The Line is grateful for: Geddy Lee's life lessons
As Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson reminded me, there is absolutely no reason to believe that all of your — my — best moments have happened yet.
As we start a new year, The Line asked some of its friends to write us articles about things that they loved during 2023. Consider this a small act on our part to help get 2024 off to a good start. Today: Matt Gurney on life lessons from a Canadian rock icon.
We hope you enjoy this final piece in the gratitude series, and enoyed the series as a whole. The Line will be returning to normal operations early next week. Stay tuned.
By: Matt Gurney
Some years are good. You remember them fondly forever. Others, less so. I did not enjoy 2023. Nothing terrible happened, but it was a year during which I never really felt like I could get my feet under me. I made it through the day, but no better, 365 days in a row.
And, not for nothing, it was the year I turned 40.
That kind of set the tone for the year that was. I don’t want to overstate the case. I haven’t been morose about it. But it is certainly a milestone, right? The first 40 hardly went badly — far from it. But it is my nature to look at everything and ask myself how it could be improved. How I personally could have done better. To wonder how things would be if I had been smarter, faster or kinder along the way. If I’d worked a bit harder and goofed off a bit less.
I am well aware that in both contemporary and historical terms, I am a very lucky man. Wildly so. But hitting 40 was a chance to really take stock not of my luck but of my actions and ask … what do I want to do better in the back 40 that I didn’t get quite right in the first? What are chapters I want to finish and move on from? Or personal goals that I can no longer simply assume I have infinite time to achieve and must now actively prioritize? What are personal failings that will only get harder to address the longer they persist?
All this navel gazing was all kicked into a higher gear by series of coincidences — at least I assume they’re coincidences, is that you, God? — that attended my 40th. Looks like I wasn’t the only one feeling a little bit contemplative as 40 arrived. I had more catch-up conversations with old classmates and friends over the last 12 months than I probably had the 12 years before that. Most of them were wonderful. A few of them were quite hard (though, no doubt, healthy, in their own way).
And they were all interesting. Reconnecting with old friends was, in some cases, a reminder to count my blessings, as I heard about the struggles they have endured and continue to endure. More than one looked at my life with admiration, and that was humbling — especially when the ones doing so weren’t the ones I might have guessed 25 years ago. But some were also a reminder that I could be doing better — because my God, they were doing great. What was I waiting for?
On top of all this, there was simply more mundane stuff to handle. The Line, with all thanks to you, our readers, had a fantastic year. But growth brings challenges, and a ton of my energy in 2023 was consumed trying to get things here properly organized. On top of that, anyone who regularly reads my columns will know that I am quite alarmed and upset by the general state of humanity. Perhaps I would have felt a bit better about hitting the traditional marker of middle age if the world around me was not such a goddamn tire fire.
So yeah. That is the kind of 2023 that I had. Pensive. Exhausting. Introspective. Never really feeling like I was on top of anything, professionally or personally, and just getting by day by day. I’d wake up every morning already behind on that day’s work and collapse in bed at the end of the day with failing eyes, aching bones and a to-do list that had somehow grown longer.
And that eventually hardened into something of a mood. Good God, I found myself thinking more than once. Is this just … it? Is my entire future to be simply a catalogue of tasks uncompleted, mistakes made that cannot be fixed, until my kids eventually move out and move on? And a growing list of body parts that just suddenly break down? And why the hell can’t I read this tiny font anymore? It was easy just yesterday. (Do yourselves a favour, folks, and bump up the text size on your phone. You won’t regret it.)
Maybe this is it, I guess. Maybe all that’s left is managing decline.
But, here’s where the gratitude comes in: Maybe not.
Most Line readers probably know that I am an unrepentant Trekkie. Many of you will not know, but will not be surprised to discover, that I’m also a huge fan of Canadian rock band Rush. (These two things do often seem to go together, I’ve noted.) Last year, Rush bassist and lead singer Geddy Lee published a memoir, playfully titled My Effin’ Life.
Lee began to work on the memoir during the pandemic lockdowns, when we all suddenly found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. Lee has been very open, both in his memoir and in his public comments, about the sad series of life events that led him to decide to begin writing his memoir in the first place.
The first, of course, was the effective end of Rush, back in 2015. Lee was eager to continue making music and touring. Rush lyricist and drummer Neil Peart, afflicted with some health issues and worried he could no longer perform at the standard he expected of himself, was eager to retire and spend more time with his new, young family. (Rush fans will know the awful story of what happened to Peart’s first family; it’s not necessary to recap it here, but I have absolutely kept it in mind when counting my own blessings.) Lee has been honest about being frustrated and even bitter about the end of Rush’s active career, but the news got worse, when, early in what was supposed to be the second act of Peart’s family life, the drummer was diagnosed with a cruel, terminal cancer. He died in 2020, almost four years ago to this day, after a long, private struggle, a struggle that Lee did his part to keep private. As if that wasn’t enough, not long after the death of his long-time friend and bandmate, Lee lost his mother, Mary Weinrib, a Holocaust survivor and a huge and active presence in Lee’s life until the very end. Weinrib died in 2021.
That’s a lot of loss packed into a short period, and the timing was awful. As COVID hit North America and began to rack up its victims, Lee, like so many of us, retreated inside his own home. While there, he had many ghosts and sorrows to keep him company, and it clearly weighed on him. So he began writing.
And what resulted was, perhaps to the surprise of even Lee, a happy memoir. A story of gratitude and laughter. A memoir full of funny stories, jokes, and things for which he was thankful.
As 2023 was drawing to a close, my father gifted me a ticket to a book reading at Toronto’s Massey Hall, featuring none other than Geddy Lee. The special surprise interviewer and cohost for the evening — though not really that much of a surprise — was Lee’s surviving Rush bandmate and friend of decades, guitarist Alex Lifeson. The two men, both now 70, sat down on the stage and spent the next couple of hours swapping stories, jokes and memories, happy and sad. They strongly hinted, but did not promise, that some version of Rush may reunite and perform again.
And that would be great. I would spend an unwise amount of money to go see that. But it wasn’t my excitement about possible opportunities to see some version of my favourite band perform again that began changing my perspective on 2023. It was just seeing the two of them on that stage. I’m sure these guys have had to deal with all the creeping aches and pains and a need for new contact lens prescriptions that I catalogued above. And I can guarantee you that they’ve both endured more personal loss than I have. But what I saw that evening was simply two old buddies, with 30 years on me, sitting on a stage and having a blast. And I realized that to these guys, something that happened when they were 40 would have seemed like a long time ago. Because they’d lived a lot since then.
And I went, huh.
My life has been unusually stable. This is something I only really began to realize in my 30s. I’ve had a stable family environment forever. I wasn’t forced to move around a lot as a kid. I married a girl I met in Grade 11 math class. I have a habit of making friends with like-minded people, and then remaining their friend for a long time. When I think today of those I count among my closest friends, that list hasn’t changed much in the more than half my lifetime. We’re heavier now, and balder and grayer, and when we go out to see a late movie, it’s a race to see who falls asleep first. But when we drop our achy bodies into chairs at some dumpy pub, and make our usual order of wings and nachos, plus a few pitchers of whatever decent beer they have on tap, I’m always struck by how I’ve been doing this with the same group of guys for almost a quarter of a century. (A combination of looking older than our years and fake IDs is what makes the math work on that one, for those who are wondering.) And that’s a wonderful thing.
So yeah. Maybe 2023 was a busy, exhausting year, but maybe also it was just a blip. Not the beginning of any kind of sustained decline, but simply something that had to be endured and moved through and adapted to, and then improved upon.
As I watched Geddy and Alex on a stage in Toronto, it was very easy for me to imagine me and some of my closest friends sitting in comfortable chairs, facing each other, laughing about some of the funny and meaningful things we had done together over the years. And as the two friends reminded me, there is absolutely no reason to believe that all of those stories we’d be sharing have happened yet. In fact, those two gentlemen are proof that that is almost certainly not the case.
I don’t have a band to put back together. No one will ever pack Massey Hall to hear my life’s anecdotes. But there are people in my life that I love and I am still lucky to have around. My parents are both still alive and healthy. My kids are growing up, but don’t hate me yet. My wife seems to retain some affection for me, too, which is something I have not always made easy. And my friends today are pretty much the same friends I had at 20, though I’ve added a few worthwhile newbies along the way. And 40 seems to have brought some people back into my life, people whose presence was missed and absence felt.
I have much to be thankful for, in other words, even if I am humbled by the total weight of the things I still wish to accomplish. So what I will take out of my night with Geddy Lee and my year of introspection is that it is not too late, not even close to too late, to do better in the areas where I have come up short, to be grateful for the things I have done well, to give thanks to God or random fate, as you prefer, for what I have already been given, and to go forward with a renewed focus on what really matters, and making sure it comes to pass.
Forty one now looms. It’s really just days away. I don’t view it with nearly the distaste that I did 40. And though I have many concerns about the overall state of the world as we march into 2024, I feel better prepared for it, and my own life, than I did 12 months ago.
That’s not all thanks to Geddy Lee. But he certainly helped. So I’d like to make a point of wishing him a very happy 2024. Thanks for helping save my 2023. Keep making memories, sir. And if you and Alex do put on a show again, though you won’t recognize me, look up at that audience and know that I’ll be in it. Even if I never tell my wife how much the ticket cost.
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