Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wings on My Back

On Friday I got a tattoo. Today (my birthday), a phone conversation left me shaking, drinking a glass of white wine to calm down. I let myself get suckered into an old pattern, one that makes me feel used and patronized and firmly put in my place. Before I know it, my heart is pounding, warning me too late that I can't stop the revictimization that is about to happen. I keep talking, saying the things the other person wants to hear, but the real me has no voice. Afterward I felt paralyzed, words trapped inside me, emotions making my muscles ache. I couldn't see a way out. But there is, there is. I'm changing, and so is my life. The butterfly was engraved on me in an act of hope, memorializing the fact that once you've changed, you don't ever have to go back.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Today I went to church. I go about once a month now. This is partly due to my health; each weekend I choose one or two main activities and all the rest have to go, including church. But it's partly due to the fact that I want to silence the voices in my head that tell me if I don't go to church, I'm not a good Christian. The voices say this: "Of course you're still saved, but..." Some weekends I actually dare myself not to go to church, risk God's wrath, just to erase those words. Funny thing, God never seems angry at me at all.

Today I walked out the front door into spring. After a mild winter, spring came suddenly and forcefully. The bulbs burst into bloom at one time, then the trees all blossomed at once, and the early spring days were so hot we almost put the air conditioning on. Halfway through March it got cold and terribly windy. I wondered if spring was done for good. Instead, this is a spring with more life in it than I've ever seen before. This morning was warm and humid and overcast, scented with growing grass and cut grass and the abundantly blooming dogwoods, wisteria, and azaleas. I came out the door in my church clothes and half my neighborhood was out in shorts and tank tops, doing yard work and playing catch.

Going to church always set me apart. I was always conscious of how different my family was as we piled into the car every Sunday morning and left our neighborhood for church, where a lot of other similar people had gathered after leaving their own neighborhoods. I knew that plenty of other people went to church, but they didn't go to my church, or churches like mine, or didn't go every Sunday. I knew that going to the right church every Sunday meant I was special and holy. Church was the place where all the special, holy people gathered.

Church was a club where I didn't fit in. I tried. When you're not allowed to be part of "the world," you try desperately to find a place somewhere. But at church, if I wanted to fit in with the youth group, I couldn't fit in with my family. If I wanted to fit in with my family, I couldn't fit in with the church leadership. And all of those systems operated by complex rules of behavior that constantly re-determined whether I was in or I was out.

Today I went to church because I wanted to. And my neighbors worked in their yards, because spring tugged them outside and made them happy. I drove to church through a town bustling with people walking and riding bicycles and setting out on motorcycle rides and going to church. For the first time in maybe forever, I felt like I had a home - a real place in the world. Inside the church, the sanctuary smelled of Easter lilies.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keeping Silent

This past November, I moved my piano from my parents' house, where it had lived since I left for college over 10 years ago, to my own home an hour away. I still take a second glance sometimes when I pass through the living room, amazed at its solid, swooping curves, at the fact that I own it. The feeling of playing it never grows less wonderful. But I've hesitated over and over to write this blog post, because when you use words to tell a happy ending, someone can take it away. I've waited to tell about New Year's Eve 2012, when we stuffed handfuls of Hanukkah candles into small flower vases and lit them all at once, counted down with the people in Times Square, toasted midnight with sparkling wine - and after some of us had smoked cigars on the back porch and everyone had come back inside, I played a song for my friends - the only time I'd ever played my piano at one in the morning, and my happiest New Year yet. I'm afraid to tell about the happy endings, because too much has been happening in between. Relationships and old illusions have been dying before my eyes, I've been having to choose between my own survival and measuring up to others' expectations, an old world of religion and conservatism has become as dangerous to my soul as a concentration camp. I'm afraid, I've been so afraid my whole life. I've learned not to tell my story because when you do, you give someone power to take it from you and use it against you. As I type these words I can almost see them spiraling away from me like white smoke, disappearing into the darkness. Yet my piano is still there in the living room.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two Ways of Looking at a Piano

Being a somewhat postmodern 18-year-old, I started telling myself a story right away about my piano, why I had it, what it meant. I believed that having this piano meant that God must love me, that I must mean more to Him than just one of the faceless multitudes He died for. I was astounded at the level of trust and care that my piano teacher had shown in loaning me the additional money I needed. Maybe God had a face; maybe He wanted me to be happy. That was the story I told. But I look back now and listen to another story that was only a whisper all those years - the story I actually believed. In the real story, God had given me more than I deserved out of the scarce resources of the world. Maybe He gave it to me so I would stop bothering Him. I couldn't ask for other things because already I had too much, and I owed Him a lifetime of gratitude. My value had risen from $25 to $2000, no higher.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Dream That Came True

The mahogany baby grand was a 6o-year-old Baldwin that had been almost completely rebuilt on the inside by a piano technician. It was showcased in the technician's basement, the lid open. It had nearly perfect ivory keys, hardly yellowed, and almost everything inside was new - the strings, the hammers, the rest of the action. He had put a shim in the original soundboard. I sat down to play it and its tone was slightly mellow, almost exactly the sound I'd been looking for all those years. Secretly I'd wanted a mahogany finish, too, but that was the lowest specification on my list. The piano was $2000 out of my price range. At my piano lesson that week, I told my teacher that I'd have to keep looking. But she loaned me $2000 instead.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Girl Who Won't Go Away

I did eventually start seriously considering a career in music. We had moved back to the greater D.C. area where the piano studios were more competitive, and it turned out that I was a good pianist. I started saving up for a grand piano when I was around 12. It was difficult for me to explain to people why I was saving for an instrument rather than for a car or college. Also, why not buy an upright instead, which would be less expensive? But I stuck to my goal all through my teen years, even after I finally decided to pursue writing as a career rather than music. When my zero coupon and CD matured, I dropped the cash into my piano savings account. When I look back on the girl who did all that, part of me is amazed. But part of me is just ashamed, for wanting so much, for being different, for lugging around a dream that was way too big for me and stuck out of my life like a sore thumb.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Becoming Me

Third grade was my first year of piano lessons, the year my parents bought the piano, my first year being homeschooled. I had also decided by now that I wanted to be a novelist. I had started scribbling stories after discovering the American Girl books. I loved playing the piano as much as I loved writing, but I didn't think about pursuing it as a career. The idea simply didn't occur to me. Playing the piano was personal, beautiful, fun, a way to express myself without words. My favorite things to do, I decided, were reading, writing, and playing piano. And they still are. I was only 8 years old, but I had already defined my identity - who I was, stretched out as rigid as steel wires on a cast iron frame.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The First Piano

When I turned 6, my grandfather died and my family moved to another state. One Christmas, my grandmother gave us an electric keyboard. Eventually I started taking piano lessons with a local piano teacher who was in a wheelchair due to an accident when she was a missionary in Africa. It was okay practicing on the keyboard, but I needed a real piano. My parents heard about an estate sale nearby with a piano being sold, so they took me there. We picked our way through the clutter of a dead person's furniture to an imposing upright piano, paneled with solid, dark brown wood. I played "Do, a Deer" on the discolored ivory keys. The people standing around clapped as though I had done something amazing. The piano was $25. "We'll take it," my father said. I'll never forget seeing his hand holding out the payment to the estate agent. I felt like I was being given the universe.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Once Upon a Time . . .

. . . there was a little girl who wanted a piano. My grandfather, a bald man with a big round belly, played the piano. He had a sophisticated-looking black console with wide, heavily weighted ivory keys and a mellow sound. I loved the feeling of pressing those keys. I remember my brother got in trouble for driving a matchbox car across the keyboard, but my grandfather didn't mind me playing the piano, as long as I was very, very careful.

Friday, January 06, 2012


I've decided to use the next few posts to tell a story in installments. The story is about a particular thread that has woven through my life since I was around 4 years old. It's a story about something solid and tangible that reminds me day in and day out of God's true nature. Because this story is about specific facts, it's more personal than most of what I write. But because stories are universal, you can find meanings of your own in it. It will happen in installments because I set myself a challenge a few months ago to write single-paragraph blog entries.