How to live a real life

by cheri block sabraw

For the first forty years of my life, I operated on automatic. Whatever needed to be accomplished, I did. Serious problems–financial ruin, death, divorce, betrayal, disease–only occurred in the rich literature I was teaching to my high school students and in the lives of other people.

I began to reflect about the meaning of life when lung cancer forced my father to drop out of the earthly life experience, but even then, I was busy, so I jumped back into my English saddle and cantered on my rocking horse facing the wall. I continued to produce, to meet the needs of others before my own, to base my worth on my work and my appearance.

About five years ago, my handsome husband took a new exciting job far from our home, at the same time I was hitting menopause. I began worrying about how I looked, dressed, and appeared to him and to others. Thoughts that had never entered my mind, did. For the very first time, I realized that I was aging and would look different from the person that others had been attracted to for my figure, my face, and my enthusiasm. What would be left of the essential Cheri if her face looks old, her figure sags a bit, and her enthusiasm wanes on occasion? Would I still be attractive in a different way?

All of these questions terrified me.

Then my mother moved to town and had two strokes within one year, leaving her a changed person. My mother is alive but is not the same person I knew. This grief I shared but didn’t fully process.

Joe died last year and with his death, I lost a husky male friend who could help me understand what older men might be experiencing themselves. Our conversations were rich with authenticity.

My friends, many of them, moved away.

All of these events forced me into a deep contemplation.

Deep contemplation at the Rancho is possible because of the silence here.

I stopped talking so much and started listening to my inner voice.

I stopped jumping through every hoop in a childish need for approval.

I stopped trying to control the comings and goings of my family members.

I  stopped cheerleading (after 40 years of it).

I started thinking of important things in life that had nothing to do with me, my happiness, my appearance, and my ego.

Then, I enrolled in a class at Stanford that helped me integrate many of these feelings into one paper entitled How to Live a Real Life.  I got an A on that paper but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had gotten a B+. 🙂 

I’m going to post the criteria I included in that paper before I post a few selections from it.

Criteria for living a real life: A cumulative list

  1.  Reflect.  We must be willing to examine the truth about our lives and to change, if necessary.
  2.   Listen. We talk and interrupt. We miss messages sent from the self, from other human beings, and from Life (God, Divine Mind, Higher Power, The River).
  3.     Simplify. We must be willing to clean out clutter from the external self—things and obligations, for example—that contribute to the preoccupation and distraction that camouflage the present moment.
  4.    Move away from vanity. Modern culture worships youth, skin, breasts, hair, and clothing. While looking our best contributes to self-esteem, making physical appearance more important than spiritual and moral development is self-destructive.
  5.     Let go of control. We can control very little in our lives. This realization and practice removes some of the stumbling blocks to being authentic such as anger, narcissism, and fear.
  6.     Set others free. Although a by-product of #5, choosing to set our spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends free from our controlling thoughts releases both the captive and captor.
  7.      Accept loss. As we age, we lose people we love. Some of us lose parts of our lives that we naively hoped would last forever: physical health, sexual attractiveness, professional acknowledgement, personal freedom, and intellectual acuity.
  8.      Practice intimacy. When we love and share our thoughts and fears, we create connection, that which we desire the most.
  9.      Be better than you really are. We are imperfect but we can transcend this imperfection, if for only a moment.
  10.   Become a Mensch. If we practice the first nine criteria, we will be able to devote our time to other people and their needs. We will be righteous, unselfish and honorable. Our nature will be to think of others before self.

If you would like to add or amend any of the criteria, let me know. I’m open.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is perhaps one of the greatest plays ever written. I cried unabashedly when I read it as a high schooler and could never teach it without breaking down several times (this became an urban legend at the high school where I taught…).

It captures the essence of my list.

May your holidays be introspective. The cold winter is a perfect time to do this.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Life, People and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to How to live a real life

  1. ccsaw says:

    We were raised to think that our lives would unfold in a linear manner. Of course, we know that real life is a zig-zag of events, some good, some bad, the only certainty being that they will come in their own time as sure as the sun rises. Our desire to control or predict them is usually futile.
    When Neil Young was 19 he wrote Sugar Mountain

    Sugar Mountain
    Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
    With the barkers and the colored balloons,
    You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
    Though you’re thinking that
    You’re leaving there too soon

    It’s so noisy at the fair
    But all your friends are there
    And the candy floss you had
    And your mother and your dad.

    Worried about Neil and his epiphany, she wrote The Circle Game

    And the seasons they go round and round
    And the painted ponies go up and down
    We’re captive on the carousel of time
    We can’t return we can only look
    Behind from where we came
    And go round and round and round
    In the circle game

    And so, while I often try to reach back and grab a moment from the past, I know I must continue to grow and move forward, with all my failures and imperfections, until the ride stops and I am shuffled off this mortal coil.

  2. ccsaw says:

    sorry, Joni MItchell wrote the Circle Game.

  3. bogard says:

    Love all those criteria, Cheri. Sage advice to all, and well stated. To add one (maybe a combination of several of yours): Decrease the noise in life. As a trained researcher who has, on occasion, used sensitive insrtuments, a high signal-to-noise ratio is imperative for high-quality data. I have likened it to my life, attempting to minimize all the noise in order for ‘life signals’ to have much more clarity/fidelity. I’m getting there, slowly but surely. May your, and the Judge’s, signal-to-noise ratios increase over the New Year. Happy Holidays!!!

    • Cheri says:

      I’d like to pursue your line of thinking: can you provide some tangible examples of how you are minimizing the “noise” of life?

      I think we are both referring to the distractions, aren’t we. Are you preoccupied? That’s what the Judge battles.

      • bogard says:

        Sorry about the delay in response. One example of decreasing noise in my life was getting off tenure track. It just got rid of a lot of ridiculous expectations. Made a huge difference for me. Another was driving at times when there is less traffic. And yes, you are correct, distractions are very “noisy,” and the fewer the better. “Pre-occupied” is interesting. I try to focus only on what is at hand. One thing I have been successful at doing to decrease distractions is to leave work at work. I never bring work home. It has been very helpful at allowing me to focus on home, whether it’s projects or relationships. When I go on vacation, I don’t check emails from work, I forget about work. I literally ‘vacate.’

        • Cheri says:

          Wow. You have tremendous self-control Bogard.
          In the Bay Area it is almost impossible to drive when there is less traffic. We were just observing that the other day. We are almost LA, but not quite or I’d move. I had enough LA in college.

          Happy New Year to my friend, Bogard (who, frankly, could reveal many stories of my overly dramatic childhood but because of the gentleman that he is, will not…right Bogard?)

  4. Philippe says:

    CCSAW”s (Steve’s?) mention of Neil Young, put me in mind of his song “Old Man”, which Neil first sang when still young (sic). The opening lines are, “Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.”

    The spectacle of the sixty-something Neil Young on YouTube now singing this lyric seems to me odd. If he is still to sing “Old Man” in concert, might he not, in the interests of verisimilitude, tweak the first line into something like “Young man look at my life, I’m a lot like you’ll be”?

    The topic of aging also puts me in mind of these words of TS Eliot:

    The end of our exploring,
    Will be to go back to where we started,
    And know the place for the first time

    The older I get, the more true these words are for me.

    • Cheri says:

      I’m thinking about T.S. Eliot’s lines.
      I’m not sure what the last line really means.

      • Philippe says:

        “….to go back to where we started
        And know the place for the first time……”

        These words are indeed ambiguous.

        The “place” where I, for instance, started, was a “place” where I knew nothing, but didn’t know it.

        There was a time when I thought I knew a lot, and thought I had everything figured out. But the more I learned, and the more I thought, the less I realised I actually knew. Now, I realise I know nothing for sure, and have doubt about everything.

        So I’m back at the “place” where I started, the “place” where I knew nothing. I still know nothing (or at least nothing for sure) but I now know I know nothing.

        This, then, is something of what TS Eliot’s words mean to me. No doubt they will mean something very different to you. This is as it should be. Or is it?!!!

        Looking at what you wrote, I think you have gone back to the “place” where you started, but you now know it infinitely better.

  5. ccsaw says:


    Wow, great observation; He wrote Sugar Mountain when he was 19. I will have to determine his age when he wrote Old Man.

    There’s a funny line in Jackson Browne’s rendition of Cocaine which shows a young song writer’s skewed perception of the generations:

    I went to see the doctor, down at the hospital, he said
    It says here you’re 27, but that’s impossible,
    You could be forty-five
    Cocaine, running all round my brain


  6. When you will be 80 and looking back, you will say:”How the hell did I get here so fast?”

    • Cheri says:

      I know your words are true, Paul. And I’ll be there in a blink of the eye. Then why so much concern about “aging”?
      Help me.

      • Humans fear the unknown and aging is just that, heading toward the unknown and it starts at birth. Taking it one day at a time and enjoying that day helps overcome the fear…but requires an act of faith in destiny.

        • Cheri says:

          Ahhh…so true…but takes so much practice to take a day at a time.
          Thanks my Montreal friend.
          By the way, I thought of you because I called Rejean, a great guy who owns a hat store in Quebec City. Ron and I had a fabulous visit with him when we were there. I ordered a grey felt hat that Ron had admired. Just hearing his French accent…made me wish I were back in Quebec.

  7. Philippe says:

    @Steve – Yes, when one is 27, like the character in the lyrics of “Cocaine”, people of 45 are old. I remember in my own twenties when I saw all people 40 and over as old fogies, on the cusp of the grave almost. Now, in my late 60’s I see the forty-somethings as young whipper-snappers!!

    I think Neil Young was 25 or so when he wrote “Old Man”. Here, incidentally, is my *favourite video of him* performing it. It was a solo performance live at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1971, and shows Young’s guitarring to great effect.

    As Young explains in his introduction, he wrote the song for an old man who was a caretaker on his ranch in California. But, this old man may well have been only in his fifties or sixties – relatively young by today’s standards.

  8. Great food for thought–and I like the pics too! Thanks.

  9. Very soulful post, and a sign of genuine triumph. I think you already noted, somewhere, an astonishing serendipity: The last of my “Lessons of Hannibal” (the last chapter in my book) is also “Become a Mensch.” We have slipped into a higher dimenschion.

    Purely from a writerly perspective:

    “…About five years ago, my handsome husband took a new exciting job far from our home, at the same time I was hitting menopause. I began worrying about how I looked, dressed, and appeared to him and to others. Thoughts that had never entered my mind, did….”

    The first and third of those sentences are powerful. You could have cut out the second. We were all already there with you.

  10. Ccsaw says:

    I ratify Andreas’ observation.


  11. Cyberquill says:

    “… and cantered on my rocking horse facing the wall.”

    That’s a good one. You came up with it?

  12. Cheri says:

    Hi Peter,
    In all of my writing– my thoughts, images, and word choice are my own. I am a horsewoman, ride an English saddle… Seemed to fit the story as opposed to say, the hamster wheel (although as a former hamster owner, that might have worked) and the ubiquitous treadmill.

  13. Bravo, Cheri. For getting real. Love that you ask Paul for help. Very moved by who you are being. Best wishes to you and yours for Christmas and the holidays xx

  14. wkkortas says:

    Our good friend Masters once wrote “genius is wisdom and youth”, but I suspect (hope?) that his defiinition of youth tended toward the child-like curiosity it embodies as opposed to a flatter stomach and thicker head of hair (although I confess that I wish I could still dunk a basketball; such is vanity.)

  15. Cheri says:

    I was always told that child-like is OK. Childish–no, no, no.
    You mean you can’t dunk a basketball? Bah, humbug.
    Just lower the basket.

  16. Richard says:

    I can’t quite read the sign between the poles in the second picture from this angle. What does it say?

    Do not cross the line
    Keep off the grass
    Flood level
    Population 0
    Welcome to the Rancho
    This notice must not be read

    Happy Christmas

    … ❓

  17. Cheri says:

    Ha! Fun.
    The sign is on the Ranchland, a stretch of property bordering the Pacific Ocean that was saved from developers by various environmental groups…the Land Conservancy, etc.

    That sign (and others) always tell visitors that the area is under “habitat construction” or “sensitive iceplant” or something like that.

    Dinah and I obey the rules on the Ranchland.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  18. Cheri,
    Your post made me sigh and cry.

    Early on in our journey we thought differently – we cheerleaders – so now we shift into a new paradigm.

    Remember Jung. Remember him saying, “But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”

    Peace to you Sister Cheri,

  19. Cheri says:

    Thanks Sis…
    My father called me Ethel Barrymore for the first twelve years of my life. That says everything.

    I have a penchant for the theatrical moment.

    Happy New Year! I count you and your sagacious comments as one of my blessings.

  20. Richard says:

    You say rules lead to reality?

    The idea has a familiar ring.

    • Ccsaw says:

      Sometimes following the rules disrupt or confuse the search for one’s reality. After all, another’s rules are intended to shape the seekers conduct and by their nature do not foster or clarify the seeker’s reality. The rule maker may have good intentions but fails to understand that each person’s reality is unique to them.

      • Richard says:

        Suppose you lay down rules for The Rancho.

        Rule One: You can have only one other rule
        Rule Two: That rule must be consistent with Rule One.

        That uses up your quota.

        “But,” you say, ” you know what I mean.”

        The rules are not unique to you, then. So let’s try –

        Rule One: Love God
        Rule Two: Love your neighbour

        “But,” you ask “who is my neighbour?”

        The rules have taken over reality. Words have displaced thoughts.

        • Cheri says:

          Hi Richard,
          Are you responding to Ccsaw or to my post?
          The reality may be, Richard, that my neighbors are bad people. I probably will not love them.

        • Richard says:

          I was not really intending here to consider whether one should love one’s neighbour, Cheri, but what is a bad person?

          Let’s say for these purposes that a bad person is someone who does bad things.

          I would say adultery is bad because it’s a denial of love.
          Others say it’s a celebration of love.
          Who is right?

          Taxation is collective theft.
          Is it good or bad?

          Is a law which bans killing but itself kills good or bad?

          Is it sometimes an act of love to lie?

          So what is the reality?

      • Cheri says:

        I speak as a teacher. While your observation that rules do not “foster or clarify the seeker’s reality” may be true in a number of cases, in my world of education, the rules enabled me to set some guidelines for conduct and then teach.

        You are correct in that each person’s reality is unique to them.

        • Ccsaw says:

          I think we all agree that the rule of law is much like the thumb, it distinguishes us from other species and enables us to live together in common cause.

          I think rules are good, necessary and of course are part of the reality of those who live under them. Maybe it’s the private rules that we promulgate for ourselves in the search of our own reality that become oughts or shoulds that we feel would be good for another that are problematical. For me, it is often difficult to truly understand someone else’s reality when I am, like everyone, busy working on examining my own.

  21. Richard says:

    @ Cheri and ccSaw

    Sorry to be obscure.

    I am uneasy about Cheri providing a set of “Commandments” to define a “Real life”. Ten of them, it so happens. It seems also that Cheri claims a universality in the rules for she invites others to “Add or amend”. It is her vocation to guide others, yes, but here we are concerned with the individual response to the enigmas of life.

    The next question is whether those rules can be validated by simplification. For convenience, I suggested two because we have the historical analogy of the Christian simplification of Judaic law.

    I sought to show that any attempt to use a form of words to encompass reality fails because it will be questioned. Maybe there is more universality in thought than there is in words.

    I addressed both Cheri and ccSaw ( I should have said), though I have rather more sympathy with ccSaw’s proposition that everybody’s reality is unique.

    @ MJHB and Christopher (Philippe)

    I do not feel any significant difference in essentials between what I am now and what I was fifty or even sixty years ago. I am the same person. Findings reported today suggest that over-seventies can think as quickly as the young.

  22. Christopher says:

    Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.

  23. Cheri says:

    I found that in my classroom, my rules became the reality for my students. Although we were all “unique,” we came together under the same umbrella. For example, one of my rules was that all written work turned in after the due date was late. Invariably, some would-be attorney would ask for more clarification of “late.” I accommodated this line of questioning. The same questions were asked about other words: rude, food, hats, gum, bad words, good taste, bad taste.
    The first day of school was all about the rules.The simplicity of it all was a beautiful thing…

    As for “bad” people…literature is rife with them. Let’s see….and the same for “good” people. Some good people are tragic. Are bad people tragic? Or evil? Or stupid? I’d argue that King Lear is a bad person.
    What about Cromwell? How about the person who perjured himself so that Sir Thomas More was beheaded? I’d say he was “bad.”

    As for my criteria for living a real life, they are, indeed, my rules…suggestions and guidelines for establishing a canvas that will accommodate a meaningful painting. I recognize that they are emphatic.

    Most life-changing statements are emphatic, aren’t they?

    • Richard says:

      Ouch! I felt that, Miss. 🙂

      If it’s reality you want, discount fictional characters and political figures you happen to disagree with.

      This grown-up lawyer is emphatic (and right). It is of genuine concern that your tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, charity – all the things we associate with love – may be conditional upon a vague notion of badness. In other words, I don’t believe you for one moment.

      Emphatic guidelines and suggestions? That’s an oxymoron if ever I saw one.

      Most life-changing events quietly creep up on you, leave no option and often go unnoticed. Drama and decision together breed inconsequence.

      Perhaps. 😉

  24. Richard says:

    Reality is a fireball headed for Earth. A straining fault line. Your list is irrelevant.

    Take your unfinished creed to a starving mother clutching a fly-ridden corpse to her breast or to a condemned murderer. Tell them to search for the real life. Pin you articles of faith to a maimed soldier in Afghanistan or to a crushed skull in Cambodia.

    Our cities are harbingers of despair, misery and pain yet we dress them up as theme parks for ourselves – the idle, the civilised and the rich – to mask reality.

    Death mocks from every corner and will win.

    Consult your senses. The real life is all around. It is us. Live it.

    • Jeff Wong says:

      Absolutely correct. The list is irrelevant to those people because it would be telling them what they already know.

      There are a lot of fake people. Some of them may even have been CBS’s students. And we live in America, we are desperately in need of new values. For example, we always need more crap even though we simultaneously have too much stuff (see #3). Most Americans are too fat for physical vanity, though spiritual and moral vanity are a big problem. That’s why we’ve spent the past 10 years grinding up young people in wars and some unknown mass of foreigners who aren’t as good as we are, and don’t appreciate our sacrifices to bring them freedom.

      If anything, the list reads a bit too sissy and gay for America. For a country with women politicians who talk about the need for more “balls”, this list needs more cussing and less touchy-feeling Whole-Foods talk.

      Oh and if anyone is offended by my America-bashing, my conditional apologies to you.
      I’ll say that the Chinese society is probably going to outdo America in the monstrosity department.

      • Cheri says:

        Hello Jeff,
        Your second paragraph seems to support the list.
        This list does not replace values.
        It is not meant to dictate.
        If one were to eliminate materialism and vanity, accept oneself by being a better person that he/she really is, mind the Golden Rule…then this world (never mind China or any other country because human nature is what it is…) would be a better place.

        I greatly appreciate the voice in your writing. 🙂

  25. Cheri says:

    I’ll defer to the Velveteen Rabbit.

  26. ccsaw says:

    Ok, I’m confused. We were having a high minded discussion about the search for reality, and living the real life, covered the rule of law, our personal rules and the futility of it all.
    And now the two of you are deferring to rodents? Oh boy, we are in trouble!
    It might be prudent for us to consult Castaneda’s don Juan on this one…More to follow…

  27. Cheri says:

    I’ve spent a great deal of mind and soul coming up with this list.
    I’m not interested in a legalistic discussion.

    You two can continue until the cows come in.

    I stand by my criteria, blokes.

    • Richard says:

      Your meditations touch a very raw nerve.
      Do we shape the world, or does the world shape us? What is the place of the human will?
      I did not intend a peremptory dismissal of your work; rather, I was trying to come to terms with it.

      • Cheri says:

        Richard and Steve,

        I do understand that you were taking in a serious look at my list and for that I am appreciative. Truly.

        Perhaps I am being lazy this holiday season. I did not think your words were any type of dismissal!

        Your questions are relevant and thought-provoking, Richard.

        In my view, the world shapes us. We have the power to react to anything that may happen to us.

        I disagree with some of your statements. My list is not irrelevant.
        And the Velveteen Bunny?

        From a page in my paper:

        Living a real life is a process that takes time. Most of us are familiar with the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit and the poignant dialogue between the Skin Horse and the Rabbit, who desires to be real instead of a stuffed toy lying on the floor of the playroom. He asks the Skin Horse how one becomes Real.
        “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Williams 2)

        This insightful conversation makes it clear that not everyone becomes real; that is, certain behaviors such as spiritual and moral weakness, aggressiveness, and self-centeredness may preclude one from actualizing. The last line bookends the process by reminding those of us intent on leading a real life that “people who don’t understand” live in this playroom we call society and may hamper our search for meaning.

        • ccsaw says:

          Dear Cheri (and Richard)

          No one and certainly not me, a very under-read individual (outside the law, first aid procedures and the entomology of insects eaten by trout,) ever considered your list to be irrelevant. To the contrary, to the extent that it provoked discussion, it is well within the marketplace of ideas, provocative and helpful to those of us that do examine our lives.

          I often feel dismissed in my job, on giving advice to others and by the Democratic Party since I am an internally exiled Democrat soon to become an independent.

          I have not fully differentiated into a whole human being that fully understands his life, surroundings, relationships and other matters; not unlike a 40 day old fetus that is just completing the process of organogenesis-I too have an expectation of full maturity having reached the third trimester of my life. Ironically, most people “get it” about the time they die.

          So, I say pa-jah-mas, you say pa-jam-as and I thank you for sharing your knowledge Ma’am!

          And to both of you, War Horse is worth seeing.


  28. Cheri says:

    I was answering Richard’s statement above that my list is irrelevant.

  29. Cheri says:

    Ivan Ilych “got it” at the end of his life. Right, Steve.
    This is what we strive to avoid.

  30. ccsaw says:

    i agree and of course we are talking about a matter of degree. There are perspectives I have today largely the result of my own life’s life’s experiences that are, I believe, pretty authentic. There are certainly other matters that I may not even be aware of yet, or that I haven’t found, if one believes I should have discovered them by now, that I am hopeful I will discover along the way. It’s ok not to know about everything with gin clarity. Its a process, I think you would agree. It would be a luxury if you had 98% of it down while still lucid.

    • Steve says:

      I have a new approach

      Richard, if you don’t mind, I’d like to order up a shot of Beefeaters over, pour Cheri a Coffe Joanne (coffee, Kahluah, and Baileys. And I’ ll treat you and your better half – what’ll ya have?

      Now isn’t that better guys!!

      Top of the morning to you all. ( it’s early early morning here)


  31. Cheri says:

    And the rest, as they say, is history.

  32. ccsaw says:

    And that’s the way it was, January 1, 2012…..

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