It’s incredible out here on the dock this morning. There’s a refreshing river breeze. It’s even a little cool, which is welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the past few days. The waves are lapping against the shore, the sunlight is sparkling on the water, the warmth of the sun is caressing my skin, and the birds are singing. If the water weren’t so choppy, I’d go out in my kayak. But honestly, I’m glad to have an excuse to indulge in a different pleasure this morning: playing my singing drum on the dock.
I’ve had the drum for less than a week but have wanted one for quite a while. Actually, I wanted a hang drum, but they are very expensive and harder to come by. So I began exploring alternatives and then kind of forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago.
I love to play my singing drum. Especially on the dock on a bright and breezy, summer morning.
There’s road noise to contend with. Always is here on the busy side of the river. I hear the familiar vibration of the steel deck bridge and the cars and trucks only a few yards away from my spot on the dock. But I’m trying to keep my attention on what’s most important: what uplifts me and feels most right in this moment. Just letting all the traffic noise be and not pull me away from my own be-ing.
Making music while all this other stuff goes on is this morning’s meditation practice. Choosing to feel and express my interconnection with the sparkling sunlight on the river, the eagle flying over the island, the wind, the movement and rhythm of the water. Focusing on that. Making music with that.
I can’t control the road noise. But I can control where I put my attention and whether I am in harmony or disharmony with my surroundings. Does my music embody union with the sparkling sunlight on the water or resistance to the rumble of traffic rolling by? Am I expressing wholeness or separation?
The state of your mind and heart is an integral part of the music you offer the world, literally and figuratively.
My advice? Play what you love. Focus on what you love, what brings you joy, meaning, satisfaction, grace. Can you keep your focus on that when all the other stuff is going on around you? Can you tune the other stuff out so you can co-create with life? Or even better, can you incorporate it into the totality of what you are living and embracing this very moment and express unconditional presence?
I sense our music is of a higher quality – less fearful and more authentic – when we play (talk/listen/act/love) from a state of presence and interconnection.
It’s all part of a larger practice of being more improvisational and not relying on notes (of one kind or another) on a page. Expressing from the heart in the moment and trusting that whatever arises is what’s most needed and real and true. That’s the leading edge of my practice these days.
When I hit the record button on my phone, I noticed a subtle shift from expressing to performing. From letting the notes and rhythms flow uninhibited to wanting to sound good and be appealing. But that’s a practice, too. A continuum. My intention is to push the record button and remain in presence, whether I’m communicating through music or words. It’s the same basic practice whether it involves playing music, interacting one-on-one, leading a guided meditation, facilitating a meeting or workshop, addressing a group, or teaching a class of young children. In my case, all my early childhood teaching experience has become a foundation for the rest.
Cultivating deep authenticity and trust…in myself and the wisdom inside me. And also in the magic of connection that happens in the moment, that transcends any stories I create in my head about relationship.
I looked to others for guidance and validation my whole life. But that need comes from the false self, which is a layer I’m in the process of shedding. Because it’s time, and I have a feeling that hormones are finally on my side. Now what I want most of all – more than any kind of worldly success or status – is to trust and follow my own guidance. To be MORE present, improvisational, inner- and inter-connected, and LESS self-conscious, rehearsed, and influenced by others. To express my inner being rather than try to be who I think others want me to be. The latter has had a long enough run! It’s time for a new experiment. It’s kind of scary. But even more, it’s exciting.
So this morning, I brought my singing drum to the dock and allowed the sparkles of sunlight on the water to be the notes I played. They looked like this:
And if you’re curious, they sounded something like this:
Happy New Year! I hope 2017 is off to a bright and hopeful start for you.
It’s been a month since I’ve written a blog post because immediately after publishing the last one, we accepted an offer on my parents’ house, and the world started spinning faster than ever! We accepted the offer on December 7, which included agreeing to close by December 30.
Well, on December 7, everything my parents owned was still in their house. To say the house has generous storage space is an understatement, and their belongings filled up all that space. We had on our hands the accumulated possessions of a lifetime – and not only their lifetime, but my grandparents’ lifetimes, as well. There were boxes upon boxes of my grandparents’ things that appeared not to have been touched since the day they were brought into the house. It became obvious that my parents saved everything. And that made for a ginormous job for us, during the holiday season, no less.
There was only one weekend available before the projected closing date to have an estate sale: the weekend of December 17. I had met with a woman who organizes and runs professional estate sales, and she told me to get back in touch with her when we have a buyer. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about staging the house for showings anymore and could organize for a sale. However, given how soon the closing would be and the time of year, that option was out. So I researched how to run your own estate sale, took copious notes, and researched values of things, while working around the clock hauling items and boxes out of the far reaches of my parents’ storage spaces to see what we were dealing with. I had no time to price things, so almost everything was “make an offer.” And in the midst of that inhuman workload, I came down with my first cold in at least four years, and it was a bad one. I was sick for 12 days straight, including the weekend of the sale, when I could barely talk above a whisper! AND there was a snowstorm that weekend, which made driving perilous. And of course, it was the last weekend before Christmas, as well, so people had lots of other things to do besides help with or attend an estate sale. However, a few angels showed up and helped me organize for the sale and were on hand during the sale for moral support. I couldn’t have done it without them – or even come close!
Needless to say, the outcome of the estate sale was disappointing. If we had more time to work with, or if it were a different time of year, it would have been a completely different story. At the end of the weekend, aside from getting rid of some furniture, it looked like we had as much stuff left as we had begun with. So then we started bagging and boxing donations. My sister rented a dumpster, and I rented a self-storage unit to literally buy some extra time to sort through things at a more leisurely and mindful pace.
Let me tell you: They were the craziest weeks of my life. I intend to write more about the whole experience because there is so much to say about it. But for now, I want to focus on the piano.
The Mehlin & Sons 1954 spinet piano was my mom’s first big purchase when she was working at her first job at General Electric after graduating from high school. She was passionate about music and taught herself to play. When I came along, she bought me a toy piano (pictured partially below) that I adored, and I became fascinated with “the big piano” and couldn’t wait until I could learn to play it.
I started taking lessons in third grade, and piano quickly became not only my passion but also my identity. My mom was delighted. She worked at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and arranged for me to interact with dozens of classical pianists and musicians through the years. When she thought my motivation to practice was waning, she asked Andre Watts to have a little talk with me. I met Liberace more than once and babysat for Emmanuel Ax’s son, which involved interacting with Mr. Ax both before he left for the performance and when he arrived back home.
In high school, I was piano accompanist for school choral groups and played piano (and marimba) in jazz band. I accompanied vocalists outside of school, played for weddings, and even competed on piano in the local (county level) Miss America pageant at age 19 and won the talent competition (which was the only reason I was in it). Piano was the first Great Love of my life.
It turned out I didn’t have the confidence or resilience to pursue a career in music or even major in music in college, and that is something I still regret. And stage fright was an issue, too – because I was playing for the wrong reasons. I was more focused on impressing people (including pleasing my mother) and doing it “right” than on expressing the music in me. I think I also was not playing the kind of music that resonated most with me – which I know now to be more meditative, flowing, and New Age. I remember how I dreaded being called on to solo in jazz band because improvisation felt too personal and vulnerable. It felt safer to play the notes on a printed page – someone else’s music.
I went to Ithaca College, a school known for its excellent music program, where I majored in psychology. When I took a piano performance class with music majors, I felt like I was out of my league and dropped the course. I’ve continued to play now and then through the years, but just for fun and relaxation and almost never in front of another human being – although there have been very occasional jam sessions that felt really good. However, when I’m playing (often with headphones so nobody can hear me), there’s no feeling quite like it. I feel totally in the flow and joyful. It feels as if, in those moments, I am doing the thing I came here to do (i.e. be my authentic self), especially when I have no music in front of me and play from my heart. So I guess you could say that I’m quietly picking up the broken pieces of my abandoned talent and putting them together in a more authentic “Zen and the Art of Piano” way. I have other Great Loves now – namely photography and writing – but piano remains my first, and first loves can be especially powerful and hold a special and enduring place in our heart.
So I married a man with a music degree, and after we got divorced, I married a professional musician who doesn’t read music and is all about improv.
My daughter took piano lessons (which my parents paid for) and played my mom’s piano, and my son taught himself and played it, as well. One of the most poignant memories during the last few weeks of my mom’s life was on Mother’s Day, when the house became quiet and heavy with the realization that she would be gone soon. My daughter broke the heaviness by going to the piano and playing “Hallelujah”, and my mom made her way to the living room with her brand new cane, to sit close and listen.
So that Mehlin & Sons spinet piano means a great deal to me. It was my first Great Love and possibly the deepest connection my mom and I shared. It filled her with such joy to hear me play it and to fall as deeply in love with it as she had. I wished I could keep it, but I couldn’t because I don’t have the space or any kind of storage area for it. So it became important to find the right home for it. And when the right person approached me and expressed interest in buying it for her son and granddaughter, I could not put a price tag on it. The personal value was too great to be measured, and it felt better to give it away to a good home.
Two days after Christmas was the Big Day when the piano movers were scheduled to take the piano to its new home. Although I hadn’t planned anything beforehand, I woke up early that morning knowing exactly what I needed to do before going to work. I jumped out of bed and into my car and drove to my parents’ house to play a final, private concert for my mom on our piano.
All that remained in the living room that morning was the piano, a lamp, and an easy chair – which was perfect for such an occasion. The piano needed to be tuned but always had such beautifully weighted action.(I will miss that familiar touch so much.) And I knew exactly what song to play: “Flying Free”, a choral arrangement with a simple, flowing piano accompaniment that I hadn’t played in many, many years. When I asked what I should play, that song came to me so clearly and instantly that I didn’t question it. It was neither challenging nor impressive – in fact, I considered it “easy” when I played it back in seventh grade – but it was a song that always felt soulful and uplifting to play and that I could play through inevitable tears. Even the lyrics (though I was too choked up to sing them) were perfect on so many levels.
After all, discovering and expressing my soul is what my relationship with piano has been about all along. It’s a path that wouldn’t work if it was based on comparing myself to others rather than being truly inspired. It needed to be authentic and include music and mentors who stirred something in me and led me to the threshold of my soul, where my own music resides. Improv, the thing that scared me most, is perhaps what I needed most to learn, to take me to another level where I could feel and express the music flowing through me more authentically. And that’s something I can still work on when I’m alone with my keyboard and headphones – although I yearn to ditch the headphones at some point and not give a damn what anyone will think or whether I’m “good enough” to be heard.
Playing this farewell concert was what I needed to do to honor my relationship with this piano and with my mom (who gave me the gift of music for which I am so grateful) the best way I knew. I cried a lot as I played, but it wasn’t because I was sad or depressed. It was because I was expressing what was alive and real in me, rather than pushing it down and denying it. When you are able to risk being emotionally open and vulnerable, you can go to some incredibly beautiful and transcendent places and flow with the music within you that longs to be set free.
It was like making love to a cherished lover for the last time.
As I played, I imagined for a fleeting moment that I was back in high school, practicing piano while my mom was in the kitchen making dinner after getting home from work. The house was filled once again with love, light, warmth, cozy furniture, framed art on the walls, and the comforting aroma of my mother’s cooking. Even though she didn’t particularly enjoy cooking, my mom was happy listening to my pre-dinner music.
But mostly I allowed the music to flow through me like a prayer. A somewhat out of tune prayer, which was actually a lovely testimony to the instrument being played and loved through the years.
When I closed the cover over the keys for the last time before leaving for work, it was like closing the lid to a coffin and saying a final farewell to a dearly beloved person. I caressed it, patted it, gave it a kiss, thanked it, thanked my mom. Two hours later when I was at work, my sister texted: “Piano is gone.” I blinked back the tears that would flow like a waterfall after I got out of work and was alone.
At least I know who my beloved instrument has gone to and feel that it has found its way to its next rightful home. I hope that if the new owner ever decides he no longer wants it, he will contact me, and maybe I will be in a position then to take the piano back. But if not, at least I got to say goodbye to it for real and play a last concert for my mom. A friend suggested that perhaps my dad was there, too, and they were dancing in the room as I played. I love that idea. I hope they danced.
A few days later, on New Year’s weekend, the new owner sent me an email expressing his gratitude for the piano. It included a picture of him and his young daughter sitting “at the helm of our new treasure” with their hands touching the keys. The little girl was beaming. It was the perfect closure for me and the perfect ending to a very difficult year. That piano was the most cherished of all my mom’s possessions, and she would be so pleased to know that a young girl will be able to enjoy it now and learn to play on it, just like I did. And so am I.
P.S. Since I very rarely let anyone hear me play, it was terrifying for me to share online the humble, imperfect recording of me playing my mother’s piano for the last time!! However, a voice from deep within insisted that I must. So I did. And it felt like recovering a very significant part of myself that had been banished for a very long time. It felt like healing!
I had no idea that Tchaikovsky could take me to the places I went to tonight under the stars at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) with the Philadelphia Orchestra! The venue is a beautiful, open-air amphitheater that also happens to be where my mother spent a 34-year career. It wasn’t the first time I went there since she died two and a half months ago. However, it was, by far, the most emotionally powerful!
My daughter, husband, and his brother’s family of three visiting from Colorado sat on the sloped lawn with me. I was in a reverent mood and expected a level of decorum around me that honored my mom’s spirit and life work. How wonderful it was to be there as the sun set behind the amphitheater, following a sun shower that painted a rainbow across the sky (pictured, below, over the building in which my mom worked).
It was the first time I was at SPAC with my daughter since my mom died, and it felt so right to be there with her. She understood completely where my head and heart were at, for hers were in the same place. It also was a special night because my sister was with our dad, sitting in my parents’ seats inside the amphitheater. (It also was my sister’s first time at SPAC since our mom died, and the rainbow pictured above greeted her.)
The first half of the program included Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra, featuring Montenegrin guitarist, Milos Karadaglic. During the piece, the sky was dark, and crickets chirped in the distance. It occurred to me that my mom would have loved the performance because she was so passionate about guitar. It also occurred to me that, although my mom’s spirit is always in the air at SPAC, if any evening could pull her away from the formless realm back to SPAC, it would be tonight – for my dad, my sister (who isn’t “into” orchestra), my daughter, and I all were there. That was a first! The only one missing was our middle sibling who lives out of the area. During a guitar solo, my daughter and I started sniffling at the same time, for we both realized the significance of us all being there on this particular evening.
During intermission, my daughter and I went down to the amphitheater to find my dad and sister and talked with them and a couple of my mom’s friends until intermission was over. We stood in the same spot in which I dreamed of my mother smiling and walking by as I spoke with a few people during the first dream I had of her following her death. It just so happened that’s where we ran into one another.
After intermission, the orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74, Pathetique – the composer’s final, completed symphony. It was composed in 1893, the year he died, and premiered nine days before his death in October. I was getting a little tired but appreciated my surroundings with all my senses. I imagined my mom sitting inside with my dad in their special seats, dressed impeccably. As the symphony played, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to conjure images in my mind – of a ballroom filled with women in gowns and men in suits, dancing, in pursuit of love. I was so glad to be at SPAC and reflected on why I had rejected so many of my mother’s invitations to attend classical performances in recent years. The first time I attended a performance this summer with one of her former coworkers, I ran into my dad, who couldn’t believe I was there because I “hate ballet.” Well, that was never the case, but apparently it was the impression I gave. I think expressing disinterest toward the ballet and orchestra was just another way to push back against my mom and cultivate a separate identity. Sometimes, when something means so much to a person, it becomes more about the relationship than whether or not you actually enjoy the event to which you’ve been invited.
Now that she’s gone, that boundary no longer exists. I can go to the orchestra and enjoy it! I wished my mom could know that.
I continued to savor listening to live orchestra in a setting infused with my mom’s spirit. During the unconventional Adagio lamentoso finale, I opened my eyes and let images of the SPAC grounds at night and all the summers I spent there flood my heart and mind. And then I became aware of another presence. My own spirit was there, too: The little girl given the special honor of accompanying her parents to the ballet or orchestra rather than staying home with the babysitter. The young pianist who dreamed of someday being a soloist with the orchestra. The elementary school student with the biggest crush on her music teachers – one of whom worked at SPAC during the summer. (How thrilling it was to see her and other teacher friends who were ushers and gate attendants!) The adolescent who anticipated the thrill of meeting the performers backstage after the show. Back then, SPAC was my summer universe, and there were so many people there who were so familiar and influential in my life – people brought together by a mutual appreciation of the arts.
It was like a SPAC-based life review that also included a memory of bringing my young children to an orchestra performance that ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with cannons). When the walkway lights were turned up at the beginning of intermission, my son (who was about five years old at the time), stood up and started walking up the walkway, exclaiming with delight, “I loved it!” – an unforgettable response to his first orchestra experience.
All of a sudden, I was with all of the old, familiar faces again, along with my mom and the ghost of my many, younger selves. I felt deeply grateful for all the time I spent at SPAC growing up. The symphony’s slow, mournful finale brought out all these memories and feelings as if by some kind of musical magic. I began weeping silently but uncontrollably. I’ve never cried like that in a public place, but I suppose it was bound to happen sometime at SPAC, and why not below the trees and stars, with crickets accompanying Tchaikovsky and so many people who loved my mom in the audience? It was a safe place to cry – spacious and fortunately quite dark! But the tears were not of sadness. Not at all! They were of the most profound gratitude. I sent out a sincere prayer – Thank you, Mom – to greet her wherever she is, and hoped my deep gratitude would bless her soul.
After we all went our separate ways, the tears continued to flow all the way home as an impossibly huge, 3/4 waning gibbous moon floated into the sky up ahead.
Postscript: I didn’t read the program notes until a full 24 hours after the concert, after I finished writing this piece. I found it interesting that Tchaikovsky wrote that he “wept profusely” as he composed the symphony in his mind!