At the age of eight my father was murdered. My thinking like a child was essentially over. It was innocence lost and never regained. I may have acted like a child, but my thought process had drastically changed. I was no longer attracted to the trappings of childhood. I wanted something more, something meaningful, something to make the world whole again. I just had no clue how to find the path to get there.
I started hanging out, whenever possible, with my friends The Moore’s. They were a family of seven, of whom three were musicians. Our mothers both worked at a local hospital and they were close friends. The Moore’s had experienced their own heartbreaks with the divorce of their parents, so seeing the three Moore brothers, John, Keith and Pat, play music together taught me the wisdom of a community. The Moore brothers were older than me and a band seemed like safety in numbers. My two brothers were not musicians, but they loved and played a variety of music for me constantly. My brothers were mentors to me and encouraged me in the navigating of life.
Wanting to grow up quickly, I sought a broader experience beyond being a spectator. Seeing musicians like Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers and B.B. King galvanized me into playing, singing, and eventually writing Blues songs. Blues is a music of experience and a way to accept the variances of those experiences. Blues is a music to grow old with and I wanted desperately to get older. I wanted to leave the pain of childhood behind.
A foolish thought. Pain never goes away. It just changes with experience and the love of good people.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew that music was my pathway to communicating my personal version of pain and transcendence. I had started to meet older Bluesmen at Blues/Folk festivals and at a Folk music club, Ramblin’ Conrads, in my home town of Norfolk, VA. Meeting and talking with legendary acoustic Bluesmen like Sleepy John Estes, John Jackson, Bukka White, Furry Lewis, Johnny Shines and Roy Bookbinder, among others, lead me to appreciate the principle of aging with humor and dignity. When I found like-minded musicians, I moved into playing electric Blues. Playing the Blues in bands brought me back to the community of watching the Moore brothers play music. By the time I hit my late teen’s, I had started building my own community.
Whether I was talking to them one on one or actually being lucky enough to share a stage with them, I have been blessed with many literal and figurative musical elders. That has included folks like Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, John Lee Hooker, Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Johnny Copeland, Duane and Gregg Allman, Bo Diddley, Thomas Parker, Mac Arnold, Bob Margolin, Tinsley Ellis and Willie “Big Eye” Smith, to name only a few. I cherish my many interactions with historical Blues figures that taught me some strong life application lessons. Lessons on how to cry and laugh at the same time. These mentors were where I first developed a healthy respect for age and experience. My continued interactions as a journeyman Blues musician continues to nurture that respect.
On a seminal basis, my Mother Jean always taught me to respect the elderly and to listen intently to their conversation. To paraphrase Job 12:12, “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old.”
Mom said things like, “Everyone has a story to share. You never should interrupt an older person when they are speaking. They have earned the right to be listened to. If you are not careful, your mouth may make you miss a moment.”
My mother taught me to be a proficient listener. She is my paragon of wisdom. I owe her everything and I cherish our conversations. Crucially, my Mother raised me as a Christian. She taught me that God is always present and available through prayer. Prayer separates the moments of life from the points of the madness that can destroy us. My mother reminded me, sometimes without success, to be humble. At the age of 60, I now realize that true humility is the constant process of growing and learning.
The lessons taught to me by my Mother and the experience and wisdom of the Bible and the Blues taught me to truly appreciate the elderly. An appreciation that goes beyond surface interactions and stilted conversation.
These days it disturbs me that America is starting to lose its respect for our elderly. We ignore them, take them for granted and look through them as if the elderly were just a minor distraction in our illusionary field of vision.
We have forgotten to listen to our elders. How did that happen?
There seems to be a welcome sign leading up to the church of the almighty me. The church that people continuously find and cling to is their phone or tablet. We no longer have one on one conversation or personal fellowship now that we have that phone. People are transforming into cyber zombies searching for that amusing post, tweet or text. They are blankly staring at that glowing screen like it was some sacred tablet of truth in a lost temple.
Technology, has all but replaced reading, writing and speaking well. You would think that innovations would stimulate intelligence, not so. Technology, like cell phones, is dumbing us down. They take the detail out of the written and spoken word. It is not only the millennials that face the consequences of this dimming of intelligence, but folks from my generation also. Technology, when not used in a balanced manner, isolates us from our fellow man. This non-inclusive embrace of technology alienates our elderly who were raised on real conversations.
Fortunately, we still have active readers, speakers, writers and thinkers in the fabric of our society. It is time for America to start respecting our elderly like the ancient cultures of our collective history. We need to pay more practical attention to the weaker strata of our society, our elderly, our children and our displaced people. Kindness and compassion need not be arcane principles of a past society.
Sometimes kindness and compassion are merely simple points of attention and service.
Let me give you an example.
Like most journeymen musicians and writers, I have had to work various full and part time jobs to supplement the cost of creating. Sometimes, my income has been strictly from music, sometimes not. A couple of years back, I was lucky enough to get a job in a small community grocery store in the town where I now reside. Lucky, for a variety of reasons.
First of all, though it is part of a large South-East chain of branded stores, the store size is like the neighborhood stores of my youth. Easy to navigate. I have worked as a Cashier, stocked in the Produce department and now work as a Customer Lead. The folks I work with are exceptional human beings with their own dreams and struggles. But my favorite part of the job is serving the elderly customer.
The faces of the elderly inform my soul. Every wrinkle is a tale of dignity that I actively listen to. A continuing reminder that not all education comes from an institution. Sometimes the most profound education comes from a story from that elderly customer. It is a point of honor to help someone who needs basic help like getting their groceries to their car or just taking the time to listen to them.
Sometimes these customers mention they say they saw me on some television program talking about a Benghazi issue. They do me honor with their support. But the real honor is making a few moments of their life easier. Many of the elderly I have contact with are a true map on how to handle the variances of aging with humor and soul. Something as simple as saying thank you for your business and counting back their change puts a smile on my older customers faces.
Take Evelyn, for example. Evelyn is 92 and still does her own driving and shopping. While coming to work, I will see Evelyn walk around the neighborhood carrying an oversized purse. Inside the purse is Evelyn’s cat Thomas. I always stop and talk with her and Thomas. Evelyn is more than a customer. She is a living example on how to live this life to the hilt. Well read and well traveled, I respect Evelyn and her relationship with life immensely. She, Thomas, and I are friends. She has asked me to take care of Thomas if he outlasts her. I will do so, if that is her wish.
That is only one example of the many interactions that I have during a work day at my neighborhood grocery store with the elderly. I am a journeyman Bluesman, but I am also a journeyman human being. I am still capable of having my heart opened up and filled. I advise, whenever possible, the teenaged employees to stop and listen to the elderly, to engage them, to learn lessons they will not learn from staring at a phone.
So in closing, embrace the lessons of elder wisdom. There is always a path of understanding that is open for us to walk on and always an older teacher to learn from on this path. We are taught in the Holy Bible to respect our elders. As Jimi Hendrix so aptly said “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”