You Can’t Know What You Don’t Yet Know

I am growing old. 

Yesterday I heard about the death of one of my beloved colleagues from my days in publishing. Of course, Michael’s passing provoked phone calls, Facebook posts and Tweets from lots of former colleagues.

All day — Michael, Michael Michael. At a certain point, I began to remember key scenes from the film, The Big Chill. I loved it when it first came out in 1983, and though I’d only been out of college a few years, I remember thinking that the film, well-written and well-acted as it was, didn’t apply to me, AND NEVER WOULD.  I remember that the group of friends gathered after years to mourn the death of one of their friends. They spent the weekend together after the funeral, and reminiscing commenced. I had a vague sense that someday in the WAY FUTURE (so far in the future that I could not wrap my mind around it) I would be having a real-life version of this big-screen experience.

So here it is, 2017, and Michael’s gone. There was a core group of people who worked closely with him in the late 80s through the mid-nineties. Together, we formed a powerhouse sales and marketing team that took our company from the #7 position in the industry to the #1 slot, led by a stunningly beautiful, elegant, brilliant rock star of a President. This group worked hard, laughed a lot, traveled a lot, put books on the bestseller list, entertained authors, fell in love with each other (despite anyone’s marital status) and basically kicked ass. We all were young, some of us really young (I started with them as a 24-year-old) and none of us had a clue that this would not go one forever. Talk about being in the moment! No one imagined the future, no one talked about the fact that days were flying by, no one realized at one point that we’d all been doing this for 5, 10, then 15 years together.

So when the brilliant President was fired by the parent company’s C.E.O. everyone was devastated. The grief was so intense, it was like she’d died. A new President was hired, who in every way was the complete opposite of the old one. A heavy smoker with a frumpy wardrobe, the new boss had wildly different tastes in books, and very unremarkable ideas about marketing and sales. God bless her (she died of lung cancer 10 years ago), but was she rejected by us with the speed of a stomach bug hitting someone’s immune system.

The tight-knit “family” started to unravel. It was, for many of us, hard to fathom our life without the old President, so all of us left. Every single one of us; we went on to other publishing houses, entered the new media world, got married and dropped out.

The turning point for me that made me know it was all over was when the new President called me one day to tell me she’d just signed up lawyer Johnnie Cochran to write a memoir. This was just a few years after he’d gotten O.J. Simpson off for killing his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, running the company’s West Coast publicity office. I, like most of America, was mesmerized by the trial and the reality-show-like experience of it being televised. You won’t be surprised to hear that I felt Simpson was guilty, guilty, guilty. When I learned that I was going to have to promote and publicize Mr. Cochran’s book, I felt sick. I took a walk around the block in the sunny Santa Monica afternoon, and once again, the little voice said, “You can’t do this.” But, I did do it — and went on book tour with Johnnie (who was actually quite lovely, as was his wife, Dale). It took me a few years, but I finally got out. At my last sales conference, the new President presented me with a diamond Tiffany bracelet. The whole thing was surreal; what had happened to the family? What had happened to the comradeship? What had happened to the shared vision? What had happened to the shared goals? It was all over. Phase one, done.

I moved to Boulder, Colorado. Almost half my life (assuming 80 was the end) was over. What to do in the second act?

And there is most definitely a second act for us. Some folks call it the mid-life “crisis” though I prefer mid-life “opportunity.” But as much as I though I knew, when I hit this transitional period, I felt as if I knew nothing. I read probably 20 books with the word “mid-life” in the title. I discovered the amazing Jungian analyst, James Hollis. His words soothed me and made the transition from hot shot publicist to hospice worker less fraught. Also during that time, my first female lover left me, I bought a house, my father died, I bought a horse, and thought, well, I guess I”m just having the typical crisis. Blah, blah, blah.

Once I was through it all, I figured I was done. I settled in Montana, comfortably living in a small, rural town, and working for nonprofits. I cruised through the next several years, exploring the Northern Rockies and Canada, doing good work, happy. La-la-la.

Until I wasn’t.

It felt like I was kicked from behind. I could  not believe I was going though another passage, which uprooted me again and made it clear that I was to go back to school and get a Masters (at 50!) and then, proceed on to seminary to become ordained. What? I didn’t think I’d even get IN to grad school, much less be able to study, write papers, write aTHESIS. Who completely changes her work when you’re supposed to be getting ready to retire?

 I did.  It was rich, provocative and wonderfully illuminating to learn at my age more about this history of religions, spirituality, cutting-edge psychological/spiritual philosophies. It felt like a second act for sure. I was grounded in my belief system, and yet connected to others’. It was a real “coming home.”

Except the second act went quickly, faster than had the first act. And I am very clear that I am now starting the third act. Michael’s death this week was the confirmation. All of us in that cohort of excellence at the publishing house are now “that” age. The kids out of school and starting their own lives. Ambition no longer an urge that’s present day in and day out. A real sense of there being less time in the future, than there is in the past. It’s the passage that suddenly shouts, “you’re not going to live forever!” Your friends start dying. Your knees hurt in the morning. You realize you only have a little bit of time left to:

  • Make amends
  • Write up and start executing on that bucket list
  • Evaluate your current crop of friends; are you hanging on to them because of experiences you shared some 40 years ago and now, frankly, you’re really over their “stuckness” that you’ve been hearing the same laments for DECADES?
  • Ponder what is going to be your legacy? This was brought into stark relief yesterday when all of us Friends of Michael started writing eulogic posts on his Facebook page. He was being memorialized. It seemed  unreal. But it will happen to us all. What do we hope people will say about US on Facebook?
  • Do we have to clean up our act in any way? If so, do it.
  • Slow down.
  • Realize that you should not sweat ANY of the stuff, much less the small stuff. It’s all going to pass.
  • Finally forgive your parents. Really. Let it go.
  • Look with a bemused fondness on the earnestness of the generation that’s coming up; see yourself in their shoes, remember what an idiot you were then. They’ll realize this too when they are our age.
  • Stop buying designer clothes. No one cares what you look like now — sorry to say so, but it’s true. Good jeans and a crisp white tee shirt will do.
  • Get your breasts lifted along with your eyes ONLY if it will makeYOU feel good. If you’re doing it for “him” or any other reason, it’s the wrong reason.
  • Get clear on the people who truly support you and love you and think you rock, and keep them close.  Everyone else? Buh-bye.
  • Stop worrying so much. It is going to work out. It always has, hasn’t it?
  • Take a much wider, deeper look at things, all things. In one way or another, seen or unseen, it all makes sense.
  • Ask yourself, “how important is it?”
  • Go do some volunteer work. It’s good for them AND good for you.
  • Read the classics; they will make much more  sense now.
  • And (here’s my plug) listen to Michael Meade’s podcasts. He is so very wise and puts it all together for us.

Despite the negative press that “growing older” gets, there are stunningly GREAT things about this time, things that I could have never known since I couldn’t know them – like how much you start to love all things wild and free. How incredible the sun looks, rising over the Montana mountains in the morning. How deeply you love your partner, not in that insane way you did when you were in your 20s and 30s, but in a real, grounded, messy and lovely way. The smell of your puppy’s breath. the fall leaves. Good, hot coffee.  I’ve been in a paroxysm of sensual delight lately. I am less interested in “looking good” and more interested in “doing good.” I feel God in the breeze, in the mountains, in the Earth. 

But I am also stunned by the weirdness of life, of memory, of the brain; how is it that we could have lived 55 whole years of life, each time thinking that we knew it all….and then we get older, as we see we know so very little? And we cannot remember where we put the phone, but could tell you the color of the sweater you wore at the first basketball game you ever went to in college? And no one could have told us, because we would not have listened, or perhaps, didn’t have the brain cells (seriously) to understand that things change, change, and change yet again. There is no “arrival.” And, the older you get, the more mysterious it all seems. There is a deep and pungent wave of melancholy and wistfulness that is ever-present; we have lived so much. We have loved so much. We have done so much. The question now is, what’s left to do.

With a nod to Nike, “just go do it.”

And rest in peace, Michael.