Here’s a confession. Sometimes in San Francisco if I want to go to the movies with a friend, I can’t think of who to call. Yet in my travels around the country, indeed, the world, I meet with friends and am so uplifted by the depth of our conversation, connection and conviviality. People who I don’t text or e-mail very often, but the moment we’re together is the next moment of the last time we were together, be it ten months, ten years or even more.
For example, 50 years ago I stepped out of a car at a school in the North Carolina mountains where I came to work for six months. Anticipating my arrival, several middle school kids came up and warmly greeted me, including one 12-year old girl with a captivating smile who announced, “Hi. I’m Ralf!”
In the short time we were together, Ralf and I became best buddies, laughing at the same jokes, playing music together with recorders and guitars, talking about the books we loved in the library and cracking up over one titled, “My Darling, My Hamburger.” We decided that Groundhog’s Day would be our mutual most important holiday and often over the years that followed, would wish each other a happy day when that holiday came around.
Ralf moved around a bit after graduating 8th grade from that school and came to San Francisco in the last semester of her senior year in high school. There we re-connected and I went on weekly walks with her bouncing a rubber ball and sharing my favorite spots in the city. She later confessed that this was a difficult time in her life and my effortless enjoyment of our time together ended up giving her some needed comfort and encouragement.
In the 40 plus years that followed, I’ve seen her maybe ten times and the last time may have been as long as 8 or 9 years ago. So when I asked if I could visit her on my way to a workshop I’ll be teaching some two hours away from her Charlottesville home, she happily agreed and generously offered her house. Within the first five minutes of the car ride from the airport, it became clear what I suspected— here we were again, so instantly connected and at ease in each other’s company. We sang a few songs last night and played some piano/guitar pieces, caught up on mutual friends and let the conversation unfold naturally, as it often has when we’re together. At 63 years old, she’s one of the older people whose relationship with me began as teacher/student, but even way back then, her 12, me 21, it never felt like a formal relationship.
Today we both shared our mutual love of walking in the woods and took a beautiful path that landed us at Jefferson’s Monticello. We didn’t take the tour (but will tomorrow) and the conversation naturally turned to politics and justice and race and we both discovered that the same book, Manchild in the Promised Land, opened up new understandings for both of us, revealing what the culture then was trying to hide or dismiss— and is at it again. Ralf became a 3rd grade teacher, like me, now retired, like me, loved working with kids and trying to teach them what they actually need to know to be a functioning citizen, a decent human being and a happy person.
Back at her house, two guitarists and a fiddle player came over for over two hours of jamming to old jazz tunes, me on piano, Ralf (who everyone else knows as Julie) also on guitar. The music was flowing and the air charged with the happiness of the Great American Songbook. From there, we walked to downtown and had dinner with another music teacher student of mine who I taught 20 years ago in Salzburg and her 10-year old son. The highlight was teaching the boy how to pop leaves and get an explosive sound, a unique skill I cultivated in my New Jersey childhood. Few people can do it, but he persisted and started to get it! My first disciple. Bid farewell to them and strolled down the lovely carless promenade of this impressive city, dipping into two bookstores and enjoying an ice cream on a perfect temperature summer night.
Seven miles of walking later, we got back to her house, where she showed me two fantastic magic tricks, her son’s impressive culinary Youtube videos of food in Bangkok. I shared my daughter’s writing about raising children in a toxic culture and a few videos related to my jazz, Joy and Justice book due to be printed tomorrow (fingers crossed). I taught her how to play the card game King’s Corner, she brought out some of her favorite games, we went to her book shelves where she had arranged her most influential books in the order they came into her life. All of this in one day!
Reading, walking, teaching, music, caring about justice, deep conversation and humorous banter, alongside the memorable stories of our shared history— so many points of connection, so effortless, so satisfying. I’ve felt the same kind of instant connecting with others I see once in a blue moon—my college friend Gretchen from Maine, my Orff friend Rodrigo from Germany, Debby in Vancouver, Margie and Paul in Australia, Kofi and Prosper in Ghana. It’s a long list and forgive me if any of you on that list are reading this without seeing your name!
But you’re probably not, as our kinship is not based on reading what I write, but knowing in our bones how much we simply enjoy each other. So thank you, Ralf, for today’s blessing and looking forward to yet more tomorrow.