“No, really. How are they?” they asked, again, wanting me to be honest, to engage with them.
I shared some successes, a few challenges, feeling myself break into a smile as I talked about the people I loved, people I shared my life with, people who really mattered to me.
The conversation got into how I was really doing, at this point in my life. I’m really close to retirement, and busy with my music, my mentoring, and the usual busy schedule of late summer.
It felt good to connect with that person, and have someone really care about me, and where I was in life, and how things were really going. It was one of those times I was glad I lived in a small town, where you could run into people who really cared about you, who were good friends. I felt that warm, deep feeling inside of me, that feeling that people really cared about me, that I mattered, that what I do in my life really mattered.
As I walked down the street, I wondered, “Well, what do I mean when I mention my family?”
My lawyer brain first thinks of the dictionary definition of family. I look back at those in my life I’m related to biologically. Except for a few, they aren’t family now. We don’t have anything in common, except some DNA and some quirky personalities and mannerisms. Some of them share a last name with me. But, all that doesn’t add up to family for me. Not anymore.
I ran down the list of names, the names of my family, their faces popping into my head, more warm feelings filling my chest, my gut, being part of the smile across my face.
It struck me, hard, that who I feel are family to me aren’t related to me by blood. We don’t share the DNA, or any of the quirky family traits of personality, or habit, or behavior. We don’t share last names, or common ancestors.
No, my family doesn’t fit the Webster’s definition. But, they are my family.
They’ve come into my life through my marriage, my work, my life in this community. Some of them have lived in my house, and sat with me at the dinner table, as I’ve watched them grow up and move on, making something out of themselves.
And, some of them are people I just see a lot, sharing some laughs, telling stories, having fun spending some good times. They are the people you don’t need to worry about when you see them, worrying about what you will talk about, or what you will do. Like your favorite pair of worn jeans, they fit right and they’re comfortable, without any effort, without any work about being formal, or proper, or even polite.
They know who they are with me -- family. And, when I try to explain to someone else how they are related to me, how they are family, the usual words of relationship and kinship just don’t work.
“Step son” or “former foster son” or “mentee” or “former co worker” or “wife’s former step daughter” or whatever I might use to “define” our relationship all are just words. And, they don’t work very well. They don’t describe who we are or how we are related. And, all those words aren’t what we are to each other, anyway.
And, some of the phrases just become nonsense to me, anyway. How can one be a “former” son? Once one, always one. English needs to develop some new words for who’s who in my family.
We’ve had a lot of shared experiences, a lot of fun, a lot of struggle sometimes, a lot of water under the bridge. More wrinkles, maybe less hair, bigger stomachs, all marks of aging. We all have a bit more gray in our hair (some, including me, a lot more than others!)
If we all got together for a big family portrait, you wouldn’t be able to tell that we’re related by looking at our faces, or how we dress, or how we smile, or sing. But, you would know us by our stories, by our affection for each other, for our shared experiences, and love for what we really are to each other. You would know us by that love that is deep in our hearts, that love we have for each other, that no one can define.
As always, I found you working on several difficult issues, and moving forward with all of them. You have healthy goals, and you have worthy dreams. You always do.
Young men worry about who they are, and what they want to accomplish, and what is their destiny. And, actually, we all worry about that. At least, I do.
I don’t always count my blessings, and I can worry about things that I have no control over, or things that turn out to be pretty insignificant. I struggle with feelings and emotions, and I get myself tied up in knots about things. Another young man I know calls that “catastrophizing”. A good term for that “tie my stomach in knots” feeling.
So, when you struggle, and doubt, and worry, you are not alone. And, when you see some people and situations in your life that need some fixing, and things aren’t getting fixed, that is normal.
Each of us can only fix ourselves. We aren’t the mechanics for other people. We don’t lead their lives. And, we aren’t the boss. Well, we are the boss of ourselves. We do have the ability to direct our own lives, and to manage our own affairs. And, what other people do and what other people might think of us --- well, not much we can do about that.
You are a normal guy. You have normal worries, and normal doubts and normal insecurities. You get frustrated when relationships and other things don’t get “fixed”. That’s normal.
I see you accomplishing a whole lot. Certainly more than most 21 year old men I have known. OK, you are in prison and you don’t have a lot of “freedom”. Yet, you have done a great deal of hard work in getting your own house in order, and healing yourself. You have educated yourself a great deal about who you are, where you come from, and who you want to be.
Most young men haven’t done that. Most young men haven’t laid out the high moral standards and ethics you have set for yourself. The work you have done has been very valuable, and very important. I think you see that, sometimes. In a few years, you will see this time as a very rich, and a very valuable experience.
As you do your heart work, know that I support you, and I believe in you. I am grateful you have this opportunity, to know yourself better, and to gain information which will lead to even more self discovery, and to more healing of whatever wounds you discover.
Part of that healing work involves forgiveness.
I hope that you are doing some forgiveness of yourself in all this. Forgiveness is a very good gift to give to yourself. It is part of that struggle you have with accepting a gift.
You want to “pay off your restitution”. “Restitution” means “to restore, to put back”. Part of restitution is forgiving yourself. That will be harder to do than sending money off to the State. But, more rewarding, and more freeing.
You are doing all of this work for the right reasons: self understanding.
Most every time I leave prison after a visit with you, I say to myself “Wow. I don’t know if I could deal with that.”
A lot of the stuff you talk about that you have experienced, well, I think I might just want to find a dark corner and pull a blanket over my head, and slip away into a bit of self imposed craziness.
But, you don’t take that cheap route. You dig in and work through the crap that you have to deal with sometimes, and you get it on. You sort through it, and you do what is needed to be healthy, and sane, and whole.
You may think you don’t get much support from other folks on what you are going through and what you are doing. But, you do. Your Team is out there, cheering you on.
I try to be a good cheerleader, a good support person for you. I don’t always do a great job, and I often don’t have the tools and the pompoms and the special cheerleader cheers that work for you. But, I still show up and I still cheer you on.
I believe in you and I believe in your journey.
And, you teach me more about courage and decency and character than anything else in my life.
He’s said something about a guitar, a couple of visits earlier. We’d talked about his singing, his passion for music, his ability to hear a song, and then sing it back, note for note, and word for word.
It was easy for him, he said. He was born with it, something he just did. It wasn’t a big deal. His mom sang, and it was just part of his life.
I had first heard him sing at the prison talent show, his voice filling the half court gym that was also the room where every other public event happened. The room grew still when he sang, everyone following his voice as he hit every note of the song. And when everyone applauded at the end, I first saw his big smile, happy with himself and happy with the joy that he brought everyone else. His joy came alive then, with what he did with his talents.
The guitar would be new to him, and he thought he might want to learn. I knew he loved to learn. He’d graduated from high school a year ago, and was now taking a full load of on line classes at a community college. He’d struggled a bit with writing, and my wife gladly tutored him a bit on writing papers. Their discussion at one of our first visits quickly intensified, as he focused on how he could improve his work, and be a serious student.
I’d given another one of the young men I’ve been mentoring a guitar for Christmas. He was happy at the gift, but he’d struggled with the guitar, finally realizing it wasn’t his passion, and wasn’t something he enjoyed. He’d talked with me about his frustration and we left the discussion with him giving it back to me. He’s a guy who looks out after others, and sensed the guitar needed a new owner.
Now, there was the young man who needed a guitar and I had a guitar to give.
The next visit, I brought him the guitar, and a gig bag, a tuner, a capo, and some picks; all the mechanics you need to start. I put it in his hands, watching a grin brighten his face. He didn’t need me to show him how to hold it, he just picked it up and held it close to him, almost clutching it tightly to his body.
The right hand strummed, hesitating, playing with the strings. I showed him the G chord, his fingers quickly figuring out where the finger tips went, between the frets. The chord rang out from the guitar, close to being correct.
He frowned, not happy with the sound, and he tried again, and again. I reached over and moved a finger closer to the fret, changing his left hand a bit. Again, and it was better. And, again, and it was spot on. The frown was now a smile.
In a few minutes, I showed him another chord, and again, I moved a finger here and there, and then, his second chord was strummed, producing yet another smile. He was figuring it out, and moving back and forth between the two chords, and then a third.
“You can play Amazing Grace now,” I said.
He looked at me, his jaw dropping a bit, and shook his head.
“Yeah, its easy,” I said, taking the guitar from him.
I played the three chords he knew, and sang the words of the first verse, moving from chord to chord and then back home, strumming a rhythm, putting guitar notes into chords and rhythms, and adding the poem.
“Here. You try it,” I said, handing his guitar back to him.
He sang then, strumming and moving from chord to chord, making a passable version of the old familiar song.
“Really,” he announced, looking up at me, a much bigger grin now lighting up his face.
“Yeah, really,” I replied. “You can sing and play the guitar now.”
Before I left, he’d learned two more chords from me, and was talking about a song he’d been singing, and wanted to play it on the guitar.
“Homework”, I laughed. “Something to play for me the next time I show up.”
His laughter filled my heart, his eyes focused on his hands as he moved from one chord to another and back.
“There’s an E minor in it. Can you show me that one?” he asked, his hands trembling a bit on the frets.
“Sure,” I said, moving two fingers on his left hand into the E minor fingering. “It’s easy.”
And, it was for him, amazingly easy.
The next visit, he played several songs for me, including the one he had wanted to learn. He had good rhythm, good strumming, and was sliding his chord hand around to play the four chords in his song.
He stumbled a bit, but we all do when we are first learning a song. I told him everyone does that, at first. But, he still moaned a bit with frustration, expecting himself to be perfect.
The next couple of visits, I taught him some more, things I’d been working pretty hard on the last four years to learn and push myself up to higher levels of playing. My learning curve was a lot longer than his, and he quickly soaked up everything I offered to him.
My wife played a bit, too, with the guitar and her mandolin. He soaked up what she was showing him, too, at lightning speed.
Several times in the next few weeks, a staff person would come by, and show him a song. He’d watch, intently, and then played a duet with them, mimicking every movement, every note. Goosebumps showed up on my arms when I played with him, my jaw agape as I watched him learn so quickly, mastering small things here and there, bringing his own joy to a song he loved.
One day, I brought new strings, and showed him how to restring the guitar. He chuckled at the new, bright sound, as I wound up the old strings, strings he’d worn out, playing a couple of hours a day.
We’ve brought our guitar and mandolin teacher in now, to see if he can keep up with him. And, its a struggle, we hear, our teacher feeling challenged at what the young man can soak up in just a little bit of time.
And, every time I visit, we play together, sharing what we know and what we love, our voices filling the room and bringing more smiles to his face.
He’ll outgrow this guitar soon, if he already hasn’t done that. He’ll finish his associates degree in December and be paroled in February. Then, he’s off to a real college campus, and start his junior year, being a normal college student living a normal life. There’s a new guitar in all that, too. And, I can’t wait to take him guitar shopping and see him light up the store with his big grin.
Come September, and it is the start of a new year. School is starting, vacations are ending, the garden is in full harvest mode.
The long season of lawn mowing has slowed, nearly stopped, and one has time to wander around the yard, taking in the flowers, and the now unmistakeable presence of the start of Fall. Summer is still here in the heat of the afternoon, but the early morning crispness and heavy dew is a sign of transition in the calendar, in the cycle of the seasons.
The last few months have been their usual blur of activities: chores and projects, sandwiched between work, and the summertime events.
We still haven’t made it to the local farmers’ market this year, and have only had a few walks on the beach. I took a long anticipated hike a few weeks ago, realizing it had been a while since I hit the trail, what with trying to find where I’d last laid down my hiking boots and my binoculars.
A family reunion was fun, with great food, singing, and visiting folks I hadn’t seen for a year. And, we had an unplanned one later one, gathering for a funeral, and remembering the wonderful stories and laughter of a favorite uncle. Another reminder of how important it is to find the time for the fun and adventure of happy times, and good memories, and the strength of families.
One evening, we had the joy of listening to a favorite due sing and work their magic with their guitars and mandolin. They played a concert at the youth prison we go to every week, visiting and mentoring young men. There was a special joy in our hearts, watching young men enjoy themselves, becoming one with the music, and pondering their own talents and dreams. Again, I was reminded of the power and gift of music in our lives.
Every week, I take my guitar there, through the prison gate, and play and sing with one of my buddies. His musical talents are amazing, and an occasional tear runs down my face, as I share his joy and gifts, and watch him grow and find himself. My guitar teacher is now part of his life, and his skills seem to grow exponentially.
Their Pow Wow last week was a celebration of Spirit, of their many rich heritages, their creativity, and, above all, of their rich and fruitful community. I was humbled and honored to be asked to come, and sit with them, and dance with them, in all their splendid and welcoming community.
I go there as a mentor, but I really am the receiver, the mentee, the beneficiary of so many gifts from those amazing young men.
As with every summer, there never seems to be enough evenings sitting outside, just enjoying the end of the day and the solitude of the yard. Yet, we have had those wonderful evenings, and an hour here or there just enjoying the place and the day.
Last week, my chore list got sidelined, and I rediscovered my canvasses and paints, and brushes, and spent a few hours lost in art. My soul was happy, and the frustration inside of me that I’d hadn’t really had all the fun I’ve wanted this summer floated away. Later on, I played my guitar and sang a few songs outside, building up good memories of time well spent.
I held myself to one weekend wedding this summer, and savored the experience of love energy, a beautiful woman walking down the aisle, and the smile on her husband’s face. There was much laughter and happiness, on a sunny evening, where barbecue smoke and good music lingered into twilight.
I’ve also found some riches in getting rid of things, and cleaning up a bit. My golf clubs, which had accumulated dust, are now in the hands of a high school student who is passionate about his golf team. My childhood .22 rifle is now in the hands of a firearms instructor, and my mother’s deer rifle will soon be in the hands of a young man passionate about the sport and time out in the woods with his family.
My baby picture is now hung on a wall, rather than sitting in a box gathering dust, and there is a large pile of old papers waiting for the end of fire season and a new burn barrel. Other treasures await my rediscovery of them, and the crossroad questions of “toss or save”. At 59 years old, the “toss” answer is becoming more popular.
The real treasures now are time with family and friends, and in simply being present amidst the natural beauty that surrounds us. And, I keep learning to pay attention to that, and to be present in all of that.
Come September, I hope to simply be grateful for all that is, in my life.