If you only had 37 days…

Between his diagnosis with lung cancer and his death, Patti Digh’s stepfather had just 37 days to live. The searing process led Patti to ask what she would do if she had only 37 more days.

It was a tough question. As she says in an interview on Evolve, “The school lunches still need to be packed. The laundry still needs to be done, and all the things that fill up our days…”

She was determined to change her life so she wouldn’t get to day 38 and wish she had done things differently. She says, “One of the things that was the answer to that question for me was I knew, in the deepest part of myself, that if I had 37 days I would spend as much of that time as I could writing, and I would write down all my stories for my girls so that they would have a bigger piece of me when I died than the mother part of me. And because I wanted to not only tell them my stories…but I also wanted them to see me as a full human.”

Smithsonian Institution photo

"What is it you long to say? Then say it." (Photo from the Smithsonian Institution's photostream on Flickr)

On a Monday, she sent the first essay to twelve friends. The friends sent it to friends, who sent it to other friends. Within six months her blog had 16,000 readers.

“I know that what it tapped in people was this huge, amazing desire for our lives to have more meaning. These stories that I was writing were about very small things. They were about a test that Emma took at school or a piece of hotel soap that Tess carries around with her. So they weren’t big events, but they were things that I looked at and really turned over in my head and tried to say, ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ And what people were responding to was for their own lives to have more meaning.”

350 stories later, a publisher approached Patti about turning her stories into a book. In the process of sorting through the stories to choose those that would become entries in the book, she saw patterns emerge, “of six things that if I could do consistently or teach my daughters about them, their lives would be significantly richer.” Her goal was for them to lead lives without regrets “or as few regrets as they could”.

The resulting book, Life is a verb: 37 days to wake up, be mindful, and live intentionally, caught my eye when a friend and I were wandering through Seattle book stores with the gusto of the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Everything about Patti’s book drew me in – the simple, direct writing, the gorgeous art, even the invitation to write in it.

My copy of the book is now well scribbled. I pick it up frequently, leaf through it, read a passage, ponder the questions, pause over quotations or poems. Each time feels like a conversation with a trusted friend.

So when I saw the link to the Evolve interview on Patti’s blog, I clicked on it. Mid-way through the interview she gives advice that first resonated for me back when Robin and I were on a ship returning to Canada, after eight months away.

Patti says she tells the many people who ask her for advice about writing or finding a publisher or agent, “What is it that you long to say? Then say it.”

That’s the same advice that set off bells for me at a digital publishing workshop on the ship. Madisen Harper phrased it differently, but she asked the same question. The question was incredibly freeing.

I have boxes of old journals and letters, a hard drive chock-a-block with more, and a head stuffed with ideas. In them are all the things I long to say, hidden away, of little use to me and none to anyone else. So now I’m saying them.

Thanks, Madisen. Thanks, Patti. And thanks, Tom Masters, who helped me see the place to start was with a blog.

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5 comments for “If you only had 37 days…

  1. Tara
    April 6, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Cathyrn, this is beautiful. I must pick up this book now! 🙂 It really makes you stop and realize what’s important in life, and to stop sweating the small stuff (hotel soap excluded). Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. April 6, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    You’ll be delighted to have the book close at hand, Tara, and thanks so much for visiting Catching Courage.

  3. April 9, 2010 at 8:23 am

    37 days to be alive, to say goodbye, to reconcile living with the truth of my mortality. I’d live bold and ordinary as Patti did. And in the end, I would slip away from this huge party of life, like I was napping after Christmas dinner. Contented and open to mystery, the voices of my loved ones in the background.

    Love you Cathryn for your courage and invitation to write 🙂 xo

  4. April 9, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Yes, you would live bold and ordinary, as you do now – though from my perspective you live bold and extraordinary.

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