Three months to live … differently

At the start of 2014, I drafted a series of ambitious goals, the SMART kind, which involve specific, measurable steps with corresponding deadlines. A few weeks later, I crunched numbers to find that two of my goals weren’t financially worth the effort, and letting them go was a welcome relief. Even if those projects had been profitable, their realization wasn’t quite realistic (the R in SMART).

Incidentally, planning and executing a three-month sojourn in Paris wasn’t listed among those ambitious goals, because I considered it a fait accompli. As the departure date approached, I started compiling a mental list of other goals specific to my time overseas–ways to capitalize on this unique opportunity.

Beyond the sight-seeing, long walks and French study, I hoped to blog regularly, sell travel writing articles, start a memoir project, and–oh yeah–maintain my freelance work. Three months abroad should provide ample time and inspiration to write and create all these things … so I thought.

Teach us to number our days

At an Italian restaurant near my studio in the 17th, while waiting on a plate of scaloppine al limone, I pulled out the little notebook in which I jot the day’s activities and experiences. Next to each date, I’ve listed the day of the journey and the corresponding days left, e.g., Day 1/83, Day 3/81, Day 6/78, and so on.

Since I’m visiting Paris more as a temporary resident than as a tourist, I knew it might be easy to fall into a complacent routine if I’m not careful. The daily countdown was meant to be a reminder of the brevity of this experience.

As I realized how rapidly this countdown was descending, I felt a kind of panic, a glimpse of what it might be like to have only three months to live. (Granted, an imperfect analogy, because if I really had only three months to live, I wouldn’t be in Paris at all.)

I’d spent several days after my arrival just trying to settle in–unpacking, getting groceries, wrestling with Internet and cellphone issues. Considering all that I wanted to see and do, suddenly I thought: Three months is simply not enough time. No, perhaps not–but an entire lifetime might not be enough to truly experience everything Paris has to offer.

So if three months is all I have, how then shall I live?

One reason I love big cities is that their energy and rhythm matches my personal pace. I love going to Manhattan and urban-hiking for hours on end. But I didn’t come to Paris to spend three months feeling frantic and desperate.

Slowing the inner inertia

Do you remember that childhood trick to test whether an egg was boiled or raw? You spun it on a table top, and then as it whirred, you tapped it with your finger. If it was boiled, it would stop; if raw, it would keep spinning.

High school physics taught us that the raw egg continued to spin because its inner matter was resistant to a change in its state of motion. That’s also why we wear seat belts, because inertia will take you through a windshield if something forces the car to a sudden stop.

Outside of egg shells and car frames exists a sinister kind of inertia–the unrelenting pace that defines modern life. Most of us have become so accustomed to this frenetic (and unsustainable) lifestyle that we barely register how fast we’re moving, until something forces a change of pace.

I most often sense this inner inertia when I try to sit still–to write or pray or meditate. If I’m at home, I may be compelled to go to a coffeehouse. Once installed in the coffeehouse, my impulse is to go back home and try writing from the couch. If I try meditative prayer, I feel anxious and impatient. My racing mind would rather ruminate or daydream.

Our whole beings–body, mind, spirit–synch at the same speed. Being still isn’t easy when your mind and spirit are still moving.

Sickness or injury are hard, fast (and unwelcome) stops to personal inertia. But we can also slow down incrementally, like gently tapping the raw egg until it stops spinning.

In the midst of so much movement, a security guard demonstrates the art of being still.

In the midst of so much movement, a security guard demonstrates the art of being still. (To be fair, he was guarding an empty animal crate–a promo for a zoo.)

Original intentions

Now that my first week in Paris is past–those mental goals hardly started, that panic hovering in the periphery–I realize this slowing of my spirit is just what I need.

The first gentle tap to my whirring spirit was to look that panic in the face: What do I need to do in order to feel, on that last day, that this trip has been a success? Do I need to have walked across all 20 arrondissements? Should I have completed the first draft of a manuscript? Be a totally transformed person with inner peace, serenity and heightened creative powers? A girl can dream, but no–remember that the R in SMART means realistic.

The second tap was to give myself grace: You don’t have to accomplish any particular goal–you don’t even have to have a big goal. Sure, an overseas sojourn is a great opportunity to write, but I became much more interested in writing once the pressure to do so was relaxed.

The third tap was to remember my original intention. I had to re-read my own blog post to remember why I’m here. Oh yeah! Relish magic, nurture a sense of wonder, refuel imagination. All rather abstract ideas, the kind that don’t fit well into a SMART goal template. How to you plan to “glimpse the glory of God” or to “be stilled by beauty”? You don’t. You have to be available. You have to pay attention.

The last, most important tap has been to speak aloud my deep gratitude, every day, that I’m here at all. This practice, more than anything else, attunes my spirit to the Giver. As I stroll the city streets, I think about where I was five years ago, and I give thanks. I think about where I could be instead, and I give thanks. (I smell the homeless man before I see him, and I’m instantly humbled by having worried about such grievously first-world problems. For all my hands hold, nothing but gratitude is even appropriate.)

Not every day in Paris will be a creative quest for glory and beauty. I still have to work, clean my apartment, do laundry, pay bills–normal life things. But I have three months to live … differently. As I continue to settle in, I hope to change my pace, even a little, even for just a little while. To do just that would be a gift indeed.

Eiffel Tower at night

In Paris, the quest for glory and beauty takes very little effort.