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1 Essay collection, Maya Angelou
Music as a gift
Believe in me and I can do anything.
It’s a powerful thing, belief. If a person believes in you, you can move mountains. As a child when I asked why I had bent fingers, my mother told me that I was musical. Huh? Why are my pinkies bent? Always the same: It means you’re good at music, like your father. His pinkies were bent. He played guitar and he played piano by ear.
Maybe the opposite is true.
Disbelief can destroy. Though there are those who rise up to prove someone wrong. More often than not, I imagine it destroys.
I read this some time ago, but remembered the passage, hoping that it would inspire me to be a better mom. Maya Angelou writes about her mother when they were out walking together. On the corner of Fillmore and Fulton streets her mother says:
“Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” She continues:
“My mother was five feet four inches to my six-foot frame.
“I looked down at the pretty little woman, and her perfect makeup and diamond earrings, who owned a hotel and was admired by most people in San Francisco’s black community.
“She continued,’You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother –yes, you belong in that category. Here, give me a kiss.'”
Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou, Essay collection (Mother’s Long View, p.53)
That’s an impressive thing to tell your child. So much so, Angelou writes exactly where she heard it, describing the smell of vinegar in the air from the pickle factory. Sealed with a kiss. You don’t forget that sort of thing.
It wasn’t enough to say it; her mother believed it. Was I capable of saying such a thing to another person, much less my children? They suffered rebukes and nagging and criticism. There’s a kind of tide that rises beneath the keel, and lifts us on our journey. And this belief sustained Angelou, something she hoped to pass on to all the “thousands of her daughters” she touches with her writing, not only the one she gave birth to.
Giving such a gift is not a skill I’ve learned well. It is one I want to try, because that’s how skills develop. They require practice.
My mother’s belief–or clever answer–about my bent fingers was a ruse of a sort. I know my limitations at the keyboard but I have practiced piano most of my life. I think of it as practice because perfection is something I leave to the concert pianist, the performer.
I do not perform for others and have not learned to memorize. I have learned to interpret music and practice works I love. This February I have been recording songs at the piano to send to family and friends, 28 imperfect pieces. This is low-stress and enjoyable, since I’m just playing for myself in the room.*
When I’m OK with the recording (usually the first or second ‘performance’) I send it along, because music is better when it’s heard. Friends are grateful if surprised to receive an audio or video of simple pop arrangements to classics.
My friend John wrote last night about two pieces I sent, a Ravel prelude and Chopin nocturne: You truly are gifted, coming into full blossom of many talents later in life as many of us instead shrivel. He is kind of course, and grateful.
I don’t see these as the gift he imagines, because they are the natural outgrowth of someone of average talent with decades of practice and life experience. I am more tortoise than hare, a late bloomer. The gift may be one from my parents, a father’s love for music which I inherited, and a work ethic instilled early on by both parents. Playing piano is something I have done for longer than anything else, though writing is catching up.
My mother’s belief has staying power. And, belief is a powerful elixir.
*February FunKeys or FunKey FEB is inspired by Moriah Richard’s daily flash fiction challenge, a writerly prompt to punch out words each day this month. Story is inspired by song for me and I decided to record myself at the piano each day, however imperfect the result. Some arrangements are revived from long ago, a few are new (Bosun Bill from Sea of Thieves, a popular video game song request from a young friend, who knew!), and others are oldies. Favs tend to be pianistic works because they tap into the breadth of the piano and my ability, the music more rewarding, fulfilling, and at moments sublime.
*Memoir, essays, and creative nonfiction are the most intimate history–personal. They reflect one narrative truth of events in a life, at that moment. Truth is a slippery thing because even the author from the beginning of the book is different by the end. And the world is inevitablty filtered through the lens of the writer, her experience, the anecdotes and events she picks and chooses, to tell her story. The essay collection is one of my most cherished genres. For the time I am reading it, I have settled into the mind and life of another, an often remarkable yet ordinary person.