Backpacking with Greg, Great Smoky Mountains, 1976. The author is kneeling.

A few days ago, was my brother-in law Greg Blaesing’s birthday. Were he still alive, he would be 66 and just a few months shy of full retirement age. Unfortunately, he died nearly a decade ago of non-smoker’s lung cancer. The time between his diagnosis and death was swift, maybe a month or five weeks. It still shocks me to think of it.

He started dating my sister Marty when I was fifteen and became like an older brother to me. We were close for many years, then drifted apart as the miles separated us. But we each went through a serious and devestating job-loss during our forties and those experiences drew us close once again. My own religious faith helped me through my unemployment and Greg returned to his own faith for strength through his. That same faith sustained him when he received his diagnosis of stage four cancer and faced the end of his life.

I was with him the last night of his life, though neither of us knew it then. Greg was at home in hospice care and my sister and niece were looking after him around-the-clock. I had flown out to see him just the day before and offered to spell my sister. She gladly accepted the help.

We sat up late that night. As we talked and prayed together we shared about life, about faith and about how to approach death. He told me he was not afraid to die. He spoke with gratitude about a trip to France that he and my sister had taken just the year before. He loved that trip, which now appeared might be their last. He didn’t talk about regrets, but I knew he wished he could take more trips like that with her.

We talked until after midnight, and then fatigue overcame him and he fell asleep. I didn’t know then that we’d had our last conversation. Six hours later, in what appeared to be a deep sleep, he breathed his last.

Greg is not the only person I’ve known over the years whose death was untimely. Even those who live longer might spend the last years of their life suffering from a disabling illness that overtakes them. My own father was one of those people—he developed various medical issues shortly after taking early retirement at age 64, culminating in a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which he suffered from until his death at age 80. He might have said that he didn’t spend his retirement years in the ways he had planned.

These things were on my mind when I decided that I wanted to approach the last decades of my life in a different way. I wasn’t going to put anything off to some imagined retirement age; I may never get there. So I took a step that some thought crazy and left my job in early 2018, shortly before my 61st birthday. I decided to take a year off. I told people I was “downshifting,” or deliberately slowing the pace of my life. I was not retiring, but recalibrating. I am fortunate that my wife graciously agreed to it.

I had dreamed of walking the Camino de Santiago—an ancient pilgrim path in northern Spain—for nearly two decades. I decided that during this year off I was going to do it—all 500 miles on foot, solo if necessary, and carrying my backpack the entire way. At the end of March, I left for Spain and in early May, joined by my wife, walked into Santiago de Compostela. Five weeks, five hundred miles. It was exhilarating and transformative. My life slowed to the pace of walking. I had lots of time for solitude. I was outside for hours every day, meeting fascinating people and walking through gorgeous scenery and ancient history.

I went on the Camino solely for the experience, but after coming home, felt the urge to tell others about it. The result—to my surprise—was a book, finally published this year, The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles On The Camino de Santiago.

The idea of writing the book came to me partly because I had decided that one thing I wanted to do (besides writing) was to help others write and publish books. I self-published my own book and the experience, besides being lots of fun and hard work, became a model. Even though I’d worked as a book publisher for decades, I had never gotten down into all the details like I did when I worked on my own book. It was nearly as fun and transformative as the pilgrimage had been. I even did my own interior design and layout.

Now I’m working full-time, promoting my book and cultivating my new business. More than once per week I meet someone who tells me that they “have a book inside of them” and need help figuring out how to write and publish it. I’m helping people find their “voice” and articulate themselves.

I’m working to keep the pace of my life slow and to avoid the inner sickness that comes with always being in a hurry. I have dreams and hopes for new adventures in the future. I want to do more long-distance walks. I now have enough time that I’m available to friends and family, and I’ve found work that I want to continue doing for the rest of my life. I have met quite a few people in my life who, well into their 80’s, continued work that was so fulfilling that they never wanted to stop. They had found their calling, their “vocation” in life. How could they ever “retire”?

Looking forward to the next decades, I tell people that what I’ve chosen is to live a life that is “inspired” and what I’m doing now is to share that inspiration with others. From that work, that calling, I derive great satisfaction. And I’ll never retire.

“…life begins new again every day—and we must be up to it. Then, unless we foreclose on life ourselves, unless we refuse to live to the hilt every day, we are new again, too.”  

Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years.