When I read good writing, I feel numb. When I read Didion or Sinclair and Steinbeck, these undisputed masters of the form, I have no choice but to drop my pen, like a slugger after a called third strike. It is a paralyzing feeling that drains my thoughts. I offer only a self fulfilling prophecy of my future failings. I swear an oath, like a felon, never to write again. The form is not for me; its secrets are sealed. I swear to not approach it again. Yet I break my oath, this minor sin, again and again, with a simple poem or song, I do try. But I only rediscover, even more tragically than before, the validity of my oath, how right I was to swear it. I must not write. The written word is for the writers.
But hearing the piano is different. It doesn’t intimidate. It is an invitation. Its sounds, its rhetoric. Its dimensions – they are an invitation. Its masters, its Rosettas, communicate me the possibilities the piano beckons us to seize. And I am moved, beyond admiration. Beyond tears. Beyond applause. I am moved to action. I must find my Craigslist keyboard and play.
I play. And the best part of it is I am welcomed to do so. Not because I admired an older sibling who played. Nor was I divinely inspired or called to play, like the Apostle Paul, nor did I fake this call, like Elmer Gantry. I was simply charmed by the ascending and descending melodies, like the pulse of heartbeats. Like the chants of stadiums, I became beckoned by the impression the masters of piano make, every time I hear them.
I play simple tunes. My hands take the same shapes and play the same patterns like they are used to. I know songs for different purposes. Some are for my family, an old hymn, with its enduring melody murdered by my static left hand. Some songs are to play for women. They who, expecting little from me, are s. As much as I play for others, I play for myself. I listen to my hands, as if they were disconnected from my body and speaking alone. And I am beginning to understand what they are saying. I know few songs, my left hand moves like feet through sand.
The difference between writing and playing is in their forms. If I assume the role as a detective, a protagonist in an Agatha Christie novel, who seeks the answers to these forms.
The more a player plays, the more he realizes how little he knows. As a scientist, who through the lens of his microscope unlocks the mysteries and glories of the cosmos, realizes how little he understands. Because he can never understand. The keys of the piano are a code, a puzzle of black and white pieces. But the pieces are already together. The answers are clear, accessed by curved fingers and a basic 4/4 time signature. ¾ if I’m feeling adventurous. But the piano is an answer. No, it is the access to an answer. It is both a code and key. I try to unlock, every day. I realize the answers are there, every time I play. I only am asking myself, what is the question?
I often wonder how bands can perform the same songs every night. Reason suggest that the notes, the chords, the riffs, they must lose their appeal after awhile. It’s economics, you would think. How can they approach every song with the same intensity, performance after performance? Like idiots. Because they’re madman, hell bent on breaking a code they created. And they never can.
The more you know, the more you realize all that you do not know. Socrates, defending himself before his accusers, told his enemies that they were all fools. He included. Yet he was the least foolish, because he realized how foolish he was. I grant him his point. So am I a better writer because I know I will not pen the next Paradise Lost? Am I a better Christian because I know I will never talk to God? Am I a better pianist because I know the secrets of the instrument will never reveal themselves to me?
These are the questions. But the piano is a temptress. She is a siren whose sounds numb the logical parts, the reasonable parts, of my senses, and marinates the senses that are looking for answers. I still pray. I still write, at times. And I will always play. Because the questions most needing answers are the most elusive questions. And the answers most worth finding the ones most worth not knowing. Because the search is so damn good.