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“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.” – Abraham Lincoln

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“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”-Thomas Merton

I feel like I’m going to vomit.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and both my hands are gripped tight around the steering wheel as if I’m trying to throttle it.  I just parked outside of yet another Miami Middle School, and I already can’t remember if it’s Thomas Jefferson, George Carver, or John F. Kennedy.   The reason they all blend together isn’t because I’ve been to over 100 schools this year, or because they all share the same 1970’s cookie-cutter facade – but because I’ve given the same presentation at every single one of them. I’m Bill Murray in Groundhog Day – but nobody’s laughing.

As I reach onto the passenger seat and pull my laptop bag onto my lap.  The scripted speech I’m about to deliver yet again is making me physically ill.   Over the past three years I’ve said the same thing so many times that I’ve forgotten how to think for myself.  A lifeless feeling floods through me, heavy with dread.  I’m doing this again? Really?

Yes, really.  This is what I do for a living – if you can even call it that.  My job requires next to no creativity, and the routine is maddening, worse every day.  Sweat breaks out across my forehead – as if my body is rebelling, reminding me I’m living the wrong life.

I crack the window in search of relief, but Florida’s humid spring air creeps in with a different agenda.   It nestles up against me and its suffocating.  The knot of my tie cuts deep into my throat, effectively turning my tie into the noose that is.

Then it hits me, I’m dying: dying in the car that’s meant to be a symbol of my success.

As I reach up and pry my fingers in between the collar of my shirt and my five o’clock shadow, all I can think about is the headline in tomorrow’s newspaper: Man Killed by His Tie: A 9-5 Gone Awry.

But before I can enjoy the wry side of all this, my eyes glazes over and everything starts to fade away.

As I drift away into a stale silence, my whole life seems to flash in front of my eyes.

Memories of family vacations, childhood birthdays, and my Senior prom, like a reel of old black & white films.  As they play in front of my mind’s eye, I realize that somewhere along the way of trying to make more money and buy more things, I conditioned myself to believe that it was okay to not follow my dreams.  Even Sundays have become a muted hue because they mean I’m only one day away from returning to the status quo life that has left my brain permanently stuck on autopilot.

Truth is, I don’t know what my dreams are anymore.  I’ve forgotten how to dream.  Dreams need courage and determination, and I’ve ignored the act of living for so long that I’ve become passive, weak, inert.

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My life lacked spontaneity, creativity and color.

I loosen my tie, thinking thoughts that maybe this would all be a bit easier if I didn’t know a better life existed.  I wish I could just be content with a well-paying job and a nice apartment that has all the matching accessories.  Or just be okay with pursuing the next rung on the corporate ladder pretending that once I reach that I’d finally be happy.

Isn’t that the defintion of a safe, comfortable life?

However, it takes only the next breath to reveal that I don’t wish this at all, and that I never did.  Experience has taught me there’s more to look forward to than this.  So has travel.  From meeting people like Rajinder, the enlightened cab driver from New Delhi, Khosi the African woman that overcame extreme poverty and racism to become a doctor, and even from people like my Buddha-bellied Italian uncle, leaping through his apple fields with an irrespessible zest for life.  Because I know such things exist, I can no longer accept my present reality.

As I twist around and check my backseat hoping to see Yudy’s enchanting smile from Peru or Chanita’s charm from Thailand, I’m brought back to reality by a backseat that’s filled with manila folders and empty coffee cups.

There aren’t enough trips to Starbucks to get me excited for what my life has become.  I have ignored my intuition and accepted this 9-5 life, even after getting a glimpse of the world’s most vibrant secrets.  Instead of feeling the beaches of Zanzibar on the soles of my feet or sipping drinks atop the gleaming Sands Casino in Singapore, I’m stuck here filling out service records and spreadsheets, daydreaming as a flimsy substitute.  It’s the price to be paid for easing back into safety, instead of pursuing any real personal growth.

By the time I finally open the car door, something has changed.  I begin to feel a deep gratitude for this restlessness, I feel its value, because it’s showing me I’m more willing now than ever before to act.

As I step onto the pavement I notice something for the first time that I’ve seen many times before: tiny blades of grass defiantly sprouting through even tinier cracks of heavy cement.  Thoughts of what I might accomplish with even a glimpse of such resilience begin to revive me.  I feel a trickle of rebellious energy, building with every step, becoming something I can’t resist…

By the time I arrive at the entrance, decisions have been made, and I can see them in my reflection.  My posture seems to have found a way to correct itself.  The look in my eye is different.  I don’t look defeated – I look defiant.

I am face-to-face with the man I need to be, if I’m going to have the life I want.