The Art of Living Well

“Crowds are like broken glass in my head”

Cassandra Clare

It’s 3:30 AM when my alarm goes off and I still haven’t decided whether to hike today. I lie quietly as my mind goes through the pro and con list:

On the one hand, I love early morning drives, I’m re-listening to a life-changing audiobook (more on that later) and I need to walk every day.

On the other hand … people. 

I rise and get moving. Very little can stop me once I consider starry skies, alpenglow and good mountain air. That stuff is in my DNA. Not even the beginning of a long, end-of-summer holiday weekend can dampen my enthusiasm. 

Sunrise, here I come. 

I start my day at “the bench” on Sourdough Ridge and follow along the ridge nature trail towards Frozen Lake. There are two couples near me as I approach the lake and I wait to see which trail (of the three at the junction) they will choose. One couple chooses Fremont Lookout, the other pair head up towards Burroughs Mountain. Easy. I choose the third, Berkeley Park. Perfect. It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s really just that I don’t like hearing constant conversation that doesn’t include me. Mostly these days I am here for the solitude.

Berkeley Park sits in a valley between Fremont Lookout and Skyscraper Mountain. I walked down to a beautiful “sit spot” and had my breakfast. It’s a moderate climb back to the junction and I take the Sunrise Camp/Shadow Lake trail back to the parking lot. No bear or fox today but I did happen upon several marmots, a kestral hawk, an orange-crowned warbler, dark-eyed juncos and an American dipper. I followed a mountain goat out onto the Wonderland Trail for awhile, but he seemed to disappear over a hill before I could get glass on him.

9.8 miles of total deliciousness. 

I have been re-reading (listening) to a book by Katy Butler called The Art of Dying Well. (I think I’ve written about it before or at least mentioned it). I get it. People don’t want to talk about planning for illness, old age and death. It’s a hard title to recommend, but most everyone over 50 or those caring for a loved one, would learn so much valuable information from this book. 

I would call it The Art of Living Well. It is as much about living your best life as it is planning for a good death. It is so odd to me that talking about the only real certainty we all have is so wrought with fear. She talks about the history of death-culture and the drug culture that has grown inside of it. A culture that assumes we all want to extend our lives as long as possible without regard for the quality of our lives. 

I don’t want that. 

I also don’t want to leave that decision for anyone else to make. There are a hundred things I could be doing right now at 60 that will ensure a more peaceful passage for me when it is my time. Most of my doctors are in the city I worked in for 30 years. It’s a fact I am quite aware of as I plan for my future. I am actively seeking new care providers closer to home. I am becoming mindful of building a network of friends … a tribe of like-minded others … to walk with me into the next phases of my life. And I will be there for them too.

I’m (slowly) learning to be more thoughtful about sleep and nutrition and exercise. The goal is to make choices that minimize the use of drugs and other artificial means to achieve a better quality of life. I lean into nature to help me. Katy Butler suggests “doing what requires the most of you and the least of medicine”. She goes on to say: “Given that our bodies age in more than five thousand cellular ways, there’s little point in strengthening physical muscles without developing the spiritual and social strength to cope with the inevitable loss of powers, and with death itself”. 

This book is so good. It’s like a map that identifies the destination along with the many paths to get there. It’s like a self-guided journey, helping us arrive safely at the doorway we will all inevitably pass through. It has been a gift to me. I bought the paperback so I could highlight the passages that mean the most and to create an actual list of the things I can do now to live a more fulfilling life. 

She reviews by chapter the different stages of our lives. Whether you are fifty or eighty, healthy or ill, this book can help navigate the road ahead. If you have read it or plan to, I would love to hear your thoughts. We can’t predict the future, but we can minimize some of the uncertainty that comes with aging and diminished health to more fully inhabit our one precious life. 

Although the Wind …

Although the wind

blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house

-Izumi Shikibu

I never take my morning walks for granted. I’m grateful every day that I can rise and get outside to breathe. It won’t always be this way and I am determined every morning to say the only prayer that really matters:

Thank you. 

25 Comments on “The Art of Living Well

  1. I missed this-we were camping at Klahowya! But saw the link under today’s thoughtful post. Glad I did! Thank you for the reminder-I gave the Art away but the library has it. Time for a second read. A friend and I touched on this yesterday during a walk. Fall is that season-my season now. Thank you!

    • Yes, I am eager for fall and all that it brings: birds are migrating, leaves are falling, the mountains are putting themselves to sleep. So much to love! Thanks for writing. I’ve been making notes and lists from re-reading the book. Winter seems like a good time to actually start crossing a few things off!

  2. Your first photo looks like a lovely painting, Bonnie. Death is a difficult subject for me to think of at the moment. A shooter killed two, then himself, at my local grocery store a week ago. Your beautiful pictures and words helped push the bad thoughts away briefly. Thanks.

  3. I love Katy Butler’s book so much. (And your opening quote about crowds.) I confess to not having a will (I need to remedy that), but until I inherited one third of house, I was not of the [possibly ill-informed] opinion I needed one. Everything has a beneficiary, important even with a will, to avoid probate. I know from mother lode experience, one doesn’t always choose when they die. There was nothing at all mother could stop doing in order to let go. Sadly, we also aren’t always able to choose not to be burdensome; it depends on how our brain goes. But I am practicing 1. how to be appreciative now, in the hopes that my brain will remember to just be able simply to say, if nothing else, “thank you”; and 2. to be grace-filled so as to let go of what I can no longer do and accept what I now need to do (like take an afternoon nap!).

    • Oh, I love her book and the quote, too!
      I learned so much. In fact, listening to it a second time, I feel like I missed a lot the first time around. Your practices are certainly sound and she even writes about having appreciation and grace NOW instead of at the first hint of crisis, when the crisis itself will command all of our attention. So glad you have this book on the reading list on your website. I’m going back to look for other recommendations! ( http://www.gretchenstaebler.com )

  4. Great, great shots of the mountain, and it is so otherworldly, to see what in your great images looks like SPRING bursting out, all that bright green flower and meadow and mountain, while here on the East Coast, everything is brown and crispy as we weather heat and drought. So, Thank you for this total true breath of fresh air and lovely climes.

    As far as living and/or dying well, I count myself as pretty blessed. I keep excellent company of many like minded friends and family, to keep me smiling and laughing, I have a still agile mind when I need it, and enough personal pursuits to keep my mind engaged at 72 heading into 73.

    But I do not want to overstay my welcome or be a burden to anyone as I creep closer to the edge of life, so, a few years ago, I gave myself the only NY resolution I have ever kept: I wrote a will, an advanced directive, signed and reviewed by an estate atty: a road map to get cleanly away when the time comes.

    So, I will check out your ‘road map’ and see what else I can glean, as I keep rowing North…* Thanks, Bon-Bon!

    • Thanks for writing. (WP finally fixed their glitch) Sounds lile you’re doing all the right things. She has some really great suggestions about creating a nurturing environment, including a “tribe” similar to yours. Without children to assist us in old(er) age it’s important to get creative about these things. As for MRNP … it holds all four seasons, it seems, depending on which path you choose. I think my love deepens for the place with every visit.

  5. Thanks so much for your great photos, writing, and recommendations. Always a pleasure.

  6. A beautiful post! Both physically and spiritually. I envy your stunning sunrise hikes and I’m really impressed with your determination to get out there as soon as your heart starts calling you to the mountain. The book seems like a good one. I have had a pact with a friend for over a decade now that we are determined to age gracefully, because we both know that we will be tempted not to. Tara’s dad just died last year with no will and it was a pain in the butt – mostly for Tara. I don’t want to do that to my kid a second time, so I’ve got it on the ToDo list. I finished the Advanced Directive last month – finally! It’s good advice to work on all the different kinds of strengthening: physical, mental, spiritual. It’s mind-bending to consider end of life planning, you know, when you think about it on an animal scale. The marmots and jays don’t have to do this. But the way you describe it, it’s a gift to ourselves to do it well, and a gift to those who love us.

    • Thanks, Crystal. I think that book should be required reading. I learned more in two readings than I have in sixty years of just living into the days. There are so many things we can do now to spare our loved ones a lot of angst later on … and ourselves, too. There is stress in not doing anything. I don’t want “no decision” to be my decision.

  7. I’ll have to read that book. Have you read Advice for Future Corpses by Sallie Tisdale? I love her essays.

    • Thanks for writing, Connie. I have not read that but will check my library. Katy Butler’s book is really great. It’s sort of a road map for living boldly into the years ahead. Let me know what you think.

  8. I was doing pretty well with this until the pandemic with lock-down struck. Now, at age 78, I’m having to re-learn how to take long walks, re-learn balance, re-learn the joys of nature. In the before times, I walked a couple of hours a day, easily wandered through the rough paths of urban parks. Now I find I’m wobbly on the lawn. But I know that onward is the only way.

    As an introvert, I’m also having to re-learn how to have friends around. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a real, deep conversation, except on Zoom, with anyone other than family.

    But onward I go! (At least I’m trying,)

    • Thank you so much for writing, Abbie. I imagine your words will resonate with a lot of people. Covid was a game-changer in so many ways. I think for me, it taught me the value of the “pivot”. This book reinforces that for me. We aren’t going to live forever, our bodies and minds will slow and decline, but maybe we can resolve to live well. There is such a gift in every age. I know my days of hiking in the mountains will end someday and I’m hoping to gracefully pivot to the other things I’m learning to love. Thanks for being here*

  9. So many of your words are my thoughts too – your walks and pictures are always spectacular! I’ll download that book – forward we go!

    • Thanks so much, Stacy. I love knowing that some of these thoughts are shared. We owe it to ourselves to live our best lives. The book is great. Let me know what you think.

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