It’s a gray, December night in Somerville, Massachusetts, and I kiss my live-in boyfriend, head down the stairs of our building and pack my used acoustic guitar into the trunk of my Toyota. I don’t mind the gray sky or the chilly temperature because I’m driving to my first ever guitar lesson in Porter Square. I park the car, grab my gig case, and head up a narrow stairway up to a small practice room where I meet my teacher, Anna. She is reserved but talented, I decide from her effortless riffs, and she draws me diagrams of bar chords while showing me how to tune my guitar. At the end of an hour, I can wrangle my fingers into the shape of three chords: A, D and G. I leave feeling positively exalted that I am making this dream come true. I am twenty-three.
Decades go by. I marry that boyfriend, we raise a couple of children, and he divorces me. Many other things happen as well.
It’s 2016 and Chicago. It’s December again. I pull out my guitar and perch it on my thigh—an only slightly improved version of the first guitar. I take out my folder of music, a bright purple number I got at Office Depot about fifteen years ago. In this rag-tag pile of songs and chords, I still have some pages that Anna made notes on. Tonight I play “Me and Bobby McGee” in the key of A. My dog is my only audience and she doesn’t mind when I croon, wail and mess up the chord with my clumsy fingers. Twenty-five years have passed since that first lesson, and I still know approximately those three chords that Anna taught me that night: A, D and G.
From first grade and before, we are taught to achieve and excel. Our parents and teachers clap for us and cheer as we reach each milestone. We compare grades and soccer achievements all the way through college, after which point we compare jobs and salaries and kids. Some of us do put in those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell made famous to become “experts” at a thing or two, whether it’s parenting or finance or ice skating. As we enter our thirties and forties, we probably know that expert feeling well, and we might even stop trying new things without noticing we’ve stopped.
But there’s another side to becoming an expert, and it’s boredom. What if nothing is new? What if we excel at all of our tasks? Do we forget how to be amazed, how to have wonder? Does our problem-solving ability suffer? Do we lose what Zen Buddhists call shoshin or beginner’s mind, a capacity to experience the mindset we have as children when we do something for the first time without preconceptions, a being present?
My quarter-of-a-century relationship with my guitar is an example of my attempt to keep beginner’s mind present in my life. Maybe it sounds like an excuse for laziness, but I think it’s an actual strategy. I could have tried to “win” the guitar. I started when I was relatively young, already had a good music base, and I certainly could have learned techniques that would have expanded my repertoire, my confidence and my range.
I never did. I never took any more guitar lessons after moving from Anna’s town—because I didn’t want to. I knew just enough to make my very modest dream come true. What a shame, you might say. What about all those songs I’m missing out on that are too hard for me to play, the ones with six or seven chords, the ones that require finger picking? Actually, I feel my level of guitar—super-beginner—suits me. It comes with no stress. It comes with beginner’s mind. I sing simple ditties to my dog and, since I never intended to be a performer, this arrangement suits me just fine.
Meanwhile I have become an “expert” at other things; one can hardly avoid it. I have put in my time, including earning a master’s degree, learning the craft of poetry. I have published two books of poems. I have also given parenting a lot of thought and focus. Exhibits A and B are my two teenaged daughters. These things feel rewarding, but they don’t feel the same as my relationship with guitar. They don’t feel carefree because I care a lot. My guitar and my plans for my guitar playing—both of those make no demands.
I am mediocre at many more things than just guitar playing. I am a proudly disinterested athlete, a medium-but-enthusiastic yoga practitioner, a not-too-informed dog owner, a landlord who has to look stuff up, a charmed but not so talented gardener, a just-fine cook. I am content to stay mediocre in all of these pursuits and more, and it’s true that I do bring beginner’s mind to them: if I happen to invent a delicious soup, it seems like a miracle rather than a given, and that’s a nice way to feel. If my roses thrive from rose food, I am delighted and it’s a bonus. And if the soup isn’t great or the roses look sickly, well then, better luck next time.
My new year’s resolution this year is to recommit to mediocrity in most realms. By having no plans to improve my guitar playing, I can love my guitar. By remaining ignorant about dog training techniques, I can enjoy the huge no-no of feeding my dog scraps from the table—at least until her begging becomes a problem. Meanwhile, I will give my mothering and my writing my all every single day, with lots of ambition. But the rest: it seems wonderfully unimportant. If you’re looking for me, you will find me on my couch, cheap guitar in hand, imitating Janis Joplin’s version of Kris Kristofferson’s song, while the wobbly chords almost hit their mark. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” I’ll be the one whose strings are probably sharp, the one sporting the goofy smile.
Cameron Gearen’s book of poems, Some Perfect Year, came out in early 2016 from Shearsman Press. She won the Grolier Prize, the Barbara Deming / Money for Women Fund and other prizes. Her essays have appeared in Dame Magazine and Maximum Middle Age and TueNight and she has fiction up atThe Easy Chair podcast. She works lives in the Chicago area with her two teen daughters.