At first, it was hard to say exactly what was slipping away. Staring into the eyes of my 84-year old grandmother, something had changed. It is no secret, like a thief in the night Alzheimer’s has been stealing away her memories for years, but no, this was something all together worse. Aptly nicknamed the “pit-pull in lipstick” the Myra Jo I grew up always had a twinkle in her eye and fiery disposition. At her foundation was the barely contained zest for adventure, an alert awareness of every small rock and creature underfoot, a true passion for life. My friends, this is something I took for wholly for granted and what I was completely unprepared for her (and I) to lose. This disease is a reverse aging of the most unwanted kind, stripping her down to a childlike state and leaving her trapped in a failing body. Every few weeks we are all getting to know a new Myra. She is thankfully incredibly sweet and innocent but she no longer is fueled by a fire to know more, be more, experience more. So as I tucked her into bed during my last visit, I knew it was the last time she would recognize me and surprisingly more heartbreaking, the last time I would recognize her.
Perhaps it is because I have always seen so much of myself in my Grandmother that watching her fate unfold is all the more terrifying. Like shipwrecked passengers, we are left to cling to what remains of this incredible woman while we helplessly watch as her ship goes down. If I am to suffer a similar fate, I will be dammed if I don’t live to the fullest and go down fighting.
Whether inherited, learned, or cultivated, I have always been a passionate person. I tend to let my fire run so deep and burn so hot that it comes close to consuming me. Some days my passion fills me to the brim and I am overflowing with joy while others it is a burden that exhausts me to the point of collapse. It is almost impossible to explain someone not driven by this same insatiable passion why I am always giving just a little too much of myself and yet I still continue to seek opportunities to give more. Thankfully, I have managed to find a career in which I can direct my intensity and invest myself in the movement towards positive change that Paul Hawken’s appropriately calls the “blessed unrest”. As I stare into the fading eyes of Myra Jo, I feel a sense of urgency to carry on her torch and chase as many dreams as possible.
In the last month I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from two individuals whose lives have inspired many of my passion filled endeavors, Will Allen of Growing Power (read my article about him
) and Dr. Vandana Shiva. Both are revolutionaries effecting change on a global scale who have dedicated their lives to both celebrating and saving the earth.
Refreshingly, during both of their presentations, they referenced how their own “life’s work” was built day by day, year after year, and neither of them knew they were on the path to a revolution when they started. They did not simply decide, “Here is what I am going to do for the next 40 years to become a revolutionary leader and this is my plan to getting there.” Rather, they cultivated their skills, solved problems one at a time, and when the issues called for great change they rose to the occasion. Will Allen spoke to the time this process takes: the years and years of learning and trial and error that simply cannot happen over-night. They are after all both human, operating within the realm of existing knowledge and bound by the same limitations that we all face; they just chose to blaze the trail despite the obstacles.
The audience of these talks, similar to myself, seemed to struggle with the overwhelming complexity of the issues and noted how they found themselves paralyzed by the unlimited paths they could take. To this I say, Amen! If you are not regularly experiencing “holy shit” moments in life, then you are missing something. In my own work, I found the key is to see beyond the enormity of the challenges and instead focus on the opportunities for change in front of us. To understand the problem and determine how your skills can solve it. Let us take a moment to appreciate this as the gift that it is. Having the capacity to understand the issues, the time to debate the best steps in addressing them, and the ability to develop the tools to create change. Not everyone is so lucky.
There are millions in the world that will never have the chance to invest their lives towards something bigger than themselves. To leave a mark so lasting, generations to come will speak their names in classrooms. Whether it is poverty, illness, or death at a young age, so many that will never even have the opportunity to spread their wings. In John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars,
he explores this heartbreaking reality with raw honesty. Through his characters we are able to better understand what it could be like to have neither the time nor the capacity to realize your full potential. In this case, to be a teenager with cancer, living the years of self-discovery under the smothering certainty of impending death. The knowledge that you simply will not have time to pursue your dreams… a fear that has always lingered in my heart.
Green also acknowledges that we are allliving on borrowed time and the regardless of the when or how, “you die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence.” There are very few people that wake-up thinking that today will be there last; all the more reason to seize the day.
My hope is that I can one day inspire and motivate the world through my work and write books that allow people to better empathize, understand or appreciate others. I want to motivate others to understand their own gifts and for them to invest time in using those skills to create a better place to live. Poet Mary Oliver makes this call to arms so poignantly by asking, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I plan to live it to the fullest, delight in the simple things, celebrate even the smallest victories, laugh at the ridiculousness, and love with reckless abandon. And of course, share all of the best stories along the way.
This post is dedicated to my dear friend Brendan O’Brien and his amazing father Greg O’Brien. Greg is fighting to hold onto his passion for journalism and is dedicated to sharing his struggle against Alzheimer’s with the world. His genuine and honest writing inspires me to share more of myself in my own stories. You can learn more about his story here: http://livingwithalz.org/a-place-called-pluto/