Let’s call it Christmas of 1975 (although it could have been 1974, but I think not…). I was fully into my junior year at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, while my family was nicely settled in Texas, having gone through the unusual experience of my home leaving me, as everyone moved to a new air base in Fort Worth, and I decided to stay in North Dakota, at age 17, and do my undergrad years at UND. I have to say it was a particularly powerful growing up time, especially the first year (that was 1974) when, after they left me in August, the first time I made it home to a place I’d never been to before was Christmas break. But that’s another story. I wanted to talk about Christmas of 1975. For some reason, that I can no longer remember, that fall I became enamored by the sound and the image of the banjo. It may have been part of a movie soundtrack I heard, or something like that. I’ll probably need to be hypnotically induced to recall the reason from deep in my long-forgotten memory.
Anyway – I decided that the only thing I would ask of my folks for Christmas would be to be given a banjo. I could see myself becoming an expert “banjoist,” or “banjoean,” and while away the hours either playing quiet plaintive melodies, or raucous lively music-you-hear-during-a-railroad-robbery. It was going to be glorious. My folks actually abided my wish, and the banjo became mine.
After paying extra (probably $10 at that time) for an additional piece of luggage, after Christmas I flew back to the dorm with my new cherished instrument. I immediately ran into an unexpected issue: my roommate hated the very sight of a banjo, much less the sound of one. It was non-negotiable, since he was way bigger than I was. I would keep the banjo stored in my closet, and only pull it out when he was at class. On his part, he was kind enough not to threaten to clip the strings or throw it out the window, but other than that, it was an uneasy truce.
I did start the long journey toward banjo-ship. I learned how to tune the instrument, and how to strum, and even how to use the 5th string, which made things ever so much more complicated than, say, strumming a guitar. I “mastered,” which is to say I sort of learned how to play four or five chords. Ok – let me come and say it outright: learning to play the banjo is hard, especially if you have never played a string instrument before in your life! When you watch musicians with their own instruments, playing and singing and entertaining all at the same time, and it looks so easy… it’s not, and they do really well at something that is honestly difficult. To get the fingers on both hands doing very different things, and then singing to the song – shoot, that’s really close to rocket science or brain surgery, at least to my perennially novice talent.
So, I did learn to play “Crawdad” – you get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey, we’ll go down to the crawdad hole, honey, oh baby mine. A real classic, and one that folks have been singing for ages. I almost thought I should fetch a jug or wear overalls or something… Every few days, or once a week, or every couple of weeks, when I thought about it, I would pull the banjo out of the closet, tune it up, play good ol’ Crawdad, and then put the banjo back in the case and back in the closet.
That was 45 years ago. Today, if you were to stop by our house, and make your way to our basement storage, you would find a black, banjo-shaped case with a banjo inside that has traveled to Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, and back to the Dakotas. It’s in fairly pristine condition, with one song on its odometer, and original strings. Almost an antique.
Do I know how to play the banjo? I’ll let you answer that. I do know that after all these years, I still wish I could, and now that I’m retired, it might be a good time to try, although I’m not sure of the reaction of our cats. Four and a half decades of life sort of got in the way, and it is very true that you cannot accidentally learn to play the banjo or any instrument, or take on a discipline of any sort by just hoping it would happen. Intentionality once again comes into play, even playing Crawdad. We both know that if we want to do something well in our lives, it requires, focus, attention, placing ourselves under the discipline of the particular thing we wish to do – to become a disciple in the truest sense – a student, lifelong, and concentrating on the skill, the work and the expression. I’ll never own the title of anything that I end up caring less about than other things in life. Even Dad, or husband, or banjo-ist require me to be present, and intentionally open to experiencing what is before me. Otherwise, I’m just playing around, and in terms of the banjo – not very well at that.
Find your dream, no matter how old you are – and then make it a passion, and then make it a goal, and then make it a habit, a skill, a daily experience, intentionally. You may even get past Crawdad.
Word for the day: Omphaloskepsis. Here’s a great one – it means ‘navel gazing.” It’s Greek, as you might tell: omphalos, navel, and skepsis, viewing, or studying. This is real thing. It was believed by some mystics that the navel was a portal to the center of one’s being, and so to stare at your navel meant to focus deeply on yourself as a form of meditation. I’ve known lots of groups who are world champion omphaloskeptics. Unfortunately, that’s usually all they achieve.
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.