Last Sunday, I had at least one thousand books adorning the shelves of my den. I can’t be sure how many were there because I gave up counting when I hit eight hundred. I don’t know why I started counting the books in the first place, or why eight hundred was the number that made recognize the absurdity of what I was doing.

At six hundred titles, I began to realize how difficult the process of purging a lifetime book collection was becoming. I still managed to keep at it for another two hundred more titles before I stopped. About one hundred of them made it to the dining room table for sorting before, overwhelmed, I abandoned the project.

I’ve looked at—ignored, really—those books on the table every evening this week. I also refused to acknowledge the more than seven hundred remaining books on the shelves behind my desk. I knew ignoring them would not make the task disappear. Still, I hoped that I would be able to come up with some rational approach to sorting out the books to keep, and those to eliminate from my collection. After a week of considering options, I arrived at the conclusion that a rational person would not have more than one thousand books in the first place. I am clearly not rational when it comes to books.

I began pulling the books from the shelves today. I sorted and separated them—several boxes to the church yard sale later this month and most of the rest to the public library for the annual book sale. Among my collection were paperback copies of A Brave New World, required reading in 12th grade, and All the Kings Men, from a college English class. Death of A Salesman, Mass Appeal, and American Century were among the many scripts from plays in which I had performed or directed. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Og Mandino’s Secrets For Success And Happiness, both given to me by my dad when I was in high school and, of course, countless quote books, were also on my shelves.

There were novels and biographies, too. John Grisham, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Wolfe, John Irving, and David McCullough took much of the space in that section. My collection of business books outnumbered them all with complete sets of Tom Peters and Seth Godin, alongside the best works of Peter Drucker, John P.  Kotter, Phillip Kotler, and Zig Ziglar. There were hundreds of others, which had served as a reference throughout my career, and all were sitting quietly with hopes of being used once more.

It occurred to me as I paged through the books that my difficulty in parting with them was not about the possibility of needing those future references, or even the remote desire to read them another time. Instead, it was about what the books represented in my life. Each one had helped to stoke my imagination, shape my thinking, or give me the courage to become the person I am today. They were not simply books. They had become, in some small and perhaps sad way, treasured mentors and companions in my life. For seven years, very few of them served any purpose other than to take up space on my shelves.

I realized then I could not begin the next chapter of my life until I acknowledged I had learned all these books could teach me. Once I did this, letting go was easy and boxing the sorted books went much more quickly. I even made a second pass and eliminated more from my “keep” pile.

When I finished, I had kept only about two hundred books. Among these were all of my autographed copies, the Elmore Leonard novels I do like to re-read, my Lincoln collection, and the complete set of Tom Peters books. I kept the books with a particular meaning to me, such as Secrets for Success and Happiness and The Power of Positive Thinking. I also kept the dozen or so books purchased this year, but not read. I even kept the writing reference books, although most of those will likely find new homes later this year.

This was a hard thing for me to do, letting go of such excellent teachers. Passing them on was easier knowing they still had life and others could learn from them, too. Growing up means passing on what we’ve learned. I only passed on the books today, but I hope I pass on a little of what I’ve learned from them, every day.

Yesterday I was reminded my body has an expiration date. I know I will die someday, but the dreamer who drives my soul doesn’t like to think of such things. The statistician in charge of my brain, on the other hand, does expiration mitigation calculations thousands of times per day. I just don’t like the reminders from the outside world.

While I remain hopeful for at least fifty-one more years of life, I recognize living to be 100 with a sound mind and body is an unlikely possibility, especially since both are already questionable. Despite the fact I aggressively manage my health, there are hundreds of non-health related reasons that could end my life well before my planned expiration date. This is troubling to me because I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and trouble to cause. I don’t want to run out of time before I’ve accomplished it all.

My arrival at middle age a few years ago came with a piece of baggage labeled, “oppressive sense of mortality.” The luggage is scuffed, tattered, and covered with stickers from travels around the world. Its hinges are worn from the constant opening and closing. Bungee cords hook together over latches that no longer have the strength to hold the baggage closed. It’s ugly, this baggage, and still I’m compelled to look inside for whatever answers it might hold.

I’ve learned from my far too frequent peeks inside that my first twenty-four years of life were for learning the basics for living, and my last twenty-five years were for creating a life. The baggage shows my future, too, swirling amongst all of my hopes, dreams, and plans—those I’ve accomplished and those I now wonder if I ever will accomplish— without a clear direction or any certainty of duration.

Perhaps the most important thing the baggage has shown me is while the past is clear, the future is always uncertain. I’m reminded that although I am not now, who I will become, I am also no longer who I once was—the big dreamer with a lifetime of opportunities. The luxury of time is no longer on my side.

I still dream the big dreams and I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and of course, trouble to cause. I’ve just realized the dreams I had then—the dreams of a young man—are no longer the dreams I need, or frankly want. The seconds of life are far more precious now and I don’t want to waste them on aspirations I know are completely unrealistic or unattainable.

I have many unfinished castles in the sky today. The construction stopped some time ago and the workers have gone home for good. What remains of those castles was mortgaged to pay for the daily happiness I get from living more of my life in the moment and much less of it with my head in the clouds.

I once had the privilege of being the marketing director for a large ski resort in the southeast. It was a cool job, with many perks–free skiing and snowmobile access. I even had a furnished condominium on the property as part of my compensation package.

These perks were meant to offset being on call 24/7 to address guest complaints, as well as the thirty-minute-plus drive down the mountain to a grocery store or a decent bar. It never balanced, though. During the ski season, for example, it was nearly impossible to escape the mountaintop, even for a few hours.

These perks were meant to offset being on call 24/7 to address guest complaints, as well as the thirty-minute-plus drive down the mountain to a grocery store or a decent bar. It never balanced, though. During the ski season, for example, it was nearly impossible to escape the mountaintop, even for a few hours.

Occasionally, my boss took pity on me for those long working hours and would grant a weekend furlough. On one such, get-away I spent the weekend in a major city about three hours from the resort. I left on Thursday night and spent a relaxing weekend with friends and family. I wasn’t quite ready to return to the mountain after such a great trip so I stalled my return on Sunday until about 4:00 p.m.

Because I was running later than planned, I decided to take a short cut. About halfway into the drive between the city and the resort I could drive over a scenic parkway and shave twenty minutes from my trip. However, when winter was in full swing, the parkway had a barricade at each entrance to prevent motorists from being stranded at the higher elevations.

On this particular Sunday, I arrived at the parkway entrance to find the barricade in place, even though there was no snow on the ground and the temperature was well above freezing. I decided to go around the barricade and over the parkway to cut down on my travel time.

I was twenty-five uneventful miles into the thirty-mile trip when I saw patches of ice on the road. I was near the highest elevation on the parkway, so I became concerned about those patches turning into a solid sheet of ice further down the road. I slowed down to 15 mph, but it wasn’t long before my fears came true–a solid sheet of ice covering both lanes of the parkway. I pumped my brakes lightly to slow the car down. Big mistake.

The light tap on the brakes caused the car to go into a spin. I was on a slight decline, so the spin quickly became a sliding spin. With each 360-degree rotation, I could see the side of the road and the near 4,000 ft. drop over the side. The only thing between me, and what might have been the world’s fastest shortcut off the mountain, was a small, rusty guardrail.

On the fourth spin, I hit that guardrail. Fortunately, I didn’t slide into it with enough force to break the barrier. Instead, there was just enough force to bounce the car back from the edge and across the road toward the rock wall just off the road shoulder. As luck would have it, the bumper of the car came to a rest on a small rock ledge in the wall, leaving the wheels hanging above the ditch.

I was relieved to have stopped, but I now had another problem. I had no rear-wheel traction, which is a big problem for a car with rear-wheel drive. I got out of the car to survey the damage. It tried to rock the car, it wouldn’t budge from the ledge. After about thirty minutes, I gave up on that plan. At that elevation, it was cold and the temperature was dropping fast as the sun set. I got back in the car to warm up and to think about whether to wall the next five miles to the main road or wait to see if some other foolish soul would brave the parkway.

Just as I was about to start walking, a couple of hunters happened by in a four-wheel-drive truck, graciously pulled the car off the rocks, and helped me on my way.

That uncontrolled spin on top of the mountain was literally the scariest event of my life. But, it has helped me to keep my perspective when life becomes difficult.

There are times in life when I’m moving along nicely when I see trouble ahead. I’ll try to prevent that trouble by tapping the brakes to slow life down, only to find the path I’m on is slipperier than I thought, and I find myself spinning out of control. When I stop the spinning, I often find myself at the mercy of others–strangers, even–who help me get unstuck and to set me on my way again.

Sometimes we choose to travel the closed roads in life and find ourselves spinning out of control. While an uncontrollable spin is a horrifying experience, I’ve learned the Universe has a way of bringing people into our lives who have just the right equipment to stop our spin, send us on our way, or when needed, go with us to our next destination.

The Universe works in its own time, we must learn to be patient. Waiting for those who the Universe chooses to send is much better than a long, cold walk on an isolated road, any day.

Trust me.

Photo Credit::Spinning top by David Boyle