“My predominant feeling is one of gratitude." Oliver Sachs
Oliver Sachs wrote the above statement in his book “Gratitude” - it was followed by this paragraph, “My predominant feeling is one of gratitude.I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return.Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure”.
Sachs began writing the book upon learning that he had terminal cancer at the age of eighty. Much of it was written in the last few months of his life. Importantly, and, for me, poignantly, he prefaced the book with this statement:
“I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living”.
The book itself is a wonderful read.
I’m referencing this book because it resonates with my life at age sixty-five. The last five years have been rather challenging for me on the health front. First, I was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes at age sixty. I changed my diet and increased my physical activities - hiking more, golfing a lot (carrying my clubs) and biking. So far the diabetes is pretty much under control. Three years later I was diagnosed with prostate cancer - an aggressive form of the disease. My prostrate was soon removed, causing some ongoing urinary incontinence. Finally, two years later, just before my sixty-fifth birthday, I had a heart-attack. Thanks to my wife getting me to the hospital in short order there was little or no heart damage - and, thanks to efficient staff at Guelph General and Kitchener’s St. Marys Hospital, my problem was quickly fixed. I now have three stents in three different arteries leading into my heart. My circulation is much improved and I’m slowly increasing my physical activity again to gain strength and endurance. Like many folks I now wear a Fitbit to monitor my activity and heart rate.
After all these health issues and setbacks, in such a relatively short time, I began to joke that my body had reached its “best before date”. All kidding aside, I have hardly ever felt better, and my mood is best described in our opening quote by Oliver Sachs – one of gratitude. Some of this attitude of thankfulness comes from the joy of just being alive. Period. My various hospital experiences were in some strange way rather magical (maybe it was the morphine?). Each time I woke up from surgery I felt uplifted. Maybe it was because each time I went into surgery, I sincerely thought that there was a good chance I would not wake up. This thought gave me a feeling of resignation, a notion like “what happens, happens.” Yet I always did wake up! And, felt blessed. Confucius captures some of my current feelings about my life, “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one”. (this quote has echoes of Christian ideas about “born again” experiences). I’m very much aware that I only have this one life, and much like Oliver Sachs, I’m not nearly finished with living.
After my heart-attack I received many kind notes, phone calls and visits to my home. I found that this was critical for my recovery. More gratification. I especially appreciated the gifts of reading material – fifteen books in all! I was delighted with this showering of books as I love to read. Each book has a special meaning for me based on who gave it - and I’m now reading each one with that same person on my mind (as I read their gift). It gives me double pleasure.
One of the books given to me was Stephen Levine’s “A Year to Live – How to Live this Year as if it were Your Last”. The book was somewhat repetitive and not overly enlightening but the basic premise, live as if it’s your last year on earth is powerful … and wise counsel. There was one quotation in the book which did strike me as excellent advice. It comes from the Indian poet and mystic, Kabir. His ideas on life and death encapsulates by born again attitude:
“What we call salvation belongs to the time before death/
If you don’t break your ropes while you are alive/do you
think ghosts will do it for you afterward?/ What is found
now is found then”.
With Kabir’s thoughts in mind, and my illnesses mostly behind me (not quite the effects, as yet) here are some of the areas in my life that have changed, and my priorities shifted.
1. Family and Friends: Beyond all else, I had always treasured my wife Sue and two children, Emily and Court. I now do so more. And, my grandchildren have doubled this joy - being with them, at any time, is an escape from life’s worries and the repetitive nature of our daily existence. I also revel in the company of my many relatives. I also find myself very thankful that I have the support of some amazing folks that run my company – I not only value them in a pragmatic sense but I’ve also grown to love many of them. Some of my greatest pleasures now come at the dinner table among good friends – sharing a meal and some fine wine – conversing about anything and everything. Overall, I’ve made a personal pledge to avoid negative people. I’ve even put an enigmatic acronym on my new business card: D.R.O.M.P.A.I.W.R.O.Y. which translates to “Don’t rain on my parade and I won’t rain on yours.” In other words, I’m only looking for positive energy, and pledge to send out the same to others – I’m convinced that the association with upbeat, optimistic people engenders a feeling of contentment and universal love. Bob Marley said the same thing in one of his songs “Don’t Rock my Boat” where he sings, “Please don’t rock my boat, no, ‘Cause I don’t want my boat to be rockin’.” When I hear his joyful voice, I believe he’s intimating: ‘leave me in peace and I’ll do the same for you.’ A good modus operandi for us all.1.
2. Judging Others: For most of my life I have instinctively judged people. I’ve always questioned their intentions and sincerity after only a few encounters. Perhaps it’s a result of being a Publican. My pub is, thankfully, a very busy operation - in an average week we see about 2,000 customers. I’ve got to know many of them quite well and soon would judge their behaviour by how they handled their drink, interacted with their friends and family, and importantly, how they treated my staff.
These days I don’t imagine living with any woman other than my wife, Sue. We’ve settled into a lovely space of mutual concern and friendship. Overall I accept people more and more these days - and am actively wrestling with my mind about its judging ways. More and more I try to take Mother Theresa’s advice to heart, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
3. Thankfulness: On a practical level, I am quite obviously happy to just be a survivor. And, I consider myself a very lucky man to be living in a country with universal health care. Not only do I have a family doctor, my general practitioner, but I also have three specialists for my diabetes, cancer and heart ailments. This all costs me nothing in Ontario! And to top it all off, my insurance agent put in a claim for my prostrate cancer on my “critical illness” policy (he said that he didn’t think it would be successful but worst case scenario, the insurance company could only say “no”) - six months later I received a call from RBC Insurance letting me know that they accepted this claim. “What does that mean,” I asked the young enthusiastic woman on the line. She told me that they were mailing me a $100,000 cheque. It was a Friday afternoon and she cheerfully said “I hope this helps to make your weekend!” I was flabbergasted! It boosted my savings portfolio and it was also nice sharing some of the proceeds with the family too.
4. Physical Activity, Meditation and Living in the Now: For medical reasons I exercise frequently. To my surprise I enjoy it, and look forward to each days’ hike or bike ride. This regular exercise tends to make me feel more alive which, in itself, is interesting. Physical exercise also helps you live in the moment. Thoughts of problems and business issues tend to disappear as you work out. It brings me to the place Thoreau spoke about: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find eternity in each moment.” Meditating also helps to still my mind and get into the ‘now’. Funny thing, one approach involves action, the other inaction…same result!
5. Nature: To my astonishment I’ve come to love looking at different flowers. For years I was oblivious to most flowers. Never noticed them. Not now. “There are flowers everywhere, for those who bother to look”, Henri Matisse. I see them often and frequently take photos of them while on walks. Nature in general has become a big part of my life. In the winter we live by the ocean, and summers are spent at our cottage on Lake Simcoe. While in Guelph we often walk down to the main river and sit on a bench in the park. I feel a new dependence on nature and have a need to be near water - something primal is going on….
6. Writing and Sharing Deep Thoughts: At my age I feel that I have some worthwhile things to say (a lot borrowed from mentors and friends) - especially for young adults. So, I’ve started working most mornings compiling a collection of essays based on famous sayings and quotations. Each piece is meant to highlight a provocative subject and/or present some of the little bits of wisdom I’ve picked up over my six-and-a-half decades on earth. I enjoy reflecting on my many experiences, and, in turn, try to ‘mine’ them for insights and lessons learned.
Contrary to many people, I would love to be young again, with the knowledge I’ve gained over the years. I’m not bored with life. One thing that always amuses me is when people say “I wouldn’t have changed a thing” when speaking about how they lived their life. How ridiculous! Did they not learn anything? No mistakes?! Come on!
7. Small Talk: At this stage in life I also try to avoid trivial conversations…especially about the weather or someone’s golf game. My wife knows when I’m fed up with conversations at a party when I signal her that it’s time to get to bed for our “early morning.” For me, I want to discuss things that matter in life, like the meaning of our existence or the new government policies, etc. I love this quote from Anais Nin (provided by my lovely cousin Val): “I must be a mermaid…I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
8. Money and Material Things: I’ve never been one for collecting possessions. For example, I’ve never had a nice car. My family is quite different, a result of our upbringing. The memories of the Great Depression was still vivid in the minds of my parents. My mom, as one example, would rarely make long distance phone calls because it cost so much money. My wife and I focus more on living for today and supporting our children. Whenever we get together with my siblings to discuss our cottage property we find Mammon seated at the table, and their desire to sell the property always comes to the forefront of our discussions. It’s quite disconcerting for my wife and I as our values are so different. I guess we’re just lucky as money has always come to my wife and I, at times unexpectedly, regardless of any worry. I recently read a quotation from Warren Bennis which helped to explain my attitude towards money and explain my life as an entrepreneur, “An entrepreneur has no interest in proving himself/herself, only in expressing themselves.” This definitely defines my approach to business – I just wanted to have a business that was different from my competitors, one that made valuable contributions to the community, and reduced its waste and environmental negative impacts. My only exception to “material things” is artwork, books and music which seem less material and more ethereal in my mind.
9. Travel: My wife, Sue and I, travel a lot. We find it a great way to expand our knowledge and acceptance of other cultures (BTW – I buy carbon offsets for all travel). I’m surprised to see so many people who are afraid to leave the comfort of their home – many create the most illogical reasons for not travelling. “It’s the dog”, or “I can’t miss the next episode of my favourite TV show” or “Who will do my job?” etc. I firmly believe people get too complacent with their daily schedules and don’t realize they are in a rut. I share Paulo Coehlo’s sentiments, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” Part of my future plans involve living in a French speaking region (Quebec or Provence, France?) and learn the second (first?) official language of my country. I’m also interested in visiting and learning more about our First Nations’ history and teachings…and other indigenous cultures. This interest was ignited in me by the book “The Wayfinders - Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World” by Wade Davis. It had a profound effect on me.
Sue and I no longer describe our travel as “holidays” or “vacations”. We simply say that during certain months of the year we are living somewhere else. Although there’s still an element of pure joy and adventure in each trip. As Hanif Kireishi writes regarding holidays, “Going on one means being away from everything familiar, or over familiar, and allowing your brain to idle into a kind of cleaning bliss”. We’ve become confirmed adventurers!
10. Giving Back: I’m more interested in helping others especially through working with good organizations. Since my medical “incidents”, I joined “100+ Men Who Give a Damn” in Guelph – every 3 months they get together, vote for a local charity, and give $100 each to that organization. I’m also active, through my company with the Grand River Conservation Foundation and support the Green Party of Ontario with funding and participation. My company also added a new music sponsorship titled “Miijidaa Family Series” – we now sponsor four music series - three at the River Run Performing Arts Centre in Guelph and one at The Centre in the Square in Kitchener. I find myself more generous with spontaneous gifts as well. I like to give books to staff and friends. I’m lucky to have surplus funds these days so I can afford, and want, to be more generous. It feels good.
I also have a funny habit of collecting small stones and shells from the beach - they must fit nicely onto a person’s thumb and be perfectly smooth – I call them “meditation stones.” I’ve started giving them out to friends and staff and encourage them to hold them, move their thumb back and forth on the smooth part and breathe deeply whenever they feel stressed or upset about something. It’s surprising how well it works!
11. Silence: Since my heart attack I’ve slowly started to enjoy life in a different way. After taking some rehabilitation classes following my heart-attack at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kitchener I’ve come to realize that, in a deep level of my soul, the heart-attack, the earlier cancer surgery and my diabetes diagnosis, have all, accumulatively, traumatized me. Upon reflection, during my initial recovery, I went through the three stages of sadness, anger and confusion (memory lapses were the most worrisome) that a nurse outlined in a presentation at the hospital. It wasn’t just a ‘wake-up call’ to change my life style; it was more like a brief introduction to death – it takes me back to what Confucius said about realizing, this time viscerally, that we only have one life. After years of acting the Publican role - greeting guests at my restaurant, circulating through the rooms saying “hi” to kids, pretending to flirt with some of the women, keeping track of people’s lives and careers, buying regulars drinks and just soaking up the energy in the place – I’m more introspective and am now happy to just sit and listen to people on a busy night.
I’m simply interacting and socializing in a different chord, not damaged so much, but transformed. Released might be a better word. For some reason I’m reminded of The Band’s amazing rendition of Bob Dylan’s song “I Shall Be Released” on their first album “Music from Big Pink”- I always loved Richard Manuel’s vocals on that recording. The lyrics themselves also seem to have some meaning for me at this juncture in my life,
“They say every man must fall, Yet I swear I see my reflection, Some place so high above this wall.”
I am certainly enjoying this peacefulness and sense of gratitude - and, the weight from this newfound silence seems to have lifted me up.
1. Maybe Canada’s hockey hero, Bobby Orr, in a recent interview said it better then anyone(Globe and Mail, Sports section, Nov. 3/18): “People are good to me and I try to be nice to them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”