Special to The Washington Post
By Remar Sutton
Little Apple Bay, Tortola, British Virgin Islands—My life has been filled with many momentous moments. But this morning, as I sat on a steep embankment overlooking Apple Bay, I was reminded that one of the truly watershed moments in my life was the instant about twenty years ago when I decided, despite any project or problem or deadline or disaster, to have enough discipline to find at least a few minutes during the day for me—for both my mental and physical well-being. That resolve has gotten me through some very rough moments. About three years ago, a few months after the death of my mother and the turmoil which can follow closing of homes and distribution of possessions, I sat down with my best friends here on island for a carefree dinner at an oceanside café in Apple Bay. You may already have experienced the last years of a vibrant parent's life as it painfully closes down. Very tough to watch. But enough months had passed for me to realize I was worrying less and particularly wasn't worried about the phone ringing at some unexpected time.
"Boy," I said, as I sat down with my friends, "It is so nice not to have anything to worry about right now." Before I could get out another sentence, my cell phone rang. I knew the voice, which scared me in itself, a family friend who only called to bear bad news. My favorite cousin—one I cherished as an example of a life lived with humor and kindness—had been so depressed that he had taken his life.
Within a month, my favorite aunt called to say her husband, my favorite uncle, had died unexpectedly of complications from diabetes. And then, on a carefree and beautiful morning, as I was listening to piano music here in Tortola, I picked up the phone to learn that my only nephew, 24, had just died of a drug overdose. Of all the phone calls I have worried about receiving in my life, that was one I had never even imagined.
I tell you these intensely personal things for two reasons: first, during every one of the tumultuous, tense and terribly depressing days around these events, I forced myself to take a walk or a hike, or visit a gym, or simply walk a stairwell, alone. I have learned that for me at least, the events of life can become overpowering if I am not strong initially for myself. Second, I developed the habit of carving time for myself at any cost after I was forty—when the clay is supposed to be pretty hard. The mere fact that I could make this change in my habits at forty gave me courage to make other changes, including the courage to stop smoking. As I look back, most of the good changes in my life habits have come after forty.
Events which threaten to derail my good habits don't have to be earthshaking or horrible, either. A day nibbled up by inconsequential problems and inconveniences can swallow me, too. Like yesterday's saga of plumbing in Paradise (you don't want to know any more). Suddenly, it's getting dark, and I'm tired, and the thought of a gin and tonic with friends tries to lure me away from the gym shoes I keep just by my desk—my left foot is leaning on one as I type. It's classified information how many times my shoes lose out, but they win more times than they lose. During the past twenty years, I've also learned to say "no" more often when it comes to commitments for my time that might do me more harm than good in the long run. I am an enormously lucky person when it comes to the opportunities both professionally and personally that come to me.
But even when it comes to loved ones, I'm learning to think a bit more about myself before saying yes. It may come as no surprise to you that homeowners in tropical paradises are never short of friends and family visitors during the winter months. But I need space and time for myself even when my closest family and loved ones are around me. It feels good to finally be able to say, "You know, I just can't deal with company right now."
For years I have enjoyed watching the quiet, measured pace and freedom of the two remaining men on Tortola who still commute on beasts of burden—donkeys. These men are retired roadside superintendents. For decades they hacked away tons of brush with machetes—incredible exercise—healthy and probably immune from stress as we know it.
Last week, as we laid out the preliminary course for our Walk with Remar event in December, I talked with one of these men while his donkey nudged me playfully. On this island, many people say you can judge the time a person has left in this world by the width of their machete's blade. After years they become as narrow as a finger.
This man's blade was very narrow.
"Will it break soon?" I asked.
He flicked the blade with an arm made strong by the discipline of that simple motion repeated countless times and smiled. "It'll be fine till that day," he said. The blade is going to break for us all, of course. Till that day, our job is to keep it strong with simple things like personal resolution and a walk.
Go to www.walkwithremar.com if you're interested in donkeys or ready to start walking with us.