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Step 2: Write Your Obituary
On the first evening of Artist INC class I learned that one our assignments would be to write our own obituary. The practice was to give us clarity on how we wanted to live our lives and be remembered. Did our obituary line up with our personal values? Does it make us reassess how we want to live our lives? "Writing your obituary is a similar process to revealing your vision."
We didn't have to think of it as an obituary if it was too morbid. We could pretend that it was a speech at the Kennedy Center or imagine someone toasting us on our 75th birthday.
But it was too late. The word was said and it stuck. I would be writing my own obituary.
I've written two obituaries. The first was for a former boyfriend's mother, who treated me with love and kindness. Judy let me cook with her, never had an unkind word to say, and was genuinely interested in getting to know who I was besides being her son's girlfriend. She was a beloved educator, a strong and dedicated wife, and the first mother of a boyfriend who loved me. Her sudden passing was like losing a family member. I learned from her how to treat strangers like family with the utmost Southern hospitality and respect.
When Cole passed, I knew that I needed to write his obituary. Cole loved just about everything that I wrote. For an early Christmas present, he gave me the laptop that I'm using now because he was tired of seeing me "clonk along" on my trusty chromebook. My writing was one of the first things Cole noticed that separated me from the pack early on, if you will (i.e., my random haikus > random girls' cleavage shots). It was "refreshing" that I was smart, quick-witted, and could keep up with him intellectually. I hadn't been writing as much before I met Cole in 2017, and then I couldn't stop writing. I had someone in my corner, championing me to keep exploring my gifts. He read just about everything I sent him and loved it all. You always need that one person who is going to love everything that you do.
I didn't like this assignment at first, for obvious reasons. But I also didn't like the idea of someone else writing my obituary. I've seen enough obits go through a purification process, a censoring of who the person really was. Lifeless facts flanked by dates and those still left behind. I don't want that for me. I'm not sure when my time will come when this obit needs to be shared, but I've left explicit instructions with loved ones to adjust as necessary.
Here lies my obituary:
“To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived - this is to have succeeded.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Before Simone passed, she wrote in her journal thoughts about how well she had lived up to Emerson’s interpretation of success. She was 13 or 14 and remembered reading this quote on a magnet in a gas station with her best friend Frances on the way to Six Flags Over Georgia. That moment interrupted the notion that mortality seemed to stretch out forever. It was in that brief moment before purchasing a Soba that Simone began to awaken to what her life could be.
Simone lived a beautiful life.
Her love Cole Truitt said to her once that she was the kind of person that would walk into a space and everyone could feel the energy change just by the way she carried herself and how she made others feel safe and welcomed.
Simone and her mother shared the same laugh - mouth open, head thrown back, eyebrows raised and eyes tightly shut. If you didn’t feel her presence in the room first, you definitely heard Simone’s laugh.
Simone was a respected artist and leader of social practice in the theatre, as demonstrated by the many programs she helped develop that are still in practice today. In memory of her dedication to youth, a collection of her adapted scripts for youth theatre camps are now available on display at the local library in the room bearing her name - Simone D. Cottrell Arts for Community Resource Room. Simone was also a welcomed visitor in the literary and visual art worlds. She was able to strongly integrate the best art subjects and practices for the communities she worked with in order for them to learn in a unique, tangible way. She wanted the arts to be attainable especially for those whose dreams of being creative died when they had to “grow up”, “be realistic”, or had to spend their resources in ways that meant survival for themselves or for their families. She wanted communities to have the ability to create their own stories and share them when they were ready to do so. Preferably through a play.
Peers were eager to work with her and knew that a partnership with Simone meant creating something new and the process would be fun. Simone would say to those working with her, “We’re going to fail. But we’re going to have fun while we do it because I won’t allow us to not succeed.”
Simone also loved being a mentor to youth and would always welcome youth in her space when they were ready to make the arts a part of their lives as current leaders of their community and future leaders of the art form. On the first day of camps or apprentice training, she would purposefully make her teams fail to know what it felt like to pick themselves back up again as a team. Her first rule of leadership was knowing when to breathe in and breathe out, meaning that the loudest person in the room isn’t normally the leader. A leader knows the difference between speaking up and taking action and stepping back and creating conditions for others to succeed. This was no doubt a lesson she had learned as a child from her father, a former Marine who had fought in Vietnam whose many house mantras included the Marine Corps definition of leadership - Lead by Serving.
Simone was often emotionally vulnerable and allowed others to see clearly how life’s trials and tribulations affected her. She didn’t enjoy knowing that people suffered in silence when we shared so many common humanities. Usually at daily tea when others asked her what she was going to do about so-and-so and what-and-what, Simone would breathe and remind herself (and others) that folks write their own narratives for people to read. She didn’t need to assist others in damaging their narratives as they have already created their own karmic hell. She would focus on her own narrative and stick to that. She would sip her tea. The young folks would whisper a “daaaaamn…” and that was that. No one said that she wasn’t sassy and didn’t throw shade from time to time.
Other than the prolific work Simone created with our communities, she will be remembered for so many other things that made her just a little bit different:
Her collection of tortoiseshell cats named after socialist and communist leaders. May Chairman Meow, Evita Paw-ron, Fidel Cat-stro, and Meow-cilini welcome her with many cuddles. Her dogs Rice, Lucky, and Coco had typical names but were loved just the same.
Simone’s Summer Sunset Sunday Salons. She couldn’t resist an opportunity for friends to gather for a meal on her deck, nor an opportunity for alliteration.
She would call friends up for road trips to visit all of the waterfalls and swimming holes in the Southeast or elsewhere. Sometimes they were mud pits. Sometimes they were glorious.
She was arrested for protesting at least once that we know of.
She also ran away to join a rock band for two weeks without letting her family know, but somehow got her college assignments turned in on time.
Her casual tarot card readings made you rethink your life, especially during retrogrades.
At this time, where ever you are and whatever you are doing, find the closest mason jar and fill it to the rim with champagne. And let’s toast to our girl, Simone, for a life she filled with one-of-a-kind experiences, laughter, joy, and beauty.