by J J Cohen
Today is day five of my struggle to live with an object that places impossible demands upon me. Partly due to your encouragement, I am learning to play acoustic guitar. Or perhaps more accurately, I am learning to learn how to play the instrument.
My hunch that Craigslist would be replete with unwanted instruments proved wrong, so securing one took some time. Last week a friend gave me his to borrow, a guitar he bought while in Japan many years ago. He'd been keeping it in storage, having decided that he could play with precision, but not passion. I like learning on an instrument with a history, with an object that has been loved. A neighbor suggested a teacher for me, a man she hired last year when her husband died suddenly. She decided in the sorrow of his absence to learn to play the acoustic guitar he'd left behind, and has been making a progress I'll never match.
My first lesson was Sunday. I learned immediately the clumsiness of my hands: I would try to arch them, curve them, attempt to hold the strings singly and tightly near the frets, but my digits weren't so keen on taking these orders from my brain. My teacher, Jamie, is patient. He insists that it'll work only once I have a muscle memory of how to produce the chords, and the only way to gain that knowledge in the body is repetition. He tries to be encouraging, and on the rare occasion when I get something right he gives me a heartfelt yeah. You can hear one of these moments at the end of this video I made with my iPhone to help me to remember how to position my fingers.
Despite my iPhone and finger placement charts and YouTube resources, though, reproducing the positions for the various chords has been a challenge. Each evening I work at chords for a long time and then I get it, but the next day I'm almost starting from scratch, frustrated because I can't remember that Jamie taught me to make a kind of triangle with three fingers for an A chord rather than a straightforward line. But I persevere, and I notice that my fingers are becoming more dexterous, that I create fewer humming noises, that sometimes I actually get a chord right and it is powerfully beautiful. Then I fail at the next chord, repeatedly. I know: it's like learning a language, and I have to give my body time to master new skills so that I don't have to think before acting. A lesson in patience, a virtue in which I am sometimes sorely lacking.
You would think that as a medievalist I'd have nothing but patience. I didn't learn Old Norse, Latin or ancien français in a week, after all. I'm still learning to allow myself my mistakes. It's a lesson I'm trying to bring into other parts of my life. I am that annoying person who makes most every deadline, often early so that I can have time to work over the "final" product one more time or to move on to the next thing I've committed to (the best way to be efficient? Overcommit; you'll have no choice). I'm also an inveterate plotter and planner: that's why MEMSI exists, that's why New Critical Modes and Ecomaterialism are coming into being, that's why my schedule of public talks actually runs well into 2012. I'm impatient with myself, and at my worst impatient with others when they don't keep up with me. I felt this intensely during the past few weeks as I've assembled the funding application for MEMSI for the next two years. I've tried to be thorough, to prevent any possible problem from arising, to have every person within the university who might question an assumption or slam on a brake to buy into the proposal before it is delivered. It's hard work, and I'll be happy to have it out of my life: but because it's been so time consuming it's also made me weary with handling details related to all the other things going on as the term begins. It is possible that on Facebook I even threatened to shoot rubber bands at my graveyard-quiet Chaucer class to liven them up. So, an addendum to my resolution, a resolve that must go hand in hand with my baby steps on guitar: patience.