An early morning sailor takes advantage of high winds as their antique boat darts back and forth across the lake with the grace of a ballerina, changing directions suddenly as the old tea-stained sail captures the orange morning light against the purple distant mountains.
It reminds me of life, sailing gracefully in one direction till the wind runs out, and then a necessary pivot to capture the wind takes us in new directions.
The Great Cleansing
When we lose a loved one, as I did this spring, we tend to think deeply about their life and our own, in hopes of being more or less like the ones we lost. And with loss comes responsibility — in this case, clearing out his lakefront summer home, where he had accumulated things since 1987.
Here, Bidder Bidder
Because we are putting his home up for auction on August 14, my wife and I (mostly her) have been working feverishly to getting move-out ready and getting the home ready to show, so we don’t have to sort through old boxes under pressure of a closing date.
Yesterday, and all last weekend, I had the pleasure of going through a garage full of boxes, one box at a time, including financial records, business archives, old photos, books, and random things that had stuffed drawers and shelves over decades.
What to Let Go Of?
The tough decisions are what to shed and what to keep, knowing of things that had great meaning to him, but no meaning to us. Though I know I’ll never need them, I could not throw out the yearbooks from Fort Wayne Bible College and South Side High School, where my dad was the portrait photographer and where his ad for photography appeared. I only hung on to them because I felt he would not want us to let that part of his history go.
Going through a hundred or more boxes, file folder by file folder, I saw a life unfold. Press clippings, press releases, photos, business plans, contracts, and documents closing out those businesses. It was as if an entire life happened in a single day.
Life in a Box
When I wrote my book Blast from the Past: A Pictorial History of Radio’s First 75 Years, I experienced the same thing. I’d go through boxes and archives. I remember finding the old files for Jack Benny, who started in Vaudeville before radio. Clippings of his entire life fit into one big box. First was the clipping from a high school newspaper of his onstage appearance in school, then his first stage appearance, then reviews, then his entry into radio, then clippings about the shows, then his entry to TV, and it went on and on until the clipping of his obituary. A whole life in a box.
As I looked through hundreds of photos, trying to determine what to save, I saw my dad’s progression in life, becoming an officer in various organizations, photos of speeches and banquets, photos with unknown people. I could see the tremendous amount of work that went into that, and could imagine how excited he must have been to receive the appointments and press coverage. Yet I wondered if it was all worthwhile. Did it matter?
The Game of Life
I often look at life like a pinball machine. The ball shoots out of the spring-loaded launcher, heads to the top, hits a barrier, bounces off, hits another, and then you try to hit a flipper to keep the ball going. Sometimes you keep it going and add points, and sometimes your ball falls into the bottom, ending the game. In our lives we launch, often not knowing where we are going, but hoping we will gain points (which might be money, recognition, doing good works). Then we get flipped in a different direction, and we keep going again, till forced into a different direction still.
My dad once told me, “Son, you never end up where you set out to go. Enjoy the journey.” He gave me examples of businesses he had started with a specific intent that didn’t end up going in the direction he set out. Often, they turned out better.
When I started in radio, I envisioned being the next big radio star, but I ended up writing about radio, owning a radio trade magazine, and then, by accident, discovering art and building a life in the art world. It was not predictable.
I once wrote that roadblocks serve a purpose, often making us stronger, and often making us go down a different road. No matter how good we are at goal-setting and planning, we cannot anticipate all the roadblocks. Soon, the flipper pushes us in an unexpected direction.
Are Efforts Worthwhile?
What I learned from the boxes of a life well-lived is that we cannot control our direction entirely, though we can try, but the memories are all we have. Decades of paperwork, preceded by thousands of meetings and discussions, legal work, and negotiations — it all ended up in a dumpster. What matters is the outcome in life. Did the efforts serve to make a life well lived? Did the efforts result in making life better for others, not just for ourselves?
One day my kids will be going through my boxes (and hard drives), seeing evidence of all the things I once worried about where worry wasn’t necessary. Things I craved that turned out to be fruitless or meaningless, recognition I sought that served no purpose. It makes me realize the preciousness of every hour, of every glance into the eyes of my family, of every moment with my friends.
Your time is your own to control. Use it wisely. Use it to make life better for others, not just to enrich yourself.
Each photo was a memory, a moment, sometimes of things that took months or years to accomplish. A photo of an award onstage was the result of decades of serving others, hundreds of meetings and phone calls, and a tremendous amount of human energy. It’s why what you agree to spend your time on matters.
Over the years I’ve developed a filter in a series of questions I ask myself when I’m asked to make a commitment:
- Will it change the world or make life better for others in some way?
- Do I want to spend my time on it? Will it take me away from things that have higher importance?
- Is it related to my grand mission, or does it take me off focus?
- Is it important to help someone or some organization I love or respect?
- Will I look back in regret?
- Will it help others?
- Will it help my family?
- Will it take me away from home and family?
- Will I look back on my life and be glad I took the time and effort?
- How much time will it take to see it through, and will it be worth it?
I tend to be a pleaser, a giver. Yet we can give all we have and leave nothing for ourselves. We have to find balance. Coming up with your own list of questions will help you determine where to spend your time.
Remember that one split-second decision can change everything and place you at the end of the game, or on a new journey that will take another decade to accomplish. In either case, you want to guard your time.
Though I’d rather not have to sort through boxes, and I’m reminded that I must not leave a mess for my wife and kids, there were great lessons and thoughts from the cathartic effort. And whenever I’m doing something I’d rather not do, I always ask myself what lessons I’m supposed to discover.
What will be in your boxes? What will be the best time you can spend the rest of your life on?
Spend it well. Your time is the most valuable currency on earth.
PS: When my dad became ultra-successful, he was incredibly busy, a ball of stress, and often irritable. I remember wondering if it was all worth it. I remember wishing I had the dad back who used to take us fishing and waterskiing and canoeing. But it did not seem like that was in the cards, and I resigned myself that this was who he had become. But little did I know that he too had realized what was missing from his life, and he too wanted those days back.
As I look at all the papers, all the deals, all the meetings and travel, I realize that my dad went to all that effort so he could provide his family with exceptional experiences and memories. We’d stayed at a lake before, but when he moved our family to the Adirondacks, he became a better dad because the stress melted from his busy life and we got our real dad back. We have 30-plus years of memories at his place, every summer of my kids’ lives and every summer of my niece’s and nephew’s. It was a place where the family could renew its connection and build lasting memories. By spending a weekend or a few weeks between meetings at the camp, he became better in business and became a better dad.
He built an amazing place, and it’s my hope that the auction will result in the right family that needs a special place like no other on earth, to reconnect and to lose the stress of life. There are very few places on earth with this peace and quiet, with this tradition. I know, because we have our own camp now, and intend it to carry for generations of our family.
PS2: I discovered something about myself recently. When I held my artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks in June, I discovered how much I missed being around people, and how much those events mean to me, because I make so many new friends and renew so many friendships. Dave Crowl, who attended, said it best: “I’ve come back nine years in a row because this is my art family, and for me it’s like Thanksgiving. I would not miss it for anything.”
I’m doing my next retreat this fall here in the Adirondacks. I can never get enough friends.
PS 3: One of my bucket list items was to paint in Russia, where Repin, Levitan, and Shishkin and the great Russian masters painted. I’ve done it, and now I’m bringing it to you one time. It looks like it will happen, and I have some seats because a couple of people can’t make it. I probably won’t repeat it. Hope you’ll come.
Also, Peter Trippi and I are leading a group of art lovers to the museums and art scenes of Vienna and Berlin this October. It’s happening and will be loads of fun. Join us.
PS 4: Pastel Live is gaining momentum. Last week we had a huge number of people join us. If you see yourself learning pastel painting, it’s a joy to attend (and it’s all online this August).