Monthly Archives: June 2014

Reconnecting.

I bought a guitar yesterday. Well, technically I put some money down on it and will be paying it off next week. But I’m excited about it. It’s an old guitar (it’s from the 80’s—and yes, it occurred to me that guitars from back then can legitimately be called “old” now) and it was really comfortable to play. I liked the way it sounded, and… yeah, done! That was it. (The guitar was also under budget, which made it feel extra good.)

The larger purpose here, and why I mention this in my blog, is because I’m going through a process of intentionally reconnecting with myself. That phrase may not make much sense on the surface, so let me explain.

Way back in college, at the end of my freshman year, I became a Christian. And I don’t mean “Christian” like a Methodist or a Lutheran or something ineffectual like that. I mean that I became part of the evangelical subculture. It was serious business.

I still remember one of my first post-conversion encounters with a longtime Christian. I was at a sort of summer camp for Christians (? not really sure about its purpose, other than to make college students more Christian-y). I was noodling around on an acoustic guitar one evening, talking with a few people about the music that I liked. (I believe that I had mentioned Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.) Some random guy came up to me and said, “I would really encourage you to give all that stuff up.” Which is the evangelical passive-aggressive way of saying “you won’t be right with Jesus until you get rid of your demon music.”

My first thought was “who the fuck is this guy?” But I was young and naive, and I was also the new kid on the block. So, okay. Maybe he has a point, I thought. Maybe I would be better off without these “secular” influences in my life. I was bummed though, because I had just bought the newest Rush album, and I guess that was going to have to go.

Nevertheless, I did end up following through on his suggestion. Later that summer, I bought an album by a Christian rock band called Petra (one of the replacement bands recommended to me), and tried to like it. Very hard. The music was not anything I would have been drawn to stylistically, and it was a sort of cheap knock-off version of it at that. The message did resonate with me, however. I was trying to ground my new faith, and the lyrics were filled with “you can do it” encouragement and bold, declarative statements. (Looking back, I wonder why this reasurance would have been necessary.)

So I kept that album, and slowly started weeding out my non-Christian music. Eventually I got to the point where I had nothing but Christian CDs in my collection (including more Petra albums). During that time, I had developed an instinctive negative reaction to secular music. The lyrics expressed uncertainty, doubt, negativity; all the things I had come to mistrust as an evangelical Christian. I was afraid of where such thoughts might take me, though I never expressed exactly why that was frightening to me.

Despite all this, I found myself a few years later remarking that I still resonated more with something like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” than any Christian album that I had listened to. And I thought that there was something wrong with that. I had started to become aware that some Christian music was superficial and overly simplistic in its prescribed solutions to life’s problems. (As I liked to put it at the time, an issue would be raised in the first verse, and get resolved by the second chorus.) But rather than challenge the big picture of what I had bought into, I thought that the answer lay in creating Christian music that contained the same level of vulnerability (and to be honest, artistry) as the music that I had formerly appreciated, while still containing a Christian message.

What I was playing around the edges at, and what I later came to realize fully, was that the entire belief system of Christianity was “superficial and overly simplistic”. But it took me a very long time, and the jolt of some very bad experiences, to come to grips with this. In the meantime, however, I was still firmly entrenched in the religion. To the extent that I set out to create my own Christian music, which hopefully would meet the criteria of vulnerability and artistry that I had set for it. While still of course containing a Christian message.

Ironically, the story I came up with to undergird this music was of a young man who became a Christian and found himself isolated, from himself and others, in a world of phony religiosity. Even then I was trying to tell myself something.

But there’s that phrase again. “Isolated from himself”. I had created a false persona, and told myself that that was the real me. Because that’s how the religion works. You are instructed to “die to yourself”, which means that everything about you is now on the chopping block. Because it may be infected by sin, and probably is. So you have to excise all of that stuff, and replace it with Jesus. (If this sounds like voluntary brainwashing, it’s because it is.)

That’s why I got rid of all my CDs. That’s why I systematically isolated myself from all of my non-Christian college friends. And that’s why I decided that post-graduation, I was going to enroll in seminary, with the hope of becoming a “Christian musician”.

But I had long since stopped listening to myself. Instead, I was listening to the narrative that had been sold to me (and which I had accepted). According to that narrative, I had to be willing to sacrifice anything that was important to me, the way Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own child because God had told him to do so. I had held on to music (because that was something you could still do as a Christian), though I eventually jumped at the chance to become a church worship leader, singing and playing exactly the kind of superficial, overly simplistic music that I had previously rejected. And when even that was taken away, I said “okay” and didn’t fight it.

So what I’m trying to do now, what has been long overdue, is to reconnect with myself. To ask myself “what do I like?” Because I had spent so many years believing that question to be irrelevant. What is important to me? Well, music, for one thing. More important, however, is that I even ask the question. That’s really what I’m after here. To get practiced at this.

Why? Because, let’s face it, I’ve only got one life here. I’m already “not young” anymore, even if I don’t qualify as “old” yet. And I don’t want to end up like another Willy Loman, getting to the end of my life and lamenting what could have been. A huge part of that, as I’ve learned recently, is to stop being passive about my own life. To take responsibility for myself. (This is also a huge part of combating anxiety / depression. Because it feels shitty to think that you don’t have any control over your life, and it feels great to realize that you actually do.)

So I bought a guitar.

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Guitar shopping.

I didn’t write yesterday morning as I usually do, because I was out with a friend at a guitar store. But I see that as a natural outgrowth of what I’ve been doing here. One of the most important things that I’ve learned in recent months is the need to listen to myself, and then to act upon whatever it is that I might hear. To do something about it.

So that’s what I did. And it was a great time. I learned a lot, talked a lot, and figured out more about what I’m after musically, or artistically, or perhaps in life (never being one to shy away from a metaphor).

Here’s what happened. I went to this store not really sure about what I might be looking for. My intent was (and is) to buy an electric guitar, so that I can start playing and hopefully recording again. But what kind of electric guitar? There are a million to choose from, as the very large store we went to attested. I had some ideas, and I knew the basic varieties that were out there, but I wanted to find the one that was right for me (taking into account everything that I’ve learned about music and guitar playing over the past 25 years).

So I looked over a bunch of Fenders and Gibsons (the Fords and Chevys of guitars), and found myself shrugging and saying, “Okay, sure…?” Both had their own distinctive qualities, and both were very different from one another. I knew all this. Every guitar player knows this. But I just wasn’t inspired by either one.

Because what it always came down to for me was, what would I be giving up if I bought one kind over the other? I like certain things about Fender guitars, and I like certain things about Gibson guitars. But I don’t like either enough to pick one of them and be happy with it. I would always be second-guessing whichever decision I made. And I have done this in years past, as I went from one guitar to the next, never satisfied.

As you can tell, and as I realized yesterday, I was really overthinking it. I could have gone back and forth forever, debating pros and cons in my head. When all the time I was feeling no real pull toward either one. There was no passion for any of these guitars, no connection to them. Even when I went over to look at the Paul Reed Smith guitars (the most successful hybrid of Fender and Gibson guitars), I felt nothing. I’d been here before. Driven by the same obsessive need to find “the right guitar” for me.

All of this, I realized, was in my head. When I took a step back, I realized that I didn’t care about any of it. What I was feeling was a desire for something a bit quirky, a bit weird. Like some random piece of shit guitar that had been traded in a while ago, and was currently hanging on a hook at the back of the store.

And here’s the funny thing about that: when I envisioned such a guitar, I didn’t imagine any particular configuration or design or anything. It was like all of that stuff didn’t even matter, when it came right down to it. I just wanted something fun that had character. Whatever that might be.

Here’s where the metaphor comes in. I’ve spent years of my life second-guessing decisions that I’ve made, or thinking obsessively through what I think I need in order to find “the right life” for me. I need this, I don’t want that. Or maybe I do want that, but I don’t need this. Bla bla bla. None of it leads anywhere, and none of it is connected to what’s really going on inside me.

Because what I really want is to be happy. That’s all there is to it. And all of the circular thinking about pros and cons and this and that have nothing to do with happiness. Because when I am happy—when I pick up that fun, quirky piece of shit guitar—it doesn’t matter what it has and what it doesn’t have. What matters is that I’m feeling inspired.

This is what I’ve found to be true in life. When I’m feeling connected to myself, and to those around me, the specific circumstances of life matter very little. Everyone’s life has pros and cons. Because that’s the way life is. But that’s not what matters. What matters is just picking up the guitar, no matter how dinged up or weatherbeaten it may be, and making music with it.

Wanderlust.

I did one of those BuzzFeed quizzes this past week. I don’t even remember what it was about, but one of the questions was: “What would you do if you won the lottery?” One of the options was “Travel the world”, and without hesitating I clicked on that one.

Which seemed odd to me at the time. I’ve done plenty of traveling in my life. I’ve been to eight different countries that I can remember offhand, as well as a bunch of places within the US (including Hawaii and Alaska!). I’ve always thought that I was done with all of that, that all I wanted to do now was find the right place to live, and park it there for the duration.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like “travel” was something I still wanted to do. I don’t know where I’d like to go exactly, or how I would accomplish this (traveling costs money), but I realized that I’m not as ready to settle as I thought I was.

I’ve never felt completely at home in the US. It’s certainly familiar to me, and I get the culture and the people. But I don’t know how much of a connection I feel to it. No doubt this is partially due to the fact that I spent five years of my childhood overseas, in places that were most definitely not America. Also, my mother was born and raised in Australia, so I’ve always had a conscious sense of being “half-American”.

In more recent years, my gradual shift away from religion toward atheism (preceded by a corresponding political shift) has highlighted this feeling of disconnectedness. America is a religious nation. I’m not. Truth be told, I’m sick to death of religion, of the very idea of it. I’ve found myself wondering recently where someone might go if they wanted to live in a country where they wouldn’t have to worry about the influence of religion in politics, in society, in culture. Does such a place exist? I’m not sure.

I think what I’m really looking for is a place where I can regain (or perhaps, “gain”) a connection to my surroundings. I’d like to want to be where I am. I’ve spent almost the past six years wishing I weren’t living in the place where I’m living. It’s not that I don’t like it here. It’s that I hate living here. I’m sure that for some people, exurban Illinois is a lovely place. But for a half-American liberal atheist like myself, it’s not.

I do want to travel again. If only to remind myself that there are other people and places out there. To feel a sense of internal validation. To know that yes, the things I value, think and feel are shared by others, somewhere. Or maybe just to get away from this crushing sense of isolation.

Maybe I do just need to find the right place. Somewhere where my internal warning system can finally take itself off of high alert. It’s been blaring at me for years, telling me that something needs my attention. And I’ve been ignoring it. Trying to, anyway. As I’ve learned by now, ignoring urgent messages from myself is where anxiety and depression originate. But I’m not sure what to do about this one.

Because it isn’t just about me. Wherever I go, I take five other people with me. Who may not necessarily want to go anywhere. And so far, my resolution to this issue has been to put their needs ahead of my own. Which is fine, because there is a part of me that likes to be reassured that I’m taking care of my family. But there is another part of me that is dissatisfied with this.

My long-term resolution to this issue, at least in my mind, has been to tell myself, “someday”. As in, “once the kids are grown”, in another eleven years. Which is kind of a long time. (Twice as long as I’ve lived here in Illinois already.) I wonder if I’ll be able to last that long. And what I will do in the meantime.

I mean, I have to do something. I don’t have any answers, but as I wrote last week, I have been making baby steps back toward prioritizing the things that are important to me. I went out to a music store that day, and I think I’ll do the same today as well. It’s not everything, but it is something. And it does help. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

 

Meedley meedley mee.

Last week I wrote about music. It’s been on my mind ever since. So I’ve decided to start doing something about that. Today I’m going out to a guitar store, or several. Just to see what’s out there. It’s been a long time and I’m out of the loop.

Plus, I love guitar stores. I just love being there, surrounded by instruments and amps and racks of cables and strings. All of it. It’s my natural habitat. And noodling around with a bunch of different guitars is super fun for me.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to it as an exercise in listening. Not to the guitars, but to myself. I want to play a bunch of different guitars and see what I resonate with. I’m not planning to buy anything. I just want to listen.

It’ll be good practice for me. And it’ll be good to be pursuing something that I’m passionate about. I find that that kind of clarity is contagious. Once I learn how to hear the voice that says “yeah, this matches up with you”, it becomes easier to recognize it in other areas of my life.

That’s really all that I have to say right now. But I’m still checking in to mark what I hope is some forward progress on this path.