The more evidence there is of a prong of my identity, the more I feel obligation to keep it going.
I’m thinking of my teenage years. I spent lots of time drawing, evenings sprawled out at home or with friends with anime in the background as I shaded with Crayola colored pencils. I have notebooks full of my drawings, full-color works that took hours, and quick little scribbles on yellowing lined paper. I collected them together with an arsenal of glue sticks and page protectors, making a shrine of my creations. Meanwhile, the sketchbook that I’ve kept for the last nine years? Seven pages have been used, over nine years. I removed one page – the full-color house sparrow with “Lauren Maidenname 10-11-10” – to frame it and put it in the living room. Everything else in that sketchbook can disappear tomorrow with no regrets. Yet I still have that sketchbook, and still those notebooks and those pencils have followed me back and forth across the country. Why? And why do I know I would feel a pang of guilt if somebody visited my house, and admiring the sparrow in the living room, asked me how often I drew? Why would I regret it if I quietly dropped the worn-down nubs of True Blue and Cerulean and Taupe into the twelve-color trays on the public craft table at work?
But the bigger identity was Music Nerd. As a kid, I spent hours playing the toy keyboard and the wheezing chord organ in the corner of my grandmother’s rec room. Later I learned multiple instruments, wrote my own songs, participated in every single music class and activity that was offered to me at school. I applied to college music programs. I imagined what my album covers would look like. Then as I heard the timbre of other singers and instrumentalists, saw the superhuman ease with which they could sight read, as I opened the thin envelopes containing rejection letters, I let Music Nerd fall away like feathers molting. After a couple years of regrouping, I declared an English major, joined the one band, the one choir. Then college was over. Blank staff-lined paper was thrown away and instruments were sold or given away. Nothing remained but a few pieces of sheet music stuffed in a thin binder that I shoved into back corners.
It wasn’t a rediscovery of the sheet music that made me buy the keyboard four years ago. It was something else, something that I felt in my fingers, and it shook the keyboard with its sheer force when my left hand mimicked the right, reaching for something beyond the edge of the lower keys. Something dormant had awakened, and it yawned and stretched when I was promoted to a job that encouraged me to sing publicly. I started admiring acoustic guitars in music stores, telling myself I could use it at work. There was something about the way my hands wrapped around the smooth, thick wood of the neck, and the friction sound of my fingers on the strings when I picked up the instruments and tentatively eased some chords from them. One in particular called to me, and by the time I brought it home, I knew I wouldn’t be able to leave it behind whenever I inevitably changed jobs. So I kept it, and I slowly taught myself how to curl and flatten my fingers into F-major, B-minor, how to bounce from chord to chord without looking. Sometimes my fingers turned purple from playing.
Over the past summer, I started attempting to play bass lines on the close-set little strings. I’d played bass a little in junior high and high school, but it went the way of my other musical endeavors. Still, there I was, my fingers yet again yearning to channel something.
As a kid my father had stood in our living room, a Fender Precision Bass – the gold standard for many bass players – strapped to him, the floor rumbling from the blues walks bursting forth from the amplifier. I remember the cream-colored body, the impossibly shiny tuning keys, the little cutaway where two bodies, human and wooden, nestled together. Neither body offered freely for me to touch, the vulnerability, the risk of damage outweighing the possibility of harmony. Eventually I was given my own bass, not as shiny, not as full in sound, the body assembled with less care and contour. It cut into me.
Prior to visiting the music store again, I had looked up Rickenbackers, Les Pauls, Squires. I read websites on equipment used by bands I liked, ignoring the many times I saw “Precision Bass” listed. At the store an employee handed me several instruments in my price range, but they were too heavy, too light, the action too high, too many dials. Resigned, I looked at the wall of instruments, found one with that unmistakable shape. The color of red wine with a dollop of cream as a pickguard, and twice my budget. Within minutes of holding it, I knew I would be taking the Precision Bass home with me.
I held it by the neck as I took it out into the cold air and set it in my backseat. I set it there, gleaming in the dark. I mentally counted up its equivalent price in therapy sessions – sessions that I had no intention of scheduling anyway. I didn’t regret the handful of times I sat in a quiet room and fumbled to articulate myself. But when I screamed along to emo songs while driving alone through the dark, when I played my guitar so hard my fingers bruised, that glue mended my cracks more securely than anything.
I didn’t have a case or an amplifier or even a strap yet, but I sat in my living room, using the painted white dots on the side of the neck to find my path up to the octave. As I rubbed my hand across the dark stripe on the back of the neck, in the cutout of the body, tears began welling up. It was like stepping back into a home I hadn’t even known I’d left.
It’s not an adult fulfilling childhood desires from twenty years ago, or trying to rewrite her history, or superimposing relationships where they haven’t existed in years. Possessing this bass, or any of my instruments, isn’t the end. It’s the means. When I play, it allows me to learn who I am, be who I am, feel who I am. Even more than writing. I can’t put myself into colored pencils and blank paper, or even a blinking cursor, the way I can spill out in sounds that disappear the moment after they’re given life. And I wouldn’t be able to hear myself, express myself as well in the cheaper instruments that I’ve passed up. Physical evidence isn’t the point of it. Being is. And this is the best way I know how.