Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My Friend Joe

Last week Chris e-mailed me an article titled “It’s Never Too Late to Create” by two authors out of the University of Chicago. It highlighted the accomplishments of such late-blooming creators as Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost, Paul Cezanne and Clint Eastwood who, in his late 70’s, is making the best films of his career. It’s an interesting article to me, not least because I really believe, deep down, that my most creative and successful years are still ahead of me. I could be, as my grandmother used to say, “full of soup” but I believe it. In any case I haven’t stopped creating entirely just because I have a desk job.

For example, I’m busy adapting a play I wrote to be done on the radio and produced by my still fledgling theater company, Heritage Artists. And last weekend Chris and I were in center city Philadelphia, on our way to Plays & Players Theater, where I was performing with the Hear Again Radio Project in a program of original, old time radio shows. Along the way we ran into a longtime friend of mine, Joe, who was on his way home from church. After talking to him for a few minutes, I thought his story would be a good jumping-off place for a blog entry about creating and changing course and being “along in years”… in short, something about me.

I’ve known Joe for the better part of 25 or 26 years. When I lived in Philadelphia, small town that it is, I would run into him regularly and we often socialized with mutual friends. Then I moved to New Jersey and we lost touch, except for the occasional chance encounter when I was in town. For a while we worked together at the same Big Company in Philadelphia, and he dealt regularly with my boss, who could often be challenging to work with. More than once  he proved to be a calming influence and sounding board. Down the line he introduced me to the work of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher, whose teachings he seems to have absorbed to very good effect.

We took the time last Sunday on that Philly street corner to catch up. I knew Joe had been taking culinary courses, but we learned that he had actually just received his Associate’s degree and is currently an intern at the Sofitel, making soups and sauces. Joe is my age and his achievements not only encouraged me, but I was also struck by the light in his eyes, the joy in his voice and the peace in his whole demeanor.

All the moreso because Joe was diagnosed with HIV back in 1987, when that was still very bad news. I knew that he had been married at one time, had two children and was still good friends with his wife. But when I asked him if I could mention him and his journey on the blog, he not only agreed, he sent me some of his writing, reflecting on his life so far, as well as a chronology of his life from the age of 14. Here’s what I didn’t know about Joe, or had forgotten over the years:

He served in Vietnam and when he returned, in spite of inclinations otherwise, he married the woman he had fallen in love with. Two years later he had his first experience with a man. The guilt and shame triggered, among other things, a love affair with the bottle that continued until 1983. He and his wife had a son and two daughters, the second of whom died in his arms at the age of 21 months, the victim of a silent brain tumor.

He and his wife eventually divorced (in what must have been one of the most amicable, civilized and loving divorces in history), and Joe entered a committed relationship with a man. That relationship ended seven years later. In quick succession he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and was hospitalized with chronic depression and major anxiety disorder. He became a grandfather three times over, went out on disability and eventually headed to culinary school where he was a standout student, all while dealing with the capricious and often devastating effects of HIV. There were times I saw Joe when I thought he didn’t have another month to live. But he always bounced back, and each time he did he seemed to have grown somehow as a result.

And now he’s doing something he truly loves. As he wrote in a journal entry he shared with me: “You know, C.A. finds me amazing for all the adversity I have lived through…Yes it is a lot, but most of it has made me more grateful for all the good that has come my way.

“I do love my life—I like going to bed, I like getting up, I like going to school, I love cooking and creating, I love eating good food…I like listening to the rain at night.

“I try to live my life today aware of these blessings and I try to give back—“

As I said, I had intended originally to mention Joe’s story briefly, as part of a longer post about not giving up on your dreams, being successful later in life, etc. But I think Joe’s story stands on its own and makes my point far more forcefully than any pop psychological pabulum I could come up with. Not only is he creating in the kitchen, he’s created and recreated himself and appears to be living what the literature of recovery refers to as “a contented, useful life”.

I would be thrilled to one day write a great new play, or create a brilliant characterization onstage. But I would hope that, in addition to being so creative so late in life, I would also achieve that sense of gratitude and grace that I saw in Joe’s smile and in his eyes last Sunday.


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