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Category: discernment

bequest

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bequest n. a legacy bequeathed to someone. 

she bequeathed me a legacy so profound it leaves me breathless, makes my heart pound, and my knees go weak. i’ve yet to cradle it, and carry it home, but yesterday, in a hot apartment that was only sparsely appointed with the artifacts and books she’d spent a lifetime gathering, rooms that stand witness to the dismantling of a life cut short, too short, i sat down with her brother and began to discover a wisp of what awaits my careful curation, my distilling of her wisdom, what will be — i hope and pray — her triumphant valedictory in the form of the book she’d always hoped to write.

she left me, according to the language in her will, her “creative work,” and with it, the sobering responsibility, the hope, to “do her proud,” as my own mama would put it, as my mama did put it, the day my own father was buried and my mother whispered her instruction to their five children huddled at the door, about to step outside and into the long black limousine the funeral home had sent. “do him proud” were the instructions then, to the five children left fatherless and far too young to make much sense of the enormity of the loss. they’re words that have long instructed me, and they instruct me once again: “do her proud.”

we began, my friend’s brother and i, by clicking to her photo album, and there we found the very last photo she had taken, just before she surrendered to the hospital, and, after that, the few short days when she absorbed the unthinkable, that she was dying and would die within the week.

the very last picture, the last time she clicked her camera, was to take a picture of the words you see above, words that read:

“i’m beginning to realise that real happiness isn’t something large and looming on the horizon ahead but something small, numerous and already here. the smile of someone you love. a decent breakfast. the warm sunset. your little everyday joys all lined up in a row.” — beau taplin

i simply stared at first, the intimacy of the moment washing over me.

here i was peeking in on the solitude of her final hours at home, when she was pulled up to her desk, or propped against the pillows on her couch, poring over the internet for words that captured what she knew, what she’d learned and what she’d come to deeply believe. and here, on this one brick wall of wisdom, she’d stopped, pulled out her camera, and clicked. i can’t imagine she imagined it would be only months later when her final frame would be stumbled upon, its every word, one by one, discovered and absorbed. i can’t imagine she imagined that we’d inhale its every breath, its every syllable, as if words — instruction — from beyond.

but that’s what we did.

i read it once, then twice, then i quietly asked her brother if i could take a picture of my friend’s last picture. “of course,” he said.

it will be like this, for weeks and months. maybe even years. i will soon have banker’s boxes filled with her journals, her notes and scribblings. i will have every essay she ever typed and saved. i will retrace the topography of her mind, and travel deeply into her soul. or at least i will find some refracted angle of that soul.

i will extract that which matters most. i will be informed all along the way by an uncanny, unspoken instruction. i will follow as closely as imaginable what i discern is the course she’s laid out for me, for all of us. i know that in her final years she was hellbent on discovering and dispensing the purest path to love, to joy. “a diviner of joy,” were the words that tumbled from my fingers to the screen — my description of her and her life’s work — in the obituary i wrote, at her request, just after she had died.

it would be weeks later till i found out that, in her last will and testament, she’d bequeathed to me that very task: to be the diviner of what she’d found to be the path to joy. to inherit her life’s written work, to pore through it, to extract the shimmering shards of truth and beauty, the ones that will not die. the ones that must be given sunlight and breeze, and lined up, page upon page, for all of us who wonder where to go to find the joy, the peace, the love that we — all of us — so deeply seek.

this morning, once again, the world is weeping. and my task with my dear friend’s truth is more urgent than ever. there is work to do. so much work. and, soon, mine will begin in the stacks and files and boxes and computer that must hold the truth buried deep inside.

bless you, mary ellen, for this gift. i promise here to do you proud, to unearth all that you so carefully laid out for us to find. bless your soul. and thank you.

what’s your path to joy?

sayeth oprah: “ask yourself what makes you come alive…”

oprah better

dispatch from 02139 (in which the glorious “miss winfrey” — as the southern gentleman introduced her to the crowd — comes a-calling to commencement, and sends us forth…hot, sweaty and re-dialing our inner moral GPS…)

since, in all our together-in-chicago years, i’d never managed to amble over to that west loop studio of the glorious O herself, it was mighty considerate of veritas U to ink dear o-o-oprah in as this year’s commencement headliner.

why, with a mere 30,000 of us crammed in that polygon of grass and trees and library steps known in cambridgetown as tercentenary theatre, it was a veritable talk show a la fresco.

madam televangelist even joked, early on in her 29 minutes and 15 seconds of wisdom-spieling, that she’d hoped we might all be able to peek down under our chairs and find — voila! — free masters degrees and PhDs, which by harvard standards stirs a quicker pulse than the keys to any old lexus.

but that, dear friends, is leaping too far ahead into the proceedings of the 362d commencement of the oldest university in all the land.

back to the buzz that buzzed through cambridge, as the bells of harvard yard gonged once, then twice. and all of us, from points all around the square, we came trooping through the opened gates, first line of defense in the march toward harpo studios, 02138 edition.

we submitted to backpack checks, pulled proof-of-merit stubs from our sweaty pockets, and slogged through mud (for the night before the heavens opened wide and noah’s flood near poured). we found chairs that, had they toppled, would have slathered us in harvard ooze.

we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.

heard how the class of 1988 had raised a deficit-busting, all-time-record-setting $115 million (yup, you read that right, that was MILLION) in donations in just the last year, their 25th since graduation. we heard the sublime university president drew faust gilpin downplay her role as mere “warm-up act,” and acknowledge that there was “not a sea but a veritable ocean of anticipation” for the crimson-gowned miss winfrey who sat politely, legs primly crossed at the ankles, just a few feet away, as she awaited her turn at the podium.

and then, in all her splendor, the big O arose.

she belted out a wallop of basso profundo i swear they heard clear back in sweet home chicago: “O. My. Goodness! i’m at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaarddd!”

“not too many little girls from rural mississippi make it all the way here to cambridge,” she began, though before she closed she spoke of khadija williams, one of the graduates of the harvard class of 2013 who had been homeless, attended 12 schools in 12 years, who “lived out of garbage bags,” who bathed in wal-mart restrooms so she could ditch the stench of the streets before walking into high school, and who, blessedly, had never ever veered from her holy path to college.

exuding that oprah-magic that has a way of making every couch potato in the country feel she’s the shoulder we can always lean on, that she’s with us in our skinned knees and our banged-up hearts, she mentioned straight off that she was addressing her remarks “to anybody who’s ever felt inferior, felt disadvantaged, anybody who’s felt screwed by life.”

not quite what you’d expect for a crowd of harvardians.

but, there, people, is the holy gospel. no one — not even harvard phi beta kappas — is immune from feeling less-than, marginalized, shoved to the sometimes sidelines.

and then, dear oprah got to the heart of the matter, what she called a fundamental truth: “it doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. because if you do what we are constantly doing, raising the bar; if you are constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, ” — and here she mentioned that even though she hadn’t gone to the ivy-tangled college, she was simpatico with the type-A harvard-hard-charging personality.

“it’s the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus,” she went on, “that predicts you will at some point fall.

“and when you do, i want you to remember this: there is no such thing as failure. failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

she paused, the wise one did.

then she picked right up, simpatico as ever: “now, when you’re down in the hole, it looks like failure,” she said, sister-to-sister style, as if no podium, no rows of 30,000 chairs stood between her broken heart and ours.

“this past year,” she let on, meaning when clear across the country her OWN network was branded a failure, “i had to spoonfeed those words to myself.”

take time, she advised, to mourn what you think you might have lost. “and here’s the key: learn. from. every. mistake.

“because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.”

step three: figure out the next right move.

to do that, she prescribed what she promised was the key to life: “develop an internal moral emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”

be willing, she all but preached, “to listen to, to be guided by, the still small voice within.”

amen, and hallelujah.

in fact, as soon as those three words — “still small voice” — spilled from oprah’s lips, the tall bespectacled fellow beside me turned and looked my way. we might not have succumbed to the GPS at our house, but we’re both believers in that still small voice within.

should you be so inclined, you can hear the whole of dr. winfrey’s wisdom words right here.

but one more blip of oprah-light before the standing ovation, mud-sunk heels and all:

“theologian howard thurman said it best,” O told us, “when he said…’ask yourself what makes yourself come alive. and go out and do that. because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”

and that, dear friends, will be one of the questions i carry home, as i commence this life ever after, a life — not merely a year — of thinking sumptuously: what is it, i ask and i ask, that makes me come alive?

i ask you too: what makes you come alive?

can you see itty-bitty oprah up above? she’s there i promise. just to the left of the tent pole, reaching down under her seat. might she be checking to see if someone left her a free doctorate degree? in fact they did. dr. winfrey, i presume. 

when grace comes tumbling down

there are chapters in a life where with all your might you want to pick up the phone, spout out the question, and have a voice on the other end of the line fill in the blank.

tell you what you need to know.

point the way down the long, dark hallway.

heck, shove open the very door you need to walk through.

trouble is, there is no such voice. no human one anyway.

my mama, always wise in such matters, even in her minimalist, straight-to-the-point ways, advised simply: “this is when you pray.”

yesterday morn, rumbling downtown to work on the rickety, rail-swinging el train, i felt myself reaching deep down to what felt like a bottomless pit, and coming up without a clue. so, i did as mama said, i figured, all right then, i’ll shut my mouth and pray.

right there, amid the iPads and the tangle of cords plugged into ears and the starbucks mugs threatening to slosh all over my puffy snowcoat, i clicked my inner-tuner over to the God channel. i coughed up my motherlode of questions. i clung to the cold metal pole that’s there for riders like me, ones holding on for dear life as the train sloshes and slurs along the tracks.

i never did hear a squeaky voice in my ear (besides, i was one of the rare ones, not plugged in to dangly wires). i didn’t even hear a deep low bass.

but i listened with my whole heart.

and by the time i got to the grand avenue station i found myself climbing up the stairs with some measure of conviction. by jove, i began to think, i can do this. i can stare my fears, my trepidations, my full-throttle self doubts right in the eyeballs, and i can say, “move back, busters, i’m comin’ through.”

sometimes, prayer is like that.

sometimes the answer lies deep in the quiet of our oft-shoved-aside soul.

we are deep in big decisions over here at our house, and it’s enough to wear me out.

but — how curious life is — at every turn there seems to be a hand extended, a gentle word, a kleenex when needed. we find there in the dark woods other travelers, asking the same questions, trying to find their way too.
i am so deeply grateful for the grace that’s all around. for the wisdom that seeps in through the cracks beneath the door. for the light that shines from down the block in the deep darkness of the night.

i don’t yet have my roadmap. don’t know which path i’ll claim.

but i do know that i’m not alone. and one way or another, i’ll come through these dark and piney woods.

forgive my veiled words. specifics aren’t the point here. everyone’s life is a puzzle, some passages more than others. the point is that we find our way through our own formula of grace and stumbling. and when we get confused, light comes. dawn after dawn, it’s the promise of the heavens.
how do you find your way when you are lost in the woods?