Five years or so ago, I quit playing the guitar. I had just enough arthritis in my left hand that it was difficult, and occasionally painful, to play. At the time, I had a lot of my personal identity wrapped up in being a guitar player. I have often said that I don’t practice regret, but there have been a couple frustrations, or disappointments in my life; close perhaps but not fully a regret. I’ve always been frustrated that I didn’t pursue music more than I did; even as a so-called career path.
The other frustration: I first lived on a boat in the early 1990s after a divorce. Those were lean days as I was starting a business too, but they were some of the best days of my life. The boat was anchored off a park, downtown Sarasota, where I rowed to shore each morning, locked my dinghy to a palm tree, and biked to work. I knew then that all I really wanted to do was bum around on a boat. I can’t believe that I tried a couple more times to have a normal career before I committed to the sailing life.
Back to the guitar: it has been with me a long time. Here is a picture of me with a toy guitar looking like I’m on top of the world. Ironically, right behind me is Uncle Bob who later taught me to actually play a real guitar.
Uncle Bob and Aunt Chris sang beautifully together, with Bob playing as they sang; often around a campfire. We were a camping family and sometimes had big campground-wide sing-a-long jam sessions at a state park campground. One year Uncle Bob showed me a couple chords and by the time I was eleven or twelve, he was instrumental in me acquiring my first guitar.
I began playing and sometimes singing around the campfire too. In eighth grade, our school had a camp where we all went to a park on the southside of town for a night or two. I had brought my guitar and at one point had a circle of girls around me and my guitar, but I couldn’t get it tuned up. I’m pretty sure that would have been life-changing if I had crooned away to a bunch of girls at such a young age. Further, I’m quite certain that the problem was my barely trained ear and not the guitar. If I’d have just started playing rather than obsessing about the tuning, I would have been all right.
I was also interested in jazz and took jazz guitar lessons. Not only did I play in my school’s jazz band, I played in a jazz band as a part of the Michigan Lions All-State Band. We actually traveled to an International Lions Club Convention in Phoenix; me traveling with my baritone horn AND my guitar. [ technically then, I’ve toured as a guitar player ] I wasn’t that good, but I knew just enough to fake it.
I even had the audacity to tryout for the Michigan State University jazz band and took a jazz improvisation class along with my other classes. In a back-handed compliment, the Director of Jazz Music at MSU, who was teaching the improv class, told me that my playing was very interesting, but that I really needed to know my instrument a little better to actually pull it off.
This was about the peak of my first era of playing the guitar. It didn’t help that my new girlfriend had just previously had a boyfriend who was an accomplished guitar player. The first few bits that I played for her impressed so little that I just put it down. College and a nascent career kept me from getting back into playing. For years, each time I moved, I moved a guitar with me but never touched it.
Ironically, losing the tip of my finger led me to get back into the guitar. At a Thanksgiving dinner, after my finger had healed, a brother-in-law showed me his treasure – the guitar his father had played as a Chicago jazz man. It was a beautiful hollow body guitar with an arched fretboard. He let me try it – and I played a little! I was thrilled that what was left of my fingertip could still manage hold a string down. I was so outwardly happy that the next month that brother- and sister-in-law gave me a a guitar for Christmas. It was an inexpensive Yamaha but it was priceless to me simply because I was playing again.
One of my best friends and I played together and sang for over four hours in the middle of the night after his daughter’s wedding reception. Whenever there’s a post on Facebook about their anniversary I can remember the last peak of my playing. It was shortly after that post-reception jam session that I began to have trouble with my arthritic finger.
Back in the day, I had been told that it was imperative to go to college immediately following high school. More than occasionally, I’ve wished that I had paused long enough to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. Not that I would have known at eighteen anyway, but I feel I likely would have gone into music in some way. Nevertheless, arthritis is increasingly telling me what I can and can’t do with my hands. The wisdom I have gained just recently has allowed me to see how thankful I actually am that I didn’t get what I had once thought I wanted. Losing some of my dexterity might have been devastating if I had built a career around the guitar; or even just music more generally.
This new perspective has allowed me to see that I am actually very thankful the boat life has taken so long. I’ve been working on “escaping” for twelve years, but the universe knew what it was doing. Last year, when Mom needed me, I wasn’t off on some remote island; out of touch. I was able to stop what I was doing and go back to Michigan to help the family help her. I had the privilege of spending precious time with Mom, and with Dad, in her last months. So very thankful.
And before I left Michigan to return to my life on the water, I ended up with a different boat. As I’ve written this new-to-me boat is a bit of a compromise. She is not quite as big as the boat I was working on. And she is not the badass ocean boat that my previous project could have been. She is, however, nearly ready to sail, very capable and will take me many places I’ve longed to go. The previous boat was ready to handle more than I might ever be capable of and could easily have gone around the world. This new boat, the Ruth Ann, will keep me in a slightly less wide open state of mind. Once I was presented with this new opportunity, it was a very conscious choice to force myself to be more practical.
So, about the universe and this life; anyone’s life. Don’t rush it; whatever it is that you’re doing. Keep at it – I’ve been working my ass off all this time – but don’t lament if it’s not happening the way you envisioned or as fast as you thought you wanted it to go. Keep your mind and your heart open, as much to where you might be needed as to where you want to go. The universe knows what it’s doing. If you are focused – but open – things will come together, eventually, in ways that are better for you and bigger than your imagination could have conjured on its own.
For what it's worth, and maybe perfectly in line with all that I've just said, I have been dragging around a couple ukuleles and lately have finally had the time and the inclination to try and play a little. It's working. There is something about the smaller neck that is allowing me to play comfortably. It is an unexpected blessing to have some musical therapy back in my life.