If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know why it’s called 37days, not 38 days or 160 weeks or a fancy fortnight or Half a Dozen Years Or So. For those who don’t know, my stepfather was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2003 and died just 37 days later:
"If I had 37 days left, would I spend my time cleaning the attic, purging computer files, or attending committee meetings? Would I have passed on my stories to my children and friends, or would I spend those days regretting not having time to do so? Am I living fully now, or am I waiting until after the kids leave for college or my annuity matures or the Colts move back to Baltimore? It will be too late then.
I started asking myself one question every morning: What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?
It’s a hard question some days.
But here’s how I answered it: Write like hell, leave as much of myself behind for my two daughters as I could, let them know me and see me as a real person, not just a mother, leave with them for safe-keeping my thoughts and memories, fears and dreams, the histories of what I am and who my people are. Leave behind my thoughts about living the life, that "one wild and precious life" that poet Mary Oliver speaks of. That’s what I’d do with my 37 days. So, I’m beginning here."
The concept of 37 days is an important one, a driver for living urgently in the now, for paying attention, for saying yes more often, for opening space for others to live their own wild and precious lives while you live your own, to the absolute fullest.
We are all of us dying–and some of us will be gone in just 37 days. Others will be, a lifetime later, still upright and breathing, but dead on the inside, having succumbed to the heartless living we are making for others, one foot in front of the other asleep and yet with our eyes open, a whole lifetime of regret or plan-making. I’ve done my share of that. "I’ll do that when. I can’t do that. I should do this, but I really love doing that." Not knowing when was now, always now.
There is always an unspoken urgency to our living, but we dampen it down most days, the cause of that urgency too hard to bear on a daily basis. And so we often come not only surprised to that end but with regrets, too–I wish I had, if only I had, I should have, why didn’t I?
Writing 37days was, from the very beginning–that first short essay sent to 12 friends in early 2005–a labor of just love–pure adoring amazing love–and the clearest intention I have ever set for myself. I only wanted to write my stories for my children, to challenge them, to provide a guidebook for living for them. It was a singular, finely honed, clear, unwavering intention. I am in a better place to die now, having written 37days for these past three years. This book is my guidebook for Emma and Tess. It is done.
After all the waiting and working, in just 37 days from today, that book–the one that emerged from those years of writing–will appear, fulfilling my intention to leave behind my stories for my girls. The fact that others have acknowledged those stories and learned from them, and laughed and cried with them provides me with such joy. My thanks for joining me on this journey of exploration and remembrancing. But that is not the reason I’m here, writing these words. No, they are for Emma and Tess, the major inhabitants of all the chambers of my heart and the entire solar system of my soul.
I’ve never done my best work before, I realized recently, because I always wanted an "out," an excuse, a way to deflect criticism. "Oh, yeah, I could have done better if the planets had been in alignment," or "It was a rush job, not my best work," or "The dog ate my homework." Not this. This book? It is the best thing I have ever done. And I truly believe it is because of the purity and clarity of its intention. I had to write this book. It had to be illustrated by readers of my blog; a literary and artistic barn-raising was the perfect way to complete the work.
It feels great to feel that way about something you’ve created. While I’m just as scared that this book will be a success (as measured by the Book People) as I am nervous that it will languish on the remainder shelf at Costco, the only real thing that matters to me is that very soon (very very soon!), I will sign a copy to Emma and I will sign a copy to Tess, and in so doing, I will give them the fullest part of me. I will give them all that I carry.
Help me celebrate
To celebrate the publication of LIFE IS A VERB, I’m asking readers (you!) to send a poem or essay or photograph or piece of art or anything at all you’d like to send–to answer the question, "What would you be doing today if you only had 37 days to live?" I’d love to hear from you. I’ll post as many as can be posted in the next 37days and give away some free copies of LIFE IS A VERB and other fun stuff in the process. Come, let’s gather around the campfire and share our last days together.
Along with input from readers, I’ll share art from the book, and more, with a post each day over the next 37days, culminating with a special free teleseminar on the day the book launches–September 2nd–at 12noon Eastern / 9am Pacific. Stay tuned for more details on that event. I’d love for you to be there.
As I number these days until the launch of the book, I’m reminded of the eulogy for a dear professor of mine, dead far too young: "‘So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom’ (Psalms 90:12). The heart of wisdom to which the Psalmist refers is not simply the external reward that comes from our paying enough attention to our days that we don’t waste them. Rather, it is something we can achieve only when counting our days provides us with an account of our life. We gain a heart of wisdom, the Psalmist tells us, when we can make sense of the days of our life, when our life has point to us.
May the counting of our days create a heart of wisdom far beyond the number. May our wild and precious lives have meaning, a point. May we give what we carry. And may we risk our significance.