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Excerpt: Waking Up in Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife

May Sarton became an important influence for me after I read her book Journal of a Solitude. First published in 1973, it gave the reader access to the private diary of a creative woman who expressed herself through poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. By age twelve I’d become a voracious reader and a devoted journal keeper, and the prospect of exploring another writer’s life was irresistible.

From the very first page of Journal of a Solitude, I felt a kindred connection with Sarton. A keen observer of life, she wrote passionately and artistically about the world around her. Morning dew blanketing the grass in her backyard, a vase full of daffodils bathed in sunlight on her desk, or a glistening tomato freshly picked from the garden—these ordinary snapshots of life took on new meaning under her poetic scrutiny. In addition to capturing the beauty of her surroundings, Sarton was also fiercely honest about her inner world. Throughout the journal she confessed her irritation at the demands of managing a busy household, her sadness at not being properly recognized for her work, and her frustration at navigating the tricky business of being a private woman with a public life.

During my struggles to craft a new book, I made the brave decision to follow in Sarton’s footsteps and publish a journal of my own. Since childhood I’ve been hungry to understand myself and the world around me, and writing has been my vehicle for that exploration. Writing comforts me. It connects my head and my heart, allowing me access to hidden feelings and new perspectives. By processing my daily life on the page, I open myself up to insights that heal and support my growth. Keeping a journal also helps me to stay tethered to my inner life, especially when my outer life feels hectic or overwhelming.

While at the time I had no idea where this particular journal would lead, it’s clear to me now that these pages tell the story of what happened when I made the decision to move on from writing self-help, and in doing so discovered that there was something much bigger going on. A new awareness of my mortality had set in, and it caused me to begin reevaluating everything—my work, my marriage, my friendships, and my priorities—in that light.

This is the existential world I entered as I began this journal in the middle of a busy speaking schedule. So, with a nod of gratitude to my muse, May Sarton, I set this journal in motion with the same words she used to start her own some four decades ago . . .

Begin here.

September 30th

I woke this morning to a cool breeze drifting through the bedroom window. It’s starting, I thought. Winter will be here before you know it. Seems like only yesterday I was mixing compost and soil in pots on the deck, poring over flowers at the local greenhouse, and balancing on the ladder in the basement to turn the water back on for the outdoor faucet. Life hurtles by, days turning into weeks turning into months, and now the seasons I love most—the blossoming of spring, lazy summer days, and the fiery beauty of autumn—are coming to an end. Looking out the window at my withering garden, I long for time to slow down, but I know better. It’s not about time; it’s about me. I need to plant my feet in the present moment. Time rushes by when I’m not where I am.

Fortunately, I took a vacation this summer and reveled in the spaciousness and freedom of a clear calendar. As the days passed, I started keeping a list of what made me happy so I’d remember when life got busy again:

Lying in bed listening to birdsong

Cooking a new, healthy recipe

Slipping into a cozy bed warmed by a heating pad

Watching my cat wrestle with catnip

Long walks with my husband, lost in conversation

Waking up at sunrise

Getting a foot massage

Leisurely shopping for clothes

Creating new music playlists

Sitting on the deck watching hummingbirds dance in the air

These are the little things I dream about doing during long car rides to the airport, or when staring out the window of an airplane, traveling to yet another city to speak. I’m growing tired of hearing myself say I’m looking forward to (fill in the blank), followed by a bittersweet sadness rising in my chest. I need to stop looking ahead and start asking: What am I doing now that keeps me looking forward to something else? And why am I doing it?

I’m preoccupied with how I spend my time these days, and I can trace the source of this feeling to my fiftieth birthday nearly four years ago. That morning I went downstairs, got on the treadmill, and began to watch a movie on TV. At the first commercial break, I realized I had no idea what the story was about as the significance of this birthday hit me full on. Fifty years old. Midlife. More years behind me than lay ahead. I’d heard all the clichés before, but they always applied to someone else—parents, aunts and uncles, older friends.

Now they belonged to me.

Rather than avoid the subject of dying, I made a decision to dive into it. I shut the TV off and started thinking: What will life be like when I’m in my eighties or nineties, if I live that long? Will I enjoy good health or spend my days slumped over in a nursing-home chair? Who will handle my things when I die—my journals and the cards and letters I’ve stashed away in the old cedar trunk in the garage? Will I outlive Michael, my family members, and my friends? How old will I be when I finally leave the planet?

I thought about what I’d regret not having done before I died, and a few answers immediately sprang to mind:

Live peacefully in my body

Make beauty and nature more of a priority in my everyday life

Be less defended and more open to others

Let go of my self-consciousness and be bolder with my choices

These regrets may not be typical bucket-list items, but they reflect what’s always been deeply important to me: the inner adventure. I’m passionate about self-development and challenging myself to grow as a person, seeking out experiences that contribute to the evolution of my soul. Before I pushed the reality of mortality back into the shadowy corners of my consciousness, I had to admit that frightening as it was to think about my expiration date, it was strangely comforting as well. Death isn’t wishy-washy. It doesn’t fool around. When I’m done, I’m done (with this life, anyway), so I’d better make damn sure I’m doing what I really want to do right now.

Excerpted from Waking Up in Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife

Copyright © 2017 by Cheryl Richardson. Published by HarperOne.

This excerpt was featured in the Feb. 17th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.