Honky-tonk oldies play over a battery-operated radio strapped to a neighborhood man’s indoor/outdoor scooter. The twang of the tunes announce and accompany him on one of his daily “walks.” While steering his scooter deftly around me and my two dogs, he thumbs his well-loved VFW baseball cap to gesture, “Hello.” He does this whenever he sees us approaching.
Because the tires on his scooter are wide, getting out into the weather is not much of an issue. We both pass one another without talking almost daily—wanting to feel the fresh air on our faces, the thrust of the sun when it is out, or otherwise enjoy the spitting moisture of an early morning—a gift from the sun-obliterating clouds above.
Once past us, I watch the long plastic stick with the small fluorescent-orange flag attached to it sway and flutter in the violent wind. Today, the man in the scooter is bent in his seat leaning into the chill of this morning’s headwind with the flaps down on his billed, winter hat. Yet, the weather does not keep him from dancing in his seat. I wonder what steps and with whom, in his mind, he is taking the polished floor.
The music playing in my head is audible only to me. Sometimes, I wonder whether or not I would ever have the gumption to share the music I play as liberally as he shares his. Maybe. Maybe not. What his free-wheeling passing teaches me is that whether we are running, walking or rolling, we all need to carry music inside (or outside) of ourselves which causes us to sway with joy in all manner of weather.
After several months of missing my classical guitar, I receive a nudge to stop by a local music store, which houses a large, humidified room packed with a wide variety of both new and used stringed instruments—ukuleles, guitars, banjos, dulcimers, basses and mandolins.
Once at the music store, I begin milling about the specially humidified room carefully selecting five or six classical guitars for sampling. Amazingly, one of the used guitars which I have selected carries almost the same full, warm tone I found so appealing in my previous instrument. The only other guitar in the room to match this instrument’s tone is new and almost seven times as expensive as this particular used instrument.
Wanting to make sure that I am on the right track, I hold off in purchasing the instrument. Waiting a full week and sitting through several rounds of meditation to make inquiries about the appropriate application of my energy, I finally ask my husband to go with me to verify that I have made, potentially, the appropriate selection.
After we have arrived in the humidified showroom, I begin pulling the instruments in question. My husband, for his part, goes through them, fine-tuning each. After playing parallel chords on every one of the guitars, we come down to the same pairing that I had come to on the previous week.
“Yes, you are right,” my husband acknowledges. “This used guitar sounds almost identical in tone to that of the other new and more expensive instrument.” We decide to purchase the used instrument.
At the cashier’s counter, the clerk handling our sale’s transaction announces cheerfully, “You’re in luck. This instrument comes with its own case.” Leaving us to retrieve the case, she soon emerges from the storage room with the case in hand. Back at the counter, she rejoins guitar and case, and we make our way out of the store.
Opening the music shop’s door onto the late-afternoon sunshine outside, I feel a renewed gratitude for the care and support Grace has extended to me—not only for this day, but—when I choose to listen—every day.
After finishing my US-Census shift, I happen into a pawnshop on my way to teaching yoga across town. The store has what I have come to recognize as the typical line-up of pawnshop merchandise: tools, electronics, used jewelry—a multitude of stunning ring sets, which may be the undesirable byproducts of once promising relationships, select media and a respectable array of musical instruments—both acoustic and electric—as well as a range of amps. Many of these items are wish-list things which can be traded for quick cash in a pinch or bought back when a person’s finances restabilize.
Pawnshops and pawnshop browsing were not part of my childhood culture—nor are they actually part of my adult culture—except that my father-in-law once remarked, “You can usually find a good deal on a fairly decent instrument in a pawnshop.” The regulation bugle, hanging by a red cord on a wall in our house, was just such a gift—from father to son and a pawnshop buy—many years and miles ago. So, I am walking through this shop for, perhaps, the second or third time trying to find an appropriate, gently used guitar.
There are a myriad of guitars available. Yet, one guitar in particular seems most appropriate. It possesses a glossy, black finish with mother-of-pearl inlay on its fretboard, as well as another circular inlay of mother-of-pearl around the sound hole. The edging on the instrument’s main body are piped, in an off-white plastic material which mimics the look of ivory. When I ask the salesman to take the instrument down for me to test, the sound is full and smooth, though I do not really know what I am doing—as I do not actually play guitar. What I do know is that the warm hum which the instrument produces when I strum it, while it is held against the midriff of my body, makes me feel whole.
Today is a special sale day. So, I decide to purchase this guitar and its matching case. Still not knowing exactly what I will be doing with it, my only plan is to strum it occasionally so that I might feel that hum against my body which makes me feel whole.
A trip to the library and several books later, I learn that I have purchased a classical guitar. Classical guitars have slightly wider fret boards than do modern, acoustic guitars which are better designed for chord playing. I now know how to tune it and name most of its component parts. (Life Rule # Whatever: You can only talk about things that you know how to name.) Oddly enough, I do not end up doing a lot of bold cord strumming. Instead, I spend most of my time laboriously plucking out tunes to melodies I already know, some of which date back to my early, piano-study years.
A few months into my self-designed six-stringed-instrument melody-rediscovery “course,” I fervently hope Grace will accept my husband for musical-patience sainthood because two to three hours spent on deciphering one melody seems like some twisted form of rare torture for a person as musically gifted as he. For his part, he keeps my new guitar properly tuned and maintains a heroic level of unflagging encouragement, by repeatedly explaining that he was never bothered by his younger sisters’ instrumental practice sessions when they were both studying Suzuki method.
As an academically trained school teacher, at some point I become concerned that the cranky, unused guitar-playing portion of my brain is not gaining in plasticity or skill at the rate that it should be. Quietly, I wonder whether or not that dry, brittle region of my brain has already ossified to the point of no return. Then finally, after a few months, something gives. I observe myself plucking out melodies within twenty to forty minutes until, eventually, I am able to rediscover a tune in less than ten or twelve minutes. Guitar practice has proven to be serious calisthenics for my grey matter.
With the lesson of time and the application of focused energy fresh in my mind, I wonder how many times I have walked away from a soon-to-be-reached plateau of progress after I did not apply myself long enough “to arrive.”
At ten o’clock at night, the music above our heads seems only to be growing louder. My husband and I, both early risers, are tucked in for the night, while our neighbor upstairs, a late sleeper, has cranked up the volume on a classic-rock radio station. He is celebrating the electrifying nature of life and the late night a little bit longer.
“Do you want to go upstairs and say something?” I ask across the steady beat and hum of a solid bass line, which is the only audible part of the music, driving itself into our sleep space.
“Not really,” my husband answers grumpily.
“I don’t want to ruin his evening,” I explain my glued-to-the-bed immobility, knowing our upstairs neighbor has trouble holding and enjoying his space on the planet. Our neighbor struggles with clinical depression and, for music to be playing this late, his evening must be rocking along all right.
“Hey, can you guess what is playing?” I ask my husband, changing the focus of the conversation.
“Give me a minute,” he shifts gears mentally, from considering his personal discomfort to listening to the music’s bass line more closely. “‘Black Dog’–Led Zeppelin.”
The song finishes and another comes on. We play this game for another half-hour, not wanting to walk upstairs to crsuh our neighbor’s Spirit. And, in the process, we learn something. The most melodic bass lines create the most memorable songs–even if a band’s name eludes us, the music is memorable and a song will stand on its own with a rhythmically and melodically well constructed bass line.
Eventually, the music’s volume goes way down and, a little later, the music is turned off. The whole experience makes me wonder whether or not I have been focusing too much on what I consider the “melody” of my life, when it is the bass line–life’s small daily habits–that matter most.