Monday, June 6, 2011

The Harp and the Blade

From about the late 80’s for almost the next ten years I carried a switchblade knife in my front pocket. There was something about carrying an illegal weapon that made me feel ten feet tall. It turned out that I never needed it for anything other than opening letters. But even never using it the blade served its purpose making me feel like a big bad rebel.

A book I was recently reading about writing asked the question: what does your character keep in their pocket? I love this question. If I’m writing a story I want to develop me characters as much as possible. The answer to this question says a lot about the person. I remember in 7th or 8th grade for a while I carried at Hot Wheels® car every day. It was a Lotus Esprit and I may have imagined that if I really wanted it to it would become real or even turn into a flying car.

I stopped carrying the knife when I changed jobs in the middle of 1994. The shorts I wore to work didn’t have this kind of pockets that accommodated a knife. Then two years later I left the knife at home when we went to Budapest for two years. While I was over there I saw stiletto knives for sale but resisted the urge to get one. By then I didn’t want to carry something that might provoke anything. I knew that the knives were illegal back home and in truth I had outgrown them. Maybe it was the responsibility I had now being a husband and dad. I tried to be a role model to my students. I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove any more by carrying a weapon.

Forward about six years and I was working as a land surveyor. I realized right away that I would need to carry a knife with me to work. We cut flagging, erased marker from lathes and found other uses all day. So with my first check I bought a small good quality folding knife and kept it in a case on my belt. Then months later after having a day where I needed to monitor GPS equipment for hours all day I thought about something to have to pass the time. I remembered something else I pocketed sometimes in college. I started carrying a harmonica in the same pocket that had held the switchblade.

Long before I ever carried any knife or toy I remember walking with my dad to the post office in our little Arizona town. I was probably six or seven years old and there was a bunch of bohemian transients sitting on the ground outside. They had backpacks and serapes and guitars and were looking for a ride to California. My dad chatted with them for awhile and one of them gave me a harmonica.

If I wanted to romanticize this story I would go on about how I played and practiced until I was the next harmonica legend. The reality is other than sliding up and down the keys and breathing in and out with it I took the poor Horner Marine Band Harmonica in the bathtub with me and pretended it was a spaceship.

It took years of growing and carrying toys or an illegal item to find out that I was not a big bad rebel. And only very recently have I realized that what I carry in my pocket really does define me. Several Christmases ago Prajna gave me half a dozen harmonicas of different keys. More than the gift I was touched that she saw me as someone worthy of this. So today I carry one of those harmonicas with me every day. Even though I play it around others and for our chickens I mostly just like to play it alone. What’s interesting is the satisfaction I get slipping it in my pocket and knowing it’s there all day. It’s the same comfort I got carrying the knife. It’s a feeling of reassurance but this time it’s a lot more honest. It’s the feeling I think everyone needs to hear. It says: “Yes, this is who you are.”

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