What would you do with just 37 days left to live?

Author Digh sends audience a message

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Patti Digh looks around each day and sees people who are overbooked, stressed out, tired, and argumentative. But underneath it all, she says they yearn to live a more meaningful life.

Perhaps that is why she has had such a big response to her blog, "37 days," and to the 2008 book it spawned, "Life Is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally."

The title comes from the fact that her stepfather lived for only 37 days after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003. She began to wonder, "What would I be doing today if I had 37 days to live?"

The answer, she told a packed ballroom Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, was to realize that "I wanted to live a life so when I got to day one [of the 37], I would be able to wake up and say 'I'm living the life that I had wanted to be living all along.' "

Ms. Digh was the keynote speaker for the American Counseling Association's annual meeting, which has drawn more than 3,000 professional counselors to the city.

Two years after her stepfather died, she began her "37 days" blog so she could tell stories that she could someday leave behind for her daughters, Emma and Tess. Within six months, she said, the blog had acquired 15,000 readers from all over the world.

Some of her stories came from her girls themselves.

When her daughter Tess was young, she said, nothing excited her more than to see a bus -- "She was like someone with short-term memory loss, because every time, she'd say, 'Wow, a bus!' -- and since Tess had a penetrating voice, everyone else knew it, too.

Ms. Digh said it got her to wondering what would happen if everyone could greet life with such enthusiasm.

"What if we said, 'Wow, a meeting! Lookee, an insanely long and completely inane meeting! A report due tomorrow, a mortgage payment -- wow! What would life be like if we actually approached it that way?"

To give her stories some framework for the book, Ms. Digh came up with six "simple practices" that she felt could make everyone's life more meaningful, day by day: Say yes; be generous; love more; trust ourselves; speak up; and slow down.

We all have routines or practices, she said, and they don't always make sense, like the time she and a friend went into an empty bookstore cafe at mid-afternoon to get a snack.

She asked the clerk for toast.

"He said, 'I don't think that's possible. It's past toast time.' I said, really? In my world, if you have a toaster and bread, it's pretty much always toast time."

She and her friend laughed over the absurdity of the situation, but later, she thought, "Don't we all have our own toast rules? You shouldn't wear white shoes after Labor Day; girls shouldn't be tuba players; boys shouldn't cry."

For her practices, she said, she tried to come up with ways to "make minuscule life corrections that result in quantum shifts in experience."

To demonstrate her "say yes" principle, she had people in the audience pair off and pretend to plan a birthday party, with each person having to say "yes, but ..." in response to a partner's suggestion. After that, she had people repeat the exercise, but say, "Yes, and ...." as a response.

"Usually what happens is the quality of your ideas goes down if you know that the other person is going to say 'Yes, but ... ' because he is saying, 'I'm no longer even listening to this; I'm already trying to work out my rebuttal.'

"Do you work with someone like this?" she asked, and immediately got a loud chorus of "yes."

She defined the practice of being generous as "holding open space for people to be as fully human as we are." Her example: When she was a manager of a large organization in Washington, D.C. several years ago, a woman named Dolores who was a typesetter there died at 53 of a heart attack.

When Ms. Digh went to the funeral, she said, 14 gospel choirs came down the aisle of the church. She learned that Dolores had started them all.

"Dolores had never been invited to be on our organization's task forces or committees. She was 'just' a typesetter. After that funeral, I thought, 'I worked with this woman for 20 years, and I never even knew she sang.' And then I thought, 'Because she was in the box marked 'typesetter' on our organizational chart, what skills of hers did we never tap into or ask about?"

Ms. Digh's "love more" practice advocates loving ourselves as well as others.

For years, she said, she carried with her a pair of blue jeans she had worn in high school, thinking that someday she'd be able to fit into them again. One day, her 12-year-old daughter told her she had no pants to wear, and Ms. Digh gave her the jeans.

"A few minutes later, my daughter comes back in the bedroom, flings the jeans on bed, and says, 'I can't wear them -- they're too small!' I thought, 'Are you kidding me? For 30 years I've beat myself up that I can't wear a pair of jeans that a thin 12-year-old can't wear.' "

It was a lesson, she said, in learning to "really love who we are in a deeper way."

The idea behind all the practices and stories in "Life Is a Verb," she said, is to answer the question, "How could we live a more irresistible obituary, so that when people read it, they will say, 'Man I really wish I had known that person.' "

Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published March 21, 2010 5:15 AM


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