Shortly after my surprise encounter with Lee and his fiance, Hillary Emails me to tell me that they’re planning a surprise birthday party for Lee. I’m invited, but there’s bigger news: She asks if I can be the decoy, to lure him out of the house while she’s preparing. This is all to take place on the following Sunday, at the end of the weekend I was planning on spending in DC, catching up with friends. I consider as I squint at the laptop, too late at night in the pink bedroom in which I’m staying. Doing this will require being back pretty early, by 1pm or so, which would mean leaving DC fairly early. But why not – how often do I get asked to help conspire for the benefit of anyone’s surprise birthday party? It feels like a pleasantly intimate request, one that instantly turns me into a trusted friend. I reply to tell her I do it, and coordinate the whole thing with Lee by Email. Lee agrees to meet me at 30th Street Station when I get back from Philadelphia, and the plan is in motion.
When I arrive back in Philadelphia on Sunday, Lee is already at the train station. When I propose that we hang out in a large and beautiful hall that, for some mysterious reason, is always empty, Lee said he thought we might sit somewhere on Penn’s campus.
So we head out, find a nice bench in the green area near the school of engineering, and park ourselves on a bench across from a large rock. Lee thinks the rock looks comfortable, and tries it out. He wiggles around on it, decides eventually that it’s a near miss, and comes back to the bench. Lee asks me if I write any songs, and I say that I do, so he asks me if I would mind singing them for him. This is my first introduction to Lee’s gentle and humble style – he is always making the most flattering requests in the form of asking if I wouldn’t mind doing those things. When I sing him a song, he leans forward and closes his eyes and rocks gently to the rhythm. When I finish, he says “I really like it,” and then “would you mind singing it again?” He repeats this with three songs that I sing for him. He is an ideal audience, telling me how much he likes each song, sharing his interpretation of the meaning of the song. When he asks me what the first song is about, I tell him I’m glad to share what I think it’s about, and he is amused: What I *think* it’s about? I wrote it, so wouldn’t I know? And I say that I believe art, like a child, does not belong to the originator. It’s just put into initial shape by it and then released, to make its own impressions and have its own influence on the world. Lee ponders this briefly, with the same thoughtfulness he puts into anything we discuss. I think he agrees.
Lee encourages me to record my songs using high-quality equipment or at least process recordings with high-quality software. I ask what’s the point of making the high-quality recordings. Lee says he would love to share these songs with his friends, which is a big compliment: Lee is a professional singer, making his living from touring his Christian rock band around the country and singing. I tell him I’ve been thinking about doing open mic for a long time, and he says Go for it. I tell Lee about this fantasy I’ve been carrying around for many years, in which I choose to become a professional musician. There have been a few crossroads at which I had only made a serious effort toward one unlikely source of income (my post-doc, my position at the counseling center at Penn, my independent work at my Center). Every time I half-wish it won’t work out, so I can go be a musician with a clean conscience. Every time it works out, and I end up not being a musician. Lee laughs.
But in the end, it’s not about whether or not I have another source of income. It’s about bigger questions, like What’s a helpful way of spending my time? Who would I be helping by being a musician? My music, I think, is mostly about my own enjoyment. When I go play in the streets, with my guitar and my amplifier and my sign saying “ALL DONATIONS GO TO THE PENINSULA SPCA”, it’s really mostly about my wanting to play in the streets and feel appreciated for it; that by-passers enjoy it for a minute or that I raise $40 for the SPCA is secondary.
But Lee makes me rethink all this. When I sing for him a portion of a song I am working on, with one verse about a hungry mosquito who is unable to reach some backpackers in a tent (and who becomes understandably frustrated as a result), Lee ponders this scene aloud for a few minutes. He had never considered the perspective of the mosquito, he says, he only ever thought of them as pests. He expands this quickly into a bigger thought about the meaning of our suffering, the way in which his passing discomfort can mean someone else’s dinner. I’m a bit surprised by all this, not so much because this wasn’t the meaning I had in mind when writing the song, but because it doesn’t occur to me that someone wouldn’t realize the mosquito is hungry. For the rest of the time we spend together that day, some of which in the midst of a small cloud of mosquitos, Lee makes a conscious effort not to smack them, and instead blows on them, as I do. He even explains all this to his fiance, who later joins us. I am sincerely moved by his openness to new ideas, by his willingness to embrace such a radically new way of thinking.
Lee sings for me a couple of his songs, including a song he has written for Hillary, for their wedding. I am moved by the song, which is about Lee’s love for Hillary. The song begins with a description of fiery love and a hope to do right by one’s beloved, and ends with a calmer love and a knowledge that one can only do right by his beloved. It is a powerful sentiment, this certainty of taking care of the other, and I am caught by surprise when, a few minutes later, Lee shares his concern about marriage. It’s a big commitment, he says, to take someone on to be your number one priority, to have to make every decision together with her, and with her in mind, to try and put her ahead of oneself. And I am again confused – first, because Lee’s song expressed this ability and this tendency so perfectly; second, because at this point in my life it is impossible for me to imagine anything but putting one’s beloved ahead of oneself. And yet in every relationship I’ve been in so far, I was not able to do this fully, to the extent that I’ve always considered ideal and correct – it was always a matter of finding a way to coexist while taking care of both of our needs and wishes, especially when it comes to professional or community needs, an understanding that we will do our best to compromise and support but all the while keeping our own individual priorities in mind. Two separate people, living together. And nowadays, I am back to my 14-year-old innocent and perfect confidence that taking care of the beloved is the automatic wish, a source of joy, a gift willingly given that gives more joy to the giver than to the recipient.
Lee find a new way to compliment me indirectly by asking what experiences I’ve had that made me become the kind of person I am – creative, entrepreneurial (or, as I sometimes put it, having difficulty with authority, constitutionally incapable of doing work I don’t find inherently meaningful). I think hard. My mother, of course, immediately comes to mind. I don’t remember her ever telling me anything like “you can be whatever you choose to be,” but she also never expressed any doubts, and never set any real limits. When I became interested in Dungeons and Dragons, in fourth grade, she bought me the first set (the red one, levels 1-3). My friends and I blew right through it (you just slaughter a few kobolds, heedless of the moral ambiguities of this endeavor, and you are well on your way to level 4), and it was time to get the next set (blue). There was one hitch: Only the first set had been translated into Hebrew at that point. So I told my mom I’d like to translate the second set, so my friends and I could play. She bought me the second set, and I sat down with my English-Hebrew Oxford Dictionary and pestered her with questions about words I didn’t understand (to this day, I’m still not sure how to translate “wilderness” into Hebrew). This went on with a series of dubious endeavors (the least likely was probably the monthly column I wrote for a national kids’ magazine when I was 12 or so), which must have slowly solidified my belief that I can do most things I commit myself to. I do remember asking my mother, when I was about 13, about owning real estate: How rental income can be used to pay the mortgage, and if there’s something left over, another property can be bought. She agreed with my logic, but was skeptical of the notion. Years later, I owned rental property before she did. But we were always friends, my mom and I, she was always the coolest parent around, my friends envied me for my cool mom and my relationship with her. And I never felt neglected or parentless – she was there, she provided me with everything I needed, including the sense that she respected my ability to think for myself and never questioned endeavors I took on. I think that made a huge difference. I think I owe most of my self to my mother.
Lee nods thoughtfully, as always. I ask him what made him the way he is. He thinks for a while and then says his mother was also a big influence, as she is very artistic and has encouraged him to be artistic, too. But then he talks about his experiences in school. How he used to be really into basketball, and then another boy, tall and handsome and successful at every sport he tried, made fun of Lee (today we would call him a bully) to the point that Lee dropped basketball altogether. And Lee recalled an especially painful teasing that left him so upset he nearly decided not to go to a spoken word / poetry slam session he had intended to. But he made himself go anyway, and his rush at realizing he was able to move people, to express himself, to be powerful through words, made him commit wholeheartedly to poetry and art. Lee then remembers teachers. One who, in fifth grade, told Lee that he shared an essay Lee wrote with his friends, who did not believe it was written by a 5th grader. Lee remembered the kernel of confidence this created in him, a belief in his own writing ability that allowed him to dig deeper and keep producing, keep improving. That same teacher, years later, catching Lee fighting with another boy at school, told Lee sadly that he was disappointed in Lee, expected so much more of him; Lee remembers the shame he felt. That was the last time Lee was involved in a physical fight. Lee also remembered another teacher, who gave a writing assignment that Lee worked on harder than anything he had worked on, weaving together ideas from multiple disciplines. The teacher did not bother grading the paper, and instead informed Lee that the paper did not address the question that was posed. Lee discovered then that he was confident in his own writing and in his own way of thinking, that he cared not at all about the teacher’s opinion. Happily, this incident happened some years after the first teacher had cultivated self-confidence in Lee’s heart. This one-two punch of confidence in self and dismissal of unjust critique has been serving Lee for many years.
How much power we have over one another, over the ways we view ourselves, the way we value ourselves. How great is our ability to instill self-confidence or self-hatred.
Hillary joins us after a while, and we all sing together. We know few of the same songs. I, the Israeli, know a bunch of old-timey songs that Lee is familiar with (but doesn’t know the lyrics to) and Hillary rarely recognizes – songs like Where Have All The Flowers Gone and You’ve Got a Friend. Still, their phone provides the lyrics and Hillary’s ears are good and her voice is better and she picks up the tunes readily enough. When we are done singing, we go up the street and I buy everybody bubble tea – Lee has never had any, but he likes it. We sit and sip and talk and Hillary turns out to speak Chinese and Arabic and Spanish, as she was planning on doing missionary work, but never got to travel and put these languages into practice. I am again surprised by how comfortable I am with their religiosity – it never comes up as religiosity when we speak, it’s just humming in the background as part of them being good people, and I enjoy them so much that anything about them is good as far as I’m concerned. They are patient as I show them the animations I made for the physician training. We talk a little about their wedding plans, about their search for a house, about the possibility of them coming to the bay area for a visit. When we are preparing to part, Lee asks if it’s okay if they pray for me, and I say sure, and add: What can I be wishing for you? Lee and Hillary look at each other and Lee says that it would be great if I could keep Hillary in mind as she has been having some problems with her stomach, and I say that I will – and I mean it.
Lee then, sensitively as always, asks if it’s okay if they pray right now, and I surprise myself again by saying Yes, of course. So we stand there, on the corner of 34th and Chestnut Street, a little ways from the Starbucks, in a circle made of three people, bowing our heads as Lee prays with great sincerity. He prays to our heavenly father, thanking him for this time with me, asking him that my work in helping people by nicer to other people be successful, asking him also to help me with sharing my music with others. Amen. And I am very moved, standing there with Lee and Hillary, by the simple and deep conviction with which Lee prays, by his well wishes toward me. In the moments and days to come, I find myself wondering how I can bring this manner of blessing into my own life, both as I wish things for others privately, and as I share my well-wishes with others. There is something easy about the ability to address a third party to bear witness to my good will, to implore it to help the person in front of me. It’s harder to do this on my own, to simply tell myself “I hope she feels better”. There is a satisfaction in telling someone, to their face, “may you be happy” or a more mundane “I really hope this goes well for you”, but it doesn’t carry quite the same force. To hope for something, to wish for something, is different from being an active participant in the actualization of this thing-that-is-hoped-for, even if only by serving as a petitioner on behalf of someone. Since I do not have the ability to bless someone directly or to confer benefits such as good health, happiness, or success in cooking a tasty meal, I imagine it would be much more satisfying to advocate for someone’s well-being than to simply hope, in a passive way, that someone will be well.
A scene from the Lord of the Rings comes to mind (the book, not the movie – but maybe this was in the movie too, in between the scenes of people fighting and the scenes of more people fighting). As the protagonists arrive at the doors to the mines of Moria, they realize that Sam’s pony, Bill, cannot enter with them. The ever-sensitive hobbits are upset: How will the poor little pony survive, in this land that is filled with evil and pony-eaters in every direction? Gandalf, the senior wizard, walks up to the pony, draws himself to his (surprisingly tall) full height, and says something like: “Go back, and may you be safe on your journey.” He then turns to the rest and says something like “There, I have done all that is in my power to help him, and his chances are as good as any of us.” I used to think of this scene with envy. Along with healing by laying of the hands, I would wish dearly that I had the power to bestow safety on others. To me, this scene used to be about Gandalf the wizard bestowing safety on others. But now I wonder. Perhaps Gandalf was cynical, in the true, exhausted, jaded sense of the word. Perhaps he literally meant that wishing the pony well was the best he could do, and that everybody’s chance of success was equally abysmal (going into the mines did not turn well for our brave band of heroes). And so maybe I am more like Gandalf than I had realized in some respects, since I do wish very much good things for those I love, and sometimes even for those I don’t, but I am painfully aware of my inability to back up my wishes with any kind of true influence. Which makes praying to a powerful third party very enticing.
Happy birthday, Lee. May you be happy.