I’d come in to Elihu’s room to say goodnight. Although I hadn’t planned on reading to him (the night before I’d read Oscar Wilde’s very amusing “The Canterville Ghost”), I had a feeling there’d be no short goodnight. There almost never is. Elihu always has something on his mind. And tonite, I must say, he surprised me. He was lying on his side in the dark room, facing the wall. ‘You know, I just don’t get it. It seems most people miss the very reason for their lives.’ Huh? I thought. Where is this one going? I put my hand on his shoulder and asked if he could tell me what he meant by that. He responded in a slightly agitated tone. ‘One should always acknowledge the present before moving on to the future’. I waited. Did I just hear him correctly? Elihu often came up with things that had me second guessing what I’d thought I’d heard him saying. ‘What do you mean, honey?’ I asked. ‘I’m not going to repeat it’ he said in frustration. ‘You heard me.’ Ok. He wasn’t in a great mood, but clearly he had something weighing heavy on his mind that he wanted expressed and out before he could sleep. So I waited.
‘Why is everyone so modest?’ he asked, but before I could ask what it was that he meant by that, he continued…. ‘If someone is good at something, then why don’t they just admit it? Why does everyone seem to feel they can’t be successful at something? They’re missing the lessons they’re supposed to learn if they don’t just admit when they succeed!’ He sounded almost angry. Now I was able to ask him to help me understand him better. He went on to explain that he thought that before someone gave up on a hobby or a field of study he should pause first to assess all that he’s learned thus far. He said that he though everyone ‘in this culture’ was always in a hurry to move onto something new. He lamented that people seemed to be hard-pressed to celebrate their accomplishments and enjoy them. He wanted to know why it wasn’t accepted in our culture to admit that you were good at something. He cited this phenom kid banjo player he’d jammed with on the street the other night. Clearly this kid was more than just good. But when Elihu’d told Nathan he was good, Nathan just replied ‘I’m alright’. I offered that it’s never been – as far as I’d known – accepted in polite culture to flat out accept such praise without some degree of modesty. I also explained the idea of false modesty, and how that wasn’t really a great alternative either. ‘I think most people have a hard time admitting when they’re good at something.’ I offered. ‘Maybe the best way to accept a compliment and be polite too is just to say ‘thank you’. That way you’re accepting the truth, you’re enjoying your success, but at the same time you’re not being too full of yourself. I think Nathan will be more comfortable simply saying ‘thanks’ when he’s a bit older.’ Elihu was quiet for a moment. ‘Yeah. Guess saying thank you is the best thing to do.’ More quiet. ‘But I still think it’s very important to acknowledge when you’re good at something. To accept when you’ve done something well. Because if you don’t, you’re missing the lesson.’
Goodnight had become an occasion for pause and reflection to be sure. As we lay there in the dark, just staring up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling, I think we both found a tiny bit of closure to the day. I was lost in my own thoughts, trying to make mental notes in order to recall our conversation later, so that his bedtime wisdom might not be lost, but he was clearly still following the trajectory of his initial musing. ‘Ok, please don’t get mad with me, but can you repeat what it was that you first said just now?’ I asked him. He sighed, but he obliged me: ‘If you don’t acknowledge the present before moving on to the future – you miss the whole point of things. And that’s all I’m going to say.’ I repeated it several times over in my head before leaning in to kiss him. ‘I love you so, Mommy’ he said, looking into my eyes by the dim closet light. We hugged again, tightly, and in my heart I thanked him for choosing me. ‘I really love my present. Don’t you?’ I asked. ‘Yeah. I do.’
I got up to leave the room. As I shut the door I saw him turn to the wall again. He put his arms around his giant stuffed macaw, and he sighed.
Post Script – here’s a link to some video shot this past weekend on Travers Day in Saratoga Spring, NY, of Elihu sitting in with tenor guitarist Jesse Rock and banjo player Nathan Hanna… so much fun!
One thought on “Present for Good Night”
Just shared that video on my facebook page and wrote this comment to go with it:
“Wow, check out this little dude on the djembe. He’s sitting in with a couple of older but very accomplished kids on banjo and guitar and totally holds his own. He really listens, doesn’t wank it up and serves the song first. These are not common qualities even among incredibly talented prodigies or even adult musicians for that matter. And he’s only 10 years old. This is the kind of musician I like playing with.”
As for the modesty thing…I think we are all exposed to the very best in every field now via the internet…we know how much better we all could be…so we get a compliment and think, well thanks but really, I’m just all right…I mean compared to (insert genius, best there ever was here). I bet this kid loves Bela Fleck or someone like that and is aiming for that level of excellence…so to him…he himself is really, just all right. I mean I know I’m good at what I do and no one else can be me any better…but today I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s “Another Self Portrait” which is outtakes and alternate takes of stuff from “Self Portrait” and “New Morning”…stuff from 1969-70 that is blowing my mind…and you know, while I love what I do and I’m good at it…I’m also, you know….all right.