My husband, John, still dreams of jogging. Oh, for healthy knees! Then there’s my friend who’s upset because the book she’s been reading went AWOL last week. Where is the darn thing? And all of us lose keys, forget people’s names, or miss appointments. It’s the human condition.
|John’s Steinway – isn’t she a beauty?
Still, wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to go back sometimes and regain a piece of the past? With that in mind, here’s my problem: I can no longer play the piano, and I miss it terribly. There was a time I played Chopin and Mozart, Gershwin and boogie-woogie, as well as copious blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I memorized easily, and I composed.
There’s an old photo of me reaching over my playpen to touch the keys of my family’s decrepit piano. For me, the only instrument was always the piano. Finally, when I was eight years old, my parents saved enough to buy an “upright grand.” Dad put it in a back room, and it was all mine. It had a glorious big sound and could hold a tune. Wow, some parents! Nirvana!
Mom said she knew I was angry when I’d bang out Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor as if the armies of Hannibal were invading across the Missouri River. (We lived in Iowa.) She knew I was in love when I gave a particularly sappy rendition of Debussy’s Claire de Lune or Love Me Tender – Elvis Presley, remember?
Then life happened in the form of deaths, poverty, and responsibilities. Hormones figured in there, too. All right, I admit it: Boys were delicious to look at – but I was too timid to return their smiles.
So I dove deep into reading where I could inhale the exotic scent of frangipani and gape at a behemoth Soviet tank. The crazy excitement of genius fascinated me, and I puzzled at the emotional desert of sociopathy. Books taught me everything from grammar to how to kiss, and I reveled in living vicariously many lives, each more interesting, more adventurous, and more brave than my own.
After a while, my love of books overwhelmed my love of music. By college, I’d stopped playing piano but was too busy, too unaware, to notice.
Today I sit on my husband’s piano bench, soaking in the beauty of his baby grand. I love to hear him play. Now he’s away for a few hours, so I get out some of my old music and choose Star Dust, words by Mitchell Parish, music by Hoagy Carmichael. I open it to the first page and study the music — my music, my old sheet music. Yes, I still have a lot of it. I haven’t been able to make myself throw it away.
But then my heart sinks. I stare at the notes and realize I don’t know what they mean. I’m not sure even where Middle C is on the stanza — or on the keyboard. I remember being able to look at music and feel it between my ears and in the center of my ribcage. I’m stunned at what I’ve lost. Like my mother’s kiss, I’ve lost the anger, joy, fear, shyness, incompetence, triumph, grief … that once rolled easily from my fingers….
|“Gloriously satisfying!” – L.A. Times
A few years ago I wrote a psychological suspense thriller called MOSAIC about a character named Julia Austrian, a blind concert pianist. With her Steinway, Julia travels internationally, soloing on the planet’s great stages. She loves everything about her life – the music, the bouquets, the reviews, the camaraderie. When interviewed, she always says that being blind is an advantage to a pianist. In the music, she lives.
But the truth is, she aches to see again, just as I now ache to play music. Until she was eighteen years old, she’d had normal eyesight. Imagine this coincidence – I was eighteen when I stopped playing.
The novel is also about a presidential election and a large powerful family, of which Julia is a member. None of them knows her secret – Julia has psychological blindness, Conversion Disorder. Simplified, it’s bad PTSD. But with the right trauma therapy, she may be able to see again.
Working on the novel forced me to face my old sheet music – and a deepening sense of loss because if I couldn’t hear the music just by looking at the notes, how could I possibly create a world-class pianist like Julia Austrian?
I must remember, go back in time, the writer in me tells myself…. The little rear room where I played. The sacrifice of my parents. My joy today in writing novels. It’s the same joy I once had in making music….
So I stare at my blank computer screen, summon the memories, and write: “She was all of the music’s compelling emotions, all of its grand poetry, all of its myths. Whether the concert was good or bad no longer mattered.”
Ah, yes, Liszt is her choice. “Snowscape” — the Études, no. 12. “She could imagine the snowflakes drifting down everywhere, shrouding the world in white, entombing humans and wild creatures and nature’s monuments to God, while the wind sighed and moaned.”
Julia plays on my page, and both of us can feel it. Through her, I find the rhythm. At the end of the book, she regains her sight, and I regain an important piece of my history. She uncovers a corrupt espionage situation, and I recover a love I thought I’d lost. She fights her way through a novel of suspense to a happy ending, and I have mine. Through the book, I regain an important piece of my past.