For the second consecutive year at my church, we were given a Star Word. It’s word to focus on, work through, or look for in the coming year.
We select it in much the same way a person picks a card from the deck during a card trick. The words written on pieces of paper placed upside-down in a plate, and we pick one without knowing what we’re going to get.
This was mine.
If I focus on it, work on it, and look for it, 2020 could be a jubilant year!
The crowd crammed into pews until there was no elbow room. And then the crowd crammed in some more. When every inch of every pew was full, ushers scurried to bring extra chairs to the aisles, front to back.
An overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly gathered to celebrate the life of Alex McKeague, a man who lived 80-plus years to the fullest. “I’ve got to learn to live like Alex,” I thought.
If I dare.
It is not an easy road to extra chairs at your funeral.
To live like Alex, I would need to take action and not say, “I’m sure someone else will do it.”
To live like Alex, I would need to speak up for what is right, even when it is not the popular option.
To be truly alive like Alex, I would need to be the voice in the wilderness crying out for changes to make the world more compassionate, equitable, peaceful.
Alex founded the Carlington Chaplaincyin Ottawa to help feed and nurture residents of a challenged neighbourhood. He gave them more than food; he gave them potential.
Alex collected skates, tennis racquets, or hockey equipment for children in need. He gave them more than sports equipment; he gave them inclusion.
Alex rode his bike when he could, even during draining chemotherapy treatments. He gave us more than clean air; he gave us inspiration.
Alex tapped into some mysterious energy-force we would all love to find. Alex couldn’t coexist peacefully with injustices. He couldn’t overlook a need. He did more good work in a week than many people do in a year, or even a lifetime.
Sounds good. Sounds like what we all should be doing.
But most of us don’t. I don’t.
Most of us set up a wall of defensive excuses. I do.
I don’t have time today. There are programs in place for that. I’m afraid. That person is getting what he deserves.
Alex took action to change things when sticking to the status quo would have been easier—the tempting, deliciously attractive, effortless, risk-free status quo. He bravely stepped in where others feared to tread.
And he had another gift. He could lay out the difficult truths to resistant audiences and achieve the miracle of illumination. When Alex spoke in his quiet way, his soft handling of the hard truths encouraged us to join his vision for a better, more just world.
His quiet words held loud power.
Alex showed that deep, long-lasting happiness is a paradox. We think that to find happiness we need to focus on ourselves, and our emotional comforts, and material bonuses. We think happiness comes wrapped as a big screen TV. But the opposite is true.
Happiness doesn’t live in the mirror.
He turned his back on self-reflection and looked outward to fulfill the needs of others. He obtained a doctorate, but there was no “Call me Dr. McKeague” from him. He instructed his children not to make him “look like a big shot” at the funeral. He wanted the rewards of his actions to fall on those who needed the help, not on himself. It was okay with him that we all looked toward his causes, helping them, supporting them, only glancing back after he was gone to realize that he had been the foundation, the catalyst for so much good work.
Alex lived naturally to a standard that most of the rest of us find unnaturally difficult to achieve. It’s hard to get past fear and societal pressures.
What will people think? Obey the rules. Don’t rock the boat.
I’ll try. Because at Alex’s funeral I learned I want to live like Alex, so that when I die they will need lots of extra chairs.
This is a re-post from 2010. All these years later, I’m still trying . . .
During one Christmas Eve dinner with his wife, well-known author Paulo Coelho grumbled about something that was not perfect in his life. His thoughtful wife pointed out the beautifully illuminated Christmas tree nearby.
There was one burnt bulb among the brilliantly shining ones.
“It seems to me that instead of thinking of this year as dozens of enlightened blessings, you chose to look at the one light that did not glow,” she said.
What is the ratio of enlightened blessings to burnt bulbs in your life?
This month, whether you enjoy Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the solstice, Festivus, or any other celebration, may you bask in the glow of so many enlightened blessings that you don’t notice any dark spots.
Weeks ago we coordinated the schedules of six busy family members to find a day that worked for everyone to go to the Cedar Hill Christmas Tree Farm. We set the date for December 14 with visions of bright sun glinting off snow-covered fields and our boots crunching in and around rows of perfect trees. We’d picked the perfect fat tree, we’d return to a big dinner, and we’d make eggnog or mulled wine.
It would be perfect.
Then Saturday morning came along. The sun rose, but we couldn’t see it through heavy cloud.
Misty rain fell.
We’ve been renovating our front hall, so all morning my husband and our neighbour laboured at laying tile, grouting and fixing plumbing. All the clothing, and shoes, and boots, and umbrellas, and hats, and scarves, and toilet paper rolls, and surprising other things that normally reside in our bathroom and front hall closet were scattered all over our home. They mixed in with the boxes containing the new toilet and bathroom vanity in our living room.
We’re dog sitting, and he got loose and ran through the tile glue, leaving doggy glue prints on some of the new tiles.
While all that was going on, I set about making the marinade for the crown roast of pork I planned for dinner. The dry rub recipe called for, among other things, thyme. I opened my spice drawer and pulled out the bottle. Empty.
“I’m out of thyme!” I called out.
My husband, panicked, appeared at the kitchen door. “For what?”
I held up the empty bottle, and we both fell apart laughing.
The six of us trooped through increasingly heavy rainfall. We found a tree that wasn’t quite as fat as we like, but was lovely nonetheless. We made the annual stop at the Pakenham General Store and enjoyed their amazing baked goods. (Date squares for me. A perfect ratio of oatmeal to date filling.) The crown roast was delicious—even without the thyme—and the boys made eggnog and played guitar, and all was well.
During the Second World War, his family was sent to an internment camp in British Columbia. But his father was separated from them and sent to a POW camp in Ontario. The family was eventually reunited and when Moriyama graduated from high school, his father gave him a hand scripted copy of the quote above.
I first read this quote years ago in the email signature of one of my daughter’s teachers.
It reassured me to know that my daughter was spending some of her days with a person with that kind of mindfulness. He was wasn’t working for himself; he was working for the children. Every day he was carving his name on students’ hearts, so he’d better make it good.
Today, you will carve your name on someone’s heart. What indelible impression will you leave?