Friends and Relatives

‘Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice  again.

‘No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: ‘that’s the answer?’

‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

‘Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

Alice sighed wearily. ‘I think you might do something better with the  time,’ she  said, ‘than waste it in asking riddles that have no  answers.’

‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk  about  wasting IT. It’s HIM.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.

‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head  contemptuously. ‘I dare  say you never even spoke to Time!’

‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time    when I  learn music.’

‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating.’

Time is our friend.  Time is not our friend.  Time is relative.

It takes too much time. We have time on our hands.  We have no time.

Time.  What an interesting construct.

I have always been fascinated by Einstein’s theories: the relative passages of time, the time-space continuum, the possibility of time travel.

It is the stuff of science fiction.  And yet we struggle with the reality of time every day.

I know I do.  I get to the end of the day and I wonder where it all went.  Did someone surreptitiously shorten it?  Or did I suffer a brain infarct that caused me to miss some of it?

It seems that there is never enough time.

Many years ago on a colleague’s desk, I saw a  3 x 5 index card.  On it, she had written, “Make Time Happen.”

I always liked that.  It seemed to connote a capacity to control time, to wrestle it (him?) to the ground, to make it stop and do what we want it to do.

And to a certain extent we can.  We can take charge of our time.  We can organize our days well. We can steer clear of the time sinks of email and social media. We can avoid the abyss of television.

We can use our Day-Timers; we can make a daily list of goals; we can delegate; we can apply the Pareto Principle focusing on what yields the highest and best return on our time.

But time still slips by.

We can “buy” some time.  I always liked that concept too.  A photographer friend of mine does this.  He has “bought” a year here and a year there.  He works very hard over a period of time, saving enough money so that he can stop working and focus just on his art.  For him, the time that he has “purchased” is his own.

But time still slips by.

We can live our lives mindfully, consciously, deeply and fully, filling our days with what most feeds our intellects and our souls, aware of the preciousness – and fragility – of each moment.

But time still slips by.

Photography is a particularly brutal reminder of time’s passage.  One of my boys turned 21 last week.  I look into the photograph on my desk that I took of him when he was just 7.  Where did that time go?  I see the picture of my mother on my shelf looking out at me across the years, young and fresh and hopeful, standing next to me when I was all but three.  How cruel time is, I think.

But Time doesn’t much care.

It is the riddle of the Hatter.

This much is clear:  We are all on borrowed time.  There is no time to waste.

And although we have all the time in the world, it isn’t much.

To live into – and cherish – every minute.  That’s the mission.

On rare occasions, Time seems to stop.  Like under the midnight sun, deep in the Alaska Range.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

— Albert Einstein

Staying In Fashion

I fear that fun may be a lost art.

I attended a gathering of fellow professionals a couple of weeks ago.  A fancy, elegant black tie gala. During cocktails, I found myself conversing with a colleague that I hadn’t seen since the previous year’s event.  After engaging in the requisite flexing of professional muscle, I asked, “So what are you doing for fun?”

It was if I had asked him to recite the derivation of Pi.

He cocked his head and reached into the deep recesses of his mind.  “I just joined the board of directors of the local university,” he said. “I only had to pay three thousand dollars for the privilege.”

Perhaps we should go back to the professional muscle flexing, I thought.

About a month earlier, I had given one of my Denali slide shows and presentations to a business group. When I got to the end of the talk, I summed up with a kind of “call to arms:”  I encouraged the folks in the studio audience to seek out the adventure in their own lives, to find for themselves what is compelling and fun.

When I looked out at the group – dressed in their Brooks Brothers best – I wondered for a moment whether I had lapsed into Martian dialect of sorts.  It was as if there was no recognition of the word at all.

Fun?

Has fun fallen out of fashion?

I know that my idea of fun – living in stinky polypro for weeks at a time in sub-zero temperatures – isn’t the norm.  But I’m fairly certain that there are other ways to have fun too.

When I first started my professional career, the partner who had been assigned as my mentor said, “You get three weeks of vacation.  You can’t take them all at once. And of course, no one really takes them at all.”

That seemed odd to me.  I promptly planned three weeks away.

Early on in that job, I became friends with an associate who was two years my senior.  Jack had a great sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye.  But he had no time to play.  He had his eye on the prize:  partnership.  He assured me that once he grabbed that brass ring, he would have time for frolic and detour.

Jack became a partner.  But the successive years of eighty hour weeks dulled his gaze and flattened his affect.  He forgot how to have fun.

Fun isn’t optional.  It is essential to the fullness of our lives.

My old friend Anne constantly reminds me of the necessity of focusing on the “fun-factor.” Right about now, she’s on a small boat sailing to Antarctica.

A new friend, Pete, a student of Jack Canfield’s, shared with me a portion of his vision statement for living.  “Fun, freedom and fulfillment,” he said.  I like the way he thinks.

I know that not everything is fun.  There’s no question about that.  But I hear this refrain so often:  “Wow, the weekend was fun.  Now it’s back to reality.”

If “reality” contains no measure of fun, then something is out of balance.

Without fun, we are one-dimensional. Boring.

There seems to be a pervasive belief that work and play are antithetical.  Not so I think.

Fun enriches our work.  Our very best work – the work that most reflects our essential selves – the work in which we lose all sense of time – is fun.

My mentor Galen Rowell, in his beautiful collection entitled Mountain Light, spoke to this synergy in his own work of photography:  “I entered a world with no firm boundaries between working, playing and living,” he said. How rich a world that was.

How rich a world that is.

Steve Jobs says, “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself:  If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

In his recent book Career Renegade, Jonathan Fields writes, “We are here to let our lights shine as brightly as possible, to drink in the joy of friendship and family, to serve and better the greater community, and to tap into and inspire passion in everything we do.  We are here to come alive. In doing so, we serve as an example to others that a life beyond muddling by is not only possible, but mandatory.”

We need to have fun.  And we need to have it now.  Too many folks put it off:  to when the kids are older, to when they’re out of college, to when they retire.  But the time never comes.  There are always more commitments. Events intervene. Health fails.  Life ends.

There is no time to waste.

If fun is falling out of fashion, I’m going back to bellbottoms.

Grid Creep

I was breathing hard.  And the temperature was dropping quickly.  But I was happy sitting in my Crazy Creek chair covered with my thick down sleeping bag.  Three days’ walk from the nearest road, I sank into mindless contentment with my trashy paperback.

It was New Year’s Eve and there was a fair amount of activity around base camp.  As the voices drifted in and out, I heard Zeb complain that the Internet was down.

The Internet?

We were deep in the Andes.  In a desolate landscape. At 14,000 feet.  Who brought the Internet and why was it here?

One of the great joys for me of journeying out on the edge is being out of touch.  Off the grid.

My everyday life is tied to my computer.  My BlackBerry goes everywhere with me. I am on the phone.  Non-stop.

When I go to the mountains, I go for the quiet and the solitude.  I go to “get away from it all.” One of the most exciting moments for me as I begin any trip is creating my “away” message on my phone:  “I’m away.  I don’t have access to voice mail or email.  Don’t bother leaving a message.”

When I first journeyed into the Great Ranges nearly 20 years ago, the Internet was in its infancy. Cell phones looked like shoe boxes.  Radio coverage was spotty.  If I wanted to communicate with the outside world, I would hand off a letter to an expedition going out.  Maybe the letter would get there.  And maybe not.

Traveling to third world countries even 10 years ago, I would have to search out an Internet “cafe” if I wanted to send a message.  In villages, there would be computers with old 8088 processors that would batch their emails.  And then send them out once a day.  Or maybe once a week.  Or maybe not at all!

Of course  I’ve watched the creep occur.  I’ve even participated in it.  As technology has evolved, all of us have relied on it to provide us with access to weather information.  With satellite availability, it was a small step to emergency communication.  And another small step to staying in touch with the fam back home.  And another small step to keeping your sponsors and friends and fans up to date.  And blogging and Twitter and Facebook.

And why was it that we came out here again?

If we “can’t get away from it all,”  if we can’t go “off the grid,”  how do we renew our souls?

It seems like we as a society have lost our capacity for solitude.  My 16 year old son can’t go more than a minute and a half – literally – without texting.  The head banging music at my gym causes me to think about putting Grey Goose in my Nalgene. We’ve been in restaurants and waiting rooms and even department store check-out lines where a television runs non-stop whether anyone is watching it or not.

We seem to need the “input” to feel alive. We are uncomfortable with quiet.

I am re-reading The Genesee Diary, a book I first read nearly 30 years ago.  It resonates even more deeply for me today.

The author Henri Nouwen was a professor, prolific writer and much in-demand public speaker. Feeling burned out by his schedule, Nouwen went to live for seven months in a Trappist Monastery.  In the process of planning this time “off the grid,” he struggled with with the bind in which so many of us find ourselves:  between wanting and needing solitude on the one hand, and wanting and needing to feel alive in our skin on the other.

He writes, “When I took a closer look at this I realized that that I was caught in a web of strange paradoxes.  While complaining about too many demands, I felt uneasy when none were made. While speaking about the burden of letter writing, an empty mailbox made me sad.  While fretting about tiring lecture tours, I felt disappointed when there were no invitations.  While speaking nostalgically about an empty desk, I feared the day on which that would come true.  In short, while desiring to be alone, I was frightened of being left alone.   The more I became aware of these paradoxes, the more I started to see how much I had indeed fallen in love with my own compulsions and illusions, and how much I needed to step back and wonder, ‘Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world? Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?'”

“Hello darkness, my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again.” The Sound of Silence, the song that propelled Simon and Garfunkel to stardom, was a favorite of mine. But the ability to touch the dark and silent places has become harder and harder.

With the creep of the grid, it is more important than ever to seek out – and to carve out – those moments of solitude – the places of quiet – that re-create us.

I’m going to work harder at leaving the BlackBerry behind.

What’s Next?

We’re asked the question all the time.  At the gym.  At work.  In the grocery store. When is the next adventure?  What’s next?

And, of course, there is a next already planned.  It was planned well before the last one was even started!

It’s necessary for me.  I absolutely need to have a project on the drawing board. Something to anticipate.  Something to look forward to.  I feel hemmed in without it.

I happened upon a great life partner.  Ann is of a similar ilk.  We have bike rides and marathons and diving projects and all sorts or adventure travels up our sleeves, not to mention language courses and writing projects and tango lessons. We look forward to what’s next.

The wonderful lyrics of the classic Cy Coleman song “The Best Is Yet To Come” run through our wedding album.  We believe that.

And yet we try – we really try – to appreciate every moment that is in front of us.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.”

The house needs cleaning.  The snow needs shoveling.  The homework needs attending to.  The laundry is in a heap.  The bills from the last adventure are still on the desk.  A child or a co-worker  needs to connect.  Friendships are born, relationships are nurtured, life is lived in these moments. (Sometimes they seem more like trenches). They are the only moments that we really have.

In these moments there is such beauty and grace if we only take the time to see.  And if we miss these moments, we miss much of what life really is.

In last night’s Tango class our teacher said, “Dance this step as if it is the only one you will ever dance. And then if you’re still around, take the next step.”

How hard that is.

I am haunted – as I know my own father was – by the lyrics of the old Harry Chapin ballad Cat’s In The Cradle.  Do I put off the opportunity to be present to what is here before me now for the expectation of what may or may not be?

Chapin’s refrain: “We’ll get together then.  We’ll have a good time then.” The eternal “then” that never becomes now.

Jack Kornfield in his beautiful spiritual treatise A Path With Heart says, “That which we were running around the world seeking is here at our door.  Over and over again we learn this simplicity.”

The heart of all Buddhist teaching is this:  Be here now.

And yet, oh so paradoxically,  to be here now requires the seeking of what’s next. I’ve quoted Eliot before:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The journeys out are also journeys in.  And in the journeys we not only seek fresh adventure and new experience but also the wisdom and the patience to be present to what is before us every day.

The Buddha taught The Middle Way.  A dear friend says balance is the key.  I suspect they’re both right.

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,

Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!

The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.

As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

– May Sarton