Saturday, June 24, 2017

Come to think of it, the whole thing started with a guitar

When I was fifteen, my sister taught me to play guitar. I've always said my instrument is my voice, but I needed some accompaniment if I was going to sit around in a circle with my hippie friends and sing "Blowin' in the Wind," so guitar was the best (coolest) option. We went to the swap meet, picked up a nice little folk guitar for 30 bucks (my birthday money), and so it began.

It only takes three chords to play "Blowin' in the Wind," although if you play it in C you have to play an F, and that chord gave me fits until I finally conquered it. Of course, a hundred more songs followed. But, one year later, it was that song, "Blowin' in the Wind," that I was singing the day my eventual husband walked up onto my lawn where I was sitting placidly, playing, singing. We'd never met. He lived in the neighborhood. I'd seen him around. But that day he heard me singing and simply walked up and sat down, listening quietly until I finished.

Six months later, for Christmas, he bought me a guitar. He had told me repeatedly that I needed "a good guitar," a steel string acoustic. Although I had told him I was perfectly content with the guitar I had, as an axe-wielding teenager, I would've loved to have had a Martin (sort of the equivalent, as guitars go, of buying a Landrover). Realistically, given my socio-economic level, I could only dream about owning such a fine instrument. (By the way, "axe" is a euphemism for guitar. The etymology of the term is fascinating, so Google "Why is a guitar called an axe?" sometime just for fun.)

However, on that Christmas Day in 1971, I opened a large cardboard box the size of a small refrigerator to discover a guitar case, and inside that case, a very beautiful guitar. Not a Martin. An Ibanez. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Now, don't get me wrong. Ibanez makes some really fine guitars, and this one was no exception. But... this was definitely not my dream guitar.

[Quick side note here: Inside that guitar case, in the pick box, was a small jeweler's box. And inside that box was a ring. A thin gold band. "It's a wedding ring!" the man said—in front of my entire family. "Put it on!" That was his proposal. I should have seen monumentally huge red flags unfurling so rapidly they blotted out the gorgeous December-in-Southern-California sun. But I didn't.]

My response to the guitar, I think, was, "Um... ... .... It's nice." I just didn't know what to say. It was huge, a "D" size (no, ladies, guitars don't come in bra cup sizes, though that might've helped), and far too big for me. And it was a "dreadnought" shape (see photos above and below). And it was a light wood, spruce. None of these are characteristics I would have chosen for myself.

And I couldn't play it. At least not yet. No "set-up" had been done on the guitar (sorry for the jargon), so the strings were too high, and they were steel (as opposed to the more forgiving nylon strings I'd learned on), so pushing my fingers down to make chords felt like jamming on razor blades.

"The neck is solid rosewood!" my now-fiancé beamed. He loved that guitar. And what I came to realize is that he bought the guitar that he wanted. No consideration had been given to what I might have wanted (which, no surprise, ended up being a theme in our doomed marriage).

But it was a nice guitar with a beautiful sound, and he had it worked on so that it would be more forgiving on my fingers. So I played it. And played it and played it.

(I'm the one in the middle.)

For forty-five years—at church, in countless weddings, for several funerals, someone's baby shower, several luncheons—I have played that big, loud, sweet-sounding guitar. What a trove of memories we've shared... both good and bad. The good ones involve happy weddings and informal gatherings like my brother's birthday a few years back when he, my sister and I all played our guitars and sang the songs of our youth. Perfect day.

But the bad ones... well, they're pretty bad. Because I mostly sang in church. And I suppose I should mention here that the man I married, the one who bought me that guitar, became the pastor of a church (despite being an atheist when we married). As the pastor's wife, certain things were expected of me. I didn't mind singing; I loved it. But, after eleven years, I just couldn't remain married to... him anymore. (For a list of all the adjectives I just deleted in reference to him, you'll have to private message me.) I separated from him, and when I did, I was asked to leave that church. I went anyway (when he wasn't there), and when I showed up, I was escorted out by deacons and told not to come back. In the years following, while my children and I lived at the poverty level (because their father refused to pay one dime of child support, and he never did), there wasn't much time for singing or song writing or guitar playing while I hustled and struggled to raise four kids on my own, make ends meet, attend college classes, and try to make sense of what had happened. And frankly, I was so grief-stricken over my failed marriage and the treatment I received by the people I thought were my friends, I didn't much feel like singing anyway.

Eventually I began again, picking up the guitar every once in awhile, singing for special events on occasion. But every time I pulled that guitar out of the case, I drew out a swath of bad memories a mile wide along with it.

What to do?

You know, I'm here to tell ya, life is tough. We often wish we had a reset button to enable a do-over, but really, when you knock over hurdles in the race, you don't get to go back, set them back up, and try again. You just have to keep moving forward as best you can.

Having said that, though, I will say this: I accept that I cannot fulfill all my life's longings. I'm resigned to the fact (now, finally) that I'll probably never marry Robert Redford. Sigh.... I won't get that interview with Oprah about my great-grandmother. But damn it, I'm not ready to stop singing. In fact, now that I've retired from teaching, I find myself singing quite a bit.

Which is why I bought a new guitar last week (at The Fret House in Covina). It's a Martin 00-15 mahogany beauty with tones so deep and resonant it nearly makes me cry when I play it. I spent weeks researching what I wanted, and with the help of a few old friends and some really cool new ones (thank you, Doug, Tom, Rick and Jorge!), I bought the guitar I've wanted all these years. (See photos below.) And oh Lordy, am I ever ready to make some new memories.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

In Memoriam: Brian Doyle

A star has quietly blinked out in the heavens.

A surging river has reached the end of its tumultuous journey and transitioned into the eternity of the sea.

A voice as clear and pure as a crystal bell has rung out its last metaphor and repetition, leaving behind a resounding silence.

One of "the Good People," in the purest Irish sense of the word, has left us.

The first poem I read by Brian Doyle left me weeping and asking aloud, "Who is this man?" One of the finest writers of our time, it turns out. A man of love and life and laughter and more love and more laughter. A dreamy poet and even dreamier novelist who crafted words with the same playfulness as Yeats, the same passion as Dylan Thomas, but with a style so unique it could only have been a gift to us from the Universe.

And oh, how I will miss him. How we all will, his wife, his family, his friends, and all the thousands of us who read his work and reeled from its beauty.

I miss him already. As I write this, I'm halfway through his novel, Mink River (a novel I put off reading for too long, it turns out), and I don't want it to end, so I'm dragging my feet, reading a couple of pages a day, savoring the words, the poetry, the longing, the deep love, the impossibly long lists of flora and fauna, the archetypes, the archaic languages—Gaelic, Latin, "American"—the innocence of the children, the mystic wisdom of the non-human characters. What a book.

What a writer. What a voice. What a short life for someone so filled with it, so willing to offer it.

I am bereft. We are bereft. There are no words for this loss. Here, then, are some of Brian's:

Last Prayer 
by Brian Doyle
Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever. Personally I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened! And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we would not have children but then came three children fast and furious! And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them! And You let me write some books that weren't half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment. I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small. But no man was ever more grateful for Your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago. But hey, listen, can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life—make him the biggest otter ever and I'll know him right away, okay? Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon. Remember—otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.