How to Play the Washboard, in Five Easy Steps


Step 1:  Lose your mind.

This step is the base for the whole process, so it is important not to mess it up. Let’s start with rule #1: Do not confuse losing your mind with hitting rock bottom. Although the two can happen simultaneously, they are not the same thing. I am not talking about going a little crazy, or falling into the clutches of some substance for salvation—that’s amateur business. I’m talking lose. it. altogether. A total scramble. Lose words. Lose the ability to speak. Lose pride. Lose friends. Lose touch.

My method for step one was typical. I failed many times before I succeeded. I hit rock bottom, thinking that was sufficient. I was naïve.

When success finally found me, I had been awake for two days. The rest of the details are as foggy as they are unimportant. I was in good hands, meaning not my own. I struggled to form words. I saw things of dreams in real corners. I knew no one I saw, and I knew everyone I saw. I crossed in and out of pockets of time. At some point, I lost touch with words. I could not understand them, but knew they held answers. Without them, I was heartless. Without a pulse.  Alone.

Step 2:  Have regrets.

The trick to step two is keeping your head out of the water. You will need some air after step one, so remember to take breaths.  People will forever be telling you to “let it go.” Don’t listen to them. You can’t let go what you never truly had. Hold your regret close to your chest, and let it jumpstart your pulse. Hold it like an autoharp. Let it burn with every beat.

This step took me several months to complete. I had had regrets before—to a fault, at times. The difference is, I had never been stingy enough with them. I threw them around like casino dice. I just gave them away.

The completion of this step came in the middle of the night, with a jolting realization that regret goes beyond remorse. Regret encompasses all things, regardless of one’s own control or intention. The heart hides from regret. The mind tears it apart. The pulse keeps it alive. I completed step two when I discovered my heart, mind, and pulse were not in the same place. My heart was stuck at rock bottom. My mind was up in the air. My pulse was right where it should be, surrounded by blood and bone. I was ready for step three.

Step 3:  Make lots of pie.

Discover your roots. Make peace with them, and with your regrets of ever neglecting them. Understand the importance of cold butter and good flour. Make pie crust. Discover the joy of easing your hands into the bowl—after the fat has been cut into the flour, but before the liquid is added. Don’t be stingy. Indulge in this feeling. You need it more than anything right now. Ruin several pie crusts, by feeling the flour for too long. Respect the powers that live in the heat of your own hands. Cry often. For step three, I started with my family cookbook. I called my mother. I asked lots of questions.

Step 4:  Find your center.

Your center is the point from which your pulse emerges. Your rhythm comes from this place—from your own blood and bone.  Many have described this as a still place, and for some people, this may be true. Don’t let anyone tell you where your center is.  Only you can find it.

I spent years trying to be still, at the urging of others. I was advised this would help me to achieve balance, and find my center.  Those giving the advice were well-meaning and helpful. They believed what they preached, so I believed them. I tried and tried and tried to embrace stillness. I suffered through countless futile attempts to find peace in the absence of movement. I was thinking in terms of the body, and not the mind. This was my mistake.

I finally gave up and faced my own truth. I am not balanced, and I am off-center. The core of my being is not still. To find center, I had to get in tune with my pulse. This cannot happen when the heart is stagnant on the ocean floor, while the mind flies carelessly above the surface. The three have to meet and merge—right where the blood spurts, just behind the ribs, just under the part that swallows.

This step is the most painful. You may experience lurching or heaving. Don’t give up. Keep moving, in whatever way your body dictates. You will know this step is complete when you find yourself alone on the couch, squeezing your chest with crossed arms, rocking back and forth to the sound of your own pulse. Keep your eyes closed. You will feel it in your ears, your neck, your legs, your head. Let it rock you to your core. This is your center.

Step 5:  Pick up a washboard.

Once you have successfully completed steps 1-4, the rest writes itself. Just pick up the washboard. Hold it close, where you held your regret in step two. Feel the pressure. Lay your palm flat on the textured metal. Feel the cold. Run your fingers along the wooden frame. Press your chin into the side of the wood. Get to know the grain. Feel how it is different from the middle. Tap your fingers on every part, just to get a sense of the sounds. Settle into your own skin, with every bit of your heart, mind and pulse. Now you are ready to play.

NOTE: If you are still unable to find your rhythm, go back to step one and start again.

Erin Fitzgerald is a community arts enthusiast who writes songs, stories, segments and snapshots.  She lives in Louisville with her brilliant children, who inspire her every day.


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