Warning: You may find parts of this piece uncomfortable to read. If you can stay with it, I encourage you to do so.

After living in Spain for more than six years, it occurred to me that we should get rid of all the stuff we had stored in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I told Elyn that we needed to get rid of things in the US so that our children wouldn’t have a mess to deal with when we were dead. We would put our house on the market at a price that would attract a purchaser. In short, it was time to clear the boards. We returned to the US and spent two months completing the task.

As we drove away from our house for the final time, it suddenly came to me: “We’ve finished what we came here to do. It's the end of my life.” At age 78, it is no surprise that end-of-life issues are coming up. My high-school classmates are dropping regularly these days, and nearly all of the older generation of my family are gone. But somehow I had maintained the illusion that I was still in the “prime of life.” To me, “prime of life” meant being a rushing whirlwind of activity, always successful in my chosen career, chasing the urge to achieve, to do something amazing. It finally came home to me now, twenty years after I retired, that, although I had won many awards and prizes in my career as a professor and composer, I was never going to win the really BIG prize—to get the “gold ring” of being famous. Well, duh!

My illusion of “prime of life” was bolstered by a strong constitution and very few health complaints. I thank my homesteading ancestors for that. They wouldn’t have made it from England to the wilds of the Kansas frontier if they weren’t tough. My dad used to say that if there was an easy way and a hard way to do anything, his father always chose the hard way. Tough.

But there it was, “We’ve finished the task. Now I can die.” Elyn was puzzled by my comment, and so was I.

We returned to Spain and resumed our regular life, but I felt troubled. Nothing seemed fun anymore. I started this Fandango Life blog in hopes that it would lift my depression. As usual, having a project helped this aging workaholic, but it wasn’t enough. I adopted a stance that since there wasn’t going to be a “happy ending,” at least I could plan a “graceful exit.”

I now realize that “happy ending” was code words for maintaining the illusion that I was in the “prime of my life,” still capable of engaging in numerous projects and activities, always trying to live up to the vision that my mother had of me. She was sure that I was destined for greatness, or at least that was the image she pressed on me as I was growing up. I would have a life of major achievements. I would be famous. Try living up to that one.

I have had major achievements in my life. I hold the highest academic rank offered by my university: Distinguished Professor Emeritus. And I have been awarded the University of California, Berkeley Medal for my lifetime of achievements as a composer. But that wasn’t enough for a "happy ending." I had aimed for something at the level of the Pulitzer Prize in Music, but I now realize that wouldn’t have been enough, either. The ultimate truth about fame is that one can never get enough of it. There is no "happy ending" there. All these years I had been living from an old set of values more or less on "auto pilot."

I contacted our wonderful therapist, Jake Eagle, back in Santa Fe, and made an appointment to Skype with him. Jake helped me to realize that I had to make a major shift in perspective. I couldn’t maintain the old priorities of success at all costs any more. My own health should be the first priority, and being a good and loving partner to Elyn should be my second priority. But as much as I tried, I just couldn’t “get it right.” Everything I tried to do was wrong. I was failing at achieving these new priorities.

For the first time in my life, I began to have thoughts of suicide. After all, my “success-driven” life was over. I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler to just end it quickly and, hopefully, cleanly. Trying to think of clean ways to die is not easy. Would I visit my messy death on Elyn? No. Running down the list of chemicals, weapons, etc. brought no good options to mind. A sudden attraction to the edge of the balcony of our 6th-floor apartment was the wakeup call. My basic survival instinct kicked in and I called Jake again.

As usual, Jake was calm, thoughtful, and clear. He didn’t sugar-coat anything, and I marveled again at his perceptiveness. He shed considerable light on the path ahead. I came to see that the need to shift my goals, to re-evaluate my direction for the rest of my life did not require that I get it perfect the first time. Again, I was setting unreasonable standards for myself. I came away feeling much better about myself. We made plans for regular check-ins for a few weeks. Life began to have some color again.

My dear wife and partner, Elyn Aviva, came up with an image that feels perfect for what I’ve been going through. (My admiration for her creative imagination grows and grows.) She presented me with the image of the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. We recently read that this process is far from peaceful. The cells of the dying caterpillar attack and kill the cells of the emerging butterfly, and those of the butterfly-to-be do the same with the caterpillar cells, until the whole mess is a soupy blob. Gradually the butterfly cells win out and the transformation completes itself. That feels just like what I’ve been going through—turning to muck, dissolving, to re-form into something new and different.


I am clearly in a major transition in my life. I can no longer ignore the fact that this is the “last act,” but I am beginning to see the shape of the road ahead. I’m becoming an “elder.” Nay, I AM an elder! I have role models to follow. There are lots of elders, and some of us are having the most productive time of our lives. I think of Barbara Marx Hubbard, who at 85 is the dynamo driving and guiding the Conscious Evolution movement, which has the goal of leading mankind into our next stage of evolution. I think of former president Jimmy Carter, who has done so much in his quiet, southern gentlemanly manner to foster peace with justice in this world. And now, he may even show us how to die gracefully. I have such admiration for this beautiful human being. I also  think of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who wrote that seminal work “From Aging to Saging: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older” at this stage in his life. There are, indeed, many productive elders out there, and I am proud to be joining their ranks in my own small way.

I’ve always said that I am staying around for the end of the movie. I want to see “THE END” come up on the screen. Maybe I’ll be fortunate enough to feel that it is a happy ending—not the blaze of glory my mother hoped for, but something deeper and more profound. I don’t know what it will be or what it will look like.

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Wait! I think the cocoon is cracking. I think I see light ahead. Anticipation is building!

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(Music up, maestro!) {CLICK}

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