I appreciate the method of the Stoics, their non-dualistic way of navigating life with the reverberating mantra, Everything is perfect. Everything is as it should be. This is all there is.
It isn’t easy to maintain such a mindset for very long; perhaps it’s impossible. Suffer one lousy night sleep, get stuck in traffic for longer than you can afford, get screwed over in the drive thru by a careless McDonald’s employee who neglects to put your hashbrowns in the bag with your Big Breakfast meal––it doesn’t take much before you’re thinking, This sucks. This is not how things ought to be. Life shouldn’t be so hard.
But there are times, precious and rare, when it all comes into focus. Now is such a time. I am in the mile high city, waiting out a two hour flight delay, and it is exactly as it should be. Everything is perfect. I am here, and through the epiphenomenal mystery of human language, you are here with me.
My uncle Phil died last week, unexpectedly. As soon as I heard of his passing, I knew I was meant to travel to Tennessee for his memorial. Funny how that happens. You need to have a mind clear in the moment to catch a thing like that, and I don’t always have a clear mind, but I did on that day. I’m on my way home now, and I had a blast on this trip. Don’t take that the wrong way, like I’m making light of death (though perhaps I am, just a little); I only mean to say that I had a good time, mostly because Uncle Phil lived the sort of life that is easy to celebrate, and when you celebrate the life of a good person, you often get to spend time with other good people, some of whom you don’t get to see very often.
I saw my aunt Elda (Phil’s wife) for the first time in nearly two decades, and she was so generous even in her grief and more beautiful than I remembered, and I think she has more friends than any person I know. I got to see my big brother, Sean, for the first time in a couple years, got to eat at his restaurant, and I was reminded as I tasted his dish that prayers are often hidden in unexpected places. When my brother cooks, it is like his food becomes a sort of wordless prayer, and I think those are the best kind––the sort that are unencumbered by the inadequacy of words. Sean also knows more about Star Wars and Seinfeld than anybody I know, and I could sit and talk with him until I die.
I learned that Lutheran funerals are a great workout, exercising mind and body, as well as vocal cords. If you’re ever feeling a little soft, a little dull in the brain, I highly recommend you attend a Lutheran memorial service. Each hymn is a four or five verse marathon, and you can’t allow yourself to become distracted for a moment, lest you miss the minister’s cue to speak the refrain, Hear our prayer.
A ways back on this trail of words, I mentioned that I knew I was supposed to be at that Lutheran church, singing those really long hymns with all the good people. When the service started, and the minister asked if anybody wanted to share some words about Phil, I knew I was going to be the first person up there, because you can’t help who you are in this life. I’m first family member to speak at the memorial guy; there’s no point in fighting it. I started by reading a message from my cousin Kathleen, thoughts and memories about her father, and I hope I delivered it in a way that was worthy of the love that went into writing it. Then I shared a few words of my own. I thought of talking about the fun fact that my two children would not exist were it not for Uncle Phil introducing me to Ms. Christmas, whom I took quite a liking to and married. I decided not to share that story because it was too much about me. What I did say, Aunt Elda asked me to write down, so I will do that now, as best as I can.
It went something like this:
It says in the Bible that we are the hands and feet of Christ, and I think Phil was that sometimes, but even more, I think Phil was the voice of Christ, calling on the phone, calling to check in on you. We all carry these little devices around in our pockets, these electronic things that run our lives, and there is plenty of bad that goes with them, but we can use them for something good. We can call the people we love and care about, and we don’t need to wait for birthdays or anniversaries, we can call them just because, just to make sure they are okay.
There may have been more to it than that, but when you get up in front of people to talk, your main brain usually takes a backseat to the little brain in your mouth, so I’m merely guessing at what came out when little brain gave his little speech.
There is much talk lately about the loneliness epidemic plaguing our country, and for good reason. We are a society slowly dying of loneliness, a highly preventable disease. The cure is not complicated, nor is it expensive. You need no prescription. Call someone. The inevitable result is that you’ll make them less lonely while doing the same for yourself.