Years to Life, Life to Years
Today is March 1st 2021, 20 years to the day that my mother passed away. While I’ve never shied away from talking about her when she comes up in conversation, this is the first time I had taken to writing and sharing something publicly. My motivations for doing so are less to eulogize, but more to share a formulating life philosophy that she set in motion, which her son (me) has been trying to pin down and describe for the last two decades.
This year, like most years, I’ve taken March 1st off from work, to do something in my mother’s footsteps, to experience a little bit of things that she liked. Some years I’ve gone to nurseries to indulge her love for plants. Others I’ve spent listening to records; she loved rock n roll. One year I went for a walk, joyously petting every dog I could see; she trained dogs. Others I’ve walked beaches looking for sea glass, a favorite pastime of hers. The pandemic has made this year more introverted than most, and I spent some time thinking about how I’d like to spend March 1st. I eventually decided that I was going to write the blog post that has been more than a decade in the making. While I’ve written about many thing in my blog over the years, there is one subject that I have never had the ability to write about: Joanie. My mom.
I just spent several hours this morning in a trance of sorts, reaching deep into emotional depths to write about illustrating events from my mother’s and my life that I had seldom shared in private, never publicly. Ultimately, I decided that some of it was just too personal, and that the narrative was ironically distracting from my main message.
I will do my best to summarize: in learning to die, my mother learned to live, and in my quest to learn more about her, I’ve learned something about myself, and in the process has illustrated a frame of thinking that I wish to share because I’ve come to see the power, motivation, and surprising practicality of this philosophy: Years to life, life to years.
In reality, this is not too dissimilar from the Stoic mantra of momento mori, which practically translates to “remember, you will die [and thus, acknowledge the gift of every day].” My mother was acutely aware and acknowledging of her mortality. Her character was marked by a complete lack of pettiness, wore her emotions on her sleeves, and encouraged a raw practical honesty about things that was at times arresting yet brilliantly empathetic. She lived every day as if it might be her last, taking nothing for granted. My mother was crippled by a terminal illness, but still found the courage to enjoy simple moments like watching her kids play sports, laughing deeply with her friends, or being proud of the progress of plants growing in her garden.
What I have slowly come to realize is that while we all will die, most of us do not live this way, and waste so many of our conscious hours absorbed in things that ultimately do not contribute to our reasons for living. The causes for this are complex well beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is undeniable that most of the minutes we spend every day are absorbed in adding years to our lives; earning a paycheck, making sure we and dependents are well fed, roof over our heads, etc. But we seldom focus on adding life to our years. It would make sense that we evolved to focus on the former, not the latter. To modify an over-used phrase: we are what we repeatedly do; life enjoyment then, is not an act, but a habit.
The last several years of my life I have made it a conscious habit to spend even a few minutes every day devoted to this practice, practically resulting in many more days riding bikes with my buddy James, more waves surfed, more friends re-connected with, more records listened to, more time reading books outside, and making bigger changes in my life like pursuing a daily meditation practice and removing myself from a toxic work environment to seek a new job (during the pandemic!). Without years to life, we cannot live. Without life to years, we do not live.
So with that, the mantra of years to life, life to years is a bit of a modern spin on momento mori; instead of simply acknowledging the gift of every day, we must compel ourselves to actively seeking it out, and in doing so we improve not only our own lives, but those around us. May we all live to be 100, and live in such a way that one might feel compelled to write about it, 20 years after our deaths.
Lastly, I have a request for you: when you are done reading the last words on this page, please go add some life to your day: go take a walk, pet a dog, make a child laugh, call an old friend, etc.