Of Warmth, Wood, & Worthiness

One thing that has helped me escape and express during my recovery process has been playing the piano. I won't say too much about how it helped me now, because I think it is pretty evident from my essay below, but I will say this—find your passion and maybe you will find yourself in the process. Instead of tearing yourself down, of picking out and scrutinizing your every flaw, pursue what moves you and makes you feel like your truest self as a healthy coping skill. Focus on what makes you happy, and you will inadvertently heal yourself.

I stared at the sheet of paper, the mass of jumbled notes overwhelming my six-year old mind. After five lessons, I still hadn’t started playing music. And in that moment, I wished I could pull what looked like a black golf club off the sheet of music and hit my teacher right in the head.

“Ok Simran,” Mr. Steve repeated, the wrinkles on his forehead resembling a jagged valley. I could tell he was beginning to lose his patience. “What comes after G?”

“H,” I retorted. “I already learned the alphabet in preschool. This is a waste of time.”

“Simran,” he sighed, exhaling gradually to soothe his well-warranted anger. “The musical alphabet is different than the normal alphabet. After G, the cycle goes back to A.”

“Can I start playing actual music? I don’t care about the stupid letters!” I cried, the salt of my tears burning the crust of my flushed cheeks. With stale tears and crossed arms, I walked away, deserting my dream of painting the air with soaring melodies.

Looking back at this act of rebellion, I can see that I did not have the mentality to truly appreciate the process of playing piano. I was waiting so desperately to create art—to reach the destination—that I ended up being ignorant to the journey. I wanted to walk without learning to crawl. I wanted to dance without grasping the technique. I wanted to read musical notes—to make sense of the rows of golf clubs sitting on the sheet—without taking the time to master the letters. Like Gatsby, my unattainable dream only resulted in inevitable disappointment.

But something changed. I don’t know exactly why I asked my mother to resume piano lessons again all those years later—maybe it was because of the way I instantly felt lighter when I listened to Yiruma. Maybe it was because of the way the delicate stream of sound resurrected the sun in the stormiest of skies. Maybe it was because I too wanted to create something bigger than myself. I think deep down inside, I knew my relationship with the piano had ended too abruptly. I looked at the lonely mahogany wood wasting away in the back corner of my living room, and I felt something a ten-year-old was not used to feeling—underlying regret. And so I decided to try again, because what did I have to lose?

This time, I came into every practice with patience and perseverance—both would serve as essential tools as I began my long and often disheartening journey of struggling to become a pianist. I felt like giving up on multiple occasions, when it seemed like I would have grandchildren before I could finish a song. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed further away than the diamonds of Uranus. But I wanted this, I wanted this so bad. I began to practice for hours at a time, setting goals for every session. Even if I only managed to master one more measure of a piece, I was still closer to the end—one step closer to that light I so desperately yearned to reach. As I began walking and walking deeper into the tunnel, I felt myself becoming stronger. Don’t get me wrong—I still fell down as I stumbled trying to keep up with the pace the composer demanded, the dirt of hopelessness and disapproval dirtying the lines of my palms. But unlike my six-year-old self, I was able to stand back up, the promise of daylight guiding me through the darkness. And by no magical force other than constant practice, my hands became agile, dancing like a dragonfly in the blue, summer sky. My mind became a dedicated athlete, mentally picking up the music faster than it did the day before. The sixteenth notes were no longer potholes in the road, but the vivifying colors I splashed over my growing canvas. The notes that shot out of my fingertips no longer sounded like separate entities, but the flow of a serene stream of water. And suddenly, the ink blots on the wrinkled paper were no longer golf clubs, but the instructions for creating a priceless art.

Now, six years later, I cannot imagine my life without piano. The first time I realized I had fallen in love was when I came home from a three week trip to India. After 20 hours of travel, I was absolutely exhausted. My legs ached for my warm, green comforter, yet my heart had never beat so swiftly. Sleep was not possible in the midst of such intense stimulation. Soon, I would feel whole once again. Soon, I would reunite with my piano, my familiarity, my comfort. I remember pulling into my driveway and the car slowing, yet my heart racing, and my feet scrambling the second the engine stopped, and my mother screaming at me to help with the luggage before I went inside… but it was too late. I was already in another far-away world. I entered a realm where music was the oxygen that kept my heart beating, where the rhythm of the notes was the gravity that kept my mind grounded.

So, you ask, why do I play piano? That’s easy and difficult and simple and impossible…

When I play River Flows in You by Yiruma, my fingers move gracefully like those ballerinas I see sometimes on TV. They dance a spirited, excited dance. As they travel up and down the keyboard like a naïve child riding on a carousel, my fingers feel happy. And that happiness starts to go through my veins towards my heart… and soon, I feel whole. Soon, a river of emotion floods my mind. The usual excess of emptiness that suffocates me is replaced by an internal fire of anger, a storm of sadness, a warm sun of elation. And the void in my heart is filled with passion. I crave the I-can-do-anything high created after I perfect the intricate pulse of the grace notes. I yearn the sense of worthiness—a feeling foreign to me—the piece comforts me with when I play the arpeggios, more legato than waveless waters. And I realize that I am capable. I can translate a mass of dormant notes into the sound of rain droplets as they hit the spring grass, so I do matter somehow. I know I’m where I belong because when I’m not playing piano, I always wish I was.

When I am not playing the piano, I am responsible. I finish my homework with ample time to spare, study for the SAT, research colleges I might be interested in, and do more “productive” things as my college counselor likes to phrase it. However, when I sit at the uncomfortable wooden bench that makes my bottom sore, something crazy happens—I forget all my responsibilities and simply let go. I am no longer the responsible girl that everyone expects me to be. I am soaring far away from the pressures of everyday life. I play and play for hours at a time, forgetting about the biology test in two days that I should start studying for. And in this abundance of irresponsibility, I feel completely at home. I find a comforting saneness in my insanity.

My friends told me that for hours at a time, they binge-watch shows on Netflix. Well, I binge-play the piano I guess. Sometimes, I wake up at 6 am and forget that the rest of the household is sleeping. I play until I’m told not to. Even after my mother scolds me for waking her up, I continue to play quietly. After the second scold, I give in—yet my fingers keep moving on the keys. They only push down on the keys a little—like the pressure of a feather drifting onto the fresh winter snow—so you can hardly hear a sound. Yet in my mind, the sounds are flooding, and rain is pouring, and music is coming alive.

I guess this makes me a little insane: Is it possible that I can hear music even when I’m not playing? Is it possible that I hear things that aren’t actually making a sound? Is it possible that music can move me this much? Is it possible that I almost forget about doing my homework when I sit at the uncomfortable bench?

All I know is that I play piano because I just do. I want to one day have wrinkled skin and grey hair and—with my final breaths—know I lived life to the fullest because I spent it with the thing I love more than life itself. I want to die knowing that I truly lived and not merely survived.

Every part of me loves to play piano. My fingers, my heart, my mind. And playing piano is what makes me me. It’s what I do when I’m happy, sad, lonely, angry. When I’m happy, I leave happier. When I’m sad, I leave a little less so. The keys are my family, the notes are the medium of self-expression and catharsis. When my fingers glide like they’re skating on smooth ice—that’s when I feel warm. I feel complete. It is the home within my home. It lends me unparalleled sensations of solace, of comfort, of belonging. I want to forever be surrounded by keys and notes and sound and rain and beauty and happiness and love and the faint smell of mahogany—and for once in my uncertain life, it is clear that the back corner of my living room is where I am supposed to be.