Two, two chords: Meeting my musical muse
I was a drummer in high school, and stringed instruments terrified me. But when my dad got sick, I picked up the ukulele, and it changed my life.
On August 17, 2017, I ordered my first ukulele.
It was a 21-inch mahogany soprano from Amazon that set me back about $40.
Avery had just started first grade. Julian was 10. Hurricane Harvey hit a few weeks later. I was a year into a difficult romantic relationship, and my dad had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
That was the summer of the eclipse, you’ll remember. My grandmother, who lived with my parents, had fallen and broken her hip. She moved into a nursing home right around the time I clicked “Purchase” on the Amazon order.
I was 34 and losing two of the most important people in my life, which sounded like a great time to start a new hobby while dealing with an incredibly stressful stretch of time.
Over the next 18 months, I’d make more than a dozen trips to Missouri for hospital visits, false farewells and weepy celebrations of life. Burying my grandmother and my dad, one right after the other taught me so much about hospitals and hospice, chemotherapy, end-of-life care and anticipatory grief.
But it also taught me about strumming. And bar chords. And capos and transposing keys. Playing the ukulele was something I picked up because I was tired of sitting around while the very talented guitar players in my life, which included my dad, plucked magical musical moments out of thin air.
I wanted access to that muse, but I didn’t know if she would visit. But I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as I learned two chords, I could play a song, and strumming those chords quickly became a form of therapy.
My first song was “In Spite of Ourselves,” the funny duet between John Prine and Iris Dement. Eddie would sing one part; I’d sing the other, mimicking Iris’ twang with a silliness that I didn’t know I had. My shoulders relaxed and my endorphins kicked in.
Singing from my diaphragm made me laugh at a time when my heart was being torn into a million pieces. My boyfriend was trying to figure out how to be a new dad and a step dad at the same time, and it wasn’t working. But music was something we could do together when we came to an emotional impasse.
At first, he was in charge of picking out the songs. Familiar three-chord pieces that weren’t too tricky. I learned new chords here and there, which soon gave me enough chords to unlocked almost any song I wanted to play.
When a sassy mood struck, I played Shaina Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” When I was feeling moody, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac made me remember that feelings are like the weather. Give them time and they’ll pass.
If I was in a bubbly mood, I picked an indie pop song that I’d heard on the radio. (Some favorites: “Sleeping with a Friend” by Neon Trees, “Miracle Mile” by Cold War Kids” or “I’m an Animal” by Miike Snow).
The songs I played in the beginning were the hits we used to sing along to in the car, driving around Aurora when I was in high school. Belting out “Run Around” or “Mr. Jones” back then gave me the same feeling it does now, but within a few months, I was able to play my own back up music.
Music didn’t come naturally to me. I was OK on the drumline in the marching band in high school and found lots of joy with xylophone mallets in my hands, but I trudged through piano lessons and was utterly baffled by string instruments.
Although my mom has a beautiful voice, I once intercepted a paper note during choir at church. “Addie is such a terrible singer,” someone had scrawled on a paper program.
It only took 20 years to get over that one.
But I have learned how to recognize when my desire to express myself is bigger than my fear of embarrassment or failure, and during this time, I had some feelings to feel. I needed something to do with my hands that wasn’t driving to Missouri, cooking or working on a computer.
As my dad got sicker, I got better. At the ukulele and practicing my serenity in difficult situations. The uke gave me an excuse to take alone time. I ended up buying a second ukulele to keep at my parents’ house, and I can remember playing “Modern Man” by Arcade Fire over and over in the upstairs of my parents house when he was downstairs sleeping.
For 30 minutes, I was in my new happy place trying to get the timing of this tricky song right and hearing myself improve each time I played it.
I’m glad I found the confidence early on to post ukulele videos on on Instagram. Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “Truth Hurts.” I can look back at those clips and see when “Space Cowboy” by Kacey Musgraves got me through the breakup, and Leon Bridges’ “Beyond” encouraged me to get back out there and date again.
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I can also look back and see the video I recorded after seeing my dad for what would be the last time. “Let it Be” is such a familiar song, I almost didn’t need the lyrics. The simple chords and comforting words soothed my soul in that minute, and I didn’t think twice about sharing that medicine with the people who follow me online.
By that point, the musical muse and I were well acquainted. I trusted that just because I didn’t want to play ukulele every day didn’t mean it was no longer my thing. I trusted that my imperfect singing and playing wouldn’t draw negative comments on the internet. I was learning how to love myself softly and generously and leave a lot of room for fun and failure.
The uke gave me permission to be more playful and in touch with myself. With a few chords and lyrics provided to me by Ultimate Guitar, I can conjure a belly laugh or a group sing-along around a campfire. Singing "It’s a Beautiful Day” changes my mood in an instant. I even started playing the piano again, which brought a lot of joy during those powerless days in February.
I think back on all the moments over the past four years that have been made more memorable because I had a ukulele in my hand, like a recent trip to Terlingua, when I got to play songs with a West Texan banjo player on the porch of the famous general store or when I surprised Julian by playing “All Star,” the 90s hit that had, ironically, become his favorite song in sixth grade.
And then I think about the last song I played for my dad.
He was drifting in and out of consciousness on one of his very last days, and I sat next to him with my uke and played several soft songs. I came across James Bay’s “Let it Go,” a song about letting people live their own journeys.
A very easy song with a very difficult message: Sometimes we show people we love them by walking away.
My dad’s journey was very clearly coming to an end in this physical world, and I was both detached and incredibly present. Accepting of what was happening and my own imperfect journey ahead.
Making music opened my heart and crystalized something magical between my mom, sister and me and this man we loved, and there’s no doubt that the muse was sitting in the room with us, satisfied with her work.
Oh the tears that well up when I read this. Music (very much like food) feeds our soul and conjures so many memories by just a few notes. I've always enjoyed your musical journey online of your videos playing but I enjoy knowing the back story as well. Thank you.
All the feelings <3