My friend—and the friend of many—Mike Sweeney is dying. During this process of dying, he has also been living—LARGE. Mike has been a teacher, a writer, and painter, and a master trivia player. None of these activities stopped after his cancer diagnosis 7 years ago, despite encountering numerous difficulties, including extraordinary nausea and pain, as well as limitations in mobility. And now, the cancer has spread to his mouth, transforming this loquacious, verbally engaging person into one who is able to communicate almost exclusively through writing. Mike and I have gotten to know each other through an informal group that meets weekly at a local coffee shop. His presence over the years—his goodness, intellect, and wisdom—has brought continual enrichment to the lives of our group members.
Since his diagnosis, Mike has repeatedly told his friends, “I’m going to squeeze the juice out of life.” And he has. Mike has continued to live with deep engagement and a sense of wonder. He seeks and sees beauty in the everyday—in jokes, in nature, in his relationships. He is squeezing the juice out of a life even when the fruit of life appears to be all dried up.
As much as anyone else, Mike shaped my plan for this year-long sabbatical journey. I began to think about what “squeezing the juice out of life” would look like for me. Find a way to earn more money? Establish a foundation for career advancement? Relax in a recliner? All of these options were, to some extent, seductive. But then I thought about my most joy-filled moments over my six decades of life and considered how to recapture and magnify them. Some of my most fulfilling moments have been the times I sat quietly in an outdoor setting—overlooking a valley from a mountain perch; staring across a glistening ocean at the moon’s reflection; studying the tree leaves from a kayak in a quiet lake cove. It is those simple things, I recognized, that have filled me up.
So, with a mixture of circumspection and excitement, I pursued what I believed would bring me the most joy and personal fulfillment. I decided to explore this vast and beautiful country without a clear travel agenda and with only a desire to capture repeated moments like those that have been the most life-giving. In the early weeks, this has been an experience of unmatched awe, wonder and beauty. From grandiose natural structures, like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, to the simplicity of blowing grass on a mountain meadow, the world has shown itself to me and said, “I am here with you; I am your companion, your doctor and your teacher.”
Then there are the people: hikers on the trails, campsite neighbors, baristas, old friends and other fellow spiritual travelers—human beings who are on a similar journey to heal and to taste the most splendid flavors and witness the most vivid colors of life. Shared stories and insights have reminded me of the value of inspiration, joy and compassion of others. This journey I am on is truly a wild, paradoxical experience, of being both alone and very much connected to others.
This intentional journey has been everything I had hoped for, and more. And while the magnitude of the joy-filled experience has been extraordinary, I am aware that this sabbatical experience cannot be fully replicated in working life. However, I have come to believe that the elements of this experience can be discovered in the living of the everyday. In an episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett asked the now late poet John O’Donahue where we access beauty—a beauty that is deep and rich. He said that, while it is most evident in transcendent music and art, and in natural spaces that abound, such as in his home country of Ireland, it can also be found in the midst of communities of poverty. He noted, despite the constructed ugliness of many communities, “The dawn goes up and the twilight comes even in the . . . roughest inner-city place.”
Okay, so the living in economic poverty is one thing. Can we also experience beauty in the spiritual poverty of post-industrial, highly political, bureaucratic higher education organizations? Inevitably, organizational practices, creatures born out of decades of industrial age convention, often suffocate the human spirit in search of greater efficiencies and production-oriented metrics. In spite of this, I believe, Yes, we can claim a deeper and richer reality, one person, one interaction, one class, and even one meeting at a time.
How can we create this reality in the midst of a bureaucratic system that is designed to exercise control over individuality—to push conformity over the celebration of creativity? I don’t have the answer, but I do have some ideas. All good ideas will come from a community of individuals who care about beauty—care about discovery—care about squeezing the juice out of life. This project is devoted to ways of making this a reality in the everyday life of students, staff and faculty in higher education communities—particularly as we move into a yet unknown future.
I prefer to consider this more as a journey than a project. Any good journey, as I mentioned above, includes companions who bring diverse gifts, insights and beauties. Journeys such as the one are inevitably full of surprises. For example, last week while hiking on the Cheyenne Canyon trail in Colorado, I encountered a bear, which caused me to reassess the path I was on. (Wise, eh?) Also, a change in weather can mean a change of direction, leading to new cross-roads and unexpected, adaptive collaborations. For example, during high winds in South Dakota, my campsite neighbors (previously strangers) pulled together when my tent began to tumble across the campground. They captured my runaway tent, and their act of service ultimately led to new friendships. These connections ultimately resulted in a visit into the Pine Ridge Native Reservation where I met native people with fresh ideas that have contributed to my thinking about this project and led to a reassessment of the directions of my travels. (More on that to come.)
My tent is small, but considerable (figurative) room remains for companions on this journey. Just as I began this adventure in search of those things that are beautiful in life, I invite others to share where they see beauty in their professional lives.
It is my hope that we can find ways to squeeze every bit of the juice out of our life together.
Thank you for this gift, Mike.
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