Regular or even occasional readers of this blog know that one of my guilty passions is various personality tests that are available on the Internet. Most recently I have found out that if I was a classical composer, I would be Johann Sebastian Bach (great news) and that my personality is most suited to living in Montana (total bullshit). A little while ago, thanks to my colleague Sandra who often shares these sorts of tests with her Facebook friends, I learned that if I was a Peanuts character, I would be Schroeder.
My Schroeder description reads as follows:
You are Schroeder. You are brilliant, ambitious, and brooding; you tackle tasks with extreme focus. People don’t always interest you as much as other pursuits, though; you can come off as aloof.
Upon reading this description to Jeanne, she affirmed that my Schroeder description (except perhaps for the “brilliant” part), for better or worse is completely accurate. She’s Charlie Brown, by the way. Until taking these personality tests I did not realize I was in a same-sex marriage, but I’m adjusting.
The one characteristic of being Schroeder not included in the above description, of course, is that Schroeder is most often seen in the Peanuts comic strip seated at his toy piano, playing exquisite Beethoven sonatas while Lucy swoons with unrequited love. Schroeder actually seems to be relatively well-adjusted, fine-tuning his piano virtuosity, fending off Lucy’s uninvited advances, catching on Charlie Brown’s woeful baseball team (I played first base very poorly on a little league team almost as bad as Chuck’s team), and along with Linus being Charlie’s most faithful friend. I suspect that between the strips Schroeder had some less positive experiences—or at least I did.
A bit over four years ago, a couple of months after returning home from a life-changing sabbatical semester, I travelled to Nashville to participate in a three-day workshop called the “Pen and Path Spiritual Writer’s Conference.” I suspected at Friday evening’s opening get together that this was not going to be my cup of tea, as we started with group sharing. This, when strangers are involved, is in a virtual tie with sticking a fork in my eye on my list of favorite things to do. I survived that (barely), then the guy up front said “time for an exercise—focus on an object in the room and write.” I looked in the corner of the room, and this came out:
could contain all the music there is?
At home, this was my best friend, my solace, my comfort.
But it became my enemy, raising the expectations to a level that could not be satisfied.
I’d like to make friends again.
“Whoa,” I thought, “where did that come from?” Actually I knew very well where it had come from, from a closed internal room that had been closed for so long that I could for long periods of time pretend that I didn’t know about it. But on sabbatical I had started exploring some long-untouched places in writing, and apparently it was time for this one. I typed the rough poem into my laptop that evening in my room and filed it in the “unfinished essay” file, where it has sat untouched for the past four-plus years. Finding out that I am Schroeder reminded of that room and poem once again. There is more in that room that could be rummaged through in a dozen essays, but it’s time to start.
My love affair with the piano began at four or five years of age. My older brother had started lessons a couple of years earlier, but never took to the instrument as I did as soon as my parents gave into my impassioned petitions and let me start lessons a couple of years earlier than they were planning. From the beginning I knew I had met my soul mate. Our piano was an old upright painted a horrible yellow, so old that the blind piano tuner who came once per year was only able to tune it a whole step lower than where it should have been. But I loved it more than if it had been a Steinway. Once school years started I went directly to the piano as soon as I got home, often needing the familiar feel of the keys and sound of the notes to soothe and center me after a bad day. My mother never had to remind me to practice; rather, she had to remind me that there is more to life, even for a seven or eight year old, than sitting by oneself wrapped up in a private world where things made sense.
And I was good enough to become a minor celebrity, not only in my family but also at the churches and schools I attended during my growing up years. I was the regular evening entertainment when family and friends gathered either at our house or at my grandparents’ homesteads which also had old pianos. I was accompanying the church choir and playing for church services by the time I turned ten years old, and was the go-to person for Christmas pageant accompaniment and solos from the same age at school. I had two piano teachers between when I started and when I graduated from high school—both placed me either at the beginning or end of their yearly student recitals, the privileged positions reserved for students guaranteed both to impress the audience and not to embarrass the teacher by screwing up. In later recital years, I was often afforded the even greater privilege of playing a four hands, two piano duet with my teacher as the closing performance of the recital. My teachers, family and friends helped stoke the internal fire had burned brighter and brighter for years. I was going to be a concert pianist.
It was not easy being Schroeder, though. First of all, Lucy’s infatuation in the Peanuts cartoon with Schroeder notwithstanding, being Schroeder does not make one a chick magnet, even for crabby chicks like Lucy. In my case, the piano provided me with a regular and welcome escape from the normal social awkwardness and challenges that all children and adolescents struggle with. Being Schroeder also, together with my academic success, lack of sports prowess and skinny physique, caused many of my male colleagues in school at all grade levels to regularly wonder whether my testosterone levels were at the appropriate value. I came to believe that I was most acceptable when my musical abilities or academic prowess was required and pretty much unacceptable the rest of the time.
I was well into my high school years before I fully realized that although I was good, I wasn’t that good. I clearly remember when the first seeds of doubt were planted. At age ten or eleven I had just finished perfecting my first Chopin nocturne. Chopin is the Olympics of solo piano performance, and I was thoroughly impressed with myself. Then a missionary family making the rounds through Baptist churches in New England stopped by our church for a Sunday. These folks were missionaries to Korea, and with them had a four-year old Korean orphan girl whom they had adopted. After the morning service, she sat down at the old upright piano in our church and from memory played the very Chopin nocturne I had struggled mightily for weeks on end to master. And hearing her play it as effortlessly as breathing, I realized I had not mastered it at all. Not only would I never be Mozart—I never was even going to be this little girl.
But dreams die hard, and with the loving but entirely biased support of my family, friends, and piano teachers, I sustained the hope of concert halls and world travel for many years longer. I don’t remember a specific event that finally slammed the door on my hopes and dreams, but I am glad no one said “when God closes a door He always opens a window.” I would have replied, along with Nadia Bolz-Weber in Pastrix, “please show me where that window is so I can push Him the fuck out of it.” Decades later, I have only begun over the past few years to make peace with the loss of my best friend who literally kept me centered and sane. I don’t know if Schroeder took his toy piano on concert tour, but my bet is that he married Lucy and has made a life for himself doing something he never would have expected. So it goes. I am far happier and more blessed than any human being deserves; my music has even come back in unexpected ways over the last two or three years. But every once in a while, Psalm 90 appears in the daily cycle of Psalms that I read every morning. When reading its closing lines, “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands,” I always wistfully think for a brief moment of how the piano keys used to feel under my hands.