The first time I shaved my head and when I first learned to play the mandolin were only a couple of days apart from each other. There’s even a Polaroid picture to prove it. It contains me, sitting and slouched over the scratched stringed instrument, hair short and scruffy like the bristles on a couple-day-old beard, bandanna tied around my neck. There’s a piano in the back of the photo covered in tambourines and avocado shakers. There’s the wooden paneling of the cabin I’m sitting in in the background, and a blurry view of a window framing hemlock trees. And then there’s Chris, sitting there on the left side of the photo, holding his own mandolin, hair long and shaggy, face clean-shaven. He looks intent, focused. I look awkward.

Since then I’ve decided A.) that I’m never going to shave my head again and B.) that I’m going to continue playing mandolin.

The snapshot was taken in Maine at the New England Literature Program, an immersive English program with 40 students, 12 staff, at a remote camp called Wohelo on the edge of Lake Sebago, Maine. We learned by climbing mountains, memorizing poems and journaling. We had no e-mail or telephone contact with anyone, played instruments before supper, took very, very few showers — I tried to take one at least once every five days — and studied Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnel and Louise Gluck, among others. We made 3 a.m. stir-frys, scaled jagged rocks jutting towards the Atlantic, ate walnut butter, played the saw, dove naked into the freezing lake at 6:30 in the morning.

But it’s several months later, and I’m back in Ann Arbor now. We have showers in the city and cell phones, and heads are now fuller with hair than before. I don’t eat as much now (there’s no fully-stocked kitchen in Ann Arbor for me, although Wohelo might have had one), and I don’t climb mountains every week either. But here is here, and there is there. There’s nothing I can do about it.

The other night, though, I went to the Elbow Room, a small bar in Ypsilanti, to watch Chris play a show. It was your typical fare: smoky atmosphere, three shelves of liquor, a pool table overhung with a Camel-brand lamp, some old-school arcade games in the back and a small stage inside for musical performances. The sound engineer played song selections by Explosions from the Sky while we waited for the show’s headliners to start playing, who were (according to the poster), “Chris Bathgate w/ Matt Jones and Greg MacIntosh.” My friend Chris was rather famous, which was something I hadn’t been aware of in Maine. To me, he was my mandolin teacher; to others, a face on the Starbucks Pick of the Week card.

While I was playing pool with some friends who had also gone to NELP, Chris came out to the bar with a bunch of whiskey shots, said he knew the bartender and said we should do a toast. I ended up passing on the shots, but we did a toast anyway, and then sat down with a pitcher of beer and started talking about everything that had happened since the end of June. For him, tour schedules, new jobs, new vinyl EPs not making it to print; for me, art history classes, my publishing jobs, not having enough time to play as much music as I’d like. We sat in a group like this talking for a while — me, Chris and some other NELP friends who steadily trickled into the bar — until we had formed a large group.

I knew everyone in our group well; most of them had seen my personal writing, seen me naked, seen me in the kitchen up to my elbows in bacon grease. It was intimate in this bar, strangely meaningful like a Christmas family gathering before the family broke out the brandy and got too tipsy. When Chris got on stage, he picked up his dobro and introduced himself modestly, soft-spoken. He said he was from Ypsilanti, introduced the band and he rolled with the cat calls from the audience as he began his first song of the evening.

While he played “Salt Year,” he looked me in the eyes, straight-faced, singing about regret with lines like “Now I lace my wine with ginger.” And when the bass and the drums kicked in behind him, the subwoofers on the speakers growled. The music shook my ribs. Some of us sat down on the floor right next to the low stage, watching him as he sang.

The Elbow Room was a strangely holy experience, even with the smoke veils and the dark lighting and the prevalence of G&Ts with red stir straws. I felt at home, like we were back in Maine living with one another, like Chris was only playing music before supper as we waited for and smelled the beginnings to the evening’s shepherd’s pie. But the smell of supper was replaced with the smell of sweat and stale beer; the Maine sunset’s ambient light by the hot blue-tinted stage lights.

This could have been a normal night of drinking and stumbling home, but because of one musician who taught me my first mandolin tunes, it was different. The evening’s music wasn’t so much an experience, the bass-rhythm background to some drunken escapades, but it was something important that had been passed down to me by a scruffy-looking guy with a microphone to his mouth.

Music can be something that connects people, makes families out of a group of writers in the wilderness, out of one mandolin player and a girl whose head had been shaved a day ago on the edge of Lake Sebago, Maine.

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