On Music, Muscle Memory, and Mattering

By Catherine DiMercurio

One of my earliest memories is of sitting next to my maternal grandmother, my Busia, on the bench in front of her shiny, black piano. She was a beautiful pianist and she was teaching me to play. I don’t remember much about how I felt about the music, but I loved being next to her. I felt safe and good. With her soft, dry hands she would position my fingers over the keys.

Photo by Bryan Geraldo on Pexels.com

The essay I thought I wanted to write came to me all at once, and it began there, on my grandmother’s piano bench. It was about the way the ensuing lack of music education in my life shaped me, the way some absences do. And while this version of my history is not wholly untrue, something felt . . . out of tune.

At home, we had a piano in the basement, and I remember not wanting to go down there because it was cold and I didn’t like being by myself in the basement, but that’s where I had to practice. I plunked away at “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” But it wasn’t the same, sitting there by myself. And then, we moved to a small apartment, and we couldn’t take the piano. We still saw my grandparents frequently, but somehow the piano lessons drifted away.

Later, I wanted to get into the school band program. At my school, fifth grade was when students could select an instrument and join the program. My sisters before me had elected to do so, with one on the clarinet, and the other on the trumpet, but they didn’t continue for very long. I longed to play the saxophone. Instruments were, and are, expensive and my sisters’ instruments were used. M y family suffered a financial setback, and buying another instrument, for me, wasn’t in the cards. (My younger brother would go on to play the saxophone, and my baby sister, born after I was in college, would excel at the flute.) Somewhere along the line, I turned to writing. Cost was not a factor here. I began with a diary and a journal full of poetry.

I think, in that almost-essay, I was looking for my “origin story,” as a writer, and believed I had found it once I began excavating these memories of my desire to pursue music and how I turned to writing. But the fact is, I didn’t find writing because of a thwarted musical pursuit. I think if I had connected with music more, I would have gone after it again and again and again, which is what I did with my writing.

As an adult, I have periodically tried to teach myself piano, with the help of a keyboard my ex-husband and I bought for the kids one year. No one played it much, the kids gravitating toward stringed instruments and excelling in their middle and high school orchestras on the violin and cello. Trying to teach myself piano was a struggle. So many things are easier to learn when you are young. Still, I sing around the house, old songs that get stuck in my head, little songs I make up on dog walks. I sing in the shower and in the car. It isn’t as if music-making is completely absent from my life.

But all this thinking about the way music wasn’t a part of me the way it might have been underscored something else that I’ve been feeling lately. It’s as if I’m caught between two things: wanting my existence right now to have been imbued with a history that it wasn’t, and trying to figure out how to make the future what I want it to be. I wonder which dreams it’s too late for, and which are the ones to pursue.

There is a poem by W. S. Merwin, “Separation,” that reads: “Your absence has gone through me / Like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

I read that and I thought about several things at once. One was music. I romanticized the absence of it in my life. And though I have truly felt that absence as a pervasive presence in my life, I think I was using the music thing as a cover. Was I actually feeling the pain of a different absence? I thought about my past romantic relationships. I don’t feel the way Merwin describes in his poem about any of men from my past. When my marriage ended, I did feel that way, but not about who my ex-husband was at the time. I was mourning who he used to be, what we’d once been to each other, and that’s what stitched its way through everything that I did for some time. Still, that feeling has dissipated to a faint echo over time.

But I wonder now if the reason that poem resonated so much with me is because I gave so much of myself away for so long. To the world, when I wanted to be accepted, to the men in my life, when I wanted to feel as fully loved as I was loving them. Maybe the true absence that has threaded its way through everything was me, the me that was loving everyone else so fiercely because I never even knew that you were supposed to love yourself. And by the time I learned how important that was, I had no muscle memory for it, just like I have no muscle memory for piano. A few piano lessons when I was very young did not etch themselves within me, nor did any innate self-love I possessed survive what the rest of my life was teaching me, that selflessness was a virtue, that pride was a sin, arrogance unattractive. Many women of my generation had a similar experience, where we heard mixed messages: you can be anything you want, but also, cultural and religious messages told us not to be too bossy or smart or sexual or strange or confident. Reveling in one’s self-ness was selfish.

An old friend and I were talking recently about enough-ness, about a self-identity not constructed out of purpose and mattering. There are [rare] times when I believe with my whole being that regardless of anything that I’m pursuing or achieving, I am enough. That be-ing is enough purpose in my life. But more often than not, I feel compelled to demonstrate worth, to feel like I’ve accomplished something, to have a larger purpose. To matter. But isn’t it enough to be the central thread stitched through my own story?

It’s no wonder then, that something in me wanted to push toward an origin story, to shine a light on something that underscores who I am, and what I want to continue to be. There is a type of coming of age story, a subcategory for coming of age as an artist: Künstlerroman. I wanted that story. I’ve talked to other writers who identified music as an artform they pursued before they found writing. They mention ways in which a serious musical pursuit was thwarted for them, so writing both filled that artistic need and opened new doors for them. Maybe I wanted a little bit of that, something like an artist’s journey, as if my sitting in my bedroom with a little grass green notebook—which I still have—penciling in poetry was not the beginning of a story that mattered.

Yesterday I took the day off work. I was feeling myself spinning out and away like a loose spool of thread, coming all undone. I made sourdough pancakes and listened to BBC world news while I ate breakfast. I stared out of the window at leaves I have no intention of raking anytime soon. I hoped the dogs would continue to sleep quietly and not need anything from me so I could just be. Self-love can be as difficult to learn as the piano, but I have learned enough to know when I need to regroup. I’m trying to hold on to being over mattering, to enough-ness. I’m focusing on being a bright thread stitching its way through everything, instead of letting my own absence weave its way through my story. Maybe one day I’ll develop more muscle memory for it, and my heart will know how to do it as effortlessly as my fingers can fly over this keyboard, typing out these essays, which are really just a kind of love letter, from me to you, and me to me.

Love, Cath

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