My Last Year
By Richard Paul Hinkle
Some epiphanies come forward with a flashpoint of insight, but most are earned by means of time, slogging effort and an expanded awareness of the difference between what is life-altering and what is window dressing. As I was approaching my 40th birthday, I responded to an inner, core demand to have a better understanding of what my priorities were, and why. While I wrestled with the means to that worthy end, an old quote kept burbling away, just beneath the radar, just outside of my conscious understanding. Finally, it worked its way up through the gunk, glaring at me as if to demand, this is the direction you must take.
The quote that was to guide me initially through my year of grudging enlightenment was vintage Dr. Samuel Johnson. That English lexicographer once acerbically observed, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
The thought that that engendered was this: Who can distinguish superfluous from silly better than a person who knows he’s going to die sometime this year? You’ve got cancer, you’ve got six months to live–all of a sudden it is damnably vital to know true from false. So in order to live whatever the rest of my life might entail more consciously, I created a year-long exercise for myself, which subsequently came to have the sobriquet “an exercise in conscious living.”
When we most employ the term “exercise,” we’re talking of tuning and toning muscle. Actually, all of our “selves” need to be tuned and toned, not just the physical. In order to function fully, our mental selves, our social selves and our spiritual selves also require regular exercise, feeding, nurturing and, above all, use.
When we combine those selves, and treat them as a unit, we come up with an exercise for the whole of our life. That’s one thing my year of living consciously taught me. To say that it dramatically changed my life is an understatement nearly British in magnitude.
The wisdom a close friend found as he approached his own death aided my decision to go forward with the exercise I had contemplated. Ed had been given three months to live, but battled the cancer on his own terms for better than three years before succumbing. We didn’t know, of course, but Ed had just six weeks left when I visited him as I began living 1986 as if that was all I had left.
“If I try to live this year as if I were a terminal patient, with only these 12 months to live, I think I can learn something important about how to construct the rest of my life,” I explained to Ed in his north Georgia home at the beginning of January. He agreed that it would be a worthy, useful exercise. “I know,” he said, “that my illness has taught Anne and me and the kids that when we sit down to chat, we all know that there’s no longer time to waste talking about trivial, unimportant things. I’m not saying that that lesson is worth dying for, at least not today! But it is a lesson well worth learning.”
Impending death focuses and intensifies our attention like no other event. We know that old age offers (but does not guarantee) wisdom in return for the years, often changing our values. In the face of death, time takes on new meaning.
In April of 1986, I was going to be 40. I didn’t wish to wait until 60 or 70 to gain the insights of experience, and I certainly did not wish to stand on the threshold of death to restructure my sense of time and pace. I wanted to discover that which I would hold most dear right then, when I could most fully appreciate it. I wanted to infuse my life with a focus and an intensity that my still youthful energies would be equal to. Most of all, I wanted to be like an old man I knew, whose knowing and contented smile suggested the cat that got the mouse.
I began in January with the mind set that Dec. 31 would be my last day on earth. By recording my life in journal form through the year, thinking of it as my last, I hoped to come to a greater understanding as to which things were essential and which mere fluff. This was as true for my ideas, my mental self, as it was for my other selves–the physical, the social, the spiritual.
The results quickly began manifesting themselves in my life. I found myself quicker to say no to projects that required my time without adequate compensation, financial or otherwise. Mowing the grass, as you might have guessed, became less important than spending time with my wife, our friends or just by myself. Money was subordinated to time. My time.
The first few months taught some tough lessons. In a small California farming town, a 15-year-old boy vowed to give his heart to his girlfriend, who had been diagnosed with degenerative heart disease. Weeks later, a blood vessel in his brain burst, the blood and tissue compatibility were there, and the young lady received his heart and a few years’ reprieve on her life. On Valentine’s Day, my friend Ed died. In April, my wife Bev suffered her second miscarriage, a devastating loss no matter how much we reminded ourselves that Mother Nature was trying to tell us something.
But ebb eventually turned to flow. A May entry chronicled a fine day: “Today came close to my ideal of what a day should be. A pleasant morning of writing, a light lunch (fettuccine and a glass of Pinot Noir), followed by some quiet reading in the hammock, a bit of sunshine and an invigorating swim.
“The early evening was spent with friends at a Mexican restaurant, inexpensive and within walking distance of our home. Later, Bev and I snuggled up in bed to watch the A’s take the Toronto Blue Jays on a Dave Kingman home run in the tenth. Exciting baseball. Exciting snuggling.”
One of the three great lessons of my year-long exercise was learning to give good friends the same or greater respect in my date book as I gave clients. The old habit of giving lip service to “Let’s get together sometime” was replaced by my pulling out my calendar and saying, “Let’s pick a day. Now.”
The second great lesson came in the form of Hinkle’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson says that “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” What I learned in my year of living consciously was that “work contracts to fit the time allotted for its completion,” which is nothing more obscure than the principle of the deadline. But it works so well that I have, since that year, compacted my work day from eight or 10 hours to four or five, and find that not only do I come to work refreshed and eager, but I also get as much or more accomplished, of equal or better quality, in half the time!
The third great lesson was learning to live in and fully be conscious of the moment, a lesson that requires ongoing awareness, as it’s so easy to get trapped in the notion that life can really be lived at some later date. Uh-uh. No way. A September entry: “I could die tomorrow, next year, or 40 years from now. I have no way of knowing, so I’ll continue to try to make each day stand for something good in my life. I’d like the remainder of my life to reflect the last few days, a delightful combination of hard work (the rock wall); peaceful respite (reading/sleeping in my hammock); the rejection and acceptance of my writing; and the sharing presence of good friends (dinner with John and Kathy Saturday, a huge volleyball party yesterday). I am filling my moments in a manner that I surely ought to be pleased with my life at its conclusion, be it days or decades from now.”
This is the lesson that Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, encapsulated so artfully when she wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I particularly love the verb “spend” there, for hours and minutes are the true currency of our lives.
The final entry in my journal, on Wednesday, 31 Dec.: “A frosty morning, about 30 degrees. A nice day to die. The acceptance of death is a point of great calm, peace and serenity. I don’t know what’s on the other side of physical death. I’d like to believe that there are answers over there. It would be comforting to believe that there is a pleasing existence after death. That’s always been the lure of religion. But I am not sure that is so.
“Thus, if we have constructed lives of love, courage, and depth, if we have given of ourselves to others, then perhaps our lives will have a meaning, and something of value will live on in those whose lives ours have touched. That’s the ‘meaning of life’ to my way of thinking.”
From the December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.