When There Is No Future, Live for The Present

Some achieve mindfulness through meditation or yoga. For me, it was farming and loving a man with cancer.

Photo: Aliyev Alexei Sergeevich/Getty Images

I don’t think of myself as a spiritual person, but I have learned how to do something that many yogis strive for: I live in the present.

Some call this mindfulness or living in the moment. People go on retreats in search of it. They meditate and take vows of silence. They invest in plane tickets to India and Lululemon pants. My own spiritual path involved co-owning an organic vegetable farm for eight years and loving someone with terminal cancer for three.

While living in the Cowichan Valley in 2016, I spent a few hours every Monday spinning sheep wool and listening to a circle of older, wiser people talk about fiber and life. We drank spicy Celestial Seasonings tea from pottery mugs, and our fingers got sticky from the lanolin wax in the wool.

One day, the conversation turned to Saskatchewan farm wives and how they are (apparently) the calmest people in the world. The Zen-est. Nothing ruffles their feathers. (Which is, ironically, an agricultural saying.)

My husband, Brock McLeod, looking mighty mellow for a farmer in the spring season. Photo: Heather McLeod

I related to these farm wives instantly because I had been a farm wife. My husband, Brock, spent the winters making detailed, elaborate crop plans and business projections. And then we did our best to adapt them to an ever-changing reality through the spring, summer, and fall. No amount of forethought and preparation can inoculate a farm against the weather or human fickleness.

Every season, we faced extreme drought, windstorms, wireworms, ravens, labor shortages, mechanical failures, and more. That’s just part of farming. You do your best to plan for contingencies, but there’s no point in worrying about what might happen. You can either rail against the unexpected or do your best to swim with the tide and find your way to the other shore.

Then Brock was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer and we stopped farming. A year after his diagnosis, we began to understand that he wouldn’t live much longer. Brock began “palliative care,” which means his and our quality of life became the priority, rather than clinging desperately (futilely) to hope for a cure.

For two years, we avoided the future tense. It was especially painful to use the future tense involving our son because we knew Brock wouldn’t be there for Isaac’s small steps toward independence. The driving lessons. The grandkids.

Isaac learned to fish from his grandpas. Photo: Heather McLeod

That’s when I realized how often we humans talk about the future. At meals with friends and family, people would mention their “next year” trips or their “someday” career plans, and I would cringe at the accidental insensitivity. Brock did not have a next year or someday.

I wanted to shock these friends awake: Maybe they too would be thrown a curveball and not have a future anymore. A car accident. Divorce. Cancer. Why postpone their dreams and plans? We had certainly been shocked awake, and we made the most of Brock’s every healthy day. Instead of planning ahead, we chose our adventures every morning depending on whether Brock was able to get out of bed.

When my thoughts wandered ahead, and I saw that sad and scary future without my husband, I would scold myself back to the present.

We made the most of every good day. We didn’t postpone our adventures. When friends invited us to dinner days in advance, we’d accept with the caveat that we might cancel at the last minute, if Brock hit a rough patch or I couldn’t wake him up from his nap. Two years of living like this, especially that last year when Brock spent most of his time in his adjustable hospital bed or La-Z-Boy recliner, refined our “living in the present” habits.

And I embraced that way of living because to think about the future was to think about a time without Brock. When my thoughts wandered ahead, and I saw that sad and scary future without my husband, I would scold myself back to the present. It was silly to be sad about “someday,” when I still had the man I loved right there beside me.

Living in the present isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I struggle to accept short-term inconvenience because I have trouble seeing the big picture. Being the primary caregiver to an infant was a nightmare because I couldn’t see past the day-to-day sleep deprivation and other challenges of those first two years. Even now, every time my son demonstrates some new independence (like pulling a chair over so he can reach a muffin on the counter), I am surprised and awed.

I also have problems focusing on a single task (although that might be the widow brain fog). I’m like a bird, drawn to every new shiny thing. I burn food all the time because I wander out of the kitchen and start doing laundry or hot-ironing my hair. I set timers for everything, and Isaac has learned to repeat “beep beep,” grab my hand, and lead me back to the oven when the timer goes off.

But overall, I think this is a great way to live: to wake up every day and choose how to make the most of these hours, instead of drifting on autopilot. Instead of postponing plans and dreams and adventures for some future time.

So how do you achieve mindfulness if you don’t farm, or if you’re lucky enough to not have a spouse dying of cancer? There’s a mental exercise you can try, which I discovered in William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. As an example of a Stoic meditation, Irvine suggests you choose something in your life—your kid, another loved one, your job—and then take a few minutes to imagine a life without that something.

Feel what you would feel without it. Are you sad? Relieved? Then bring yourself back to the present, when you still have that something. Maybe now you see the need to change a part of your life, or maybe your appreciation for that something has been refreshed. This exercise helps me see how lucky I am in the present.

We had some friends over for board games this winter, and I found myself singing along to the Tim McGraw song in the background:

I went skydiving,
I went Rocky Mountain climbing,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu…

Because I’d recently paraglided, hiked in the Rockies, and even ridden a mechanical bull at a kids’ fair, it felt like I was just telling my friends what I’d been up to lately.

Thanks to Brock, thanks to eight years of farming, I’ve learned how to live in the moment and make the most of that time. I’ve learned how to “live like you were dying.” What’s more, I’ve found a balance of responsible future-planning and day-to-day joy. I have a college savings account for my son, and we go tobogganing when it snows.

Writing about the illness & death of my young husband from cancer, grief, widowhood & this new, Plan B life. www.heatherwmcleod.com

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