Saturday, January 26, 2013

Properly Aged

I have an old guitar, purchased in 1979, probably built that same year.  There are older guitars out there, but  not by much.  The number of guitars built before World War II that are still around is not that high.  There will never be the guitar equivalent of the 500-year-old Stradivarius violin that is still playable and sounding great.  Steel string guitars aren’t built to last that long; the pull of the strings  (approximately 150 pounds) eventually takes its  toll on the thin softwood soundboard.  I suppose one could build a guitar that would last for 500 years by using a hardwood, making it thicker, or using stiff braces underneath to strengthen the soundboard, but no one would want to play it or hear it.  All those things would dampen and diminish the sound.  So the guitar is built to sound good, and guitar owners accept that they may be passed down to our children, maybe our grandchildren, but probably not our great-grandchildren.
So a 34-year-old guitar is getting up there.  Since I’ve had it I’ve tried to take care of it, keeping it in its protective case or on a stand, not just laying around where it can get knocked over, kicked, or otherwise damaged.  Still, it shows its age, and that it’s been played.  There are some bumps, some nicks, some yellowing of the finish that’s particularly noticeable on the spruce soundboard.  Just about every guitar will have some scratches on the back where it has rubbed against the player’s belt buckle, and mine is no exception.  The fretboard near the top shows some wear and discoloration, particularly in the area where a D-chord is played.  My fingernails have actually scratched the wood and made some small divots in the hard ebony.  Once again this is pretty typical for an old, well-played guitar.
All of these things can be fixed.  I know how to replace the fretboard, or just how to fill in the small divots.  I could sand all the old finish off and spray a new finish on, and there would be no more cracks or yellowing.  I could make this guitar look like it did right out of the factory.
But why would I?  I don’t consider these problems to be fixed.  Rather, they give the guitar character, testimony of hours of practice and performance, of pleasure given and received.  And all of these things contribute to the beauty of the sound.  “Fixing” the guitar would alter that sound in ways subtle but noticeable, even if to no one but me.  It’s taken 34 years for it to get to this sound, why would I want to reverse that even a single year?  It would be like taking a perfectly aged wine and  trying to get it to taste like a recent vintage.
“Youth is wasted on the young,”  George Bernard Shaw said, pointing out a seemingly cruel irony: when our bodies were young, full of energy, strong and flexible, our minds were lacking in wisdom to know what to do with all that strength and energy.  We spent time dealing with surface things like being attractive, popular, successful, and entertained.  By the time we figure out what really matters, our bodies are heading downhill; things are sagging, knees are creaking, hair is falling out of places we want it and sprouting in places we don’t.  We know what to do, but either don’t have the energy to do it the way we want, or the strength, or maybe the time to develop the ability.
But like that old guitar, what a person with an aging body has is character, which isn’t forged through ease, leisure, and success, but through hardship, failure, and pain, the scratches, dings and yellowing of life.  
James Hillman, in The Force of Character and Lasting Life , says that the soul must be properly aged like fine wine in old, cracked barrels.   The last years of our lives are meant to mellow the soul.  Each physical diminishment is designed to mature the soul.   The signs of aging aren’t indications of dying, but initiations into another way of life.   
When we are young, the body is at its peak, while the soul is rather unformed.  When we are old, the body is diminished but the soul is matured and made ready for the next phase.  And that has always been our life’s work.

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