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Here’s a dirty little secret: Our house has a beautiful baby grand piano, and it scarcely gets played.

That’s on me. I’m the lone pianist living here.

Want to know why I don’t play? Read on.

* * *

Years ago, I started a musical trio called “Thistledown.” I was on keyboard; my friend Peter on guitar; my friend Sarah on vocals. I wrote our repertoire, best described as “spiritual folk.”*

Peter and Sarah were gifted, seasoned performers, comfortable on stage. By contrast, I didn’t like the spotlight. An introvert by nature, I only enjoyed performing as an accompanist, helping other singers and musicians to shine. I didn’t want the bright lights on me.

So, forming “Thistledown” was a huge step for me; a necessary middle ground between hiding and shining. After all, if I intended to keep writing songs, I needed a means to bring them to the public.

That’s when Jihong and I bought the baby grand. It was an extravagant way to honor a dramatic shift in my life. Beyond that, it was a practical investment. After having cut a couple of solo piano albums elsewhere, now I’d be able to record in the privacy of my own home. Plus, such a gorgeous instrument might further inspire our son’s love of music. At the time, Nathan was in early elementary school, already taking the piano lessons he’d asked for.

Jihong and I situated the baby grand in the very center of our house. Once there, it stayed put, as heavy things tend to do.

* * *

“Thistledown” began to find its groove. We gave a few concerts and were warmly received.

We decided to produce an album in Peter’s home studio. We spent hours there, practicing, recording, editing, mixing. We were nearly finished with the project when, out of the blue, I received a phone call from Sarah.

In short, she quit.

Just like that, the CD project died. “Thistledown” died. And a cherished friendship died, too.

* * *

In the years since this happened, I’ve not written a single song. The baby grand sits largely untouched. Feeling like a stranger on its bench, I keep my distance, stuck in a mucky inertia stemming from disappointment, loss, and grief.

I don’t know how to play anymore.

* * *

When I started piano lessons as a youngster, I showed natural talent. As a result, the primary purpose of my learning to play shifted almost automatically from personal enjoyment to dutiful service. Before long, I was constantly on call, playing for houseguests, family dinners, worship, weddings and funerals, school musicals and concerts, recitals, competitions

All this music-making enriched my life. But for all the joy it provided, I also felt a ton of pressure. Playing was no longer a choice, but an obligation. Excellence was expected; only my mistakes were remarked upon. Every time I sat down to play, I was scared of messing up and letting people down.

In high school, I developed a frozen shoulder.

I kept playing.

My other shoulder froze.

I kept playing.

Migraines put me in the hospital.

I kept playing.

Only when I was tempted to self-harm did I finally step on the brake. (Temporarily.)

By then, I’d forgotten how to play music just for myself.

I’m not sure I ever knew how.

* * *

After all this and “Thistledown” too, I’m now in the land of learning to play piano again at the grand age of 60. Not to practice till I make perfect. Not in preparation to perform. Not to please somebody. Not to record a solo. Not to write a song for others to sing … 

Just for fun.

To do this, I’ve got to recall pieces of my soul from some pretty dark places. I don’t know how to summon them back, exactly, but I’m trying, because I miss those lost parts of me. They’re like measures of music that were somehow ripped from the sheet music of my life. I want to restore them to the score.

* * *

Have you, too, left precious pieces of your soul somewhere in the past, amidst all the hard work of “doing for others?” Don’t know how to reclaim those pieces, exactly?

That’s okay. You’ll figure it out. We all create our own way home.

But maybe we begin with the hard, simple act of awakening to the painful presence of what’s absent. If we wake up, and stay awake, “where the two worlds touch,” as Rumi says in “A Great Wagon,” we might one day step through the round, open door between then and now; between there and here; between what we lost and what we find again:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

*names have been changed


Photo by Oleksandr Kurchev on Unsplash


Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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