This picture came up in my Facebook feed today. Gary Austin was one of my theater teachers. I like to think he was a friend. He and others associated with what is now ANDTheatre Company (AKA Artistic New Directions) are responsible for leading me to understand a way of living that has transformed what I do and how I do it. It is what I like to call, my fourth age of life.
My Facebook memory showed me this photo from five years ago. I went to Los Angeles from Washington DC to honor Gary’s memory and attend a memorial event. I also happened to listen to the NPR Sunday podcast of “UPFirst.” In that Podcast, Sylvia, a person they interviewed, was telling the story of her life transformation during the pandemic from being a “good worker” or “good mom” to becoming not only a good worker “but a good mom, too”. (She meant, yes, I am a good worker AND I am a good mom.) Leading a life of yes, and.
Gary, an important figure in my life, along with many others guided me in the development of The Actual Dance, Life’s Ultimate Journey Through Breast Cancer—first a play, about to enter the tenth year of performances, and now a memoir. After Gary had become ill, and about three months before he passed away, he and his wife had the chance to see me perform in Los Angeles. Nervous me, what would Gary think? I had taken my bow, and walked off the stage into the audience, to greet people. Gray was crying; he hugged me and said he loved me. That was the last time I saw him.
His memory is always a blessing for me, for it comes up every day. Although he isn’t the inventor of the concept of “yes”—there are dozens of writers and books about the idea—he was my primary teacher, along with the likes of Jeffrey Sweet and Carol Fox Prescott to name just two more. While each has taught more and many lessons, primarily I learned through them to live every day as a yes, and the rest will unfold into something meaningful and beautiful.
Yes, it is true that I have been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment, and I am going to live that part of my life as fully and as aggressively as I can for it is now part of who I am. (Hat tip to Lynn Fielder). Watch out for my next play—it’s going to be performed by a man with dementia. AKA, me.
In addition, there is another new project in development, and I am going to get it done. My granddaughter, Emily, who is approaching 20 years old (the age at which Susan and I were married!) is going to be a sophomore at the University of Delaware. She and I are about to launch a new podcast. It will be an inter-generational exploration of modern democracy and other challenges. Keep your eye out for “Grandpa Goes Deep.”
So, thank you Gary Austin for helping me to understand what “yes, and” really means. It isn’t just a technique, though it is that. It is a way of life, and perhaps most valuable at those times when we are confronted with life’s major challenges. The Actual Dance itself, the story, the journey, the lessons, were about that exactly. Yes, it seemed Susan was going to leave me, and I would be a rock as best I could for her. That seemingly worst moment of our lives has become a life purpose, acknowledging that her illness had an improbably happy ending. (I have been lectured by some seriously prominent people to be aware that I cannot know what it would be like had she not survived.)
These challenges, it seems, now are gifts. They dare me to go deep and understand and engage with love every day of life available to me. I owe a lot of that to Gary Austin and all those generous colleagues and teachers who thought they were coaching and teaching theater when it was really about life itself.