The palette of life, by Nicole Walton

A few weeks ago, I took a walk along the Lake Superior shore on a late afternoon, in an attempt to clear my head and refill my lungs with oxygen. Jim Kelsey, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan, had died a few days previously, and aftershocks were being felt by many in my circle of friends and acquaintances.
I can’t claim to have known Jim very well, but he was one of those people for whom I would have given my eyeteeth to sit down and have a long, insightful, magnificent conversation. I felt that way the first time 0707lop4I heard him speak, and on every single occasion I saw him afterward.
As I walked along into the summer dusk, enshrouded by sadness, the sweet unmistakable scent of lilacs slid up around me, prompting me to halt my step and inhale deeply.
I stood for a full minute, savoring the beautiful fragrance of the clustered purple and white petals that hung over a fence by the sidewalk.
Their perfume was so clear and clean, so alive that it amazed me. I felt as though, in my state of heightened sensitivity brought on by sorrow, I truly had been open to the full experience of those lilacs as I never had before. Had it been a normal day, I probably would have strolled right past them, given a sniff or two and thought, “nice flowers.”
Which, of course, reminded me of Bob Ross, the painter of “happy little trees” on the Joy of Painting series on PBS. Bob, who made painting so easy to those of us not born with a brush in our hand, taught me how to make something light-colored show up clearly on the canvas: it needed a dark background.
“You can’t have light without the dark,” he’d say. It’s impossible to see white on white, like a candle held to the sun. You have to apply bold Phthalo Blue or Alizarin Crimson before brighter colors can pop into relief.
So it is with life. Sometimes it is only when we are surrounded by darkness that we truly perceive the intensity of light. I’ve spent numerous nights crying into my cats’ fur over broken relationships, only to look back when the tears had passed to see what good rode my coattails out of the anguish. Most often it was strength of self, the ability to discern what was beneficial for my growth and what was not.
Sometimes it was learning to have compassion for my all-too-human self. I found there always was something valuable to learn from each man, and it shone like a lighthouse beam when things ended badly. The light against the dark.
A few years ago my car broke down, right on NMU’s campus. I had to summon a tow truck, much to my chagrin, but even worse was the prospect of not being able to drive to work. Now, it was brittle October when the car bit the dust, and I have to be at the radio station around 5:30 each morning. I didn’t relish the prospect of leaving the house at 5:00 a.m. and walking half an hour to campus.
Enter my dad. In a supreme act of chivalry, he decided (without my asking—honest) to travel from outside of Marquette each and every weekday morning, pick me up and drive me to work.
As it was probably going to be a while before I could afford to fix my vehicle, I gratefully accepted his help.
So, for about a month and a half, the poor man dragged himself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and took me to the station. Never once was I late.
Was I inconvenienced by my lack of transportation? Yes. Did it annoy me to no end that I’d have to shell out big money to fix my car? Definitely. But during this period, I realized my dad and I were spending quality time together, we were learning more about each other and we had grown closer because of it. I now feel blessed we had that time, illumination in an otherwise dreary circumstance.
More than 500 people packed into St. Michael’s Church to attend Jim Kelsey’s funeral. During my lakeside walk afterward, I thought: if the worth of a person’s life can be gauged by how he or she was regarded by others, then Jim led an exemplary existence.
It’s sad that an accident was the impetus for such an outpouring of love, but just imagine how much light was generated in that backdrop of darkness. I’m sure Jim would have been stunned to see the small, blazing sun he engendered.
—Nicole Walton

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