I could not believe my eyes. “Gail Sheehy, Journalist, Author and Social Observer, Dies at 83 – In a raft of books, notably “Passages,” she examined cultural transformations as well as the interior lives of public figures,” glared the New York Times’ headline. Sheehy “examined societal trends as signposts of cultural change,” traveled with Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and incisively profiled Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and POTUS Bush one and two.
My muse, she joined a litany of literati who influenced those of us who believed the pen is mightier than the sword. Tina Brown, Nora Ephron, Ken Auletta, her ex-husband Clay Felker (who started the infamous New York Magazine), Nat Hentoff, Gloria Steinem, Dominick Dunne, Tom Wolfe, Jim Harrison, George Will, Thomas Friedman, Maureen Dowd, Fran Lebowitz, Graydon Carter and of course, New York’s bard Pete Hamill, who passed this summer.
Now, when we need them all, print outlets are passe, podcasts too loud in unquiet times and broadcast insufferable (except for Jane Pauley on CBS Sunday and Willie Geist on Sunday Today).
I just finished Tina Brown’s brilliant “Vanity Fair Diaries,” which recalls Sheehy’s prowess writing for New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. On meeting her at a swanky party, Brown observed “Gail is a vivacious redhead with a torrent of ideas.” Redhead and ideas stuck in my brain, as I am proud of both attributes as a journalist.
Arianna Huffington, Thrive Global’s visionary leader, by the way, was also part of the “Vanity Fair under Tina Brown” crowd and certainly as fearless a leader as Sheehy and Steinem in a writing world previously dominated by men.
With Gail’s passing, I think it’s a good time to share some of her big ideas. She wrote and identified cultural trends like blended families and the opium epidemic before they trended. Her book, “Passages,” observations on mind/body/spirit and lifestyle at every milestone, including “disrupt aging” is as relevant today as it was groundbreaking when published in 1974.
Here are some of her Big Ideas quoted from “Passages,” all helpful during the current cultural climate and COVID-19. Sheehy interviewed hundreds of midlife people and scientific experts in multiple fields to provide a navigation system through the “mysteries of the life cycle.”
“Each of us stumbles upon the major issue of midlife somewhere in the decade between 35 and 45. And somehow, we must try to live with it…The major task of midlife is to give up all our imagined safety providers and stand naked in the world, as the rehearsal for assuming full authority over ourselves. The fear is: What if I can’t stand on my own two feet?”
“Is there life after youth? …Where were the guidelines on how to get through the Trying Twenties, the Forlorn Forties? The years between 18 and 50 are the center of life, the unfolding of maximum opportunity and capacity. But without any guide to the inner changes on the way to full adulthood, we are swimming blind.”
If you are seeing “dark at the end of the tunnel,” during these trying times, read this book. It’s for women and men of a certain age, for those whose sense of time and place have been disrupted. “It is never too late to start something new,” writes Sheehy, “It’s not too late to start what I put aside.”
The loss of youth opens a door to personality change, a more authentic lifestyle and goals. “But first letting the dark side open up will release a cast of demons. Every loose end not resolved in previous passages will resurface to haunt us. Buried parts of ourselves we demand incorporation or at least make the effort of seeing and discarding them.” But the end result? Freedom to live a renewed life of purpose, with joy and spirit.
So if we can ride out the downside, writes Sheehy, “Let go. Let the feeling. Let the changes,” you can embrace the gift of inner validation and a “uniquely authentic journey.” And that, my friends, is the power of the pen and some of Sheehy’s Big Ideas. RIP, dear muse.
Nanette Wiser is a journalist and media consultant. THE BIG IDEA focuses on lessons we can learn from the powerful and powerless, tastemakers and trendmakers. Share your BIG IDEA at [email protected]