Sunday, August 13, 2017

Death and Dying and Sad Goodbyes

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

There is a natural cycle to life.  Birth, life, death.  It applies to all living things in our universe, and to many things not technically living - including movements, organizations, and human structures.

There seem only a couple of things that may not necessarily be subject to this immutable law - ideas, which may not so easily die, and perhaps, art as well.

But human beings are not so exempt from the cycle.  Generally, we don't like even the idea of death, of things ending, of there being no future at some point.  Maybe that's part of the reason many of us, especially as we grow older, don't like change.  

Physical death can be quick, as in trauma like a heart attack, or an automobile accident, or a terrorist attack.  Often those who forfeit their lives in this manner are said to have died instantly, but that's a little off the mark.  Actual death for everyone is instant - happens in a nanosecond.  I know.  I've seen enough of it up close. For those people who end up dying from prolonged illness or even just old age, dying is a process.  Often a long process, and too often accompanied by considerable suffering, both physical and mental.

When someone dies young, it insults our sense of justice and the way things ought to work. It's a reminder of, and an affront to, both the fragility of humanity, and our powerlessness.  Deprived of what might have been, those people leave too early and those left are shocked, angry and defeated.  It just doesn't seem right, and never more true than with the death of someone we knew and cared about.  For those who have lived a life, and face the indignities and arrows of attacks on their aging body, the insult is no less, but it is more acceptable to us.  In either case, we mourn those we lose because we no longer enjoy their presence with us. And that hurts.

Though in truth, whenever death calls, those left will go on.  The immediate family and friends will feel the loss for a long time, and more acutely than those who might have otherwise known, or known of, the deceased, but even then, life goes on.  It has to.  And it always does.  Life is for the living.  It's a precious commodity, and except for a few defeated souls, we all cling to it dearly - perhaps because we aren't really sure what it will mean when its over -- though we may have an idea.  Perhaps that is why so many take solace in, and resolutely defend, religion.  Answers.  We want answers to questions we may not even be capable of forming.  And death is a mystery.

Dying young robs one of the chance to make plans, say goodbyes, indulge last wishes and make peace with the inevitable.  But in a sense it may be a preferred end, as it is quick, minimizes the suffering, and allows one the freedom not to be consumed with the process.  Then again, probably not preferred.  For those at the end of their years, while they may have the opportunity to make those plans and say those goodbyes, the process itself exacts a high price for that luxury.

As I grapple with threats to my own mortality, even though I have lived a life already, I am in no hurry to shuffle off Shakespeare's mortal coil.  Indeed, I, along with tens of millions of people every year, can bear testament to the fact that one can endure far more pain, far more anxiety, and far more uncertainty than you might imagine - the price, sometimes, of being alive still.

So it was with a keen sense of sadness and loss that I noted the week before last, that our little nonprofit arts family, lost two of its devotees.

Ebony McKinney passed away of pneumonia complications associated with lupus (an auto-immune condition where the body attacks itself.)  She was only 41.  Far too young to have been taken, but death knows no restrictions, and callously cares not in any case.  I don't know how much she had to cope with, what she might have had to endure, but it seemed from what I have read that it came out of nowhere.

I first met Ebony when we recruited her for a focus group for a study of Millennial and Gen X arts leaders for the Hewlett Foundation.  Though a little shy back then, she had a gifted mind, was utterly passionate about the arts, cared deeply, and keenly interested in all the aspects of our profession.  She had an infectious smile and a sparkling personality, and an inquisitive nature.  One of the outcomes of that study was that Hewlett, joined by the Irvine and Haas foundations, funded and supported the creation of emerging leader organizations in areas around the state.  Ebony was a co-founder, and played a dynamic role in the Bay Area  group - Emerging Arts Professionals; an important organization in the matrix of the future of the arts in the area.  She played a similar role in the creation of ABBA - Arts for a Better Bay Area.

I kept in touch with her, and she was invited to join our second Dinnervention conversation in Denver, where her voice had gained even more maturity and nuance and depth.

She went on from there to multiple involvements in our field, including her ongoing relationship with the San Francisco Arts Commission - impressing people and winning her legions of admirers.  She had a great future.  Cut short.

And now she isn't here anymore.  And that cycle of life can seem very cruel and selfish.

Harold Williams was the founding President of the J. Paul Getty Trust and served as its chief for nearly twenty years.  He guided the launch, planning, building and operation of the Getty Center and Museum - one of the iconic building complexes in the world.  Harold had a storybook resume and a long, vaulted life.  He was Chair of the Board of Norton Simon, President of Hunt Foods, Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Management, Chair of the Securities Exchange Commission under Carter, member of the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities, Director of the California Endowment, and then intimately involved in the Los Angeles arts ecosystem.

I first me Harold at the opening of the Getty, and invited him, and he agreed, to co-chair a Forum on Creativity with then first lady, Sharon Davis.    This was one of the first summit meetings gathering arts leaders, artists, private sector leaders, elected officials and civic leaders to consider the arts in the wider context of the concept of creativity, and Harold lent the whole affair an air of legitimacy and credibility.  He went on to play an instrumental role in the efforts of so many in Los Angeles as they mobilized their resolve to move forward arts education across the southland.

I had at least a dozen in depth and utterly fascinating and amazing conversations with Harold over the next few years, and he was a genuinely kind, thoughtful, engaging and brilliant friend to me.  He was 89 when he died -- the same week as Ebony.

Both of these good people are gone now, and while they will be missed, and while they made lasting contributions to our field in large and small ways, and while life will go on, their passage struck home for me at this particular point in my life as I ponder my own longevity.

None of us really know how much longer we have - though, of course, most of us have some idea that our day may be close or far, far off.

I would like to admonish people to put away the petty things that too often monopolize their waking (and sleeping) hours and get on with the things that matter - families, friends, children, decency; to move past the defeats and set backs.  Life is unfair and unjust for everyone.  You soldier on.  So much time in life is wasted dealing with stuff that matters not -- while we all have more important things to do.  But it would be disingenuous for me to suggest I still have great things to accomplish before I'm done - the proverbial Robert Frost's miles to go before I sleep. The truth is my purpose now is really no more ambitious than just to wake up tomorrow and the next day, and maybe for even years to come if I'm lucky - and it's not that I have great plans for those days, however many there are; it's just that like everyone else really, I would like to be there to quietly enjoy them.  

The loss of Ebony and Harold reminds me of what an irreplaceable and wonderful feeling being there tomorrow truly is.  The great relief of waking up each morning - for however long.

I was lucky to have known Ebony and Harold, if even only a little and only briefly.

May the long light shine on them both.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit
Barry

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