One of the many lucky charms in my life is that I come from a family who openly talks about death. I wasn’t taught that it was a solely tragic or taboo concept, but a joyfully mysterious adventure upon which we’ll be welcomed with a buffet of all our favorite foods.
I was raised on gospel music, where songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot and I’ll Fly Away spoke of the liberation of death (my playlist of Gospel Bops has many of these gems, and they are serotonin for the ears!).
As Ram Dass says, “Death is like taking off a tight shoe,” and these songs feel like throwing your tight shoes into the ocean and then skipping barefoot on fresh grass.
I call myself lucky for all of this because I feel privileged to be comfortable in a space that many people avoid, so that I can be in service to others. Of course, grief is as deep and dark and eternal as that ocean.
But I think my comfort with the death concept has nudged me close to the grief experience. In fact I’ve aspired to be even closer to it, which is why I interned as a hospital chaplain. If grief is an ocean, I’m always either dangling my feet in it next to another person, or submerged in it myself.
This comfort also means I spend a lot of time thinking about legacy. Doing so doesn’t necessarily help me live better (contemplating death every day has never stopped me from scrolling an afternoon away on my phone) but at least it makes me care slightly less about external validation and other ego tricks that interfere with my enjoyment of living.
“Work harder on your obituary than your resume” is something I call to mind often, a reminder that a list of accomplishments has little to do with how you make people feel and how they remember you.
As the Stoics say, what you value is far more important than what you do or what you own, and what I value most are things I’ll never own: Such as migrating geese, the gold underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge, the windows I pass by at night, my blossoming friendship with the woman whose dog I walk, the humor of my friends.
Tell the newspaper this is what I did with my life: enjoy it.
The best and longest habit I’ve ever had is reading the obituaries most mornings.
“We’re all just walking each other home,” says Ram Dass, and if we are all on this journey together, then learning about my fellow pilgrims is my way of appreciating their time walking on earth with me, even if we never crossed paths.
Reading obituaries also stirs my own aspirations and reinforces my values. Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to volunteer at a school! Or, Oh yeah, I too love the salsa dancers at Tompkins Square Park! What a profound thing that these ordinary strangers can inspire us through what others remember about them. Communing with their legacies can make us more alive.
Certain obituaries have even shaped my own journey. When I was in 5th grade, an older girl from school tragically died of cancer. Her obituary beautifully described the curious ballet-dancing flâneuse, sophisticated beyond her years: She was as comfortable walking the streets of Berlin as she was her own sidewalk, it said. I think of her every single time I take a walk in a new city; she never stops illuminating my path. Whenever I get overly idle or cautious in the face of a new adventure, I think of that adventurous 13-year-old dilettante and I go forth and walk.
Like this Mexican skull wall hanging I keep in my office to remind me that tomorrow is never promised, obituaries remind me that living is an art and it is up to us to craft our own masterpieces.
Last weekend I had the very special honor of writing a eulogy for my beloved stepfather, which was more difficult than anticipated!
How can such a big life fit into a small speech? How can so much love be propped up by a few flimsy words? I will never be able to capture how alive he was, but in honor of his open-hearted approach to life, I could at least try.
Here’s my attempt…
Eulogy for my stepdad Jim:
I don’t know what year Jim was born. I don’t know where he was born. I’m not sure where he went to college, and I never really knew what his job was. After a few years of knowing him, I felt like it was too late to ask.
But these aren’t the details that I find necessary in obituaries anyway. It’s like birth announcements that list the weight and height of the baby. Who cares! Tell me whose nose they got. Tell me what prompted their first laugh.
I didn’t know Jim for most of his life, but I knew him for most of mine. I first met him at a dinner party with my mom’s work friends and her new flame. I already knew he was a gentle, generous, well-respected manager in the office, but that evening I was keeping an eye out for any other sides to him.
At one point, their coworker’s 6-year-old daughter Jana was going around the kitchen before dinner asking if anybody wanted some of her bubblegum. It was honestly painful to watch her face as she got one rejection after another. Gum? No thanks. Gum? No thanks. Gum? No thanks.
Her last offer was to Jim, who lit up and said “Sure!”
It showed me that he had a playful side, even a bit mischievous, that would come out much more often after his retirement when he began traveling the world for the first time, exploring cities, taking art classes, and learning about such wonders as “independent coffee shops,” his favorite discovery.
Unlike many businessmen his age who also wore oversized collared shirts, he never assumed he knew more than anyone else, always keeping the flame of curiosity lit and ready to illuminate his mind. He constantly, constantly asked questions—occasionally to the point where my mom was ready for a break.
I’ve never liked the phrase “Rest in peace,” or worse, its Halloween-y acronym, RIP. It gives me the heebie-jeebies. Still, I want to give Jim a benediction for his journey to heaven, which for him is a giant apple pie that he can sit on while watching unlimited action movies.
I’ve been trying to find a more fitting send-off. Rest in curiosity? Rest in possibility? Rest in the Heaven Version of Central Park, where it’s always 72 degrees and has soft light for the perfect photo shoot?
Then, my mom sent me an article from the New York Times about the feeling of awe. She and I both agreed it’s not the easiest word to say: AWWWE. But it’s a powerful concept, necessary for our health and happiness according to the article, which offered suggestions for incorporating more awe into our lives.
As I read them, I thought, These are the things that Jim did naturally and demonstrated every day. Here are the suggestions:
One: Pay attention.
For Jim, no detail was too small to pay attention to, and value. One of my favorite Jim moments was when he decided that he wanted to go to Ireland. “Why Ireland?” People asked. “Because my favorite color is green,” he would answer.
He just wanted to be in awe of Ireland’s extensive greenness, to happily bask in his favorite color for a few days. The simpleness and grandeur of this wish point to someone who really paid attention to the stirrings of his soul. Also, with his apparent love of color, someone who probably could have been a fashion plate in another life.
He also paid attention to other people’s details. The first compliment he gave me was, “I bet you’re really good at writing letters.” No one’s ever told me that, and it meant so much to me. I felt seen and heard, simply because he paid full attention.
Two: Focus on the ‘moral beauty’ of others.
This means: witnessing the goodness of others, or looking for daily moments of kindness.
But in this case, I imagine Jim was too busy doing his own acts of kindness to really notice others’. He gave out gift cards to unhoused people on the street, his name was on every volunteer sign-up sheet, he baked casseroles for the food pantry, and he’d drive hours in the rain just to help an acquaintance turn on their computer.
For someone who appreciated the morally-depraved antics on such shows as Mad Men and Game of Thrones, in real life Jim was a truly good, good person. If I were as generous as he was, you’d never hear the end of it. But he never boasted, never drew attention to his countless charitable acts. I wonder how many of them we’ll never even know about.
Three: Practice mindfulness
Jim was a late-in-life church-goer, but he went all in. Every night before dinner, he insisted on a prayer. One Thanksgiving, he insisted on a three-page prayer.
He reflected on everything: conversations, Marvel movies, sermons, news stories. He really wanted to understand this world, far more than he wished to be understood. His mind must have been an incredibly interesting place, and it brings me comfort to think that during his final days he got to spend time exploring in there—appreciating the lush scenery he created from a lifetime of fascination.
On our last holiday with him, we went around the table saying what we were thankful for. At that point, he was very sick and had trouble walking. He said that he used to be so grateful to get to stroll around Central Park and see trees and animals and musicians. Now that he was in the apartment all day, he was thankful when the sunshine came in through the windows. And when he was too weak to leave his bed, he still marveled at the Christmas lights by the window. He always found something beautiful to appreciate.
Four: Choose the unfamiliar path.
While walking in a group, we were often left to wonder where Jim was. He’d often reappear blocks later with a latte for everyone and say, “I just discovered a really cute coffee shop. They have a spiral staircase!” If there was a path to follow, he’d forge his own crooked line.
In the past decade, he forged his own path in life when he took on photography as a hobby. In order to take a photography course at the local community college, he needed to take a bunch of art pre-requisites first. So that was Jim’s Art School Phase, when he learned about painting and sculpture along with a classroom of 20-year-olds, still striving to be teacher’s pet.
It was as though his mind was capable of anything, so he might as well take it on a new adventure.
Having excelled in these four ways to incorporate more awe into our lives, I hereby proclaim Jim Popa as the most in-awe person we’ve all known.
So, I say “Rest in awe, Jim.” Rest in awe of the beautiful life you led, the countless people you helped along the way, and the next journey of your soul in heaven as you finally get to ask God all your theological questions, and get early access to every new iPhone before it’s released on earth.
I was fortunate enough to get to read this eulogy aloud for Jim’s many loved ones in front of this gorgeous chancel and flower arrangement, which fills me with awe every time I look at the photo:
Are you an obituary-reader too? Have you written an obituary or eulogy? Do you think about your own, or are you not so goth? Do you have any habits that shape and inspire your own alive-ness?
I'M COMING TO DC! I cannot wait to chat with Timothy Goodman (one of my favorite people) about his new book, I Always Think It’s Forever in DC (one of my favorite cities)! February 7th at 7pm. Kramers moved it to a bigger venue so now there are more (free) tickets available!
RETREAT ALERT! My dear friend Ruthie Lindsey and I will be leading a retreat called Becoming Your Own Best Friend over March 3-5 at Kripalu, which is a magical retreat center in Western Massachusetts (near the border of New York). I hear it has the best food ever. We would be so thrilled to see you there!!
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MY BOOK IS CHEAP(ER) ON AMAZON at the moment, which randomly happens sometimes. I’m not a fan of Amazon either, but if you’d rather spend $11.50 than $22 for a new book, then I’ll just leave it here for you. :)
Thank you so much for reading Out of the Blue!
Was so curious when I saw the title of this week's letter, as last week one of my best friends insisted on a "Hot Ones & Eulogies" party for her birthday — in between rounds of spicy wings, every friend at the table stood up and gave her a eulogy. We laughed, we cried, and it may have seemed macabre, but we found it pretty glorious to pay heartfelt, hilarious homage to an irreplaceable presence while she's still with us. I've always loved reading eulogies – so much humor and wisdom in the best of them – and I loved reading about Jim and his sense of awe. He's so wonderfully alive in your words.
What a great tribute to your stepdad! I bet you inspired everyone in the church to live more fully. I'm also from a family that gravitates toward grief and death. When I was growing up, my friends' moms were taking them for ice cream and to play in the park. But my mom was taking me and my sisters to funeral homes to pay our respects. So we got comfortable with death early on. I had the extreme privilege of writing and delivering the eulogy for both my mother-in-law and father-in-law. And I have my own obituary all ready to go. If it were possible, I would love to deliver the eulogy at my own funeral. Memento Mori. You understand!