My nephew, Ben, turns twenty today.
On the wall next to the staircase in our house is our “Wall of Fame,” filled with pictures of friends and family, each photograph holding a different story. One of my favorites is now about ten years old. Ben, his brother Tim (sometimes called Scott), and I are all standing together in roller blades about to take off down the skating trail in San Diego. I’ve got another of just Ben and me that’s now nineteen years old. I went to visit Ben and his family in Akron, Ohio and they took me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’m holding Ben and he’s wearing his Cleveland Browns jersey. He has very little hair on his wonderfully round head (wait – that’s how I look now) and his eyes are wide with wonder and expectation.
The way life has rolled out, Ben and I have not had a lot of time together in the course of our lives. We have stayed connected, but have not known much about the details of one another’s existence until the last couple of years. So, even though I don’t have any good recent photographs of the two of us together, I feel closer to him than I ever have and that is thanks, largely, to the common love we have for good music.
Whenever Ben, Tim, and I have occasion to send a gift to one another, we send CDs. For a couple of Christmases we even gave each other the same records without knowing it ahead of time. This past Christmas, I tore off the wrapping paper to find a cigar box. Inside the box was this note:
“Uncle Milton, our gift to you this Christmas may be a very dangerous one! These four albums have the biggest affect on us in almost all our music, all done by the same guy – Mark Kozelek. We know you’ll love them! It may take some time (although we know it won’t), but give them a good chance because he’s the man. We love you so much Uncle Milton! We wish that we could walk to the beach with you and hang out.
Love, Tim and Ben”
How often do you get dangerous gifts for Christmas that aren’t a Red Ryder BB gun? (And Mark Kozelek is the man.)
I called Ben yesterday to wish him a happy birthday and we had a great, long talk. I was trying to make sure he didn’t have the CDs Ginger and I wanted to send, so I asked if he had any Patty Griffin.
“Scott and I just found her;” he said; “she’s amazing.”
Our conversation turned to her lyrics and her ability to infuse simple words with profound truth and emotion. Here, for example, is the opening verse of “The Rowing Song”:
as I row, row, row
going so slow, slow, slow
just down below me is the old sea
just down below me is the old sea
The melody is haunting, and she’s crafting a picture with words not so different from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Then comes the next line:
the further I go,
more letters from home
She breaks your heart never using more than two syllables. Ben and I talked about the power in her songwriting. I went on to mention my favorite Patty Griffin lyric, in a song called “It Don’t Come Easy.”
I began the line, “If you break down, I’ll drive out and find you.”
He finished it: “If you forget my love, I’m there to remind you.”
And we were both quiet for a moment.
When you start to doubt that you exist, God believes in you
Confounded by the evidence, God believes in you
When your light burns so dim, when your chances seem so slim
And you swear you don’t believe in him, God believes in you
When you rise up just to fall again, God believes in you
Deserted by your closest friends, God believes in you
When you’re betrayed with a kiss, you turn your cheek to another fist
It dose not have to end like this, God believes in you
Oh everything matters if anything matters at all
Everything matters no matter how big, no matter how small
Oh God believes in you, God believes in you
When you’re so ashamed that you could die, God believes in you
And you can’t do right even though you try, God believes in you
Blessed are the ones who grieve, the ones who mourn, the ones who bleed
In sorrow you sow but in joy you reap, God believes in you
Ben is no longer hairless or round-headed (as I am), yet he still has a heart full of wonder and expectation. I look forward to seeing how the story of his life continues to unfold, and am excited that I get to contribute to the soundtrack, among other things.
When I was his age, my connection to family was kept alive, mostly, by my aunt, Pegi, who would not let me go. At a time when I could only push away, she kept reminding me I could not afford to break the bonds that created me. She was right. Family ties are better these days and I’m caught in the wonderful irony that now my nephews are key players in feeding my sense of belonging in my family of origin and contributing to my soundtrack as well. It’s just like Pierce says:
let your love cover me
like a pair of angel wings
you are my family
you are my family
I wish I’d known Ben better when he was four, or nine, or thirteen; I didn’t. But we know each other now and I look forward to the days to come when we will put on some good music, tell each other what we missed, and dream about what has yet to be.
Happy birthday, Ben.