How to Become a Cowboy

A couple weeks ago I made what has become a yearly pilgrimage out west toward Alpine, Texas to hear old cowboys recite poems and tell stories about working cattle. This year, eleven of my city slicker friends came along. At the poetry gathering we wake up early for a chuckwagon breakfast, spend all day taking in cowboy trail wisdom, then climb up one of the tallest hilltops where we can see the whole town as dusk sets in. The silence is powerful and heavy.

At night all the cowboys stay up late at the Holland Hotel and pass around a guitar and drink whiskey. There's always a crowd. One old ranch hand stands atop a washtub bass plucking baling wire with a gloved hand to keep the rhythm.  

This particular night is crisp and clear. Folks come in and out from the patio where there's a nice fire. We glimpse one of our favorite cowboys who steps out for a smoke, and manage to find ourselves out there with him without making it too obvious he's been tracked. We say hello and end up in a circle around the fire hoping to get another story. For a while he fields our questions about his life and tries out a new poem. We can't believe we've got his attention for this long - he's got friends out here, and a full day of performing tomorrow. We're kind of starstruck by the dude. 

The moment was pretty perfect and certainly one we'd tell stories about for years. But then something more important happens - he puts a stop to our questions and says, "Enough about me, what about y'all? Who are you young men?"

He then proceeds to ask each of us - there are seven - about our lives and what led us up to this moment, pushing us for more detail when we don't provide enough. We talk about the differences in our generations, how to navigate the current political climate, guns, he makes fun the vegan of the group, and says several times that, as far as he can tell, love is the most important thing in life.

At about 1:30am all the cigarettes are all gone and he's out of whiskey. He shakes our hands and passes out his card, saying he'd be plum angry if we were ever out North Carolina way and didn't stop by to say hello and ride his horses.

Walking to the car, we repeat nuggets of wisdom from our conversation with that cowboy. I mention to the group that there was a point where I almost judged him, but then found no need to do so. My friends ask me why, and I say because he realized the moment when it was necessary to step out of the spotlight and make the conversation about the rest of us.

This is a rare thing for folks to do - particularly when a conversation involves someone with ostensibly more authority or experience. I've sat in too many coffee shops eavesdropping on conversations where a younger person will sit down with someone from whom they're seeking direction, and then the older, more experienced individual proceeds to make the conversation about themselves. Nary a question about the younger party is asked.

I've come to learn that a sign of a wise and influential person lies not in their ability to discuss what they know, but in their decision to draw out the needs of the one seeking advice, and then guide them accordingly.

Memorable and, dare I say magical, moments are only created when every person has a chance to participate. Similarly, good storytelling isn't about the storyteller, it's about the storyteller presenting a core element of the human experience in such a way that causes the rest of us to say silently to ourselves, "I didn't think anyone saw me - I thought I was the only one."

Those who earn the responsibility of real influence choose to prioritize not themselves - but the other - in every interaction. We forget the power we have in every situation to give the gift of being seen to someone else.

That cowboy's willingness to step aside and bring us young men into focus reminded me of a moment that happened just a couple hours prior. We were there in the lobby of the Holland Hotel and the guitars were being passed around. There was a young boy, maybe 9 years old, standing just outside the perimeter of the circle strumming an imaginary guitar with an imaginary pick by scraping his thumb and pointer finger back and forth on his pant leg. The man atop the washtub base saw this and stepped down to ask the boy if he wanted to play the next song. The boy was shy and said no. But a few songs later, he approached the musician's circle and the man on the washtub bass guided him with gloved hand to the center of the room where a dreadnought guitar the size of the terrified boy was placed directly in his lap. He played an original composition called The Lone Ranger. He kept his eyes closed the entire song and opened them to find what it feels like to be seen.

The boy will never forget that night. 

Neither will my friends and I.

And it's not because we got a chance to be in the presence of people who were older, wiser or more experienced than we. It's because the old cowboys chose to remember the world spins a little truer when we remind others they too have a story - and that it matters.

No one becomes a musician, a storyteller or a cowboy by watching or being told. It's when we're seen by others that we learn to see ourselves as capable of being whomever it is we're drawn to be.