Lesson One

where the magic happens

“You should probably cut your nails if you want to continue.”

His stubby ones are barely visible below callused fingertips.

I realize learning guitar isn’t going to be easy. Or pretty. Goodbye feminine nails I worked so hard to grow out.

Like trying anything new, I weigh the costs and ask how badly I want this.

“Practice half an hour each day, and you’ll have calluses built up by next week’s lesson.”

Yeah, I’ll get on that right away.

“And retrain the muscle memory in your fourth finger. It wants to go straight but it needs to bend so the chord sounds cleaner.”

I look at the troublesome finger playing D major, stuck straight as a pencil with no sign of arcing. Old and set in my ways, I doubt how much practice will help. My fingers resort to their former positions like good students.

“Save your money and teach yourself,” my brother had said. I had tried that, but teaching myself isn’t helpful when I’m teaching wrong.

I didn’t know there was follow-through in guitar like in basketball. I didn’t know to wrap my hands tightly around the neck like gripping a baseball bat. Heck, I didn’t know playing guitar was so much like playing sports, the fingers curved like a body over a high jump bar.

Practice makes better. How badly do I want to be better?

I remember I am finished school, worried my brain’s glory days are over and are now starting a gradual process of decline. I remember a university professor asking, “Which of the arts most powerfully and universally conveys human experience?”

The class was mute. When we finally answered, we said theatre. There are wrong answers in the humanities by the way. The professor said no. Music. Who are you?

Tonight I am taking scissors to my nails.

A Window Story

Photo by Wayne Leidenfrost, Vancouver Sun

A woman with broom

cleans the dirt behind the shelves

and the dust off

books she hasn’t read

or written.

She threads her way

between the stacks,

the volumes and tomes

imprinting an education

by osmosis on her

uneducated mind,

so they say.

She cleans the most famous

repository of Western knowledge,

a learned space

a sacred space —

but the spines are blank,

there are unrecognized books in this collection.

She is one of them.

             . . .

I wrote this poem after reading this article in The Vancouver Sun talking about the new public art installation in the windows of SFU’s Woodward Campus. The installation is called The Primary Education of the Autodidact. “Autodidact” means “self-taught.” This two-story exhibit fills the windows of the Audain Gallery and was created by Raqs Media Collective, a 3-person artist group from New Delhi.

I would recommend reading the article and window-gazing at the work yourself if you happen to be in the area. It’s at 149 West Hastings Street in Vancouver.

Raqs Media Collective, The Primary Education of the Autodidact

If I were a teacher getting my students to discuss this textual space, I would ask them to think about the following questions:

  • what does this installation say about the way we learn in Western society?
  • what’s the significance of the art being displayed on the windows of a university?
  • what do the artists challenge in this depiction of an education?
  • what are some ways we “self-learn”? Are we encouraged to do this? What does this even look like – oral means of communicating, or not even with words at all? As I alluded to in my poem, do people recognize – and appreciate – non-traditional methods of knowledge acquiring and sharing?
  • why is the silhouette figure a woman, and presumably ethnic? What type of knowledge does she possess?
  • why are the spines and pages of the books empty? Who writes them?

Last question is for you, my readers: What “books” are you reading? What does your education consist of?