I’m going to tell you a story about a piano player.
“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.