Monday, March 1, 2010

In which the word "yet" makes all the difference

In Brazil, as a missionary, it was nice to have a place to go when there was really just nowhere else to go. This was Liv’s house. Liv was also a ward missionary, so we frequently enlisted her help in teaching investigators. She lived in a version of the same building that everyone in that part of Santos lived in: a building on stilts, about four stories tall, clean, white brick (except her building was red) and gated.

Liv was a naturally blond Brazilian of Danish ancestry, who, I always thought, looked curiously like she belonged in my family. She had the same kind of mouth, the same round nose and roundish eyes, and the same lank figure as my own mother. The only thing that made her typically Brazilian (if there is such a thing) was her brown eyes. Liv had two sons. The older son, the 14-year-old, played guitar.

Lucas sat playing his guitar one afternoon. He slouched back in his easy chair in the unstudied way of the teenage boy, and stroked the guitar as he would his cat, which was curled up nearby. He effortlessly picked out bits and snatches of several different songs. I was mesmerized. Not many people that I had met in Brazil played any instrument at all, let alone guitar. When i asked how long he'd been playing, Liv proudly told me he'd only been at it about a year, and that he'd basically taught himself. I thought, if he can do that, I can do that.

I could do that.

For Christmas this year I finally stopped dreaming of learning guitar and actually asked for one. I knew it was a long shot. But on Christmas morning, there it was: a roughly triangular box wrapped in yellow paper. I was surprised, and thrilled! But as I held the beautiful, pale instrument in my hands and ran my fingers over the glossy, blond wood, it occurred to me that I had no idea what to do with it. No business to even touch it.

Celeste came to my rescue later that day as I sat, perplexed, with the instrument in my lap. She taught me how to contort my fingers into a G chord and then a C chord. My small fingers were weak and could barely hold the strings firmly enough. The strings dug into my soft fingers and left angry, red lines in the pads. "The calluses will come after a couple weeks," Celeste said. I didn't know if I could stand a couple weeks.

Over the next few days I tirelessly picked out G and C. G and C. G and C. I was more fascinated than irritated by the pain in my fingers. Mom gave me a book of chords. I studied the diagrams. The dots and grid that had been meaningless to me before became frets and finger positions. It was such a little thing, but I felt pretty accomplished every time I strummed out a new chord. And even more successful if I remembered it later. Eventually, I added D, Dsus9, E, Am, and Cm7 to my arsenal of learned chords.

Chords alone weren't enough after a while. I have been a pianist since I was seven. I played in a music ensemble for six years in school. I know music. I wanted to play songs. Songs! I wanted to organize my chords into a logical progression, and sing along if I could. I knew it was asking much after so little time, but I started looking up the chords I needed to play the song I wanted to learn first and started stringing them together. One phrase at a time.

(G) "You always were the..." (Em) " to make us..." (Am) "...stand out in a..." (G) "crowd..."
G to Am to Cm7 to D, etc. I couldn't strum worth crap. Still can't. But I practiced first with my fingers, and then a pick. I watched the way Travis (who plays very well) held his thumb tightly against his fore finger, with or without a pick. I watched how he kept his wrist moving up and down in a regular rhythm to keep the beat steady. I listened very carefully to the song I was learning, and payed attention to which strings of the chord were being played.

I started picking out another song in the meantime. A Brazilian song. It needed only five chords to play. they were kind of obscure chords, but I looked them up, and I watched videos of the artist playing them. I looked at her fingers and copied what she was doing. It was exquisite. An entirely different technique. She didn't strum the chords; she plucked them, like a harp.

Here's another song I want to learn someday. On the guitar, that is. I already know the words.

I haven't mentioned how bad I suck. I'm trying not to focus on that. This is me suppressing the perfectionist in me--which, believe me, needs suppressing in a big way. This is me focusing on not being proud, but humble, and admitting that there are certain things I'm no good at.