I want to talk to you for a few minutes about Paul Gregory.
Paul Gregory was a theater and film producer in the 1950’s and 60’s. His hallmark style, as displayed in such plays as the original “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” and films like “The Night of the Hunter,” was one of stark realism, especially in his theatrical productions. He would do away with scenery and props, sometimes having nothing more than stools for the actors to sit on, as he did in his touring production of “Don Juan in Hell.” For nearly two decades, he amassed hit after hit, before tastes moved on, as they always do, and he eventually became just another anonymous old man living in Desert Hot Springs, CA.
I learned all of this when I read his obituary this week in the NYTimes. What stood out even more than his accomplishments, however, was the fact that he had died in 2015. It took almost a year before anyone put together the recluse and the resume and wrote an article about him in a small regional paper where he lived. The Times only learned about his passing recently, when they assigned a reporter to update his obituary, which they had written in advance in 2012– a common practice among news agencies.
When I was younger, I imagined how your death was announced in the Times was a barometer of the life you lived. From bottom to top, it went: no notice, paid obit in the back, wire article included in the paper, article written by staff and included in obituary section, mention of your passing on the bottom of the front page, article beginning on the bottom of the front page, article beginning on the top (“above the fold”) of the front page, and finally, your own whole damn section. I used to wonder back then how much of a life was I going to lead, and what level of posthumous mention it was going to warrant. A particularly morbid way to take stock of one’s life, especially while one is still living it.
Thoughts of my own mortality have come back recently, in a larger way than I am comfortable with, and I’m not sure why. I have, in my own estimation, never been living a better life than I am now. I am excited about the prospects of the new job I have and getting more so every day. Beyond being in love with my living situation, I find it giving me an extreme sense of peace and safety, the warmth and comfort of a nest. I have been averaging close to 10,000 words a week with my writing, and feel both propelled by the sense of success I am having and also not destroyed when a day or two goes by without any progress, knowing that it is still there inside me.
And yet, at night, more often than not, I lay awake and stare into the darkness of the unknown. That, more than anything else, is the fear. I am such a devourer of history – at one point, a roommate walked in on me watching a documentary on the history of Akron, OH, and I had no good explanation as to why I was doing that – because it is the one way for me to know what came before me, what I missed. I have no way of knowing what will come after me, and it is that realization, that there will be a point that I am no longer part of what is going on, that keeps me awake.
Today, I caught myself in a moment where none of that mattered. I was listening to music, making juice, alone in my own world, when I realized that I was in my own world. I had spent so much of my life believing both that it would go on forever just as it was and also that there would come one moment where it would all change. It was as if I was living on a roller coaster, and my life was nothing more than being dragged up the hill on the chain lift, but there would eventually be the top of the hill. The track would dip, the chain would disengage, and my life would become a completely different experience. As one of my favorite songs says, I was waiting for my real life to begin.
Today, I understood that moment was never going to come because it already had. Not through some gut-wrenching drop from the clouds – although there have been times like that along the way – but in a thousand quiet ways, truths slowly building up, decisions being informed by previous mistakes, all working together. You climb the mountain a little at a time, sometimes following the trail markings, other times blazing your own path, stopping to rest from time to time and sprinting to make up for lost time later, before you finally get there and see how far you have come. You don’t simply go from peering through the long grass, snapping your fingers, and suddenly seeing the world laid at your feet.
I don’t think my life is complete, and I certainly don’t feel that it is over, something I was afraid I would feel when I got to a moment just like this, one where I felt successful and confident and content. These fears could simply be a residual feeling built up over years of anticipation, and will probably take some time before they go away, if they ever do. Take any benchmark you want, and it’s clear I am in the second half of my life. But I am not in the twilight, nor do I plan to be for a very long time.
From where I sit, the sun is up and the sky is blue.