The Three Questions

“Point me in the right direction” I ask the Universe.

I really love living in the moment.  I have worked hard to stay right here in the now, experiencing the quality of the light in the early morning, the sweetness of May strawberries, and the heady fragrance of peonies.  Worry has taken too many blocks of time from me over the years.  Replaying idiotic things I said or did, imagining doing them again or rehearsing what-ifs until fog coats my imagination.  What a wasted way to spend living time. 

The New Year is a great time for stepping out for a few moments and taking a bigger view of what’s left of a life.  Pandemics can sidetrack resolutions but renewal is always available.  The word “new” is enticing to my curious little artist brain. So today, I am beseeching you, my co-conspirator to take a deep breath, hold it then release slowly.  Shrug off the weight of the times for just a few minutes.  Now stroll with me, maybe twirl a few times as we reignite our dreams about which road less travelled will rise ahead of us as we head into summer.  With a grand view we can then find our way back relaxing into those tasty moments of tea and oranges.

So how can we twist our lens from wide angle to close up on our small lives?  So much dark talk.  Let’s let that go for a moment.  Let go of worry and things we have no control over.  How can we do that?  The Three Questions of course.  That’s why you are reading this missive and not washing your socks, binge eating, staring at a screen or worse instead.

Here we go.  

When I turned 40, my best friend and I took a trip together with the obvious goal of celebrating our departure from youth to middle-age.  Yes, celebrate.  I have done a lot of slightly askew things in my life, on a continuum from what? to what the hell?  This special wingman/woman has seen most of it and heard the rest by phone.  Incredibly she still loves me despite the risky association.  Her loyalty, excellent listening skills, and incredible giggle made me warm-blanket happy.  Together we would create the leisure for ourselves to search and imagine the next installment of life while loitering under the warm Arizona sun. 

We chose to meet in the desert.  In winter, that warm dry sun bakes life back into our hearts.   We hiked, sat by the pool with umbrella skewered beverages, looked at art, but mostly talked and laughed ourselves silly.  We tried to untangle our past in an effort to foresee a future.  The talk was filled with stories and missteps-sweet, hilarious, terrifying and sad.  In the end we came to more questions than answers.  The slow pace of the handful of sunny days left room to edit and refine those random thoughts.  Travel is a memory for many of us right now, but we can return to our imaginations for adventure, right?  At the end of that trip we were left with only Three Questions.

Today more than ever, we need to lean into our dreams.  They may have been altered by current circumstances but they still need our nurturing.  So here is a way to rekindle your dreamscapes. 

Are you ready?

Question One:

What are you most proud of about your life so far?

At age forty we discovered, is the first time we can look back on our lives and see it in blocks of decades-your school years, your teenage years, your 20’s, 30’s.  You can see backward because  you are on top of a rise in your life’s journey.  This scenic overlook at 40 for some is a glorious pull off on Life’s Route 66.  A pause to savor and take in half a lifetime.  For other’s it is a flat tire delusion of eternal youth.  Either perspective offers an edge of discomfort. And that is where wisdom can slide in to take root.

There is a cottage industry dedicated to the flat tire morose Life is Half-Empty at 40 crowd.  Look at all the party supplies for 40 year old birthday bashes.  Over-the-Hill paper goods badgering poor saps whose friends must like the color black, sarcasm or at least the chance to be openly mean.  (If you had a party thrown for you like this, you might want to review the definition of the word “friend”).  I choose to avoid that isle in party store of Life.

Let’s propose a much richer use of the view from this high point in a life span.  At 40, for the first time in my life at least, I could see important scenery in my small road trip over these chunks of time. I saw threads that corded into patterns strung together like savory courses in a long served dinner.  Important moments no longer are random. Repeated themes and coincidences start seeming less so.

To find clarity we excluded the obvious Aren’t-We-Proud parts of the journey-marriage, children, and family.  Without any scientific data, I would venture to guess that almost everyone thinks one of these categories is a place of pride.  So mark those off your list. Not because children, spouse and family are not important, but because we are talking about you for this moment of enlightenment.  You as a unique spirit placed on this earth to be your best version of yourself.  Remember Oscar Wilde said “be yourself, everyone else is taken.”  Outward focus is necessary to stay in relationship, but without  a solid grounding in who we are leaves us vulnerable as half people desperately search for someone to “fill us up Buttercup”.    Take Forrest Gump’s mother. She believed her most noteworthy achievement was the serendipitous accomplishments of her son. Don’t be Mama Gump here. Let’s go big or go home. 

So take a gander.  When we look back we see our own chapters.  For me the early years, were filled with quirky anxious childhood blunders, followed by a rebellious creative teenager phase that transformed into a determined 22 year old.  In my 20’s I used my summer savings to travel overseas then moved to the West Coast with the $300 I had left over.  I packed up my red VW bug headed to a place I’d never been where a friend and I had a place to live for one month.  At 22, raised in Colorado I had never been further east than Nebraska and had only seen the Pacific Ocean twice.  But my DNA oozed wanderlust. 

I secured a job in San Francisco and had the time of my life for a couple years.  After that I moved to The South (after one brief visit), then upon arriving permanently learned I could not wait tables but made a pretty dang good banker for the next long stretch to 30.  I bought a house, married a charismatic man-child who left me. sold that house and bought another, but all in all I survived, learned a ton and lived a lot.  I proved to myself I could take care of my own darn self.

In my thirties, I went back to grad school.  During that time I grew from the inside spending time in a psych hospital (not personally, but as an intern) helping the mentally distressed and deeply ill then also working with struggling youth.  I opened myself up to forces greater than my own self will and took in what wisdom I could find.  So to recap, I survived my family of origin, learned to take care of myself, overcame some of my inner demons arriving, proudly alive at the top of the hill revving my engines to start the Middle Ages.

Tell your bit now.  What are you most proud of accomplishing in your trip through the decades?  Feel those beautiful soul expanding feelings deep within yourself. 

Question Two:

What do you most regret over the same period of time?

Ouch.  Do we really need to do this?  My friend and I did not enjoy this foray…at first.  On top of that hump of FORTY YEARS, we talked a bunch about the what ifs….I read once that you can look at your past, but don’t stare at it.  The What If Game can be a yawning rabbit hole twisting and dark so warning! Do this dig gently.  What we grew to love was unearthing our regrets, that feeling of the sliding door closing on possibilities that you can remember with pitch-perfect clean-washed-window clarity.   Lean into those memories.  Drink deeply and feel it all over.  Then let it go if you can. 

My greatest regret began in college when I took a spring break trip to Mazatlan, Mexico.  I was 21, a Junior at the University of Colorado trudging through a BS in Business (can you say ironic?).  The trip was one of those cheap group student affairs loosely organized by unknown people.  I think we found a tear-off  sheet tacked onto the bulletin board in the student center.  A motley naive group of reasonably attractive co-eds signed on together for this exotic adventure.  As a land locked westerner, it was a mind-blowing experience full of bull-fights (gag), semi-pornographic sand castle building contests (what?), rip tides(omg!) and painfully sunburnt-crisp friends.  SPF products had just been invented though no one really knew how all that worked.  Say hello pasty skin red heads, to zebra striped arms!

Of course we were all looking for something different on that spicy expedition.  Romance, margaritas, embroidered shifts or sexy brown tan lines to take back.   I was at the end of a bad relationship, but still hanging on for God knows why which probably made me more appealing than my fellow travelers hoping to find the next guy to kiss.   A very handsome Senior attending Stanford Engineering school followed me around on and off during my time on the sunbathed sand.  He taught me backgammon (which I forgot as soon as I returned), walked with me in the moonlit surf and was a perfect gentleman.

Richard Mrlik was an intelligent young man who generously shared about his life growing up.  I couldn’t get enough of his story. His father was in the oil business and he had spent a good bit of time as a youth in the Philippines.  His family had travelled all over the world and he talked as if that were a perfectly normal way to be in the world.   I had moved only once in my life, 11 blocks from the small house my parents purchased as a young couple to a larger place on a private lake.  His words drew pictures in my dream starved mind.  He was real and made me think I could make my life as big and real as the one he came from too.

I was clear with him about having a boyfriend and my moral code of loyalty.  But on the very last night I did succumb to a sweet brief kiss.  Oh how I remember that kiss.  More passed between the two of us than I could know at the time.  I place that one week in Mexico as one of the watershed moments in my life. 

I returned to campus, broke up with the provincial boyfriend I now knew was strangling my dreams not feeding them.  Thank you Richard!  After my large adventure in Europe a year later under my belt, I had the courage to Go West Young Woman!.  When I was settled in San Francisco feeling as if I was living the dreams I dreamed in Mexico, I wrote to Richard at the address where is parents lived.  It would have been more than a year later.  I sent a Christmas card with snow covered pine trees on the front and a thank you inside for the life he breathed into that young girl on the beach.  I had not heard from him nor did I think he would respond.  He had big plans after his own graduation.  Of course he did.  But I sent the card anyway. 

Many months later, maybe even a year, I heard from this kind man.  He was working in Africa in a dry barren land.  The card with snow laden trees he said, was a gift sorely needed.  I wish I still had the letter he sent back to me.  I have no idea what happened to it.  I can barely express how it made me feel, writing my words of gratitude and hearing that they were very much appreciated on another continent on the other side of the world. 

I went on to marry a different man who left me for another after a few years.  It was a painful experience which of course means I learned a whole lot as a result.  My mother told me after the papers were signed and I was a freed from all that about a man named Richard who had called their house looking for me right about the time I had accepted a proposal from a now ex-person. 

What? My heart stopped.

“You were engaged” she stated flatly as if that explained why she waited to tell me until now.

What if…

Hold onto that feeling.  That, my friend is regret.

Question Three:

On your Death Bed, what will you regret more than anything that you did not try to do during the second half of your life?

Now hold onto those feelings of accomplishment, the times we listened deeply, then pushed into the unknown.  That force inside, the portal to what can be, the path that is the next journey waiting.  Feel that strong can-do-ness.  Now see yourself in a soft bed or maybe a worn squishy chair.  You are talking to your younger self or someone that appears that way.  “Jump!” is what you say.  “Go…Try…Do”.  “You will NEVER regret it.”

When thinking about choosing to spend on virtually anything during my last valuable days, weeks, or maybe even years (if I am lucky), I think about that imaginary conversation.  Should I say yes to a prestigious request or join a bunko group (what exactly is bunko?). When I was 40 every piece of me shouted “Go Paint!”  If you do not you will have that hand-smacking-forehead regret on your death bed and think “I am an idiot, I should have blah, blah, blah-ed)”.   And so I did.  I jumped. Now I’m a painter, a real certified copyrighted artist. Worked out pretty well so far.  And every so often when I am asked to spend my time, energy and money, I see that old woman in repose. She is smiling with her eyebrow arched saying without words “And?”

 It is now 2020.

I am 60, more than 20 years has disappeared since the 40 year old hill. Yes, my passion for painting is a source deep gratification and the encouragement I have shared along the way is there as well.  It is good right now to revisit these questions adding those years to the backward gaze.  I am thankful we wrote down these three little questions.  It is a pleasant feeling to think about Richard again.  Something stirs down near the belly and like a feather brushes up to the soul.  The Universe is calling again.

Now here I sit tap, tap, tapping away, practicing to be a writer hopefully making my way toward the next amazing something.  I’m claiming my place as a writer now.  And because of the times, I have time.  If I live long enough, maybe I shall become as skillful crafting words as my brushes are with paint on canvas. Someday.  Before it all ends.

Oh and the adventures I have planned.  I know my regrets. I have a solid grasp on my accomplishments.  I have already hiked the Italian Alps, seen Humpback whales salute by fluke, watched Sandhill cranes tornado in migration, traveled miles on foot along the Irish Sea and even a good bit of Portugal.  There is more on that tramping horizon.  Blaze those hardest trails first before that squishy chair takes you down. 

So how many somedays do I have left?  Friends my age and younger have battled or succumbed to cancer, others are fighting illnesses that deteriorate important pieces of their minds or bodies.  In my grandparents generation, I would be nearing the end of my life expectancy.  Thankfully I have the possibility of living another third of my life ahead of me.  Perhaps.  No guarantees.  Life can go in an instant.  How do I notice and then grasp as much of Life that comes toward me as I can?    Will I chase the possibles and dream larger dreams that still float my way?  Or will I attach to the chaos and sadness that is always a companion at this stage of living? 

I choose to leap on the go-for-it bus.  It may not be the fast track or impress anyone else, but I feel the tug of my own open road.  I’ll pack different things than I would have in my 20’s or 40’s, but pack I will and head toward that horizon of the next curious something.  The Universe will be generous.  I need no more proof of that.  I will cast my eyes away from the naysayers.  And along the way, I will taste the fruit that I find, sigh at the sunsets, smell wild oregano, follow a local Labrador for a mile or more.  Make a big sweeping plan but then count each wildflower that caresses my soft open palm as I move among hazy barley stalks step by step.  Maybe I will even send a note to my Richard and tell him his memory still feeds my dreams.  

Now what in the world will you choose?

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