It can’t always be about getting it all done -- stoking the money source, doing the laundry, paying the bills, stretching and moving to make sure my body remains optimally functional.
It can’t always be about planning the day, the trip, the year-end goals.
It can’t always be about processing the past, learning from my missteps, forgiving myself for not being perfect.
It can’t always be about nurturing those around me.
Sometimes -- to feel entirely alive in this breath -- it has to be about nothing less than FLAT-OUT WONDER.
I’m talking about those moments when time could stop and I’d be alright with that. Those times when rather than trying to hold it all together in formation, I let it all go. The clenched muscles in my shoulders finally release and worries dissipate like morning mist.
Maybe we each have a personal bliss formula, and -- if we could just identify the components -- we could trigger, expand and sustain those moments of heightened consciousness?
What are some elements of MY personal bliss formula?
*Vast vistas, ancient trees, rushing water, sparkling waves, saturated sunsets, the oceans of awareness in a newborn’s eyes.
*People around me who are loyalty, compassionate, generous, kind, eager to learn, expand, explore, PLAY.
*Holding and being held by someone I not only love beyond expression, but someone I admire and respect -- someone I can learn from who is open to learning from me.
*Talking with someone that I’m so in sync with that we rise and roam on almost musical riffs, explode into fireworks of new insights, and laugh until our sides hurt.
*Silence so profound that it feels like time just slammed on the brakes. In the silence -- since time is suspended for a moment and there’s no falling behind -- I can stop chasing the next task. It’s a time-out -- time in the hammock of silence.
*Writing when the words and the analogies choose themselves and at the same time refine and expand my thinking. I believe truer artists than myself create because they lose consciousness of time. In the passion of creating, I think an artist slips the chains of time constraints and limitations -- for a little while.
*Watching someone’s face change when they realize they don’t have to feel stuck in life. They can return to the childlike pursuit of a fabulous life of their own design.
*GRATITUDE… without the caveats that begin with “except for…” Gratitude for the people who love us, the stories we’ve lived and the stories we will live, for the sky, the rain, the sudden smile -- for being alive in this breath.
That’s a good start. I know for you the list will be entirely different and may require symphonies, or dance floors, or bungee cords or stadiums, or millions of dollars to advance a cause.
My personal bliss formula includes eight elements so far and, as it happens, none of them necessarily require heavy funding. What they require is time and practice. It takes focus and practice for me to implement the formula.
The question is how frequently can I beam up to my virtual mountaintop and soar with the eagles for awhile?
Not all the time, just often enough that I get the panoramic view where priorities crystallize and higher purpose is served upon re-entry.
Gotta go now. Time in the hammock of silence is calling.
Or nothing truly ends.
Which is it?
Assumptions are a funny thing. We often don’t know that we’re assuming something to be true until the assumption is challenged by a cataclysmic-enough experience.
For example: The one you love with your whole being nearly dies during an operation to insert a turbine into his heart. The bottom drops out of his blood pressure during a procedure to keep his very fragile original heart going until a donor heart becomes available. The assumption that you will have a long future of wedded bliss is challenged. And all at once, the permanence of any person or any anticipated future is revealed as an illusion.
For me, it was at this point that I realized that I had assumed-- subconsciously -- that I could create permanence in my life -- that through hard work and strong conviction I could plant some permanence in my life much like I planted sunflowers in my yard.
The love of my life DID survive that night, and now that Lee and I have lived without a permanent dwelling for almost 6 months, I understand that the drive to own a home, to sign a contract saying I am committed to paying off my very own plot of earth, to commit to an employer for a decade or more, to plant trees and perennials over herbs and annuals-- all these conventional acts were tremendously compelling because I wanted to buffer myself with some permanence.
These were my tap roots, anchoring me securely in time and place. Cognitively I knew it was all temporary, but I realize now that I was still laboring to drop anchor in the ocean of time. The drive to mark my path in permanent ink -- to leave a visible lasting imprint on the planet -- is ultimately revealed as delusional.
So nothing lasts seems to be the correct answer to the question.
On the other hand, Einstein teaches that nothing ends. This enigmatic genius gave us the theory that linear time is a construct of our limited senses. In reality, he posited, all time is happening at the same time.
In other words, T Rex is tumbling into the tar pit at the same time man first steps on the moon’s surface at the same time that the first computer-replicated heart beats (briefly) in the tiny breast of mouse at the same time as….. And I am an infant, a teenager, a young mother and a failing hospice patient all in the same moment. All time exists at once.
This would seem to be an argument for permanence -- or even for immortality -- except that our limited senses still convince us that everything -- youth, possessions, accomplishments, great loves and grand friendships -- all slip through our fingers in the end. Does it change anything to subscribe to Einstein’s claim that everything that ever happened is happening now? Not really.
As I’m sure you’ve heard -- if one is fortunate enough to be lucid at the end of life -- no one ever expresses regret that their home wasn’t big enough, their car luxurious enough, their garden extensive enough, their career illustrious enough, their children successful enough. Rather, they wish they had loved more, laughed more, risked more, left a more purposeful legacy.
My personal conviction is that my only immortality is the ripples of kindness, compassion, tolerance and approbation I sent out onto the world pond. All I ultimately have to leverage as my legacy is a happy, generous, adventuresome spirit. So this is where I choose to invest -- in my own good heart.
Nothing lasts but the ripples never end.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
At the time, it felt like our wings had been clipped just as we were about to take flight.
Just over a year ago, in March of 2016, Lee and I divesting ourselves of nearly all our possessions in record time. We left behind a three bedroom, two bath farmhouse with an endless porch and a large detached barn/office on 2 acres, a forest of sunflowers and four vegetable garden boxes. We found new homes for every dish, table, couch, desk, lamp, for 90 percent of our clothing, for every antique treasure and physical photograph, every file cabinet and monitor, an ocean of cords -- for every seed… as well as three vehicles.
Unencumbered, we were ready to fly.
In April, we began our nomadic adventure touching very lightly on the planet and moving on every few days. We felt a kind of buoyant bliss to have pulled up our roots. It felt like going from a heavy, vegetative state to much more airy yet sentient one. We were acutely present, aware of each new experience -- but also more and more alert to Lee’s changing physical condition.
By month’s end --one year ago -- a different adventure had rooted us in space once more. In fact, our circumference of movement had become severely restricted.
In April we left the quintessential beauty of Yosemite ahead of schedule because it was clear that Lee’s heart was failing rapidly. The next breath was so hard to come by that he felt like someone was holding a pillow over his face, and I spent the nights lying awake trying to capture the next breath for him. I counted as many as 12 to 15 seconds between breaths and lying next to him, I could feel his heart beat infrequently and with effort -- like each beat was barely breeching a high hurdle. I couldn’t help asking myself, “What are my first five actions if his heart just stops now in the middle of the night in the middle of this campground? The options weren’t good.
It wasn’t my fear that propelled us from that campground that morning. It was Lee's surrender as he sat by the window with the shades still drawn. He was weeping --not in fear of the outcome -- but in dread of the process. Against all reason but true to character, Lee never doubted coming out the other side strong, grinning and sure of his steps again.
From Yosemite, we drove straight to Lee’s cardiologist’s office in Petaluma, and within minutes, Dr. Lehrman informed us that he would be recommending Lee for a heart transplant at UCSF Medical Center. For both of us it felt something like jumping off a bridge, trusting the bungee technology and the practitioners of the sport to bring you springing back to safety above the raging falls. Not something all of us elect to engage in. It may be that the heart transplant adventure is more like being pushed into a well. Lee didn’t have the option of walking away from the brink, and he didn't know how far down he’d have to fall before the team could assist his prolonged climb to the surface again.
A week later, Lee was in the hospital undergoing intense evaluation, our new home was in storage, and we were again in a stationary abode -- this time within the required 30 minutes of the hospital. This is where we would wait for the call that a heart had been found for Lee.
Lee spent almost a month in the hospital at the start, leaving -- after a very close brush with death -- with a turbine (LVAD, Left Ventricle Assist Device) implanted in his heart. This device boosted Lee’s dying heart from an feeble 23 percent performance to between 80 and 90 percent. Now Lee was battery-driven during the day and plugged into the wall at night, but the LVAD gave us the freedom -- once he’d recovered for a month -- to visit the Botanical Gardens, try one of dozens of neighborhood restaurants, and take a ferry to visit friends and family- to have some fun while we waited for the call that Lee was on the active list for a heart.
We always been clear that if one had to be confined in a city, San Francisco is indeed a gilded cage -- but, for us, it was a cage all the same. The sensation for each of us was that with buildings looming all around and wires obscuring the sky, we were indoors even when we were outdoors.
Altogether, we waited five months between one major surgery and another. It seemed like forever, especially to Lee. Given that it’s crucial to be fully recovered before a second major surgery is performed, it was in reality a very, very short wait.
Lee’s heart arrived on election day, November 9, 2016. It was a joyous day for us, full of excited phone calls to friends and family, and it was a somber one too. We may never know who Lee’s donor was or how he/she passed, but -- even as we rejoiced at Lee’s rescue -- we felt the sharp proximity of grief. Our team reminded us that this heart is a gift. Lee didn’t take it from someone else. It is a gift from someone who Lee now honors by living and loving deeper than ever before.
Between waiting for a heart and waiting to recover sufficiently to travel, Lee and I spent endless hours viewing Youtube vlogs of other budding nomads and planning our travels once what we were released back to the wild by our post-transplant team. We took our imaginations on daily test flights to all the peak experiences we anticipate.
We remained in the city for just under three months after transplant with outpatient appointments four or five times a week at first. From start to finish, our San Francisco adventure lasted nine months. And yes, it did feel like gestation was complete and birth was imminent.
I sit here looking at the pine and bay trees out the window and listening to the birds and to children playing in an adjacent loop of the campground. Lee is at a thrice weekly rehab appointment re-growing his muscle strength after two major surgeries within a five month span of time. He’ll complete 36 of these sessions, and then the promise is that he’ll be as strong as he ever was, and we can begin strenuous hikes again to awe-inspiring vistas starting in June.
We can’t fly far yet, but now I see. Hidden in the wrapping of this miraculous gift of a new heart is a sister gift. We’ve both been boosted to a new level of appreciation, a new intensity of mindfulness. This adventure that felt so much like a detour is really a first destination that will make all destinations that follow much more precious and purposeful.
Our wings weren’t clipped. Our hearts were grown in 2016, and we can roam much farther now and love much deeper in 2017.
HOW ABOUT AN UPGRADE?
For Lee, he upgraded from a enlarged spongy muscle doing less than 25% of the work required to pump blood efficiently throughout his body to what the surgeon called “a pristine heart” that beats so strongly that it sometimes keeps Lee awake at night. He went from a heart that could fail at any time to a heart that has decades of beats left in it.
Today we’re proposing an “income transplant” -- upgrading from an insufficient, time-intensive, transactional income that could fail at any time to an leveraged ongoing income that has no ceiling.
What sounds better?
Working 40 hours a week (or more) for 40 years (or more) to end up with 40% (or less) at retirement of the income you weren’t quite making it on before?
Working for 6-10 focused hours a week for 5 years to build to an ongoing income of $55,000 to $500,000 a year (or more)?
Here’s the bottom line: Success comes to those who JUMP!
There were times when Lee didn’t think he could climb this Everest of heart transplant. There will be times when you don’t think you can build a growing, ongoing income that will deliver a life of unprecedented freedom.
How did we learn to persevere and keep the faith? It can only be described as transformation by association. We received incredible support from our family, friends, our team AND our cousins in the business throughout our transplant journey. We were the recipients of the same unfailing support from our team in building an ongoing income that allowed me to dedicate myself 100% to Lee’s care and recovery over the past year, and for him to give his full concentration to sustaining a great attitude while getting stronger -- not to worrying about our livelihood.
“There are two ways to live your life:
One -- as if there are no miracles.
Two -- as if EVERYTHING is a miracle.”
Some victories can be traced back to our own concerted effort. We believe many of our victories -- both in Lee’s journey to transplant and in the business -- are miracles that arrived because of our 20 year preparation for victory in our lives. From attitude development to goal expansion to people skills to the propensity to JUMP, we owe our life victories to exposure to people like you through conferences, audios, books … and zipline adventures!
Everyone who launches there own business gets started for the money -- for more financial ease and more choices.
Sooner or later the realization hits that the REAL victory is the growing mastery of HOW to create victories, how to INVITE miracles into my life no matter what the circumstances.
This culture of positivity -- visualizing the best outcome, listening, encouraging, celebrating, pivoting when discouragement creeps up on us -- influences ALL aspects of our lives -- our relationships, our finances, our sense of self worth, our gratitude and sense of wonder. AND this process of transformation through association means we will ALL impact uncountable others for the good.
LEAD WITH YOUR HEART:
Make it about service. Focus on what you can give, not just what you stand to get. This stance takes the stress out of building the business for me. Should I come up with extravagant strategies to create more volume? Or should I focus on helping someone step into the life they most want to be living?
It’s not about growing my bank account so much as growing myself. Growing myself and helping to grow new leaders WILL cause our bank account to grow exponentially.
The big victory is made up of many, many small, simple victories: making it up the steps, enjoying food again, walking the way you want to feel (a little swagger), etc. In our business too, the big victories are made up of many small, simple victories: listening to audios, reading books that grow us, rebuilding our list, asking people about their lives, showing the plan, following up, NEVER missing a chance to commune with the larger team.
What got Lee through -- is still getting Lee through the rough parts are these words “How’s it going to feel….”
*How’s it going to feel when we can roam the National Parks for weeks at a time?
*How’s it going to feel when I can hike ten miles again?
*How’s it going to feel when I have the chance to guide others through this Everest of heart transplant?
*How’s it going to feel when our income transplant continues to grow to $10,000 a month, $30,000 a month and beyond? What kind of a contribution can we make then to the people and the causes we care about the most?
*How’s it going to feel when we see the lives of our teammates transform and take flight?
I had a long talk last night with a good friend. We were sharing insights about growing through prolonged health challenges. The word “acceptance” came up and soon we were deep in shades of meaning.
Some definitions of “acceptance” are starkly polarized. Definitions like “submission” or “resignation” have a flavor of settling for a reduced existence. Others -- like “adoption” and “endorsement” -- suggest that acceptance is the first step in welcoming a new, larger purpose -- a bigger life.
First a disclaimer: I don’t believe that health complications are an inevitable part of getting older. How would that belief serve me? A severe or terminal condition is not something I anticipate, but if this is what shows up, a regimen of acceptance is what I’ll prescribe for myself.
Why? Because not to accept what is happening carries a twofold threat:
*One, the resulting withdrawal from social connections, new experiences, sometimes even from going outside is also a withdrawal from serendipitous moments of insight and wonder.
*Two, I would be deflecting energy from recovery to anxiety.
The struggle to recover from something like Lee’s heart transplant has meant accepting pain, massive doses of toxic medications, extreme weight loss and muscle weakness, loss of mobility, loss of privacy and loss of income. Acceptance in the context of any major health hurdle means acknowledging that it’s going to take longer to recover than anticipated and there will be some lifelong compromises required. Lee has scaled this heart-transplant mountain to the peak, but there are still many foothills to conquer before he’s on level ground and his health is considered stable.
Just now, Lee explained that the struggle to make his own breakfast this morning -- with his hands shaking from the steroids -- requires acceptance, because if he didn’t accept the struggle -- if he succumbed and let me do it for him -- he would opt out on the improvement. He said, “You can’t stand still.” Once again, acceptance put him on the starting blocks to recovery and reclaiming his life.
If Lee chose not to accept what is happening -- if he sank into cursing the fates and an endless “Why me?” litany -- I believe that he would be compromising his recovery and forfeiting joy in the moment over and over and over again.
I remember someone telling me once that it is important to tell myself a new story -- if I don’t like the one I’m living. If the story I tell myself is a dead-end story full of complaint and despair, then I am, indeed, at a dead end in my life. Conversely, if I persist in telling myself a story of new doors opening and new discoveries to make, those doors will eventually open and I will learn much about my capacity to grow and to give.
WE ARE CONSTRUCTED OF WHAT WE OVERCOME. This is probably my favorite truism. But first I have to overcome. I can’t lie down and give up. I can’t acquiesce to my circumstances.
All change and improvement begins by acknowledging my point of departure. This acceptance is the step that unlocks the emergency brakes and frees me to move forward -- that frees me to overcome rather than be overcome by my circumstances.
Sometimes it’s damn hard, There have been many times when Lee has wept in discouragement. He’s felt impatient, angry and defeated all at the same time. He believes it’s not only inevitable but crucial to allow himself to feel all of these things. This is the fog of frustration obscuring the pass through the mountains. This fog starts to burn off when he's ready to get back up, voice gratitude for the slightest progress already logged and acknowledge/accept the distance still to cover.
Innumerable times I’ve watched Lee ask himself: How do I put a positive spin on this?
On feeling weak and helpless?
On taking 22 medications in the morning and 19 at night?
On being confined to a city when I love wild places?
On never venturing into the sunlight again without protection?
On not being able to feel touch at several incision sites?
How do I learn from this?
Adjust my course?
Decide on a new trajectory coming out of the spin?
Reach out to people in a similar life struggle to help them accept and overcome?
How do I come out of this with more gratitude, more substance, more allies, more purpose, and more moments of wonder?
Wayne Dyer said that acceptance is the key to enlightenment. Not surrender, but acceptance. I think of it as being at peace with the present without surrendering a wide screen vision for the future
I can consent to receive a new life, a fresh self, even a new mission. I can undertake something that is offered and trust that this undertaking will become clear -- as long as I accept what is and -- embrace what is offered.
Most people equate accumulating -- more clothes, more gigabytes, more square footage, more STUFF -- with stepping up in the world.
It makes sense. When we see someone with nothing but the clothes on his/her back, no shelter from the weather and no idea where the next meal is coming from, most of us feel pity or compassion or disdain. This is someone who has fallen into a less than human existence. Dignity, health and self-respect are often sacrificed. Certainly, this is a step down.
One might argue that the antithesis must also be true. When I have a continually expanding and updated supply of stuff -- maybe a second home, a third car, a walk-in closet, the latest iPhone-- I am elevated to a higher status. Not only are my basic needs satisfied but I am cushioned from need by layers and layers of possessions. I am seen as a productive and successful adult.
In this country, we’ve been conditioned -- even indoctrinated-- to keep accumulating through massive advertising campaigns in every category from shoes to cars to video games to bigger and bigger TV screens. Ridiculously inflated prices and product obsolescence that is not just planned but accelerating dramatically does not deter us.
As a nation, we accumulate so much that we have to rent storage space to put all the things that we often never look at again. On our travels throughout the Western United States Lee and I see these extensive storage bin “cities” thriving within the smallest towns. “First month FREE!”
Lee and I were looking for a better way. Not a lesser way, but a better way -- for us. Not a step down, but a step up into a wide screen life.
It seems a lot of other people are thinking this way too. People who are weary of working most of their lives away just to pay the rent or mortgage. People who want to spend more time with those they love than those they work with. People who want to grab some happiness and new experiences before they run out of life.
As evidence, there’s the “tiny house” movement which is a flouishing part of a broader minimalistic movement. Another sign of this shift is the number of people deciding to live on wheels -- as modern day nomads -- which has climbed rapidly into the millions. These are not just retirees living on their social security income (although this lifestyle makes that fiscally possible). These are people of all ages -- some with 8 to 5 “virtual” jobs, some with children, some planning their adventures around bi-annuals work camping jobs at places like Amazon and the sugar beet harvest.
Some just want to live on the cheap -- and camping in Walmart parking lots and truck stops fills the bill. Some even live in cars or converted cargo vans and sleep on city streets. The name for this strategy is “stealth camping.” On the other end of the spectrum are people wheeling from resort to resort in 50 foot luxury coaches with a dishwasher, washer and dryer, second bathroom and half a dozen big screen TVs. More are like us -- people with more moderate RVs and almost all the comforts of a brick and stick home -- people who are determined to add more peak experiences to our days. Hike to those places that take our breath away with natural beauty that defies description. Sit and stare mindlessly into a campfire until a kind of primal peace lands in our hearts. Surprise ourselves by heading down a road on a whim just to see where it leads. I remember fondly the trip where we decided to see how many spectacular waterfall experiences we could collect within five days in the Pacific Northwest.
Enter “full-time RV living” into the YouTube website and take in the sheer number and astounding diversity of people deciding to step up into a life where a sense of wonder is the driving force -- and stress takes a backseat. Their video blogs have titles like “Less Junk/More Journey,” “Less Stuff/More Joy,” “Live Small/Dream Big” and “Long Long Honeymoon.” They take pride in showing others how to reduce encumbrances and squeeze the most out of the moments of their days.
The process of selling, gifting, donating and discarding two lifetimes of accumulation was enlightening. Once the decision was made, everything became much simpler. We would use this, wear that, find a space for that -- or we would not. The contents of a three bedroom house, of a large office plus two cars, a truck and garden gear departed one item at a time. The heirlooms and the treasures that I thought I could never part with? This was the biggest revelation; these treasures are the most fun to give away. As our load of possessions got smaller and smaller, we really did feel lighter and lighter. It was if we were lifting a heavy load off our backs and skipping away.
We know as we become acclimated to this new way of living -- like those who made the leap before us - we will find more and more things that do not enhance the adventure and will therefore be left behind.
In our previous land-bound life, whenever I proposed donating anything from clothing to electronics, Lee would often comment, “But it’s still good.” And I would respond, “ Yes, it’s still good -- good for someone else. They’ll feel like they’ve stumbled on a treasure.” Yes, we might have used some of these things later, but I’d wager that way more than half the time, extra items just continue to idly take up space.
This divestment is patently different than “downsizing” one’s life. This is not confining. This is liberating. Yes, we’re sleeping, eating and showering in smaller spaces -- but our “yard” is now as wide and long as a continent and includes mountain ranges, canyons and rugged shorelines. Instead of putting in overtime to pay the bills, we put in miles to soak in spectacular sunsets in Furnace Creek Wash for a few days or to hike around Eagle Lake at dawn.
I agree that this lifestyle is not for everyone. My purpose in writing today is not to evangelize but to clarify. To clarify that we are not “stepping down.” We’re not settling for slumming it in a trailer park We are stepping up to a life where each new day holds an unexpected treasure. It will take an adjustment. There are ways in which it will be a less certain, a less comfortable life, but we are confident that this is a way -- for us -- to be more present, to capture the magic as we go -- to step into a wide screen life.
We had set out on this journey six weeks before Lee’s former heart started to deteriorate in earnest. Now nine months later -- with a strong heart for Lee and a stronger determination than ever, we return to the road with a fierce longing to roam and explore.
It’s a call to greatness. To become expanded in this way, to know that life is unspeakably fragile, to feel that to spend even minutes in cruise control is squandering an irreplaceable resource -- this awareness mandates an urgency -- a burn -- to create an unprecedented future.
It has become so clear that wasting time on a regular basis is an extravagance much worse than throwing billions of dollars into a bonfire. The barriers to changing established habits have been melted down in this particular experiential tunnel of fire we’re passing through.
These eight months of three open-heart surgeries, the last a heart transplant -- hour after hour, day after day of pain, uncertainty, frustration, wonder, celebration and above all gratitude -- all of this is part of the gestation of a new self -- if we allow it.
Looking behind is gone. Why review a past when we are newborns in this fresh life? There’s an unlimited view ahead with unimaginable grand vistas to explore.
I wrote this and later that day, Lee said:
“I’m in a position to save lives -- and I think it’s because of Jim Keegan. Someone will look at me someday the way I looked at Jim standing there so fit and happy two years after his heart transplant-- with renewed hope and determination. I do intend to pay it forward and help someone else to begin to trust that there’s life after dire diagnoses and extreme surgery.
Even time I spend with someone who is not in a health crises may steer him or her away from carelessness, from dwelling on what’s not right rather than what is, from small pursuits rather than great ones.”
The truth is that we are ALL in a position to save lives. We all have this same super power, but we’ve forgotten that we have it. We’ve been lulled to sleep by the demands and distractions of everyday life.
Heart transplant shook Lee awake. And me too -- just by bearing witness. However, people awake to their true potential every day without the catalyst of a life threatening event. Waking up may be accomplished by a hard “shove” like it was for us, or you may be roused by the whispers of those who are living their lives awake. We just have to seek them out and listen to their reveille. It's the call to greatness.
FINALLY AT THE TRAILHEAD….
This is what I say when Lee gets discouraged. When he’s feeling weak, when the insane medication cocktail he’s required to consume makes him gag and shake, when food continues to be completely unappealing and he’s lost another pound today -- I say, “We’re finally at the trailhead. We can’t set out yet, but it’s getting closer everyday.”
First we have to pack -- pack a few more pounds and some muscle strength on Lee. Get his medications balanced and reduced from twenty plus in the morning and almost that many before sleep. We have to wait a while yet until his body is sure about welcoming this unfamiliar heart, and we can begin to ramp down from four or five outpatient appointments a week to three a week, then one a week, then one every two weeks. It will be at this point where it will make sense to leave our Noe Valley haven and hit the road again.
We’d both love to leave today. We spend hours pouring over maps and watching videos of other people setting out on adventures in forests, canyons, caves and deserts. We have a growing wish list of supplies we’ll want to order as the time grows closer.
We spent five months not knowing whether this heart transplant odyssey would keep us locked in place for a few more weeks, a few more months or even a year or more. NOW we can almost smell the pine needles and see the sunsets on the insides of our eyelids.
We’re finally at the trailhead...
“There are two ways to live your life:
One -- as if there are no miracles.
Two -- as if everything is a miracle.”
Lee Strong has many dreams and a restless yet purposeful nature to support their pursuit. If you condense all those dreams, you arrive at a fundamental purpose: To be a better man. That is -- to love deeper, to dream even bigger, to lead more people to believe in themselves, and most definitely to have more FUN. We both know that life has hurdles to clear -- or to crash into and then get back up -- and that life is also supposed to have multiple finish line victories and as much wonder as we can pack in.
To be continually in the process of becoming a better man is a BIG primary dream. It’s clear that earning and welcoming this new heart is preparing Lee for the next quantum leap forward in becoming a better, and better man.
It’s also clear that Lee is -- that we both are -- getting some incredible assistance. In fact, these assists -- these boosts in the directions of our dreams -- are so unlikely and so frequent that they cannot be delegated to coincidence or serendipity, and certainly not to luck.
This steam locomotive of thought just pulled into the station:
What are miracles but occurrences that most people might call impossible? I’ve heard it said that God can do the impossible, and also that “God is love.” All cultures assign omniscience and omnipotence to their deities. Can we deduce that Love is a God who performs miracles?
My personal belief is that the source of all miracles can only be love powered by faith in the impossible.
When Lee and I began to list our miracles, we counted anything that MOST people would deem as veering heavily towards “impossible” on the Probability Scale.
As these statistically “impossible” things occur, Lee and I are continually asking each other, “WHAT are the odds?”
Strange that we were never surprised by these beat-all-odds occurrences. We do feel a sense of wonder and most definitely express gratitude for each one as it sails on in.
Okay -- reality check! Although of late we’ve been experiencing a virtual cascade of miracles, it’s not always that way. There are intermittent episodes of pain, fear, discouragement and some very occasional bouts with anger and doubt. This heart transplant journey is one of life’s tunnels of fire. There’s no gliding on through without encountering innumerable speed bumps and potholes -- with the occasional “BRIDGE OUT AHEAD” moments.
It would be necessarily to grow through several experiences as intense or even more intense than a heart transplant to maintain the Buddha’s seamless serenity through the terrors, indignities and drug-induced moods swings of major surgery.
It’s precisely because of these intense experiences that Lee can decide to be transformed rather than defeated. As excruciating as it is traversing this gauntlet-- or a different obstacle course just as intense -- this is how true life warriors are made.
When I see Lee’s signature grin go into hiding and his brow furrow, I say to him, “Oh no! Struggle face! What can we change?”. But there’s an underlying certitude that Lee Strong will be emerging once again from the chrysalis. I believe that his metamorphosis will stun us with the brilliance of his wisdom and the beauty of his flight.
Let’s get down to defining and quantifying … if it can be done! We’ve been the recipients of so many miracles that I’m sure we’ll miss many. Here’s what we can come up with right now -- in no particular order:
Miracle number one: We were literally across the street when the call came in that Lee’s new heart was here. The LVAD* Team had cleared us to travel up to a distance of 6 hours travel time away from the hospital. We hadn't gone that far yet- only about three hours away. We had talked about a trip to hike at Land’s End that day, but no, we were one MINUTE away when the call came in: “Your heart is here!” *Left Ventricle Assist Device or heart pump
Miracle number two: Lee wasn't even on the 1A list for a heart yet. He was still on the 1B list waiting to be given a 30 day shot as 1A (top of the list). People simply accruing time on the 1B list can wait many months or even years for transplant. We waited five months. We know people from the hospital support group who have waited 13 months, and one who waited six years. This means that this new heart was the perfect heart for Lee and the perfect heart for no one else who was waiting.
Miracle number three: When you first begin this process, all potential transplant recipients are asked to sign an agreement to consider a “compromised “ heart. This would be a heart from someone with no medical record or with a less than perfect medical record (hepatitis, AIDS, etc). Normally, these conditions do not affect the efficacy of the heart, but there are no guarantees. Signing this agreement is strongly recommended because there aren’t enough hearts to go around. We signed, and so, I felt a great burden lifted when our surgeon, Dr. Wieselthaler, told me that Lee’s new heart is “pristine.” Beautiful word “pristine”!
Miracle number four: Lee is recovering so quickly and so smoothly from the transplant surgery that he tied the current record on speed of discharge -- nine days. The average hospital stay after a heart transplant is 24 days. No, it’s not a contest, but it did seem an indication that this new heart is extraordinarily happy in Lee’s chest.
Miracle number five: Lee received his heart NOW, not almost 16 years ago when heart transplant was first proposed for him. He was able to avoid transplant because he had textbook performance from the meds they prescribed back then, and has suffered almost no symptoms over the past 15 years. There hasn’t been a single cardiologist that hasn’t been amazed that Lee’s heart suspended its inevitable deterioration for so long. In 2001 the surgery for transplant and the post-transplant medication brew was much less sophisticated and much more challenging for the patient. The mechanized heart assist devices back then were the size of refrigerators and hospitalization was mandatory. Lee wouldn’t have made it to transplant without the LVAD, but his device was the size of a camera bag, and, miraculously, he lived a normal existence with the small assist device implanted in his chest. Lee had a drive line leaving his upper abdomen that was attached to a small purse-sized bag containing the controller and batteries moving about 6 liters of blood through his body every minute. He wore this bag over his shoulder like a camera bag and I carried a backup and extra batteries. There was no hospital confinement, no restrictions at all except immersion in water was prohibited. We took three ferry rides and many train rides to see friends and family and to explore San Francisco. We even resumed building our business about six weeks into the recovery process. Lee’s enlarged, extremely friable former heart waited -- time-traveled in stasis -- until heart pump and transplant science had made a quantum leap forward.
Miracle number six (These are definitely not in chronological order!): We have a little haven in the city 20 minutes from the hospital, and the rent is one third San Francisco’s current inflated rate. Not to mention that no lease was required and our pleas to be allowed to pay for utilities have fallen on deaf ears. How did this happen? Our nephew had the courage to ask the woman he was dating if we could move into her recently vacated basement studio, and she had the generosity to meet our budget and help out innumerable other ways as well. Now that our pharmaceutical bill surpasses our rent, this is greatly appreciated… Jessica and our nephew Joey were the first of our many San Francisco angels.
Miracle number seven (travelling back through time): Last March we began to give away, sell, donate nearly everything we owned (2 cars, 1 truck, contents of a 3 bedroom home and a large detached office.) We accomplished this in record time. After only 6 weeks of divesting, we moved into our RV and hit the road in early April. Six weeks later Lee’s heart began to fail in earnest. Seems like misfortune to just dip our toes into our big dream of wonder and adventure and then be yanked into an entirely different reality? NO -- what would we have done with our home and everything else while we spent these many months in San Francisco to wait for and recover from a heart transplant? We had no idea what was coming but it turned out that a light “backpack” has been a tremendous advantage in climbing this medical Everest.!
Miracle number eight: Lee and I decided to get married almost three years ago --- despite the advice of financial counsel. I can’t quite recall WHY it’s not always financially advantageous to get married in your sixties -- but we decided we weren’t listening to any of the reasons TO get married (ecumenical or business credibility OR medical) and we certainly weren’t listening to reasons NOT to get married. We wanted the ONLY reason we made this leap to be that we are living the greatest love affair of all time. (No one has to agree with this statement but the two of us). Because I was officially Lee’s wife, it was never questioned that I would be at Lee’s side -- even that terrifying night in the Intensive Care Unit as five nurses leapt around his room trying to load enough blood into him to replace all that was spilling out after his first surgery. Being married gave us immediate credibility and automatic access.
Miracle number nine: We’ve each had roughly 25 years of attitude training -- to always visualize the best outcome, to listen, encourage and celebrate, to pivot when discouragement creeps up on us. There could not have been better preparation for this odyssey. Rarely a day passes that Lee and I don’t express gratitude for this culture of positivity we’ve inhabited for so long. We’ve been carried by the books we’ve read, the audios we’ve listened to and the people we’ve associated with -- not only through the surgeries and the recoveries, but during the evaluation process. Heart transplant candidates are evaluated on attitude as much as on physical condition before being accepted for consideration. They are looking for someone who will make good use of such a great gift, who will persist, overcome and contribute in some way. What a miracle that we were both so thoroughly prepared for something neither of us could anticipate.
Miracle number ten: Lee’s new heart is thumping along so strongly that it sometimes keeps him awake at night. It’s been so long -- over 16 years -- since he could hear his heart unassisted by a stethoscope or ultrasound that this, too, qualifies as a miracle. Our nurses gifted us both with a stethoscope so that we can listen to this miracle any time we want. We’re wearing those stethoscopes out!
To be continued…. We have no doubt. After all, “EVERYTHING is a miracle.”
Many years ago when my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, a woman I respect greatly counseled me to be on the alert for people who might make Duncan feel like he needed to be fixed -- and to be very sure I wasn’t one of that number. She was another educator with a learning-different child of her own.
Yes, there needed to be strategies to help him navigate the expectations of an educational system that is designed for auditory and visual learners -- those who read fluently and memorize efficiently. At the time it was also a system designed to divert him from his real gifts -- drawing/painting/video production -- in order to address his “deficiencies.” In other words, we were always being told that he would be pulled from art class to take remedial reading classes. This was my cue to start the paperwork to transfer him to a different school. The price to “fix” him was too high; the price to fix him was to take away the primary activity for which he was celebrated.
I transferred Duncan three times during his elementary and high school years. It was a lot of extra work -- and extra driving time -- but Duncan had teachers who found ways to let him shine, both in his artwork and in his contribution to classroom discussions. In the areas where he needed support, these teachers understood that they didn’t need to dumb down the content. They just needed to help him with the mechanics.
I was referred to a tutor who had photos of famous dyslexics all over the walls of her in-home classroom: Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Mohammed Ali, Magic Johnson, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Tom Cruise. Leonardo da Vinci -- and she made sure that Duncan knew that he too had an exceptional brain-- not a sub-standard one that needed to be fixed. She was his cheerleader, and because he was celebrated for his strengths, he improved steadily in those areas that were a struggle for him.
I can still feel my temperature rising when I recall the day a letter arrived from his high school recommending an extra course in making change, so that he could work at fast food restaurants; “After all, we all have to be productive members of society.” They might as well have written, “Here, we have this box we can put you in (literally), and then the problem-that-is-you is fixed.” Many times -- after Duncan had completed his B.A. at an excellent college, the San Francisco Art Institute -- I contemplated sending an announcement of completion to the authors of that letter. My more evolved self decided on a letter of gratitude to his tutor instead.
Years ago when I was teaching, there were always a few parents who would come in for their conference braced to hear how we were going to lower the hammer on their underachieving or misbehaving offspring. I always asked the same question: “Where does your child shine?” Whether it’s soccer or art, video games or the harmonica, a child needs to feel celebrated in order to be open to change. Someone with high self esteem is more productive -- and much easier to be around.
Consider the emotional bank account concept introduced in the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Covey explains that the emotional bank account is based on trust rather than money. Withdrawals come in the form of criticism, public castigation, any form of abuse and not keeping commitments. Deposits come in the form of praise, celebration, willingness to say you’re sorry and always doing what you say you will. When you’re making more deposits than withdrawals into someone’s emotional bank account, the relationship is strong and harmonious because both parties feel good about themselves and about how the other sees them. Trust is fertile ground for growth -- both growth of the relationship and growth of the individuals.
It’s not uncommon in couple relationships for one party to set out to “fix” the other. Maybe it’s the woman who feels she knows how her mate should dress, earn and recreate. She is the arbiter of correct standards, and she sets out to mold him to these universal (she believes) specifications. Maybe he has a gift for gardening, playing the guitar or running marathons. Maybe where he really shines is in making other people feel important. She admired his strengths and talents when they first got together, but now she is focused on the ways he falls outside her image of how her mate should be -- how loudly he talks on the phone, his propensity for letting the grass and late charges grow, his devotion to football and beer...
When Lee photographs a bee on a flower, the flower and the bee are distinct in the finest detail, but the background is fuzzy and indistinct. That’s what happens when our hypothetical woman focuses with great concentration on her mate’s perceived flaws; What isn’t right is clear and distinct and larger than life. What is right -- where he shines -- fades into a fuzzy, indistinct background. His gifts are denied center-stage. Rather than feeling celebrated, he feels like he can’t do anything right. The more withdrawals she makes from his emotional bank account, the more distance he wants to put between them and the more resistance he feels to changing whatever behavior is disturbing her.
We get more of what we focus on. More to the point, what we focus on is perceived as more and more prominent; it is, after all, the subject we’re bringing into careful focus in the foreground of our mental photograph. The danger is that in perfecting the focus on the ways in which her mate doesn’t meet her expectations, the “shortcomings” expand in her consciousness and before long entirely obscure his true gifts.
Note: Yes, there are behaviors that cannot be overlooked or tolerated. There are people that cannot or will not respond to respectful requests for change. Addictions, abuse -- whether physical or emotional, persistent apathy, clinical depression, diagnosed mental illness -- these are often manifestations of such a depleted emotional bank account that professional intervention is required to bring someone up to a positive balance again -- so that they can respond and not just react, so that they can choose to change.
If like me, you have a mate who is reasonably happy, balanced, and proactive in his life, it’s very simple to fill up his/her emotional bank account. What does it look like for us? It’s a touch, a kiss, a compliment, loving eye contact, preparation of a favorite meal, a back rub, holding hands, a night out, flowers, doing the dishes -- so many small acts of service and devotion.
Lee loves it when I pick up the tab for a meal out occasionally. It makes no difference, really. Our money is entirely merged at this point, but it makes him happy.
I love it when Lee suddenly freezes in mid-step and says, “Oh-oh, it happened AGAIN! I’m even more in love with you!”
We ask each other more than once a day, “What can I do for you?” More often than not, the answer is “Not a thing right now,” but it’s a great feeling knowing that someone really wants you to be as happy as possible.
When one of us does something undeniable stupid (like frying the microwave using it as a kitchen timer; yes, I did this), the other refrains from blaming. Lee helped me clean up, air out and then sat down and ordered a new one. I didn’t need to have a second opinion on how dense I can sometimes be in the service of expediency.
Lee and I recommend the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman whenever a friend says something like “We love each other, but we’re so different. I just don’t understand her.” A woman is more apt to say, “He just doesn’t get it!” Each of them are certain that they are showing their love and devotion, and just as certain that their partner is either refusing to acknowledge the effort or is just plain dense. It’s possible, says Chapman, that neither of them is fluent in their partner’s love language of origin. I know that Lee feels loved when I spontaneously give him a good foot rub (love language: physical touch), and he knows I feel loved when he raves about a turn of phrase in my writing (love language: words of affirmation) or jumps in and does the dishes (love language:acts of service). Filling up the emotional bank account is more effective when you’re depositing into the optimal account. As Lee says, why not make it the one that has the highest interest.
As a gardener, I think of it as providing the most fertile ground for Lee’s growth. How? Encourage, affirm, and celebrate him. Take time for a 10 minute foot rub. Love him without conditions. Lee has to do his own pruning, because only he can decide what the finished masterpiece that is Lee Strong will be.
I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as constructive criticism, because by nature criticism is a tearing-down, not a building-up activity. Or to follow Covey’s metaphor, criticism is almost always a withdrawal from the emotional bank account. Happily, if you’re making frequent deposits and if your mate is a relatively happy, emotionally balanced person, respectful, loving requests for changed behavior are usually not perceived as withdrawals.
Consider this quote from Charles Schwab, investment guru: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”
This seems like a good place for PROMISE #2 from our wedding:
We're too busy looking at what's right with us to worry about what might be wrong. We promise to keep looking at what's right.
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.