Monday, February 4, 2013

Wib's World: A Remembrance

A year ago, my father-in-law Willoughby Walling died in a hospital in Brookline at 69, of complications from the treatment of lung cancer.

A week later, I spoke at a service in his honor at the church where my wife learned to love singing. At the service, she and I sang "You Walk With Me" by David Yazbek, accompanied by the children's choir director who mentored her. Then I gave the remarks below.

The experience of public speaking again, after many years as a performer in other people's plays, turns out to have been transformative for me. In a way, the impact this speech is having on my creative direction is a continuation of the career coaching he offered me after leaving acting. A disciple of Dick Bolles and his classic What Color Is Your Parachute, Wib loved to help other people find and pursue their deepest passions.

You probably either loved or would have loved Wib. I hope you enjoy my memories of him today.
Courtesy of Harvard Magazine
A remembrance of Willoughby Walling 
February 11, 2012

Jessica inherited her singing talent. But probably not from her dad. Did you ever hear him sing? He sang along to Ella, to Aretha, to Rod Stewart, unfortunately. But it was like some of his art—more abstract than representational. And very expressive.

My name is Colin Stokes. I married Wib’s daughter Jessica. If I can give young people any advice to secure a happier, richer life, it would be to get in-laws like the Wallings.

I managed to secure Wib’s approval at some point early on, probably by knowing enough about modern art. Or just being able to get the printer to work.

And it was a lovely thing to be liked by Wib. If Wib liked you he would always like you. You could be a part of Wib’s wonderful world, a unique midwestern liberal country club bohemia.

His name was not the only one-of-a-kind thing about him. What was Wib like? Well, you know: a typical blueblood idealist…who set up schools for dropouts in Bedford Stuyvesant alongside the heroes of the civil rights movement. Just your average NPR-New York Times-New Yorker reader…with a divinity school degree and a Bible study group. Just the stereotypical Brookline man of leisure, heading to tennis…after spending the morning in the basement with duct-taped shoes on, painting his brooding self-portrait in the style of Matisse.

The world didn’t have a name for his combination of passions and truths, so he made his own. Let’s just call it “Wib.”

Wib’s world was a big and welcoming place, because he was so comfortable in it. Here, everything was interesting. There was so much worth learning he went to graduate school three times.

Wib loved teaching too. He taught the teenagers in New York—he’d just ask to join their pickup basketball games for a while, and eventually the weirdness of this white guy wore off and he’d invite them to the storefront where they could learn how to read. (I wonder if he said “golly darn” to the guys in the Bronx?)

In Boston he was a fundraiser, which is a kind of teaching. He taught art and religion. He mentored people in their career changes—including me and a number of others here today, whose lives were permanently transformed with his coaching.

He taught me something crucial about fatherhood. As Jessica and I were expecting our daughter’s birth, I asked him for advice. Well, Jess told me that if I wanted to learn how to be a great father I should ask him.

To my surprise, he looked a little abashed. “I don’t think I was a particularly good father,” he told me. It took me a while to get my brain around this—it was like hearing that Bill Gates doesn’t think he’s a particularly good businessman. Maybe he didn’t think too much about it, but the results kind of speak for themselves. Wib’s approach gave me permission, as a parent, to just be who I am—with a challenge to make sure that you are your very best self.

That’s the thing: Wib’s humility was anything but blasé. Under the modesty was a deep, private conviction to be as good a person as he could be. Being a good father was just an outgrowth of his character.

He also tried teaching me how to drive stick, which was less fruitful.

And in the final, rich phase of his life, he was an artist. Stubbornly rejecting categories as always, Wib refused to choose among abstraction, realism, and religious painting. He refused to market his paintings in the common way—like, you know, selling them to people. He aimed to satisfy his own eye and his own imagination. Like his favorite forebear Vincent, Wib saw art as a journey, not an end: a sensual interaction with his own vision.

Wib was so un-phony that, when he cared about something, you knew it was worth caring about. That’s one way he made Christianity look so good. If his faith held his interest and passion for so long, there must be something to it. In our secular world, there’s that crucifix in every few paintings. There’s that Bible study group. There’s that heartfelt grace at the dinner table. None of them conspicuous; just another glimpse into what mattered to him.

Every Christmas morning, Wib would gather the kids and son-in-law on the landing before the presents were opened to read a story. Not some sugary holiday fable, or even a straight-up Gospel passage. No: Wib would have the kids read an experimental essay by the theologian Frederick Buechner called “The Birth.” It’s like Rashomon of the Nativity, telling the Christmas story from the point of view of three ordinary people in Bethlehem who either witness or avoid the great event that provided new meaning to their world. The Innkeeper has it worst, because he said no to God’s parents. The Wise-Men knew the truth but held themselves back from it to protect their careers. The working-class Shepherds, though, whoop with joy at their pure vision of glory. They don’t overthink it.

Wib was moved by these stories for decades. I never asked him why.

To me, the story says that the meaning of life is here now, hiding behind all the things we do and the politics we play. When Wib choked up reading about it, I like to think he was reminding himself how important it is to really connect with this truth. Maybe that was the source of his authenticity—he deliberately went after the source of deepest meaning in a world crowded with distractions.

Every Christmas, he reminded his cherished family—including the lucky son-in-law—don’t be the Inn-Keeper, who gets a chance to steward something significant and banishes it without looking up from his books. Don’t be the Wise-Men, who understand the significance intellectually but don’t make any sacrifices on its behalf.

Stay on the scene, like the Shepherds. Like Wib. Don’t worry about your status or your short-term priorities. Live in the moment, and you’ll hear the trumpets. When you hear the trumpets, run to the manger.

Be there for it.

"We thank you, Lord, for these thy gifts. Amen."