04 December 2007

Improvise a kingdom come

Linford Detweiler, "Only in America":
We want to move in closer, lean in together, improvise a little slow dance. So let’s move from the horns to the sound of the piano. Let’s find an old piano with a broken heart, like the upright piano we had at church, a piano full of prayers spoken and unspoken, a piano that makes the old hymns sound like they’re being played next door to a saloon. Let’s tell the truth. There were two taverns located right across the road from that little white wooden Protestant church where my father was minister. And as Karin likes to say—after what we grew up seeing in church, having a stiff drink nearby is the sort of convenience that makes America great. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The very first time I heard a piano. I can still see it. My mother has taken me to visit one of her friends who has adopted a boy a few years older than me. We walk into the living room, and there he is seated like God himself on a bench in front of a small wooden house with elephant-ivory keys, and pedals like a car. And that sound, the sound of a piano, that loud, infinitely happy/sad sound, that universe being born as he touches the black and white—I can’t believe my ears. I haven’t been walking all that long, but I walk as quickly as I can with unpredictable knees over to the corner of the bench and steady myself, and get the palm of my right hand up on the keyboard to slap the miracle and help it come out. The adopted boy glares at me and gives me a push. I find my seat on the living room floor. I joke now that I learned at a very early age that music was a cutthroat business: He was up, and I was down—and he wanted to keep it that way.

My mother grew up on an Amish farm with no electricity. She dreamed of owning a piano. Her second-grade teacher helped her cut out a cardboard keyboard and carefully draw the black and white keys. My mother, as a girl, would sit in her bedroom, one of 12 children, and play her cardboard keyboard, and hear the music that was only inside of her.

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