)

    If you strike a match and light a fuse , don't be surprised when something goes boom .

    by indycam on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:16:48 PM PST

  •  So, what would you do if you had one year (7+ / 0-)

    left to live?

    Organize at the local level, nurture solidarity, persevere through set backs, and remember to celebrate the incremental wins. Yes. We. Can.

    by bkamr on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:18:31 PM PST

  •  Joy found every day in simple things... (10+ / 0-)

    My choice


    Remembered golden days, spring air
    Yes, nature is the way
    For whatever time is left.

    Simple and easy, one hopes
    Just to sit, see, breathe
    In summer, fall, winter, spring.

    Those full moon nights with fireflies
    Those bonfires, flying sparks
    The guitar playing, we sing.

    Joy comes; beauty we see, hear, touch
    The simple things that are found
    They do not fail us in the end.

    Join us at Bookflurries: Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:36:09 PM PST

  •  I pondered that question at a retreat years ago (11+ / 0-)

    We were asked, "What would you do if you were told you only have six months to live."  And then, on the last day, we were told to say good-bye to everyone as if we knew we would never see them again.  Deep, awesome experience.

    I have always appreciated the little things in life.  Give me dandelions, not roses.  I prefer the laughter of children over sophisticated chatter.

    And every day I strive to make a difference- even if all I do is leave my pennies in the tip jar.

    Side note: The other day, at a thrift store, a young girl was wearing the most awesome boots, and so I told her, "I really love your boots." Her thank you was filled with 'wow- someone liked my boots- and told me!'  I'm going to do that more often.

    Growing old is inevitable...Growing up is purely optional

    by grannycarol on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:37:17 PM PST

  •  A Year to Live HOW? (10+ / 0-)

    In perfect health before being arrested and executed? A lot differently if the year were spent with an intestinal blockage. I'm thinking in the latter case a day would be all I'd need.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 08:50:43 PM PST

  •  I would find a way to finance spending (12+ / 0-)

    a significant portion of the year lobbying with all my might to stop torture as the law, policy and practice and to have those responsible held legally accountable.

              For Dan,

    Planning a March for Legal Accountability for Torture in Washington, DC, September 4th, 2010, the Saturday of Labour Day Weekend.

    by Chacounne on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 09:08:09 PM PST

  •  really lovely diary (9+ / 0-)

    and the Tolle quote sort of reminded me of the saying attributed to St Francis of Assisi "and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life"

    Now, I am off to peruse your other diaries, I think I just discovered a treasure trove. Thanks!

    "I'm living in an age that calls darkness light" Arcade Fire

    by AbsurdEyes on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 09:09:27 PM PST

  •  fine post, citisven. (9+ / 0-)

    I find myself thinking that a year would be good. I also realize that sometimes that year that folks might have is sometimes filled with ill health, and the "bucket list" becomes an impossible dream.

    Glad I'm not there yet.

    Me? I love my dogs and my space, wherever it is. I'm considering renewing my passport in the event I get a chance to see Ireland, but frankly, that long plane trip seems like too many hours out of too few left. Not that I'd do anything else more worthwhile.

    I agree wholeheartedly, out of the faulty heart I have, with Vivian:

    We are here for a brief flash in the spectrum of time.  Then, we  merge again with the mystery of "Being."  Although we relinquish our  separateness, we remain – in some way – a part of the mystery.

    Note my sig line.

    "We are one, after all, you and I, together we suffer, together exist, and forever will recreate each other."
    Teilhard de Chardin

    by exmearden on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 09:33:27 PM PST

  •  If I had one year (12+ / 0-)

    I would find a way to raise the money to build the house we've been wishing we could build for half a decade, now. And build it - filming and blogging the whole process, and turning it all into a free book, so that people could learn that (a) there's nothing scary about living in a way that uses very little energy, and (b) that it doesn't have to be any more expensive than living "normally" to live green. Also, being partially disabled in one arm, it would also help show that you don't have to be a perfect, brilliant, attractive multi-millionaire movie star to be able to do a whole lot of things yourself.

    I'd love for people to be able to see that it's really possible to save the world for our children and their children, and that if you do it right, it won't even feel all that different from what you do right now.

    •  mataliandy, what an inspiring vision (6+ / 0-)

      there is so much we can give to the world by the way we live. Being modest and living sustainably is certainly one of my biggest personal quests, and I know it would be a big part of my last year, and is, in fact, part of every day for me.

      I hope you find a way to raise the money, hopefully before your last year.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 10:02:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks Sven (4+ / 0-)

        We, too, already try to live sustainably, with a very small footprint, but our current existence would scare the bejeebers out of most people - it's a tad too "Little House on the Prairie" for people accustomed to their creature comforts, and also is pretty tough for someone with even a slight disability. If I'd been told even 7 years ago that I'd be living the way I do now, I'd have suggested the person get therapy right away.

        I think, if we can show a normal looking house, with normal appliances (not zillion dollar specialty models) and a tiny energy footprint, due in large part to some simple things (like proper air sealing and ventilation, power strips to turn things all the way off, and strategic use of the right kinds of lighting), I think it would be easier for people to understand that they can make very small changes and achieve huge savings, but if they want to go several steps further, that they can do that, too, and they can do it all on a normal family's earnings, by focusing, step-by-step on the next low-hanging fruit, then the next, then the next, until, finally, their entire energy savings tree has been harvested.

        Well, it's a dream. :-)

  •  good question (6+ / 0-)

    I know it wouldn't be spent at a political blog, typing and typing away.

    It's a good question because it makes me think of the things that I do, that I shouldn't be doing, or don't need to do.

    I'd do a lot more face to face with people. Get out and talk to friends, strangers, experience the human race.

  •  I'd want to see (4+ / 0-)

    an erupting volcano. When my eyes and heart were full from that, I would take up on the edge of the world where the sea breaks against the land and I would let that become my rhythm for awhile. Then I would come home, lie down, and wait for my Mom and Dad to come for me.

    Mal: "...So then the Shepherd says to the Companion, "Well, a good goat'll do that."

    by crose on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 11:03:04 PM PST

  •  I would ensure the financial security for (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Villagejonesy
    my wife & children (girl & boy) and my brother's children (2 boys) and sister's daughter. Thankfully all the kids are brilliant and toppers in their classes.

    But I hope to live long to see them all well settled in their lives and have a great time being a great grampa.

    Between birthers, deathers and mouth-breathers, the gop has got 'teh crazy' and 'teh stoopid' covered.

    by amk for obama on Wed Mar 10, 2010 at 11:17:49 PM PST

  •  A lady I know was given 6 mos to live by her Drs. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RunawayRose, Gustogirl, citisven

    So she went to Lebanon--during the civil war in the 80s--just because she was curious, and figured, "well--I've only got six months to live."

    Well, you've probably guessed it--she lived longer than six months, and is still around.

    If it were me, I would want to be in a situation where things that were supposed to come to me would come to me, so I wouldn't want to be a hermit.  Yet I wouldn't want to be forcing sensations and experiences to happen, so as to frantically indulge cookie-cutter "things you gotta do before you die."

    Last year, I took a pilgrimage and walked across Spain.  It was very, very meaningful and fulfilling for me, and the people I met along the way, and the experiences I had, came along very naturally and organically.  Nothing seemed forced, and I felt that I was sometimes alone with my thoughts, and other times, would swirl into some interesting social situation, or into a spectacular natural view, or city, and that it would all just develop naturally.  I suppose that had to do with the natural pace of walking, which takes the feeling of being unnaturally rushed, which you can get from car or train travel, out of my life.

    So I think I might want to do something like Terry Fox of Canada did.  Or I might want just to go walking on a pilgrimage again, as a private person, and just see what develops.  I would want purposefully to avoid scripting it too much, but just allow experiences that were meant to come to me.

    Not SO much different from my daily life now :D)

    "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar, and are often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde

    by Villagejonesy on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 12:05:45 AM PST

    •  Villagejonesy, did you walk all the way (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RunawayRose, Villagejonesy

      to Santiago de Compostela? I've been on parts of the trail, though I've heard so much about the magic of this pilgrimage. While I agree about not doing the big cookie-cutter thing, this one I could definitely imagine doing. Just walking anywhere would be, and in fact, IS awesome!

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 10:13:22 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It was the most wonderful self-inflicted horror (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I've ever undergone.

        Yes, I started from Oloron-Ste.-Marie, France, about 50 miles from Lourdes.  I walked 950 kilometers (about 600 miles) to Santiago de Compostela.  There are four main routes from France; three of them go through St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, through Pamplona, but the one I took goes south, before it goes west, and bypasses Pamplona.

        In that whole time, I entered a vehicle exactly once: when the hotels in the town were all closed for the season (winter) in Canfranc-Estacion, I took a bus 4 kilometers to find a hotel.  Then, in the morning, I walked all the way back and started again from Canfranc-Estacion, so that I'd really be walking the entire 950 kilometers.

        After I got to Santiago, and got my certificate saying I'd done the Camino, I was out of time, so I couldn't walk to Finisterra (on the coast).  But I took a bus there for a night, and then back, before flying home from Santiago.  I HIGHLY recommend that anyone doing the Camino should really go to Finisterra.  It wouldn't have felt complete without that.  It put a nice moment of peace and reflection at the end of the trip.

        The Camino has aspects that are really infuriating.  For each person, it's different.  For me, it was the swarming no-see-ums that got in my face, just clouds of them, in some parts of the trail (though I'm thankful to say only on three or four days out of the 40-day hike).  I thought: if they'd just stay away from my face, I'd never be annoyed at them at all.  Also, the fact that you were in youth hostels meant that if someone had a cold, it went around; I was sick three times, and it drove me insane.  (Be aware that the water between Leon and Burgos makes people barf.  Drink only bottled water there.)  For others, it was bedbugs (these are worse at the private albergues; even though the official albergues, or hostels, may have more visitors, they also have much better hygiene programs, and I never saw a bedbug at one).  For yet others, it was the high winds.  The winds didn't bother me, it was just "wow!  High wind!  Holy cow!"  But I remember a young woman from England who was so frustrated by it that she screamed at the sky, "STOOOOOOOOOOP!"  :D  For everyone, there was some trial or other.

        But the things you learn about life there.  The things you learn about how kind people can be.  The fact that we're all one family.  This may seem like a religious thing, and of course, the Camino is HUGE among Catholics.  But I am not Catholic, and other walkers even identify themselves as atheists, and reported getting a lot out of it, and we all felt just as welcome.  Mostly, nobody proselytizes and gets on each other, they just help each other.  I think that any time someone goes into themselves and really spends that much time alone, being reflective, that can only be a helpful revelation, whether someone believes in God or prayer or not.  So my atheist friends on the Camino got great things from it.  But if you DO have such spiritual beliefs, like I do, then... well, it's strange.  The Camino has power.  There's something about it.

        The minimum you must do, to receive the certificate stating you've walked it, is 100 kilometers by foot, or 200 by bike, into Santiago.  If you don't have a whole 30 or 40 days to make the whole pilgrimage, then I would say start from Burgos, and walk over O Cebreiro, into Santiago, and then into Finisterra.  Hostels only cost 3-8 euros a night, usually 4 or 5 euros (around $7.50 a night), for your bed.  For food, they have pilgrim menus (the food there was AWFUL, but the coffee and hot chocolate and cider were awesome) for around 9 euros; most of us shopped at the little town markets for fruit, tuna, and baguettes, or such things.  I spent only about $1200 for the whole 40 day hike, including food and lodging (but not including the plane tickets).

        But I hope you can take a month and do that.  You make friends there that you'll never forget.  At Finisterra, when people had to go their separate ways after walking together a few weeks, they cried as if they'd spent lifetimes together as friends.  I've kept in touch with my friends from the Camino--it's a big brotherhood.  I hope you get to go.

        "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar, and are often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde

        by Villagejonesy on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 02:15:29 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  wow Villagejonesy, what a trip (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Thanks for sharing this. I first read about it I guess through either Paolo Coelho or Shirley MacLaine, so I know it's not a particularly denominational pilgrimage. I know that just walking, being alone, going through all kinds of tribulations, then sharing with random strangers will bring you closer to spirit, no matter how it manifests to you. I'm actually going to Spain in April, but I won't be able to do it this time, I'm visiting a friend in Madrid. But it is definitely on deck for my next quest, and your account of it just really focused it in for me in a very real, earthy sort of way. So thanks again for taking the time, I take a bow.  

          Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

          by citisven on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 06:50:46 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yes! You'll make it, I'm sure (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            This is good.  Well I do hope to see you there (actually, I wouldn't have advised this year, anyway--this is an An~o Santo, and so there will be about 300,000 pilgrims, where there are usually only tens of thousands in a year.  Although there are probably interesting aspects to going this year, too).  It's neat when things start to gel and you get messages, over and over, that you're meant to do something, or it just keeps coming into your consciousness.  It's a good thing.

            Take care citisven--looking forward to the next diary!

            "Arguments are to be avoided. They are always vulgar, and are often convincing." -- Oscar Wilde

            by Villagejonesy on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 07:19:36 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Walking through life is better than crawling. (4+ / 0-)

    I chose the life I am living, now, by the decisions I made when I was young.   I usually chose the safest, most practical way, except for smoking cigarettes.    I was addicted after my first cigarette and I could not ‘quit’.  I was in denial about the need to quit, for a long time, irritated by the propaganda to make smoking unpopular and to portray it as dangerous to your health.  I quit almost a year ago and still marvel that I have done that.  Smoking that first cigarette is the worst decision I have ever made.

    I never looked for excitement in life, though my husband and I went to Vegas once a year after the children left home and it was usually exciting, unless we lost.  We were lucky, though, we never hit it big, but usually one of us would hit a small jackpot that gave us back what we had lost.  I still buy lottery tickets, each week, because I think that someone will win and it could be me.

    No one has told how long I will live.   I do not ask because I do not want to know.  I do know I have three serious health problems.  Each one could eventually kill me.  I had known I was in trouble health wise for a long time, but the doctor could not seem to find a problem. I pushed myself to do what I was expected to do for a long time.  It was almost a relief to find I did have health problems, because I could rest and I know what I am dealing with now.

    Until recently, I have had lots of free time, but was too sick from chemo to concentrate.  I am now trying to put my  house in order.  There are lots of rooms in my ‘house’ that I am trying to straighten, including physical, mental, spiritual, financial and emotional relationships with those I love and those I don‘t love.  

    I have a lot of growing to do.  I get angry, easier, since I don’t smoke.  I am working on that.  I have decided to wait 24 hours to express myself and hopefully will do it in a nicer way.

    I don’t feel the need to look up old friends or anything like that.  Friends I have made in the past 20 years have all came to see me.  Odd that the ones I always admired and respected the most are those who come to see me. Young people whose life I have touched have came or called.

    I have never been a snob, so I have interesting relationships with many different types of people.  They all add interest to the world.

    I am still interested in politics.  The decisions our government makes now will affect the lives of all of our children and grandchildren, maybe forever, long after we are gone.

    The only big difference health problems have made in my life is I don't put things off until tomorrow.  I have done small things in case I end up back in bed. I bought a laptop and hospital type tray that rolls up to the bed. It will be a tray to eat on and a place to use my laptop while propped up in bed. I also bought a small TV with ear phones that I can use at night, when my husband is sleeping and I am not.  I bought a new mattress pad topper that makes my bed even more comfortable.  lol I am a practical person.

    Losing loved ones over the years taught me a lot about life and death.  My preacher says that death is a debt we owe the day we are born.  I don’t feel the need to change my life as far as trips to Rome.  My roots are deep in this hilly, rocky, briar ridden piece of land I live on.  I love this earth.  I am happy here and it gives me great pleasure to live in my home and walk outside.  Yesterday, I stepped out on the front porch and the wind was very strong, but not cold.   It was almost a religious experience, I felt very in touch with life.  

    I am content.

    Give us Health Care not Wealth Care!

    by relentless on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 05:03:45 AM PST

    •  what a touching comment, relentless (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AbsurdEyes, Villagejonesy

      Thanks so much for sharing, and congrats on quitting smoking, that's a tough one and I've been through it, though it's been a few years. I think what the thread here shows is that everyone has their own idea of what makes them happy, and that's ultimately what life is about: Find your way, or if you can't, search for it. Happiness takes on many different forms, but the feeling itself seems universal.

      Live life. Not too fast. Mostly walk. (or bike)

      by citisven on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 10:19:10 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Amen citisven :-) (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AbsurdEyes, citisven

        What you said is worth noting:

        ...everyone has their own idea of what makes them happy, and that's ultimately what life is about: Find your way, or if you can't, search for it....

        We didn't say Wealth Care, we said Health Care.

        by relentless on Thu Mar 11, 2010 at 04:36:26 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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