2004 was an unusual year. I wrote a Christmas letter on time. After a year’s hiatus from writing a Christmas letter, I was led to write and, encouraged to do so by a Friend from Atlanta Monthly Meeting, and I actually finished it on time, yet I was certain I was not to send it. So, I did not.
Despite the request from Atlanta, I knew the completed letter was not what was to be sent. So I started another letter on the 20th, but somehow it didn’t seem done either. With guests to prepare for, I finally gave up on letter writing, mystified why it was I could not send either.
In hindsight: it wasn’t procrastination. Shortly after Christmas I sat with what happened Christmas day. The events of Christmas day flowed out of me and into the letter with a comfort and ease I found surprising in light of the earlier struggles.
In a brief preamble to the letter I named those people who had offered me encouragement in my writing, and who had patiently modeled listening during the year. In the preamble I said Thank you to all. Edited to respect the privacy of some of those involved, I offer you the story I offered them.
Though 2004 had its bad news, and health issues, I have time ahead to think of and deal with them, if I choose to. For now, a story.
My greatest joy in 2004 was the birth of a new creative life. In January I began writing part time for a newspaper. I freelanced three dozen articles, got some photography credits, and I also started playing music again. Then in July I met a frail arthritic blind black blues guitarist named Jerry Burruss. At 69, Jerry touched me beyond words, but it didn’t stop me from writing a Jerry piece for a local paper anyhow.
Through the remainder of the summer and fall of 2004, I began to take Jerry out to play his guitar. His blindness, arthritis, an uncommon voice, open tuning, and an overhand playing style, created something of an organic aura about him. He wowed audiences in Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia Counties in Southeast Pennsylvania. He played Del Stock, The Coffee Club, The Mushroom Festival, The Point, and at Linvilla Orchards.
Once they heard Jerry play and laugh, my musically inclined friends were unable to resist him: They flocked to him. People who had heard about his playing, showed up to see him. Person after person hopped on the growing juggernaut that was our bandwagon. We practiced and recorded on Thursdays and played at Linvilla Orchards, the local pumpkin land place, from 1-4 P.M. every Saturday & Sunday all through October.
As our ranks swelled from two, to eventually six folks thirty to fifty-something, plus a photographer and some partners, a light shone through and from Jerry Burruss. In nearly all he said and did, a warming kind of eternal sunshine came from his very core. Jerry’s sunshine warmed us until we opened, and in opening ourselves to his sweet warm light, we found gratitude for what is, for what we have, for who we are; Powerful lessons, powerfully lived by frail, unassuming, nearly childlike, Jerry.
I know that in his light I was made somehow unafraid to play in public. In my fearlessness I found and came to know more parts of myself. I also know that in the absence of his warmth I would have been unwilling to admit those parts of me existed. And as this happened to me, I smiled a lot and played music from this new deep open place he showed me was down in there. And as I played I knew it was happening to most of the others too. We all seemed to be with each other in an embarrassed wonderment at what was happening inside of us, in the presence of this small thin blind man.
In the warmth of his bathing light, our understanding of who we each were grew, and our ability to communicate with each other, especially while playing music, blossomed. Sometimes too, comically, it flopped, and we were not too full of ourselves to laugh at our more inept unpolished moments.
For 55 years Jerry Burruss sat in his home without anyone to play music with. In his loneliness he taught himself to play guitar and piano while mimicking country and blues artists on the radio. Jerry possessed a willingness to play off key, often rushing into a number without checking to see if we were all in tune. We laughingly began to call this playing in the key of "J". The laughter was a salve for old wounds: his and ours.
We played through the fall and fell into the habit of recording him in a house I was rehabbing to move into. He sat on an old hand-painted chair on a finish worn wood floor among cratered plastered walls. There, in a room that held nothing more than design dreams, drawings, & drywall dust, after being pent up for 55 years, Jerry Burruss poured his heart into the single microphone that first recorded his bluesy grit.
With the rehab done in November, we moved in over Thanksgiving. On Christmas day, Jerry was temporarily without biological family. His only sister, a Jehovah’s Witness, had gone off to an Assembly (a rest she needed after 25 years of caretaking Jerry). She left him in an assisted living facility, knowing we would come for him.
Lisa, our group photographer, picked him up at 9 am Christmas morning and drove him to our newly renovated digs. And for Christmas, Jerry Burruss came home to the place where he had first poured out 55 years of heart into recording.
The house was filled warmly with Christmas music and laughter. Behind the sweating window on the front door, were the scents of coffee, home fries, sausage, bagels, and a fresh tree. Frail and hungry, Jerry ate with us at the ugliest kitchen table in the world.
With breakfast done, we opened gifts. In his eager sightlessness, Jerry groped and tore at paper with a child’s abandon, and clumsily moved without reference or landmarks. Once an object was opened and he felt it, we would describe it to him. Invariably he cackled his approval through crooked teeth or bobbed his gray white head while asking questions. The last gift Jerry received that morning was a new guitar: at age 69 a new axe presented Jerry with a new problem…what to name "her".
With the gift giving done, we did what I had looked forward to most about Christmas: We played together. Jerry had his new guitar. Josh and Wayne found guitars. Lisa gingerly tried her new Mandolin. And I broke out the harmonicas. With a bit of fooling around aside, the music began. We played for more than an hour, laughing, singing, and storytelling. About the time I felt completely energized, it became apparent Jerry needed a rest. I gave him a glass of juice and tilted him back in the recliner. He rested there while I cooked. For nearly two hours Jerry rested while guests floated in and out. Eventually it was time to leave for dinner at John’s.
At John’s house nine of us gathered at a long formal table for Christmas dinner at 7. Jerry sat at one end of the table. Despite his apparently frail condition, he ate half a pheasant, a wild rice stuffing, and tons of veggies. There are rumors he had a glass of wine as well. He finished his meal with a piece of chocolate cake, and, of course, a smile.
After the meal, we gathered in a big living room before a woodstove. Here, we each picked up an instrument and unwrapped for Jerry, the gifts he had given us through the fall. Glad to be together again, John, Tom, Wayne, Jerry and I all played. In a pulsing wood heat that warmed to the marrow, old bones were made young.
The night throbbed with the magic music of instrumental conversations, simple, impromptu solos, and one excellent ending that diminished to harmonica and string voices whispering each other to a unified hanging rest, leaving the woodstove sizzle, as the only sound in the thick stunned silence that often follows random unintended perfection. Tom broke that silence and said, what most of us were thinking, "Wow, we should have recorded that one." Jerry agreed in childlike enthusiasm.
After a bit I took Jerry up to the bathroom. Up the stairs, one at a time, Jerry went slowly. I got him in the bathroom and left him there to do his thing. I stood on the landing listening for his call with one ear and with the other, I listened to the gang gathered in the living room; their heated music ascending the white oak staircase. I played a few bars on the harp as I stood waiting. In a small boy’s singsong voice, he at last called, "I’m Ready!"
I went in and there was some fussing over zippers and hooks and such, which eventually ended. As we moved out of the bathroom, it happened. Jerry’s hands began shaking and then his whole body followed suit. His eyes rolled back. I had seen and capably handled grand mal seizures for a loved one long ago, but with this one, I froze as fear slammed into me. "Oh, God", I thought, "Don’t let me lose him." My recently filled stomach felt amazingly hollow.
Strangely, I did exactly what medical training told me not to do. I did not lay him down. Somehow, a sense came over me that he had given too much of himself, and that if he was in the presence of the group again, we could give some of it back and he would be ok. Hollow, yet weighted with fear, I held this frail shaking man until the seizure was done. As he began to come to, I moved him down the stairs to be with the others.
I sat him in a chair and offered him water. He accepted water with gratitude and I felt the fear pass out of me suddenly. In passing, it felt as though I had offered the fear no home, and the fear had just left knowing I would give it no place to stay. Even with the weight of the fear gone, uncertain looks passed between the eight of us: Jerry looked more frail and spent than any of us had ever seen him.
In the exchange of looks Theresa suggested to Tom that he play something…a Christmas song he had been working on. Friend Tom Mullian is the person among us who is a world class artist… both a natural and a well studied musician. Tom looked unsure but turned to the steel guitar in his hands and, from that guitar came back some of the sparkling light Jerry had given to Tom through the fall. An impeccable heartfelt silken instrumental medley of Christmas songs filled the room. I know in this world guitars do not emit light, but, from the steel guitar this night came a light of Tom’s, and I am clear that in that moment it was exactly what Jerry Burruss needed to hold him together. With my hand on his shoulder I felt it enter him.
With almost pizzicato crystal clarity, the fundamental building blocks of Silent Night emerged from between incredibly gentle caressing runs of fill notes created with three fingers and a thumb. What we heard was beyond even Tom’s musical gifts; what we heard was his love for Jerry. It is almost as though Silent Night was laid or placed like a blanket and a kiss, just so, over the eight expectant listeners seated in the cordwood crackle of the warm still room. The song ended and I remained still and thinking deeply, as though snuggled under the covers in a waking state.
I don’t know how much time passed before my thoughts were interrupted by the gentle, quiet hugs and good nights of the others. Soon, Tom and I bundled up Jerry and took him to the car.
As I drove Jerry back to the assisted living facility, I thought how Tom’s playing helped me understand that we each had Jerry’s gift in us now. Passing through the thick scent of mushroom houses on this cold still night, I thought how we each had been given a measure of Jerry’s light and how he had so simply modeled opening to it.
After taking him in to a nurse and kissing him goodbye, I shook off the feeling I might never see Jerry alive again. I turned the car around for home. Turning from 472 onto Route 1 north, I thought how winter is a time when Jews celebrate the miracle of light, when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, their saving light, and paganism celebrates the arrival of winter solstice and the beginning of successively longer days. Their common denominator is light. In the five musicians who surrounded him, this year, Jerry Burruss, though physically failing, infused a light that will easily live on beyond his ability to continue here.
He didn’t name the light. He didn’t brand it. He didn’t push it, hawk it, or sell it. He simply peeled back layer upon layer of his own human frailty until the finest core piece of him was exposed, and he left it there for us to see, to hear, to feel, to play music with. I realized what was left, what Jerry shares best, is what Quakers call "that, of God in everyone". As the car dipped across the Brandywine River in a Christmas moon, I came to an understanding. Despite his gritty lack of musical polish, his voice, his guitar, and his music consistently turned heads, earning awe and praise: That of God, is indeed awesome and praiseworthy, and, turns heads.
And I now realize, Jerry Burruss has done for me what God did for mankind in the Christmas story. For Jerry so loved us that he gave us his child; his inner creative child. And I learned that living faithfully means exposing and giving voice to our most vulnerable inner creative child, even if the acts of giving our inner child’s light, and of speaking our inner child’s truth, is ultimately the cause of the death of our inner child. As Jerry lives it, Faith is knowing the inner child will rise again. I was blind, but now, I see.