A True Teacher

An assignment from Natalie Goldberg from Old Friend from Far Away

“Tell me about someone who was a true teacher for you. Don’t be sentimental. Tell it straight and plain: Who was this person? Go. Ten minutes.”

I walked into class that first day to find a scruffy middle-aged man with a muddy English drawl, the translation of which was further complicated by a mouthful of questionably clean and crooked teeth. His name was Mr. Pugh. He had been teaching honors English in my high school for many years. Both my older brothers had him and I had heard stories when I was much younger.

He was unabashedly eccentric. He explained to us the first day of class that if he woke up in the morning and the same pair of pants was still sitting on the floor from the day before, he would simply put them on again. When you had to get close to him with a question or to hand in a paper you quickly realized that although he had lived in the US for many years, he had not fully embraced our love of daily hygeine.

I would have him as a teacher all year, first for Great Books and then for Advanced Composition. He did not “mentor” me in any traditional sense. He was not the kind of teacher who would throw you accolades and be a cheerleader. He was grumpy, sullen, and antagonistic. He preferred his class to be full of lively discourse bordering on arguments. He wanted people to feel challenged.

And not just about the content of the books we were reading, but on every day topics. It was 1978 and teachers and school administrators were finally figuring out that a good portion of the student body was high during the school day. Someone had been taken aside by another teacher and accused of being high in class. The discussion in Pugh’s class that day about the incident centered on whether a teacher was in a position to unequivocally say whether a student was under the influence or not.

Being the outspoken girl I tended to be, I was arguing quite vehemently that there was no way a teacher could really know if a student was high.

Pugh’s response was straightforward and sarcastic, “Meckling, we always know when you’re high.”

I’m indebted to Mr. Pugh for my love of the following writers: Albert Camus, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Shakespeare. I’m indebted to him for honing my writing skills enough that I never felt the sort of panic that many people feel when asked to write, leaving me with a skill that lead to my pursuit of an English degree in college. I’m indebted to him for telling me I am a writer, for taking me aside and explaining to me that there would be jobs for writers in the real world. And although my adolescent lack of confidence in this arena did not allow me to really believe him at the time, I am forever indebted to him for planting that thought in my head. Clearly it stayed with me.

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The joy is in the practicing

 I’m sitting at the computer, writing and listening to Keith Jarrett on Pandora. Keith Jarrett is a jazz pianist who has a unique style and voice (he sometimes can be heard audibly scatting while he’s playing even though he is not a singer). His style varies from contemporary jazz to traditional to avante garde improvisational with a mesmerizing or hypnotic quality at times.  Check him out doing Autumn Leaves at the Blue Note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io1o1Hwpo8Y

One of the first guys I dated in college, a music student by the name of Kevin, turned me on to Keith Jarrett. Kevin and I met when he approached me in the lobby of my dorm where I was playing the grand piano that sat there. Kevin was mean and self-centered and was probably bipolar, like so many of the people I attract like a magnet. We dated only a couple times, but my appreciation for Keith Jarrett has continued through the years.

I love the piano. I have played it all my life. I love to listen to piano music. I particularly admire jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Diana Krall. But I have an undying appreciation of all accomplished piano players and will listen to piano music any time. When a pop singer hits the scene whose main instrument is piano, I tend to have a special affinity for him or her, Ben Folds, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Hornsby, Ingrid Michaelson, Nora Jones. God bless Pandora, because I can listen to any pianist I want day or night.

I am not half as accomplished at piano as some of these folks and I did not major in music in college. Still, it is my beloved avocation. I have played piano professionally, accompanied soloists, played in ensembles, and I have taught piano to adults and children.

I have my mother to thank for this. I grew up in a house where it was simply understood that you would learn to play an instrument, and taking piano was mandatory before you could move on to any other. Out of five siblings, I’m the only one who stuck with piano as my primary instrument.

I was having lunch with my mom yesterday and she told the man I’m dating this story: I was only 7 or 8 years old and had not been taking piano for very long and I performed Fur Elise at my piano recital to the amazement of everyone in the audience since I was such a young girl and a relatively new piano student.

Having an aging parent is such a blessing (my mom is a spry 83), because they possess this big trunk of secrets and memories. And all the wealth and richness of their lives and of your own life comes percolating out of them when you least expect it. Like that short little vignette of my life as a young piano student.

I suddenly remembered how driven I was to learn that piece, Fur Elise. I just loved it so much, I wanted to be it. It never occurred to me that I might not have enough knowledge as a young piano student to play it. The thought never crossed my mind. And even though I was a typical student who complained about having to practice all the time, practicing this piece didn’t feel like practice. I just decided I was going to play this piece and did. It was exhilarating. Of course I could only play the first movement, but learning that piece made me feel like I had flown to the moon and back.

I haven’t changed all that much from that driven, giddy little piano student. I still get a hold of a piece and don’t’ let go. Of course, some of the pieces I pick up take a hell of a lot longer to master. And many of them I never master. I’ll play Clair de Lune my whole life and never play it worth a crap. The arpeggios in the middle really hang me up. I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata for years. I play a sloppy first movement and a halfway decent second movement, but can’t bring myself to try the third, knowing how fast it’s supposed to go.

Last year I learned the Prelude from Grieg’s In Holberg’s Time, a Suite in Antique Style. I’m still having a little trouble with a couple of places in it, and I will probably never play it up to speed. But when my dear friend, Carrie, told me one of her high school piano students was playing it, I got a little competitive and decided I had to learn it. It’s been a year and I’m still working on it. Maybe I’ll move on to the other movements, maybe not. The joy is in the work!

Even when I am playing piano by ear, finding a popular piece that I like to sing and figuring out an accompaniment so that I can sing it without the record, I still operate in the same way I did those many years ago when I learned Fur Elise. In these cases, when it’s an Ingrid Michaelson song, or a Dolly Parton song, or a Patti Griffin song, or a Cheryl Wheeler song, I usually sit down at the piano with the recording nearby and work out the entire song in one sitting, repeating it over and over and over so I don’t forget it. Then I know it’s in there (my pea-sized brain) and I can pull it out any time I want.

Without all this music running around in my head, I fear I would be very lonely and bored. Thanks, mom, for making me take piano lessons. Sorry I complained so much about practicing.

This too shall pass

Of the many gifts I received from my father, this little snippet, “this too shall pass,” has helped me through what I thought were the worst times of my life. There were instances when my dad would say this line and I’d think, geez dad, how callous of you. Can’t you empathize for me in an unhealthy way just once and wallow with me in whatever ridiculous negativity I have dug for myself? Can’t you for once say to me, honey I can’t believe the universe has dealt you such a low blow. You deserve so much better than this and it’s only a matter of time before the entire world understands what riches you deserve.

Nope, my dad was not one for blowin’ smoke. Don’t get me wrong, he was a great dad. He’d help in whatever way he could. He’d give you a place to stay if you needed it, he’d pay your rent if you ran out of money. For cryin’ out loud, he paid college tuition for five kids to go to college, a feat no one on our middle class income could do any more.

But did he tell you you were the most beautiful person in the world and that everything would be perfect for you because you deserve at least that? No way.

See, my dad was a post-WWII, G.I. Bill educated electrical engineer. For those of you out there who were raised by engineers, you understand the significance of this statement. Some of these men are WWII vets, but my dad was a little younger than that. He served in the Navy on the tail end of the Korean War.

But many of the same rules apply. Somewhere between a rough childhood rearing by a strict dad, service in the armed forces, and the school of engineering at Purdue, my dad learned what he knew about being a man and a father. That included learning to do what the post 70s era of self-help refers to as compartmentalizing. To some, he may have done this to a fault, showing little emotion to his kids unless he was getting angry. By today’s standards this seems harsh, particularly in this era of helicopter parents who shepherd their kids as though they are lost sheep up until the moment they cut the umbilical cord as they drop them off at their first year of college (I know, I know, way too many metaphors in that one sentence). Conversely, my dad was the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” generation, confident that if we all keep our noses to the grindstone and work hard, we can do anything. The “sink or swim” type of life coaches. “Get in there kid, you can do it. Quit yer whinin’,” were their mantras.

You may have had one of these fathers. Some of my friends and I who were raised by engineers of that generation joke around that we need a support group we have lovingly dubbed ACOE (Adult Children of Engineers). But all joking aside, even with all his faults—and they all have them—I received many, many gifts from my father. My fearlessness, my ability to compartmentalize (although I gotta thank mom for some of that too), my math skills, my love of female jazz vocalists, my wandering eye (oops, I said I wasn’t gonna kiss and tell in this blog), my understanding that life is not fair, and the mantra “this too shall pass.”

For a man who was basically a devout atheist, who did not subscribe to any religion and did not once even mention the word God in my presence, his continual reference to the idea that “this too shall pass” showed him, in my opinion, to be a man of great faith. And this gift is the one I am most thankful for. This gift has taught me that regardless of how bad things seem today, things will get better. That even though I am incredibly depressed and cannot see my way out of this mess, that something will change and it will not turn out as badly as I think.

Faith in yourself as a person, as a father, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, as a golfer, faith in the physical world that has some rules and logic guaranteed to continue to be true tomorrow the same way they are true today, faith that the sun will again come up, regardless of how shitty today was, faith that the friends you have today will still be your friends tomorrow, faith that your family loves you. These things are the essence of a life of faith to me, regardless of whether we ever put a label on it, divine or otherwise.

I am thinking of my niece today. She has just lost her father. She is 10 years old. Our family are gathered around her to hold her up emotionally and physically in the same way we did for one another just 9 years ago when my father passed. We shed a lot of tears in the days after my dad died. And we did what we could to honor his memory and give him a good sending off. We told stories about times we shared, looked at lots of pictures, wrote down our memories, held each other, laughed and cried. We will join my niece to honor her dad in the same way.

And we will continue to help her hold her father dearly in her heart and be mindful of all the gifts she received from him. And they are many.

As time goes by, the sadness will begin to fade. And even though she will become suddenly overwhelmed with grief when she least expects it, this too shall pass. And the love and understanding of the gifts she has received will take the place of the sadness, giving way to gratitude, and, hopefully, a life of great faith.

I love you Dad.

I love you Syd.

I will offer thanks for what has been and what’s to come

I’ve had a rougher time in the last year than I’ve had in a long time. Life brings unexpected changes and often when we are not prepared for them. I was not prepared for my relationship of ten years to disintegrate, but it did. I was not prepared to lose my job and spend two months in a sheer panic until I found another one, but it happened. I was not prepared to be overwhelmed with feelings for someone new at the ripe ole age of fifty, but I was.

Now, a full year after I set out to write 50 blogs in 50 weeks in my 50th year, I have lost the new job I thought was so great, and I am questioning the romantic feelings I have because I rushed into something out of habit and did not let it blossom naturally.

I see in retrospect that I should have stuck to what my instincts told me to do one year ago—to take time to reflect on my life thus far, reflect on how I have become the person I am in an effort to mindfully move toward my future with purpose and intent rather than fumbling in panic for the next adventure, the next job, the next lover.

If I was one of those people that believes in “destiny” or the idea that the universe is trying to tell me something, I’d say that the universe tried to tell me something and when it found I wasn’t listening, it stuck its big foot out while I was running down the steps just to watch me trip and fall so it could laugh at me.

But I am not so easily discouraged. I will begin again. This time not making any promises, not setting myself up for failure. Just declaring that I will take the time I need to reflect. That is, until I become distracted by the next shiny object.

Work is love made visible –Khalil Gibran

 I spent last night visiting with an old friend from Block Island, RI. She and her mate are friends and former bosses, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had, in fact. When the person I’m working for works hard and doesn’t ask me to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, it makes me want to work as hard as I can for her. Some people might call that a work ethic. I think it ends up being more about human relationships than it is about the work. I hate to disappoint people I like or admire, so in an employment situation, that makes me want to work hard. And it doesn’t matter so much what I am doing. For the right person, I will scrub toilets and floors and enjoy it.

I wasn’t always a hard worker. My first job was at a Thom McCann shoe store. I have no clue why I thought that, at the age of 16, working at a retail shoe store was a good idea. I had no particular interest in shoes at that time (she said as she looked down at her new blue suede cowboy boots; I guess I grew into that girlie fetish). Nor did I have any particular interest in retail sales. I had turned 16 and in my house, when you turned 16, you got a job so you could have your own money to spend on undoubtedly nefarious activities you were unable to spend your parents’ money on.

I was not employed at the shoe store for long. I wasn’t particularly fond of helping people try on shoes, nor did I take the time to learn the convoluted numbering and storage system in the crowded back hallways where the shoes were stored. In fact, I found myself avoiding the back hallways of the shoe store altogether. The manager and assistant manager were snorting black beauties in the back office all the time and I simply could not keep up with that sort of lifestyle at the age of 16.

Then my sister and her boyfriend, Steve, devised a plan to get me a job at the local record store where Steve worked. This seemed like the perfect job for me. As a child of the seventies, I loved music. We were driving to concerts in Columbus and Cleveland all the time, the Rolling Stones, Queen, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, David Bowie. So working at a record store seemed like it would be a great fit. We’d stand around, smoke cigarettes and listen to records, right?

To my surprise, they actually wanted me to work. Sort records, file new records, re-order records, re-sort records when customers didn’t put them back where they were supposed to go. But such great demands were cutting into my smoke time and my ability to hang out with my friends. I didn’t last long at the record store either.

I did not yet know how to work. Sure I had worked in my mother’s home, as a housemaid, chambermaid, bathroom scrubber, dishwasher, and occasional gardener. And I did those things, slightly grudgingly, because my mother cared about them more than I did. I don’t think I really learned to work until I went to work in my father’s factory.

You might think that working for my father would be a cakewalk. Ahhh, she’s the boss’s daughter, she’ll get away with anything. With my dad, the opposite was true. He made sure you understood that his expectations of you were higher than for those of his other employees. You weren’t going to embarrass him by being the spoiled rotten boss’s kid.

My father owned a small manufacturing plant that made a variety of non-metallic parts, mainly for the then thriving Ohio automotive and appliance industries. I first went to work there the summer after my junior year, at age 17. Since I was not yet 18, I could not operate the punch presses, so I worked on various assembly jobs. My father’s employees were mostly women doing assembly and operating punch presses, with a couple men to cut and move material around and fix the equipment.

One particular job I had to do was putting a small bit of metal screen around a fibrous white donut-shaped piece that would eventually go into a catalytic converter. This job was piece work for the women in the shop. The more you could produce, the more you were paid. The job was done in pairs and your work was measured with that of your other team member to record your final numbers and determine your pay at the end of the day. All the other women in the shop had been doing this for years, and had certain expectations and a healthy competition about how much they could produce in a day. Two things weighed heavy on me: first, I’m the boss’s daughter and if I didn’t work my ass off, he’d be pissed. Second, these women needed to make money and I’d be mortified if my teammate made less money because I couldn’t produce. I worked my butt off to get up to speed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with how much money I would make at the end of the day.

More than a year later, I headed to college, and the second job I found—the first one was in a fast food joint and I was obviously not fast food material—was in a family owned coffee shop where the father, mother and son prepared and served breakfast and coffee to hundreds of college students. They were close-knit, hard-working, and anal retentive about how to do every little task in the place and I was determined not to be embarrassed so I hustled and learned how to get along. Again, it was more about relationships than about the money I was making, which was only enough to keep me in tea, cigarettes and an occasional beer.

Then after my second year of college, I headed to Block Island for the summer. And in my second summer on Block Island, I worked for Diane. Diane was running the airport diner and she had this bright idea that I could learn to be a short order cook. So I did that, and I lived in the little apartment above her garage for the summer. What I learned from Diane is immeasurable and I am proud to still call her friend after all these years. In those days, when her son Nathaniel was 4 years old and she was raising him by herself, she was running the airport restaurant, tending a huge vegetable garden, making soup every day for the restaurant, caring for her aging mother, and still finding time to go to the beach and teach me what eating fresh fish is really about.

Maybe it was the fact that I was slinging hash in the mornings and laying on the beach in the afternoon. Maybe it was the fact that I lived in this enchanting garage apartment where I had to carry in bottled water and shower down the street at the marina. Maybe it was the fact that I discovered that a piece of swordfish caught wild in the morning and broiled that afternoon could melt in your mouth like a good piece of prime rib. But I felt like Diane had been the shepherd of one of the most magical summers of my life. She was giving and tireless and I’d have done anything for her.

Diane

I’m thinking a lot about those days because I am sitting at Diane’s kitchen table looking out on a sunny day on Block Island, taking a brief vacation before I begin a new job in a week. Likewise, Diane and Donn are getting ready to start yet another new restaurant venture. I told them, if I hadn’t already found a job, I would have been happy to stay and help them open the new place. In fact, I believe I said “I would love nothing more than to let you guys work me like a dog.” I’ve always said that it’s important to me that I work for someone who shares my core values, someone who values the people who work for her, someone who wouldn’t ask you to do something she wouldn’t do herself. Someone with a generous spirit who is motivated to work is someone I will always want to work tirelessly for. If that’s what you wanna call a work ethic, I guess I acquired that somewhere along the way.

Who told you life was gonna be fair?

Union members and supporters outside Ohio Statehouse 2/22/11 waiting to be let in to hear testimony on S.B.5

Today I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Ohio’s unionized state workers, teachers, firefighters, and F.O.P. members as we listened to the introduction of S.B. 5 by one of its co-sponsors, a bill that seeks to completely eliminate collective bargaining in the state of Ohio. Our numbers—which some estimate to be as much as 1500—filled the chambers of the Senate Hearing room at Ohio’s Statehouse, overflowing into the hallways, packing the atrium, and filling several secondary hearing rooms into which they had to pipe the audio of the hearing’s proceedings so the multitude of concerned workers could hear every word uttered in the hearing.

For those who may not know it, last year’s Ohio election mirrored many others in the country, turning over many state offices previously held by Democrats into the hands of Republicans. And as one of their first orders of business, the now Republican majority seeks to bust the state workers’ union and every other union in the public sector in this state with the sole intention of disarming the unions in order to take back the White House in 2012.

Needless to say, having two union teachers in the family and two family members that work directly for a union, I stand with my union brothers and sisters for their right to have a place at the table to collectively bargain their work contracts with the State of Ohio.

But my support for the right of workers to bargain collectively is not something I came upon late in life, or even as a young adult. I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when the teachers in my school district went out on strike. It was during this strike that I learned about the right of workers to organize.

I got the sense from my mother that some kids’ parents were very upset about the strike. Many had vowed to cross the picket line and teach in order to keep the schools from shutting down. I don’t remember who’s mother taught our sixth grade class, but my mother crossed the picket line to teach first grade, and my younger sister had to endure the trauma of having her mother for a teacher.

What I remember most about that week is recess. During recess, a handful of other students and I walked around the perimeter of the school (the picket line) with Mr. “E.”, which was our nickname for the gym teacher, Mr. Elias.

Mr. E. gave us an education I have never forgotten. He talked to us about fair wages for teachers. He talked about the personal hardship involved in being on strike, not just for him but for others he knew that had families and were now on strike. He talked candidly and openly, not lecturing, not proselytizing, not angry. He answered our questions and then signaled when it was time for us to go back into the school. And with his answers, I began to understand that working people sometimes had to fight in order to be treated fairly.

Other similar thoughts started to occur to me around the same age. I had been placed in the “gifted” program in both 5th and 6th grade. In each of those grades, we had three classrooms of kids. One out of the three classrooms in each grade was designated as “gifted.” The majority of the kids in each of those classes came from our school, but in each class there were two or three kids who were bused in from other elementary schools on the north end of town. I knew it was not possible that out of all those schools on the north end of town, there were only a handful of kids who were as smart as the 50 of us that came from my school to fill those two classrooms.

And it started to register with me that the schools north of us were in poorer school districts. My elementary school sat squarely in between poorer neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods to the south, which most assuredly had their own “gifted” classrooms. But the schools on the north end didn’t have gifted classrooms. And even in my young mind, I knew that it simply was not possible that these two girls—for their were only two girls in my 6th grade class that came from other schools—were the only smart kids in 6th grade at their schools. And why exactly wouldn’t they have their own “gifted” class at their schools?

I began to ask questions that lead me to understand that school funding in our state was (and still is) dependent upon property taxes and that the property taxes in poorer school districts simply wouldn’t afford those schools the same advantages that we had.

So 6th grade is a crucial time for a lot of reasons, I guess. It’s the year that I became aware of class issues even within the middle class, aware of how working people have to fight to be treated fairly, even if they are college-educated, and aware of how some kids will never have the advantages I have had, no matter how smart they are. My father had often defused us kids when we were complaining about this or that by saying “Who told you life was gonna be fair?” At age 11, I was beginning to understand exactly what that meant. And by the same token, I was beginning to understand that life was gonna be a little fairer to me than it would be to a lot of others.

The Beatles, the hippies, Jesus, and my brother

 

My oldest brother, Jeff, ran away from home the first time when I was probably only 7 or 8 years old. He played guitar in a band and he played music in his room all the time. I don’t have great recollection of specific memories of my older brother at that age. What I have instead is a sense of comfort, awe, longing, and a sense that he was connected to something greater going on in the world that I was unable to comprehend fully.

Our house had two bedrooms on the second floor, one of which was intended to be the master bedroom boasting three walk-in closets and a bathroom. But at that age, my older sister and I were sharing the larger bedroom and Jeff had the room across the hall. I’m guessing the year was about 1967 or 68. My brother’s room had peace signs and pictures of the Beatles from the Let It Be album hanging on the walls.

What I remember most prior to his departure is going to sleep at night to the sound of his music. Whether he was playing guitar himself or playing records, there was always music playing at night as I went to sleep. Then one day he was gone. And the music stopped. And I couldn’t get to sleep without it.

I was very young. I had not experienced a loss. My father’s parents had both died by that time, but they did not live nearby and I had not been close to either of them.

And with 8 years between us, it’s not as if I was very close to my older brother. But when he left, I felt a big empty space that eventually became filled with longing.

Other memories around that time are more like sense memories than actual events.

I have a vague memory of my parents’ dread as they waited for Jeff’s draft number, and the slight sense of relief as they explained after receiving it that they had reason to believe he would be safe. I can remember that the older boy who lived across the street was drafted and how the news came back that he had refused to carry a gun in boot camp and so was told to go home. I remember thinking, well if that’s all you have to do to get out of going to war, that doesn’t seem too bad. I had no notion of what a dishonorable discharge might mean.

I began to romanticize the journey my brother must be on. I was drawn to any movie that romanticized the hippie way of life or running away from home or a road trip. Even if the story didn’t intend to romanticize the idea, I could look past a story of a troubled teen addicted to downers and see, instead, a triumphant story of a young person striking out on her own to discover the world on her own terms.

Meanwhile, my brother’s journey was far less glamorous than I let myself believe. Struggling with his own demons, and after a requisite west coast hitch-hiking journey, he settled down on “The Farm,” a born-again Christian community not far from our house run by a very kind man with five beautiful dark-haired daughters. Having accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, much to my mother’s dismay, he finished high school, continued playing music and went about his new life.

Lucky for me, he still looked like a hippie, with long scraggly hair and tunics, so I could continue to romanticize the role I had cast for him upon his departure. And I filled the empty space he left with a sense of longing—longing for adventure, for hitch-hiking, for discovering the rest of our country, for long hair, long flowing skirts, and the need to get away.

By the time I reached fifth grade, I found an old army shirt with the sleeves cut off that must have belonged to Jeff and wore it to school. Enduring ridicule for my fashion choice, I told the most popular girl in our class—a girl who regularly teased me even after she had invited me to her house for a sleepover—to “drop dead” loudly in front of the whole class, a move that was accompanied by sympathetic and admiring jeers from many classmates. I began to see that I was not going to lead a conventional life and I embraced the idea fully. Instead of feeling left out by the popular girls and ashamed to hang out with my second cousin, who was pretending to be a horse pretty much 24/7 at that age, I embraced my outsider status, reveled in being picked last for all team sports, and ran around the playground during recess with my second cousin, the horse.

Jeff still was a peripheral part of our lives. He had gone off to college to study music, was still one with Jesus, and soon brought home a girl he said he intended to marry. I was probably in seventh or eighth grade by then. His girlfriend was a buxom blonde with wild eyes and big full lips. She was loud, like us, and was a voice major in college. They kissed in ways my parents never had. They seemed very sure of themselves and full of the promise. I was infinitely interested in them, and they were willing to talk. I asked her about sex and she gave me frank and open answers to my questions. I asked them questions about their faith, not so much because of any spiritual needs or inclinations of my own, but because it was obviously very dear to them, and I wanted to be close to my older brother. Maybe I wanted to feel some of the things he must have experienced, what I assumed were the same things I was longing for, gain some sense of the adventures he must be having. Mostly, I wanted to feel that comforting feeling of being lulled to sleep by the sound of his guitar across the hall from my room.

brother, Jeff, and his oldest daughter, Rachel

It’s been many years since then. Jeff’s life has taken him many places, as has my own. Jeff and I have spent time getting to know one another through the years at various periods of our lives, whether here in Columbus, or in D.C., or on Block Island, or in upstate New York. He is as much a part of my family as the three other siblings I have. You might attribute my memory of it being otherwise during my youth to a combination of pre-pubescent angst and sibling adoration. But that wouldn’t be the whole story. For even now, we are not happy at family reunions until Jeff plays the guitar for us.