How many times can you start over again?

by Lauren McCabe on November 13, 2013

Lauren McCabe Mandolin

How many times can you start over?

I think of this in musical instruments: piano, clarinet, flute, harp and french horn, the instruments that I played by age sixteen. I began with piano at the behest of my parents and the intention of playing the harp, my true desire, the instrument that at age seven no one was sure I was serious about playing (I was).

Then at ten I couldn’t resist the lure of the school band and the idea of learning any one of a dazzling array of instruments. I played the clarinet, then flute and finally french horn, a noble instrument with a complex knot of brass at its heart center. It had a brave sound that made me think of kings and knights, and as I marched around my house bellowing into its mouthpiece, I imagined myself as the herald of something important, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

After four faithful years of playing the piano, I marched up to my parents and begged them to allow me to play the harp, proving my musical candor with a piano performance of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. With luck, a harp teacher was offering group lessons after school, and I learned that instrument with a motley group of students, odd children drawn to the instrument for deep and mysterious reasons.

My dalliances with instruments didn’t end with the finish of school, and certainly not with the passage of time.

A year ago I took up yet another one, the mandolin, spurned by an urge to have something small enough to take anywhere. Twenty years after my first music lesson I am still starting again, over and over, one instrument after another, year after year.

But then, I am really not starting over again. Music is a language that I learned long ago under the strict instruction of my piano teacher Ms Kitty, who piled stacks of theory books on a TV tray and made me complete each exercise perfectly before I could play. Even now, I already have the tools to play music, I just need an instrument to apply them to.

So it goes with music, and so it goes with life: a career change, a city-move, a relationship transformation, sometimes you think starting anew is starting from scratch, erasing hard years spent shaping your life to be what it is now. But is this so?

Transforming, say, from a corporate accountant to a graphic designer may seem like a near-impossible feat, like crossing the ocean on a straw raft, a voyage that would surely entail demise.

But the truth is the stretch is not that much of a stretch.

Don’t accountants look at graphs? Don’t you, with your passion for design, already have a knack for visual thinking? Your business acumen combined with design skills are a potent combination, one that many businesses need right now. All of a sudden the distance between where you are now and where you want to be starts contracting, and what was once a vast ocean roiling with danger is now a stepping stone across a bubbling brook, the natural hop to becoming happier. It wasn’t until I exhaled vehemently into the flute that I realized my lungs were better suited for the giant puff of the french horn.

A year ago, when I first took the mandolin in my hands I couldn’t fathom how someone could play such a tiny instrument. My fingers were accustomed to the wide planes of the piano and the graceful stretches of the harp, and they creaked stiffly as I tried to press chords into its neck. My mandolin teacher sat across from me patiently drinking tea, making me play chords over and over until my fingers began to curl just right.

And then one day at work, sitting in a meeting around a big conference room table, I began playing an invisible mandolin under the table. My fingers moved over translucent strings, silent chords echoed gloriously in the steely room, my hands snapped when I felt them play the wrong nonexistent note.

Slowly, the motions of the mandolin became second nature, like breathing.

Very rarely do you start over again.

Very rarely do you do something in which you are entirely unskilled, entirely without aptitude, entirely without context.

Even when starting an instrument at age fifty, you have a half century of melodies in your head, you already know, innately, the rhythms that you are about to play. Try it. It’s true.

You are building your life year after year, one elucidating experience at a time, one relationship at a time. You are becoming finer with age, a wine rich and complex with notes high and low so when held to the light you glow richly, a variegated hue.

You will reform and realign, pivot and adjust, shift and deepen just as the flavor of wine transforms with each passing year, but know this: you are not starting over again, ever, and so the number of times that you can change? Infinite.


The Gorgeous Potholes of our Lives

by Lauren McCabe on September 24, 2013

Pensacola Beach Florida

Merman and I went camping on a small spit of moonscape beach nestled between a lazy bay and the wide open mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.

For miles and miles and miles there was nothing but a sliver of road crumbling into the sand and crabs scuttling across asphalt. Shore birds trilled their tiny feet on sand dunes, and a park ranger with an accent as slow and thick as candle wax told us about switching out his corporate tax job in Houston for a a park ranger gig on the panhandle.

“Traded ‘em out even-steven,” he said, checking our park pass.

But we almost didn’t go to the beach.

I had two tight work deadlines on Friday, deadlines that may or may not have been possible to finish, that may or may not have required lugging my laptop home over the weekend to work.

And the house, oh the house, it was in need of work, was always in need of constant, tenacious up keep. Our lives from a busy week had exploded everywhere, clothes in piles in the bedroom, mail spread on dining room tables, dishes piled in a scuzzy sink.

On Thursday night, we took stock of our annihilated lives and wondered at the four hour drive on a patched-up tired in our forty-two year old VW bus. The mechanic on St. Claude said, “Drive ‘er slow and easy. Short distances.”

We considered staying home. A glass of wine on Friday, a lazy house-cleaning day on Saturday and football on Sunday.

But the problem with Friday night wine and Saturday house cleaning was this wasn’t life. There was nothing new in a clean-up on weekends, and wine at our much visited restaurant.

So we rallied ourselves to pack up.

I rushed to work on Friday and drank way-too much caffeine and powered through my presentations, all neatly wrapped up by and delivered by 3 PM. I scurried home and threw everything into the bus and off we went, driving into the humid sunset to the beach.

The bus behaved as much as it could: every stop we parked on a slight incline so I could push it downhill while Merman started it. Push to start, you know.

We heard Ranger William’s life story as cars piled up behind us waiting to check into the camp ground, not beeping their horns because southern people don’t beep when you’re enjoying a good chat mid-road.

We absorbed the sun into our skins and sand into our hair and took big gulps of seawater just to savor the brininess of the ocean, something we hadn’t tasted for months.

This was no far flung destination, this was the Florida, a place that I had road-tripped to since childhood with such fineries as tacky trinket stores and skyscraper condos. But it was removed from New Orleans and everything that came with it: the banal lapping of life at our shores, the erosion of newness.


It fits so awkwardly into America’s ten vacation days per year. There are a thousand reasons not to go hop-scotching into a tired Friday night with a desperate hope that Saturday can bring something new.

On Sunday, when I arrived back home, I was exhausted. But on Monday, my cheeks were flushed with no blush required, and sand was still raining down on my keyboard from my scalp refusing to give up the ocean.

Travel may be incompatible with our lives, but so is squeezing a master’s degree in after work or trying to be both a great parent and a CEO. Like oil and water, life and __________ you fill in the blank: work, children, travel, balance — don’t blend with the ease of fairytales.

But perhaps travel is like oil-streaked puddles: the layer that we spread on top of our stormy lives, creating patterns that are intricate, complex and transfixing.

I want to be full of stories that leave the most jaded soul awestruck. I want to experience my life in the same way that children stare at those oil-slicked puddles with wide-eyed wonder at another – yet another! – extraordinary thing residing in the ordinary potholes of our lives.


The Only Dating Advice That Works

by Lauren McCabe on August 19, 2013

He was blond and blistering with those big blue eyes. I couldn’t help thinking, sitting in a swivel chair as he picked up a pair of dirty underwear off the floor and handed me a Corona, how differently men treat you when they’re not into you.

He had to clean his bedroom, so we didn’t hang out in the living room. Instead, I sat in an office chair turning round and round in circles while he scuffled across the floor making piles of clothes talking about his time in Spain. I was waiting for the girlfriend drop, wondering how he was going to slip it in.

Questions came up about me, my time spent that summer, and I straightened my back in the swivel chair and gave my speech about how I would never wait tables again.

He threw himself on his bed, and I was still perched straight-backed in that swivel chair when he dropped the bomb:

“My girlfriend lives Uptown. She used to stay here every night until it got messy.”


“The apartment.”


So I decided to drop my bomb: “I’m dating this guy from California.”

“Oh yeah?”


A pause. He expected me to elaborate, so I did.

“I met him in photography class. We have a lot of similar interests.”

Another silence. I let him take it.

“Is it good?”

“Sure.” I paused before I answered, and he jumped right on it.

“You hesitated. Do you really dig this guy?”


I sipped my beer and then I thought to myself, what am I doing here?

I was searching for something that wasn’t in this dimly lit apartment and most definitely wasn’t in the beautiful blue eyes of this man lounging in front of me. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend, this was so not worth fighting for, whatever this was.

I chugged the beer. I took out my phone and said,“Hey, I gotta go, I’m meeting a friend for drinks.”

And he cooed, “So soon?” with a smile that could have melted me.

But what echoed as hard as rocks inside my head was, not soon enough.

This is the best dating advice I can ever give: leave when it doesn’t feel right. When it’s 1% wrong in the beginning it will be 100% wrong in the end.

Each and every single one of us knows when something is almost perfect, almost, except for that twinge of something that grows into something huge.

Learn to love those who love you in a way that is overwhelming, in a way that spills all over you and is 100% right in your heart. Make room in your life for that type of right.

It only needs to happen once.


Look. Here is something astonishing.

by Lauren McCabe on August 6, 2013

Mississippi River from above

Every time I fly, I think of scurvy ravished sailors.

The ones that spent months at sea to travel from Florida to California, subsisting on a diet of salted meat, potatoes and brandy.

I think of their teeth falling out of their faces and the nefarious captains that they mutinied against.

I think of SPF 0 in the blazing salted sun.

I think of this when the plane gets delayed on the runway for two hours, the AC cooling my neck and the golden reading lamp illuminating my book.

A woman in a business suit starts fuming in a way that’s on the verge of yelling, the modern day seedy sailor talk, This is bullshit I want a refund.

I envision endless stretches of sea that assure you of no rescue, and the storms that blow in from nowhere smelling like death.

Whatever you are doing now, compiling spreadsheets, slinging bar, mowing lawns, selling computer parts or delayed on a flight, someone would have given their entire life to be where you are.

In front of you, there is something astonishing.

Be in awe.


Morning fears

by Lauren McCabe on July 30, 2013

View From Above

It has been a while since I’ve written. A couple of weeks since I have strung together sentences so they fit just right, snug interlocking pieces of a bridge snapping together.

This makes is ten times harder to write this post. This makes me one thousand times more likely not to write this post.

  • It’s 5:30 AM and I’m tired, I’m soft, I’m bleary; my mind is clean from yesterday’s residue but hazy with the fog of dawn.
  • The page in front of me is a drunk Christmas party, green and red squiggly lines everywhere because my grammar falters without constant, consistent practice.
  • I’m writing this in bullet points, proof that I have been writing power point decks instead of paragraphs these last few weeks.

I sometimes fear that the talents I have formed from careful years of practice will disappear from reckless years of neglect.

At my worst, I unearth pieces I wrote two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago and read them until I have to go to work.

Maybe I’ll check my email instead of writing.

Peer at the earth and watch the sun in the clouds; you’re on an airplane with no Wi-Fi.

Maybe I’ll tweet.

Airplane mode for that iPhone, too.

I’ll read the stories I wrote when I was 17, when I was much more talented.

Write stories like you did when you were 17, with pen and paper and a deep physical connection to your writing.

I’m going to brew tea. I’m so good at it.

No one achieved greatness by drinking tea alone at 5:45 AM.

It’s too hot. 

Sweat your words out on paper.

Maybe I’ll just reread what I just wrote. Ugg, it sucks.

Rake through the muck to find the jewels. Remember?

You’re the annoying part of myself.

I’m the part of yourself that proves that you have everything you need to begin.

So I talk to myself deliriously at 5:45 AM, waging war against the me that can’t write a sentence without it hurting.