It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin.
One of my closest friends is living with terminal cancer. I selected the verb very consciously here, and “living” is exactly what I mean. As we talked the other day about the latest developments in her treatment plan, she said, “I no longer look at this as a journey or a battle. I am simply living my life.”
My friendship with Elizabeth has been a long and beautiful dance of conversation, back and forth, between the two of us. We both love words. We choose them carefully and aren’t afraid to use them to the fullest extent needed. But we don’t toss them around lightly, either. In high school, my parents used to say that we talked so fast they could hardly understand us. We’ve never been at a loss for things to say to one another. Yet, we are also very comfortable sharing silence.
Early on, we dubbed our most cherished conversations as “1:00 a.m. chats,” named after the hour at which we seemed to get to the root of whatever story, fear, hope or secret most needed sharing. Over our 31 years of friendship, I couldn’t even begin to guess how many of these chats we’ve had.
We live 1,424 miles apart now (yes, I checked on google maps), making our face to face conversations far less frequent than in our younger years when we were just down the road from one another. We do visit periodically, but in the interim we are adept at substituting phone and text messages to keep our conversation ever present. When Elizabeth learned last year that her cancer had metastasized, those texts and phone calls began to feel like a life line. We have chatted during blood transfusions and chemo. We have texted during pedicures and our kids’ sporting events.
Not too long ago, we met in Northern California for a weekend away together. The small house we rented had a lovely deck with a hot tub overlooking a beautiful olive orchard. Each night after dinner, we sat in the hot tub watching the moon rise and talking. On our last night, we turned on a digital recorder and let it run as we talked. Back and forth, with candor and laughter, we narrated the story of how we met— the history of our friendship— for our kids, we said, but in truth mostly for ourselves.
Meandering, as we always do, to wherever the conversation leads us, Elizabeth began to tell me of a recent morning when her husband was getting up before sunrise to hike a trail in the Blue Hills near their home in Massachusetts. Tired, she was just about to wish him a happy hike when she changed her mind and decided to join him. She told me the sunrise had been gorgeous that morning and the moment with her husband at the trail’s summit an irreplaceable memory now, both for her and for him. She looked at me incredulously and said, “Why did I even think twice before deciding to go? Why would I want to miss that moment?”
In the dance of conversation, Elizabeth had unearthed an important question, and we both knew it. Why miss the moment? We actually repeated it several times as we sat in the hot tub, as if imprinting it on our brains. After all, it’s not easy to break habits of routine or responsibility. So we said it to one another almost like a chant: “Why miss the moment? Why miss the moment?” Under the full moon and star-filled sky, everything seemed so obvious and clear.
It’s never too late to start; it’s never too early to begin. So why miss the moment?
When my mind is in tangles, I walk. Sometimes it seems that there can’t possibly be enough miles in front of me to sort through the cobwebs, the demons of doubt, the frustrations or sadness or fear that sent me to the trail in the first place. Pounding the earth with my feet, I envision myself physically hammering out the swirls and tangles and figuring out the feelings that won’t easily give themselves up for understanding.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not always a grumpy walker. Many days when I hit the trail, my feet feel like they are floating above the earth, like I am gliding effortlessly across the landscape. On these days, my heart does a happy dance with every step. Akin to a “runner’s high,” I would have never thought this state was achievable through walking. But here I am, a former runner, and an now an avowed walking addict.
I’d have to check my baby book to find out exactly when I literally started walking, but I feel like I only started truly walking in earnest– as a practice of meditation and awareness, as much as an exercise– back in 2007 when I was training for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for the Cure for the first time. I didn’t want to be under-prepared for the 20 miles a day of walking, so I over-prepared instead. If you follow the suggested 24 week training plan, you walk 585 miles to prepare yourself. I added at least a few extra for good measure. If you then count the 60 miles you log at the actual event, you have put in 645 miles of trail time in a 6-month period.
Walking is kinder and gentler on my joints than running, but obviously, the downside is that it takes much longer to walk ten miles than to run them. Yet, as I have gotten deeper and deeper into the practice, the time seems to work in my favor, forcing me to settle and calm into a steady, intentional rhythm. I know I’ve found it when my gait begins to have the same easy feeling of comfort that I have when I’m rocking on a porch swing, as if I could go forever. And in losing myself to this rhythm, I find myself more aware of everything around me, which in turn seems to magically loosen the knots in my mind, at least to some degree.
Once I start noticing things, I can’t stop. I never know what first will catch my attention and take me away from myself. Sometimes it’s a long wait. But eventually, it happens. Sunlight, shadow, dragonflies, chirping birds, irises in bloom that remind me of my grandmother, lilypads on water, geese with their goslings, the smell of lilacs. I know I’ve achieved walking nirvana when even ordinary weeds seem to leap out at me as if an emblem of ultimate beauty.
Forgive me for possibly seeming to portray walking as a panacea for all ills. No, it can’t fix everything. And while it happens to be my passion, it may not be for the next person. But my theory is that we all have something that will have this effect on us, if we let it find us.
Sometimes it seems like there aren’t enough miles in front of me to sort out my tangles. But almost always, by the time I finish, it seems like there were just enough.
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Huge thanks to Steve Kaul & The Brass Kings, for permission to use “Big Jim’s Blues” from their new CD “Machine” as the soundtrack to this story.
A lucky moment, I caught Wangari’s smile while photographing a meeting at UNEP in 1987.
Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.
Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”
Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya. She always greeted me with a smile. Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy. She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received. At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now. I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.
My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time. I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago. And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness. The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her. Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.
In this day and age, with all the demands on our time, resources and energy, many of us learn to stay afloat and keep our sanity by drawing our boundaries– by “just saying no.” While boundaries are important and knowing when to say no is an invaluable skill, I would like to extoll the virtues of “yes.”
A recent project took me to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to film my friend Barbara McAfee singing her song “Yes.” I heard her introduce this song in concert once, saying that when she began writing music as a twenty-something, one of her first compositions was entitled, “No!” She said it took her 25 years to write “Yes!” I laughed and thought of the classic behavior of two-year-olds, when they discover the power of the word “no” and can hardly be convinced to answer a question with anything else.
But what about “yes?” In the fast-paced daily grind, do we lose sight of the many things– big and small– that make us make us leap for joy, that comfort us when we need it, that sustain us? Barbara’s song is a jubilant expression of just these kinds of moments and a beautiful reminder to pause and “just say yes.”
For the video, Barbara’s friend Tom Peter, The Tree Guy, known in the Twin Cities for his artistry with wood, loaned us his Crystal Canoe and joined us to help with filming. I had no idea what a stir a seemingly invisible canoe could cause. Everyone who saw us was mesmerized, from toddlers to hipster teens to leather clad motorcycle dudes to gray-haired grandparents. Each and every passer-by broke into a huge smile and stopped to talk, both to us and to one another. Many even sang along as we filmed around the lake.
As I witnessed the laughter, the conversation, and the joyful commotion– not to mention the sunlight on the water, the heron taking flight and the lily pads in bloom– I knew I was in the midst of a golden “yes” afternoon.
In 2002, one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her late thirties, with a wonderful spouse and two young sons, I watched as she navigated surgery, chemo and radiation, as so many women do. Beyond the grueling aspects of treatment itself, there was the enormous heart space to travel: How do you talk to your kids about having cancer? How do you maintain your closest relationships when you are going through something most of those around you can’t understand first-hand? Bigger, yet, how do you face your own mortality?
My friend and I live more than 1,000 miles apart. When you’re that far away, you can’t pitch in to do the things that are most tangible– picking up the kids from school, running errands, making dinners. Yet, I desperately wanted to give her my support and love. So I went to the archive of our past history together– old letters I had saved from our decades of friendship, beginning in high school, spanning through college and our early years in the work world, to getting married and having children.
Each week, I sent her a package containing one year’s worth of her letters to me, beginning in 1980 and ending in 2000. I marveled that we had traded letters in every single one of those years. I was awestruck by the depth of what we shared with one another. I lamented the fact that we slowly stopped writing real letters with the advent of email and arrival of our children. I copied each letter (no, i didn’t part with the originals!) and wrote commentaries in the margins about our escapades. I laughed and cried as I revisited memories and hoped that they would be a good distraction for her after each weekly chemo treatment.
My tiny window into her world during that year made a huge impression on me. Since then, so many more of my friends have been diagnosed. Gradually, I have become more and more involved in the cause to help find a cure for breast cancer and support women going through it.
I always knew that someday I wanted to tell the story I had witnessed. Yet, often, the stories that are closest to our heart are the most difficult to express. It wasn’t until I saw a neighbor of mine– newly diagnosed and on a walk after chemo– that the words to this story came tumbling out. Though it is written specifically about women and breast cancer, the message applies to any major life challenge. Every picture and every journal entry is from a woman who has been through it. More than 30 women shared their private moments and thoughts to offer comfort to those currently on the path. . . one step, one true step, at a time.
Don’t we all wish we had the 20-20 vision of hindsight in the moment an event is unfolding? We would have all the insight that retrospection brings, without having to wait. I used to believe that if we thought hard enough, studied and scrutinized long enough, then we could do all the right things, take the shortest route, make no mistakes. Of course, life doesn’t work that way. And if we believe in that fallacy, then we’ll spend lots more time feeling we’ve failed than feeling we’ve succeeded.
In truth, hindsight can only come with time and reflection. Often, it’s only by looking back with the perspective of distance that we can see the turns we missed, or the steps that could have made life easier, or the ones we took that were right on the money, even though we made them without fully knowing which direction was best. Perhaps that’s the point, after all– that we cannot know everything. We can only do the best we can in each moment. It’s not about being perfect but about learning.
Maybe the real purpose of hindsight is to help us make sense of what we’ve been through, to sort through the messy details of the ups and downs and turn them into a story with a beginning, middle and end. And, ultimately– if we are willing– to offer our story to someone else. Because in sharing our own story we can help others feel less alone, more connected, more empowered or simply comforted in the midst of their own moments of not knowing. In return, we might be lucky enough to have someone else’s story reach us at the moment we need it most.
We all have wisdom to share, usually more than we realize. Start telling your story. Trust me, it matters.