If I ever had a fairy godmother, it was Phyllis Tickle.
Fairy godmothers look out for you and keep watch over you, and they have wide and hopeful eyes for your possibilities. They believe in you, and because they believe in you, they give you some helpful nudges here and there, maneuvering physical objects and people if necessary to get you where you need to be. Fairy godmothers believe the only thing standing between you and where you want or need to be is opportunity. If you’re not thriving, or you haven’t really hit your full stride, it’s just a matter of location.
You can say that’s a load of pixie dust, but to me it’s the most real, beautifully tangible thing you can imagine. Someone believes in you, and is willing to put a little elbow grease into things to give you room to grow.
And I, for one, would not be where I am today without the gracious nudges of Phyllis A. Tickle, fairy godmother extraordinaire.
I don’t actually remember the first time we met (Emergent Convention early 2000s?), but I will never forget the first time I called her on the phone. I had just been hired to write the study guide for The Great Emergence, and Phyllis wanted me to give her a call to talk things through. If that doesn’t already strike you as uncommon, you should know that in the realm of publishing, writing study guides is the equivalent of being the intern who is told by the other intern to go get coffee. This is true even when you know the author personally. It’s just not that fancy a gig. You certainly don’t call the author at their home residence for a chat. But Phyllis had a vision for her book, and it’s a testament to her passion and relational professionalism that she’d do such a thing. She always gathered a village, even though we all know she could have single-handedly run a good portion of the world all by herself.
So Phyllis answered the phone at the Farm in Lucy all out of breath, effusively thanking me for calling and apologizing for her harried state. She had been out gathering all the green beans from the garden, she said, when she heard the phone ringing. I remember thinking in that moment, “This woman’s impressiveness literally has no end.” As if it wasn’t enough that she was an academic both as a professor and as a dean, the very best kind of intellectual (smart as you can imagine with zero affectation), a trailblazer in the publishing world, a top notch advisor, a keen observer, the author of so many books I will not even tell you because it is embarrassing to the rest of us, a devout member of the Church, a wife and the mother of seven children, a public servant on countless boards, she also runs a farm and gathers green beans in all that spare time of hers. What a force. In our future exchanges over the work in the study guide, she would send me these over-the-top effusive emails. She could make you feel like the study guide you were writing was, in fact, the Tour D’Eiffel, which had to have been the pixie dust because a study guide?! Seriously?! It’s so preposterous, but that was Phyllis. She was dogged in her praise, and it never came off as anything but sincere and right from the heart. I was listening to her giving a radio interview one day after the book released, and out of nowhere she begins to go on and on about the study guide, of all things. Just effusive praise of it, right there in the middle of her radio gig. Not the content of her book, mind you, which was mind-blowing and people are still discussing, pondering and debating this many years later. The piddly little study guide. Who does that?! I can tell you this with confidence: only Phyllis Tickle. Only fairy godmother Phyllis A. Tickle.
My friend Mike Stavlund, who is an adjunct faculty member who teaches on historical Christianity, tells the story of the time Phyllis came to give a public lecture in his town, and she opened by mentioning that Mike should be the one giving the lecture. Can you even?!
But this is what fairy godmothers do. They hover in the background, fluffing your dress and readying your carriage so that you can have a moment. How Phyllis did this while being the Belle of the Ball herself, I will never comprehend. She really did do it all. She was Cinderella, and she was the Fairy Godmother, and if you don’t think she’s allowed to be both, then bippity-boppity-BOO.
One time, and I tell you this story just to show the hilarity of the thing, I got a phone call from someone who was putting together an event. He had hardly introduced himself when he sheepishly said, “We have asked Phyllis to come and speak at our event and she said she’d be glad to on the one condition that we invited you, too. So I’m calling to see if you will come, because otherwise Phyllis has refused.”
I could go on. There are so many stories. And here is the very best part: it is true for so, so, so many people in Phyllis’ life. If there is one thing in the world Phyllis was not, it’s stingy. She did not have a small camp of favorites who got all her pixie dusted attention. I don’t know what the rule is for how many prince and princess saplings you can nurture at any given time as a fairy godmother, but Phyllis basically took over a vast forest of us single-handedly.
I’m not sure there is a way Phyllis could have known the depths to which we all love her and thank her and truly cry in response to her belief in us. Dear God, please help us live into the people Phyllis believed us to be. They are big slippers to fill.
More than that, though, so much more than that, I pray I’m able to become more like the person Phyllis was: resolutely upbeat, unfailingly kind, a trailblazing space-maker, an over-the-top champion of others. Someone who spends her time in the spotlight pointing the spotlight out onto others. Someone who stays grounded in her family, and in the good earth, and in the life-giving rhythms of a rich faith life with God. Someone who, when her time comes, welcomes it with grace and peace.
About that last one- I’m not there yet. So I have one thing to say to cancer, who I am so totally pissed off at right now. I have to admit, cancer. As much as I realize what a blight you are, what a gruesome predator, I did not expect you to have any power over fairy godmothers. I thought she would beat you, honestly. I thought it up to the very end. But the joke is on you, because you cannot possibly imagine how much goodness and wisdom and kindness Phyllis poured out over us all while she was here. You can’t fathom the number of aspiring writers, poets, pastors and thought leaders she’s sprinkled over the years. Let me tell you something, cancer. There’s no way malignant lung cells can undo what Phyllis sent out into the world. So put that into your pipe and smoke it.
What an exquisitely beautiful person she was. What an absolute force of spirit and goodness. Much as she was the fairy godmother, she never fooled us for a second. She was, and will always remain, the Belle of the Ball.
God bless you Phyllis Tickle. We love you more than you know, and we miss you fiercely already.
If you haven’t read it yet, Jana Riess wrote the most beautiful tribute to Phyllis, which you can read here. You really must.