Yesterday I attended the funeral of my colleague, Jay Michael, who died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 34. I was not a close friend of Jay’s and there was a part of me that felt uncertain whether to attend or not. Ultimately I decided it was important to go.

Jay and his company, FLATSChicago, have been meaningful partners to Pivot Arts. Thanks to Jay’s generosity, we produced innovative performance events in their empty spaces. However, Jay not only donated spaces for performances, he took a genuine interest in the mission of Pivot Arts and the projects we wanted to create. He would take me to dinner and had a unique capacity to listen to my ideas. He always offered to help.

At his funeral, I was moved to hear testimonies from close friends and family including a cousin whose description of Jay bargaining with his Bar Mitzvah caterers at age 13 was a hilarious tribute to his character. Jay was an unabashed opportunist, the word “no” inspired him, and he could be a controversial figure to those who opposed his development projects in Uptown. He was also loved and beloved by those who knew him for his humor, kindness and grit.

Walking back to my car after the services, what occurred to me was despite the meals we shared, meetings we had and projects we collaborated on, I don’t know that I took the time I should have to really get to know Jay. Did I listen to him as he listened to me? Did I take the time to really see him?

Funerals force us out of our everyday routines. They are an unwelcome reminder that the clock is ticking, life is precious, and anything could happen to any of us at any time. After yesterday’s services, I questioned my own capacity to listen deeply. How many times am I distracted by work, thinking about what I’m going to say next or even worse, how often do I dismiss people because their politics, lifestyles or ideas are different from mine?

There’s an artist in Chicago who made a sign which reads, “You Are Beautiful” that can be seen in several places around town. A friend of mine gave me a sticker version that I wear on my coat: You Are Beautiful. It’s true, each individual has their own special beauty. Perhaps if we spent more time listening, we would have more opportunities to see those inner lights shine.

 Jay Michael (1981 – 2016) pictured above second from left. Photo by D Star photography.