In Elle Magazine’s May Women In Music Issue, Lizzy Goodman wrote a profile on Kim Gordon, founder and singer/songwriter/bass and guitar player of Sonic Youth, that put the lie to any notion any of us may have that it’s “too late,” that our opportunities have passed us by, that the choices we made in the early days of our youth have locked us in, like cement, that we aren’t still perfectly free to make a glorious, noise for the next decades of our lives. She’s a reminder to rock on until the stone’s rolled over our grave or our bodies are set ablaze, whichever the case may be, and an exemplar of what it looks like, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, to “handle the seasons of [our] li[ves].”
Gordon at 59 has started a new band, is painting like a fiend, and she’s dating again, being squired about by younger men, a restauranteur, actor and architect among them, following the end of he long marriage to Thurston Moore, her Sonic Youth co-founder and bandmate, and father of her young adult daughter Coco. The marriage ended as these things sometimes do — a midlife crisis, an affair with another woman, counseling, Thurston’s unwillingness, or inability, to leave the other woman so as to knit his family back into a piece. Gordon is honest about the toll this loss took, and it’s her honesty that makes this next turn of her professional and personal screw so instructive for the many of us who, having taken a hit or two by the time we were 30 or 40 or 50 or so, wonder not so much how we can get back up and keep going — there’s something innate in the human survival instinct that allows us to do that — but how we can rise like a phoenix from the ash and set this world ablaze.
The phoenix, for those who missed the memo, “has proved an enduring allegorical symbol, symbolizing rebirth, renewal or uniqueness.” So says Wikipedia. It comes to us from Greek mythology where the phoenix was a long-lived bird that’s cyclically regenerated or reborn, obtaining new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor self.
It takes courage to rise. It’s easiest when we’re in our early twenties and just starting out, though even then it isn’t easy. If I had a dollar for every friend who wanted to be a fill in a blank but became a lawyer, doctor, business exec instead. It isn’t obvious, but early adulthood is our first shot at reinvention. It’s when most of us have our first opportunity to take the raw material of who we’ve been, and what we’ve exposed to and conditioned by, and filter it through the sieve of who we really are and what we long for.
Reinventing gets progressively more difficult as our early choices calcify into something that resembles a life. The better the surface conditions of our life, the harder it is to make change. If you’ve made early choices that suit you, and if you know how to build upon the foundation you’ve set, taking your life to the next level will be easier. You’ll take the next logical step, or add something new onto what you’re already doing and reinvent that way. If your early choices were a little cockeyed, it’ll be hard. You’ll have to let go your attachment to the identity you already have in order to invent a new one. You don’t have to go cold turkey, but you will have to set down a new path and that can be a scary thing to do. After all, who the heck knows what’s lurking down that unfamiliar path? What if you fail? What if it sucks?
The trick, of course, is to gather lots of information, to look before you leap. Find out what the other life you envision is really like. Weigh the pros and cons — every path has them — and make sure the cons are cons you can live with. Figure out how you can get the most benefit for the lowest cost. This is often just a matter of simply starting a project on the side while you continue your current life. Often those side projects bear fruit, either opening tangible doors that crowd out or reshape your old life, or by suggesting next steps. And if you don’t really know what you want to do next, a side project is a great place to start. It allows you to explore aspects of yourself that may have lain dormant, and to gain insights that would have otherwise alluded you. When you want to make change, the key thing is to act, even if you aren’t 100% sure where those actions will or should even lead.
Sometimes we’re forced to reinvent. We get laid off, our career proves insufficiently lucrative, we fail to reach certain goals. My own reinvention was born of necessity. I thought outside the box. I dreamed up all sorts of big ideas (and then put them on a shelf to do the task that was in front of me). In the process, I gained clarity about what I want to offer the world, the mediums I want to work in, and the conditions under which I want to work. Those three pieces of information gave me everything I needed to chart my course except for the courage of my convictions, which I am just a quantum leap away from developing now. I had the opportunity to discover my shortcomings in this regard over the weekend, in a brief conversation with a friend who has different goals and a different way of looking at the world than I do. He’s someone I have a great deal of respect for, who speaks his mind with a great deal of certainty, even when, in my opinion, he’s wrong. Talking with him I discovered, for the second time in as many months, that when he speaks, I tend to mouse up and start trying to fit my vision and goals into his kaleidoscope view of the world. Since we’re very different people with very different goals, this is a ludicrous move, but every relationship I value is an opportunity for me, and this one has given me the opportunity to see what happens when you’re sure that the way you see things is correct, and one of the positive things that happens (yes, there are negative things too) is that you act, without second-guessing yourself into the ground. That gives you more times up at bat, and the more times you swing, the more likely you are to hit the sought-after home run. My friend doesn’t waver, at least not out loud, and being in his presence reminds me how very much I do. It’s time I cut that out.
When we lack the courage of our convictions, we think we need to fit ourselves into a pre-existing mode, or follow a path someone else suggests (or reject their path to defiantly pursue our own, which is almost just as bad). When we are centered in who we are — and when we have a corresponding faith that life will support us in attaining our fullest expression in this life — we neither follow blindly where others lead, nor reject their offerings, which may, after all, be useful in some way. My opinionated friend has been a significant honing stone in my life, forcing me to weigh what I think, and to confront thoughts that, often as not, are roaming around in my own head — thoughts that, in many cases, I need to kick out, not because they are wrong per se, but because they are wrong for me and will never get me to the goal I seek. He’s also taught me to give up the impulse to convince others that what I’m doing makes sense. Trying to convince others is a fool’s errand (you can’t convince all of the people), if for no other reason than that some plans only make sense after they bear fruit. Until then, it’s wise to keep your own counsel while entertaining, but not capitulating to, the honing thoughts of others. This is nowhere more important than when you are taking your life to the next level, and by next level, I mean when you are trying to do something that originates with you.
Some of the most interesting lives are lived by people who achieve both originality and success by both playing the game (which generally involves by making a clear assessment of the landscape and the customs of the tribe), and then finding their own way through the morass. And when you chart your own path, there will be others who will tell you you’re going the wrong way. They could be right. But also, they could be wrong. If you trust them instead of yourself you’ll never know.
The actor Brit Marling teams up with some director friends to write and produce a handful of movies that make her both a movie star and a bona fide player in the movie making game.
The writers Kelly Oxford, Justin Halpern, Diablo Cody write a blog or book or twitter feed that lets her, him, all of the above, in through the side door, where the power and respect are also handed out.
The actress-writer-director-producer-author and all around amazepants Lena Dunham makes an indie film and, voila, the keys to the kingdom end up surgically attached to the palm of her hand.
Or take World War Z author Max Brooks, who worked at SNL, but never parlayed it into his next big thing. Instead, he becomes the world’s leading zombie expert, writes a couple of zombie books, travels the world lecturing on how to survive the zombie apocalypse — which Brooks, who’s super smart, will gladly tell you is a metaphor, for all the scary things we’ve grappled with subterraneously since the planes brought those buildings down, and the men and women of Wall Street brought on the financial collapse, and Mother Nature started showing us her fiercer face. Oh, and incidentally, he sells World War Z, his second zombie book, to “the movies,” for a cool $1Mil, and then let them have their way with it. Because those are the rules (and you’re willing to play by), because they didn’t want you writing the screenplay anyway (from your book with the no main characters and the no discernible, cinematic plot). And because, if you’re Brooks, your interests don’t really lean that way.
Speaking of World War Z, one gets the impression that even Brad Pitt, the World War Z star, and the man who’s production company bought the book and shuttled it through the maze that is Hollywood moviemaking, might have prayed for a similar out — until last weekend’s reversal of fortune at the box office, that is, which, if trends continue, may place Pitt at the head of a World War Z franchise. No slouch himself in the smarts department, Mr. Pitt must have had something like this in mind when he embarked upon this project, such a departure from his other work,which hewed close to the high-brow, character actor fare that made him such a great actor and icon.
Together, Gordon, who comes from the fringe world of punk, and Pitt, who’s spent decades at the center of the culture, offer divergent examples of the same impulse: to live authentically and robustly, to shape our lives into an emblem of who we are.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD KERN via Elle
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.