Every day, 88 soldiers stand ready to aim their guns at me and kill any vestige of self-satisfaction I might have. They march me mercilessly through their boot camp, make me scale walls and wriggle under fences, jump from rock to rock in churning waters. If I drift into dream, they shout in my face. If I don’t bring dream into exercise, they whisper threats in my ear. It’s an integrated black and white army and the soldiers come from both sides of the tracks, training in ghettos and palaces, ramshackle churches and soaring cathedrals. If I manage to make it through a drill without a scratch, get a perfect score in the obstacle course, there’s no guarantee that the next time I won’t be thrown to the ground, dispirited and discouraged. But it’s the war I signed up for and there is great glory in doing battle with this 88-soldier troupe known as (did you guess it?)— the piano.
Anyone reading this month’s blogs must have noticed my discrete (as much as I’m capable of being discrete!) references to another kind of struggle, drawn into the vortex of small skirmishes that diminish any sense of honor or dignity. I’ve been thrown to the ground by fear, ignorance, mean-spiritedness, narrowmindedness, and all my attempts to engage only bring more shame and pettiness and draw me deeper into the downward spiral, None of it needed to happen, none of it should have happened by my moral compass of what is just and true and right, but that’s the world we all must inhabit by virtue of sharing the planet. Had I been higher on the Sainthood or Bodhisattva scale, I could have absorbed it and paid it the scant attention it deserved. I think of the Zen story of a monk who was accused of fathering a child and mandated to raise him. He responded “Is that so?” and accepted the child. A year later, they discovered he indeed wasn’t the father and took the child away. He responded again, “Is that so?” and went on with his life. Well, sounds good in a Zen book, but who amongst us is so calmly detached? I ended up spending so much time paying out to Caesar that God got left behind in the background. That was my failure.
The poet Rilke wrote the most extraordinary anthem of choosing worthy battles in a poem called The Man Watching (this translation by Robert Bly), admonishing us to disengage from trying to win the petty ones.
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!…
When we win, it’s with small things
And the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
When the wrestlers’ sinews grew long like metal strings,
He felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight)
Went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand,
That kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
By constantly greater beings.”
So yesterday, I turned back to the worthy opponents of those 88 keys and did glorious battle with Fauré, Scriabin, Mendelsohn, Monk, Billy Strayhorn and others. I felt those deep chords of music under my fingers, patiently got up again when thrown to the ground, endured a string of defeats, won a few minor victories and stood up thoroughly kneaded and changed—taller, stronger, larger and ready to enter the fray again the next day. Which is here now. Charge!!