Three and a half years ago my father died. The event was both shocking and expected. Expected in that he had been sick with Parkinson’s disease and at the end he was declining rapidly. Shocking in that he was gone.
The event of a parental death can feel like a seismic shift. There’s this creeping sensation that now it’s your turn to serve on the mortality front lines. My mother, sister and our husbands had the opportunity to say a final good-bye before he was cremated. The five of us, along with my sister’s new baby (who was to “meet” my father for the first time), drove out to a warehouse-like building on the city’s northwest side. My father’s body lay in an odd little entryway. A place simultaneously terrifying and ripe with absurdity: this is where it all ends??!
The combination of his death and a fast-approaching birthday gave me pause for reflection. OK, a lot of reflection. Where was I headed in my own life? What did I want to accomplish before it comes to its own inevitable and absurd conclusion? One thing became certain. The path I was headed on no longer felt right.
Interviews with people dying show that many common regrets include: feelings that one could have taken more risks, should have taken more time to reflect and didn’t stay true to one’s core values. These three concepts – risk, reflect, core values– began to form as mantra in my head. At the time, I had a “Next Generations” grant from the Theater and Communications Group and many of our workshops centered around the idea of core values. What were mine?
Two years after my father’s death, Steve Jobs passed away. The commencement speech he gave at Stanford was widely reprinted. One quote in particular rang true to me and reminded me of that strange afternoon in a crematorium: “…all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
So many of us working in the performing arts do follow our hearts but then end up on a path where our focus becomes getting to the next, best thing. Will we be hired for the next job, will we get a good review, will so-and-so show up and will she like it? It can become a race for external approval that quickly leads to nowhere and never ends. If you’re always concerned with getting ahead how can you ever be satisfied? I realized that I no longer wanted to live an existence dependent on how others perceived me. I wanted to carve out an artistic life that looked beyond my own ego and contributed to the world. The idea for Pivot Arts slowly began to bloom.
In workshops, theater director Anne Bogart poses the question to artists: “What are you going to do with the meat?” I love this question. As a director, it makes me want to dive head first into an artistic project and unleash its most exciting potential. All of us are handed a life. It can be rife with challenges and full of opportunities. Time is always running out. What are you going to do with it?