At Peace by One’s Own Hand

Rob Girdis was full of magic! His choice leaves us deeply saddened, and plagued by questions like: “What could I have done to help him find another path to peace?”

The answer is this: You did everything you could, most of the time, and in many ways. You loved him well. You appreciated his work, and were forgiving when your dream instrument was in the pipeline longer than you had hoped. You hugged him back. You allowed him to be quiet at times, even withdrawn. And now you must forgive him for leaving us.

If genius is a blessing, it is the polar opposite of the blessing of peace. In order to work the magic as he did, I suspect he had to wait until the energy was just right and he could turn himself over to the hyper-focus demanded to produce such fine work. It’s not a simple on/off switch that you can flip at will. You have to wait for the moment to arrive, then leap on it and not allow yourself to be interrupted in your process. You can’t force yourself to be there, and when you promise that you will make a guitar for someone you love you are committing yourself to the tyranny of that hyperfocus. It’s thrilling to work that way, but it exacts a toll on your body, mind, and friendships.

So, when you can’t get to that creative place, you feel guilty about making your friends wait, and oppressed by the monumentally demanding task ahead. The flip side is the array of exhilarating rewards when the job is completed. You know the work is good, and the person receiving your gift (purchase is too crass a word) takes it personally, and that’s appropriate!

I’d like to try to explain what that roller coaster ride is like from the inside. I lay no claim to genius like Rob’s, but I know the passion and depression cycle very well. This is not a treatise on bipolar disorder, or any other clinical diagnosis, but more about what that moment is like which makes escape irresistible.

Maybe roller coaster is the wrong image. It’s upside-down. On that ride you climb slowly to the top in anticipation of the rush down the other side, which is most exciting at the bottom when you change directions and head up again. In life there is no guarantee that the climb to the top of the ride will yield the promised rewards. Sometimes that climb takes forever and has many detours. (All of my bad dreams are about the travails of ‘getting to the gig,’ and I never actually arrive before I awake.)

When you touch a hot pot, your withdrawal is immediate and involuntary. Ouch! You pull away. The urge to escape the sensation of despair is that demanding of action. It mirrors the passionate urge to complete the insistent task at hand, except the outlet for the latter urge is to keep working towards the goal, maybe the next perfect guitar. There is no similar outlet to escape despair. You’re stuck with it until it goes away. Some escapes are available at times: playing music, getting drugged or drunk, going to sleep for a few weeks maybe, but they are temporary. After a while you realize that you are always going to go back to that awful place where life is impossible.

You can’t accomplish yourself out of a depression. You can only try to hide from it.

I know many of my own friends were confused by the two of me: the one that hugged them enthusiastically one day, and the one that withdrew and couldn’t meet their eyes the next. Which reaction was ‘real?’ They both were, though I preferred to be the one who hugged.

Calling dances and doing the radio show were extra taxing in the same way. I figured out how to do those things in my hyper moments, but then had to execute them when i was ‘down’ as well. I could still remember what I used to say to make people circle to the left, so I learned to act like I meant it every time, even when I was down. Then, hopefully when I was safely alone, I’d burst into tears for a while.

You don’t get to select when you’ll be hyper/inspired/energized. It’s totally unpredictable. You may have to accept the gig while up, and accomplish it while down. Until I was 50 (!) I didn’t know there were two different conditions running my thoughts: I thought I was the same all the time, and the world just got extra irritating once in a while for no apparent reason. The actual reason?  I was down.

The urge to escape the down is greater than any of our automatic inhibitors which insist we be ‘reasonable.’ It’s akin to the opposite passion for ‘real truth’ in its intensity, whether your pursuit be beauty, power or holiness.

Do we  enjoy the highs more because there are lows? I don’t think so. The joy is so absolute that nothing else can possibly compare. I’m weary of the agony of the roller coaster. The perceptions of the up and the down sides are equally valid, and the conclusions equally true. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to chasing your dream, even if you are aware of your swings. It can feel like “I know how to save the world – the path is clear.” If you feel like that, wouldn’t it be dishonest to your passion and a denial of our concept of community to decide on a ‘no?’ If you know how to do it, and you think it’s important, you must do it.

I’ve wondered if a lobotomy would level things out for me, (not awfully seriously usually). What would it be like to never have to do a ‘low’ and never get a ‘high?’ For one thing, it would be very very peaceful by comparison. Urgency is not a comforting presence, and it comes with both sides of the coin.

I’m tremendously grateful to Rob for his willingness to persist with his most creative self rather than choosing some drugged version of ‘average.’ He generously dared to love us and make perfect guitars for us. It was not easy to be Rob Girdis. So, though I’ll miss him, I have a little warm comfy place in my heart that knows he decided to finally get some real peace. He trusted us to carry on with the things he knew to be important. We all know a little of his message, and in gratitude we each carry our morsel forward so his hard work is not lost.


4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Catherine said,


    Godspeed, Rob.

    Thank you, Sandy.

  2. 2

    Paul Nickelson said,

    Thank you for your insightful piece and I understand full well the intensity of focus that creativity at high levels demands …the extreme highs as well as the down sides. His genius and friendship will be sorely missed.

    Paul Nickelson

  3. 3

    Marty said,

    Sandy- I fondly remember tending bar on Saturdays for Potluck, and thought of you when I saw you’d recorded at Littlefield, but what blew me away was finding this blog, and suddenly a reference to my old friend Rob Girdis, who I knew from my pre-Murphy’s days, when Rob was moving to Guemes, & thinking about becoming a luthier. I’d hoped to run into him over the years, but no such luck. He was someone whose friendship I valued, & I remember him fondly, sort of like Moby Dan Rice, down in South Bend. I’d love to come hear you play when you’re up around Skagit county.

  4. 4

    Tahle Patton said,

    I just found out about Rob today. I was his apprentice in 1983 on Guemes. It was my first foray into my lifelong craft and Rob was a great inspiration if not a somewhat reluctant teacher. I have so many memories of living on the land and working at a bench right next to Robs shop. He taught me how to build tools and in the process how to achieve tight tolerances in my hand work. His devotion to his craft was an inspiration I hold with me to this day.
    I can see his deep, dark eyes and his bright dorky laugh. He was my teacher and my friend. So sad to lose him.

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