Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Piety and the piano

For most of my life--even back in my childhood--I've fought a thousand unending battles with expressions of personal piety. Piety is faith made flesh, the everyday practice of our thanksgiving to God. No one can be a believer without showing that faith in some distinctly visible ways, because deeply felt faith deeply affects human behavior--yours and mine.

Piety--the thankful response of the believer to grace--is not so much required, as it is perfectly natural. When we come to know God intimately, our response to him, a response that comes genuinely from the soul, is the expression of our faith, our piety. Piety is our witness, our love, our sense of righteousness, our song.

But when piety wears a public face, as it must, things get complicated. Our own acts of piety can be stifling to some and silly to others. Down here on earth, the perfect can often be the enemy of the good.

I'm not proud of the fact that I probably too often and too easily smell a rat when I witness piety. Meters go off in my head far too quickly, and in far to shrill a tone. It's almost a phobia, I swear.

And all of that is my mother's fault. There, I said it. But I'm chuckling. My mother is to blame because with her bounteous piety she's as promiscuous as anyone I know, and she darn well expects the same levels of others--including her son. That's what I grew up with, praise the Lord.

More than anything else, the medium of her praise was the piano. She gave piano lessons throughout my childhood. Every noon hour of my school life she'd get in a couple of kids while I'd boil a thousand hot dogs, slap 'em on a piece of white bread, and slather them in ketchup a room away. Honestly, I still love hot dogs.

Her piano was her David's harp. Together, she and my father would spend hours and hours singing together, sweet duets, languidly fervent--"Sweet Hour of Prayer," "I Walk in the Garden Alone," "Blessed Assurance," "Whispering Hope," "Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior," each of them beset with improvised flourishes that left no key untouched. If Dad wasn't around, she'd sing alone, her lilting soprano filling the house. Honestly, the hours could not be counted.

Their singing brought them great, great joy, and harmony, I'm sure, to their marriage, as if Solomon himself had proclaimed that the couple who sings together, stays together. That resonant piety sometimes made me hide, and all too often, for reasons I'm not proud of, it drove me plain nuts.

When my parents left my boyhood home for the apartment they'd occupy for twenty years, the piano went too, and the singing carried on. When they spent months in Florida, she found herself a cheap Wurlitzer organ that graced the trailer and likely entertained her neighboring seniors, whether or not they approved. When Dad died and she went off to a much smaller apartment in the home, the piano came along again. In the last few years, she's played it less--I know that; but that doesn't mean those keys don't get an occasional caress. No single activity of my mother's life--other than prayer--means as much to her favorite, joyous hymns.
When I think about it, I wonder if I fought with piety all my life--and music--in part because, as a boy, I too often found myself playing second fiddle. I never thought of that before, but then I doubt I'm any better off having stumbled on it just now.

So last week a short note written in a shaky longhand admitted what I guessed might eventually happen. At 90, she says her hands have forsaken her. Her fingers lack the dexterity and strength to play. She just can't do it anymore.
Honestly, I doubt she could have told me any worse news.

Maybe some psychologist would tell me I should be happy--finally, no more Fanny Crosby. But I'm not. Not long ago I was appointed the sibling who would tell her that her driving days were over. I did. She told me that everybody in the home talked about how awful it was to lose their cars, their mobility, their freedom; but she gave me the keys. I know it wasn't easy.

That she can't play that piano anymore, that's a tragedy of a whole different magnitude. Fortunately, she likely saw it coming, knew it was going to happen.

But my guess is that even today, two weeks after she told me she couldn't, she'll get over to that bench and try, try again, hoping those fingers of hers--probably overused in a lifetime of music--can rally one more time and pull "Blessed Assurance" from the keys and hammers and wires.

I hope so. Even if she doesn't try, somehow, I'm sure, she'll sing. And that's a very good thing. PTL.


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