Player piano

My mother’s mother is feisty and stoic, a sixth-generation Oregonian who has always called the land on which she lives home. Her hair is straight, a light brown that’s well faded into soft gray. She has small blue eyes and large, wonderful hands that nurse the ill and the injured and play the piano with quickness and grace.

Some of my earliest memories are centered around the piano at Grandma Carol’s house. She would play for my sisters and I as we huddled around her on the piano bench, belting out Christmas carols or Disney songs. Her Wurlitzer is a player piano, and when Grandma would move on to clean or cook, we would take over. Small doors over the keys slid open, and a lever above our knees revealed a set of pedals, which we would lay on top of a folded towel.

Grandma keeps her piano rolls above the band-aids and the rubbing alcohol in the hallway cupboard. I can smell the inside of that cupboard now, reassuring in its odor of latex and medicine. We would drag a chair over to the shelf to choose a song, maybe Tiny Bubbles or The Sound of Music medley. Grandma would help install the roll, sliding it out of its red box and tightening the roll of paper as we listened to the squeaking noises it made. “Listen!” she would say. “Can you hear the birds?”

Then she clicked the roll into place and hooked the tab over the smooth roller beneath it, and the music began. My sister Erika especially loved to play, gripping the underside of the keyboard frame and pumping the pedals up and down as fast as her legs would allow. We watched the roll, small holes cut into the paper telling the piano which notes to play, the phantom keys jumping up and down as the music rose. Printed words on the right-hand side helped us sing along. When Erika’s legs ached and the roll had been played through, someone flipped the metal lever back, and she slowly pedaled to rewind the roll so that Grandma could return the birds and the music to the narrow red box.

My grandma instilled in us a love of music, which she inherited from her father Norman. I don’t remember him, but I have a photo of me as a toddler sitting next to him on a piano bench, watching his talented hands run up and down the keys. We have recordings of his organ music, and his electric organ sits in my grandma’s basement. Music runs through the family tree: Grandma’s sister Maxine is a talented pianist, playing for her church and weddings and funerals and teaching children to play, too. My mom loves to trot out her jaunty rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” every Christmas, and my sister Erika teaches herself pop songs and owns her own piano, which is just about to come out of temporary storage at Grandma Carol’s house. Sometimes I catch myself singing a note of alarm, maybe when I’ve narrowly saved something from falling off the kitchen counter. As soon as I hear the sound escape my lips, I know it’s in the key of Grandma Carol.


Don’t waste time trying to master what you’re not good at

Pay attention to what you pay attention to.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star.

Martin Luther King, Jr

The turning of the seasons and recent conversations with a trio of good friends has me thinking about working smarter and better. I’m happy with my work, which is in a field that I love and provides me new challenges on a weekly basis. I don’t know if this work will be what I’m doing in two years, or in five, or if my position will even be relevant then. Sometimes I see people who are also doing this work, but on a more public scale, or who have two impressive side hustles in addition, and I have to remember that comparison is the enemy of joy. 

I am where I meant to be. I know that this job, and the creative work I do here and elsewhere, serves me well. It plays to my strengths. On the best days, it makes me feel alive, able to offer smart solutions, more connected to people and to purpose.

My three friends and I talked about our work in my little apartment a few weeks ago. We’re 30 this year, and none of us are doing what we thought we’d be doing. One has started her own business doing work that she didn’t even know existed when we graduated from college. Another is the executive director of a nonprofit. A third works in sales for an event planning business. In her spare time, she’s remodeling the house she bought a couple of years ago. I moved across the country last year, just when I thought the window on leaving my home state had closed.

And we’re happy, and struggling, and learning that how we are is probably more important than what we are. 

It’s hard to break away from the siren song of upward mobility, but I’m increasingly convinced that I don’t want to aspire to height in my life, but to depth. To long conversations with friends about our vocations. To writing postcards to senators with women that I’ve only just met because we all want to take political action, and technology has allowed us to find each other. To opening my home to share meals with my community, and to traveling to spend time with friends and family.   

These are heightened and fraught and exciting times. I’m seeing more organizing and more action. More people not wasting time trying to master what they’re not good at, which is to stay small and silent, or to strive for status, exhausted and wrung dry. We’re digging deep. 

As Jenn Armbrust says, “Here we are, a bunch of bright and driven humans with the capacity to envision the future and the wisdom and resourcefulness to make our visions real.” 

(There are so many smart, daring thinkers flourishing in this time!)

And here’s a manifesto of sorts by Courtney E. Martin, taken from her compelling book The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, (which you should read, especially if you’re under 40).

It’s up to us to make lives that we can be proud of—and to make communities and systems and policies to cradle those lives. It’s up to us to reject tired narratives about success, instead authoring new ones that are less about exceptional heroes and more about creative communities. It’s up to us to reclaim the best of what previous generations did that made this country so unique and so beautiful—as well as to own up to the destructive legacies that we’re a part of, to expose them to the light, and to figure out how to fix them. It’s up to us be humble, to be brave, to be accountable to our own dreams, no one else. It’s up to us to be iconoclastic, to be together, to stay awake.