Sometimes life’s most important and significant lessons gently tap you on the shoulder when you least expect it, but need it the most. I think about this today especially, because ready or not, holidays and resolutions are just around the corner.
Meet Virginia. Her family recently hired me to write her memoirs. She is a 92-year-young woman who was born before Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, “talking” pictures were years away from being released, and penicillin had yet to be discovered. She grew up during the Great Depression, later worked for the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and married her husband one week before he left for World War II. Other than written correspondence, she didn’t talk to him, or see him, for the next three years. Her stories are fascinating and her message is clear: We have it easy. Oh, and by the way, she wouldn’t trade places with any of us.
“I am so grateful I grew up when I did.” Virginia recalled to me. “We couldn’t even buy a five-cent ice cream, yet I had everything I needed, just not everything I wanted.”
While putting Virginia’s life on paper, I came across another remarkable, yet totally different story as I was browsing the bookstore recently. In her extraordinary book, “My Year of Living with Joy,” Susan Spencer Wendel, a wife and mother, learned at the young age of 44 that she had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. As we know, this debilitating disease has no cure and most who are diagnosed live less than five years. Yet her story is anything but depressing. Rather, she describes how she learned to embrace every moment of what was left of her life. Wendel arranged special, meaningful trips for herself and husband as well as individual vacations with each of her children. She wrote letters, recorded stories and songs to her children while her voice was still strong and completed the scrapbooks she had long put off all while focusing on life’s still present opportunities. And to top it all off, she wrote this remarkable book with her one good finger on her iPhone. All 87,000 words in four short months. What inspired her? She chose to live by the quote of Lao Tzu:
“Be content with what you have
Rejoice in the way things are.”
The point of this article is that I have encountered two women, with two different stories, but a similar message: It’s not “things” that create a memorable life. It’s experiences. It’s memories. It’s attitude.
This year, my family and I have made drastic changes in our household. We are getting rid of “stuff.” We are moving and downsizing and following the leads of Virginia and Susan because it feels right and it’s time. Birthday and holiday gifts are being replaced with adventures and making memories. My birthday this year was celebrated in Seattle and walking through the gorgeous gardens in Ballard, a place up until our weekend away, I didn’t even know existed. My husband, who has long wanted to hike the Oregon portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, completed his dream just a few short weeks ago. We are making it work.
It’s funny what can suddenly prompt one to take action. Maybe this is what happens as you grow older and children start leaving the nest. While parents dread that day, I’m here to tell you that it also brings about some amazing gifts. You recognize that it’s not what you have in life, it’s what you take away. It’s not yearning what is missing, but focusing on what will add joy. And changing a lifestyle and trying new things doesn’t take courage, it really takes desire. I think the true meaning of happiness is realizing that you can be joyful without the things you thought you needed. I’d like to thank Virginia and Susan for reminding me of this simple, yet again, much needed reminder.