Over my desk in a little 5½-inch by 7½-inch black frame is this quote: “We live in the world as it is, NOT as we would like it to be!”
The author was not a statesman, a clergyman, or a self-help guru. It was a man named Louis Shaver Myers, and to my knowledge he never held any public posts other than being a lieutenant in the Navy and one stint, God help him, on the school board in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
I picked up that little framed quote after my dad died 10 years ago. He had it perched up on a shelf in the kitchen so that it sat at eye level when he padded out each morning to get the bacon cooking.
With my mother gone, there was no one to complain about the pork fat fumigations to which he would daily subject the house. His adult kids mostly didn’t mind—we just had to make sure to air out our sweaters when we got home if we didn’t want to smell like the Smithfield plant. Visiting dogs were transported to a bacony nirvana upon entrance, a faraway gaze in their eyes.
My dad had printed and framed that quote from Lou after one of their talks, which usually happened weekly. They were in their late 70s, and had been friends since they started kindergarten at Butler Elementary in 1936. They had the same nasal twang when they got telling a good joke, which was often. And they were generous listeners to each other, even when a story got stuck on repeat. Both had slowed down professionally, but they still had plenty to say about business, politics, and always family.
I took the little frame as a memento of my dad, and his lovely friendship with Lou. They had gone all through school together, including college at the University of Miami. My dad had driven Lou to his Navy induction in 1953 in San Diego, stopping by to shoot craps at the brand new Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. After my dad’s funeral, Lou had favored me with some of the stories his friend had omitted when recounting a delightfully misspent youth to his children. Which is saying something, because my dad, nicknamed “Beez,” had hardly been abashed. He had just left out a few, like the one about getting caught in his visits to the professors’ daughter when her parents were in class because Beez once forgot to put the toilet seat down. No wonder he took his diploma by mail … But best of all was hearing Lou describe how my dad went head-over-heels for my mother after Beez got back from Korea and started his career as a super salesman.
There was never any need for abridgement in the stories about Lou, though. Lou was definitely the straight man in their act. He worked in the family business, kept up the family farm, served on every worthwhile civic body in town, coached kids’ sports, sat down front at the Methodist Church on Sundays, and most of all, loved his wife, June, and their three children and five grandchildren with a depth and intensity that you could feel when you were around him. His eyes sparkled when he spoke of them.
The little frame bounced its way through various moves, a divorce, different offices, and different jobs, before I unpacked it a few years ago in my current abode. I gave it its place of honor not because of its content, but, again, as a memento of Beez, Lou, and their beautiful friendship, and a reminder to cherish my own friends of long standing. Uncle Stew will need to be there after I am gone to tell some—but not all— of the stories I never told my boys from our own rambunctious teenage and college years. But with time, the words became more important.
“We live in the world as it is, NOT as we would like it to be!” would be pretty grim stuff from a statesman or a preacher. This would be a cousin to my father’s retort to our cavailing about facing the minor difficulties of our privileged lives: “Well, get tough or die.” Or Ring Lardner’s impossibly perfect line from a story about a father lost on a country road in answer to his pestering son: “‘Shut up,’ he explained.” But it came from Lou and was framed by Beez, two of the least grim people I have ever known.
What that line meant coming from a shining soul like Lou was that despite all the hardships and difficulties in life—and he had known his share—dare to be joyful anyway. It meant that rather than waiting for life to merit your delight, delight in the parts that merit it anyway. This is the great act of bravery in a world full of cruelty, violence, sickness, dishonesty and death: to refuse to despair, to rejoice anyway. Lou and Beez lived that way, and that little frame above my desk reminds me to do that, too.
I’m heading out to Springfield in a few weeks to give a talk, and I knew what I had to do. As I typed his name into Google, I winced when I saw Lou’s obituary pop up as the first result. I had been meaning to call or drop him an email for what I thought were months, but had really been far longer. Lou died in the fall of 2020, and like so many who passed during the pandemic, there was no big funeral or major announcements.
But I will keep his words in front of me. I will respond to his loss with happiness at his wonderful life and his contributions to our family. I will add the unwritten line to his quote every time I see it: “So be joyful anyway.”