Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Importance of Character(s)

Just about twenty years ago, when I was 13, an old Irish musician took me aside to give me some advice about playing in an upcoming music competition. Eager to learn from the wisdom of one of the masters, I focused my attention on his words.

Ryan, Tom said, looking directly into my eyes, when you get up to play at the competition, it's just you up there playing. When you get up there, you won't be playing with Jackie. When you get up there, you won't be playing with Timmy. When you get up there, you just have to play with yourself. 

Another memory: I remember coming home excitedly one night from a music lesson with my main music teacher, Tom Hastings. Dad! Tom gave me a compliment tonight: He told me that I was piece of work.

Then there's the story, now enshrined in family lore, of my grandmother's response when the driver of the car called attention to a group of homeless men gathered outside of a local shelter. With great indignation, she shot back: How do you know they're homosexuals? When it was clarified that the observation was about the homeless, and not the word "homos," she admonished the driver to speak more clearly because she wouldn't stand for anyone to be made fun of in the car.

My mind reaches back to my first year of regency when a second-semester senior walked into my classroom under the pretense of giving me a note. Interrupting myself mid-sentence, I turned to receive the note from him...but there was no note. Instead, he reached up and grabbed the white collar tab from my shirt and ran out into the hall. I did, of course, what any mature adult would do: I ran after him and tackled him through a set of double doors and wrestled my white tab back from him. A few days later, he tried this again (boys are dumb, of course). I was quite prepared for him. One of the freshmen held the door shut as I drenched him with a super-soaker squirt gun I had concealed from student view.

Once, when I was running the book buy-back, I became acutely aware that all of my student helpers had gone missing. Totally perplexed, I went off in search of them. They weren't hard to find: about twenty of them had gathered in my office, with the lights off, and were watching The Princess Bride on my computer using a Netflix account. The office smelled like twenty young men who were crammed into an office, too. Since it's a movie I like, too, I did wait a few moments before flipping the switch and sending them back to work.

Even as a high school student, there was something transfixing about watching the members of the Jesuit community process in for the all-school celebration of the Eucharist. Each one was, among the student body, wholly (in)famous. One loved to lift weights and had the best one-line retorts to sophomores; another was reputed to speak two dozen languages; a third was rumored to have been filmed as an extra in The Exorcist. These were three-dimensional men, men of passion and humor, wit and wisdom.

Last night, as I was walking to my weekly seisiun to play Irish music last night, I stared up at the cloud-flecked sky and remembered so many of the characters who have been a part of my life. Each of these persons - characters in the best sense of the word - contributed to my own character: my life has been shaped and formed by their lives. My character, in some faint way, bears the traces of their character, of these characters.

I think it important, and wholly worthwhile, to reflect sometimes upon the various characters who have come into our lives and left us changed in some way. Rather than taking for granted the past, we can use the story of our lives as a sort of contemplative text. We may "re-read" our lives and be grateful for those who have come into our lives, be grateful for what they have contributed to us, be grateful for how we have grown because of them. Even when time and death and separated us from one another, their voices linger on in our voices, their lives continue on in our lives.

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