Remembering and honoring the great Bill Withers

On March 30,  2020 the world lost one of its wisest voices, singer and songwriter Bill Withers.

Withers passed away from heart complications at the ripe age of 81, having lived a life that allowed his life’s wisdom to reach the entire world through the power of music and the magic of his soulful voice.

His memorable hits remembered by many include “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” “Use Me,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and of course his timeless original “Lean on Me.” That timeless classic gave him the freedom to walk away from the music business and live a different life after 1980, after making nine studio albums in nine short years. His final hit, before he grew disillusioned with the music industry, was “Just the Two of Us.”

For me, the emotional depths Withers can find with the simplest chords on a guitar in “Hope She’ll Be Happier” is a testament to the power of music to touch someone’s soul.

And like so many, I am now turning to “Lean on Me,” from his second album, Still Bill. It provides an anchor as I search for light amid our global COVID-19 pandemic. The day I learned of his death, I played his masterpiece all night. I wrote to a friend, “Still chills. Decades go by, and it’s all I’ve got. I needed this song today more than ever. It carried me back to my humanity.”

Withers is an American original, shaped by his humble, poor beginnings and the knowledge of lived experience that he channeled into his music that found an audience the world over. “I could have done better, but I did alright,” is how he summed up his musical career, the perfect understatement of a true artist.

Born in 1938, Withers was the youngest of six children. During a 2014 interview, he said his mother actually had 13 kids, and high infant mortality took its toll. His family lived in a coal mining community called Slab Forks, West Virginia, which was literally racially segregated by railroad tracks.

Long after Withers had become successful and stopped performing, he said his early and impoverished years that he had little control over likely exposed him to health issues that caught up with him later. He said as a child, he and his family ate every part of the hog but the holler. That is a classic West Virgnia line.

Despite the inherent racism his family experienced during his formative years, his father became a respected United Mineworkers treasurer while working in the coal mines. His life as a miner, Withers later shared, led to his premature death when Withers turned 13.

Despite these hardships, Withers also saw a type of communal bond that later informed his world view and his songwriting. When interviewed by a West Virginia TV program in 2007 about historic racism in West Virginia, he responded, “When you’re coming out of a coal mine, everyone’s black”.

Withers later lived with his mother and grandmother, the latter became the inspiration for his hit “Grandma’s Hands.”

Withers was determined to leave his poor upbringing in Appalachia and escape the life in the mines that left many men unhealthy in their later years.

He joined the U.S. Navy and learned to become an aviation mechanic. He was discharged and then lived in California, working in factories, including for Ford and Weber Aircraft on assembly lines. Those years as an assembly worker taught him about working together and caring for his fellow worker, he would later tell reporters.

While working he bought a guitar at a pawn shop and taught himself to play, while songwriting. He began to share his tapes and pursue his dream of making it.

In interviews in his later years, after he left the business, he described “Lean on Me” as a product of a small, poor town, where you had to lean on others to get through hard times. He said that song could never have been written by someone from a big city, like London or New York. It’s a song from a smaller place.

When the news broke on Friday of his death, and I dug into his songs, I found there was far more to this man than I ever knew. And the more I knew, the more I realized how profoundly thoughtful he was about life. I realized how much of a Stoic he was, in a classical and advanced sense, and how there are people with whom you share spiritual and philosophical kinship, across time, space, race, and life experience.

One of my favorite lines I heard from his interviews was, ”We all become the composite of the places we’ve been and the people we’ve met.” So true, that.

He talked about the way we speak to others and our decorum come from the basic manners we learned from those who have raised us, regardless of where we’re from or our class. He also spoke about this simple stuff, and what camradarie was like in his home state.

As I mused about his life, I wrote this passage on my Facebook feed, after listening to his wonderful 2014 interview with the radio show Death, Sex, and Money: “If I could go back in time right now, and speak to my 15-year-old and very immature self, I would give myself a recording of this amazing interview with the late Bill Withers about living a meaningful life, how to be a real man as he understood it (without toxic masculine swagger, but with love and compassion), and finding one’s place in the world. This may not be the wisdom others would need, but I probably could have benefited from it. One of the most important male figures in his life was a slightly crippled man named virgil, who was also a hunchback. It was Virgil’s wise words that helped Withers overcome his own disability when he was 30 (a stutter).”

Unlike many singer songwriters, Withers never needed the ego gratification performing on the stage. He described himself as the type of kid who might be in the corner, reading a comic book not the one dancing for attention the moment someone entered the room. You can see that in his performances, where he sits on a stool, closes his eyes, strums his simple chords, and then unleashes the ferocity of his voice that comes from the human soul.

 

Toward the end of his life, he never lost perspective. You could see that in his 2015 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His stage presence conveyed, “Sure, whatever, folks. There’s more important stuff than this stage spectacle. Have a good time. I’m all good.”

In his interviews, Withers also described the difference between music and the music business. Everyone should do music, he emphasized, because of what music brings to the world. He said, when the big fat lady gets up in church and sings from her soul, that’s music, but ain’t nobody gonna pay her a dime.

Amen, indeed.

I will miss you, Bill Withers. We have lost a poet, artist, and force for humanity. I assure you, your wisdom will help all of us through the dark days of ahead:

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Thank you, Bill Withers, for showing us the way.

Saying Goodbye

In December 2019, my mom began her stay at the Barnes-Jewish Extended Care facility in Clayton, Missouri. The place is close to my stepfather, who decided at last to put her into a care home. He has been my mother’s primary and dutiful caregiver for years. The decision was entirely his alone to make.

He felt good about the facility and its staff. It is partially owned and managed by the most respected medical system in metro St. Louis — Barnes and Jewish Hospital.

I first arrived at my mom’s new and likely final home on the first night of my four-day trip in late January 2020. I had flown out from my current home on the West Coast, in Portland. My plan was simple: spend as much time as I could with my ailing mother.

From the outside, the place looked remarkably plain, testifying to its focus on function. The three-story brick building has a gated courtyard and no fancy design features. It mostly resembles thousands of other care homes, where families, loved ones, and our society place our sickest, frailest, and oldest residents to live out their final days and die, hidden from public view.

My trip here also marked the final arc of my family’s life, not far from where we spent our early years together. Over the course of four days, I visited my mom daily, spending a couple hours each day with her.

My mom turned 83 last fall. When I came, she was at the end of her long, seven-year odyssey since she was first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2013. That diagnosis changed everything. Those who care for patients with Alzheimer’s, like my stepdad and my mother’s husband of more 35 years, travel in the deep and dark valley of this horrible disease for intolerably long periods, with few moments of joy.

Though I lived nearly 2,000 miles away, my life also changed completely. I stopped taking vacations. Nearly all the free time I could pull from my work schedule went to trips two or three times a year to see her. I ceased to care about petty squabbles at my job, wanting to conserve my energy and health to focus on my family. It probably allowed unhelpful situations at my job to get worse because I refused to waste time on inconsequential issues and people who were not important to my life.

Every time I saw my mom, her conditions had deteriorated more. By time I came out this January 2020, my mom had already had two emergency room visits the previous month. She first stayed at another care facility nearly 30 miles from her and my stepdad’s cozy home, where her offered loving care for years. He found the Barnes-Jewish facility after lots of rejections and queries. It offered extended care, and he immediately liked it.

This is an expression I had much of the time during my four-day visit to see my mother at her new care home.

Over my four days in St. Louis, I visited my mom’s room on the third floor, where I got to slightly know some of the patients. Most of them were mentally sharp. Some had severe cognitive disabilities. Many were old and friendly to me. I had several conversations with mom’s neighbors during two lunches.

For those lunchtime meals, I spoon fed my mom what little amounts of nourishment she could swallow. When she did, she would smile at me, but not really see me because of her eyesight had long since failed.

I also befriended some nurses and nurses aides. All were cheerful and caring. They lovingly helped my mom with her basic functions: showering, eating, being wheeled in and out of the recreation and dining room. They were pros at moving her around. They also did the diaper changes and clothes changes. I couldn’t do that. Most were African American.

This sign decorates the rec room/lunchroom at my mom’s care home.

I particularly liked a day nurse, a man with tattoos covering his arms and about my age. I also liked another nurse, a South Asian woman who helped me get my mom out of bed and ready for lunch one day.

Since I last saw my mom in September 2019, she appeared to have aged about five years. She now had nearly totally gray hair. She was so weak, she was unable to walk.

According to my stepdad, on most days, she slept. Sometimes the TV was left on. Other times my stepdad said he put on music, which she liked. He set up some pictures on her bureau of happier times for all of us and put one of my mom’s favorite posters, from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, above her bed.

My stepfather has arranged a loving display on the bureau in my mom’s room.

During each visit, I talked to her. I held her frail, withered hands. Sometimes she smiled. I liked that a lot.

The last morning of my final visit, a Sunday, began as a beautiful winter day in St. Louis. I awoke at 6:30 a.m. I took a brisk walk to clear my head. During those three miles I exchanged friendly hellos to friendly Midwesterners. I wondered to myself how many of them might have family members who were ill or experiencing dementia like my mother.

I arrived at my mom’s facility shortly after 10 a.m. It was quiet. As usual I signed in and walked to the elevator upstairs, through the institutional hallways.

I first went to my mom’s room and it was empty. I briefly panicked. I thought, she might have died the night earlier. I went back to the recreation and lunchroom. There she was, in her red sweat pants, a red sweater, and curled in a fetal position on the chair next the table below the blaring TV. I walked up to her and told her it was Rudy. I could see her smile, but I knew she did not see me.

That morning, a woman minister in her late 60s, wearing a blue turtleneck and blue pants, was leading a Protestant church service in the same room. About 10 of the mostly older patients participated.

I heard the minister speak the Lord’s Prayer, and half of the patients said it with her. She came up to me and asked if we wanted communion. I asked mom, and she agreed, likely not understanding what I asked. She ingested about one half of the wafer.

Mom began to curl up, wanting to sleep again. I ran to her room and grabbed a pillow to give her something more comfortable than a wooden chair arm to rest her head on. The minister, having finished her service, then sat at the piano and began to play hymns. She played and sang How Great Though Are, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Down by the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and other hymns I didn’t recognize immediately. At that moment I couldn’t think of a better thing to be doing for those here, and for visitors like me.

I started crying when the minister and an older African American patient sang Amazing Grace.

This was it, I realized. This was the end. I knew I would never see my mom alive again. My eyes were turning red and I wiped away the tears on my jacket.

I told my mom I was leaving. She smiled and asked where I was going. I said, I’m going to Portland. She smiled. I don’t know if she heard me. I blew her a kiss, not wanting to give her my minor throat illness. Then I got I got a nurse’s aide to punch in the security code to open the secure elevator to leave.

Alone, I started to cry. I mostly kept up my straight-faced appearance in the lobby as I signed out. Once in the small parking lot, I bent over and wept. It has been years since I cried like this. I must have been a pitiful sight to someone looking out a window.

I got in the car and continued to weep. I turned the ignition and began to leave the parking lot, still crying.

Enough of this, I told myself. I wanted to be strong. So I pulled out my stoic shell and put on my public mask. It is the face I show the world, even when things go very, very bad.

I turned my rental car onto Forest Park Parkway, turned north on Interstate 170, and headed to St. Louis International Airport to catch my flight home.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

‘The Art of War’: the essential text for any U.S. adoptee

Sun Tzu, the brilliant Chinese strategist, reportedly born in 554 BC, should be studied and read by every adoptee in the United States who is denied equal treatment under the law and their original birth records. His classic treatise, The Art of War, remains one of the most frequently studied, quoted, and referenced tools in human civilization for anyone who engages in advocacy and, yes, war.

Everything is there for the adoptee or birth parent seeking his/her records and past and for advocacy groups seeking reform and justice from a system that denies basic justice and equality to millions.

For adoptees who are plagued by insecurity, doubt, and depression about the injustice of discriminatory state adoption laws and historic and unspoken prejudice against illegitimately born people like adoptees, I first recommend drawing from your wisdom and discipline you have gained from your experience. Finding wisdom in books will be meaningless unless you can first put that knowledge into a perspective you have lived yourself.

So Why Sun Tzu and an Ancient Text?

My tweet to adoptees on preparing for long campaigns for equal rights: read Sun Tzu.

Most adoptees will learn that their path to wisdom and later action will eventually require discipline, awareness of one’s adversaries, and adapting successfully from tough experience. Luckily, Sun Tzu provides one of the easiest to access toolkits to guide you as you embark on your journey that only you can make.

If your mind is open to new ideas, Sun Tzu’s timeless observations and tactics allow anyone to become an irresistible force. As Sun Tzu says, “Being unconquerable lies with yourself.”

In my case, I embraced many of these strategies to overcome the country’s discriminatory adoption system and achieve a measure of justice and wisdom, which I describe in my book on my adoption experience. Sun Tzu correctly notes, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

(I first published a copy of this essay on the website for my memoir.)

Reflecting on becoming a surfer

One of who I call the Seaside A-Team catches a tough wave at Seaside, Oregon on a relatively calm day at he Oregon Coast in late September 2017.

A year ago last weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

It is a feeling of accomplishment. I started from nothing and had to “wipe out” my way to my new-found status literally hundreds of times. Yes, I had to fail repeatedly before I became competent to feel welcome in the ocean and among the community of surfers globally. I admit I am still slow and clumsy getting upright. I will never be great.

Beginning Surfing Later in Life

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Rudy Owens after a summer surf at Seaside Cove, on the Oregon Coast.

It Was Worth It

This past weekend, on Sept. 22, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed a quiet overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my nine-foot Stewart longboard. This ride repeated a nearly identical ride I had a week earlier, at the exact same spot.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

(Author’s note: An earlier version of this essay was first published on Sept. 17, 2017, on my photo blog called What Beautiful Light.)

Maintaining Balance in Life: A Daily Practice

(Click on both photos to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Balance is an important element in finding purpose and meaning, and perhaps pleasure—but that is not as important for me. In my case, working on big things, in my daily practice with everyone I meet and myself, and in my life’s trajectory, give me the ability to keep things upright and tall, when it seems like life can just topple things down. Also, you can always re-stack things when they tumble. Life teaches this lesson all of the time, and we should embed this memory into our subconscious, as our reservoir of strength.

The stack on the right of the color image above fell the day I took this. It was restored shortly after by someone, and so was balance.