The other morning, I awoke to a startling set of pictures strewn across my Facebook feed.
Do you ever find out things via social media that you wish you could have found out about in a more private, sensitive way? This was one of those things for me.
The images were not from someone's obituary, or a celebrity death announcement, or a mass shooting. They were of something that, perhaps to any other person, would seem trivial.
A dusty piano, over a hundred years old, whose middle-register keys had subtle indentations in the top from decades and decades of play time.
You couldn't see the indentations from the pictures, but I knew they were there. My fingers had helped make them. This was the piano I had learned to play on. We bought it for $50 nearly 25 years ago; to pick it up, we drove far into the country, to an old farmhouse. It was huge, a sprawling upright made of heavy spruce, with carved wooden pillars holding up the keyboard.
At the time, I was several months into piano lessons and my teacher was adamant: I needed a piano at home to practice on. Both my brothers would also take up piano eventually, but I alone stuck with it even when we were no longer required to by our parents.
Of course, I learned more than musical technique in these practice sessions.
I've tried thinking of how to write this in a dozen different ways, all of them sound just as cliche as the last. So I'll just say it. Some learn beauty from nature, some from church or coloring books or a pet or fingerpainting or collecting leaves in autumn.
I learned beauty from some of those things, but mostly I learned if from my piano.
That piano is what taught me hope is a muscle that can be exercised. My childhood wasn't always very easy (is anyone's); piano gave me a space where I could occasionally turn my back on whatever darkness there was and stare into the dimly lit pages of a Beethoven sonata.
If you don't learn beauty when you are young, it is not always an easy skill to acquire later.
But, young or old, everyone needs beauty. Without it, we whither.
Which is why the Facebook pictures were hard for me to see. They were, as photographs of pianos go, rather gruesome--parts and pedals strewn about pell mell, like a dismembered corpse. A family member had begun taking the piano apart so my parents could finally get rid of it--it hadn't been played in years. Given how large the piano was, this was evidently a monumental undertaking, and pictures were constantly being posted of the progress.
Of course, I've known for years they would get rid of it. The piano had sat unplayed in a dusty corner of the house for most of a decade, since I moved out. Still, no one had called to let me know.
The unexpected grief of it all hit me in the gut. I had all of these strange thoughts throughout the day. While washing dishes, for example, I suddenly wondered whether pianos go to heaven--as far as instruments go, mine was a saint. Later, I wished I could have held the piano's had while it was torn apart--like you'd hold the hand of a dying. I don't even know how you'd hold a piano's hand, but I had this urge to. It was weird.
We live in a digital society that is growing less attached to the thing-ness of objects, particularly non-device objects. So it is strange when, all of the sudden, we find ourselves grieving something that is old and clunky and dusty and altogether not very sleek.
But I did, I grieved.
I grieved the way the keys felt like cold marble under my fingers. I grieved the way I used to be able to lose track of time, as children do, caught up in music making without any specific objective in mind. I grieved how I used to live in those songs, as though they were entire worlds of possibility, and the way they filled me with meaning that was bigger and grander than just myself playing. I grieved my levity, my focus, my imagination--life as an adult feels much more scattered than it did then. Plain and simply, I grieved my childhood.
There is a part of writing, I think, that is about reclaiming. Revisiting the simplicity of play and meaning-making and curiosity and beauty. These are things we (hopefully) learn as children and will spend the rest of our lives trying to re-learn, because they will float away from us as wisps of music drift down an empty hallway. Writing puts words to that re-learning, and in doing so, brings the eyes of our childhood into the present.
I no longer play piano as much as I used to, even though I have a nice digital in our apartment. But the other night, as the sun was setting, I sat down and played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Bach's Prelude in C Major. The evening sky provided just enough light to see the keys, the air was peaceful and mild as only an languid, summer night can be.
And as I played, I remembered. And I was grateful.