Balm in Gilead

UkesIf playing music is an ocean, I just have my toes dipped in. I may never be fully submersed and swimming out to sea, but I’m never leaving the shore, either.

I tried to learn to play guitar when I was a kid; I asked for a guitar for my birthday, and my parents got me one and signed me up for lessons. The lessons were awful; electric guitars with headphones so we could hear ourselves and the instructor could switch among the students, listen in, and give us feedback through our headsets. Nice theory; crappy execution. Male 30-something teacher, three teenage boys and I as students. It was a boys’ locker room. I quit.

Time passed, decades of dedicated audienceship and a few years of Mennonite four-part harmony and how good I sounded hiding in it. Enter my own sweet love, one M. Hill, who played guitar solo or in bands for 30 years before I met her. She would plunk away on her acoustic, singing little love songs while I made supper. Bliss.

In the way that lovers trade histories and point out old tender spots, I told her the guitar lesson story. Christmas rolled around; she bought me a guitar. Taught me a few things. I tried to learn from a book. She was patient and it wasn’t a locker room, but … it didn’t go well.

I didn’t say “I can’t” in my out-loud voice, but I felt it in my heart. The beautiful, glowing guitar went into the closet. (I know. You wouldn’t believe how much it hurts to write those words.)

Then, a few months ago, for some reason, my sweetheart started saying “We should get ukuleles.” I would look at her funny. What part of “It didn’t work out” did she not understand? She’s say, “Only four strings.” Another friend said, “Simple chords,” and strummed, and I thought, “Well, simple for you,” but I also thought, “Two less strings … well … maybe.”

It’s just that I have always wanted to make music. Not just listen to it. But to have it live in my body the way the Spirit does … and come out of my body, the way dancing does. It’s love, right? Right.

I talked myself out of it. Focus on the job search, do your writing, etc. Aaand then one day I said to my beloved M, “Let’s go look at ukuleles.” And we talked each other into one each.

A day later, and there is our love song, “You are My Sunshine,” coming out of my strings and my mouth and I am singing to my sweetheart. A couple of days later and “Amazing Grace” is coming off my strings. A couple of days after that I pick up a 3/4 strum that makes it sound even more real. I spend a week in Philly with my sweetheart and we play in the mornings and the evenings, working up a blues progression and “Ain’t She Sweet,” giggling and strumming.

And then I learned “Balm in Gilead.” Because that song — and how we sounded at Peace Mennonite Church singing in plaintive unison and open-heart harmony — never leaves me. I don’t have a congregation I can sing like that with these days, but when I play the notes, and sing the words, that’s church. Four-string church.

The first time M and I played it through, I erupted into tears. And just cried for a long while. That experience — you musicians know it — and I don’t know how you keep living through it — of having the Spirit well up in you and come out your feelings and your fingers and your voice … It is an ecstasy that doesn’t take you out of yourself: it takes you deeper into yourself and connects you to the Holy and to all that is.

When I hit the C chord and sing “balm,” my voice hits the sound rising from the strings and in the resonance there is balm. A balm for my weary soul, for all the aches in my heart, and all the losses in this fucked-up, beautiful world that I can do little to nothing about.

When I sing that note, and the tears flow, it’s like there are arms holding my broken heart, and helping me to hold the hurt of all the world: murdered children, closed minds, fearful bigotries, all the ways we shame and lonely ourselves to death.

More singing, y’all. Less fear.

More music. Less murder.

More balm. Let’s make it, and give it to each other. Whatever way it takes for you, let’s make there be more life in this old world.

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