Last week we flew to New Orleans for Charlie’s uncle who died hours after we arrived. In the days that followed, we helped clean out his apartment.
“I would not have guessed he had so much stuff,” Charlie said. Uncle Lloyd liked to wear the same outfit everyday, so on the bed was a bag filled with light blue, short sleeved, button-up shirts, and underneath those were many pairs of his favorite navy blue pants. There was a straw hat he carried back from his post-retirement world travel to China, Russia, and other getaways. There was a mug with Far Side Comic on the side.
“He lived his life the way he wanted to live it,” people kept saying. No artifact sang this truth louder than the ones Charlie discovered on the bookcase by the kitchen – photos of Uncle Lloyd with the Easter Bunny. We pulled a collection of cards from the book case and found photo after photo of Uncle Lloyd sitting for a portrait next to the Easter Bunny, likely taken at the nearby mall every spring for the last ten or more years. There were some great ones with Santa Claus, too.
Uncle Lloyd’s closest friend in the world, whom we lovingly call Uncle Joe, said, “I didn’t even know he had taken these.”
That beautiful, cheerful Uncle Lloyd. I imagined him, a man in his 70s, then his 80s, going alone to the mall on a weekday, walking up to the man-sized Easter Bunny, sitting down next to him, the widest grin on his face.
I so admire this. Uncle Lloyd, committed to this simple ritual to remember that it’s lovely to to be alive. I wonder if it wasn’t a great, humorous gift for us to find while cleaning his apartment after he was gone. There he was, our dear friend, cheerful as a rabbit in spring.
You have to take every chance you get to make your life the way you dream it to be. Cheerful or artistic or meaningful or jolly or studious or fantastical. It doesn’t have to be big, but whatever you can do today to make life the way you hope it truly is… do it. It may be quick and easy. It may feel too big or too crazy given what you’re facing now, but do it anyway. Make your life the way you dream it to be.
I thought I was through writing about happiness on the blog for a while, and then there were the photos of Uncle Lloyd with the Easter Bunny.
And somehow, with those photos in front of me, I thought of the singers I met in Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. It was May 2015. Thousands of Burundians were rushing over the border every night, violence creeping and then raging behind them. I met with my colleagues on the American Refugee Committee team in Mahama, the world’s newest refugee camp at the time. I was given a tour of the basics – the tent city, the hospital, the site for the new tent construction to come. I heard the horror stories – surgery at night by the light of a cellphone, men and women arriving after days of walking through the bush.
And then I met the singers. Or, I should say, I heard them. I was filming an interview with my teammate Jacques, and walking back, I heard them singing. I asked Jacques to stop heading to the car and walk with me to meet the singers instead.
“They said they are practicing,” Jacques told me, translating his Kirundi conversation for me. “They are singers. They want to build a church here.”
“Could you ask them – Did you come to this camp together?”
“No. We found each other here,” one woman said, translated by Jacques. “I wanted to sing like I used to back home. I met my neighbor in a tent near me. She also was a singer. Then we just walked up and down the paths looking for others like us.
“Now we practice three times a week, and we sing at our services outside, here where we stand.”
There in the calm light of early evening, there they were, offering each other what they had, every one of them doing something they could to make a life they still dream of living.
Make your life the way you dream it to be. Even if it seems impossible given what you are facing, do something, anything, to create a life you wish to live.
I asked the group of refugees if I could film them singing. And oh, how they sang.