When the oblong package arrived on my doorstep, I snuck it into the house, hurried the box into my home office, slipped it into the closet, and closed the door. I then spent the rest of the day impatient and distracted, waiting for my then-5-year-old to traipse off to her grandparents’ house. Waiting for my husband — who also worked from home — to meet up with friends. I bounced from Twitter to email to Facebook to Twitter again, when I probably should have been revising essays or outlining my next book. But with the package a mere few feet away, just behind the closet door, I couldn’t concentrate.
When I was finally alone in the house, I ripped open the box and there it was: the concert-sized ukulele I had ordered online. I unzipped the case and parted the thin layers of packing foam to reveal the instrument’s rich mahogany body. I slid a palm across its smooth surface, admired the inlay around the soundhole. I ran a finger across the strings, each dissonant, drooping note ringing out across the empty house, and shivered.
Part of me worried I was becoming a cliché, but 15 years ago, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching a seemingly infinite number of adorable 20-somethings on YouTube croon folksy love songs while plucking away at their ukuleles. And hell, I wanted to croon folksy love songs while plucking away at a ukulele.
My dream was to practice in secret. To one day fling open the door of my office and announce to my family that I was a ukulele player.
But, 15 years later, I was no longer an adorable 20-something. In fact, I was just a year-and-a-half out from 40, with a young child constantly tethered to my side, a husband working in the room above me, and a career. I didn’t have time to futz around with a new hobby when I was mired in so much need, weighed down by all the things I should be doing. If I did this, would people laugh at me? If I did this, would they shake their heads and whisper to each other that I was going through a midlife crisis?
Would they be right?
My dream was to practice in secret. To one day fling open the door of my office and announce to my family that I was a ukulele player. At that moment, I would sling the ukulele strap around my neck, sit down at the kitchen table, and play the Lumineers’ entire oeuvre, much to my family’s awe and amazement.
To that end, I started a ukelele challenge on YouTube and raced through the lessons, on fire with the excitement of this new thing in my life, with everything I was learning: ukelele anatomy, how to use a digital tuner, how to hold the instrument correctly, how to play a chromatic scale.
No longer would I be just a mother. Just a wife. Just a woman whose entire life was measured out in goals and milestones and carefully plotted out accomplishments. For the past few months, since the publication of my first book, I had felt unmoored. Had ached for new purpose. Had flailed about, trying to figure out the next big project I should embark upon, the next book I should obviously be writing, items checked off on the to-do list of how my life was supposed to play out. But with the ukulele, I would embrace purposelessness. I would do something just for the hell of it.
By the time I learned to play a few chords, it was clear that if I wanted to progress at a reasonable pace, I couldn’t keep my ukulele a secret any longer. So I flung open the door to my office and announced to my family that I was a ukulele player. I slung the ukulele strap around my neck, sat down at the kitchen table, and played a C chord.
I don’t know that they were awestruck. (My husband gave me a patronizing, “Good job!” in the same tone of voice he uses with our child when she shows us her latest drawing.) But the chord rang out across the room in a clear, satisfying way and, in sharing my secret, I gave myself permission to live what felt like a silly dream out loud.
Just a week later, I played John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time. Hearing me falter my way through the opening notes, my husband ran upstairs to grab the guitar he’d been playing for the past 24 years. We went through the song together, me stumbling over the chord transitions as we both belted out the lyrics. We joked about what our band name would be. Uno Duo. Folkin’ Hot. We talked about what songs we would cover. The open mics at which we would perform.
My husband soon grew weary of “Imagine,” and of all the other songs I incessantly played, my left hand faltering between even the simplest chord transitions. When I played what could have been a gorgeous fingerstyle arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” long, painful seconds stretching out between each note, or when I sang “Never Enough” from the Greatest Showman soundtrack, digging into the island strum, going full out on the high notes, he slammed his door shut, drowned me out with his own guitar riffs, his foot stamping loudly on the ceiling above my head as he kept time.
But I didn’t care. I was having fun. Even if my barre chords still fell flat and muted. Even if my fingers flew all over the place when I tried to fingerpick Adele or Leonard Cohen. Even if I wasn’t writing my next book — or writing much of anything at all. I was creating something. And the fact that it was not in any way tied to my book sales or to my daughter or to the rest of my to-do list was exactly what was so freeing about it.
As a parent, I’d always believed my child would benefit more from unstructured play than from the overscheduling of endless extracurriculars and carefully monitored play dates. But why had I never given myself that same gift? Engaged in play for its own sake, without any thought as to outcome? Everything in my life was carefully scheduled and purpose driven, oftentimes even monetized. When I picked up the ukulele, I didn’t know what my intentions were and, at first, that troubled me. But as I’ve continued to play, I’ve found I care about that less and less.
My noodling on the ukulele started as an act of creation that lifted me up when I was faced with professional stagnation and impossible decisions. Now, it is a glorious mess I can lose myself in.
I’ve long since completed that first 30-day challenge and finished another 30-day course on top of it. I’m working on perfecting my barre chords now, and my left-hand muting, so I can play “Three Little Birds” without swearing. In a nod to my persistence, my husband gave me a pretty blue Enya ukulele, a step up from my beginner Donner uke. I’ve accessorized it with a strap embroidered with pale pink and green and apricot flowers and embellished with gold sequins. It makes me smile when I see it. The sound of the instrument itself is gentler, the action (the gap between the strings and the fretboard) more comfortable. I use it for my folksy love songs. Pick up the Donner when I want to get loud.
What’s it all for?
Even though I have no real intention of performing in public, no purpose to my playing, I continue to look for new ways to push myself. I follow ukulele teachers online. I’ve been working my way through a list of favorite songs I want to learn how to play.
My noodling on the ukulele started as an act of creation that lifted me up when I was faced with professional stagnation and impossible decisions. Now, it is a glorious mess I can lose myself in, much as I now also lose myself in the assembly of puzzles or the hypnotic trance of embroidery. Out of nothing, I create something beautiful. And my god, it is satisfying.
Last year, I learned the chords for “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” And even though my family was home, I belted out the lyrics, put a swing in my strum, a chuck on the second beat, threw my whole body into it. My husband came to hover in the doorway, and I glared at him as I rocked in my seat, thrashing out the D6, the D7, resolving into the G. “That actually sounds pretty good,” he said, nodding at the ukulele.
“I know,” I replied before launching back into the chorus.
He walked away as I played the outro, and I smiled, swayed, hugged the ukulele to me, stumbling my way to a spectacular finish.