How to live a real life, revisited

by cheri block sabraw

Five years have passed since I wrote How to Live  a Real Life, the post that every year since has been read  more than any other post I have ever written.

Upon revisiting this post this morning, I am surprised by the honesty in it.

First, for those of you who have not read it, I re-post:

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. 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, or 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.


January 14, 2017

Reflect: Although nostalgia does wick into the watercolor of my life, I now try to experience memory as a positive force, not one that somehow makes me feel that something pleasurable has left and then replaced by a drab foreboding of the future.

Listen: I still talk more than I listen. Oddly, most of what I hear bores me. I find myself only listening to people who interest me. This type of selective listening is dangerous.

Simplify: My life is simpler than it was five years ago. I allotted an inordinate amount of space in an already busy brain to worrying about my mother and her daily life challenges. Now, every morning, I meditate on the memory of my magnificent mother and try to seize life as she would have, minus the worrying about whether I am meeting expectation.

Vanity: Aging is a steamroller. However.  I still buy products…

Let Go of Control: Five years have brought tremendous progress to me in this category. I am much more content not trying to control the weather, how Europe is doing, how fast my roots grow out, or my husband’s work schedule. In these areas, I am finally free.

Set Others Free: A Buddhist truth: the more you grasp at something, the more it eludes you. I have found this, above all other truths, to be the most instructive. Just remember that the harder you squeeze the soap bar, the greater the chance it will fly out of your hand and on to your toe.

Accept Loss: Time strips us of so many things we desperately want to hold on to: the people with whom we so adored social engagement, the pets whose love and eyes brought us solace when human words were inadequate, the world as we hoped it would progress and myriad other expectations. I now accept these losses because I have to.

Practice Intimacy: Now, I am intimate with those people who want to me intimate with me.

Be Better Than You Really Are: This criterion is the most challenging for me now. I shall devote 2017 to being better than I really am.

Become a Mensch: Most thoughtful and reflective people know when a mensch is in their midst. A mensch-aura is subtle, humble, and quiet. The problem is in listening past the din in modern culture, the selfie in self, and the humility in bravado.

This year, I am going to read Our Town without crying.





About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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16 Responses to How to live a real life, revisited

  1. shoreacres says:

    My first question is: who let that elephant into the cactus patch?

    My first observation is: I don’t think I would add to or subtract from your list of criteria.

    I did have a couple of thoughts as I read your current reflections on the criteria. Although I agree that it’s sometimes important to listen to people who seem boring, it’s also important not to give time to those who truly are boring simply because they demand it. This insight has helped me cull my blog reading list and know when to leave parties. The programmers’ GIGO is wisdom, indeed, and everyone from Thoreau to Annie Dillard has preached the same sermon: what we take in is who we become. If we take in the boring, the insensitive, the nasty, or the frankly stupid on a regular basis, we’re more likely to tend toward those qualities ourselves.

    I laughed when I got to the issue of control, and you mentioned the weather. When I started varnishing and suddenly found myself at the mercy of the weather? Oh, my. It must have taken me five years to get over my obsession with weather forecasts. Maybe ten years. Trying to control the uncontrollable is a fool’s errand, for sure. I have found that kind of letting go is a transferable skill. Yesterday, the weather forecast; today, politics as soap opera.

    • Cheri says:

      First to the elephant in the cactus patch. I took that photo back in 2009 at the Boulders Golf Course in Carefree Arizona. Isn’t that a stitch?

      And yes, I regularly told my high schoolers that “you are who your friends are..” They did not like such a staunch emphatic statement of truth. Not at all.

      I sometimes wonder if my sense of boredom has to do with what dumbed-down television, movie, social media, and the like has wrought.

      Politics as soap opera…what a perfect phrase for the final weeks of the Obama administration and the coming of the Trumpster’s administration.

  2. Paul Costopoulos says:

    What an introspective piece of litterature. and at so young an age. I wish you can reach a state of quiet abandonmemnt like that of Dina in your arms. When you will be really old, all these considerations will be moot unless you have not learned to enjoy the moment without to much exspectations. As the Roman poet said: “Carpe diem”.

    • Cheri says:

      So young an age? Aren’t you sweet? I like the term “quiet abandonment.” And wasn’t that puppy Dinah so adorable? She is such a mature girl now at the age of 8, so mature that last night, just as the judge was settling back in his lounge chair with a vodka tonic, she went “berserk” and ran around our coffee table at least 20 times. She is shedding now (why, in the winter, I do not know) and hair went flying everywhere. The Judge is not a dog person. He asked WHEN is this damn dog going to get old?

  3. Richard says:

    Dear Cheri,

    You show remarkable self-discipline and purpose, and seek to continue along the path you planned in 2011. I doubt if I would even remember aims I set myself five years ago, even if I had taken the trouble to set any at all.

    Your readers will see little need for you to improve yourself, so why not enjoy all things, who and what you are, live in the present and let go setting more standards to live up to? That won’t stop you admiring perfection. … the harder you squeeze the soap pad, the greater the chance it will fly out of your hand …

    There is much in these two posts that reminds me of the protestant work ethic, another cause for congratulation.

  4. Cheri says:

    Hi Richard,
    Thank you.
    I remember in my early blogging years, I was following a blogger who was a former Jew who had become a Buddhist.
    One of my posts insisted that work was good for man and man was good for work.
    He went nuts.
    Needless to say, we have lost track of each other.

    And actually, a soap pad will stay in your hand because you are not grasping to hold on to it. It’s the slippery bar of soap that will fly out when you squeeze it. The lesson? Try not to grasp anything too hard…tee hee.

    • Richard says:

      This is a whole new world to me. Am I a soap bar man or a soap pad man? Cue for a song? Inspiration for an opera? A musical?

      • Cheri says:

        Only you can answer that question but having met you in person, I’d say you are a soap pad person. Such fun! What would be the angst in the opera?

        • Richard says:

          You are not familiar, then, with “The Broken Fingernail” an opera in three acts telling of intrigue, passion and unrequited love?

          I can only give you the merest outline, for I have some urgent recycling to attend to. I have got better and better at it over the last five years and I have resolved to get even better.

          The central characters are –

          Slimy Fred, tenor, a slippery character given to lounging around in bars, wasting away as a result of his dissolute lifestyle and under the merciless control of Scour-faced Jack, baritone, a gangster of gentle appearance but with a heart of steel to whom he owes a large sum he has gambled away. Jack’s trade is blackmail, he has pots of money and presides over the scum of the criminal underworld from a palacial country estate everyone calls “The Pad”. Handy Mandy, soprano, is his misused and overworked scullery maid who is passionately in love with Jack.

          Act One is set in The Pad. Mandy is sitting sorrowfully in the scullery, lamenting the cruel life her heart has led her to. Her aria is a poignant expression of the irrationality of a woman’s love and her devotion to Jack. She ends sobbing loudly when Fred sways into the scullery, drunk, and slides over to her. He is in love with her and spontaneously takes her in his arms and tries to kiss her. She forces him away and scratches him on the cheek. Her fingernail breaks and is embedded in his skin. Rejected and downhearted he sings desperately of unrequited love and exits, not even noticing that he carries with him a part of Mandy’s anatomy. Filled with remorse, for she is a good girl really, she follows him and the scene changes to The Pad’s Bar, a hybrid waterhole, where she finds Fred prostrate on the floor. She gently lifts his head and gazes into his half-closed eyes. From that moment, he is a changed character. He dries out and acquires a hard exterior, swearing to avenge Mandy and clean out The Pad. In a frantic duet, Mandy implores him not to, for she still loves Jack, and Fred becomes even more determined.

          Act Two is in Jack’s “Throne Room” where he dispenses orders and his unique form of justice. Mandy kneels at his side on the floor. A duet between Jack and a young man he berates ends in a single shot. Jack is foaming at the mouth and Mandy stands up and gently wipes his face with her hair. He orders her to clean up the blood.

          Act Three is in the bar where Fred is loading a gun. Mandy enters dishevelled and distraught and Fred sings a magnificent solo about Mandy and his resolution to free her from tyranny. Mandy’s solo is one of admiration, but she fails to restrain him. She is overcome by angst and sings her finest aria. The scene switches to the Throne Room. Fred throws the door open and rushes up to Jack. Jack sees the fingernail in Fred’s cheek and grasps him hard by the neck. Fred slips to the floor. Jack stands up, raises his gun, steps on Fred and slips. Fred quickly slides away and shoots Jack dead. There is a chorus of relief and and praise for Fred. Jack’s body is dumped in the general waste and Fred ends his days singing with and devotedly lathering his true love until he fades away to nothing.

          I recommend the opera if it comes to a town near you. I have only been able to skim the surface of the drama and the music.

          Do you still think me a soap pad?

          Sorry, I have to dash.

          • Cheri says:

            Well, you will forgive my delay in responding to this opera you have written. It has all of the hallmarks of an opera–tragedy,tragedy, unrequited love, stupidity, and sex. Do I still think you a soap pad? No. I have changed my mind, gone to get a manicure, and while doing so, will reevaluate my evaluation. You are definitely not a soap pad.

        • Richard says:

          Before I go, I must just mention some of the other characters.

          “Choker” Puff. Lies quiet until roused. Asthmatic. Harbinger of many evils.

          Handy Washer. Plumber. Seems an uncompromising villain but in reality a bit of a squirt.

          “The Presser”. Dull and flat. Easily heated. Specialist killer.

          “The Conditioner”. Jack’s perfumed, crooked lawyer. A little of him goes a long way.

          Sponger Sam. Dropped at birth. Bit dim but phenomenal memory. Soaks up anything and repeats it when pressed. In a relationship with Loofah Larry.

          Molly Mop. Jack’s brothel-keeper and his mistress from way back. Will wipe the floor with anyone. An alcoholic

          Dryer Dan. All wind.

          • Cheri says:

            Your imagination never ceases to amaze…I have met so many people who were dropped at birth.

          • Cheri says:

            P.S. I noticed that you have stayed with the soap pad theme. Impressive, especially with Loofah Larry. I use a loofah every day in the shower. Not a sponge or mop. I also use lavender shower gel…

            • Richard says:

              According to the notes on my copy of the libretto, there is not much to choose between Gelatinous Giles, who operates a black market in fake perfumes. He likes to put on a show of solidarity with “Stinker” Poo, a complete sham. Both are boastful braggarts. Both get themselves into awkward corners, only to run away when the forces of law and order rain down.

  5. Brig says:

    Ha, Linda asked my question about the Elephant rock!
    What an interesting piece this is, I had not read the prior posting, so new to me. So much of it rings bells for me. I have so wanted to growup with great grace, humility, and honor, it is not happening in the manner I had planned on, if at all! Your post gives me renewed purpose in that endeavor.

    • Cheri says:

      Brig, we are all a work in progress…right? I find that for my type of personality, thinking about my goals and articulating them in writing helps me codify my intentions for personal growth. It’s a very selfish endeavor, isn’t it? All of these criteria are designed to generate contentment.

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