Friday, March 24, 2023

Are you living or just surviving?

A few weeks ago, my voice teacher told me she was not going to be teaching anymore, focusing on her advanced degree instead. She loved teaching voice -- her passion and interest for it led her to a graduate program -- but she needed her time and energy for her studies. It is what she really wants, so she is stopping teaching.

It had been nearly 3 years that we had been working together. I had to check twice. How can that be? It felt more like 6 months, but also like forever.

I have spent those last 3 years mostly at home. I created and taught a songwriting class. Made a couple records. Started a new job. Started attending an "art for recovery" online group. And have continued my therapy. 

These days were a kind of smeary blur. Wake up. Drink coffee. Listen to some music. Sit in front of the computer. Stare out the window. Try to work. Get some exercise or not. Play some music or not. Maybe talk to someone on Zoom. Have dinner. Look at the internet. Try to sleep. 

Three years. That's almost as long as all of high school or college. Yet when I go back over this time, the resolution of my memories, the real new experiences, the living of the last 3 years feels like it amounts to perhaps 3 months (if I am being generous) of what I might have experienced in high school, or college, or almost any period of time in my life up until about the last 7 years.

I realize I have been focused on safety and surviving, rather than living. 

That is somewhat understandable. I had a serious illness 5 years ago, and that has taken me a long time to recover from, both physically and psychologically. It changed me physically and psychologically, as well. There was Trump. Job disruption. The ongoing slow-motion apocalypses of the environment and perhaps American democracy and civility. World War 3.

And of course, the pandemic, with losses of friends, dramatic changes in society and the world, and fear and uncertainty. So perhaps a defensive crouch was warranted for a time. 

But the truth is I am going to die anyway. So are you. So is everyone. Probably not tomorrow, and in my case, hopefully not for a good 25 or 30 years. But it is absolutely going to happen, and probably sooner than anyone likes.

Knowing that, I think the question becomes not "how can I get more time?" It is "how can I live more with the time I have?"

I don't mean "live more" in the sense of dreaded and beloved achievement, the empty satisfaction of running a marathon or climbing a mountain or writing a book or any other kind of finish-line, bucket-list checkbox-ticking. I don't mean acquisition of trophies or material goods. I don't mean the obliteration of extreme hedonism.

I mean "live more" in the sense of finding a life that has more personal meaning and that feels more authentic. Getting back in touch with what I want, rather than what I "should" do, or what is "safe". 

By the time one gets to middle age, one has enough actual life experience to temper dreams with reality. But one should also make sure reality leaves room for dreams, and I think this is where I have made errors. Too much reality, not enough dreams.

It gets easy let inertia take over. To keep doing today what you did yesterday, and hope it will be enough to carry you through to some kind of finish line. But that is not living.

The times in my life I felt the most alive were when I did not know what tomorrow would hold, but that I was moving towards something I was excited about. Music. A new project. People. 

The outcome was uncertain, but the process was exhilarating. That is risk. 

The fun part of rolling dice isn't knowing how they'll fall. It isn't even when they fall your way. It is the clacking of them in your hand, feeling all of the possible universes bouncing off of each other, and the exciting moment when you throw them, waiting to see how they actually turn out. 

Quite literally, it is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. It is that you play.

Perhaps that is what I have been missing. I became focused on the certainty of outcome, even if it was gray, unsatisfying, and predictable. Or perhaps precisely because it was those things. 

I am looking to get back to a life where I have some of that good uncertainty. I have been thinking about my work, my projects, my relationships. What I want. If I even know any of that anymore.

It is becoming clear that some things need to change, and that sitting in this comfortable room, day after day, is surviving. But it is not living.

Some of you are lucky or smart enough that you figured this out a long time ago. Some of you have inspired me over the last few years through your actions or words or both. Thank you.

I have watched some of you as you made big career changes, leaving your own sure, certain paths for something else, something perhaps more satisfying, but definitely something new. 

An old friend embarked on a big art project. By their own admission something that was both a long shot and out of their comfort zone. But they are going for it, and have been for over a year now. I found myself in awe of their confidence and courage.

I also found myself surprised that I felt ashamed and embarrassed for my own lack of same. That is the kind of thing I had done in the past. That I used to do. What happened? Where and when did I lose that fire? I know it was before the pandemic, and before the illness.


I left the house. I walked 2 miles from my house to the city. I went out to a gathering with friends. I was indoors around people for about 2 hours. The first time I have done that, really, in more than 3 years. I neglected to wear a mask. 

A little more than three years into the pandemic, I finally got COVID-19. 

I do not regret my decision to go out, though of course, having COVID is inconvenient, debilitating, and somewhat scary.  Perhaps it was a little foolish. I could have stayed home. I could have worn a mask (and in hindsight, that is absolutely what I should have done). 

But I had fun for a couple hours. I was alive. 


To be clear, COVID-19 is serious. None of what I have written above should be construed as making light of the pandemic or the potentially life-destroying consequences of getting COVID-19 even once. 

The pandemic is still happening. We should all avoid getting sick, and take reasonable precautions to avoid getting sick and transmitting the virus. Mask up when around other people if indoors. Get your shots. 

However, you could also get cancer. Or have a heart attack. Or take some bad drugs. Or have a tree fall on your car or house. Something is going to get you eventually. 

Life has risk. Survival is reducing risk by reducing life to the bare minimum.

It is never too late to change the rest of your life. It is never too late to stop surviving and start living.