Here we are, on the cusp of the biggest collective tryptophan high of the year. All over the country, people are rummaging through their closets looking for their baggiest clothes that can also pass for dressy, in preparation for tomorrow’s feast. College students who have made the trek back home for the weekend are already cursing their decision, wishing they didn’t have to spend the next three days with their boring and/or ignorant relatives.The more fortunate among us are warm and dry, well-fed with a comfy place to sleep, surrounded by friends or family. Those less fortunate are still homeless, penniless and jobless from the ravages of the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Or they have just been handed their pink slips from General Motors, who just announced they’re laying off 30,000 more workers and closing 9 plants in the US. They are waiting for their loved ones to return from Afghanistan and Iraq, and some wait in vain for a homecoming that will never take place.
At this moment I am alone in my beautiful house that is lit with a very long strand of colored lights recently hung floor to ceiling across the living room. There is a fire in the woodstove, my dog Vince rests contentedly on his pillow, and filling up a previously empty corner of the room is my new piano! It is a baby grand circa 1931 that I found on Craigslist last week for a ridiculously low price, after spending close to 50 hours researching and playing used pianos. The movers brought it in just this afternoon, and by dinnertime I had to stop playing because the muscles and tendons in my arms were complaining.
Growing up, we all learned to play on a sturdy old Baldwin grand piano that still sits in my parents’ living room. I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old, but months before that I began playing by imitating the pieces that my older sister was learning in her lessons. That was not the first time, and it was by no means the last, that I annoyed her mightily by encroaching on her territory. But she got me back years later when she picked up the cello as her second instrument. That was the one I would have picked too, but since she had claimed it first, the dictates of our intense sibling competition meant I then had to choose something else when it was my turn to branch out.
I loved playing the piano, even though I went through periods of hating to practice, hating my mother for forcing me, and disdaining my provincial old lady piano teachers. Music was my lifeline, my most reliable outlet for emotional expression and solace as a teenager. I loved Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel — anything that was like a painting I could color in my own way. My classical training provided me with a solid musical foundation, but I wanted to be able to do other things with music, too. After I left for college at 17, I took up the guitar and swore I would never take lessons on it as long as I lived. I wanted to learn how to play it myself, to let how I played be a direct expression of what I knew rather than what I had been taught.
The guitar has been a treasured companion to me over the years, my musical mainstay even as one by one I’ve added other instruments to the list of things I can pick up and make music on. When my kids were small, one of my mother’s piano students in Oakland had a Great Aunt Verna who passed away and left a piano for her heirs to deal with. My mother’s student offered it to her free of charge for someone who could use a piano; so it was the our house acquired a lovely Chickering upright. That has been a very good piano, and continues to grace the parlor/ritual room/music room back in Sebastopol.
Moving out here to the coast, one of the first things I brought was my guitar and music stand. I was determined to get back into songwriting, which to me is like an indicator species of my spiritual and emotional health. If things are not in balance in my life, the first thing to disappear is songwriting. It is so important to me, and yet the conditions under which I can write a song are complex and fragile, and not easy to recover once they’ve been interrupted. Solitude being the single most important ingredient in the mix, my guitar was an obvious companion to bring along.
I don’t even think I would have chosen to bring a piano here for myself; it was the necessity of having an instrument for Jojo to practice when she is staying with me, combined with the realization that a grand would really go much better in the space than an upright, which catapulted me into the past several weeks of piano-spotting. The more I looked, though, the more I yearned for a grand piano like the one I grew up with. The big, resonant sound that fills a room to overflowing, the power and the subtlety of a fine instrument, all called to me with the force of a need unmet for so long that it’s been effectively forgotten. And so here I sit in radiant happiness, knowing that as soon as I’m done blogging here I’ll go back over and play till my hands are sore and it’s time for bed.
My good friend Barbara, an ardent practicing Buddhist, says the thing to do with beauty is not to hide it, minimize it, or be ashamed of having it, but to give it away. Appreciate it, and share the experience as widely as possible, with a prayer that beauty enter the lives of all people. So I thought to share this snapshot of the happiness this day has brought me, and the deep gratitude I feel for all that I have, all the beauty which surrounds me here. May the forces of beauty, balance, and delight overflow your homes, your feasts, and your lives in the days to come. May we not forget those in greatest need in our prayers of thanksgiving tomorrow, and when the feasting is over and we have all gone home, may gratitude and happiness for all that we have be our first thought on waking, and our last thought at the close of day.