I woke up at age 35

Something about being alone in the universe, and accepting reality, now rings true for me

By Cary Tennis

Published March 22, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

Dear reader,

I'd like to tell you a couple of things about my personal life and then I would like to make a request. Two things happened this week; one brought joy and one brought pain. I was told I'm still cancer-free. And our dog died.

Three years after surgery and proton beam radiation therapy for a sacral chordoma there is no sign of recurrence. Dr. Christopher Ames of UCSF, toward whom I have the crazy mix of extreme emotions one can only have toward a surgeon who has opened one up and carefully cut away bone and tissue and helped to make one whole again, said, "Go enjoy your life." So Norma and I went and had lunch at the Cliff House, on whose deck we were married almost 20 years ago.

Then our dog died. He was the second of our two standard poodles to die within the last year. That was rough.

Now we have no more dogs to die. We feel strangely alone in the house.

So it's been up and down, as life is. Those of you who have loved dogs and seen them die, and/or who have gone through the terror and pain of cancer surgery and radiation, will relate. I say this not to ask for sympathy but to signal that you and I are not alone in these things. I know you are out there and I know you know what it is like.

I said I had two things to say and also a request to make. So I'm cancer-free, my dog died and my request is this: I would like to hear from musicians. I would like to hear from musicians about the management of your art and your personal lives and what it is like performing and rehearsing and touring and writing these days. Perhaps I can be helpful in sorting out some of the dilemmas and conflicts creative musicians face.

Also, I personally miss being a working musician. It's been a long time since I played on a stage. Such a discussion may prove not only interesting but as a portal to action and change for me and for you.

p.s. Vis-à-vis certain recent tweets: Yes, I'm still angry about the Iraq War. Aren't you?


In a recent column, you wrote: "There is no rescue from this; there is only determined improvement. We are alone in the universe. There are no parents either cruel or kind. There are no parents of any sort. We are on our own and must seek whatever remedies exist and take them in the manner in which they are available."

I came to this same understanding earlier this year, and while seemingly pessimistic, it has given me some comfort to know this fact of life. It grounds me in my own reality. I wonder, at the age of 35, why I never understood this before. Is it a new level of maturity? Acceptance of life as it is (as I make it for myself)? Do other adults learn this earlier than I? I am not sure some people ever learn this, but it should be taught. Thanks for your writing.


Dear Thinking,

I am especially interested in responding to your letter because I quit drinking at age 35 and there came a whole set of shifts in how I viewed myself and the world.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a line that says, "We will not forget the past nor wish to shut the door on it." After any awakening or change of outlook, it seems to me, that is how one must regard one's former life. We do not regret, but neither do we deny. We accept the past and we accept the present. Why does this change come at a certain time for certain people? Why is it sometimes accompanied by -- or why does it often accompany -- the quitting of addictive behavior? I don't know. It doesn't have to. Shifts in understanding happen in all kinds of ways.

And why at age 35? Maybe it is just coincidence. I do know that age 35 seemed roughly the middle of life. I thought that if beyond age 35 I was still behaving like a child that I might never grow up. It seemed like it was time.

Note that the passage you mention I wrote at the age of 59, when both my parents were literally dead. Only after I had lost my parents did I realize how many decisions I was making with one eye on how they might view it and what conversations we might have about it and how I would justify or explain it to them. After my parents died I felt freer to pursue certain things they might have disapproved of, and to fail in ways that might have hurt them if they knew. It is surprising to me, actually, how many risks I would forgo out of a sense that if they knew I had tried and failed they would feel shame or protectiveness. Isn't that weird? But it's true. My mother was very much anti-business, for instance. She had a prejudice against any form of capital enterprise. This I imbibed more or less with mother's milk, and so when I began to do business it felt like a betrayal.

One's parents can be literally dead, and that is one thing. But whether one's parents are alive or not, one can identify those quiet voices that tell us not to do things that might upset or defy our parents, and one can counter them by affirming that we are existentially alone now, we are adults, and we are going to pursue a course of free choice.

Literally speaking, we are not at all alone. We are more like surrounded. Literally, we are surrounded by spirits and matter; some of the matter is living and some is inanimate; some of the spirits inhabit flesh and some inhabit trees and spiders and grass. In this sense we are certainly not alone. We bicycle through a teeming swarm of entities.

Now my deadline is approaching. So here are some short answers to your literal questions: Does acceptance of our place in the universe represent a new level of maturity? Yes, I think it does. Do other adults learn this earlier than 35? Yes, I think many do. Many others learn it later. Should it be taught? I wish it were possible to teach it to people who are not willing to learn it but the willingness to learn it seems to be a precondition to learning it. Such knowledge is not book knowledge. The acquiring of it represents not just facts acquired but an actual shift in consciousness. One is brought to this in many ways, mainly, it seems, through suffering.

A shift in consciousness. What is that? Well, if we conceive of the human as a complex of energies, or vectors, and that part of our personality or being or identity consists in managing all these energies, and out of this management job comes our identity and a set of beliefs -- I am this because when I do this this happens, and so forth -- then a shift in consciousness is nothing more than a redistribution of these energies. It can be as subtle as a change in what we spend time doing. For instance, the amount of time we spend thinking about art can shift. We can go from thinking about art for one minute a day to thinking about art for four hours a day. That is a shift in consciousness.

Or it can be as profound as seeing the world in a whole new way, such that we never have to pick up a drink again.

Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Acceptance Alcoholism Drinking Philosophy Since You Asked