The XX Factor

Feeling Groovy Began Way Late For Me

Anyone who is figuring out which New Year’s resolution to adopt should take heart from today’s piece by Dr. Maria Johnson. If you yearn to do something more ambitious than losing 10 pounds or stop biting your nails, how about taking up a musical instrument? Dr. Johnson recently swapped the mysteries of God for the mystery of guitar chords and found it enriching, rewarding-even uplifting.

I have told myself for years that, come my next sabbatical from teaching college theology, I was going to learn guitar. I don’t know why I would tell myself something so patently untrue; I didn’t even pretend to believe myself. I had plinked my way miserably through a lonely decade of youthful piano lessons without stumbling across the merest sliver of musical talent and besides, guitars are for cool young people, and I’m neither. The entire idea was absurd and nobody is more surprised than I that now, less than halfway through the sabbatical, I own a guitar, know 12 chords, and can play more than 20 songs, a couple of them almost decently.

It began with Robby and Paul, who met among the group of students that meets at our house on Thursday nights to watch movies. They discovered they shared a taste for folk music. For reasons I don’t fully understand, they decided to take up residence here; they started appearing on the doorstep several night a week with their instruments. Other musicians soon congregated around them, and before our eyes, our rather staid movie group mutated into a gang of rough-edged chain-smoking hipsters with guitars and banjos and harmonicas and even a washboard, who would hold late-night backyard bonfire jam sessions three or four nights a week.

This was fine with us-our general policy is to keep the doors open and welcome whatever shows up. But for me, the turning point came when Robby and Paul appeared one evening  and announced, “We’ve bought you a guitar-what’s with not having a guitar?” It instantly became one of my favorite things. It is not a high-end instrument: It is banged up and has a patch of duct-tape on it, and cost $25 in a pawn shop. This suits me perfectly: I’m not very good about taking care of objects, and am much happier around those that don’t demand tender solicitude. My guitar has been around the block a few times, and isn’t going to balk or whimper at being left on the porch or experimented on by my children. We deserve each other.

So, I had the guitar that I would never have got around to buying for myself. The next thing that I wouldn’t have got around to was learning to play. Again, Robby and Paul took the problem out of my hands; “Right, you need three chords to get started. This is G, and this is C-no, look, this way-and this is D. That’ll do you for most things.” This, apparently, is how it works for guitar. If you want to learn viola or bassoon you find a teacher and book lessons. If you want to learn guitar, the rule is that you find a teenager and ask him to teach you a chord-a rule that seemingly applies even to theologians in their 40s.

Initially it was baffling and downright painful-you have to push metal wires up against bars, hard, with fingers accustomed to computer keyboards. And you have to bend your fingers into odd configurations, and then into others, really quickly, while meanwhile, your right hand is doing something totally different that looks easier but actually isn’t; all in all, it’s a quite a lot for a middle-aged brain to take in at once. I’m no good at all, and never expect to be. But my fingers have callouses, and my middle-aged brain, tired of puttering around the same tiny patch of scholarship for years, has been surprisingly cooperative about trying something new. After four decades of gloomy acceptance that I am utterly unmusical, discovering that I could actually get through a whole song was slightly less surprising and exhilarating than suddenly discovering that I could fly.

The best moment of the summer was when I inserted myself into the group around the bonfire. Even five years ago I would probably have been deterred by the inherent foolishness of my dorky, soccer-mom self flailing helplessly half a measure behind a gang of hipsters half my age, singing songs about young love and hitchhiking and cocaine; I was delighted to discover I care not a whit.

I have even been an inspiration to others. The impressively nerdy Pat started out watching us from the shadows. Then one day he requested his favorite song, then eventually joined in, and finally astonished the assembled company by singing it, all by himself, all the way through, in front of all the real musicians. It was pretty bad, but he did it. Emboldened, he bought himself a guitar, I passed on the mysteries of G, C, and D, and we spent many a happy hour ploughing our tuneless way through “Hey Mr Tambourine Man.”

All good things come to an end. The weather turned cold and wet, Robby and Paul acquired girlfriends, Pat moved away to grad school, and the Thursday night movie group morphed back into a group that meets on Thursday nights to watch movies. I haven’t abandoned my guitar (current project, “It Ain’t Me Babe”) but it’s less fun by myself, and anyway, one doesn’t get sabbaticals for learning to butcher Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen.

But they can’t take my 12 chords from me. Nor can they take the discovery that there is infinite, innocent fun to be had when one no longer cares whether one looks like a big dork. I’ve hustled my way shamelessly into an onstage role as a parent in my daughters’ ballet school’s Nutcracker , and have been spending Sunday afternoons at the studio, dahling, surrounded by lithe 12-year-olds in leotards, happily miming cocktail conversation with a cluster of air-kissy grown-ups. I think I’m having even more fun than my kids. In a couple of weeks I’ll don a outlandish dress to do it all in front of an audience in a real theater. Robby and Paul, benignly curious about the monster they have helped to create, are coming to watch.

Dr. Maria Poggi Johnson is the Director of the Graduate Program in Theology at the University of Scranton.

Photograph of woman with guitar by Digital Vision/Getty Images