The Surrogate Harpist
It was the last purposeful thing I ever remember my grandmother saying before she was permanently pulled below the waves of dementia. The entire family was gathered in my uncle’s living room, waiting for his last daughter to be married. My mom’s mother had been going in and out of our world and her own for the past several years, but in this moment she was perfectly balanced on the boarder of our harsh temporal planet and her universe where time was cyclical rather than linear. My grandmother turned to me, introduced herself, and then acknowledging the harpist hired to play at the wedding said, “if I had to live my life over again, I would learn to play one of those.”
I think of that statement often when I lay on the sofa in the home of one of my dearest friends and she plays her harp. She is newly married and nesting, the elegant harp looking slightly out of place amongst the used leather couches and prefab furniture. She looks positively angelic as her fingers leave the strings and she straightens her back in a way that shows her immense beauty hidden by her everyday posture. I open my eyes to look at her and for a split second I am jealous of her talent.
“I have got to sell my harp,” she declares walking away from the instrument out of frustration. “Every time I look at the thing in my living room I feel guilty because I know it should be played in a symphony orchestra and not be here to fiddle around with when I feel like it.” She quickly explains that she’s not about to give up playing, she simply wants to sell an otherwise brilliant piece of equipment to someone who could appreciate the music it makes on a consistent basis. She says that as she was learning to play the harp, she always was a disappointment to her teachers who wanted my friend to turn professional rather than play the harp for enjoyment.
And I am instantly reminded of my grandmother’s statement right before a vacant expression overtook her eyes forever.
I often wonder what talents I will regret not sharpening thirty years from now. Sometimes I swear to myself that I will try every activity that strikes my fancy at least once. And then I look at my friend’s harp and my uncooperative hands, a pair of toe shoes, or even the wii at our local pub, and I know such a promise is impossible to keep. The nature of this vast and seemingly endless world is one that might just give you the freedom to race towards all your dreams but it certainly won’t give you the time. Thinking of my grandmother growing up on a rocky hill in the Ozarks, the opportunity to learn how to play the harp was as slim as me learning how to dance en point. And at the end of her life, she still had unrequited dreams which she wanted to announce to someone she thought was a perfect stranger.
My friend begins playing again. For her, as for any of us really, with her talents come great responsibility to use her talents not only to the best of her ability but also with discretion. For her that means selling her professional harp to a musician who will use it professionally. More often than not we take the talents that we do have and, taking them for granted as commonplace, wish we had other skills in our capacity. If something comes easy to us, we tend to think it is easy for everyone and thus unimpressive. For my grandmother, at the end of her life, it was the harpist sitting in the corner of her son’s living room that represented second chances and unfettered dreams. For my friend playing the harp, keeping up her skills is not simply a blessing, but also a burden of responsibility. And for me, my jealously of other skills robs me of my time, so that, if I am not careful, by the end of my life, I will turn to a stranger and say what I would do differently, if I had to life my life over again.