The Surprising Lesson Joan Rivers Left Me With

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joan riversI’m typically the last person to take note of or comment on celebrity passings. Celebrities aren’t my guilty pleasure of choice, and so it’s curious that I’d feel so taken with the news of the death of Joan Rivers, a comedian who, for most of my life, I associated primarily with red carpet “who are you wearings?,” a question for which it’s hard to imagine an answer that could possibly interest me.

But, last year when I had many, many hours of newborn feeding and sleeping on me time to watch documentary after documentary on Netflix, I turned on Piece of Work, the 2010 movie about Rivers. I was so moved by this film, and awed by her. She wasn’t someone that I could relate to – her persona in the movie was brash, driven, compelled to work, critical, and always on – pretty much the opposite of me! But, there was something so real in her character, fearless to tell the truth as she saw it and wearing honestly the vulnerability that most of us feel inwardly and try to suppress. I respected everything about her, even the unflattering bits (much credit to the filmmakers for evoking that response in me, and to Ms Rivers, who undoubtedly took a very calculated risk in letting the movie be made).

When I heard of her passing earlier this week, I paused, and said to Partner-in-Crime, “Wow. She was amazing.” And then I kept thinking of her. She was such a fixture and so seemingly ageless – not just because of all the plastic surgery, but because of her boundless energy – that it’s hard to imagine she actually could have died. I read a few thoughtful remembrances – this one by a writer who worked with Rivers on a couple of TV projects, this one by Kathy Griffin, a protege of River’s and a performer who I quite love, and this one from the L.A. Times, which happens to be by my grad school advisor and one of the best theatre critics around. There’s a common theme in all of these articles, which is Joan Rivers’ ceaseless generosity. Watches taken off her wrist and given to near strangers, restaurant tabs obsessively paid, honest compliments handed around. How easy it would seem she was with her generosity. If I understand her character, she was tough, hard-edged, demanding, and yet forever giving to others.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of myself. Like Joan Rivers, and everyone else, I have many flaws. My flaws are my own, my personality nothing like hers, but whatever they are, there is nothing stopping me from showing a spirit of generosity with the same ease as she did. No, I don’t have furs, limos, and QVC bucks, but I have a lot. I have more than enough food, clothing, time, and mental capacity. My needs are met, which means I have plenty to give. I don’t want to give just because it’s Christmas or give because I think it will reflect well on me, I want to just give quietly, with ease. I want to give in a way that the receiver hardly notices, but goes away a little bit happier. I want to give without thinking, like it’s the most natural act in the world. I think that’s what Joan Rivers did.

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If you haven’t seen it, this is one of the most powerful scenes in the Piece of Work documentary, where Joan Rivers takes on a heckler. I think it sums up the complexity of her brilliant, tough, generous character that the movies captures. (Not safe for work or the easily offended!)