One winter morning I walked into work, all mittens and hot coffee and rosy cheeks, to find our lobby destroyed — full of smashed pianos.
We’d seen them, days earlier, as whole pianos. Dusty, vintage uprights — but whole pianos, still. Now they were in pieces — and judging by the tools laying around, they’d been hacked with saws and hammers, pounded with mallets, strings gutted, keys made kindling. Sawdust hung in the air.
This was, of course, one of the basic hazards of managing an experimental theater company. One of our shows had encouraged audience members to take some choice thwacks at a few old wooden pianos in the lobby — John Cage-style — and after closing night, they’d been finished off in celebration, hacked to pieces. But the company had a big event in 24 hours. The room needed to be full of 200 people laughing and having a good time, holding wine glasses.
I came across a quote from author Ben Marcus recently, about his writing process:
…”if I wanted to sound a note on a piano (in prose), I didn’t just have to purchase and install the piano, I had to build it. But before I built it I had to grow the trees whose wood would yield the piano, and probably I had to create the soil and landscape through which those trees would burst. Then there was the problem of the fucking seeds. Where did they come from? I had to source them. With such mania I was either onto something or I completely misunderstood what a fiction writer was supposed to do.”
What strikes me most about this statement is how I imagine that thought process unfurling. It starts with the breezy pragmatism of a weekend carpenter facing an empty Saturday and plotting a lazy trip to Home Depot; then builds to frantic despair, unfinished and unfinished still; persistence fueled by a mad scientist’s longing for the result.
I know a little something about seeds, as it happens.
For some extra pocket money in Phnom Penh, I talked my way into an occasional substitute teaching position at the fancy private school in town.
These kids, the children of wealthy expats, had EVERYTHING. Their library alone stocked magazines and books from all over the world that you couldn’t find anywhere else in town. Their science teacher had gotten bitten by some terrible insect in Northern Thailand and was in the hospital unexpectedly and indefinitely.
The school secretary handed me this one-sentence lesson plan right before the bell rang: “Have students check seed experiment.”
I walked in expecting a well-disciplined bunch. But as they darted around the room stealing each others’ pencils and whining at the top of their lungs, I realized my mistake. They were the children of bankers, NGO workers, investors and — to hear them talk — kings and queens. Luckily they were totally adorable — diminutive features and prim tea-time accents.
No sooner had I written my name on the white board than one loudmouth mop-headed adorable-face announced, “MISS! WE NEED TO GO CHECK OUR SEEDS!”
By the time I turned around the entire class had left the room.
I wondered if this would affect my job.
Seeds gathered in tall grass and stashed in apron pockets. Trees knelt over and watered. Then YOU. You chopped down a tree and made your OWN fucking piano! You planed the wrest plank. Strung the backframe. Sawed 88 keys. It took so long.
Sometimes, you wake up and all your work and your life appears to be just pieces and sawdust. A few notes sound, a few strings still ring. But still.
When I first docked in the U.S. this fall, things seemed really rubble-filled. Like I’ve said before, I’m bad at transitions. Really, really remedial. For a few weeks when I passed a lake or river or even a pond, I automatically noted the water level. How close were we to a flood? To repeat: This was not rainy season in Phnom Penh. It was winter in Western New York.
That afternoon at the fancy private school, my cherubic Euro divas bounded out of the science classroom with their clipboards. They were learning the life cycle of a plant by growing mung beans in various environments. Some chose the freezer. Some, the roof. Some, a well-trodden dirt foot path. Some, underneath the bushes of the lush tropical landscaping.
Half an hour later most returned, tormented. Their seeds had not grown. One girl came back and, wordlessly held her frozen petri dish up to me. (Her lab partner, overcome by the glorious train-wreck nature of things, shouted in ecstasy: NOTHING GREW!!!) The microwaved seeds fared no better. The ones on the roof had been seared. The footpath seeds had been trampled.
A dozen students busied themselves creating line graphs that were completely flat. I tried to assure them they were not failures.
Then I heard my name from the doorway. “MS. MUSCATO?!?!”
I poked my head out to find Anton and Xavier, two bouncy, chubby bookish types with saucer-sized eyes. “OURS GREW!” Xavier produced the plant from behind his back and there it was, a springy green stalk with one leaf at the top, shooting defiantly from the petri dish.
There is no greater embodiment of innocent hope than a happy child holding a springy green mung bean shoot.
I shouted, “OH MY GOSH!” and turned, about to shout to the class, when Anton shouted, “NO! STOP!”
And this is when I learned the difference between being in middle school and being a grown-up.
“Stop what?” I asked.
“PLEASE DON’T TELL THE OTHERS,” he whispered. His saucer eyes now telegraphed all-consuming panic.
“NONE OF THEIRS GREW.”
I quickly shut up. Duh: You can’t be publicly good at anything in middle school. In adult life, of course, it’s the reverse. That mung bean would be all over Facebook.
When I got back from Cambodia, I felt like all of those kids plucking their petri dishes from the freezer and the microwave. Plotting flat line graphs on standard-issue graph paper. I watched water levels in a reservoir in Rochester and wrote nothing that I didn’t redact. Everyone else’s mung beans looked so much more awesome. I wondered if I should go back to Asia, on the double. But one night I chatted with my friend Brechjte online. I first met her at a moonlit concert on a Cambodian beach. She’s in Amsterdam now, being a kickass human rights lawyer. And she said something that helped: There’s always the dilemma, of whether to stay a temporary expat or go back to “real life”. Specifically, a life with more roots, more consequences and more complex relationships. Her answer: Make real life everything you’ve always wanted. Whatever that means to you.
I remember so crisply the feelings of facing these two surprises. One brought the sinking weariness of destruction. The other brought the simple joy of a child holding a new plant. But certainly, through Marcus’s quote about painfully building one’s process to fit one’s own peculiar needs and vision, they interlace — and apply to how we write and how we live.
John Cage called his instruments “prepared pianos”. Usually they were prepared by the dings and knocks and beatings they’d endured. At a very basic level, his art is a knock at those who stay too precious, too perfect. Those who won’t butcher their darlings. And so, yes, I was bewildered and overwhelmed that morning at the theater. But something of the ecstatic recklessness of Cage’s original experiment was there too, even in the sawdust. As I stood there open-mouthed in snowboots, coffee in hand, the thrill of the butcher lingered. It’d be an improvised feat of wonderment to get everything down the stairs.
The challenge of course, when faced with a huge pile of piano pieces, is always to get everything down the stairs. And then return to the beginning to make a new piano. Find some new seeds. Sprout them in a place they might like to grow. One bright spring morning when your trees are ready, return to your saw and hammer. Maybe even the same saw and hammer that destroyed your last piano. Just like before, you’ll need 88 keys.