Pick like a pilgrim

“It isn’t going to fit.”

I had pulled a carry-on suitcase out from the closet to see whether I’d be able to put a mandolin in it when I moved to England for four months. I’m not a good musician at all, but I play a guitar or mandolin every day, and at home I have a various instruments leaning against various walls so that I can easily grab one without opening a case.


But I could tell right away that the suitcase would be too small. Larger suitcase? I’d have to check that luggage with the airline—which I am loathe to do. Take the mandolin as its own carry-on, instead of the backpack? That would mean packing four months’ worth of clothing and books into a single carry-on suitcase.

“It just isn’t going to fit.” Even aside from the physical logistics, I had been thinking carefully about how I would travel. “Pack like a pilgrim” was my motto, because traveling light not only makes it easier to navigate airports, buses, and trains, but it also leaves me somewhat dependent on my foreign hosts—and that’s a good thing. 

I was sure that I would need to buy a few more articles of clothing in Britain. That would force me to shop (another thing which I am loathe to do), which would force me to explore, which would bring me into contact and conversations with locals.

So in the end, it wasn’t just that the mandolin didn’t fit into my suitcase; it didn’t fit with the way I wanted to travel. I decided that my deep need for daily music was actually a reason to leave the instrument at home. By traveling with less than I needed to get by, I’d have to seek the music among the British. Instead of self-sufficiently settling into my flat with my mandolin to play my little songs, I’d have to talk to other musicians to borrow an instrument. Or find some local shops, talk to the people there, and buy a cheap one. I’d have to figure it out.

Packing like a pilgrim is largely about what you don’t pack. 

So I landed in London sans mando.

It was a couple of weeks before the absence of an instrument became uncomfortable. Playing music, even by myself, always makes me less lonely. It restores my soul. And I had no way to do it. I would enter my empty flat at the end of a long day—tired from teaching and the long bus ride home, anxious about an upcoming excursion, worried about how a sudden change would affect the budget—and there were no melodies to lift my heart, no chords in which to disappear. I would sit down at my computer to work, and an hour later I’d discover that I had instead been identifying locally owned music shops and browsing their guitar collections.

(It would have to be a guitar, not a mandolin. Most shops had, at most, only one or two mandolins—not enough of a range in which to find the sweet spot between low cost and reasonable quality.)

Finally, on one of my free weekdays, I woke up and said, “Today’s the day.” The rain had let up, it was almost sunny, and I set off down my favorite running path toward Gateacre, a suburb a mile and half away, to find a six-stringed friend. As I crossed one bridge, I thought with a smile, “When I come back this way, I’ll have a guitar on my back.”

Gateacre (“GAT-ah-ker”; it sounds like “Gataca” when British people say it) used to be a self-contained village out beyond the city limits. Although Liverpool has now engulfed it, it’s still possible to imagine a time when it was a tiny little world all its own. I never would have seen it if I hadn’t been searching for a guitar. I had literally run past it several times, to both the north and the south, without knowing that it was even there.

Moran Sound has been in Gateacre since 1985, and in business since the late sixties. It’s a homey little shop, and not just because Tony and Helen Moran literally live upstairs and ask customers to ring the doorbell before entering. The space is a series of small rooms with comfy chairs, a fireplace—it was lit when I visited—and of course wall after wall of guitars. Tony greeted me at the door and offered me a cup of tea before returning to chat with another customer.

After that person had left, he poked his head around the corner to see how I was doing. The inevitable questions came in due course: Where in the States are you from? Michigan, now where is that? The inevitable pause of uncertainty about where to take the conversation next. 

I complimented his collection of guitars, which launched us into a thirty-minute chat on the struggles of local businesses, the audacity of customers who bought a cheap guitar off the internet and then bring it to Tony to fix because it wasn’t set up properly, the supply chain problems and labor shortages that meant that C.F. Martin currently had no guitars they could send him. (I suggested that he sell some of his Martins back to Martin; he liked that idea a lot.) The hard fact that he and Curly Music downtown were the only “little guys” left, and Curly was struggling, too. 

That sounds like a terribly sad conversation, the way I’ve summarized it, but the entire thing was conducted with quips and laughter, a sort of amused resignation to the realities of the world, a fatalistic cheerfulness that is quintessentially English.

“But you haven’t seen the best part!” he finally said, proudly showing me into the locked showroom where he kept his fabulously expensive guitars—unquestionably the “Guitars of Distinction” advertised on his website and sign. “Have a look,” he said. “Play anything you want.” I knew better. Once you’ve played a $5000 guitar, every guitar that you can actually afford sounds like junk in comparison. 

I browsed, with my hands behind my back, for what I considered a polite amount of time, and attempted a segue to my own purposes. “Those are brilliant,” I said. “I’m actually looking for something at the lower end of the scale. I’m only here for a few months, and I just need something I can pick away at in the evenings.” I had noticed a handful of candidates on my quick perusal of the fireplace room.

“Ah, well,” said Tony with a resigned smile. “You don’t need anything from me then, do you? You’re going to want to wait til you get back to the States. Yeah, you’ll want to put your money into a real guitar, a good one that you don’t have to leave behind or travel with.” 

He was so friendly about it, so warm and sincere, that I didn’t have the wherewithal to insist that I did indeed want to buy a cheap guitar from him. I nodded, said I’d be back, and he showed me to the door.

I smiled as I took a look around Gateacre and found my path back home. I had been looking for an instrument because playing music makes me less lonely, but my conversation with Tony had accomplished the same thing. “I might go back just for the chat,” I said to myself. It was only as I re-crossed the bridge that I fully registered the fact that I did not have a guitar on my back.

Tony Moran himself had inadvertently cued my next step when he mentioned his only local competitor, Curly Music. Following through on this Curly-cue, I paid the shop a visit a week or so later. It felt more like a typical music store: a wall of acoustic guitars, some flashy electrics, amps everywhere around the floor. On two of the amps sat a somewhat older couple, with the shop owner patiently talking to the man—who was just starting to learn guitar—about all of the different options for a first instrument.

I listened to their conversation while I worked my way down the wall. They had clearly been at it for quite some time, and none of the three was in any kind of hurry. The owner was extraordinarily patient and soft-spoken, low-key but enthusiastic. He gently nudged them away from some mid-range models toward something less expensive. He demonstrated several styles of playing on several guitars, explaining why one was more suited to fingerpicking than another. He followed them gladly down many digressions about the weather, grandchildren, and so forth, that had absolutely nothing to do with music.

All of a sudden, I found a guitar that sounded like home. It was made of mahogany, just like my favorite guitar back in Michigan. And almost as important as its sound, it felt just right: the radius of the neck and size of the fretboard seemed like a natural fit for my hand. 

Tony Moran was right about the evils of buying a guitar on the internet, but not just because doing that deprives small shops of the business. Selecting a guitar is—or should be—a thoroughly physical process. “Incarnational learning” is a fundamental feature of the program I’m directing here: we learn with our bodies; physical presence is crucial to the project. It’s crucial to instrument shopping, too. You can’t know how a guitar sounds on the internet. (Even if there’s a recorded sample of it, you have to ask who’s playing it, and how, with what kind of pick, with what kind of microphone; what kind of speakers do you have?) And you obviously can’t know how a guitar feels by seeing it online. This was perhaps another respect in which my search for an instrument was a kind of pilgrimage: the music I was seeking certainly had spiritual dimensions, but it was thoroughly grounded in physical realities.

In any case, the guitar in my hands not only sounded like home, it felt like home. 

When comparing multiple instruments, I always play the same thing on each of them, but as I held the Vintage Statesboro, I found myself trying out some of my older songs, too, the ones I play on the porch on summer nights back in Michigan.

“Hey, that sounds good!” the older woman said, looking straight at me. “I like that! That sounds good!” She gave me a thumbs-up. I thanked her and put the guitar back as she returned to listen to the shop owner’s suggestion that they try something with nylon strings.

I’d run across the Vintage Statesboro a couple of times in my online browsing. It’s in my price range, and it’s a somewhat strange-looking instrument. It’s a parlor guitar, which means that it has a smaller body and less volume—both physically and sonically—than most guitars. (Parlor guitars from the early twentieth century were exactly that: intended to be played in domestic parlors, not on concert stages.) That suited my needs: I was looking for something to play in a somewhat thin-walled flat without disturbing the neighbors. If you can hear the woman next door when she blows her nose, you probably shouldn’t be playing a dreadnought guitar.

Several online stores and reviewers described the guitar’s aesthetic as “blues man on a budget.” That’s me!

I thought I’d have a chat with the friendly salesman once he was free. But I waited another twenty minutes and played through the entire wall of guitars—even the expensive ones—and he was still laughing away with the older couple. I decided to take a walk in the city to think things through. I wandered around the block, past the Irish pubs, down the commercial craziness that is Bold Street. And I finally decided that the guitar would be there the next day, and the day after that, and that I might not really need to make this kind of purchase in the first place. 

“That’s it, then,” I said. “Not today.” I was surprised, however, to find my feet walking back toward Curly Music and into the shop, where the older couple were just leaving.

“Right, you go have a think,” the owner was saying to them, initiating the minute or two that British people often take to say goodbye.

When he turned around, I held up the Vintage Statesboro. “I’ve already had my think,” I said. “And I think I have to have this guitar.”

He held up both palms straight up, as if I had him at gunpoint. “I left you alone,” he protested, with a smile.

“It worked,” I said.

“I gave you a look,” he said. “I gave you a listen. And I said, ‘Right, he’ll see to himself. No need to interfere.’”

“Well,” I said. “This is just what I need.” And I explained a bit about my situation. As expected, he asked where in the States I was from, and—a first for me—his face actually lit up with recognition at the word “Michigan.” His son had just applied to Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula and was waiting anxiously to hear whether he’d be accepted.

“Is it very cold there?” the man asked. “Do they get any snow?” I told him that the Upper Peninsula had two seasons: Winter and, oh, about six days in August. I told him that some houses had doors on the upper floor so that people could walk out of them when the snow got that deep. I gave him my business card and explained that although lived hundreds of miles from Houghton, I was technically in the same state, and he now had a contact in Michigan.

After ten minutes or so of further small talk, he threw in a free rain cover for the guitar and a capo—I can see why his business is struggling—and sent me on my way. “I know what you’ll be doing tonight,” he said with a smile as I made my way out the door.

On the bus home, I sat next to another older couple, who asked what kind of guitar it was, where in the States I was from, where Michigan was, (awkward pause), and whether I had heard their son’s band play at the Cavern Club on Sunday nights.

Since that evening, every time I’ve returned home to my quiet flat, the flat has been less empty, because there has always been a guitar leaning against the wall or desk—exactly as there is back home in Michigan. It’s an extremely low-level guitar, which means that it perfectly matches the level of my playing skills, but it has been an invaluable companion.

I approach music as a writer, not as a performer. I don’t sing well. I don’t have a good ear for writing melodies. And I have no innate sense of rhythm. (I was told in the fifth grade that I could play any band instrument I liked—but not the drums.) What I mostly love are chords and sequences of chords, and matching these to words. I relish the narrative of music. I find it deeply satisfying to balance a budget in a spreadsheet, and I get the same satisfaction from finding a chord that completes a musical phrase in an interesting way—but of course music goes beyond that basic satisfaction because it is also beautiful.

And music is a kind of writing I can do even when my brain is too tired to put words on a page.

It isn’t going to fit. I want to take this guitar back home with me—it’s become a good friend, and it has such fond memories already built into it—but if I couldn’t make a mandolin work when I came, there’s of course no way to squeeze in a guitar for the return trip. 

And just as I was right to leave the mandolin in Michigan, opening the needs that were filled by these music shops, so it is right and fitting that I leave my new good friend behind. I could make it work. I could check a bag. I briefly considered leaving everything else here in Liverpool, crossing the ocean with only the clothes on my back and my humble guitar—blues man on a budget, indeed—but it needs to stay, precisely because it has come to mean so much to me.

Much of the wisdom in this world can be distilled into two small words: Let go. Consciously deciding to leave the guitar behind has been a specific, concrete way in which I’ve prepared myself for the larger, less tangible losses I’ll also be confronting in another week: losses of colleagues here in Liverpool, loss of an unusual weekly rhythm into which I’ve happily settled—mostly reading, writing, and running—loss of the best group of students with whom I’ve ever worked. Choosing to leave the guitar behind gives me some agency over loss. That’s no small thing.

Another group of Calvin University students, led by other Calvin faculty, will arrive a few weeks after I leave. Some of them, I know, are guitarists. They’ll presumably arrive as musical pilgrims, with less than they need to get by, relying on the generosity of strangers to meet those needs. Perhaps some of the humble blessings already loaded into this instrument will continue to bless them—and they’ll add their own to it before handing it along to yet another stranger.

Go in peace, good friend.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."