Birthday musing

Last week I turned 59. I took the day off from work and made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond. It’s not far from where we live — under an hour’s drive — yet I’d not been there in the 14 years we’ve lived in New England

Henry David Thoreau made the place forever famous when, in 1845, he built a cabin not far from the shore and spent two years living deliberately. His subsequent book, Walden, tells the story of his experience and fueled the spirit of personal independence — marching to the beat of one’s own drummer.

While Walden Pond is bordered by roads and commuter rail tracks today, my walk on the path along the lake was quiet and reflective, seemingly like what Thoreau experienced, although he had to create his own path, no doubt.

My trip to Walden Pond was indeed a pilgrimage: I went for inspiration, to hear the echoes of Thoreau. As my birthdays have slowly yet inexorably brought me to this point in life, my perspective has shifted from a nearly infinite sequence of tomorrows to a limited number of todays. How I spend these days is important. Do I continue to let the river of life carry me along or is it time to pick up my drum and set my own cadence?

For the past three years, I feel I have been on a treadmill, each day a marathon with a faster pace. My days have been filled with meetings and administering the flow of  activities among corporate functions. The cartoon I imagine is a little man with an oil can, lubricating a series of interlocking gears. I yearn for time for listening directly to customers, reflection, and strategy formulation, those items that both energize me and where I feel I most contribute to the success of a company.

This treadmill and my dilemma are ending within a couple months, and I need to choose the next path. I know what Henry David Thoreau would say. Do I have the courage to take his advice and blaze an independent trail through the woods? Or should I find a more secure path, one that doesn’t expose my family to the risks of an uncertain future?

Grateful that I have a choice. Anxious about choosing.

Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. — Henry David Thoreau

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Last week marked my in-laws’ 55th wedding anniversary. They were married the year I was born, which is truly remarkable. Their relationship is a great example of a partnership of mutual respect and long-term commitment.

They quietly celebrated this year, as my father-in-law just finished a series of radiation and chemo treatments for tongue cancer. No night out or fancy dinners, as he’s relearning how to swallow. Nonetheless, I suspect the anniversary was quite special, given all they have been through this summer.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of my mother’s death. I remember the day too well, the culmination of a summer of preparation and waiting. On that Sunday morning, having lived fully to 86, she died quietly and at peace, in her home with her dog. That was just the way she wanted it to end.

While the grief has subsided, I miss her and always will. We were close and constantly chatting via e-mail or Skype. She was a good adviser: her life experience combined with a mother’s advocacy. Through my experience, she fed her interest in business, vicariously seeing a career that her age and the context of her time wouldn’t allow her to experience herself.

55 years and 86 years; both signify longevity. The paradox of such is that we come to believe it will never end. But it does, usually catching us by surprise and ill-prepared. Looking back, we may wish that we had savored and cherished the moments and experiences more.

One of the secrets of living a fulfilling life, I think, is to live in the moment. No day but today, to quote the song from Rent.

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Father’s Day reflection

On Father’s Day last year, my daughter Andrea had been home from the hospital for one day. The prior week she had undergone two surgeries to remove a tumor from the right frontal lobe of her brain. This sudden and serious experience made Father’s Day much more meaningful for me than it had ever been, transcending the timeworn veneer of the Hallmark card and new tie.

I captured my feelings in a posting on a Yahoo! Groups web site, a web site that a friend had started to efficiently inform our family and friends of the latest news. Today, I reread my words and find them to be as true and important as a year ago. You may find them helpful in shaping your perspective about what’s important.

Sunday, June 17, 2007 – For Father’s Day, Andrea gave me wonderful gifts of joy and a few life lessons:

Gratitude – One of the paradoxes of living is that our normal day-to-day routines often dull our awareness of the miracle of life. The seemingly simple biological processes of our bodies, the communities of people we see every day, even a sunny day become ordinary. This past week, nothing was ordinary nor could be taken for granted. And so we became profoundly grateful for every positive step, each gift we received, everything “normal” that could have been otherwise. I hope we can maintain this awareness and sensitivity as the days and weeks pass.

Equanimity – Andrea’s acceptance and outlook in the face of this unbelievable challenge is such an inspiration. There were moments that her spirit faltered – when we first learned of the tumor, when we were told of the need for a second surgery – yet she quickly bounced back and went on to transcend her own circumstances and reach out to others in the hospital. Her strong will and positive attitude carried us.

The Power of Support – When told of Andrea’s tumor, our world immediately turned upside down. We felt so ill prepared and alone. As word spread and people responded, an incredible community of support materialized to sustain us. And more than I expected, this web site has been amazing: stealing a few minutes from the non-stop hospital routine to read a few posts, we have been reassured and comforted by the outpouring of well wishes, prayers, positive energy, and offers of assistance that you have sent our way.

No Absolutes – I have learned there are no absolutes in brain surgery. You ask questions wanting black and white answers of assurance, yet the doctors and nurses can’t provide them. Did you get it all? Will there be any impairment or change? What’s the long-term prognosis? The answers we get are gray, probabilistic. Andrea’s outlook is excellent and better than we dared hope for a week ago. Nonetheless, she will be followed closely for at least five to ten years.

This morning, reflecting upon the experience of the past week, I am making two resolutions as a parent: sincerely telling Andrea and Grant that I love and appreciate them every single day, and focusing on the “big rocks” and not sweating the small stuff so much.

This is the best Father’s Day ever. I am blessed with two wonderful kids.

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Inspiring grace

My daughter’s high school gymnastics team completed their season with the state meet a few weeks ago. While watching girls from around the state perform, I had one of those aha moments: Gymnastics is the disciplined pursuit of muscle control to create grace, transcending the body as pure function to artistic expression.

What is it about being human that causes us to create art and recognize beauty, to strive to excel? Maslow described this as self actualization, the top level in the hierarchy of human needs.

In a world where there is so much to be glum about, a high school gymnastics meet is a ray of hope.

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Words of wisdom

The December 27th edition of Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith featured an enlightening and inspiring interview with Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. Dr. Remen is Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine and author of the books Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.

Here is a sample of the wisdom I heard from Dr. Remen, whose perspective has been shaped by her personal experience facing Crohn’s disease.

“Science defines life in its own way, but life is larger than science. Life is filled with mystery, courage, heroism, and love. All these things that we can witness but not measure or even understand, but they make our lives valuable anyway.

“I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions, and those questions have helped me to live better than any answers I might find.

“The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers, but the questions themselves have healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places. Life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road. (From Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal).

“Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe, over time, becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life. It’s possible to live a good life even though it isn’t an easy life.

“The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple
and accessible for everybody, which is who you’ve touched on your way through life, who’s touched you. What you’re leaving behind you in the hearts and minds of other people is far more important than whatever wealth you may have accumulated.

How would I live if I was exactly what’s needed to heal the world?”

If this sounds engaging and inspiring, I suggest you listen to the program.

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