The last time we were in Victoria, B.C., three summers ago—before, as they sing in “Hamilton,” “the world turned upside down”—it was July 2019, and Dick and I were marveling over our good fortune.
Six months earlier in January, Dick had collapsed in cardiac arrest as we were about to board a plane in Honolulu to return home after a two-week vacation. As I’ve written about elsewhere (you can look at the whole series, Dick’s Great Heart Adventure), Dick’s heart stopped and was restarted after a few minutes thanks to a team of strangers who came to the rescue and the swift application of an AED (automated external defibrillator) that brought him back to life with one massive shock.
That began a series of miracles and lifesavers who put Dick back together again, resulting in a triple bypass at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center in Honolulu and two of his oldest and dearest friends who came to Oahu to care for him when I had to return home.
So coming back to Victoria—a place we love and have spent parts of summers since 1999—in July 2019 felt a bit miraculous, too. I remember walking around thinking, “It might have been otherwise,” which is the repeated line in a lovely poem by the late Jane Kenyon.
Nothing like a crisis to remind you of how lucky you are. And boy, did we know it.
Driving around the south shore of Vancouver Island is one of our favorite things to do. It’s a relatively small peninsula with an oceanside road that winds through the neighborhoods of James Bay and Oak Bay, and we took the drive—stopping here and there to take photos and soak up the glorious weather. You never know what you’re going to see, I often say as we park someplace to get out and look. Some surprising thing will happen that you would’ve missed if you’d just driven on by.
So when we passed an old upright piano painted with seagoing creatures sitting oceanside at the corner of Beach and Oliver streets, I hollered, as I’m wont to do, “Ooo! Pull over, Dickie!”
He is used to this, so with a bit of protest—“Janis!”—he did so, as I babbled about a painted piano on the side of the road. I got out of the car and walked back to see if it was a real, playable piano. It was.
The piano was angled so that the left side of the pianist faced McNeill Bay. It had a retractable cover over the keyboard (called a “fall”) that immediately drew my fingers. I lifted it and pushed it back into its little garage, letting all 88 keys gleam in the sun. Just for kicks, I played a few chords. It sounded a little like the rinky-tink piano in the pizza joint my parents, sister and I patronized in the early 1970s.
The piano and others painted by local artists were deployed around Oak Bay as part of the Arts Alive program. This one at McNeill Bay was painted by Gillian Redwood, and she calls it “The Salish Sea.”
What charmed me was its funky, imperfect sound… not that it wasn’t in tune… but I felt that as if I lifted the top of the piano and peered in, I’d see its insides heaving with sound, its old hammers compressed and grooved from hitting the strings millions of times, the strings themselves fatigued with age, the tuning pins loosening. Pianos have something like 10,000 parts with mysterious names—unless you’re a piano tuner: flanged shanks, whippins, damper works, a soundboard with a crown.
Like many kids, I took piano lessons, and I was not a successful student. Trying to get ten fingers and a foot pedal going was tremendously hard for me. My little sister was the far better pianist, and her daughter is quite good, too. But I love pianos—their sounds and their feel, the magic that emanates from them by superb players.
And this one, the Salish Sea, had a piano bench with a lid that lifted. Of course, I lifted it. Inside were several pieces of sheet music. I chose one I had at one time played: Gymnopédie No. I by Eric Satie. It’s the first of three related pieces—all in 3/4 time, deliberately slow and deceptively simple… if you remember how to read music. I had to think about it and figure out some of the notes.
But I sat at the keyboard six months after Dick had been brought back to life and figured out, slowly, painfully, how to play a bit of Gymnopédie No. I at McNeill Bay, grateful for the chance to do so with him there taking photos.
During the pandemic, on some of the darkest, locked-down days, I sat at my computer at home and emailed and Zoomed and talked on the phone with my students. So many of them were upset, depressed, scared—as we all were. The world—the whole world, all at once—was undergoing a tremendous shift, a gigantic ending to life as we knew it. And the new life had not yet been born. It was a time of mourning and sadness, and I kept saying to students who bemoaned the shifting tide, “It won’t always be like this.”
More than one student wailed, “How do you know that?”
And I fell back on the Buddhist teachings of impermanence—nothing ever stays the same; change is constant. We don’t always like it, but it’s going to happen, I told them. Everything vanishes. The pandemic reminded us of that in a huge way. The Buddhists say that we should learn not to cling to “the way things are.” It’s not the fact that everything is born and lives and dies that causes suffering; it’s our reaction to it. The idea is that loss can be a catalyst for a profound shift in perception and a transformation of our sense of self. Being willing to let go, to release our attachments (whether to people or animals we love, to jobs or where we live), and hold on loosely helps us be less anxious about impermanence.
But that doesn’t mean it’s fun to live through or that we don’t grieve what we’ve lost. We do; we should. We must endure the hard stuff that knocks the wind out of us, over and over in our lives. “It might have been otherwise” reminds me to say thank you, out loud, again and again for the experiences we’re given, no matter how difficult, how joyful, how fleeting. I often think of my friend Antsy McClain’s sweet song “Scrapbook,” in which he sings: “I won’t cry because it’s over. I’ll smile because it was.”
Today—after a three-year absence during which we so longed to return here—we drove the ocean road and there, at the corner of Beach and Oliver streets, sat the piano. It was covered with a custom, piano-shaped tarp. We drove by and noticed it, then a little ways down the road, I asked Dick to turn around and go back to the piano. I wanted to see it again.
So we did. We gently pulled up the tarp to reveal Gillian Redwood’s sea creatures across the front of the upper panel. To our surprise, the piano had a lock on the fall. The keys were not accessible. It appeared to have been locked for the season. Ah, well.
I later looked online about Oak Bay’s pop-up painted pianos. They’re out in summer through early September, the site said, and well, it is early September.
So I couldn’t play the piano this time, but we admired it and patted it a bit, then carefully replaced the tarp. Releasing the attachment to playing it, I was able to leave only a tiny bit disappointed. The music is still there in the piano. And it’s in me.
And I resolved, as I did three years ago, when I get home, to dig out my copy of Gymnopédie No. I, find a piano (or on the marimba in my living room) and relearn that song—a reminder of gratitude for life’s unexpected delights scattered between the difficult and sometimes downright awful, life-changing moments… like finding a piano by the sea, waiting.