You Feel the Music

Sometimes authors draw from their own lives.  Take this, for example.  This comes from the coal mine that is my childhood.

I first started taking piano lessons at age 7, and by age 10, I was pretty good.  I had quick fingers, good dexterity, and swam easily through the underwater of the music.  However, adolescence wasn’t good to my hands.  They didn’t grow as large as I would have liked them to.  By age 16, I was playing complicated musical pieces–Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, all the greats–but I simply couldn’t make the big stretches.  A ninth (nine keys) was the most l could manage.

I was depressed.  You’re always depressed when you hit a glass ceiling.  I could hardly play Chopin’s “Military Polanaise,” for example, and Lizst was out of the question.  At recitals, the student I most envied was Bill, a piano student a year younger than I who had vast, expansive mitts.  When he played pieces with large stretches, his hands handled the reach easily.  The most demanding classics seemed to open up completely to him.  It was an immense sadness.

Mrs. Rogers had been my teacher for eight years, from the very beginning, and so she knew me quite well.  She was a lady from the old school, a Christian Scientist who suffered through illnesses without medication because of her religious beliefs.  But her traditionalism covered not just the religious realm.  She believed fervently in practice and perfection, orderliness and propriety.  In demeanor, she was somewhat reserved and had old-woman hair, sprayed and lifted into place like an Amish house.

Finally one afternoon while I was at a lesson, I mentioned my manual shortcomings to my teacher.  She seemed surprised that I felt that way.

“Oh,” Mrs. Rogers said with a knowing grin, “don’t worry about Bill, you’re much better than him.  You don’t have to envy him, David, oh no.  You have something that Bill will never have.  You feel the music in your soul.”

If I told you what those words meant to me, it would steal the thunder from the passage that I wrote years later for my own novel, What Happens to Us (  The protagonist is a singer, and at one point, it goes like this:

From the moment she could speak, Cat had sung all the time, constantly, never stopped.  Her first spoken sounds had been fa la la.  Occasionally, her mother would try to kill it.  “Will you stop it, girl, you’re driving me batty!”  Or she would just go into the backyard and pull a switch off the tree and give her daughter a whipping.  “That’ll teach you!”  In time, Cat learned to sing only outside the house.  It didn’t matter that people looked at her strangely at school.  By six, however, the forces of discouragement finally reached a critical mass.  One unpleasant boy called her Shut Up Mouth, “because you make me want to tell you to shut up your mouth.”  The term tard was thrown around.  So finally, she just shut up.

At 13, a neighbor convinced her mother that her child should start going to the local Baptist church.  Cat joined the choir, where Miriam, the red-haired choir director, knew music but not how to talk to people.  The strict doctrine of this particular faction prohibited both “mechanical instruments” and solos.  Cat often longed for a great voice, but then scolded herself for coveting personal glory.  Besides, it was Rose, the girl who stood next to her, who had an operatic voice and a three-octave range.

By the time Cat turned 17, strange things began happening in the church.  Miriam disappeared without a word.  Cat was now getting drunk with Lainie every weekend on fake IDs.  On Sunday mornings, desperately clinging to some vestigial idea of goodness, Cat dragged herself to church despite epic hangovers.

One day, Cat ran into Miriam at a hardware store.  A strange relaxation now filled her face and voice.

“I met a man,” Miriam said.

Hand 1a


“He’s teaching me about the world.  It’s not as bad as they say, the world.  It’s strange.  The further I get from the church, the happier I become.”

That confused Cat, because on the one hand, misbehaving pleased her, as well, but at the same time, her hangovers seemed like ancient judgment and pulled her back.

“They excommunicated me, you know,” Miriam said with a sly grin.

“You’re kidding.”

“They did it in secret.  Five miserable honchos in a church of seventy miserable wannabes trying to ruin the life of someone who’s finally thrown away her antidepressants.”

“That’s sad.”

Miriam sighed, then smiled.

“You’ve graduated, then?”

“Next month.”

“Will you be continuing your music?”

“Oh no, I’m no Rose.”


“Yes.  I don’t have her technique.  She has all the talent.”

A mysterious smile appeared on Miriam’s lips.

“You’re mistaken,” Miriam said.

“What do you mean?”

Miriam had always withheld compliments because, she thought, Cat possessed only an average voice.  The dream that Cat might have anything better had been dashed a couple years earlier.

“Rose has all the skills and God-given gifts, that’s true,” Miriam said, “but there’s something more important than all that.”

Miriam searched for the words, as if they were scattered on the waters like lilies and she was mute until she saw the right one.

“You feel the music,” Miriam said in a conspiratorial near-whisper.  “The feeling makes all the difference.”

The look on Miriam’s face was something Cat had never forgotten.  Contrary to church doctrine, as it turned out, Cat had an actual self, and apparently, it was an extraordinary and beautiful one, as well.  She floated on a cloud for the longest time.  She took that comment and protected it in a glass case in her heart, even through her years as a drunk, and then into her past year of sobriety.  It was something she reached for when she was low.  When a man didn’t call her back after a first date or she failed to land the job she wanted or someone at work ran a head game on her, she would sit in front of the glass case and fill herself up with Miriam’s long-ago comment.

Now, with the street, Cat had a chance again.  Maybe now, the River of Fa La La would begin flowing through her again.  Maybe she could finally reclaim her self.


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