By Jan Worth-Nelson
Some days, no matter how hard you try to stay sane, it’s just too much.
Picture me roaming around my house — a sprawling old place with several routes for pacing and hiding — where we’ve been mostly cloistered, like any reasonable oldsters shrinking away from COVID-19, since March.
Picture me agitated, limbs sort of flapping, arms akimbo from time to time. Picture me muttering and cussing. Picture my pandemic hair, sticking out in cowlicks from a second or third conjugal chop.
You might think this is a woman who’s a little bit mad.
You might think this is a picture of a person coming apart.
You might be right.
And If you were in my vicinity, which you wouldn’t be since we’ve kept most of you out for five months, you might hear me mumble one particular plaint:
I’m so tired of words.
They have been my life, but today, as more Black men are killed, as a 17-year-old slaughters peaceful protesters in Kenosha, they seem tedious, inadequate, continually abused and misused, and, except perhaps for a primal scream, drastically ill-equipped for the realities of this life.
Nothing but trouble, words.
In this half-crazed condition, desperate to keep the TV off, desperate to avoid the mesmerizing madness of the laptop, annoyed by recent dips into bad novels and exasperating poetry, my sleep-deprived eyes landed on something.
The piano! How could I have neglected that damn piano?
This requires a story. When we bought the house in 2014, the piano, a beat-up black spinet, had been left behind. Nobody much wants a piano these days — I’ve seen them tugged undecorously onto curbs more than once, poor things.
Even though the previous owners didn’t want the piano, nor the ones before that, before the bankruptcy and other indignities, I paid them a hundred bucks. Then it sat there, its lid modestly clamped down, mostly gathering dust, for six years.
History: as a kid I took piano lessons for ten years, tutored by a sequence of lovely women who endured my early stumbles and guided me as I gradually moved toward the life of a church musician I was supposedly destined for.
They threw in other music, too – Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Debussy, Brahms, Elgar.
And, appealing to my restless, foreboding eagerness for the “secular” world, they allowed for Gershwin, and show tunes — OMG, show tunes —from Oklahoma and the Fantasticks.
Remembering, I love those women and how much they loved music and how good they were, sitting there trying to pass along their keyboard world, the possibility of the beautiful instrument, the possibilities of song.
I practiced an hour a day after school for many years. I perspired through a number of frilly dresses in a couple of recitals. I liked it, achieving a level supposedly suited to my destiny, but when my mom offered me a chance to stop taking lessons when we moved to yet another parish in high school, I was relieved.
In a way, I forgot about it all until the day I couldn’t stand words.
And the piano, stolidly and uncomplainingly ignored and mute for all these years, whispered, “Open me up.”
And so I did. I sat down, lifted the lid, and extended my two hands to the ivories, still remarkably familiar after all these years.
It felt amazing. I ventured a few chords, ran my fingers accelerando-ing and crescendo-ing up and down. Just fiddling and having fun. I gottta say, deep cleansing breaths almost immediately returned.
The poor instrument, however, was painfully, even comically, out of tune. Tom Travis told me about Dennis Ikeler (he is a story in himself), Flint’s premiere piano tuner. He came to the house one Thursday morning and made a miracle happen, taking the boards off to expose the gleaming insides, tuning, tuning, tuning one note at a time.
He repaired a broken pedal. He gave it the love of a craftsman, and in the process told me about his life.
In a long-neglected bookshelf I found a pile of sheet music and music collections — as if my younger self knew someday I’d find them. They’re funny to me — poignant. Still the “Fantasticks,” still “Oklahoma,” James Taylor, Carole King. Also two books of “Sacred Transcriptions,” and my unbelieving heart expands with the loveliness (made innocent without words) of arrangements of old hymns, like “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
Little by little I’ve played each day, soothed by the repetitions of a set of Beethoven variations, soothed by sucessions of chords, soothed by the practice over and over, approaching “perfection” of delivery, soothed that I can still make reseasonably harmonious sounds. Soothed by the orderliness of keys ands sharps and flats, by the rhythms, by the dance between my eyes and my fingers, by the messages of composers and arrangers long gone who created these harmonies, these melodies that require no words — except, of course, the beloved Italian language of allegro andante, sostenuto, vivace. I took those words for granted as a child. Now I repeat them like familiar mantras, delighted by how they feel on the tongue and how they matter to the song.
The piano does not need batteries. I do not need WiFi. There are no cords. It does not have threads that argue with me. It does not keep track of my birthday or what I did nine years ago. It does not know who I’m voting for. I do not have to worry about my privacy, unless my neighbors flip out at hearing just one too many repetitions of my faulty “Misty” – a great song, by the way.
All I need is to sit down with my resurrected skill, the lifelong music in my spirit, my thanks for those devoted women of my childhood, my love of the gorgeous sounds other humans have created, and I let it all flow in and out of my body.
All is not lost. There is still music. By luck, this beautiful instrument came my way. And somehow, now, it gets me by.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.