Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making Room for the Piano

When your kids are in third grade and you’re in the midst of a construction project and you discover that the foundation of your mudroom needs to be replaced and that while you’re at it adding a second floor room wouldn’t cost too much more – when all that happens, building an upstairs playroom sounds like a good idea.

At least it sounded like a good idea to my husband Scott and me in the summer of 2003.

A playroom would build a breakwater to keep the relentless surge of kid junk from spilling into the other rooms. We could get a bumper pool table. Scott could finally have a place for the 1980s pinball machine he’d been hankering to buy from Mike Knudsen. We could set up our old dartboard. At last we’d have a place to hang the entertaining campaign posters we stole from lawns across the Micronesian island of Saipan when we were teachers there in our youth.

And it was a good idea. Vast Lego and Playmobil cities spread out and could be left for days at a time without ever puncturing the tender parental foot at midnight. Pinball machines came and went. Posters and memorabilia from vacations were added to the walls. But slowly – especially in recent years as our twin sons have entered high school and are more apt to request iTunes gift cards instead of Nerf guns – it has become a place to dump stuff no one knows what to do with: old computer monitors and obsolete gadgets, clothes meant for the rummage sale that never quite made it, a castoff electronic putting green from Granddad that nobody really wanted but couldn’t not accept.

All four of us are guilty of covert dumping, especially Colin, who is responsible for the layer of cream cheese adhered to the surface of the bumper pool table from a bagel he laid down one afternoon in the late 20-oughts. While we’ve been living with growing playroom chaos for several years, today something happened that caused me to take the matter in hand: Scott finally consented to procuring for Colin a real piano.

It’s a problem when your child starts playing the piano at the late age of 15 and it becomes apparent after the first two months that he really knows what he’s about. Recriminations of “Why didn’t you start me with lessons when I was small?” have often cut deep to the maternal heart this last year. Colin’s dissatisfaction with our ancient digital Yamaha Clavinova became apparent about six months ago. “The action,” he said, “it sucks. I can’t play Debussy with that thing. I need a real piano!”

“Well, I can’t play Debussy, either,” I replied. “And your dad doesn’t believe in real pianos in Maine. He’s certain they don’t stay in tune in this climate, so don’t hold your breath, kid,” I warned.

Perhaps it was when Granddad, over for dinner recently, gave Scott a certain look that said, “I supported your interests when you were young,” that made him relent. All I know is that last Friday I returned from a work trip to Miami and suddenly there, on the kitchen table, was a copy of Maine’s quirky classified ad magazine, “Uncle Henry’s” with an entry circled: “Chickering baby grand. $500. Call after 5. Kennebunkport.”

In many ways 2003 feels like last week. Our boys were a perfectly sweet nine years old, and I was writing pieces about the election of Gene Robinson. Now they’re almost 17 and thinking about colleges and +Gene just announced his retirement. How do these things happen?

I don’t feel a day older. But here’s the thing: Scott and I work at the same places. We live in the same house. We eat the same food and read the same magazines and wear (sad to say) many of the same clothes. Lots of things have happened around us since 2003 but a remarkable number have stayed the same. Except boys: they grew an alarming number of inches and shoe sizes and turned from funny, smart, adorable little boys into funnier, smarter, handsome young men.

So amidst the work of clearing out all of the plastic bins and bookshelves and tubs of junk in the playroom, I had trouble accepting that no one wanted the mongo T-Rex that had been such a prized possession. Everyone but I was indifferent to the Mr. Potatohead that had served as a space capsule for intrepid Playmobil pirates on so many adventures to the planet of Zumbar.

I started a pile on top of the pool table for things I couldn’t throw away: one of the little black super-soft stuffed puppies I bought for the boys the day after my father died. We’d been out buying chocolate to take back to the nursing staff at the hospital and, when the children pleaded, I couldn’t say no.

“Hey, Martin,” I hollered. “C’mere.” After a moment my wise wrestler-poet leaned on the doorway to the playroom. “What do I do with some of this? I can’t chuck it.”

“Aw,” he said, fingering first a beanie baby hedgehog that his Kindergarten teacher had given him and then a much beloved Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter.

“Make a nostalgia pile and we’ll go through it later,” he said, leaving me sitting on the floor surrounded by the vestigial tokens of our precious family life. But, well-adjusted person that he is, Martin left with nary a trace of nostalgia in his deep voice. He’s ready for the next thing.

In the Diocese of Maine – and in many places across the Episcopal Church and indeed, we’ve heard in recent months, in other denominations – we are embarking on a strange journey and asking ourselves many questions about how to transform the Church to meet the needs of a changing world. Our diocese is one year into a study process that is compelling us to look at both our mission strategies and our mission priorities. The coming year will reveal an emerging set of both. And, I gotta say, I’m curious about what they’ll look like and how they’ll be received.

It all started in October 2009 when Bishop Steve Lane offered a convention address that stunned members of our diocese with its combination of forthright truth-telling and the firm reassurance that together, with God, we will walk through whatever comes next.

Click here to hear the address.

In his sermon last month at our 2010 diocesan convention, Bishop Lane had this to say:

“The process of adaptive change is many things: a journey from one paradigm to another, a journey through a new and risky landscape, a journey often without a clear destination - but most of all it is a spiritual journey, a journey from habitual ways of being and doing to a closer, more trusting and self-conscious relationship with God. The journey we're on will require a change of heart and a new spirit in every congregation. It will require all of us to be flexible and to take risks…

“The ways we serve God, the shape of our communities, the nature of our buildings, the relationship between clergy and people - all these may change. But our call to announce the good news of God's merciful presence with us never changes and never ends.”

Our church is a lot like my family’s playroom. It’s hard to believe that time has passed and the same practices that have given us such pleasure and comfort over time are no longer relevant or in demand by the people around us: the people we’re called by Jesus to serve. Our nostalgia pile heaps to overflowing. And, yet, as my boss maintains – ever confident in the love of God that holds us altogether and all together - we don’t quite yet know what will take the place of all the things that we must give up.

Seven years ago, if you had told Scott and me that we would be buying a piano for the playroom so Colin could play Chopin and Mompou with such dazzling skill and passion, we would have said you were crazy. “This kid has fine motor skills below the 5th percentile,” we would have sighed. “Piano lessons would be a frustrating, futile effort for us all.”

But it turns out all the people who took a gander at him were right. “This kid has many strengths. He will compensate. He will turn out great!”

We couldn’t have imagined a piano in our playroom, but Colin had other plans.

Perhaps if we, as a people of God, let go of some of the things we can’t imagine our corporate life without, then possibilities we can’t imagine will emerge is the space left behind. The hard truth is that there’s not enough room for everything.

Right now, as I listen to the lovely sound of Beethoven coming from the grossly inadequate Yamaha in the living room, I can just hear the sweet strains of what might be possible.

Winner of a 2011 Polly Bond Award for devotional writing.