Sturm: Joan Rivers’ life lessons — can we talk?
God knows Joan Rivers had much to atone for every Yom Kippur, considering her trenchant wit, off-color jokes and celebrity takedowns — though sidesplitting.
Never deferential to fame and status, Rivers claimed, “I succeeded by saying what everyone else is thinking.” Hence, Liz Taylor was “so fat, she puts mayonnaise on aspirin” and “hamburgers on hot dogs,” and HBO-star Lena Dunham’s ever-present breasts “look like Michael J. Fox drew them and Stevie Wonder filled them in.”
Alas, the trailblazing performer can’t Think Again and repent this year. Known for resilience and career rebirths springing from fearlessness, a legendary work ethic and her “this too shall pass” philosophy, Rivers has now passed. Yet in continuously reversing nosedives, Rivers’ life story — struggle, growth and renewal — is High Holiday sermon-worthy.
Rivers didn’t go to the woods like Henry David Thoreau to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” preferring her palatial apartment. But like Thoreau, she did “learn what (life) had to teach” and didn’t “practice resignation,” discovering when she came to die that she’d truly lived. “I’m so, so lucky,” she proclaimed in her last interview. “I’m relevant. I’m funny. And I look OK.”
We lament Rivers’ premature exit from life’s stage. After all, refusing to be “Joan of AARP,” she’d just commanded a comedy stage before undergoing vocal-cord surgery to repair her act’s instrument, causing the only setback her determination couldn’t overcome.
Rivers realized her death wish, dying peacefully in her sleep like Grandpa — not screaming like the others in his car, as she joked. At 81 years old, the tireless comedian, who claimed her body was falling so fast her gynecologist wore a hard hat, predicted nobody would say, “How young!” upon her passing. “They’re going to say, ‘She had a great ride!’”
Indeed, it was a roller-coaster ride with dramatic downturns, breathtaking heights and a trajectory that careened past indignities and disappointments toward accomplishment and fulfillment.
“Comedy only comes from a place of tragedy or anger or being hurt,” Rivers believed, rendering her woes comedic fodder — husband Edgar Rosenberg’s suicide, daughter Melissa’s estrangement, discrimination, career failures, mentor Johnny Carson’s rejection, indebtedness, suicidal thoughts and cosmetic-surgery scorn.
Nothing was off-limits, and self-ridicule was her specialty. After Edgar’s suicide, she joked that his will requested daily visits. “So I had him cremated and scattered his ashes in Neiman Marcus. I never missed a day.” Making herself the punch line — “I’ve had more reconstruction than Baghdad” — she would’ve cracked cardiac-arrest jokes if she were alive.
More than wit and courage, Rivers had wisdom and self-awareness. She knew her life’s spark was inducing laughter, and in a novelty-manic era, she refashioned herself to sustain freshness and relevance. At the epicenter of popular culture — stand-up comedy, late-night and then daytime television, hawking jewelry on QVC, critiquing red-carpet fashion — her comedic commentary cheered the world.
“To everything there is a season,” the Byrds sang (and the Bible posits) — a time to get, lose, love, hate, laugh, cry, be born, die — because life is a journey, not a destination. Rivers journeyed “through any door that opened,” she boasted, confident that “something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.”
Though my treasured friend recently succumbed to cancer, I know as a survivor that amid darkness and despair, there is light and hope, inspiring a more vigorous return to life. Long winters render summer more glorious because profound joy derives from knowing nothing lasts forever. That we’re never done experiencing, learning and growing — more from disappointments than successes — is a call to action.
In answering life’s calls and making the most of herself — albeit with considerable plastic coating — Rivers wore her soul brightly, finally relinquishing it better and more burnished. Joan cried a river after each setback, but then she built a showboat to float to happier times, cracking us up en route. Her life was a blessing for blessing us with her wit and wisdom.
Still standing till the end — though with some osteoporosis, she quipped — Rivers embodied this ancient Talmudic advice: “Get the most from each hour, each day and each age of your life. Then you can look forward with confidence and back without regret. Be yourself, but be your best self. Dare to be different, to follow your own star.
“Enjoy what is beautiful. Believe that those you love, love you. Forget what you’ve done for your friends, and remember what they’ve done for you.
“Disregard what the world owes you; concentrate on what you owe the world. When faced with a decision, make it as wisely as possible, then forget it. The moment of absolute certainty never arrives.
“Blessed is the generation in which the old listen to the young; double-blessed is the generation in which the young listen to the old.”
Think Again — May every soul searcher’s life follow this path.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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