Always Attend the Funeral

In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program called, This I Believe, where people from all walks of life took a few minutes to share the guiding principles by which they lived.

The show featured essays from Helen Keller, Harry Truman, Jackie Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They also broadcasted pieces from cab drivers, scientists, and secretaries.

In 2005, National Public Radio resurrected the concept and invited a new batch of contributors, famous and unknown, to share their core values. The series included everything from advice on being kind to the pizza guy to Bill Gates’ thoughts on unleashing the power of creativity.

The next year, a collection of these short essays were published into a book, This I Believe. They’re wonderful essays. Funny. Poignant. Profound. I love the brevity of the pieces because distilling your life philosophy down to 350 – 500 words forces you to get to the heart of things.

Among the many great essays, one by Deirdre Sullivan, a freelance attorney in Brooklyn, has stayed with me over the years: “Always Go to the Funeral.

Sullivan writes about how her father forced her as a teenager to attend the funeral for her fifth-grade math teacher and her awkward expressions of sympathy to the family. Eventually, Sullivan realized that a personal philosophy of “going to funerals” meant more than that:

“I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour…In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing. In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”

I’ve been to a lot of funerals: A high school friend who committed suicide. My high school journalism teacher/mentor. The younger sister of our babysitter. My friends who died along with their children in a private plane crash in Montana. The husband of my friend and colleague who took his own life a few years ago. Parents and spouses of my small group friends from church. My 40-year-old brother-in-law, Richard, who died of a rare brain disease in 2005.

This past week, my sister and brother-in-law would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. Up close, I know what it meant to her to have so many people show up at Richard’s funeral 7 years ago. The salesman from a car dealership came to the funeral. Another salesman who sold home theatre systems attended Richard’s service as well. It says something about Richard, who made friends with everyone he encountered, that these folks came. Moreover, it was comforting to my sister that people showed up to grieve with her. Richard’s life mattered, and physical bodies at the funeral spoke to that.

Today, I’m attending a memorial service for a woman who passed away from cancer. I’m attending the service to honor her memory. I’m attending the memorial for her husband. And I’m going for me, because while there are some logistical inconveniences of time and travel and shuffling kids around to attend, I’ve started to realize what a privilege it is to be friends with people; an honor to celebrate births, mark life’s milestones, and be present in their grief.

Always attend the funeral.

Something That Doesn’t Love a Wall

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost wrote in his poem, Mending Wall. It’s a line that has always resonated with me. I love parties and social events and filling my home with crowds of people, but I also appreciate those physical as well as metaphorical fences that establish the boundaries and protect my privacy. I love to have close friends, but I sometimes struggle with letting people get too close where they could get a good look at my flaws and imperfections (somehow oblivious to the fact that my flaws are just as apparent at the 100 yard line!); and I’m zealous about guarding my own time.

It’s silly and selfish, I know. More than that, it’s my pride. Last weekend, my neighbors rang my doorbell at 10 on Sunday morning. My kids were with their dad for the weekend, and I was enjoying the freedom of staying out late and sleeping in. So when the doorbell rang, I was semi-awake but certainly not showered or dressed. I ignored the doorbell and hoped they’d go away. I didn’t want to admit that I was this lazy person who wasn’t even out of bed at 10 a.m. I didn’t want to greet my neighbors in my pajamas with disheveled hair and sans makeup. And I didn’t feel like talking. Just let me get up, browse the Sunday news via the internet, and leave me alone.

My neighbors finally gave up and left. Then they called me later to check if everything was all right and asked if I wanted some fruits and vegetables from their garden. I felt incredibly sheepish for ignoring them at my door.

Slowly, slowly, I’m trying to figure out how to worry less about what people think, open up more to the “inconvenience” of building relationships, and invite people into the woof and warp of my life. It comes naturally to some people. It’s not always natural for me.

It’s hard for me to trade freedom and autonomy and my need for perfection, for the messy, demanding requirements of becoming deeply involved and close to other people. Amazing thing is, there is so much to gain when you finally let people in. Literally.

Last summer, I was faced with the huge task of moving homes. For all kinds of reasons, my move was daunting and emotional and just plain overwhelming. Friends kept saying, “Let us know if we can help.” I kept responding, “Oh, thanks, but I can manage.” It’s uncomfortable to admit that you need help. And it’s a little daunting to allow people to go through your home/your life. Finally I realized, Hell, I really need the help. I swallowed my pride and sent out an email asking everyone to come over for a packing party.

Neighbors, co-workers, family, friends—even parents of my children’s friends—showed up. A group of people assembled boxes in my garage while others fanned out to rooms in my house wrapping dishes and glasses, packing clothes and toys, disassembling beds and furniture. In 5 hours, 35+ friends packed up my entire 3-story house into 247 boxes—all captured by a girlfriend who entered the contents of each numbered box into a computer spreadsheet, a packing manifest! If you’re thinking about the body of Christ, these friends were his hands and feet to someone in need. A year later, I’m still in awe thinking of what an amazing gift of time and energy my friends lavished on me. And I’m inspired to figure out ways to get past my selfishness so I can pass it forward to others.

Sure, I still desire a good fence that delineates my space from yours. That might not change soon. But I’m growing more appreciative of the gates that swing open to invite people in as well as draw me out of my own backyard and into the neighborhood.

“…Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

And to whom I was like to give offence

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

That wants it down…”

Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

An Age-Old Story

Next month, I turn 40. Well, technically, I turn 39 in September, but thirty-ten is so close, I can feel it. I think I might just take the plunge and declare myself 40 right now instead of having that number hang over me for an entire year.

I’m already out of that prime target audience for marketers (18 – 35 year olds who have purchasing power and, supposedly, disposable incomes, or at least high tolerance levels for credit card debt). Yeah, they’re still selling to me. But the advertisers have got my number now, and they’re pitching me anti-aging products and weight loss supplements. I’m not sure I can tolerate another asinine Acai berry ad!

I’m trying to take this all in stride. I’ve never been a huge numbers person—I took “Math for Poets” in college, for Pete’s sake! So arguably, I’m not even comprehending how old 40 really is. Is it a prime number? An imaginary number? A negative factor of some multi-variable equation?

What unnerves me are the endless reassurances to women everywhere about aging. There are those overzealous comments to the birthday girl: You’re still a “babe”; You’re waaaay hot; Don’t worry, 40 is the new 30. The sentiments sound suspiciously like mom saying, “It’s okay, honey. The perm’s not so bad.” Or, “You look cute in glasses.”

So even though I’m kinda nonplussed by another occasion to celebrate me, eat cake, and receive gifts, I’m starting to think it is a big deal. The kind of big deal you should be paying attention to. Like a Japanese person in Hiroshima in 1945 watching a plane with the name “Enola Gay” flying overhead. It’s not the moment to be thinking about the ingredients you need to make California Rolls…

I’m trying to figure out what I need to be prepared. I’m about 15 pounds heavier than my perfect weight, so a South Beach diet and a personal trainer are probably in order. Not sure I can afford a personal trainer right now, what with all the Acai products I’m going to be ordering, so I may have to depend on chasing the dog as my cardio routine and lifting those huge paper towel rolls I buy at Costco as a weight-lifting regimen. (Unfortunately, I went south and ate a lot while sitting on the beach, so that diet isn’t working.)

Then there are those stretch marks and the loose skin around my belly button from my pregnancies, notably my twin pregnancy. It’s terribly hard to work for an organization that’s all about saving lives and bringing healthcare, clean water and food to starving children in the world. Just try to justify to yourself thousands of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery for some wrinkles and lines around your navel. I wish I could. I really do want to have my pre-pregnancy tummy back. But we have this darn alternative gift catalog that tells me how many goats or chickens a family could have for the cost of a smooth tummy. Turns out I could probably buy guinea pigs for the whole country of Peru to remove the wear and tear signs of carrying my fearsome foursome. I’m just wearing long shirts and trying not to think about the alien crop circles around my navel.

When my birthday comes around next month, I am planning to celebrate with my family and some of my favorite friends. My favorite older friends. Strange thing is, I rarely notice or think about what they look like; how much they weigh, how old they are, or much of the stuff that crosses my mind about me on the month before my 39th/40th birthday.

My best-est friends are wise and witty and fun. They are authentic and indomitable and loyal. My favorite people have celebrated the births of their stretch-mark-inducing children; managed to persevere through all kinds of life’s challenges, and they’ve learned invaluable lessons of faith and grace by living through the high moments and low moments.

I hope none of my girlfriends (or guy friends) will be disappointed if I don’t call them “hotties” and name them by name here. I know many of them qualify for the title. One thing, for sure, most of the best people I know bear stretch marks all over their souls. Maybe their stomachs too. I just haven’t noticed.