Department of English

Fall 2010 Edition

At the Feet of the Master (My Own Personal Upanishads)

Robert Durborow
Expressive 1010 Honorable Mention
Professor Danielle Dubrasky

Roger Rosenblatt, in his essay "I am Writing Blindly" said, "I sometimes think one writes to find God in every sentence. But God (the ironist) always lives in the next sentence." These words produce a vivid image in my mind that causes me to disagree. I see myself seated at the foot of a Kimball upright piano at which my mother is playing. It is a place of deepest memory and significance, as this is where I learned to imagine, question, and explore the possibilities of the universe. Where writers look for God in every sentence, musicians conduct the same search in every stanza. The best musicians tend to find Him. So it was with my mother. She was a deeply spiritual woman, possessed of an angel's voice and a talent for music to rival the greatest composers of any age. There was no composition, song, tune, or ditty that she could not master. Mom's love of music was manifest in every note, but there was something more that was at once spiritual and mystical. What she saw in the music, I learned to find in words. It has been a lengthy pilgrimage, one that I expect will continue until the day I die, and it all started at the foot of the piano.

Prominently placed in my living room is that Kimball upright piano. It is a position of honor as well as tradition. There are visible signs of wear and use upon its grainy wooden skin. A small scratch here, a spot rubbed smooth over years of use, and middle C resting slightly lower than the remainder of the keys. She has only been mine for a year or so, but we've known each other for many more. My children often sit beneath her sturdy legs, much as I did in my youth. It was there that I learned the most excellent names of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert. I would sit for hours (days? years?) beneath those smiling keys as my mother worked the most mystical magic. Other, more casual, observers might call this music. To me it was enchantment of the highest form. There, at the feet of the master, I learned to recognize the work of God in everything around me and the possibility of greatness in myself.

Music was my mother's first true love and an affair…no, a relationship, that lasted a lifetime. Though she played several instruments at a virtuoso level, she could most frequently be found seated at the very piano that now gives life to my own home. What she did at those ivory and ebony keys was nothing short of magical to my young and eager ears. Mom was the Sorceress of the Symphony and I her willing thrall. Her fingers, the wands that wove her mesmerizing spells, could move endlessly across that landscape of white and black, creating all the colors of the rainbow and more. The spells themselves sprang from the quills and pens of Handel, Gershwin, Chopin, Bach, and others too numerous to name, as well as her own skilled hand. The places we traveled together, propelled by the music, were many, varied, sacred, and often unexpected.

Seated at the foot of the piano on the tan pile magic carpet that covered the old homestead's living room, I might float down the haunting Blue Danube (Strauss), listening to A Little Night Music (Mozart). It was not unusual for us to dance a Minute Waltz (Chopin), while A Maiden's Prayer (Badarzewska-Baranowska) whispered in our listening ears, followed by a majestic chorus of Hallelujah (Handel), all while visiting A Sunken Cathedral (Debussy). An Invitation to Dance (Weber) under Moonlight (Beethoven) was always welcome, even if the occasional Raindrop (Chopin) intruded on our Moods, Impressions, and Reminiscences (Fibich). The journeys my mother and I shared, all the more wonderful because we never left the house, sparked my imagination and creativity in ways I would not think possible by any other means.

Though Mom treated all music with a certain reverence, hymns and religious works held a special place in her heart and soul. Many of our musical wanderings illustrated Mom's great spirituality and faith. I learned of that Sweet hour of Prayer (Bradbury), stood on the Rock of Ages (Hastings), and came to the aide of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief (Montgomery), who told me what would happen When the Saints go Marching In (Purvis). I saw a beautiful Church in the Wildwood (Pitts) and learned of the Little Town of Bethlehem (Redner), where the First Noel (Parks) took place. From there we traveled in the Footprints of Jesus (Everett) to the cross At Calvary (Towner) and returned home on The Day of Resurrection (Smart). Mom loved to Tell Me the Stories of Jesus (Challinor) and we created many Precious Memories (Wright) that will always remain with me.

Our mystical and spiritual travels comprised only one facet of the omnipotent piano. The music that flowed from my mother's talented hands created a university beyond compare. At that fine school I learned of William Tell, the impossible flying abilities of bumble bees, how a crocodile rocks, and that many of the greatest among us are Done Too Soon (Diamond). One of the most important lessons I learned at this institute of musical learning was what might happen if we all Imagine (Lennon), as John Lennon suggested. "Living life in peace…" was a concept that always appealed to Mom, and so appealed to me.

Imagination is one of the most important characteristics that designate us as human. That was, far and away, the most influential bit of knowledge that Mom and her piano ever taught me. The lesson has never left the prominent place in which it lodged itself in my mind. It has become an integral part of who I am, what I do, and how I do it.

Music is all about creativity, and creativity is what happens when one imagines. To appreciate music is to appreciate the creativity that makes life worth the effort. It is The Touch of the Master's Hand (Welch) in all of us. A creative life, to paraphrase Mom, is a productive life, one that is always in motion. No one ever created anything without moving something, whether it was a pencil, the keys of a piano, or a few stray synapses that had nothing better to do at the time.

The direct manifestation of Mom's mental motion was that her pencil never stopped moving. That yellow number two with the pink eraser was in a constant state of motion, scribbling notes on any scrap of paper that could be found at hand. Those scraps of musical brilliance always found their way to the piano keys for testing and revision. Beautiful music was born of those constant transfers from thought, to pencil, to score sheet. It was the motion in Mom's mind that caused everything else to happen.

Even when she was sitting still, I could see the wheels of her mind transporting her to new and exciting places and occasionally spinning donuts just for the hell of it. She believed in having fun, too…as long as she kept moving, creating, and imagining. Frequently, I would arrive home from school to find my mother dancing with our clunky old Hoover vacuum cleaner to some tune that only she could hear. Although she looked foolish, she could hardly have cared less. She believed that life was meant to be lived, and she lived hers with relish. I have never met a more divinely "human" being.

Mom once told me that she always had a song playing in her head. Being young and naïve at the time, I asked her which song. The look she gave me could have curdled new milk. "It's a different song every time," she stated plainly, "who wants to listen to the same tune forever?"

Mom taught me to appreciate music in all its varied forms and to never stop listening to new tunes. In doing so, she showed me that life is a magnificent journey of new discoveries and new songs to play and sing. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be like Mom. I wanted to play and sing and create music that made people want to play and sing and create. I yearned to inspire in others what my mother's heavenly music inspired in me. Nothing, of course, is that easy, and so it was in my case. As it turned out, I couldn't play the piano. Oh, Mom taught me to read the notes and play, but I soon discovered that it takes much more than that to make music. I could see the spark of the Divine in the notes, but the angels wouldn't sing for me. The perpetual sunny day in my mind began to darken with clouds of failure.

Longfellow said, "Into each life a little rain must fall." I suddenly felt as if it were pouring in mine. Upon mentioning this feeling to my mother, she gently reminded me that Gene Kelly recommended Singing in the Rain (Freed and Brown). I had to admit; it was a good point.

Thus, as we searched together for the pot of gold Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Arlen), Mom pointed out an obvious fact that I had not considered. The one thing that I loved even more than music was reading, though music had a role in that as well. I loved to read about the lives of composers and how they came to create their incredibly inspired music. Perhaps my answers could be found in books.

My favorite reading spot, as one might presume, was at the foot of the piano. Mom had always encouraged this interest, so it didn't take long for reading to become a permanent habit. A better description might be obsession. I couldn't get enough. What the musical scale was to my mother, the written page was to me. Where she had an intimate, spiritual relationship with music, I had the same with literature.

Enthusiastic is far too weak a word to describe my voracious appetite for books. I became a junkie, addicted to the printed word and, like a junkie, the more I read the more I had to have my fix. As a bolt of lightning suddenly illuminates the details of a darkened forest, I suddenly understood mother's true feeling toward the music. Hints of what I was looking for began to dance fleetingly across the pages I read. Perhaps I was meant for a different kind of music.

Mom told me that music needed words to be complete. Though there are a great many exceptions to that rule, I was not about to disagree. I was eight years old when we discovered that the piano would not be my future, and eight is the age at which I wrote my first poem.

It sucked.

I knew what I wanted to say, but the words resisted my manipulations. It reminded me of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I knew I had all the pieces; all I needed to do was figure out how to put them together correctly. Mom gently encouraged me to try again. I was…shall we say, reluctant? That was when Mom decided that I needed to learn one of the most important songs I would ever learn. The song concerned an ant, a rubber tree plant, a ram, a dam, and apple pies that somehow possessed the power of flight. Thus it was with High Hopes (Leigh) that I tried again, and again, and again, and (if you can believe it) again. Wouldn't you know; that ant and that ram had the right idea.

Like the ant and the ram, I needed to persist. I chose to have faith and do just that. As a result, my writing began to improve.

Mom chose this particular juncture in my education to point out that she had not been born into this world with the innate ability to play Boogie Woogie thirty-two to the bar (twice as fast as Liberace). She recounted the years of practice it took to perfect her art. The key, according to Mom, was to keep moving, keep creating, and never give up. "Nobody ever gets it right the first time," Mom said, "You just have to get a little better every time till you get it right." Believe it or not, she was correct…again!

My writing continues to improve, but is not yet up to the par of Mom's music. My education started, quite literally, at the feet of a master under the very piano at which I am sitting to conclude my story. Somehow, that seems fitting. My writing may never be as good as Mom's musical talents, but one thing is certain: I'll never stop writing until it is. No, that's not true. I won't even stop then. If I did, what would Mom say?

Experience, the greatest of all instructors, teaches us that if we decide not to fail, success is inevitable. I have found this to be true on my continuing journey through life, and I'm reasonably sure I could find a few others to testify to the same. Mom would be one of them. Such is the nature of the Divine in all of us. It is there, we simply have to have faith in our ability to manifest it.

More than one writer has sought to "find God in every sentence." I submit, humbly, that He is already there, for we are the ultimate manifestation of His handiwork. With a little faith and perseverance we can accomplish anything. Perhaps that is the reason that, as Mom could never stop playing, I cannot still my pen.