The Phoenix Gift

It was time.

The bare bulb threw sharp shadows, angular in their diminished brilliance, leaving remote closet corners barely illuminated. Casting about the cluttered closet — that mortuary of materialism where much that was once precious now lies entombed in dust and disuse — a glimpse of a black vinyl case peaked through the litter: this was it. Clambering over the clutter, I grasped the handle, and stumbled across the junk to lift it free.

It seemed so very heavy, perhaps less from its mass than from the burden of its past, and the history which it bore. It had been many, many years since I had shouldered that weight.

Flipping its latches and opening the lid, a fleeting sense of emptiness filled me, in that dark, ill-lit corner of the soul where unfathomable loss resides, long since grieved, rationalized, and set aside amongst the litter of life’s unmet expectations, disappointments, and futile hopes, in that process we euphemistically call “moving on.”

The passion had been real, and intense, if short-lived. From the infancy of struggle to master simple chords and rhythmic strumming; to the adolescent incoherence of lessons teaching orchestral chord comping and chordal melodies in an age of Hendrix and Cream; to the maturity of a group of bizarrely eclectic musicians hammering together rock rhythms and jazz harmonies into something akin to fusion jazz, well before anyone quite knew what to call such a musical chimera: throughout this musical coming of age I had discovered something which, for the first time in those younger days, expressed the depths of a soul at once both lonely and frightened, yet hopeful and excited. Hours were spent in practice; days in arranging pieces I had written in the still-unfamiliar language of musical notation; years in coming to a place where I felt comfortable creating and performing something uniquely of my own spirit with and before others.

As that dusty case swung opened, the guitar now in full view, I experienced as well, for a brief instant, another moment in time: The cockiness of overconfidence unwarranted by experience or training. The intoxicating smell of hardwood carved by blindingly fast blades. The gunshot sound of mahogany hurtled across a room to land splintered on hard concrete. The first stunned look at a hand mangled beyond recognition. The shouts and chaos of a wood shop where something catastrophic had just occurred. The utter despondency of seeing a musical gift, once soaring and graceful, now fallen in the ashes of a smoldering and dying dream. The other-worldly moment where I mysteriously felt moved to thank God for what had just happened — and the stunning inner peace that followed immediately thereupon. The long, painful recovery filled with false hope that I could use my left hand to play again. The brief and fruitless attempt to play with my opposite hand a decade later, soon abandoned in frustration as I came to terms with a loss which was not to be regained, mourned alone in dark rooms with inconsolable, sobbing tears.

It was time to sell this guitar, and move on.

I gently picked up the instrument, its strings dull and lifeless, its frets oxidized and rough, its neck slightly bowed by years of constant pull from strings left tuned to pitch. I sat, and began, gently, to strum, a little.

And a small smoldering ember deep within briefly flickered into flame.

It would need to be cleaned up to sell. New strings, a gentle polishing of frets with fine steel wool, some tender cleaning and polishing of wood dulled by dust and grime, and it found new life again. The guitar, a low-end left-handed Stratocaster built in Japan in the 80’s, would not bring much on eBay. The action was too high, the bridge and tuners low-quality, but the active pickups I had installed shortly after it was purchased had superb sound — and made it seem worth saving. Perhaps I should keep it, upgrade some components, and sell it then — or even give this silly idea of playing one more chance. After all, you never know…

Two months later, a new guitar emerged, with high-quality hardware, a new neck, and far enhanced playability. The project was a sheer joy, as I mastered new skills at guitar repair and setup. The time spent waiting had not been wasted, as I set about laboriously mastering the basic skills necessary to play again.

It was far more labor than play.

Most guitar players play “right-handed” — which paradoxically means they use their left hand to finger the notes to play on the fretted neck, while their right hand plucks the strings directly or with a flat pick. Switching to “left-handed” meant the right hand handled the fretting duty — made somewhat easier by being the stronger, dominant hand — but now meant the weaker left hand, with much reduced finger flexibility and strength from the injury, had to handle picking the strings. Even holding a pick was exasperating at first, as it shifted position constantly or dropped out of my fingers altogether, leading to endless frustration. The pick hand must also move nimbly across the strings, coordinating the string plucked with those fretted by the right. The lack of left-right coordination was maddening, as striking the wrong string, or multiple dissonant strings — compounded by the challenges of controlling the pick — made for painful and fumbling attempts to play even the simplest melody line or chord progression.

Then there was the mind-muscle disconnect: the mind had a pretty good (albeit rather rusty) idea of what to play, from my previous musical training and experience — but the muscles controlling the fingers had an entirely different idea, and balked at positioning themselves to manage even simple chords and scales. One day would bring apparent progress; the next would leave me with little doubt that this whole effort was foolishness and futile, a waste of time better spent on more productive pursuits.

But yet I persisted, driven in no small part by the reawakened passion to play — and the determination and persistence that time and maturity have taught me are the only way to accomplish any goal which is worthwhile. I have just begun taking lessons, putting aside the all-too-easy presumption that I can magically acquire skills without the guidance of others and the disciplined paths they prescribe.

And I am making progress which is both encouraging and measurable. I have not as yet reached a level by any means where I am competent, much less accomplished — but I have reached a place from where such an accomplishment is no longer a hopeless fantasy, but a realizable and foreseeable future.

And I can now see, through eyes of faith, a day where my spirit may once again soar on the winds of song and the harmonies of the heart. To die, and be born again; to be immolated, and rise from life’s ashes; these are the mysteries and the wonders of the ever-unfolding journey of faith.

There can be little doubt that there will be much music in heaven — soaring, glorious, beautiful beyond words. And I now know that I shall be there, adding in some small measure to that infinite and glorious song of eternity.

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10 thoughts on “The Phoenix Gift

  1. WOW! I started out saying to myself, “I really don’t want to read about a guitar…” But once started I could not quit.

    Well done.

    I look forward to playing with you in Heaven.

  2. Hey Doc, haven’t had a chance to comment lately as time has gotten all squeezed around here. But I just wanted to say I appreciate so much your fine insights and wonderful writing skills! Jess

  3. Doc:

    What a wonderful story. As I lifelong musician and music teacher, when I started reading I wanted to scream “Don’t sell it! Give it one more try. ” So glad you did. Overcoming the obstacles is what musicians do, and the best lessons I teach.

    I had a student once who, because of a pre-natal stroke (or some such) was much weaker and less adept on his right side than left. The band director that started him on trombone obviously didn’t know about his limitations, since that instrument requires everything to be done right handed. I changed him to French Horn, where the left hand does the hard work, and watched him thrive, at least in his high school years. I hope he is still playing or, like you, comes back to it again.

    Thanks for the lift.

    Randy Box
    Brentwood High School Band
    Brentwood, TN

  4. I forgot to tell you also – I tried accessing your blog from a public terminal (PC) at a hotel in NYC but your site was banned because of some raunchy verbiage that had snuck into your site metadata. It’s probably a hack of some sort but you may want to check it out. I got the same thing from several other well-visited sites, only conservative ones (oddly enough!) – just an fyi – jess

  5. Love it! I can relate as a former dancer and marathoner now sidelined in middle age because of knee injuries. Mostly I avoid watching the things I used to love doing, too painful a reminder of what I can no longer do. I grumble that a three mile walk after work now just doesn’t cut it.

    But you can’t keep away from such an avocation, as you remind us. I have often used the analogy, trying to explain it to my husband and kids, of an old race horse put out to pasture. But when he hears the starting bell and the horses in the adjacent track start pounding round, he just snorts and gallops himself. Despite being lame. It’s still in every fibre of his being. To which, of course, kids just snark “Oh, so that’s why your feet are never still when you are watching ballet.”

    At some level, even injured, we never forget what we once struggled to master. I comfort myself and exhort myself, believing this as my smart kids endlessly remind me that I am older than the rocks. The thing is to just do it, as you have. To keep doing the thing you once knew how to do so well. And it comes back. And what you are relearning how to play now is just the beta version. In heaven, it’ll be better than before. With all the mods.

  6. I used to play the piano and was actually quite good at it, with far more potential (according to others more qualified to say so) than I had ever developed or ever would. I played in two different churches. I loved playing, even though I never owned a really good piano. I dreamed that, one day, I would have a baby grand in my home. Never did, never will.

    I would never have believed that the day would come when I could no longer play, due to fingers that get more knarly every year or point east, west, or south when they ought to be straight; and to webbing between thumbs and forefingers that will not stretch, as they once did.

    Recently, I pondered whether I should sell the piano I do have, but I’m not ready, yet. Maybe, one day, I’ll be able to play again.

  7. What a wonderful story (though bittersweet). As a guitar player who loves to spend the evening playing blues/rock on my electric, I was particularly moved. When we get to heaven, we’ll all get to sing and play like Phil Keaggy!

  8. Love it Bob – or I guess I should say “Doc” as that seems to be what everyone else you know calls you! It fits – the great ones always have nick names. I look forward to playing with you soon.

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