Remembering Gail Sheehy

It bums me out that Gail Sheehy passed without much notice—meaning I only heard about it in passing. And I didn’t hear about it, actually; I saw it on CBS’ Sunday Morning, where her face passed somewhere between Tom Seaver’s and John Thompson’s in the September 6 show’s roster of the freshly dead. I was shocked: She was older than both those guys and far less done. Or done at all, except technically. Death seems especially out of character for her, of all people.

Credit where due: The New York Times did post a fine obituary, and New York, for which she wrote much, has an excellent remembrance in the magazine by Christopher Bonanos (@heybonanos). Writes Bonanos,

Sheehy had an 18th book in the works, and it would have been — or will be, if someone else takes to the finish line — a fascinating one. Instead of reporting amid her peers (she was a few years older than the boomers, but roughly in their cohort), she set out to write a kind of echo of Passages, but this time about the millennial generation. And I can tell you that she was reveling in the immersion among people 50 and 60 years younger than she. She went to clubs with college guys and got out on the dance floor, and (by her account, at least) they were disarmed and amused by her — which is to say that she’d found every journalist’s sweet spot, where people get loose and comfortable enough to reveal themselves. She was constantly offering bits and pieces of her findings as magazine stories and columns. Some would work as stand-alone pieces and others wouldn’t, but all were tesserae in what was clearly going to be a big ambitious swoop of sociology. At New York, we were so taken with this project that we had also begun work on a profile of her…

@Gail_Sheehy is chronologically uncorrected. Her website, GailSheehy.com, also still speaks of her in the present tense: “For her new book-in-progress, she’s a woman on a mission to redefine the most misunderstood generation: millennials. They are struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a crisis in mental health. But this generation of 20- and 30-somethings is also inventing radically new passages.”

Gail Sheehy’s writing isn’t just solid; it is enviably good. BrainyQuotes has 71 samples, which is far short of sufficient. One goes, It is a paradox that as we reach our prime, we also see there is a place where it finishes. (Tell me about it. I’m only ten years younger than she was.)

As it happens, I’m writing this in the home library of a friend. On its many shelves a single spine stands out: Pathfinders, published in 1981. I pull it down and open it at random, knowing I’ll find something worth sharing from a page there. Here ya go, under the subhead Secrets of Well-being:

Like the dance of brilliant reflections on a clear pond, well-being is a shimmer that accumulates from many important life choices, mad over the years by a mind that is not often muddied by pretense or ignorance and a heart that is open enough to sense people in their depths and to intuit the meaning of most situations.

If there is an afterlife, I am sure Gail Sheehy is already reporting on it.

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