LEAN ON ME...JACK
AN OPEN LETTER TO MY GRANDSON

Jack, I spend hours in front of my computer monitor everyday...writing and teaching. Every once in awhile, I turn on the TV and flip between MSNBC, the Travel Channel, or Comedy Central as a timeout period from my allegiance to the computer. The other day, I watched the end of Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert and I have a similar left of center Weltanschauung. However, I have difficulty with presenting my views by acting like I am way to the right of logic and common sense. My mental disposition is more like Jon Steward's style. Nevertheless, I laughed my way through the end of the Colbert Report.

At the end of Colbert Report, Colbert assisted two guests singing, which was a song recorded by Bill Withers in 1971. I loved that song four decades ago. However, I was moved more by watching Colbert sing it. It was almost a religious experience that I was watching Colbert have. Colbert's flippant right-wing attitude to get his left-wing point across was missing. Colbert was serious, and he was moved by his singing Lean on Me. That moved me. Colbert was singing something that was meaningful for him without any of his comedic schick. This was the very first time that I was able to see the real Stephen Colbert.

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Brian Eno, Michael Stipe & Stephen Colbert - "Lean on Me"
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I went back to my computer and attempted to continue to do some online teaching... which went nowhere each time I attempted to do some work. There I sat in front of my monitor and thought about what I had just seen on the TV. Colbert was not playing behind his right-wing and comic charade. I was caught-up in discovering where my head was.

Then I Googled Lean on Me and watched and listened to Withers sing his hit recording. Withers grew up in Slab Fork, WV, which was a poor coal mining town in Appalachia. After moving away from Slab Fork to Los Angeles, CA, he wrote Lean on Me realizing that he missed that small town in which people would lean on and support each other.



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

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you don't let show

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

If there is a load you have to bear
That you can't carry
I'm right up the road
I'll share your load
If you just call me

So just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'd understand
We all need somebody to lean on

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
Till I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Lean on me...

Jack, over the past couple of days of working on this article, I have listened to that recording hundreds of times. Why had this recording recaptured my emotional mindset? I don't know why Stephen Colbert was so moved. However, I was and I wanted to know why. I wondered why I was obsessed by this song again, which I once loved but hadn't thought about for decades. I thought about my life back in the late 60s and early 70s-a time even before your parents were born.

I had returned from a year of post-graduate work at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. It was a great year of learning and traveling all over Europe and even a part of North Africa. I was glad to be away from the States. We had been dealing with racism in America from the time when I was in high school, college, and graduate school-nearly a dozen years. Then there was the war in Vietnam.

In addition to these national issues, America had lost Bobby Kennedy at the hands of a misguided crazy. Bobby was the hope of the world.

wikipedia.org

He was my hope that America could regain its footing as a people. I recall how I felt when he was killed. I had severe doubts about America ever making to its bi-centennial. We were becoming unglued as a nation, but Bobby was my hope... and that hope was now dashed-until recently.

Then I thought about where I was today. My children are grown and are doing well in work and life. I have a pretty 16-year old granddaughter who has it together...as much as any teenager has life all together. My kids, granddaughter, and my wife have done well and really have a grasp on life. I'm not going to give them anything that I haven't already shared with them.

However, there is you, my grandson, Jack. You came into my life a year and a half ago, and I am moved by you. You are special, loving, funny, determined, cute, etc. As you toddle around in your world, you are defenseless. You don't know much about life except that you are loved and that you love your parents and us. We have seen you every week and sometimes more than once a week with few exceptions over this past year and a half of sheer joy for us. My kids and my granddaughter have faced problems and have learned to bounce back...the more they are hurt by things in life, the more they have learned to cope with life's problems.

However, you have had very few problems aside for cutting teeth and an occasional cold. I'm your papa, and I love you. You know that, and you love me. What you don't know is what life will bring to your doorstep. You will have to deal with those problems. I'd love to run interference for you in your life, but you won't grow up to be an adult if you don't learn how to face the problems of life. Nevertheless, I just want to be there for you...whenever you might need me. I would do anything to help you through any pressing problems that you face whether when you are 2 or 22. I want you to know that you can lean on me whenever.

Jack, I mentioned to you already about Bobby Kennedy. He was my idol and inspiration in very troubling times. I had been active in the civil rights movement. I went on marches and took high school students to the South for work camps in part for them to see that part of the country during racially troubling times. When things didn't look good or we weren't moving ahead quickly enough, people like Bobby were indeed an inspiration. It isn't easy doing what is right while those around you viewed our efforts with distain and hatred.

Bobby said, "All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity." His confidence was understood, and we did lean on each other. It was a strange feeling to be facing seemingly insurmountable problems like racism and also believe that we would overcome...in spite of what appeared to be overwhelming hostility.

Many people who will read this article out on the web won't get this reality. Nevertheless, I can tell you truthfully that really knowing that you will win in the grand design for life and liberty was a feeling that I felt deeply-and this was during horrific times of the civil rights movement. It is an incredible experience to feel victory in what seemed at that moment like a battle that couldn't be won. Leaning on each other was critical to that sense of winning regardless of the high costs that were being paid.

Bobby also said, "It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." He understood more than anyone the truth of creating ripples of hope in the midst of a hurricane of hatred.

Bobby was sure of himself and his causes in our country and the world. He said, "Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." Jack, you don't necessarily have to move mountains, but while working at smaller hills, your efforts along with the efforts of others will move both the mountains and also you will learn the blessing of leaning on one another in the midst of the midnight of hope.

Still another quote from Bobby Kennedy that I used as a signature line in all my emails for two decades: "Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not." Bobby used that sentence many, many times during his life. His last remaining brother said this statement at Bobby's funeral. His death diminished the world of a great and caring leader...upon whom many people leaned on. I think about Bobby every day. We lost a great deal due to his senseless murder. However, he left us all with a vision of what could be...a vision that we won't lose in this life. We can all be great in our small worlds in which we live by leaning on one another and then going out to move our mountains.

Jack, I truly love you and will help you in any way imaginable. You will have no real understanding of the depth of my love for you. Hopefully, you will someday know...after you too have a grandchild. Then my level of love for you will be fully comprehended. In the meantime, when you need someone to lean on, you know as the song says, "I'm right up the road." The road being I-65 that runs north from Indianapolis and Crown Point. Ya-Ya and I drive that road nearly every week to love you and be able to spend time with you.


Bill Withers 'Lean on Me'.


Interview with Bill Withers