2017 has been an interesting year for me.
It’s been a hard year, a difficult year indeed. There have been some challenges that I have not been able to meet head-on yet; there have been choices and events that have been or could still be devastating.
This post is not about those challenges. There will not be a post about those challenges until they defeat me (and there’s something worth saying about them such that others can profit from it) or until I defeat them.
This post is about the wonder and glory and happiness of the things I’m likely to remember about this year when I am telling someone about how marvelous and mystical the world sometimes seems to be.
It’s been a year of reconnecting with people I’d thought lost to me.
Suzanne was a friend who was a girl when I was young. I hate to use the term “girlfriend” for a few reasons, but let’s just say I had moments where I imagined something new to me then: settling down with another actual human being and trying to be my best self instead of just enduring moments as they went by. She endured a terrible tragedy that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy; while she was dealing with that, I sort of bowed out of her life (her decision, not mine, and I complied because duh).
I’ve been wondering about her for decades. Was she happy, was she healthy? It’s not that I wanted to rescue her – she’s not mine to rescue – but …
Here’s the thing. I’m a “relator.” In application, that means I tend to form relationships based on emotional distance. The farthest from me are acquaintances, then those slightly closer might be friends but not people I really talk to about deep things, then as you get closer and closer to me there are much stronger bonds.
The inner circles are family and, then, closest to me, are the people I really trust. There’s some overlap with family in that innermost circle, but it’s not a given that just because you’re in my family that I trust you with everything.
That may be unusual; I don’t know. It’s also the way I am.
But if you’re in that innermost circle… you may not be mine, but I am yours. That innermost circle gets everything I am: my loyalty, my trust, my vulnerabilities, my strengths… if someone in that inner circle has a need, I’m fighting for it. I’m shaking my fist at God to move Heaven and Earth until equilibrium has been attained. I’ll think about the problem, worry about it, worry at it, until it goes away – their need becomes mine.
Another aspect of that inner circle is that it’s not a voluntary thing. It’s permanent. Once you’re there, you are there. Once I’ve identified you as someone in that group, it doesn’t matter what happens; I will always see you as being in that inner circle, as having complete access to me within the bounds of propriety.
So back to Suzanne: she was probably one of the first (maybe the first, but I doubt it) person who was really in that inner circle. She was the person who made it clear to me that I had such an inner circle; how to address that circle’s existence was the source of major internal conflict for me for years. (I was an idiot. In retrospect, why would I deny it? What was wrong with it? Who was I trying to be, other than myself?)
Losing all contact with her was good in a few ways; my emotional attachment to her would have drastically and negatively affected my other relationships (and it did affect my other relationships, for a while, until the distance offered by time had increased enough that it became a background hum rather than a constant buzz in my emotional ear.)
But I’d always wondered how she was.
Well, this year I found out. We didn’t “reconnect” – we haven’t spoken, or written, or communicated with each other, although I did reach out to say “hello” (again, within the realms of propriety – I’m not interested in forming a relationship with a woman who is not my beloved wife.) But the fact that I was able to reach out at all answers the greatest questions about her – is she alive? Yes. Is she healthy? Healthy enough to be around.
It’s not much, but it’s enough. Finding out that she was “okay enough” removed a burden I didn’t even truly realize I’d been carrying all these years. Peleh Adonai, she was all right. She was respected professionally and personally, from everything I could tell. Wins all around.
But that’s not the only reconnection this year with a shadow from the past.
I was having a conversation with a good friend recently and mentioned wondering how our old music teacher was doing.
When we were in middle school in Wildwood, FL – grades six through eight – the school had an elective rock band, the “Guitar Group.” I saw myself as wanting to be a musician; after all, we had an organ at my old house in Tallahassee (a Hammond? Wurlitzer? I have no idea.) and I would pretend to play Elton John songs on it. (I was not playing Elton John songs. I was probably playing an endless set of variations of E5. I do not remember, but I do know that I had no freaking clue whatsoever about what I was doing.)
So when I went to this new school, I decided that somehow I wanted to be part of this band. I wasn’t a singer (I could carry a tune in a bucket, if you weren’t too concerned about tone or quality or enunciation) and I thought drummers were cool… so I told the teacher responsible for the Guitar Group, Mr. Moore, that I “knew how to play drums.”
I did not know how to play drums.
I did not know how to hold drumsticks.
I did not know how to play a beat.
I could, however, hit things with sticks, and I could listen, and I could learn.
I didn’t tell Mr. Moore I didn’t know what I was doing, but having ears, and eyes, and a brain, he knew… and for some reason, he taught me how to play drums. I was okay at it, I guess. I applied most of what he taught me with a will; the main thing where I refused was in how I actually held the drumsticks. He was trying to teach me to use traditional grip and I happily agreed with him but used matched grip instead.
Mr. Moore gave me a lot of things. For one thing, he gave me a purpose in a new city in which I knew pretty much no-one; he also showed faith in me when he had no reason to do so. He gave me a skill I have used in following a passion ever since; what’s more, he taught me how to listen to my bandmates and how to identify core themes of a song.
Of course, I applied those things imperfectly; I tend to identify themes in a song rather than elements in a song, so I might try to play an “exact cover” of someone else’s song and come up with something that sounds almost, but not quite, completely different.
A paraphrase of actual conversation with a friend:
ME : Hey, listen to this! I mastered it, I think. JOE PLAYS A MINUTE'S WORTH OF MUSIC. ME : Pretty good, yeah? HIM: ... What song was that? ME : "Working Man," by Rush. Don't you know that song? HIM: Um... I know the song, but that wasn't what you were playing. Was that "The Spirit of Radio?"
What I had done is pretty simple, and kinda funny and sad in retrospect: I’d identified a sort of theme, and played it; and the theme I had in my head was only tangentially related to the actual themes in the song. I’ve been known to play songs “note for note” with wrong measure counts, wrong time signatures, all kinds of things… not because I’m unskilled, but because I was playing the songs’ themes as they were in my head rather than the song’s themes as they actually were.
(For the record: once I realized I was doing that, I started trying to actually identify the elements in the songs; when I want to, I can play note-for-note or nearly so, but I rarely want to except as a warm-up exercise.)
Anyway, Mr. Moore – through showing faith in me and committing time to actually teaching me what I claimed to know – did a lot to help me. He gave me a coping mechanism, and a mode of expression, that I’ve relied on ever since.
And when I left that school, I lost touch with him. I picked up more instruments; drums were awesome, but they were loud, and I couldn’t carry them with me on a bus. My best friend played bass, and I couldn’t stand for him to be better than me at anything, so I picked up bass too… and guitar, and synthesizers, and eventually taught myself something of how to sing and how to play piano and organ.
And it all started with Mr. Moore, about whom I knew nothing recent.
So there I am, having a conversation with, well, that bass player – and I casually mentioned Mr. Moore.
And he said “Oh, I think he lives in the same neighborhood as my parents.” And then gave me a way to get in touch with Mr. Moore’s wife.
I was stunned. I sent her a long, drawn out message to say ‘hello’ and explain why a complete stranger was reaching out.
And she responded, saying that Mr. Moore – who she called “Ronnie” – remembered me. And gave me his email address.
I was stunned again.
I emailed him, and we’ve had a few communiques back and forth; I sent him some of the music I’ve written and recorded, saying “This is all your fault!”… and he responded to that, saying that if it was on him, he’d bear that proudly.
Personally: wow. (He also said to call him “Ronnie” but that “Mr. Moore” was okay if necessary… I’ve tried to think of him as “Ronnie” but I just can’t. “Mr. Moore” it is.)
What’s amazing to me about all of this is that it’s happened at all. I haven’t been seeking these people out; I’ve just been asking distant associations casual questions, and getting answers.
It’s amazing, and gratifying, and mystical.
It’s happened in a year after I could have died. (I’m still trying to write up what happened.)
It’s not perfect – there are two people with whom I’d still want to reestablish contact in various ways, but if God so wills it, it will happen. (Yiddish proverb: “If God so wills it, even a broom will shoot.”)
But I’m still thankful beyond measure that these small answers to small questions (“Whatever happened to…”) have answers.
Don’t forget to live, folks.