A few years ago I volunteered to serve at a faith-based arts camp for Polish youth. Rafal, the camp director, met me at the Warsaw airport. As we drove to the camp, I asked what he had lined up for me to do for the week.
“We have six or eight campers who want to learn guitar,” he said. “So I thought you could lead an acoustic guitar workshop.”
Gitara akustyczna warsztat. WTF? I’ve played guitar for 35 years, but I’m no teacher. I can’t even remember how I learned! Did I really sign up for this? What was I thinking?
The next morning I walked through the campground to the gazebo where the workshop would shortly begin. Large rocks poked through a thin layer of soil, on which a carpet of pine needles had been laid by the branches waving overhead. The rising sun promised to chase away the slight chill in the air. Near the gazebo a sculpted lion’s head emerged from the ground, mouth wide open in a silent roar of triumph over the grave. It reminded me of Aslan, the lion-Christ-figure from CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia; I took comfort in the image and stepped timidly into the role of teacher. They don’t really need me here, I thought. But maybe I need to be here. Maybe this is what it means to “live by faith.”
The next morning Rafal encouraged all camp volunteers to tell our stories to our students. What role did faith play in the journey? My story does not make me proud. I grew up in a nice family that attended church every week. Dad taught Sunday school and volunteered with my Scout troop. Mom was the church organist and taught piano. I took piano for a few years, then played cello in the school orchestra.
At 14 I traded cello for guitar. Next I traded church and Scouts for rock and roll. I picked up smoking, then drinking, then marijuana, then cocaine. Like Pinocchio, I was living it up on Pleasure Island — and turning into a total ass.
One night an LSD trip went bad. I asked a friend to drive me home. He stroked the puppy in his lap as he drove. Suddenly my friend morphed into the Devil, and I became the puppy. Terrified, I opened the door to escape; but it was too late. Demons held me down.
In reality, I had jumped out of the car. My friend somehow delivered me to a hospital where I resisted restraint. My parents arrived as the LSD was wearing off. When they led Mom to my bedside, I couldn’t understand what she was doing in hell. My mom would never be in hell, I thought. But here she was, holding my hand. Had I been given a second chance?
The fractured leg and shattered shoulder blade would heal much sooner than my broken spirit. A Lutheran counselor said that my story reminded him of the prodigal son in the Bible. For the first time I considered the possibility that a Bible story had been written with me in mind. It was the first of many steps on the road to recovery.
The students were quiet as I finished my story. We turned our attention to guitars. At the end of the session, Natalia and Karolina asked if I would help them after lunch. Natalia was fascinated with classic rock and roll: the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd. I wondered, how can I teach songs like that to beginners?
Back at my cabin, I found the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” on my mp3 player. The girls were waiting when I returned to the gazebo. I showed Natalia where to place her fingers; Karolina followed suit. When they began to get the hang of it, I asked if they’d like to try Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water.” Oh, YES! They spent an hour practicing the songs.
“Omigosh!” Natalia squealed suddenly, bouncing up and down on the wooden bench. “I play Doors! I play Deep Purple!”
Yes, I nodded to myself. I know the feeling very well.
The arts camp ended with an outdoor celebration. By the light of a bonfire I said good-bye to new friends, taking pictures, collecting email addresses, and making false promises to stay in touch. There was a tap on my shoulder.
“Someone would like to say something to you,” said Rafal. Natalia peaked out from behind.
“Thank you so much for teaching me songs I love, and for sharing your story,” she began. “I have a friend in Warsaw…” She paused and turned to Rafal. “This is so hard!” Tears welled as she continued. “My friend smokes marijuana. Every time I visit she asks me if I want to try. She gives me pressure. I had decided that next time I am with her, I will try it. Then you told your story. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Now I have decided not to try the marijuana. I promise you I will not do drugs.”
“Be strong,” I said. “Keep God in your heart.” We hugged, and off she went to join her friends, long brown hair bouncing in rhythm with her flowered peasant skirt.
“You see Richard,” said Rafal, “even in your fifties you can make a difference.”
“Thanks, Rafal,” I said with a grin. “I’m 46.”
As a musician I play by ear, and this often comes in handy, like when I taught Natalia and Karolina the Doors and Deep Purple. In life I catch myself playing by fear. I’m afraid to take risks, afraid that people will run away if I let them discover the real me. I pray for the fears to go away, but that prayer goes unanswered. In Poland I learned that courage is not the absence of fear; it is the presence of faith. When I live by that truth, the outcomes are absolutely amazing.
Richard M. Potter is a freelance writer, musician, and consultant to nonprofit organizations. His writing has appeared in Leader To Leader, Children’s Voice, Advancing Philanthropy, and other publications. As a grantwriter he has secured millions of dollars to support various charitable causes, including a $5 million grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation to fund internship stipends for future nonprofit professionals. Richard blogs on purpose at www.richardmpotter.com. He and his wife of 22 years are the parents of two wonderful teenaged children. They reside in Kansas City, Missouri.
Thank you Richard for submitting this positive and inspiring story about how in helping others, you also overcame your own fears. This is the first “My Gutsy Story” written by a man, and I hope this will be the start to many more. I hope you visit Richard Potter’s website and learn more about him and his writing. If you love memoirs, I know you’ll enjoy Shirley Sholwater, and her amazing blog 100 memoirs. Without her, I may not have discovered Richard, and he may not have submitted his “My Gutsy Story.”
(Please leave your comments below for Richard to answer. He will be over I’m sure.)
You have until Wednesday December 13th at 11:59p.m. to VOTE for your Favorite November “My Gutsy Story”
Winner of November Contest will be announced on December 14th. We shall let you know what prize was selected and ask for a photo. Hope you come back to see.
HOW TO SUBMIT YOUR OWN “My Gutsy Story”
To submit your own, “My Gutsy Story” you can find all the information, and our sponsors on the “My Gutsy Story” contest page. (NEW VIDEO) Submission guidelines here.