The Highest Compliment

Toward the end of the talk I give about my father, there is a slide with this quote: “I have come to believe that the highest compliment is not remembering someone; it is missing them."

My father wrote that about his third wife and my stepmother, Coral Browne.

In 2011, when I decided to include the quote in my talk for the Vincentennial, it expressed exactly what I was feeling. I missed my dad almost every day. Not a grieving missing, but the missing of his presence. I missed telling him what art I’d seen, what places I’d visited, what interesting foods I’d eaten. I missed being able to call and ask how long to bake a chicken and what herbs to use, or which museums he loved in a particular city.

As I began to travel and share my father with other people, I often found myself wishing I could tell him how much he had meant to them. I wanted to tell him about all the ways he is still so deeply loved. 

I often viscerally missed his strong hands. I can still picture them — his long and elegant fingers gently cupped around one of the Navajo bracelets he loved so much, while carefully bending it to fit my wrist. That simple movement embodied everything I felt about my dad — his power, his gentleness, his generosity of spirit, his deep capacity for love.

Lately, though, I’ve had some profound experiences that have started to rend the veil between what we can see and what we cannot. Others have shared their awareness of my father’s presence in my life, and instead of being resistant to their stories, they have opened my heart to him, to people, to life, to love, and to joy even more. 

This week, my friend Renee told me that, when I first got up to speak at the retreat we both recently attended, she saw and felt what she described as a "loving and proud presence" surrounding me. She later wrote me that "it was tall and embracing and my impression at the time was that it was your dad.” Later that day, she told me, she decided to take a walk to an old nearby cemetary hidden behind the retreat center. As she neared the grounds, she was greeted by the presence of a man, who escorted her in. She later wrote to me, “It felt like the same presence I experienced around you -- it was just a lot more expansive and proud when it was around you! Although I don't know your dad, nor did I ever meet him in person, my experience of the spirits I encounter is that they somehow let me know who they are when they enter my perception and my heart. And that’s how I knew it was him."

Renee had initially hesitated to tell me her story, but when she saw that I was open to hearing it, she shared what has become a beautiful touchstone of a retreat in which I opened my heart so completely. And really — why wouldn’t the presence of the person who taught me the meaning of love show up at precisely the time my heart was open enough to receive it? 

Of course, physics now confirms that matter is not really matter at all, but waves of energy. As I have experienced it in my own life, the less we invest in the reality of this material world, the more open we are to connect with the energy of true consciousness — which, ultimately, is all there is.

After Renee shared her story with me, I felt something very different last weekend when that slide with my father’s quote popped up in my talk. I realized that the reason I had missed my father in the way I described earlier was not because he was absent from my life, but rather because I had not fully embraced his presence, which is always with me, in me. 

It is this daily practice of joy that has changed everything.

So, while I have never felt like my father was watching me, what I have felt is that, the more I have leaned into his legacy of joy — of Yes!, the more I have connected to and expressed a truer, freer sense of love for him and for others, the more Love has embraced my life — like a giant cosmic hug.

This week, I have spoken deeply with two people about loved ones from their own lives who have passed.

My wonderful friend Mary mentioned that she thought I hadn’t seen many photos of her husband Mac, who had passed a few months before we met eight years ago. I shared with her that I had actually sought out photos of him, because I felt like he had entered my life at the same time she did. Initially, I felt his presence blessing my friendship with Mary, grateful that she and I shared something that was helping her move from grief to joy. But as I got to know the whole family and they began to welcome me into their lives as one of their own, I began to feel like I was holding the space for him. That’s the best way I can describe it — as though I got to be his eyes and see them as he did — through the eyes of love, recognizing how extraordinary and loving they are.

And at and after the retreat, I spoke with my friend Darlene about her partner, Toni, who passed two years ago. As she shared stories about Toni and their life together, as well as their shared journey through Toni’s passing, once again it happened — I felt the huge bright light of Toni’s presence come into my life. I felt her as a new friend, for whom I am very grateful.

Although this is not the first time this experience has happened to me, it is the first time I’ve had the courage to share my feelings about it with other people. To trust that what I feel is true — for me. And in doing so, I saw that, in one way at least, my father was right. Merely remembering someone is not the highest compliment at all. Memory is far too passive. Memories sit on shelves, are carved on monuments. But to live -- really live -- the legacies of those people who have shaped our lives with their love, their joy, their wisdom, their strength, THAT is what matters.

The finite dates of someone’s life may define the parameters of a person’s history for those who did not know them, but doesn’t that brief little line between those numbers seem far too paltry symbol for Life?! You know, I’m fortunate to have words, photographs, movies, film clips, and other peoples’ stories to bring my father’s voice, movements, laughter back to life. But at the end of the day, all those things still exist outside of me. To live, to really LIVE the legacies of the ones we love is a way of paying their lives forward ad infinitum. To recognize and share that energy that has really never left us at all.

And so, I decided to risk writing what seems like my most personal blog yet for all of you who have reached out to me over the past few month — through your comments, our conversations, phone calls, texts and emails. You have shared your pain and your progress in such honest and loving ways. I have been  incredibly moved as you have shared your own pain and progress in your reawakening of joy, as well as encouraged me in mine. What a gift! Talk about the transference of energy!! 

While it feels a little scary to reveal something so personal, I’m doing it because I hope it may help you remember your own legacies of joy that live on in you.

Last weekend in Kentucky, a gentleman came up to me after my talk to share how much my father meant to him and why. Then he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “And you are just like your father.” When I was younger, I know I would have bridled at that — so desperately invested was I in “being my own person”. But in that moment, feeling the depth of his words, I knew, absolutely knew, that what he said was the greatest compliment anyone had ever given me. Because what I ADORED about my father are the qualities that I have been striving my whole life to step into fully — love and life and joy and hope and generosity and kindness and compassion.

As those of you who have joined me on this journey know, that legacy felt dormant for so long, overrun by the weeds of workaholism, buried deep in the permafrost of the self-loathing I got fooled into thinking was really me. But these past few months, as I have begun to cultivate my garden of joy, with the sun on my neck, a breeze in my hair while clipping and pruning the tangled snarls of my life to reveal the joy that has always been my true legacy, I have come to recognize that nothing real can ever be lost.

If joy is — as I know it to be — innate in us all, we owe the people who taught it to us the honor of living their legacies in our own lives.

So, Dad, I guess I’d have to disagree just a little. Missing someone is not the highest compliment. It is letting their spirit live on in, as, and through us.

We all have the choice: Do we stay mired in the life-limiting narratives of our pasts, those fables passed down to us by those who remained mired in fear or darkness? Or do we choose to reclaim our legacies of joy from whomever they came -- parents, teachers, siblings, friends -- and pay their lives forward?

I think it's time for all of us to take our memories off our shelves and live the love and joy that dusty urns and historic dates can never contain. Let them blossom in our lives and loves by sharing them with everyone we meet! 

And in doing so, may we carry forward the immeasurable gifts we have been given by creating our own legacies of joy and love that will live on long beyond the hyphens of our own lives.

So, here's to love and joy! Let's pass it on. . .



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