The Honorable Elijah E. Cummings, who represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District which included his beloved city of Baltimore, passed away on October 17th. His was an especially difficult death for many of us to process, because he regularly and effectively spoke truth to power at a time when that trait is sorely lacking in our civic conversation.
Yesterday’s Washington Post had a Cummings op-ed written in July entitled We Are in a Fight for the Soul of Our Democracy. It began,
“As I pen these words, we are living through a time in our nation’s history when powerful forces are seeking to divide us one from another; when the legitimacy of our constitutional institutions is under attack; and when factually supported truth itself has come under relentless challenge.
I am among those who have not lost confidence in our ability to right the ship of American democratic life, but I also realize that we are in a fight — a fight for the soul of our democracy.
As an American of color, I have been able to receive an excellent public education, become an attorney, and serve my community and country in both the Maryland General Assembly and Congress because of one very important fact: Americans of conscience from every political vantage point took our Constitution seriously and fought for my right to be all that I could become.”
Even though he fought those in and out of government who put party, personal profit, and power above the nation’s values, concern for all citizens, and our very Constitution, Cummings was beloved across the aisle. From the tributes that have poured out following his death, it is clear that first and foremost he had a moral clarity about his work and treated everyone with respect. As Colbert I. King wrote in one such tribute in the Post, the phrases people were using, such as “‘a common touch,” “a sense of duty and steady strength,” and a “commanding presence in a man with such a gentle spirit” were all accurate.
“But the Elijah Cummings I got to know,” said King, “was more than a dedicated and skilled public servant. He was, for me, the keeper of the nation’s conscience.”
I was reflecting on Cummings’ life and work last week when I opened the mail and saw a thank you card. It was from the widow of another man who, although not as public a personality as Cummings, was nonetheless a man of integrity. The outpouring of affection following Cummings death, along with the thank you card from a grieving widow that came from another place in my life, led me to think about what we gain when we look beyond ourselves.
Bert Smiley was a great-grandnephew of two Quaker brothers. Beginning in 1869, these two brothers “transformed a rowdy 10-room tavern into an idiosyncratic hilltop hotel with more than 260 guest rooms.” That hilltop hotel is Mohonk Mountain House, one of my favorite places on earth.
Bert Smiley, who led the transformation of Mohonk into the 21st century, had passed away a year and a day before Cummings, on October 16, 2018.
Mohonk was designed, and remains, as a place to nurture the soul. With its miles of wooded hiking trails, crystal clear mountain lake, and rambling Victorian-era hotel, it couldn’t be farther away from the gritty streets of Baltimore. And yet, both Elijah Cummings and Bert Smiley looked beyond themselves in ways that touched and blessed others. Albert Smiley, Mohonk’s founder along with his brother Alfred, was a humanitarian and conservationist, concerned about the condition of Native Americans and devoted to fostering world peace. His descendants, including Bert, followed in his footsteps.
Smiley’s widow Nina is a long-time friend, and as the first anniversary of Bert’s death from leukemia was approaching, she was thanking, with personal notes, what must have been the thousands who reached out to her and the family with support. Included with the note was a smaller card that had a photo of a rainbow at Mohonk on one side and the following on the other side:
“Setting a Mindful Intention
A Gift from Bert and Nina
Bert began each day with Nina by setting a daily intention. Before getting out of bed, they would close their eyes, take several full gentle breaths, and say: ‘May we live with compassion, with grace, with insight, with integrity, with love.’ They saw this as a moment of connection to their best selves and to the world, and a way to begin each day with an infusion of positive energy.
Nina hopes that you might embrace this idea in your own life.”
Compassion. Grace. Insight. Integrity. Love. Connecting to our best selves is what Bert and Nina sought each day, and what the work of Elijah Cummings calls us to do, even though his physical body has left this world.
With gratitude for the transformational work of Elijah Cummings and for the example of those—like Bert Smiley—whose lives call us to a connection to our better selves.
May they rest in peace.
More to come…