By Todd Lieman
Funerals are always at the top of any “places to find perspective” lists.
As we listen to the eulogies, tell stories and remember, it’s easy to get lost in a thought, “Am I living my best life?” Or even, “I wonder what they will say about me?” So profound is the funeral experience that it’s often been suggested that we write our own obituaries to help figure out our purpose. While spooky, this exercise is supposed to guide us to a clearer, soul-level understanding of what really matters.
For example, if we imagine our loved ones sharing stories about the hours we spent writing the epic books we published, but in the here and now we’re not actually writing . . . perhaps that’s a Grand Canyon-sized clue about what to do next with our time. The theory goes that by writing our own obituary, we gain some serious perspective that maybe it’s time to respect the calling with which we’ve been playing hide and seek. More bluntly, maybe it’s time to get off our ass. Time isn’t promised and nowhere do we learn that more vividly than at a funeral. Perspective.
Still, I’ve never written my own obituary. I can’t get over the creepiness of it. I can’t get over the energy and message that such an exercise sends into the Universe. What if I’m not clear and the Universe misunderstands my intention to create a more meaningful life and instead interprets my words as planning for my death? I can’t risk sending that energy into space. I can’t risk the confusion. All of this was top of mind at a funeral this week. Perspective.
It was top of mind as my cousins told countless tales of their dad, Victor, and the importance of family in his life.
It was top of mind as I remembered decades of Thanksgiving dinners spent together.
It was top of mind as stories of Victor’s passions for writing, community and the Navy were told to a sea of nodding heads.
It was top of mind as Victor’s favorite jokes were shared. And to the collective groans that always followed.
And it was especially top of mind as I considered the true spirit and definition of a life well lived.
Victor’s life certainly had the look and feel of someone who did it right. My cousin’s daughter (my second cousin once removed!) told a great story. When she first pierced her nose, she stopped by her grandparents’ house. In the course of their visit, Victor and Florence, managed to say nothing about the piercing. Just before Sara could leave, Victor knocked on her car window. Sara rolled down the window and Victor said, “I hope you realize how cool your grandparents are that we didn’t say a thing about the metal in your face!”
As for me? Well, I used to stop by, unannounced on my drive home to LA from UC Davis. I would purposely take the long route so I could barge in, make myself at home and get caught up. I ran the risk that they wouldn’t be home (and they often weren’t), but the surprise and anticipation was worth it. When I moved north long after graduating college, I still took the long way home.
The thing about perspective, however, is that (at least for me) it’s proven easy to find and difficult to keep. I’ve been jealous of people who have had near death experiences, the ones who were given a real second chance. I figured it must be impossible to fall back into old patterns, or continue to feel the pain of master wounds in the face of defeating death. But then I had one of those experiences and it did nothing for me. At least at the time. My experience in the Sea of Cortez has always been a great story to tell, but if I’m really honest, I fucked up the storybook ending. I could have written the perfect hero’s journey with what I learned (and I tried to convince myself that I had), but instead I still allowed years of my life to slip through my fingers. Perspective.
Funerals are also notorious for “I did not know thats.” It goes without saying that with all the stories flying around, we’re bound to learn a few new things. Things like how Victor and Florence met (blind date when she was still in high school and he was in the Navy) or when they got married (one week after he graduated from the Naval Academy). Victor recently won a short story contest and was the inspiration for my cousin Rob’s passion for photography. I didn’t know either of those things. So in between thinking about my own memories of Victor and wondering what I could learn from his life, I found myself wanting to make sure that I both learned and told the stories in life. Perspective.
I think Victor was the first person I ever knew personally who wrote and published a book. I remember going to the bookstore and buying a copy of NO NONSENSE MARKETING. I remember asking him to sign it on one of those surprise visits after I had graduated college. The last time I saw Victor, we talked about the books we were writing. He suggested that we trade chapters. I was too intimidated to send one of mine. Back then it was undeniably raw. First draft raw. Really bad raw.
Of course now I wish I had.