Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Wakeup Call

I spent this past weekend at the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento. Three days of ragtime and early jazz, from 9am (no, I didn't come in quite that early) till 11 at night (yes, I did stay that late), with informational seminars, and the opportunity to sit down with friends I see face-to-face only once or twice a year. That Festival has always been a major refresher, a transfusion of energy. Everything upbeat.

But this year was different.

I hadn't been there ten minutes when I ran into a dear friend, and learned that her long-dormant cancer had reawakened. Then, not five minutes after chatting with her, I greeted another very good friend, only to learn she'd recently had the worst kind of diagnosis, and this was going to be her last Festival.

Bummer. All day Friday and well into Saturday, I listened to the music, but I wasn't really tuned in. I started to wonder whether I'd gotten a wakeup call.

A couple of weeks ago, I debated myself in my blog post as to whether I should go ahead with my next mystery novel, or organize, edit, and write up the historical papers I'd acquired from the estate of Brun Campbell, the original Ragtime Kid. Brun desperately wanted to get his history of ragtime published, but he never did. Surrounded by ragtime at the Festival, I asked myself what difference one mystery novel more or less would make, when I could be Brun's second chance.

Brun and I had developed a nice relationship during the five years I'd employed him as protagonist of THE RAGTIME KID and THE RAGTIME FOOL, and given that the old piano man was quite the storyteller himself, I thought I was well-qualified to spruce up his notes and tell his story. Be tough to let an old friend down, especially one as engaging and insistent as Brun.

A passage from COMING INTO THE END ZONE, a memoir by the novelist Doris Grumbach, came into my mind. Ms. Grumbach wrote the book during the year she turned seventy, and it was in large part a compendium of indignation at the nasty stuff old age dumps on people, including the realization of how close one's personal horizon has drawn. The author remembered a friend who said she "thinks we die only when our work is done. I would like to think that is true. I have work still to do." When I googled Doris Grumbach, I was gratified - and amused - to find she is still alive, twenty-three years later and counting, and has written several more books.

Ms. Grumbach's friend could be right, but I suspect she's got it backward. More likely, when we die, our work is done. But either way, the bottom line is the same: Focus on what's at hand, and let the horizon lie where it will. It just might be twenty-three years out there. And if it's twenty-three hours, what are you going to do about it?

By late Saturday I found myself tuning into the music much better, though admittedly not quite as well as at past Festivals. Maybe next year I'll be back to form. And I'll be interested to see what I'm working on then...Lord willin' and the creek don't rise.

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