A Year in the Life, Week 40: First You Have to Teach a Lesson

This week’s writing exercise in A Year in the Life prompted me to write about a time that “learning a lesson” was somehow connected to a secret that you kept. I wrote about learning to play guitar when I was 22.

Perhaps I wanted to learn guitar since those nights when I was four years old, lying on the floor of my dad’s band room and feeling the vibration of its music against my cheek. But I remember really recognizing the desire when I was older, the way my heart sort of trembled in response to the jangle of an acoustic guitar–how I wanted to be a person who felt a guitar pressed against my body, and found a way to tell all my secrets that way. I could always write, but music could do something, express something, that words never could or would.

I saw the ad for guitar and violin lessons at Chester Creek Cafe when I went for grounds and grace. I don’t remember what actually pushed me to call it, but I know I left a message. And then I was scared–because I thought I couldn’t afford it, or that I was too old to learn. But Sara kept calling me back, until I finally agreed to lessons out of guilt.

I had Jessica’s old acoustic guitar, which hadn’t been played in maybe 15 years. I remember that first lesson, how Sara tuned it and remarked that it didn’t sound that bad. She taught me G and C and Am. I don’t know if we learned any songs. She gave me the “standard” strumming pattern that I still use all the time.

That was July. I practiced every day, or nearly. I was so lonely, up in my bedroom in that empty house, the breeze from Lake Superior wafting through the window.

Those first couple weeks, I was astounded at how my fingers burned, as if I’d held them on a hot stove. Then I was equally astounded when the callouses developed and the pain went away. I think that was the first step in really feeling like a guitar player.

And suddenly one day, I was moving between chords without pausing to look at the cheat sheet, or to painstakingly move my fingers. They seemed to magically leap between the chords, and now all that strumming was beginning to sound like a song. And when the movement of my fingers on the fretboard started feeling totally natural and effortless, then I began to sing along.

That was when it really started to get rewarding. I surfed the Internet looking for songs I could play, feeling a rush of elation when what I played sounded like what I heard on my CDs. I played tons of Kasey Chambers and Dar Williams and “Vincent Black Lightning, 1952.” I tried to play “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in honor of Matt, but I never could get that one right.

My guitar went with me everywhere, and I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. I had a new companion. I had discovery and elation to fill the long hours alone. I had interaction with a real person, someone my own age, once a week–Sara, my guitar teacher, in the practice room in the old school converted into artists’ apartments that I would end up living in later for six years.

I took my guitar out to Montana when I visited Katrina there, and it was playing in her presence that I felt the confirmation of what I was beginning to suspect–I was making real music. After I got back to my room in Duluth, groggy from the drive that followed an overnight Amtrak ride, I started playing a sequence of chords and setting my own lyrics to them. Frantically, I scribbled verses into my “Misfits” journal, hardly believing what I was doing — I was writing a song.

Playing one of my songs at a coffee shop

I had been playing for only two months, and I was astounded at how quickly I’d reached this dream that had felt unattainable for so many years. I wasn’t a “musical” person, had no natural sense of rhythm or “ear” for music–but somehow, I was writing songs anyway.

It was about my best friend from childhood, and it carried the ache that I still felt at somehow having lost her, or having her leave me. I wrote about how much I loved her, and how angry I was at the rampant homophobia that made us afraid to show each other even the most casual physical affection. When I played it for Sara, I know she thought it was a coming-out song. But it wasn’t, not yet.

That came later, when I started listening to tapes of my lessons just so I could hear her voice as I drifted to sleep. And then, the way I noticed the shape of her neck as she sang at the coffeeshop down the road from the house I lived in. “And I first loved you for the shape of your throat,” I wrote, in a song a played for her much, much later, because it was vague enough that she wouldn’t know.

That wasn’t my “coming out” song, either. My “coming out” song was called, “The Song You’ll Never Hear,” and I wrote it the day after I had watched her sing at the coffee-shop, and things just fell into place in my mind.

After that, I stood outside her door with butterflies in my belly every time I waited for the lesson before me to finish. I wrote probably a dozen songs about her, none of which I think are much good now.

Still, good or not, they were crucial in my breakthrough that year, in helping me embrace what I had been running from since I was 13 —

it was okay to want a woman.

It was beautiful, in fact.

I swore at the time that I was in love with her, but I don’t count her among the “true” loves of my life (two women, two men, it doesn’t get much more split down the middle than that). I was merely infatuated with her but deeply in love with the possibility I glimpsed through her — the possibility that I could be a musician, the possibility that I could enjoy attraction no matter who it was attached to, the possibility that I could finally, finally, be my whole self.

She never knew it, but she led me across that bridge, between who I thought I was and who I really was; she and that guitar came into my life at a time when I thought I would go crazy with loneliness. But I didn’t go crazy. Instead, I learned to play guitar.