Learning the Black Keys

Until about a week ago when I got here, Grandfather’s baby grand has sat for years covered up. After a full day of clearing out the living room in the back, I finally unearthed the cat-haired encrusted covering. I instant began reacquainting myself with a marvelous instrument of polished wood that I used to beat on with carefree measure, attempting to find new flavors and withdraw its stories, as a child. Within one year of playing piano, it’s taken me this long to introduce myself to songs with simple chords. And yet, doing so has made me more familiar with the complexities of chords shapes and progressions, and of course the ever daunting black keys.

Transitioning from strings to piano is not like learning a new language with a entirely different form of grammar and alphabet. There is a bridge to a piano’s patterns. On one side my knowledge of music theory and on the other side is a city with foreign architecture. Still, I can get by and manage to interpret the signs well enough to find my way through the unfamiliar streets. I thank the fact that many of the words translate over, even if the conjugations are different. As with guitar I could form chords with one hand, a G/C major, then move up through a progression of two-note octave shapes that confuse words and pronunciations with one another yet still sound like poetry. With piano any arrangement of notes can be accompanied with a harmonizing chord pair just by shaping its codes with my left hand. It is French to me, somewhat recognizable for an English speaker, but notably playful, where three or four words are hyphened and blended into a fluid sound that breaks a mouthful pieces into a bite-sized sounds.

I sat in front of the keys just before dinner. While I waited for everything to rise and roast in the oven, I practiced the flats and minors, forward walks through scales and then reverse, roots to fourths, and retract to the second (just because I have the liberty to do so), I played matchmaker, and chose two keys at random just to remember which notes do or do not get along with one another. Repeat the chorus and end on E flat minor, relishing, in the long sounded notes held in suspense by the foot pedal. My eyes looked up to stare out the window. My fingers relinquished, dropping the notes from their flight. The window, out the window. Outside through the window, I see it’s raining again for the third day. Folks around South Creek thought surely there would be snow.

When guests come over later their smiles will be affected by the weather, if not by the news and the stress of their life. The world is on fire and that’s all we can focus on. “What else is new?” I asked across the table. My uncle looking up in a jolly, sarcastic smiling, “Well, it’s raining again.” Everyone laughs. That’s how much of an agrarian family we are. But my family has this thing, where when someone speaks or when we laugh, we all spring up from our chair. That’s how interconnected we are. But surely was things settle, we sheeplishly return to eyes on our plate, sifting our thoughts as if food.

I can’t let the question go though. I’ve sifted my food so much that I’ve begun scratching the plates. What has changed? I have heard from many of the friends of about my age that this year has felt like nothing has moved, budged, or had any momentum. Words such as stuck, waiting, or praying have all come up to describe my friends’ circumstances. I can’t say I haven’t also used all of those words in my writing, multiple times. I want to encourage my friend by agitating them with the question, ‘really? Do you really feel like nothing has changed?” I think of the eyes of my friends, including myself, that tremble. For a moment, the wonderful food that my aunt and I had cooked lost its taste. I didn’t ask for seconds. After months of movement, I’m exactly exactly at the same spot I was before I left everything, full circle. I put my fork down. I was made full by my thoughts.

I have experienced strangers and friends alike come up to me to tell me I will do such great things in my life, as if they see or sense something I cannot. When so many people have told me, staring directly into my eyes, that I will do great things, I can only imagine the look of dismay in their eyes when I update them with the news that I am stuck and uncertain. “Currently, I’m attending to only but simple, humble matters.” “Oh.” Her response is delivered as if a question. “Oh,” as her head tilted a bit to understand that statement from a different angle, as if to say, “did I hear that right?” In her mind, I can only imagine, they are a bit disappointed, a bit, “tsk, tsk, you could be doing so much more.”

In St.Malo this last August, in a stacked kitchen with high ceilings, filled of expired cereal boxes and fruit festering with files, a leaking faucet and a refrigerator spilling what could have been spoiled tomato ooze out onto the white vinyl tile, I had a conversation with Soizick, a woman who was hosting me outside of the city. Still in her pajama robe and with bags under her eyes, she was listening to me express my guilt for not being with my grandfather. I mentioned how I felt undecided and nearly torn for traveling Europe when I could be spending that time with my family who I barely know. She stopped me, looking up from her soup-bowl sized coffee, and caught my speech like a viper. I was stopped by the intensity of her glare. I took me by surprise to hear her rise and say, “No! You should never feel guilty about such a thing! If that is your choice in doing so, then fine, but don’t you ever feel obligated to be with your family.” Her tone calmed afterwords,taking her seat, she explained. When she was in her twenties, she felt the same way as I did at that time; despite those emotional burdens she decided to travel and study in a different country. Her consciousness continued to weigh her down and were only intensified by the letters mailed to her that were wrote in the ink of nostalgia and separation.

She became homesick, not because she missed home, but because home missed her. Even in a long December and a newly met man, she decided to take the time to travel away and be back with her family for the first time in years. Despite her dragging, heavy luggage, she felt a weightless sense of illumination walking up to her family’s door. The greeting was no more warm then it was outside. As she walked in family members murmered and barked at one another with barely but an automated hello to Soizick. She took a seat somewhere in the house to take it all in. Nothing had stopped either since she left, and as far as she was concerned,nothing had changed either. “A person’s world does not stop because you decide to leave from their life. Everyone will just continue on. They have to.” she said again after a pause to accept her coffee. “Everything you do you must do for yourself. If you don’t make yourself a plan, then you’ll become a part of someone else’s.”

After months of possibility, and heavily influenced by not having a home or job, I did decide to make the choice to depart to my grandfather’s farm. I don’t think I can declare something a choice when I have no other options. And I can imagine about that one particular person, one who believed me to lead an incredible life, standing with their head twisted out of bafflement after I tell them I was going to be here at the farm. Here, as just a caretaker and a land steward. Just as a simple caretaker and land steward have just their simple tasks.

But look at me know, I exclaim. I’m just playing simple chords that incorporate playing the black keys after only just a year of playing piano. But words like simple and just lead to profound movements of change. Through only just walking my grandfather’s dog, I am able to feel the spirit of the world run parallel to me just down the creek. By just cleaning old bedrooms and throwing away old boxes, I’m able to reopen the hearts of the spirits who live in the house, give them a second chance to reconsider their afterlife. By just being quite I can hear everything my soul has been trying to say to me for years. Even simple things have profound effects.

But this is not about the simplicity of life, this, as Soizick emphasized, is about a choice. Life moves faster than it appears, but in the movement everything feels slow. And the faster we move across our life the slower everything appears. Because of which it’s easy for me to be discouraged by the choices I am making, especially as I cannot realize the difference each choice makes for me. Still, I believe in my choices, because I feel self-gratified and recognized for my service despite the fact that no one will read my poetry, understand the context to my stories, or witness the colors that emerge from my fire.

After dinner, when our guests have all left, I lowered myself onto the bench, fingers arrange themselves above the keys and resumed tracing the dance steps of a A minor chord progression, repetitious chords that follow along with the single line of lyrics, “How do you know at once, at all, at last?”
“Choice brought you here,” speaks the piano, “but you would never understand the depth of your choices or what calls to you if you hadn’t at least tried all the keys.”

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