Saturday, January 21, 2012

Will I Know It When I See It?

Even though I've already started cultivating a life worth living, I think it's a good idea to take a step back and try to define what it is I want. I actually started writing this piece weeks ago and, I'll admit, it's been challenging. In fact, I think I needed to have a lived experience of "getting a life" before I could figure out what it might look like.

So what makes life worth living? It's a very personal question, but I think there are some universals. I don't think a life worth living should be confused with ideal or perfect. Everyone of us has an image of what the "perfect" life would be like. For instance, after I find buried treasure or win Super Lotto, I will spend my time going from one luxury hotel to another, traveling the world, visiting museums, attending theatre, taking classes just for fun, reading, having fine meals and exquisite wine. Occasionally I'll invite people I like to join me. And, of course, I'd give some of the money to charity because that's the right thing to say. And because it would be so much easier than fundraising, which I do now. That would be the perfect life for me, but until I find that treasure, I'm stuck with not quite so perfect, but hopefully still worthwhile. The fantasy is helpful though because the things I'd do if I had all that cash are a pretty good indicator of what I value in life and what makes life worth living for me.

A life worth living will hit upon the really important things. We need not reach the lofty heights of our wildest dreams to find fulfillment. Though I have had some pretty wild dreams featuring David Tennant which I'm certain would bring me fulfillment...ah, but I digress. We don't need to get everything we want, but I think we all have certain things, certain "must haves" that make life more than just getting by--that make the difference between truly living and merely existing.

So what do I need to live rather than exist? The first "must have" is travel. Travel is absolutely necessary for me to be happy. Through travel I have experienced true joy. There is nothing quite like the feeling of walking through a new city--all of your senses awakened by the novelty, while the familiar, the history, springs to life before your eyes. There is something powerful about standing in the room where Shakespeare was born or drinking where Hemingway drank. I have always placed a high priority on travel, even when I couldn't really afford it. No matter how broke I was, or how long it took to pay off the credit card bill, I never regretted a trip. This is one thing I've done with friends, with boyfriends and by myself. While it is certainly fun to have travel companions, I will never not take a trip because I have no one to go with me. There are simply far too many places I long to experience to waste time waiting for someone else.

Wine is another important part of my life. I know no matter how long I live, I will never have time to learn as much as I'd like about wine or taste all of the wines I want to taste. The wines of Italy alone could take up an entire lifetime, and I'd still be just scratching the surface. Obviously, I need to devote time to studying and tasting as often as possible...which, quite frankly, is a burden I'm willing to live with.

Like good wine, good food is an important part of a well-lived life. Dining out is great treat, but I also love to cook and bake. Although I often prepare a fine meal just for myself, a major part of the joy of cooking is being able to share it with others. The combination of a delicious meal, a nice bottle of wine and good company is hard to beat. I truly enjoy cooking for others and entertaining in my home. This is definitely a component of having a life.

Of course, cooking for "others" implies "others" are also necessary for having a life. I know this seems contradictory since anyone who knows me knows I hate people. I obviously don't actually hate all people. People in general bother me, but people also make my life worthwhile. I had the great good fortune of having two amazing parents. Losing them has been nearly unbearable and has, at times, made life feel like it's really not worth living at all. Losing our parents is a fact of life though--something we all face eventually. I know I was lucky to have the parents I had for as long as I did. I'm also lucky to have a fairly functional family overall. I actually like my family (which is rare, I know), but we live in different states and all have busy lives so we don't see each other as much as we'd like.

This brings us to friends. The urban family--a modern concept that has become even more important as we become an increasingly transient society. Over the years I've had some truly amazing friends (and a few who turned out to be quite psycho, actually) and I'm lucky to have so many people in my life right now I consider friends--a word I don't use lightly. These people are there for the ups and downs of life. They make the bad times a little better and the good times that much sweeter. Life would be bleak indeed without them.

While I think friendships are necessary, I am currently of a mind that romantic relationships are not. Of course I'm not in a romantic relationship at the moment, so I would say that, wouldn't I? Don't get me wrong, having a romantic partner can be great. I can appreciate most of the relationships I've had even though they didn't work out--except for the time I dated the anti-Christ, of course. Time and distance have yet to make me appreciate that one. The others may not have been Mr. Right, but they were right enough at the time and we, as they say, had some good times--great times even. This brings up the tricky bit about relationships of all kinds. It's not just about having people in your life, it's also about knowing when to let go. Good relationships can make our lives worth living, but bad relationships can make our lives a living hell. There is wisdom in knowing the difference.

I've spent quite a bit of time in the past few years cultivating relationships, meeting new people and trying to push myself socially. My shyness and the whole hating people thing make it a bit of challenge for me, but I think I'm doing pretty well, actually. Spending time with people I care about who care about me--drinking together, eating together, laughing together, crying together, just being together--is something that makes a life worth living to me.

The final key to a life worth living for me is a rather broad category I'm going to call education, for lack of a better word. I include in this category not just formal classroom learning, but also the experience of visiting a museum or listening to music. Education has always been important to me. As a kid, I liked school and I've always been a reader. I have a lot of curiosity and a love of history and the arts. I get bored when I'm not challenged so I tend to seek out opportunities to learn. Of course at my age, my main motivations for continued intellectual stimulation are staving off Alzheimer's and keeping pace with loss of brain cells resulting from already mentioned wine obsession. I read at least a bit each day (Brit chic lit more than I should admit, but also proper literature, wine books, psychology books, history books, cooking magazines and travel magazines) and seem to be continually taking classes of one sort or another. I also believe attending lectures, concerts, plays and visiting museums are important educational activities. They improve us in ways classroom learning cannot. They increase our understanding of and appreciation for our own humanity. They are both inspirational and humbling. They move us both intellectually and emotionally. I have stood in the Musee de l'Orangerie and wept at the beauty of the Water Lilies. And I believe my life is richer for having had that experience. Having a life for me means staying engaged in my own growth and education.

So, I think I've a pretty good idea of what having a life looks like for me. I will travel as often as I possibly can, eat and drink as well as I possibly can, entertain at home regularly, read, attend a variety of cultural events and share as much of this life with people I care about as I can. Right. So, about that buried treasure...