Keep The Bucket Full

What do you do after you stand on the top of the world?

It’s the question Ann and I have been asking after Jordan Romero summited Mt. Everest last week.  At age 13, he’s the youngest climber in the world to accomplish this feat.

After you’ve achieved your dream, what’s next?

There’s a wonderful article in this month’s Success magazine about Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969.  But when he returned to earth, his life unravelled.   He churned through jobs he didn’t want. He drank. He became depressed.  His marriage failed.

Aldrin was a graduate of MIT and a career military man.  His entire life centered on service to his country.  The lunar program was the pinnacle of his career. He believed that he could rest on this achievement.  But when it was over, he was lost.

Aldrin’s failures, according to Mike Zimmerman who wrote the Success article, “forced him to recognize that a man can’t walk on the moon forever. And shouldn’t try.  At some point, you have to dream beyond what you dreamed before. So [Aldrin] set out to fix things.”

Now in his 80s, Aldrin went on to reinvent himself many times over becoming an author, motivational speaker and advocate for space exploration. He even competed this past season on Dancing With the Stars!

“I’ve had great results in turning myself into a far more productive, more enlightened, more contributing person than I think I ever was before going to West Point,” Aldrin says.  “If anything, there’ll be a motto on my tombstone:  He kept trying.”

The key for Aldrin, according to Zimmerman, is this question:  “Do we dream big enough? And when we achieve those dreams, do we dream beyond them to discover not greater greatness, per se, but deeper greatness?  The kind that enriches us, that would drive an already great man to fight past his self-destructive tendencies and build on a legend?”

Do we dream?  And do we keep on dreaming?

“What’s on your bucket list?” Ann asked.  It’s one of her favorite questions.

There was an uncomfortable silence.  And then the response: “I guess there’s nothing left really.”

I felt sad. He’s just 75.  And he’s my dad.

Contemporaries of his just returned from a six week open ocean sail across the Drake Passage. They’re planning their next adventure. A friend of ours graduated from George Washington University as a Physician’s Assistant (and valedictorian) at age 60. For the last dozen years, she has cared for the poor and the oppressed in some of the  world’s most remote corners. John Keston, recently featured in The New York Times, began running when he was 55.  He’s completed 800 races including 53 marathons. He holds the world record for his age category. He’s 85.

Our coach had us list 101 life goals.  Try it.  It’s hard.  But exhilerating too. There’s the ride through Yellowstone on the Honda Goldwing.  The river raft of the Snake River.  Biking along the Great Wall. The climb of Everest.  The islands of Greece. The nascent projects. The unmade photographs. Books waiting to be written. Stories yet to unfold.

Our buckets give shape and meaning to our lives. We wither without our buckets.

Perhaps we grow weary.  But I read about Buzz and I have hope.

Who knows what young Jordan Romero will do.  There are so many possiblities that lie before him.  May he keep his bucket full.

“Then, after doing all those things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions.”  Joel 2:28


Stop reading.

Look at your watch or set a timer.  Count up to 960 and see how long it takes.

When I did it, it took me a little over 9 minutes.  I probably could have done it faster. But what’s the rush?

960 is a pretty small measure in the scheme of things.

960 seconds is 16 minutes.

960 feet is a fifth of a mile.

960 ounces is 7 1/2 gallons.

960 words is less than four pages of text.

960 months is the average life span.


Don’t wait. Do it now.

Godot Never Comes

The voice seemed to come from far away.  “We’re going to build snow walls.”

That’s nice, I thought.  How generous of Paul!  Building snow walls at such an early hour!

I burrowed down deeper into my sleeping bag to shield my ears from the scream of the wind. Cozy, I shut my eyes hoping to drift back to sleep.

Until I realized that the “we” meant “me.”

We had been stuck at the 11,000′ camp for three days.  Waiting out the storm.  The visibility was less than 50 feet.  The wind had blown a constant 70 mph. Our cook tent had been flattened.  The walls we built yesterday were scoured thin.

Climbers climb.  And here we sat.  Our time window for the summit closing rapidly.


What a waste, I thought.

Perhaps because its genre originates in the theater of the absurd or perhaps because it resonates with my apophatic theology, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot is one of my very favorite plays.  It is the story of two men, Estragon and Vladimir, who wait expectantly, and unsuccessfully, for someone named Godot to arrive. They claim that he is an acquaintance. But in fact they hardly know him. They admit that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves, the pair eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide — anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay.”

Throughout the play, the experience of time is attenuated, fractured or sometimes non-existent. The landscape is barren. Ridiculous conversations devolve into silence. A sense of emptiness pervades.  They decide to do nothing. “It’s safer” that way, explains Estragon.

Beckett always denied that Godot was God.  But the play is wrought with biblical overtones. “We’re saved!” they cry on more than one occasion when they feel that Godot may be near. And yet, they have no idea what they might do were Godot to actually come.  When asked, Vladimir replies, “Oh… nothing very definite.”

At the end of the second act, as at the end of the first, Estragon and Vladimir agree to abandon the wait and leave.  But neither of them makes any move to go.

The storm unabated.  We continued to wait at the 11,000′ camp.

But in the waiting, we didn’t just build snow walls.  We built friendships.  We laughed and talked and slept and read.  We celebrated birthdays.  We played in the snow.  We photographed.  We met fellow journeyers from around the globe. We recounted adventures past.  And yet to come.

In the waiting, our team grew strong.

“Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting,” tightrope performer Karl Wallenda said.

I know what he means.  I so love the high summits.  The excitement of the edge is exhilarating.

But I think Wallenda was wrong.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The old Zen proverb speaks to the ordinary interstices of life.  The wire is not the most of life. Most of life is in the waiting.

“Enlightenment does exist,” says Jack Kornfield in his splendid book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  “Unbounded freedom and joy, oneness with the divine…these experiences are more common than you know, and not far away.”  But even after achieving such realization, we are faced with the day to day task of translating that freedom into our imperfect lives.  We are faced with the laundry, he says.

It is in the ordinary that the extraordinary unfolds.

We eventually agreed to leave the 11,000′ camp. Unlike Estragon and Vladimir, we actually did move.  And although we fell short of our summit, we had a magnificent adventure.

The waiting had not been wasted.

Life unfolds in the waiting.  Can we wait well?

Godot may never come.

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all; Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honorably; He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

— Rumi

Dare To Be Dumb

I struggled up the hill under the weight of my load.

No.  Let me start again.

I staggered to the base of the cliff with my day pack and a climbing harness.  There had been way too much merriment the night before.  And way too little sleep.  My efforts to head off my climbing partner before the 7:00 a.m. pick-up had failed.  And now I had to pay the price.

I stood there looking up at the route that had thwarted my attempts for weeks.  I had studied it. I had thought about it. I had worked my upper body strength. I had rehearsed the moves. I had tried putting it together dozens of times. To no avail.

The sweat poured off me.  Perhaps it was the humidity of the early August morning. But more than likely, it was the tequila still leaking from my pores.

What I hoped would be my first 5.11 was thin and delicate and balancey.  It had failed to yield to brute strength.  Finesse would be necessary.  And skill.

“On belay,”  my partner called.  (“Don’t shout,” I thought.)

My head spun – and my stomach lurched  – as I looked down to check my knot.  Yes, the tequila. Not the heat.

I stepped off the deck.

And then…  I was on the top.  Every move – perfect.

Clear Mind. No thought.  Just flow.

How easy it is to get caught up in our thinking.

Ann and I were at Jack Canfield’s Success Principals Workshop in Boston this past weekend. Jack showed us a film of two groups of people passing a basketball to one another. Before he began the clip, he instructed us to focus intensely on just one of the teams and count the number of times the ball was passed. After the clip, he asked us, “How many of you saw the gorilla?”

Huh?  A gorilla?

Only a few had seen it.  I wasn’t one one of them.

Jack showed the clip again.  And there, as clear as day, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walked in amongst the basketball players, turned toward the camera, beat its chest, and walked off screen.

How is it possible to miss a gorilla in the middle of a basketball scrimmage?

The curse of too narrow a focus, of too much thought.

Canfield also told the story of Cliff Young, a 61-year-old potato farmer who not only won the Sydney to Melbourne Ultra Marathon, but also beat the previous record for the 543.7 mile course run by nearly two days!

Cliff arrived at the start line with overalls and gumboots. He had never run a race before.  The race officials wanted to deny him entry to the race fearing that he would collapse and die.  Bad for publicity.

Cliff argued that he really did have experience.  He told the officials and the press that he had previously run for two to three days straight rounding up sheep.

The race officials eventually relented.  At a loping pace, Cliff ran continually for 5 days, 15 hours, beating all five of his competitors.

How?  He ran while his competitors were sleeping.  He didn’t know he was supposed to sleep!

The beauty of not knowing.

There is an old Buddhist classic entitled Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Beginner’s mind, according to Suzuki, springs from “the innocence of first inquiry.”  “It is the open mind, the attitude that includes both doubt and possibility, the ability to see things always as fresh and new.”

It is the mind free just to be awake.  It is the mind that is clear and curious.  It is the mind unburdened by opinion and judgment and preconception.

Of course, knowing is important.  Without knowing, we wouldn’t find our way to the grocery store.  But knowing too much – and thinking that we know – and thinking about thinking that we know(!) – rob us of the opportunity to truly see.  We miss things.  Like the gorilla.

In the state of not knowing, we have the capacity to break barriers.  And charge to the finish line.

Zen mind.  Beginner’s mind.  Don’t know mind.

Can we dare to be dumb?