This is an essay I wrote about a year ago, hence the reference to a recent move. It’s based on an exercise in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I thought it might be fun to share it with you.
As I type this I am sitting in the office of our new home. We have moved twice in just over seven months. A friend of mine aptly referred to this as our momentary lapse of sanity. While we loved our “new” house we were in earlier this year, it was located a bit far from our kids’ school. Even though I had made a couple of test drives before we moved, we still ended up being in the car a lot more than we had anticipated. So, when the opportunity fell in our lap (I’ll have to tell you about that one sometime) we jumped at the chance and moved into what our kids call the “new new house.” Even though we’ve only been here a few short weeks it feels like we’ve been here forever. Right now I’m looking at stacks of books and paraphernalia. They wound up where they are not by careful placement but because that’s where they got put when we unpacked. They’ll probably stay that way for a good while…
In my line of sight is also something I’ve had so long that I almost fail to notice it, blending in with my guitars and other musical gear. It’s small enough to fit in one of Anne Lamott’s intriguing one-inch picture frames, yet holds a huge amount of significance on my life. It’s the first violin I owned when I was in first grade.
I remember the day well when I was six years old playing in the driveway of our first house when I was a kid. My Mom’s brown Caprice bumped over the curb and into the driveway. She worked at the local middle school where she first taught and then later became the school librarian.
“Mark, would you like to take violin lessons with Mrs. Proteau?”
It is absolutely crazy to think how some of my most major decisions in life have been of that same quick nature. I’d like to think that my odds at success have probably been about the same as anyone else’s but I’ve saved myself the hassle and worry of weighing the pros and cons of a major decision. In this case, it was the decision to become a musician.
That night we loaded the family up and drove down to the Ken Stanton Music on Austell Road. Upon entering the store I was filled with that wide-eyed wonderment of experiencing something for the first time. I was immediately taken by the smell of wood. Hanging on the walls were all kinds of strange looking brass and wooden musical instruments of different shapes. I recognized the guitars and the trumpets and the flutes, but there were so many more. I wanted to learn about all of them.
A sales clerk with red hair and a mustache presently walked up to us. “How can I help you?”
My mom answered. “This is our son Mark. He’s about to take violin lessons, and we wanted to see about renting him an instrument.”
The word rent stuck out to me. Rent sounded too much like borrow. I wanted this violin to be my own.
“OK let me show you what we’ve got.”
“We should probably let you know that he’s left-handed. Do you carry left-handed violins?”
“We do, but if I can offer you one piece of advice, it would be to start him out on a right-handed instrument. I always recommend it because it’s so much easier to find an instrument that way. And you have to use both hands anyway, right?”
My parents and the sales clerk shared that polite kind of laugh that grownups do. I was going to be a left-handed person playing a right-handed instrument. I grew up playing violin right-handed. Later when I took up guitar, I would play it right-handed as well. Sometimes I wonder if I would’ve been some kind of virtuoso had we not taken the advice of red-haired music store guy.
The drive home felt like hours. I just couldn’t wait to get home and play my new violin. When we did finally get home, I ran to my room and took the violin out of the case. I arranged all my stuffed animals in rows on the carpet in front of the bunk beds. I proceeded to give them a full-on concert. The fact that I had no idea how to play violin didn’t matter one bit. As I dragged the bow across the strings, they let out a satisfying screech. It was on.
My mom’s vision for me involved playing classical violin in the orchestra. For the next ten years I would take violin lessons and later played in the orchestra at school. My dad, on the other hand, dreamed of me playing country fiddle. I have many memories of him calling me into the living room to see some guy playing fiddle on Hee Haw or Austin City Limits. On this night, however, I was living out a dream of my own. I was Ace Frehley from KISS, and my stuffed animals were the good people of Detroit who came out to get their faces rocked off. And it was my duty to make their ears bleed.
BTW if you want to try this exercise, stay right where you’re sitting. Use your hands to imitate a little one by one inch picture frame. Hold your imaginary frame up until it lands on something. Then right an essay about that something. Thanks to my friend Becky for the idea!