barney’s nails are popping, its layers are peeling back even more, rust is gathering on surfaces subjected to air and moisture. this is not a surprise. barney has been outside in the sun and the rain and the snow and ice and wind and humidity and drought for almost ten years now. a decade has a way of peeling things back. i wonder what barney might look like in another decade or maybe two. its soul will be intact; its boxy exterior will be falling away, opening strings, hammers, soundboard to the world. and always, its soul, present, true.
barney is no less beautiful now than the day it arrived in our yard. in fact, as it changes, its transformation is a metamorphosis into an aged piece of art sans any expectations. it stands as a stalwart symbol of constancy in our backyard. it reminds me that soul is resilient, fluid. no matter the weathering, the chippies and bunnies nesting, the birds stopping off to rest, the squirrels sitting and taunting the dog. no matter only eleven white endpieces of keys are left. no matter the line of popped nails in a row along its upright top. its soul – exposed – carries on, aged and stronger than before.
“this is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing i know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” (mary oliver)
if barney needed to express itself, tell stories of its past, the narrative of a life of a hundred years, it would merely stand and speak – firmly planted. time and nails have loosened its jointed wood and the container of a million tales, and have – figuratively – unlidded the top of the shoebox under the bed or on the top shelf of the closet. every story counts and, as we sit in the backyard, we pay attention. we listen to barney, giving credence to its voice, glad that even in its aged appearance – and its agedness – it is not silent.
in ways i can’t explain, i can feel the nails popping.
the threads are stretching, stretching…but not ripping.
barney stretches and yawns, still a piano, always a piano. his soul – tenacious and flexible and resilient – centering back to itself, despite weather, despite weathering. it’s late day and the shadows are long. there are small mounds of birdseed, assorted fallen leaves, bits of white at the leading edge of the keyboard. no matter. his aging exterior belies the zeal inside of him, the sorting of memories being played, sustain pedal lifting notes into the air and holding them there. barney has come to knowing that all the notes are still there – stretched across the atmosphere, lingering. he is not fearful of this process in the sun and the rain, snow and blustering winds.
“if you let your fears control your actions, then you are not going 100 mph through it, enjoying it.” (sue aikens)
barney does little these days. he is home for wildlife, the birds, the chippies, the squirrels – they know him well. but he is still going 100 mph through it, whirling and dancing in his beautiful body in our backyard. one day he will look even less like an upright.
but the chickadees and house finches, the cardinals and robins will glance over at him and think, “there’s that sweet piano.” for they, too, will still recognize him.
the crystals on our outdoor chandelier are catching the sunlight, their exquisitely-cut facets sparkling toward the sun, the clarity of spheres throwing prisms of light and, in the dark, casting intricate shadows – strung pendalogues with silhouettes illuminated by moonlight.
ok. i give. it’s plastic. all plastic. except for a couple metal strap parts and the solar pack.
so when we ordered it – this solar chandelier – we expected some heft and prepared how to hang it on the old door that sits behind the glider on our deck. we talked to jeff at the ace and decided upon a hinge we’d attach to the door with a wrought iron arm that we could move in an arc, depending on how we wanted the chandelier to be hanging. we had wanted to hang it over barney – for that old piano in our backyard deserves a chandelier – but it turned out that the chippies and squirrels and birds won over a lighting fixture, regardless of its beauty.
the box came. lighter than, well, we expected.
and when we took it out of the box and attempted to unwind it from itself, we were a little skeptical that it would fulfill the lofty dreams we had for a chandelier outside.
nevertheless, we are not the kind of people who give up on something before we give it a chance. we decided to try it on for size before packing it and shipping it back.
we hung it on one half of the birdfeeder’s shepherd hook. turned on the solar pack and waited. night fell and this earnest little ithinkican-chandelier lit up. “sweet,” we both thought aloud. we hung it under the umbrella over the table and it cast ridiculously interesting shadows up. then we hung it on the awning and wondered if it would ever make it to the door and the hinge-arm-shenanigans we had ready for it.
plastic or not, it has us intrigued.
this morning i can see it out the window of the bedroom. the eastern sky is full of warm summer early morning color. as the sun rises, the crystals catch it. they glitter.
barney had an anniversary. seven years in our backyard. seven years of sun and rain and snow and ice. seven years of chipmunks and squirrels and robins and cardinals. seven years of wild geranium and day lilies and peonies and potted plants and candles. seven years of intense love. some things are unexpected. i still remember the beginning.
but barney’s influence on us has been significant. as he has aged, grayed, wrinkled, as his layers have peeled back and as his many-wooden-layered sedimentary life has undergone a metamorphosis, so have ours. we have gone the road with barney.
there are moments we glance over, in early morning light or the dim of dusk, and are taken aback at the beauty of this old piano in our yard. i can’t imagine it not being there, even as it gently lists a little left, into the ground.
same as those moments, in early morning light or the dim of dusk, that we glance over at each other. a little bowled over by the sheer presence of the other. the moment-ness, the what-else-is-there-ness, startling us into awareness. time keeps marching on and little counts but the chipmunks scurrying, the birds landing, the sun on our faces.
i got a single text from our girl. i read a post from our boy. they are in their own skins; they are making their way too, upright pianos in the backyard, living their best lives.
it’s a hot night. we sit on the cushions we bought last year – after long, measured research and budgeting – and light our column firepit.
the flame dances in the breeze. and it frames barney.
and reminds us – simply – that right now and love are what count.
A0, B0, C1 are missing. entirely. gone. they have disintegrated and have dissolved into the ashy dirt of the piano. it is likely that if we planted the forget-me-not seeds we received when our beloved babycat died, tiny blue flowers would grow, for this spot – the lowest on the keyboard – seems rich soil. though we do not see A-zero, B-zero, C-one, the tones are still there, the timbre of these lowest notes ever-present, the grounding of all else still grounded.
“wherever you are, that’s where i will be…” is needlepointed in an old black frame on the wall in the bedroom. in the way that notes forever linger in the air, that frequencies dance waiting for us to listen, i know that this is also true: those whom we love surround us any where we go, any where we are, they are a whisper away. i plant virtual forget-me-nots each time i speak of or ‘to’ my sweet momma, my poppo, my big brother, dear ones who have gone on. i plant virtual forget-me-nots each time i hold close in embrace or in mind those whom i love who are here, whether near or far. the garden is lush with these tiny blooms, the wind a symphony, even maybe a gentle cacophony, of harmonics, seeding my steps each day.
in the midst of it all – changes and challenges, absolute joys and abysmal sadnesses – all that has been whirls around us, all that will be beckons us. we pick and choose the bouquet each day…our words and actions, our intentions. we learn and grow and send roots while at the same time becoming tall and independent and resourceful and capable of blooming.
yet, the wisdom of the ages, the ages themselves, are where we are. the notes play and the harmonics ring. the flowers blossom and spread and the wind takes on seeding, propagating on breezes and stout gales, encircling us. the universe cheers for us. we try to believe it is, ultimately, on our side. as albert einstein encouraged, ‘the most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.’ we can bring nutrients or malnutrition to the garden.
the low notes swirl. still there. and all those who have loved us, all those we have loved, all those who love us, all those we love, the greater spiritual power in each of our lives – there. always with us. rich soil for our every single day.
we moved the sunflower. it was on the deck for a few years now, rusting behind the aging wooden glider, tucked between the kitchen window and the bedroom window. it greeted us each day we left and came home. it watched over my girl as she house-sat during the summer, a couple ago now, when we were on island. she didn’t know it, but i had asked it to keep her comings and goings safe and each time she left and came back to smile good days upon her. it came home from a cedarburg festival with us, having called us over to ponder its purchase. we walked the length of the festival and talked about the sunflower. then we went back, after more debate than most probably make about purchases, and bought it. about two weeks ago we moved it. now its place is next to barney, surrounded by peonies and wild geranium and daylilies and snow on the mountain. it is happy there.
when you’ve lived somewhere for quite some time there are naturally places that you go that feel better than others. for me, there are places in this town that have immediate warm responses for me, places that have held me, places that are part of my cairns, places where i have dreamed and imagined, places where a community has meant the world to me. there are other places that conjure up memories i would rather forget with visceral responses i can actually feel; i generally stay away from those spots not wanting to relive moments of grief or poor judgement or anger or betrayal or grand disappointment. i have learned, though, that sometimes the best way to process those is to drive past, to acknowledge, to breathe deeply, to maybe weep. in the same way that actual places remind us, mementos from places we hold dear make it into our special boxes or find their way into our home like sticks accumulating in the walking stick vessel in our sitting room or rocks added to the stones around the pond. some mementos are bigger than others, like the sunflower from a gloriously sunny festival-going day in a town we adore browsing or the 5′ long driftwood from a long island beach that graces the mantel or the high mountain aspen branch wrapped in lights in the dining room. and then there’s barney. there’s no escaping this beautiful piano in our backyard, aging with us.
i’ve shared barney’s story before…how he escaped the junk man’s junkyard destination and, for a small price, came here to share life with us. from a basement boiler room to a place of honor near the pond in our tiny yard he sits and invites the company of beautiful plants, munching squirrels and cutie-pie chipmunks. yet he is a memento. and the place he came from is no longer a favorite place. instead, it is a place i now avoid, with emotions that elicit a physical response and a little vibration i can feel in my chest when i think about it. and so how do i avoid attaching these feelings to barney, i have wondered.
my growing-up piano is in our basement. movers moved it there many years ago, before there were walls in the stairwell. i wonder what will become of it if we ever move. it proudly holds art books and a small stereo and sits in david’s painting studio with a couple rocking chairs and his gorgeous old easel. i have thought about ways to repurpose it. and yet, it is so dear that it will, for right now, stay there just as it is, with music in its bench and the little index card on which is carefully printed in eight-year-old font “practice makes perfect”.
there is a piano of size in my studio. it sits at full stick, waiting patiently. i was in there yesterday and it whispered to me, but, for right then, i was consumed with the finishing of putting things away. there is still music to file, organ music still to go back into cabinets. i must decide what to do with the poster that hung on the choir room wall that reads, “if you ask me what i came into this world to do, i will tell you i came to live out loud” or the metal cut-out words “it’s all about music” or the white strands of happy lights that were woven around the blackboard that listed rehearsals and demonstrated strum patterns and had dates of parties for that well-loved community held at our house.
maybe once i decide what to do with all of it – including the emotional wreckage part – i will again sit at my piano. drive past, acknowledge, breathe deeply, weep. my piano is full of empathy i can feel and some day, soon i hope, i will be able to sit and play – in a studio cleaned and inviting with mementos of goodness and intentions of evolution. then i will walk out of the studio and down the hall, through the kitchen and the sunroom and outside onto the deck. and i will sit on the old settee and listen to the pond and the birds and watch the chipmunks scurry across the top of the old piano that shares space with the sunflower and a couple green-eyed metal birds.
in answers that have come with a few months of time, i have found that the piano-ness of barney has overcome the where-it’s-from-ness. the peeling back, the wrinkles, the embrace of its tiny community in our yard…these things have usurped the rest.
instead, barney and the sunflower together greet us upon leaving and greet us upon returning home. together, they both bring joy and reassurance to our backyard and they both smile good days upon us.
time continues to peel back the layers. barney is vulnerable and is, thus, exposed.
artistry is like that. we share our vulnerabilities. we write, we paint, we compose, we lyricize – we peel back the outer shroud of mystery to reveal that which is inside. we take chances at judgement, at others’ opinions, at evaluation. we are exposed. and time goes on. winter turns to spring which turns to summer and then fall. the seasons take their toll; the seasons enrich us. both.
the first album i released felt earth-shaking. the notes – white and black keys tumbling from deep within – flew out into the world on a piece of polycarbonate, aluminum and acrylic plastic. what could be a coaster contained fifteen deeply-excavated emotions, musings each released into the light. exposed. the scraps of paper that gave birth to these were soon filed in a binder with invoices and order forms, designs and ups tracking numbers. one season. one album. done.
each original album since is no less an exposé. each still holds pieces of me, permission by me to be peeled back. a little less scary than the first but still risk-taking. vulnerability does not recede from the sandy beach as the big waves come and go. but it stands a little more stoic, with a little more sisu. the albums, like seasons, arrive when it is time. and they, in some way that albums might, tremble with anticipation and that tiny bit of fear that remains, even after many layers have been peeled. soon there will be no more black and white at all.
now i wonder if i will need shrink-wrap again. i wonder about recording. and i don’t know. yet. i do find that i am thinking of wooden stages and boom mics. i also find that i am thinking that all this writing – these written words on the page – have been feeding me and that hunger for polycarbonate, aluminum and acrylic plastic.
each day, barney and i age. the veneer blisters and the shell reveals our hearts. we are both emotional, barney and i. we are conscious of our craggier look, the wrinkles and the age spots. though we wonder about how we resonate with the rest of the universe-out-there, we take the dusty road together anyway and we hold hands, vulnerable together. though laminate no longer hides our souls, we are standing in the sun this season, new growth springing up.
in the last year of my sweet momma’s life, at not quite 94, she would say astonished things like, “i looked in the mirror and i look like an old woman!” we would laugh together when we mentioned her age and that she had earned every last wrinkle, every age spot, every grey hair. never have i seen a more beautiful old woman. in a life that spanned from 1921 to 2015 her hazel eyes saw vast changes, world hurdles, family loss and strife, wild technological advances. and love.
barney was born around the same time as my momma. i wonder about the life he had before he arrived in the basement boiler room. was he a honkytonk piano, a barroom upright, a sunday school accompaniment, the instrument in someone’s drawing room? he was headed to the scrap guy when we met him and we intervened. i suppose as he has lingered in our backyard these last five years he would wonder about the reflection in the mirror, his outer shell, those wrinkles, that peeling laminate, the keys that no longer play. does he realize that chipmunks perch on his brow and snack on acorns? does he realize that birds land, patiently in wait for their respective and restrained turns at the birdfeeder? does he realize that his soul remains rich, his exterior beautiful in its aging?
i laid awake for hours in the middle of the night last night. i looked in the virtual mirror in my mind and saw wooden stages and boom mics, big pianos and blue jeans. i realized, suddenly, that i am older. despite everything that would suggest to me, try to convince me of, the contrary, i have gotten older.
scrolling through social media during this time of distancing it is stunning to see all the ways people are incorporating posting with streaming, youtube, visiting with google hangout, facetime, videoconferencing with zoom, webex, as they try to be there without being there. it’s exhausting.
my 1970s-lingering-self puts on readers and starts to read the directions. the chipmunks are perched on my brow and i resource apps to stay in the loop and do my part to help keep people connected in a time where connection could easily fall away.
i take a deep breath and remember the day that my sweet momma’s iphone facebook status read (from her assisted living facility in tampa) that she was checked in at a miami dolphins game in miami. i quickly and quietly fixed it for her.
and then i giggle and think, ‘heck. if she can do it, i can do it.’
it is the symbiosis of peeling back the layers, honoring the wrinkles, relying on each other’s strengths in the mirror and working together, the virtual birdfeeder our community.
as barney ages in our backyard, he clings to his original form – he is a piano, first and foremost.
barney has spent the last four years in our backyard. his presence is inspiring. rescued from the dark church basement boiler room he had been in, the light of the sun and weather he now endures have brought nuance to his life as a piano. no longer serving his original purpose, he has a new destiny.
but barney’s soul remains the same. you look at him and you know he is a piano. no ifs, ands or buts. and he is cherished.
there is a different kind of power in his spot in the backyard. it’s not one of crescendo-ing music. instead it is now one of steady quiet. it is one of a history of service and workhorse reliability. it is one of a history of the dawn of creative moments and the dusk of amens sung in sunday school classrooms or weekly meeting rooms of committees or choirs. his piano-soul now resounds in the chirp of every bird or chipmunk, the sound of the wind and the rain, the glint of the sunlight deepening the wrinkles of his keys.