Being Alive

I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.

~Joseph Campbell

What does it mean to be fully alive? (Apart from the heart-beating, blood-pumping, organs-working description.) What else does it mean?

Certain thoughts, feelings, images rise up for me: being in the moment, fun, blue skies, zestfulness, unexpected laughter, a sliver of a moon, expansiveness, an embrace, energy, big trees, happiness, small puppies, love.

As I tug on the thread of this question, it unravels into a riot of colorful yarns and bits of fabric. All massing towards this answer:


Joy. Such a ubiquitous word. And if I look it up in the dictionary I see other similar words: delight, pleasure, gladness. But then I start to wonder, Is there more to it? Is the joy of the rose as much about its thorns as its petals and scent?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, thanks to two compelling posts by blogging friends. First, Tess of The Bold Life wrote about a town whose citizens measured their lives not by years lived but rather by accumulated moments of happiness and joy. Next, Belinda of The Halfway Point explored the possibility that human beings have the capacity, even in the worst of circumstances, to turn pain into joy.

And so the thought comes to me that perhaps we limit our definition of joy by shutting sorrow and hurt out of it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I first brushed up against this idea long ago. During the last leg of high school, graduating seniors were asked to encapsulate all of their experiences into the tiniest bit of text, which would then reside next to their pictures in the yearbook.

You’ve probably seen these mini masterpieces before. If I’d been following the crowd, mine might have gone something like this: Patty remembers the explosion in chem class, beach walk w/Marc, BFs Deb & Lora, Brooke’s Brood, Sausalito kisses, & It’s a Beautiful Day.

But, no surprise, I was not following the crowd. In fact, I was bound and determined to say something IMPORTANT. So here’s what appeared next to my photo: Both pain and joy carry equal weight and measure; one is the thin thread that leads you through the other.

Sheesh, who was that chick?

I did regret it a bit afterwards. Especially when my older brother’s extremely cute friend thumbed through the book. Settling on my picture, he read my words aloud. Then he looked up at me and said, “Huh?”

Oh well. In spite of my one-sided crush on him, our future together was not meant to be.

So I put aside those words and went on with life. Yet now, decades removed from that 17-year-old girl-woman, I see that she probably had a raw inkling of some other country that exists between pain and joy, a land where the two merge and we have a felt sense, an experience, of being alive.

In that land, we cry during the most joyful experiences: weddings, births, graduations, retirements.

We see humor in the most challenging moments: illnesses, lay-offs, close calls.

And we go there to find a way through when we lose loved ones.

That truth stopped me in my tracks again last night when I sat in a pub watching Olympian Joannie Rochette skate with a beautiful, bittersweet mingling of joy and sorrow. If you don’t know the story, her mother died unexpectedly a few days ago. And without a doubt, her skating was a life-affirming experience. A reminder of what it can mean to be truly alive.

It brings me back to a song that has always touched me, Stephen Sondheim‘s Being Alive, from the musical Company.

Like songs often do, it eloquently reveals the point I’ve been struggling to make with mere words.

So as I wrap this up today, I encourage you to go get your socks knocked off and watch Raul Esparza sing the full version on YouTube.

But I want to sing it for you too, my rough, abbreviated, a capella version. It’s my way of wishing you the joy of being alive. A small experience of it. All of it. You can click here to listen:



30 thoughts on “Being Alive

  1. I love your singing! And I love Stephen Sondheim… And I have always mistaken joy for happiness. Those single moments of … being alive… feeling the universe or god or whatever it is, all around you, singing with joy and being… On a mountain-top, at the symphony, on a stormy day at the beach. Most recently, after a car accident which earned me some much required forced bed rest, a brand new rental car for a few days and a realisation that I need to pay attention to the moment, take care of the really important things in my life and not dwell on the sorrow – just let it pass….

    • That’s beautiful, Princess Kate. I couldn’t have found better words for the distinction between the joy of being alive and happiness. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for the link, Patty. This post makes me smile. Your poetic words as a 17 yr-old are as thought-provoking today as they were then. Can you imagine what that cute boy would’ve done if you’d sung to him with that beautiful voice of yours?

    I think the only way to get to joy from pain is to really feel and go through the sorrow and hurt. The way I see it, avoiding these things would be avoiding living; something I’m not willing to do. I’m reminded of a Marcus Aurelius quote: The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. As much as I prefer dancing to wrestling, I think he’s right. We get banged up pretty bad but all of the thorns and punctures in our hearts are worth it because they will heal and swell with joy if we choose to live.

    • Wow, Belinda, your words are so compelling! And I love that quote. Wrestling vs. dancing. It’s interesting too because all of it is art, both the wrestle and the dance. Oh, and about that boy…he was a musician, in my brother’s band. So maybe if I’d had the courage to sing to him then I certainly might have had a chance! But I was surrounded by a bunch of musical types in my family, and fear kept my voice hidden for many years. So your compliment means a lot to me. Thank you!

  3. I love that you were such a spiritually sophisticated 17-year-old! And I love your singing.

    Recently, I went through a very emotional experience. As I was driving through town(happened to be in Nashville) feeling raw and on edge, I had the thought: at least I’m out there living life. And there was a strange sort of joy in it. Interesting, no? When I think about pain and joy, the same sorts of feelings apply: being fully alert and in the present, experiencing everything in the now. Hmmm…

    • Oooh, yeah, Charlotte, so interesting. That’s it exactly. It’s hard to articulate, though, isn’t it? But we sure know it when we experience it. And thank you for telling me you love the singing!

  4. Patty-

    Thank you as always for the wisdom and inspiration. I do feel that joy and pain are two sides of the same coin. Strong emotion in any direction is powerful and can move us to think differently. There can be as much beauty in a moment of heart wrenching sadness as in any moment of joy. Please keep exploring these beautiful places and sharing.


    • Exactly, Phil. I’m so glad it’s resonating with you and others, because sometimes I just toss these things out there but am never quite sure how they’ll land. Thanks much for your comment!

  5. Hi Patty.
    Oh I so love your singing, I so love your self expressed playful Be-ing.

    Hmm, for me is is about accepting and not fighting what I experience in life. At the moment roses have thorns and yes they can hurt me. Does that make the rose less beautiful, less fragrant, less desirable? It is part of the rose, part of the whole package and part of the joy the rose brings me.
    It is my meaning making, my non-acceptance, my negative story that takes joy away if I let it, that makes me focus on the hurt the thorn creates rather than on the wholesome offer of the rose. Poor me, why did the thorn bite me? Duh.
    I am now watching NOT to put my attention on only the thorns on the roses in my life, I am mindful and taking time to keep the whole rose in focus.
    That takes practice but it is doable and it does add to joy, seeing the thorns as part of the beautiful whole, even if they sting me or I grab them.
    It is all part of the experience and I can throw the whole rose away never to be appreciated again and hold a bad story about them or I can continue to love and enjoy them, accepting the occasional hurt.
    Love to you my joyful friend, xox Wilma

    • Thank you so much, Wilma. I love what you say here – “the wholesome offer of the rose.” And “poor me, why did the thorn bite me” reminds me of this journey I’ve been on with a sick kitty who requires a lot of care, not to mention me shoving pumpkin and meds down his throat twice a day. In the beginning it was such a big deal to me if I got scraped in the doing of it; now, like you say, I keep the “whole rose in focus.” (The rose being my cat). And we’re both in such a different place: he purrs when I do it, and if I get scraped my his fangs we laugh it off. And it is such a daily ritual of being alive, strange as that may sound. Sending love to you my friend!

  6. Hi Patty!
    You are SUCH a delight! And I think at 17 you were eons ahead of your peers – and probably still are! haha! Thank you so much for sharing that wonderful song!

    • Aw, thank you suZen. I’m not sure I was that so far ahead. But it’s nice to consider it. So thank you and hugs!

  7. Patty,

    As always, I so enjoy your musings. In the last few weeks I’ve become very aware of my state of mind. And it’s not pretty. Through the process, I’m becoming more willing to let a different kind of thought process take hold of me. In the middle of an obsessive worry at the mall, that my car would be towed since I parked it without paying in the valet section, I suddenly thought, “Let me imagine the best outcome rather than the worst,” and I saw my car safe and sound in the lot. And I let go. I relaxed, and my mind state shifted. I was aware and I was willing, and something happened. I could not have forced it or imagined it. It came to me, and I let it. Pretty cool. Thanks for your thoughts on being alive and joy, I think embracing it all and accepting where we are is a huge step in being present and alive.


    • Hi Linda – Thanks so much for sharing that story. I love what you say – “I let go. I relaxed.” That letting go seems to be so very important, doesn’t it. You’ve given us a beautiful example of how it works, and I so appreciate that.

  8. I love the sound of your voice Patty. It’s comforting. We have such a capacity for feelings and I’ve noticed on my travels through the blogosphere that the most popular posts are the ones where the readers can come together to share that. There’s just something about connecting on that feeling level.

    • Thank you, Davina. I’m so glad you pointed out that capacity for feelings. It’s amazing isn’t it? And I think we’re all just yearning to come together, as you say.

  9. I found great joy in your version of the song, thank-you for sharing. Your voice is a gift to all of us. I find it interesting that at 17 you were so wise and as you said after a number of decades you come full circle to that same wisdom. I also have experienced this.

    • Hi Mark – Thank you! Isn’t it fascinating how we get these glimmers early on in life but don’t fully trust them? I don’t know if that was your experience, but it has been mine.

  10. Heh, this reminds me of how I love to sing “it’s the feeling of being alive! Filled with EVIL but truly alive!” which is (as you probably know) from Jekyll & Hyde. And I think that helps me to make peace with my competitive, aggressive side. 🙂

    • That is so cool, Chris! I sure do know and love that song. I can just imagine you singing it and getting it all out. And thanks for the visit and comment.

  11. I think many situations/circumstance carry it’s own spirit or vibe. I think in order to get the most out of situations we need to pay respect to the full spectrum of our feelings. It may sound confusing and chaotic but I think it helps to process. For instance, when my grandmother died there was all sorts of feelings to explore. I, of course, was grieving the loss. But there were so many different feelings going on inside me to be respected as well. Specifically, pride. I was truely honored to be her granddaughter and proud of the life she lived. She was like royalty to me. So at her funeral, as I was grieving, I held my head high. I see people often try to hide or squelch certain feelings that society has told us is not “appropriate” to certain situations. Especially during something painful. I say let’s recognize what we feel to matter the feeling, to better wholly understand ourselves and the operations of the world around us.

    • Wow, Angela, thank you for giving us that story today. I can just see you with your head held high, joyful and proud of who she was yet devastated by the loss. That touches me very much, and I truly appreciate your comment.

  12. Patty — I love your singing. It was a perfect ending to a thought-provoking post:~)

    I laughed about your graduation quote…it’s sounds like you were a wise soul long before you knew it:~)

    Touching on your thoughts about Joannie Rochette, I imagine there are some people who think the young ice skater should have been more “respectful” and not continued to skate. Not me.

    Having experienced several traumatic deaths of people I love, I’m not a big fan of stopping life because of a death.

    I think the best thing we can do when faced with sorrow or loss is to live and live as fully as we can. I think this is the best way to respect and honor those we’ve lost.

    • Hi Sara – Thank you! And thanks for mentioning Joannie Rochette. I totally agree with you. And you know, maybe it is because of the losses I’ve had, just like you’ve had. I even had a slightly similar experience. Certainly not on a big world stage like Joannie. But when my mother died unexpectedly (I was 20), I was in the midst of auditioning for a play. I thought about dropping out, but a very wise teacher held my hand and encouraged me to go forward with it, even though I was leaving to go home for the funeral. He talked to the director on my behalf, and I did get the part. Each performance was like a tribute to my mother. I can’t explain it exactly, but I saw the same thing when she skated. Thanks so much of reminding me of that, Sara. It brings a tear to my eye.

  13. Well, if your blog career doesn’t work now you have a back up plan! Seriously, a thoughtful topic. I do think many people search for meaning in their lives. I don’t know how much they seek wanting to be alive, but instead focus on the meaning. Personally I am fine with both joy and pain. Both are important in life and useful. You can’t understand one without having the other.

    • Ha! Blog career! I’ve never thought of it that way. Gotta have a backup plan, though, right? I’m with Joseph Campbell about focusing on the experience of being alive rather than the search. Because we’ll never find it when it’s right in front of us, ready to be created, experienced, made in each moment, joyful or painful. Hey, thanks for the conversation, Marc!

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