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Hilary Wilce Headshot

What to Do -- and Not Do -- to Live a Really Great Life

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WOMAN PAINTER
Yagi Studio via Getty Images

One of my closest friends died of a stroke last month -- a shocking and unexpected death for someone who was still young and deeply in the thick of life. Her funeral took place in her country village in Kent on a day of sunshine and birdsong and apple blossom and bluebells, and hundreds of people travelled from all over the UK and beyond to be there.

Why? Because she lived a really good life with her values clearly and firmly in place. And people loved her for it.

Ever since then, I've been thinking about what her life has to teach us, and what we as parents can pass on from it to our children. I've realized it consists, in just about equal measure, of looking at both the things that she did and the things she chose to turn her back on.

First and foremost, she was a painter who pursued her work with passion and commitment. She spent hours in her studio, hours outside painting and drawing and hours extending her skills with classes in printmaking and clay modeling -- and did everything with the deep and clear intention of getting better and better at it.

Secondly, she was a mother and wife, and she believed this meant creating a home of stability and warmth, where bedtime stories were read every night, home-cooked meals were always on the table for her children (and their many friends) and she was reliably there for chauffeuring and other duties. Later, after the children had gone, she valued the quiet, working-break lunches she and her writer husband were able to share at home.

Thirdly, she enjoyed people and was good at both listening and talking, and she always made time for friends and her larger family -- picking up the phone (yes, she still mainly used a landline) to offer consolations, issue invitations, suggest meetings or plan outings.

And fourthly, she lived a rich and fulfilling personal life, reading widely, watching television and movies, knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening and walking.

But here's what she chose not to do: She didn't text much or use social media more than was necessary to support her painting. She didn't follow fads and fashions or feel any pressure to be seen in the "right" places or company. She turned down invitations to coffee and lunch when it was time to work, and she raced around galleries and exhibitions to be home in time for her children after school.

She didn't expend her energy on people she did not like or on gossip, envy and judgment, and she never looked for company simply to escape being alone. She didn't want to travel much because she felt there was plenty of richness to be found close to home, and she didn't feel any pressure to know about things she was not interested in or to be someone she wasn't.

This didn't mean that her life was easy or that she was always happy -- far from it. Like all creative people, she knew struggle and despair, and like all parents juggling work and home, she often felt suffocated by the pressures of family life.

But, underneath all that, she had a deeper contentment that came from knowing she was on the road she was supposed to be on, doing the things she believed was right and proper for her to do.

So from her example, what does a good life consist of: work, love, warmth and friendship, the ability to know yourself and the discipline to do wholeheartedly what you have decided to do and not waste time on things that are not part of that. And perhaps, most importantly of all is the ability to appreciate the moment and to find real delight and joy in the world around you -- understanding that life is a miracle, and that our time here might well be shorter and more fleeting than we hope it will be.