How To Live.

My grandmother,  7/20/1926 - 6/15/2012.

I write to you from a space of confusion coupled with adrenaline; sadness mixed with exhilaration; excitement tinged with the loneliness of loss. Over the past few weeks I lost my grandmother, spent time in the hot Arizona desert city Tucson with my Grandpa and family while laying a little lower under the radar, and when I returned found out that one of my mentors and close teammates from college was involved in a serious and terrible accident while competing in her first Iron Man in France. While on the bike portion of the race, she was hit by one of the emergency ambulances and has been in a coma with a broken pelvis and head trauma since.

If emotions are like the 88 keys on a piano, I feel as though my left hand is playing a slow, rumbling sad song as a background melody, while the opposite side of the same keyboard is dancing out a light staccato tickling, my right hand moving quickly and lightly over the upper sets of keys on the piano surface. Emotions aren’t simple, nor are they serial; part of the complexity of humanity is the ability to feel multiple things all at once.

The reality of death and dying makes me ever more curious about the act of living and the aging process. What does it mean to live? How will we design our lives, as Richard Wurman has asked, and what will our legacy be? I’m reading and re-reading some of my favorites, from Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning to a book by Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne and the art (and act) of living. Throughout it all I can’t help but think:

How do we deal with life, the precious, wonderful resource and thing that we have?

Or rather, how do we live?

HOW TO LIVE?

“The twenty-first Century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hours trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages, and pods brings up thousands of individuals fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarize, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.”

So begins Sarah Bakewell in her book, “How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer,” (2010).  Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a Renaissance writer (1533-1592), was thought to be the first 'truly modern individual' credited with cataloging a series of essays about his thoughts and experiences--or, simply, whatever was in his head. The Essays is comprised of 107 roaming explorations, about 1000 pages.

Montaigne is considered to be the inventor of the idea of an “essay"--of “writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity,” and is referred to as "The father of all bloggers." As Bakewell and others have described, the idea of writing about oneself, and ones’ thoughts, actually had to be invented. It has not been around forever: in fact, before the Renaissance, it was believed that thoughts were instead voices from the Gods, whispers from the heavens, and that controlling or unpacking them was not something to do.

The idea of a personal “I” statement—an essay, in its truest form (“I write about myself”) – is a novelty, born of the mid-1500s. Many of Montaigne’s peers thought him silly or self-indulgent for his writings; today, thousands of readers pick up Montaignes’ writings and are astonished and excited by his work—because they see themselves, or rather what it means to be human—reflected in his musings. And today we’re presented with a proliferation of internet bloggers, of the thoughts of millions of brains crowding into the sea of content creators, declaring our voice and opinions in what seems, at times, a desperate attempt to be heard.

Montaigne was obsessed with the idea of death, and curious about human lives, past and present. “He wondered constantly about the emotions and motives behind what people did,” Bakewell writes, and he spent time writing not what he thought people should do but rather documenting his experience and describing what he himself did in each scenario; describing himself and humanity as a set of constant contradictions that present “a self-portrait in constant motion.” From the chapter “Don’t Worry About Death,” to “Be Born,” to “Question Everything,” the set of essays reads as a hundred answers to the single question:

How to live?

In an attempt at an answer, written through a series of essays and accounts of his experiences with death itself, he realizes that "life is more difficult than death; instead of passive surrender, it takes attention and management." And, Bakewell continues to summarize: "It can be more painful."

As I analyze, reflect, and write, I found myself scratching out my own list; my own criterion for what I want from this finicky thing I’ve been given, this life. Wandering around the world, writing, running, thinking, touching, laughing, dancing: what’s most important? What is not important? What should we be doing? Or rather, what are we doing? And if given the choice, how will I live? Are there any criteria that resonate across all that I do?

Staring out of the window, taking pause between propelling multiple events forward and cataloguing the life of a company, I stop to muse and wonder, am I living as I want to? If I had to write a list of instructions for how to live, what would be on my list? And before I knew it, before I could actually think about it, I leaned into it, started scrawling across my notebooks, tears down my cheeks for my grandmother and for everyone who, inevitably, must die, including myself; and I thought, this is what I want.

This is how I want to live.

Standing on the opposite side of the Golden Gate on Friday, watching the morning fog lift over the city. 

MY UNFINISHED LIST: OR, HOW TO LIVE. 

Marvel. Cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity. Stare at the stars. Question the formation and root of everything. Realize what a strange and weird world it is. Find things that are awe-inducing, and continue to chase them.

Do as much as you can. Don’t retreat from not knowing into complacency. Use inability and ignorance as fuel for learning, and propel yourself into a world of wonder by constantly expanding the foundation of knowledge you have. Do it. Because nobody cares what you didn't do.

Hold hands. Grasp the palm of another individual. Stay arms distance apart. Hold your sister’s hand when she crosses the street as a child. Hold it in middle school, when she looks up to you with big eyes, watching you. Hold it again when she graduates from college. Put your hand into your momma’s hand when she’s 50, 70, and 100. Brush her hair, and hold your head up high when she can't fix her undergarments anymore. Smile and laugh and touch, touch, when you can. Take your grandfather to a nail salon and watch his face change to bewildered relaxation as someone, a stranger from the new century finally finds a way to take care of him, a man who was born in the 1920's and defines his life as taking care of others without saying a word.

Put your hands out for your colleagues, hug them when they’ve done a good job. Forget protocol. Touch the world around you. Rub the ribbed fingerprints of your skin into dirt, concrete, flowers, food, water, and tile. Pull hard on your hands, feel the leathery rub against a weathered sailor; feel the satiny softness of a painted lady. Feel the world. Stand on your hands if you can. Slow down, and spend time wordless on a porch, rocking back and forth with other souls, and reach out and touch them. And then touch the person you love, gently, with only your hands, Use your hands, because they’re one of the best presents we got when we were blessed with human bodies. Say what you need to say with your hands.

Wash someone’s feet. This is a biblical reference, and I did it for the first time when I was in Bible Study in high school. I did it again in a yoga retreat, and again for a friend who was having an impossibly difficult year. Put yourself and your body below another person, and do them the highest honor: clean the ground upon which they work. Restore their foundation. Love.

Be helpless. It’s okay. You’re allowed. You have permission to not know what you’re doing. I feel like I’m perpetually in tension between part of me that knows what I’m doing and the other part of me that has no clue what I’m doing. I’m less and less convinced I’ll ever have the answers. Perhaps it always is an “in-between” state. Perhaps I’ll never know. I don’t know.

Breathe. Wonder in the design of the capacity of your lungs. Feel the rhythm of 12 pairs of ribs rising and falling in synchronicity, back and forth, every day. Sometimes you don't get to keep all of your ribs, but you'll still work. This I can promise you, because I happen to know. Feel what it is like to breathe hard, and hurt; drink in hot steam over a mug of tea, hum to yourself while lying on the floor and listen to the buzz of your chest cavity say that it’s here.  Tell me what it feels like when you hold your breath; then turn to breathe quickly and fast and watch your heart race to catch up with the self-induced cadence. Revel in a sneeze, and laugh at the idea of laughter in it's compression abilities. Breathe out, slowly. Sigh.

Say Hello. Wave. Say hi. Be animated. Nod to your bus driver, greet the taxi driver, and give smiles instead of money to the homeless man on your street. Greet your colleagues and business partners with a wave hello and a cheery demeanor.

Use your body. We are embodied souls. The increasing knowledge and information economy renders us each stationary sitters, squatting in front of computers, brain on platters, the micro-action of mouse clicking our collective strenuous activity. It’s no wonder that we have an obesity epidemic and articles in the New York Times that marvel at playgrounds for adults (Is this seriously being touted as an amazing thing? Let’s do much, much more!).

This particular line item relates to my obsession with movement and thinking; we are more than brains on platters or heads on lifeless sticks; in fact, movement is critical to thinking and creativity, and the lack of movement is alarming. What will be the result of a generation that did all their work sitting down? Will we all think differently? I find it fascinating that we are looking to tools like FitBit and Nike+ and RunKeeper as ways to track and measure our fitness because we haven’t yet figured out a way to re-incorporate it in our lives. Somehow we became stationary and we haven't figured out that all we have to do is use our bodies and we'll be both fitter and happier. Let's not pretend it takes a genius to figure that one out. Movement shouldn’t be an afterthought or an addition; somehow, it needs to be a part of our lives. More on this in a later essay.

Build things. Put your hands, body, mind, and imagination together and make something come to life. Build a project, an idea, a team, an event, a product. Have something to point to. Make it happen. Learn how to execute. This will teach you more than having an idea ever will. Don't lean back in the chair and direct until you've built something from start to finish with your own hands and mind.

Forgive. Let go. Seriously, wash it off. Go down to the river, dunk yourself, and move on. The more we hold onto, the more we become entrenched and gripped in the reality of anger and regret. Life is short, bittersweet, and may or may not go according to any plan. We’re lucky if it goes our way a few times.

Work on yourself. Do everything you can to make you a better you. The quality of your life is related to the quality of you.

Find, discover, and test your resolve. Become resilient. Keep going. And then, keep going. How do you know the depths of your abilities if you're not willing to test them? Find your edges, and lean hard against them.

Make yourself your favorite place to be. Reality is what you see and hear, and if you’re not happy, the world is a lonely place to be. Do yourself a favor and figure out what makes you smile, tick, mad.

Be arrogant. Stick up for yourself. No one else is your advocate except for you. If you won’t do it, who will?

Say what you’re really thinking. Stop beating around the bush. Don’t sugar-coat things. Be direct. Be clear. Embrace the awkward by looking at it square on.

Discover and taste your fears. Where are they coming from? Jump off from that platform and run into--not away from--your fears. Fear gains strength when you avoid it; it loses energy when you embrace it. So stand tall, dive to the bottom of the fear pool, swim in it, revel in it, learn from it. Feel the seaweed-bottom of your dreams, taste the way disappointment feels and rocket-launch yourself from the depths of this murkiness. Use it as fuel.

Learn new things as often and as quickly as you can. Your brain is like plastic, not elastic: it will continue to shift, bend, grow. Intelligence is like compound interest for the brain – everything you learn layers and multiplies against what you’ve already stored up, so build a fucking bank in your brain.

Deal with emotions. We are not rational beings. We are emotional beings. We feel. Every marketing long-form sales letter begins with feeling words, and stories are designed to trigger particular memories because they describe the dissonance between what is and what could be; this gap is the space for feeling, and feeling drives much of what we do.

Why do you buy coffee? You feel tired. Why do you sit down? Your legs hurt. Why do you eat? Because, you feel hungry. Stop ignoring your fucking feelings and learn how to say what they are and learn how to have a good relationship with yourself. There's a great exercise for this. It's called "I feel this because that." Fill in "this" and "that" every time you have a feeling. Start getting comfortable with naming the feelings.

Write things down, or find a way to record things so that you can delight in how things change.

Change your scenery. Discovery happens from breaking through thresholds, perceptual and real. Change your context, and find out what happens.

Give things up. Abhor addictions. Learn how to be a different version of you. If addictions control you, who is really behind your behavior?

Skip. Swing your legs up, out and around. Leap off the ground. Get air. Feel what muscle tension is, and coil and spring. Do it down a crowded city block. Bonus points if you skip while holding hands and saying hello to folks you pass.

Smile often, even if you don’t feel like it. If you can’t smile, start skipping. I think it’s impossible to skip without smiling. Teach yourself how to transform your emotions despite the worst of things. Find something to smile about every day and you'll build a habit out of it.

Let yourself cry. When you’re hurting, let it out. The best way over and emotion is through it, not around it. You’re hurting for a reason, and you’re human, and it’s okay.

Define your own legacy. Say no to things that don’t fit into that. Figure out what you want. Don't know what it is? Do something until you figure out what it is.

Seek out the invisible. Find the patterns in your life you’re not seeing. Use them to prompt marvel, above.

Do what seems impossible, because then you’ll know that the edges of your capabilities are much further out that your brain allowed for.

Stare at something so long that it becomes strange and weird, and say words over and over again until they sound weird.

Question everything. Ask Why and How and What and When and never stop. Don’t give up on 5-year old you, because he or she was probably pretty smart.

Chase an ephemeral quantity of time. Hold an hour in the palm of your hands, and then count the moments in a minute as oranges in a box. Learn math. See magic in numbers. Turn time from numbers into other units, and build a day according to those units. I will spend my day in five luxurious swim units, and one forest wander. I will walk until I sit, and then I will sit until I lie. Forget time.

Play. Your play is what makes you you. Don’t play endless computer games behind a screen, but get outside and play with the world we’ve already been given. "When you stop having fun, you might as well be dead," says Hemingway.

And don’t be frightened of death. It happens to all of us, we will die, and death will snatch us randomly and unpredictably when we’re not expecting it, and that’s okay. We will all die.

And counter to that, we all have the opportunity to live.

So live. 


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25 Responses to How To Live.

  1. Sam Davidson says:

    Fantastic, Sarah. This is probably the best bucket list I’ve seen (even thought you didn’t call it that). To hell with lists that include jumping off things or writing books. I’m all for helping us live better and more fully in the present and this essay does just that. May we all live deeply and read this list regularly as a reminder of how to do that.

  2. Beckie says:

    How did you know I needed this today? Thank you. @Sam Davidson I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. Tanner says:

    Sarah, this is an inspired post, a truly transcendent piece of writing in my opinion, and I’m not just saying that cause I like all your work. Some of the things you talk about in here really touch on questions that have forever gone and will probably forever go unanswered, and why is that a bad thing? The pursuit of purpose and the thirst for meaning are what drive us all to transcend our own narrow visions of our world. A couple of my favorites: Learn new things as often and as quickly as you can, Discover and taste your fears, Say what you are really thinking, Wash someone’s feet. Even if we just worked on those four the impact on the universe could be meteoric! Thank you so much for giving so freely of yourself. As you say, in a world of me, me, me, me it is refreshing to see something focused outwardly and so in tune with how to fully experience this human experiment. Thanks Sarah, truly.

  4. Beatiful Sarah, Absolutely beautiful.
    Great loss – like that of your grandma – and great adversity – like that of your friend and mentor right now – can lead to great things.
    It’s uncomfortable and not kosher to talk about all the wonderful things that pain and death can do for the people who are around it.
    You’ve given me inspiration today by writing this amazing post. You honor your grandma and friend with this gift and I’ll do my best to honor them as well.

  5. Nayla says:

    Love it! Thanks Sarah for that great energy!

  6. Roseann says:

    Sarah,
    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m no stranger to losing people very close to me, and, yes, it’s amazing how many conflicting emotions you can experience at the same time.
    Your post has that urgency of “Hurry up and live as fast as you can”! I mostly feel that you’re telling us to reach out and give our love to others, because that’s what we all have that we can give; to others and to ourselves.
    I hope your friend recovers as quickly and completely as possible.
    I received some advice from a grief counselor that helped when all the emotions and thought were hitting at one time ~ she said: “All you have to really remember right now, is to breathe, blink and swallow.”
    Take care of yourself,
    Roseann

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Roseann. I wonder about that “urgency to live,” craving I have, yet at the same time “desire to just be.” It’s an interesting predicament. All the best to you.

  7. CJ Adams says:

    Amazing, Sarah. Too often we forget that one of the most precious things we have is the ability to live.

  8. Lonnie says:

    Sarah,
    This is beautiful. That was a pure joy to read and absorb.
    Thank you very much for sharing this.

  9. Thank you Sarah for tackling one of the last societal taboos. Your post reminded me of Joan Didion’s “The Year Of Magical Thinking” which you might find helpful in dealing with your loss. Also, by articulating what is in your head and heart so eloquently, you cheered me up no end today because what’s inside me feels very much the same! I know we’re not alone in the way we approach life, but it’s always exciting to come across like-minded folks who are not afraid to embrace life fully, don’t shy away from feelings and are comfortable being themselves, unedited.

  10. Clara says:

    Sarah, you have my sincere sympathy for the losses you’ve suffered. They will knock the wind out of you, I know. Writing has always been a part of my healing process, and it seems clear from your words that it’s a source of comfort for you as well.

    I’m now in midlife, and the questions you outline are as vivid now as they were when I was closer to your age. Of course, as we age, they become even more urgent. I suspect that your thoughtful and heartfelt answers will hold true for the long term. Among my own list of answers is “don’t depend on circumstances to dictate your happiness.” This doesn’t mean that I don’t seek to change unhealthy situations or create more wholesome environments, but that I know that how I respond to a situation is more important to my happiness than the situation itself.

    Thanks for this lovely post.

  11. Amy says:

    Thinking of you as you navigate this grief.

    This post is amazing. It makes me want to take the time to write my own list of ways to live and get clear on what I’m doing, why and how. Thank you for writing it.

  12. Alex says:

    Thank you so much for this post. Amy (above) shared it and I read it three times, crying quietly at my desk. I hope to continue to cultivate my own list of what it means to be alive. The process also started for me when I became my grandmother’s caretaker as her life began to come to an end. She faced death head on and instilled in me some important lessons, such as these.

    • Alex says:

      Also, I’m so sorry for your loss. Her memory will live on in you, and she will always be part of you. But the pain of loss is real and so difficult. Namaste.

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  14. Jody says:

    I love your Unfinished List! Thank you for sharing and inspiring. :)

  15. Divya says:

    Beautiful. Come skip with me in the Mission!

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