I believe in the power of reflection and intentionally taking time to look inside and examine and explore and imagine and re-examine and re-imagine the life I live, the times I’ve had and the places I’ve been. Lately I’ve been in a space where that exploration has led me into my far past, back to times when I was a youth. I have spent the last few days in Omaha, Nebraska, the city where I spent my teen years, where I graduated from high school, where I had my first jobs and decided my life’s occupation, and where I formed friendships that helped me imagine the rest of my life.
This has been an exceptional time for a variety of reasons. It is the first time I’ve visited the city on my own terms as an adult. I’ve had the chance to travel through here twice in the last 14 years since I moved away, and both of those were wholly unfulfilling; this time is completely different, as I’m able to imbibe in the indulgence of tourism: I have been to the museums, spent a great deal of time in the libraries as part of an intellectual exercise, and haunt many of the places I enjoyed as a youth. Continuing to nurture my minor obsession with the neighborhood I grew up in, I have scoured North Omaha for all the landmarks I’ve learned about and taken a lot of pictures. I have also had the privilege of reconnecting with many old friends. Its that place that stops me up for a minute.
I’ve lived away from the neighborhood I grew up in for all of my adult life, far away. As a young person I formed my identity along the lines of the friends I surrounded myself with, but they weren’t the only formative force. I also spent my teen years surrounded by a crew of peers who lived in my neighborhood, hung around with my older brother, and every now and then dragged me along with them. This wasn’t so much a conscious choice I made; instead it was a kind of obligation I felt to be a little brother. And it was cool. These people – some two years older than me, some my age – were braver, bolder, tougher and funnier than me, all the time. My early understanding of how to relate to women, how to treat friends, what to do with family, how to identify with my school and neighborhood… all these were forged within the relationships I had with these friends. Surely these understandings have changed over time, as I’ve grown and matured, but I would be lieing if I said they didn’t still inform me to some extent.
So last night we had a reunion of sorts. Gathered into one crowded room were 25 or 30 folks who’d rescinded to the recesses of my imagination, a place where memories don’t live like people do. Suddenly so many of these characters were front and center in my attention, alive and reclaiming their own youth, as well. Much like a coal miner I strove to find value in the life I’ve lived by digging their stories. Many of them have 17 or 18-year-old kids; a few have been in and out of prison; a bunch work in garages and plants. The rough and stressful realities we may face everyday melted off a bunch of us; others seemed like they couldn’t shake them. But as time went on it seemed like everyone laughed a little; our host worked the crowd to draw everyone in, if only for a few minutes; and I had some great conversations. I spent a long time talking with a mama/educator friend who helped me bridge the crazy distance I was feeling at moments.
What I recalled in my reflection in talking with these friends is that this is what all this work is for me: My constant attempt to reconcile the life I lived as a youth and the spectacular privilege I’ve experienced as an adult. All the powerful experiences, the meaningful learning and the intentionality I’ve developed would be for naught were I not paying tribute and honoring the past I’ve lived. Looking back on those times allows me to find the diamond in that coal mine; but it also let’s me find value in the coal itself. No matter where you lived, how you came up, I believe we should all do this type of exploration and reflection as frequently as we can. Look back to move forward.