How To Live 15 Minutes at a Time


“Living in the moment” has become such an oft-touted mantra that it’s almost commonplace. The idea is pretty simple. The past is over, so no amount of worrying about

The easy moments

it now can change it. The future isn’t ever really going to get here. Always just around the corner, tantalizing us with both hope disguised as promise and fear dressed up as dread, tomorrow is merely an illusion.

The only moment is now.

I’ve heard this so often that it carries the strings of cliché, little webs of truth still clinging to empty strands. Perhaps, because it is so challenging, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear yet another strident student talk of “living in the now”.

Thing is, staying right here, right now is pretty hard to do, especially when you’re not surrounded by mountains or at the edge of the ocean, basking in nature’s antidote to our rushed lives. It’s not easy to stay in the moment when you’re angry or scared or merely busy bustling through the TSA line at the airport, weaving your way around yet another gravel truck on your daily commute, feeding the kids mac and cheese, or jolted out of bed by the alarm from the obnoxious clock radio at your bedside. We’re wired for thinking about the future, checking off tasks. Get this done first and then that and then, maybe you can have a moment’s rest.

But what if that moment of rest never comes? Why delay our gratification, holding off the reward for some future date that (if you listen to the moment-livers) won’t ever come? Many of us postpone our passions, our ski days, our savings for retirement. But what if you never reach retirement? Maybe all those moment-livers are onto something.

This is all well and good when things are going smoothly. When our biggest struggles are really minor hassles—the car needs a tune-up, the bills are overdue, the coffee pot broke—that’s one thing. But when the doctor tells you that your husband needs a liver transplant in order to live, it’s difficult to just stay in that moment. And then, when he puts his hand on your husband’s wrist and says the problem, really, is that it’s cancer, and cancer patients usually can’t have transplants, it’s even harder.

When I was faced with the most difficult double black diamond moment of my life, I told myself I could get through just 15 minutes more. I could forestall the panic for a few more minutes, listen to the doctors words so I could scrutinize them later, be present to my husband’s shock. It took great effort not to create lists of questions and solutions, a diet plan to match the cancer treatment, a plan of any kind that could whisk me away from the “cancer talk” moment and put me somewhere, anywhere else.

As an EMT and ski patroller, I had experience with emergencies. I could stop major bleeding, affix defibrillator pads, search avalanche debris with my rescue dog. I had learned to hold off the panic and simply act. I had learned to be okay with uncertainty, with the tenuous nature of our hold on life. And it was these lessons that I brought with me into the hospital room where Dr. Williams sat on the corner of John’s bed and asked him if all of his family members were present. He wanted John to gather us around him like armor against the bad news. He probably wanted to only have to say it once, “it’s cancer”.

The room was silent for a moment, all of us breathing in so sharply that the air seemed to escape. I searched for a private tile on the floor to study. My mother held my hand and squeezed it gently. Dust settled onto the molding around the floor, into the metal Kleenex dispenser and onto the instruments ready at the head of the hospital bed. I told myself, you can do this. Just get through the next 15 minutes, don’t panic, do not cry, listen to Dr. Williams explanation. Listen to the plan to kill the cancer, to save my husband’s life. I knew that I had to stay in the room and just be there. I couldn’t run out and leave John to take in the diagnosis alone. I could not hyperventilate into the panic.

Sometimes in our darkest hour, life, the universe, God, whatever you call it, steps forward with a gift. In that moment, I received enough grace to be strong. It happened all in an instant, this skill in breaking down life into 15 minute increments. I suddenly learned how to calm down and just be there for whatever the world presented to me.

Mt. Rainier view from a "euro-chair"

But even now, I keep it with me. It’s a little trick I hold in my pocket, fingering it gently, like jean-pocket lint, rubbing it into a ball. But now, after John’s miraculous recovery, the trick is to use it during the brightest moments, to settle into happiness and joy, to let it wash over me and hold it there, not let it seep away into the cracks of my to-do list.

This weekend I skied Green Valley, the moguls as soft and breakaway as any I’ve skied. The wax on my bases kept me going across the flats and I sailed over the next lip, everything working in unison: ski edges, hips, pole plants, smile. I concentrated on my skiing, on the moment of turning, on the warmth of the sun on my shoulders and the backs of my knees. It felt so good to be there in that moment. I didn’t rush through it, or think about the line at the bottom of the chair or even a strategy for the second half of my run. Instead, I carved from one side of the run to the other, letting my body momentarily feel the joy of flying.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to learn to break life down into smaller moments without experiencing the kind of ordeal John and I went through. Sure, I’d paid lip service to the notion since college, but to really live that way took a difficult passage through sheer terror where those skills became a matter of life and death.

What about you? Have you learned to hold onto each moment or even to endure each moment? Is it possible to take the lessons someone else has learned and apply them to your own life?

6 responses »

  1. Another great read Kim!

    I had a close call with death, cartwheeling down a 50 degree slope in the backcountry. Those 30 seconds or so seemed like an eternity. Since then, I tried to live my life knowing that when it’s my time to go, I won’t have regrets.

  2. I’ve mentioned my near-death experience here before, a car crash with a moose in Alaska. It helped me see my life as a gift. My solo trek around the globe helped me take that to the next level: it’s easier to see each moment as a gift when you keep going someplace new. Now I seek to find that newness even when I’m not traveling. Monet used to focus on the way light changed in his garden: there are special moments everywhere. The fact that my work requires me to write and travel helps me maintain that sense of newness: staring at blank pages and filling them with something new, emptying myself of the known and filling myself with new things. Anytime we stop hanging on tightly and glance into the abyss, we can experience the beauty and opportunity of the here and now. Even when I’m not happy, I find a gift in the ability to feel. Sometimes I tell myself a story: “In the final moments before Cara died she was ________.” I try to fill in the blank with something enriching, something of service, or at the very least… something fun.

    I tend to surround myself with people who remind me of all this. Thanks, Kim, for being one of them.

  3. I was just talking to my dear friend about this mantra. Her adult son just went into detox for heroine addiction and she has been living in shame and fear for more than two years. For her, living in the now is a survival skill. Right now, she is trying hard not to worry about his unpredictable future and just be thankful that he is in a safe situation, at least for the moment.

  4. Lorraine,
    Sorry to hear about your friend’s son. Hopefully he can fight that addiction successfully. It’s not an easy road, but many have done it. It isn’t impossible. These are the moments when the 15 minute strategy work the best.

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