With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I’d long had this notion that I wanted to learn to play the guitar, a desire that vigorously stayed in the vague someday category because, let’s be honest, what I really wanted was to magically be able to play without the work of learning. I guess I was waiting around to get hit on the head and wake up a musician. I never even picked up a guitar.
I think I am not alone in this desire to learn the guitar without effort. We want all sorts of things to happen like that.
Then COVID came.
The calluses on my fingertips now are firm. I trim my nails every three days. My rapid memorization of chords, my waking in the middle of the night to silently move my hands and practice progressions — this is strange. Strange because I am a lazy person when it comes to things I find difficult, such as math, watering houseplants, and playing musical instruments of all kinds. So this sudden focus and attention . . . well, I can’t really account for it.
I can say that it’s not because I have time on my hands, like those people on social media who are baking bread during the pandemic. If anything I am busier than before, my duties as a teacher, a parent, and a friend magnified.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
I think I am not alone, too, in drinking more when I am stressed. I try to monitor my drinking — the dangers being obvious. But it’s not so easy walking this fine line right now.
After the workday, wrists tired from typing, I pick up the guitar out of habit. I don’t even think about it. I also pour a glass of wine. Yes, there is still a jelly jar of wine. There will always be one jelly jar of wine. But there will be two fewer jelly jars a night because of the guitar.
I think the reason I am limiting my drinking now is to be able to drink in the future. Less drinking today means more longevity of drinking. I am making the effort for future Laura, so she can have a glass of wine with dinner forever. I guess you could say it’s an act of love?
My first songs are by John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, and Sting. I’ve chosen ones that rely heavily on A and E, since they are the easiest chords for me. I find G and F difficult, and my pinkie finger seems not to follow the others or to connect with my brain, which is something I didn’t know about my fingers until COVID.
I daydream about playing guitar around a campfire with others. In my dreams I sound rather fabulous, but my larger point here is that my brain is conjuring moments of community. Why? Because people daydream about what they don’t have.
I have thrown a few small outdoor gatherings at which friends sit far apart, and some people lug over their guitars. I have a musical cadre of friends. I don’t play at these get-togethers because I’m too new and too shy, but I do put out alcohol, which seems standard protocol.
Addiction to the guitar is surely healthier than addiction to wine.
These are sad days, so I play sad songs — but also love songs, because love is an antidote to sadness. There are two forces you can’t mess with in life: Mother Nature and love. Mother Nature is giving us a virus and wildfires and hurricanes, and love is a force we have to bring into our lives with song.
I’m worried about the coming winter: the cold and the dark, and how I might be tempted to pick up the jelly jar more than a few times. My current brain tells my future brain this: Trim your fingernails. Pick a challenging song, one with a lot of F’s and G’s. And start playing.
At the end of the evening I stretch my hands out and look at them. My fingertips hurt, and my hands are tired. But I say to them: You must keep playing, hands. Play, hands, play.