My Fantastic Story of Freedom

Tommy Banks at pianoI’m going to tell you a story about a piano player.

I told it recently on The Artist’s Road in support of a discussion about “perseverance.” The blog’s author, Patrick Ross, replied to my comment:

 “PJ, that was a fantastic story you shared there about the piano player. I hope you’ve written that somewhere before, as an essay or a chapter in a craft book? It’s worthy of wider distribution.”

Thank you, Patrick, but, no, I’ve never shared the story. Which is strange, because that event changed my life (or so goes my personal myth).

Here’s part of what I posted on The Artist’s Road:

“I was ten and playing tag around a friend’s house, and stopping in my tracks as I passed the open bedroom door of my friend’s older brother. There was this teenager working at a piano, composing like a maniac, tinkling the keys, then making notations, oblivious of distraction, of football, of the sun shining outside. I saw in that moment what an artist was.”

Now, I’m curious—what exactly did I see through that doorway?

I should add that my friend’s brother was always at that piano, so that’s where “perseverance” comes in. He spent his youth in his bedroom with that piano and working so hard and with such focus it was frightening. Even still, what was it about a teenager at a piano that could so impress a ten-year-old that fifty years later the memory still serves to inspire me?

The music?—no—the jazzy phrases likely irritated my young ears. I remember the way he leaned forward to jab his pencil at sheets of paper propped on the piano. I recall an urgency. To get somewhere? No, he was already there! You see, he was somewhere else. He lived beyond the everyday world in which the rest of us ran in circles.

I wanted what he had.

His name was Tommy Banks. He went on to own the music scene in Edmonton, Alberta. His TV talk show went nation-wide.  Eventually they honoured him with an appointment to the federal Senate in Ottawa. I owe Mr. Banks a huge debt of gratitude, as you can imagine.

Or perhaps I haven’t made that clear.

You see, that mental image of Tommy working at his piano has served as a beacon for me throughout my life. Guiding me toward what, exactly? Art of some kind? Yes, but certainly not music, no, I’m remarkably unmusical. So, what then? I don’t know. A way of being?

Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.

Imagine that—a pre-pubescent kid understands he has a choice of how to be.  Among life’s possibilities, here is one that soars above the rest.

If I had ever wondered about the meaning of life, and I had, well, here is an answer. The teenager at the piano is the answer to my earliest existential quandaries. Here is someone who lives in this world but who ignores much of it. And look how alive he is!

The answer infects my entire life.

From then on I’m alert to artists and poets and mystics who make it their business to frame up that same answer. Leonard Cohen for example, musing on his own escape from the person the world expects him to be:

 “Even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.” 

 That ten-year-old playing tag was stopped in his tracks by a glimpse through a doorway—a glimpse of a way to move beyond.

To be free of the way he was built to see the world.


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  1. mcgoo says

    And the proof of the pudding is in the eating!
    Listening to musicians talking about music or writers about writing (yes, and artists of all persuasions) and hearing and seeing what they create lifts us right out of the world of limitation and restriction. We can soar! So, whether we create or are the recipients of other’s creative work, we not only are freed from the prison and pain of wordily concerns but participate in creation itself.

  2. says

    Thanks once again, PJ! You never fail to show me the heart of my own inspiration in new and amazing ways. To live in the world and ignore much of it in favour of being truly alive – that is a reminder to carry one through the days.

  3. says

    “Standing at that open bedroom doorway, the ten-year-old is arrested by a possibility.” Love it.

    PJ, I’m so glad you have now written this story, and no surprise to me, you’ve done it elegantly and compellingly. Glad to have played a role in its genesis.

  4. Sarah says

    Elegant indeed, P.J. Inspirational in that some of us, women writers particularly, need permission to step outside the world of nurture and social convention. Your gem is a gift I shall treasure as Buz and I head back to the real world.

  5. says

    Tony… In your repeating my phrase, you have captured my meaning perhaps even more deeply than I felt it myself. You obviously have owned the very thought for some time. Cheers, mate.

  6. says

    Sarah… Sorry I couldn’t have lingered a little longer in Mazatlan this year. Next year at this time I will be where the buds don’t make me sneeze.

  7. says

    We missed you today in our Mazatlan Writers Group, but you have changed our lives just like that little boy changed you. We are now all conscripted in a battle to raise our voices. We are realizing each of us has one-just as that boy had his voice in his music he was writing. We are empowering ourselves by loving who we are. And you started it you rascal you! You have always shown us someone who speaks from his heart and extends his love with complete sharing of all you know. We love you!!!!!!!

  8. says

    Sue… your comment reminded me of an aphorism that deserves to be repeated near to nauseum — “You never know to whom you’re speaking.” Or — you never know who’s standing in the doorway watching you in all your passion. I’m pretty sure all passion acquires an audience. Your writing, for instance, is all passion, and I’m awaiting publication of “The Road Home.” Let me know when it’s out, por favor.

  9. says

    Always a pleasure to stop by here, PJ. Thanks for the reminder of the wonder that goes along with craft, and being able to shun the world’s expectations to be fully engaged.

  10. Yvette Carol says

    I must’ve gotten a bit jaded on things about life lately. I was even going to bypass a blog post by you, PJ, to hurry off to facebook. Then I opened it and saw the title, My Fantastic Story of Freedom, and I was stopped, just like you were arrested as a ten-year-old. How opportune that you were gifted this moment so young, or that you had the eyes to see. You can see, as a bystander, how this event seeded you. So that, as an adult, you could live your alive life, and go around seeding others. Beautiful. :-)

  11. says

    Thank you for that, Yvette… I hadn’t thought of my blog as a seed. It makes me want to take even more care of these thoughts I put out. As you may have noticed, I hadn’t dropped a seed for almost two months. I’ve either become jaded or just too damn busy. I have been busy writing a film, the narration for which is being recorded in Toronto as I speak… which means I’m a free man again! Stay well, Y.C.

  12. says

    Got here by accident. Saw the photo of Tommy Banks and decided to read your post. Glad I did. Important for all of us to remember when we made that decision of “how to be”. I know Tommy. Worked with him as a singer. While it’s true he lived “beyond the everyday world”
    he also treated everyone he met as if they were the most important person in the world. Thanks. I look forward to more of your posts.

  13. says

    Another great article. You nailed it! I love the statement “arrested by possibility”. Its what drives all of us as artists, athletes, adventurers or whatever. It is a reminder that life is so much more rich and meaningful when you are engrossed in a form, any form, of expression. Beautiful.

  14. says

    Ben… I’m so happy you’re digging into the archives. Some of that stuff is so old I could probably dust it off and re-post it. In a new and contemporary frame, of course.

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