Joy and the Banjo

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Linus to Charlie Brown: “I feel sorry for little babies…When a little baby is born in this cold world, he’s confused! He’s frightened! He needs something to cheer him up…

The way I see it, as soon as a baby is born, he should be issued a banjo!

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It was, as Lord Lytton wrote, a dark and stormy night. I sat in the Emery House chapel and listened to the rain beat upon the windows and the wind blow through the trees. I was beginning a weekend retreat, run by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, called “Blowing Zen: Meditating with the Shakuhachi.” I didn’t know much about the shakuhachi except that it was a kind of flute. I was there because one of the facilitators of the retreat was Robert Jonas, who’d written a book about his daughter’s death, Rebecca: A Father’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude. A year or so earlier, I’d written Jonas, as he prefers to be called, a letter saying how his book had helped me after my own daughter’s death. He’d written back, we’d carried on a correspondence, and I wanted to meet him.

That first evening, Jonas and Martin Smith, Brother Superior at SSJE, both of whom played the shakuhachi, passed around several of the instruments and gave us a brief history lesson. Dating from the eighth century, the shakuhachi, or Zen flute, is made from bamboo root—hard as rock—and served as a weapon as well as a musical instrument for mendicant monks who wandered the countryside seeking enlightenment. These komoso, or “straw mat monks,” considered the instrument a religious tool, and gave primary attention to each breath-sound rather than to musical elements like melody. Their aim was to become, in the words of our handout, “a Buddha in one sound.”

We ended the first evening in meditation, while Jonas played a song called “Crossing Over,” which he said he’d had played at Rebecca’s funeral. I sat on my Zen pillow, eyes closed, listening to the mournful tones of the flute (If you want to hear a shakuhachi, go to You Tube), mingled with the sounds of the wind and the rain and the wind chimes. I focused on my breathing, missed my daughter Laurie, wondered what I would do with my life now that I was retiring from public school teaching, and missed Laurie some more. Then, suddenly, as Marlon Brando says in the movie Apocalypse Now, “…I realized…like I was shot…like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead…”:

I wanted to learn to play the banjo.

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I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.

—Stephen Foster.

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A month later, I’m walking into a music store in a rundown strip mall in Portland, Maine. Two guys in ripped black tee-shirts are behind the counter and some kid with hair down to his ass is beating on an electric guitar. When I say I’m here for a banjo lesson, one of the guys behind the counter pinches some snuff from a round can, puts it under his lower lip, and points down a narrow aisle between racks of sheet music and guitar, mandolin, and banjo straps, picks, capos, and tuners. At the end of the aisle, I almost step on what looks for all the world like a pile of dog shit, and it is. A rubber pile of dog shit.

My first teacher is from West Virginia. Let’s call him Gid. He smells of pot and body odor and he says things like, “Hey, Man! What’s happenin’?” His three-month old daughter (“Man, was she a surprise!”) sleeps in a guitar case beside us. Gid starts me on what’s called claw-hammer style banjo, where my right hand is supposed to come down on the strings and hit the head of the banjo, almost as if I were knocking on a door. He is not so much concerned with hitting the right notes as he is establishing a rhythm. “Bounce, bounce!” he shouts, “Keep that rhythm going!”

I love it. Later, I will realize it’s because of being totally focused, completely in the moment.

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I’m goin’ to a better world where everything is right…

where you never have to work at all or need to change your socks…

(American Folk Song)

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Several years after I began playing the banjo, I went to “Banjo Camp North,” in Massachusetts. While the weekend was set up in much in the same way as the spiritual retreats and writers’ workshops I’d been going to—classes during the day, performances in the evening, informal get-togethers afterwards—instead of the silence of the spiritual retreat or the intense, cerebral focus of the writing workshop, just about everyone at Banjo Camp was loose and laughing. It was impossible to tell the instructors, even some of the nationally known musicians, from the students. None of them sat at separate tables during meals. Like the rest of us, they talked about their kids and their bills and their clogged toilets.

The second afternoon, I attended a workshop called “Singing with the Banjo.” I’ve always liked folk songs and figured we’d gather round and sing “Kumbya,” together. What I didn’t expect was that we were all supposed to solo. The closer it got to my turn, the more first my hands and then my entire body trembled. I tried to pass, but Peggy Seeger, one of the famous Seegers of folk music, give me this pep talk about how she’d learned early in her career that she didn’t have anything to prove, only something to share. So I shared my stage fright by stumbling my way through a hobo song (see above lyrics), forgetting some of the words, and butchering the chords. Still, I did get through it.

We kept going on around the room until a woman—her voice quaking in fear—began her song. About halfway through, she stopped, started to cry, and ran from the building. I sought her out the next day to commiserate. Turned out, she was a journalist, and we agreed that writers—at least writers like us—were observers, not participants.

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What a long strange trip it’s been…

—Jerry Garcia

(Who, before he was a member of the Grateful Dead, played banjo for such groups as the Sleepy Hollow Stompers and the Thunder Mountain Tub Thumpers.)

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Which, in a perverse sort of way, is why I’ve kept playing the banjo now for almost twenty years, performed with some local groups, even sung on occasion. For someone who spends the bulk of his time alone in front of a computer screen, who often goes on silent retreats, sits in silence gazing at his navel (although I prefer the term omphaloskepsis), and still daily misses his daughter, the instrument is a great antidote.

It’s also a great instrument for pilgrimage. First made from an animal skin tacked over a hollowed half of a gourd, with three or four strings stretched over a planed stick, the “banza” or “banjar” came to this country from Africa with the slaves, who played it in the same style that Gid taught me, and which I’ve stayed with. The banjo traveled across country with settlers and around the world on whaling ships (The banjo travels more easily than a guitar, as a matter of fact).

The banjo also brings a little humor to the journey. It was a comic prop in minstrel shows, and banjo players remain the butt of any number of jokes. To wit:

Q: What’s the difference between playing a banjo and jumping on a trampoline? A: You don’t have to take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

Q: What do you call a banjo player who’s just broken up with his girlfriend? A: Homeless.

Like humor, like most of my favorite kinds of music (including the shakuhachi, the instrument of homeless, impoverished monks and at least one grieving parent, Robert Jonas) the banjo has its roots in sadness and loss, yet blossoms in spontaneity and joy. In fact, I don’t think I ever knew what joy was until I began whaling away on the banjo, knew that, unlike simple happiness or contentment or pleasure, joy contains the element of sadness, of longing.

The Christian writer C.S. Lewis defined joy as “an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” I think what he’s describing is similar to being on a pilgrimage: the desire is to reach a destination, but the joy comes from the journey.

Do you suppose C.S. Lewis ever played a banjo?

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Pilgrimage to City Lights

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June 25, 2016

A pilgrimage needs a destination—a place where, as one writer puts it, God dwells. Having left Maine at 3:00 this morning to get by a bus and two planes to San Francisco, I find myself in front of one of my destinations, City Lights book store, known since 1953 as alternative culture’s literary landmark. I’m here because City Lights was a home for the writers of the so-called Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gary Synder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the god at whose feet I once worshipped, Jack Kerouac.

Many readers see the road trips in Kerouac’s autobiographical novel, On the Road, as a series of pilgrimages, whose destination is, as one critic writes, “a limitless pursuit of possibility.” Certainly in the early 1960s, as I left adolescence and began stumbling along that dark and mysterious road to adulthood, On the Road was a beacon proclaiming that I could achieve anything I desired. A senior in high school, I made up my mind to leave behind the old farts, dumb parents, and dim-witted classmates who lived in the small Maine town in which I’d grown up, and challenge conventional thinking, search out new vistas. That summer, I left Maine for the first time in my life to visit the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, and a year later, I found a summer job working on a hotshot crew out of McCall, Idaho, fighting conventionality as well as forest fires. When I returned to The University of Maine the following fall, I continued to pursue an inchoate image of myself as romantic hero—sitting in the back of the Bear’s Den in my black Frisco jeans, khaki shirt, and smokejumper boots, disdaining the guys in pinstripes and chinos, the girls in plaid skirts and white blouses, for being weak-spined conformists. I read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, identifying with the protagonist who works in a forest fire lookout tower in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State where I’d been on a fire. I switched my major from forestry to English, and decided to become a Great Writer.

Of course, like so many others of my generation, I was just dabbling in the Beat life. I didn’t participate in sex orgies—seldom dated at all—didn’t have peyote or mescaline visions (I’ve never even smoked pot), wasn’t rolled through the streets of New York in a barrel. It didn’t take more than a couple of years for my dreams of tooling down the road less traveled to wither away in a desert of loneliness, and for me to buy some chinos and pin striped shirts, get married three days after graduating from college, and become a high school English teacher.

Some twenty years later, however, when that marriage had become sterile and I found myself suffocating in my own pseudo-academic self-image, I reread On the Road—lying awake at night remembering the joy of driving across the country at 2:00 a.m., the endless cups of coffee, the third pack of cigarettes that day, my eyes burning like headlights cutting through the darkness. I began to recognize a spiritual component to the time I’d followed Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty on the road: the highway stretched out straight and flat before me, my body tingling, free, filled with a combination of joy and longing.

And in some ways, I’ve come to City Lights to honor having extricated myself from that marriage and from that self-image, which I now think of as just one of my many false selves. I’m in California with the woman I never would have found if I hadn’t bucked conventionality, the woman with whom I have shared pilgrimages for the last thirty years. It’s our wedding anniversary and we’re celebrating by visiting San Francisco before heading north into redwood country.

Eyes itchy, stomach vaguely queasy from lack of sleep, I peruse the three shelves of books by and about Jack Kerouac, and decide, in homage, to buy a book I haven’t read, Big Sur. I take it to the checkout register, where a young woman with dyed black hair, pale skin heavily tattooed, and bright red lips, rings me up.

I give her my best Kerouac smirk.

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July 2, 2016

On the plane ride home, still trying to process the holiness of the redwoods, I read Big Sur, and notice facets of Kerouac I’d not noticed in my earlier lives. I see that what may have drawn me to him in ways that Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Gary Snyder never did is the lower middle class New England background he and I share, a strong, even dominating, mother, and our inability to let go of early religious upbringing. I am also introduced to a Kerouac I’d heard about, but ignored: Kerouac the alcoholic.

Written some years after the author’s best-known works, Big Sur follows “Jack Duluoz” and his descent into alcoholism after the unwanted fame of On the Road. Using a cabin in northern California (the property of the owner of City Lights book store), as the focal point, Kerouac details his alcohol delirium tremens, his insecurities, his transient joys, his deep sorrows.

Many of the scenes show him to be nasty, self-absorbed, and combative, with occasional bursts of spiritual insight.

I can identify.

The day after my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I turned the guest room where she used to stay when she visited into a den, in which I spent the next three of four months drinking myself into a stupor and writing nasty letters to my former pastor, Laurie’s doctor, and the superintendent of schools. I kept a journal in which I railed against the evils of our society, everything from athletes using steroids to my students taking drugs to women getting Botox treatments to men popping Viagra. I ignored my wife and her son, shortchanged my students, made biting remarks to my mother and family and old friends.

And yet, unlike Kerouac, who died in his mother’s house at forty-seven from a massive abdominal hemorrhage brought on by booze, I’m now seventy-three, relatively healthy, and sober. In part, I’m sure the reason is that just as I was never really a hipster, I was never a full-blown raging alcoholic like Kerouac (or even my grandfather, for that matter).

But as I look over across the aisle of the airplane at the woman who endured much of my inebriated nastiness, I know there’s more to my story. Phillip Cousineau writes, in The Art of the Pilgrimage, “The story that we bring back [from our pilgrimage]…is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of the journey.” I don’t know any other way to explain why, in the aftermath of Laurie’s death, I decided to leave that den, why Mary Lee and I have stayed married for thirty years, how I continue to find joy in my life, except through grace.

I certainly haven’t earned it.

And it’s this recognition that I take back with me from California, as well as a continuing sense of gratitude for Jack Kerouac. From him, I learned that contempt for conventional thinking is both necessary and healthy, and that life needs to be lived with passion. Learned this twice, in fact. But his life also teaches me that nonconformity is healthy only if it is grounded in faith in a higher power and free from solipsism and self-delusion. I’m no expert on Kerouac, but I think those weaknesses comprise his tragedy.

They’re certainly what keep me going on these pilgrimages.

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