Memento Mori Makes a Great Birthday Gift

I celebrated my birthday this week. While I blew out the candles and toasted to my good health, I had in mind these two words: memento mori. In English, the Latin phrase means, “Remember death.”

Now, before you think I’m the world’s biggest party pooper, hear me out. The point of memento mori is not to be maudlin or morbid. On the contrary, it is meant to provide inspiration to embrace every day as a gift not to be wasted or taken for granted.

The inevitability of death has been recognized throughout the history of the world. It is a central theme in religion, art, architecture, music and literature. The phrase memento mori can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Socrates said the proper practice of philosophy “is about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

I always knew I wouldn’t live forever, but as I rounded the sun for the sixty-first time, it really started to sink in. Like Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I do not want to come to the end of life and discover I had not lived.”

Contemplating my mortality urges me to take Thoreau’s advice to simplify, simplify, simplify! The best place to start is with our physical possessions. Evangelist Billy Graham said, “I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse.” What a good reminder that, in the end, we won’t be taking anything with us.

However, I’ve found stuff isn’t the most difficult thing to simplify, nor is it the only thing that fritters life away. Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” I shudder at the thought of how much time I’ve wasted doing things that had no real purpose, saying things that had no real meaning, and thinking about things I couldn’t control.

Memento mori reminds us our days are indeed numbered and helps us get crystal clear about our priorities. We can start with our possessions, but from there we must examine our behavior, pursuits, relationships, finances and attitude to see if they reflect what is truly important to us.

This constant awareness that life is short leads to living more intentionally. Intentional living means building your life around your core beliefs and values. Instead of acting on impulse, cruising on auto-pilot, following the herd or trying to impress, our daily life becomes more purposeful and authentic.

The best gift we can give ourselves is permission to spend the rest of our lives living each day as if it’s our last. This doesn’t mean shouting, “YOLO!” while doing something stupid or irresponsible. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seneca said, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let’s postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.”

I’m excited to start the rest of my life with memento mori tatooed on my consciousness. To remember I must die inspires me to remember I must live. After all, as Thoreau reminded us, “Living is so dear.”

The Elegance of Children and Wildflowers

IMG_1852Just a couple of blocks from our house is the community swimming pool where I spent some of my happiest days. The Mount Vernon Recreation Club is where I learned to swim as a child and where I taught swimming lessons as a teenager. As I drive by the pool, I see children in colorful swimsuits splashing, bobbing, and climbing in and out of the water with wild abandon. I smile as I watch them do cannonballs off the diving board shouting, “Woo hoo!”

They remind me of summer’s wildflowers, so natural, sweet, and free. Yellow black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, blue bachelor buttons, and purple coneflowers dance in the warm breeze like happy children.

It was Thoreau who told us, “All good things are wild and free.” While I appreciate formal gardens with highly-cultivated flowers, neat hedges, and perfect symmetry, they are more like rigid adults. Adults who tug at their swimsuits, hold in their tummies, and smooth down windblown hair. Adults who are so serious they miss all the fun.

I want to be more like children and wildflowers. They remind me to be more carefree and to accept myself just the way nature intended. They encourage me to stop metaphorically pruning, weeding, and digging in quite so hard. A wildflower grows simply and beautifully, like a child in summertime.

This summer I want to swing high into the air with my feet kicked out and my head tilted back. I want to make a chain of clover and wear it in my hair. I want to lie in the grass and watch my thoughts roll by like fluffy clouds.

Wherever this season leads you, take time to notice children playing at the park, on neighborhood streets, on beaches, and at amusement parks. Be inspired by their curiosity, imagination, and lightheartedness. Let their unguarded laughter and movement take you back to your own childlike nature.

Like flowers, children deserve to freely grow in safe and nurturing environments where they can preserve their bright beauty and fresh innocence for as long as possible. I think adults would more elegantly serve each other and our world if we could regain some of our guileless naivety and childlike wonder.

Pick a wildflower from the woods or roadside ditch and put it in a little vase to be reminded. If the opportunity arises, slip on your swimsuit without any self-criticism. Then run and jump into the cool water with an enthusiastic, “Woo hoo!” §

“Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!”
~ Lady Bird Johnson

Featured Art ~ Girl in a Field, Ludwig Knaus, 1857

The Elegance of Time ~ 6 Ways to Make the Most of It

IMG_1675It’s that time of year when graduations, weddings, and class reunions fill nearly everyone’s calendar. We give a high school graduation gift to someone who it seems was just a toddler. How can the bride possibly be all grown-up and getting married? The people at our class reunion are old! These events ceremoniously mark the passage of time, and we can’t help but wonder if we’re making the most of it.

In her book Time Alive, contemporary author Alexandra Stoddard writes, “Our time is brief by any standard. Now is the only opportunity we’ll have to give life meaning and find satisfaction. Our entire life depends on the wise use of our moments.”

I gained my first real understanding of the passage of time when I was in the third grade. A reel-to-reel film featured the seasonal progression of an ordinary tree. Classical music played softly in the background as a woman’s soothing voice narrated. Through the magic of time-lapsed photography, tiny spring buds transformed into lush green leaves, morphed into autumn-colored foliage, and fell away leaving stark bare branches.

I was captivated by the beauty, rhythm, and order of time marching forward. Sitting cross-legged on the cold linoleum floor of Lincoln Elementary School, I remember fighting back tears of wonder and joy. In an unforgettable moment of clarity, I became stunningly aware of time and its inevitable and precious passage.

The eight-year-old who holds that memory now qualifies for senior citizen discounts. I hope I’ve made good use of my time so far. When I find myself drifting or dragging from one day to the next, milestones in life remind me time is passing whether or not I am truly living.

Certainly, our individual responsibilities and stage of life determine how we spend our time, but here are six suggestions to help us make the most of our time alive.

  1. Evaluate how you’re spending it. You might be surprised how much time you rack up watching meaningless television, scrolling through social media, or frittering away at things that don’t bring you real meaning or happiness. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard.
  2. Identify your priorities. Decide what’s most important to you at this time in your life and dedicate your time to those things. Ask yourself writer Mary Oliver’s burning question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Making the best use of your time often means deciding what we choose not to do.
  3. Picture your ideal day. Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be busy. The question is what are we busy about?” Considering the realities of your life, what does a well-spent day look like? Map out your morning, afternoon, and evening to create a general schedule that leads to living your best life.
  4. Do it before it’s too late. James 4:14 says, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring…for you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Maybe you really want to see the Grand Canyon, write a book, plant a rose garden, or say “I love you.” What are you waiting for?
  5. Simplify your possessions. There’s no point in wasting time acquiring, cleaning, organizing, and storing things you don’t need or want. Imagine the time (and space) you could create in your life. Nineteenth century essayist Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.”
  6. Take care of yourself. You can’t make the best use of your time if you don’t feel well physically, mentally, and spiritually. In that memorable film from my early school days, the tree that bloomed and grew beautifully through all the seasons was a healthy one, rooted in purpose, simplicity, and elegance. §

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”
~ Miles Davis

The Elegance of Winter’s Simplicity

Just outside our upstairs bedroom window, winter trees stand like elegant steel sculptures against a silver sky. As I awaken, my eyes trace the trees’ bold, black branches. The bare winter trees inspire me to simplify.

Based on the popularity of books and television shows on the subject, I know I’m not alone in my urge to simplify, nor am I the first to be motivated by nature. Isaac Newton wrote, “Nature is pleased with simplicity.” He was referring to mathematical principles and philosophical reasoning, not kitchen cabinets and sock drawers, but I think his point remains.

During his time at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau observed, “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with nature herself.” Wouldn’t we all accept an invitation to more purity and ease?

Inspired by the winter landscape, I am beginning the new year by simplifying. Like beauty, simplicity is in the eye of the beholder, but maybe you can relate to my goal of tackling the following areas.

Physical Possessions ~ I’m reconsidering every item in every drawer, closet, shelf, box, cabinet, glove compartment, and secret nook and cranny. I’m keeping only things I love and that align with my idea of a simple, elegant life. Uncomfortable shoes, be gone!

Health and Finances ~ I don’t know about you, but during the winter months I tend to put such things on the back burner. I have experienced the relief of being on top of my game in these areas, and I’m not going to wait until spring to feel that way again.

Digital Footprint ~ Newton and Thoreau didn’t have to worry about this one, but it’s a struggle for me. Photographs, emails, documents, passwords, downloads and “the cloud” hang over my head. I hope to take control of my technology before it changes, and this old dog has to learn more new tricks.

Activities and Pursuits ~ Just as we have limited space in our cupboards, we have limited space in our days. I’m letting go of vague dreams to travel the world or become a gourmet cook who is fluent in French, but I am fully committed to a small number of true passions.

Thoughts and Emotions ~ Sometimes intangible baggage prevents us from simplifying. Just like physical clutter, we have to let go of the stuff in our head and heart that keeps us from living our best life.

I hope you will join me in answering Thoreau’s call to simplify, simplify! If we get stuck, winter’s elegant inspiration is right outside the window in the clarity of a shaft of sunlight, the peace of dormant fields, the freedom of geese in flight, and the beauty of a snowflake. §

“In winter, the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of more exalted simplicity.”
~ John Burroughs