When I worked on a ranch in The Middle of Nowhere Colorado the cowboys taught me lots worth knowing: they taught me to watch the sky all the time, because mountain storms in the summer are biblical and the wind and hail come over the ridge like a big gleeful boogieman, ready to knock you flat. If you’re feet aren’t okay, the day’s going to put a big hurting on you, and hot or cold, something around the neck will make you feel better. Life and death are all over the ranch, strewn about in front of you like popcorn on a movie theater floor. So the lessons are in-your-face and endless, but mostly what the cowboys taught me was this: there is no time left. If you don’t do it now, it may never happen at all.
If I was hemming and hawing, fussing with tack or worrying about being hungry while we were out pushing 700 head of cattle over endless miles of rocky high desert pasture they would school me right up. Here I was, some 50-something girl from back East knowing a little less than nothing about anything, holding them back from getting ‘er done. It didn’t matter that I lacked any kind of skill except the ability to ride a horse (and barely that, given the yahoo pace of Western riding, compared to the button-down civility of my meager English training). I had a pulse and I showed up sober. Those are the job requirements of a ranch hand. Nobody gave a rat’s ass that I had been a lawyer. Ranching doesn’t just level the playing field, it burns it right out from under you. So I learned to shut up, early and often, but on the occasion when I absolutely had to jump off my horse and go pee, some surly crank would push his hat back, settle his hands atop the saddle horn and spit some chaw.
“We’re burnin’ daylight, Philly girl,” he’d say, “Come on.”
Burning daylight. It’s going to be dark soon and then what? Dark was about the only thing that could stop a cowboy from getting work done, so waiting for some city girl to get her biological need wrapped up was a waste of precious time. Ranchers and cowboys had a whole different view of time. You get up at “dark thirty” and there’s no such thing as “lunch time” or appointments, meetings, or schedules. The sky opens up, a truck breaks down, some horse is suddenly lame and all hell breaks loose. When my rancher boss – a fabulous amazing woman who’s still like a sister – told me that such and such a task would take “about two hours” I learned to multiply that by three. Shit always happened. Always. There was not a whole lot of margin for error, so burning daylight was a rather big sin.
Well, what the hell. There is no time left. We are all burning daylight, every day. We’re born, we blink, and it’s over. The poet Ezra Pound said - Life slips by like a field mouse, not shaking the grass. Why would we waste one precious moment here on earth any more than a cowboy would waste a lick of light? If you’re living someone else’s life, putting on the skin of a good girl when you want to be a rock star or working in daddy’s business when you just want to go to Nepal remember, this is not a dress rehearsal. We have (Mary Oliver) this one wild and precious life. Working on a ranch showed me in living color that we have only today, only this hour (to fix that fence, gather the herd, get the hay…). There was a steady urgency about everything, working always with the heat at your back.
That heat is mortality, of course, which is guaran-damn- teed as the cowboys would say. It’s almost funny that death is the one true absolute about life, and yet we go about our business as if the days are limitless and our visit here without end. For some reason – some cockamamie teenage angst no doubt – I made a decision in high school to live every day like it was my last. It dawned on me that I was pretty much chum on the human food chain – a small female, grist for the mill of violence I guess. But as a result of that conscious choice my life has been hugely adventurous. I’m living outside the lines, while most people find a way to color inside them. I cannot rest from travel, Tennyson said, I will drink life to the lees.
My restless spirit has been harshly judged by lots of well-meaning people who were scared and urged me to slow down and “settle down” and find one thing (job, husband, house) and stick with it. And there are those who just plain don’t like me because I never let the grass grow under my feet. I’m the annoying one who always says why can’t we do this when slack-jawed suits say oh, we tried that before? Meetings and committees make me want to take my heart out with a spoon. We’re burning daylight, folks. People need help, there are words to be written, mountains to climb, songs I have to hear, vistas I need to see. The heat is at my back, and many times I have jumped with no net. So far, so really really good.
Visionaries tell us that you should always start at the end. Picture where you want to end up and then figure out how to get there. Well, we all end up dead so why not listen to folks right at that precipice, see what it looks like from the edge of the inevitable end? A hospice companion in Australia named Bronnie Ware wrote a little book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She catalogued the stories people told her from the deathbed, and shaped her life around their wisdom. According to her experience, do you know what the number one regret of the dying is? I wish I had led my authentic life, and not the life other people wanted me to lead.
If you wait until the cows come home (which is whenever they dang feel like it) to live your authentic life, you will blink, be old, and left holding the bag of regrets. Whatever transformation needs to happen inside and out, it can start – slowly but surely – right now. And once you make the commitment to bring your gifts and true self to the world (everyone’s in the closet in some way), books you need to read will fall off the shelf, people will show up out of nowhere to give you great advice, the money will find its way to you, and the path will open wide and bright. Tomorrow may or may not come, and the precious heat at your back is our old friend The Grim Reaper, laughing a little bit as he taps you on the shoulder, reminding you gently that we’re burning daylight.