Hands off

My fingers clench around the folder in my hand.  I’m afraid I might drop the music I am holding because of the trembling that is working its way through my body.  I don’t do this kind of thing very often… singing without playing the piano simultaneously.  Today, I am leading worship at a funeral service, and our newly instated associate pastor is at the piano accompanying me.  My voice rings out clear and full, but something is missing. 

Then I recognize this missing factor for what it is; I have relinquished control.   Today I am a singer reliant on someone else’s accompaniment, and in one sense it is liberating, but in another sense it is terrifying.  What if I lose my place?  What if I forget to glance down at my printed lyrics in time and sing the wrong line?  I probably look ridiculous up on the stage; it’s a good thing I’m holding a folder right now because I have no idea what I would do with my hands.  I’m thankful for the microphone that is practically affixed to my other hand in a grip so tight, not even my clammy, shaking fingers could knock it loose.

In that moment, I’m pretty sure I have come to a conclusion; this form of making music is far more terrifying than liberating.  I like my piano.  It’s safe and comfortable, and I don’t have to stand alone in the center of the stage while everyone looks at me.  Yes, I want control back.  I want to feel my fingers on the keys so I can get my bearings.  This is new territory for me, and although it’s good for me to explorhands-on-keyboarde new avenues, I’m not sure I like it. 

When the funeral is over, I go back home and sit down at my electric piano.  I need to practice for Sunday morning, and in a matter of moments, I am singing and playing almost on autopilot.  I’m barely thinking as I navigate the familiar chords and sing the lyrics that I could probably recall in my sleep.  This is home for me.  This is happiness.  This is safe.

But then, the unthinkable happens.  I am preparing dinner an hour later when I glance down at a status update on my phone.  I’m pretty sure my eyes are deceiving me.  Facebook is telling me that a good friend of mine has passed away.  He is only 39 years old.  This is some fabricated story, right?  Someone doesn’t know the details, so they write the customary R.I.P.  My heart starts racing and my breathing accelerates into short gasps.  It’s not just one post I am seeing now; there are two more, then five.  Scrolling down further, I see ten more and then twenty.  Apparently, I am one of the last to know. 

While I was working, memorizing lyrics, agonizing over singing to someone else’s accompaniment, my friend passed away and I didn’t know… until now.  Suddenly, nothing else matters.  There is no concept of routine or the things that are typical.  I am glued to my phone, my dinner now sitting cold on the stove top.  I am no longer hungry.  Food can wait.  Work can wait.  Creating music can wait. 

For almost a week, I walked around in a fog.  I didn’t grieve like one might expect.  I didn’t cry; I didn’t even spend significant time thinking about my friend who had passed away.  Instead, I considered my regimented schedule, those things and activities that took up so much of my time… that took away from my creativity, my investment in relationships, and my ability to relinquish control. 

Even my music had succumbed to routine and deadline.  I had a list of songs I needed to learn by a specific date, and I would memorize them, arrange them, and record practice videos for them within a designated amount of time.  Although I enjoyed my work, it was all necessary, and I found myself hurrying from one piece to the next without taking time to embrace each song for the unique treasure it could be. 

I had taken music for granted, just as I had taken my relationships, even life for granted.  I hadn’t written a song in almost three years, and that nagged at me too.  Writing music has never come easily for me.  I fumble through the process of inspiration.  Nothing drives me more crazy than the mess of scribbled out lyrics and a melody that I can’t lock in place.  I’m never satisfied with a song until I have the courage to play it for someone, for then it has reached a state of completion simply by being shared. 

My friend, who had always served as a songwriting cheerleader of sorts, had now passed away.  If I was ever going to let go and write a song again, I would have to do it on my own, without his prodding or words of encouragement.  But I knew in order to get to the place where I could write again, I had to let go and simply let it happen. 

As that first week passed, I began to feel a stirring in my heart.  My friend and I had always been connected through music, so every song I heard or played began to take on new meaning.  For the first time in a long time, I made a conscious effort not to hurry through a piece in practice or listen to the radio with the intention of actually internalizing a lyric or tune.  I felt music so deeply now, and occasionally, I would catch an unexpected tear as it made its way down my cheek. 

A few nights later, I woke up from a restless sleep.  I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly wide awake.  I hadn’t been disturbed by a sound or any particular thought.  I prayed then and eventually found sleep again, but an hour later, I was awake once more.  I still couldn’t understand why I was so restless.  This continued for most of the night.  I would fall back to sleep, only to be awakened an hour later.  Finally, around 4:00 a.m., I heard it: a simple phrase accompanied by a haunting melody.  It was a song; I was going to write a song if I would follow through.  Fleetingly, I thought of the messy process that awaited me.  “No!” I think I said out loud.  “I will not forget.”  I refused to let the daunting challenge deter me.  I needed to do this no matter how difficult it would be. 

And even though I should have gotten up from my bed then and written something down, I somehow knew that it would be fine.  For the simple line that come to me was, “Please, will you stay with me?”  There was no way I was forgetting that!  All would be well, I had no doubt. 

I will spare you the details of the morning that followed.  Yes, I wrote a song… most of one, anyway.  Yes, it was messy.  Yes, I felt insecure about it once I finally set my rendering aside and moved on to the necessary work that needed to be completed for the day.  But most importantly, yes, I had let go.  I had given life to a song, and the elation that I felt in that moment was so liberating.  I headed to the office with a lightness in my step that hadn’t been there in the past week.  The fog was lifting and I was starting to see more clearly. 

Letting go and relinquishing control is never easy.  It’s like that moment when a child lets go of the handlebars on his bike and yells out, “Look, no hands!”  It might feel exciting to let go and simply ride, but there’s always that moment when you realize your hands are no longer gripping the handlebars.  Yikes!  Now I can’t steer!  Now I can’t brake!  In a matter of moments, hands grab for the handlebars like a lifeline.  Ah, now that’s better!  Now the bike won’t crash. 

Giving up control and letting go is scary sometimes… okay, most of the time.  It’s easy to latch on to the safe and familiar.  Maybe then, there will be no reason to get hurt.  But let’s be honest, we can’t live in a bubble-wrapped, foam rubber castle.  The truth is, jobs are lost, things break down, loved ones die, and eventually even a really good song comes to an end.  Nothing is guaranteed, and that can cause a great deal of fear. 

But I don’t want to live in fear, so I’m taking steps forward to live into the mess, take my hands off the keyboard, and embrace the music all around me.  Look, no hands!  Really, it’s time to let go and find the beauty in the unknown.