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Space is the Place

As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York, one day I was required to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail. I had overnighted it from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn, but it was MIA. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it anywhere, and offered to go to the Flatbush post office — but if at all possible, asked if I could check on the Portland side before she did that (later I would find out why; I used to think my local Portland post offices were a pain in the ass, until I experienced the Flatbush post office–a situation so bad people write their senators about it. Including, eventually, me. I imagine that amidst the slurry of other more pressing political matters local and national, Chuck Schumer might not have gotten around to looking into my request.)

As it so happens, the envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of the applicants’ Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn). Now, all my personal financial shit was apparently just floating out there in the world, somewhere between the post office in Portland, Oregon, and a mailbox in Brooklyn, New York.

I was tense, maybe even verging on frantic.

I pulled into the parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by a car idling. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with bags and coats and other items, all of which delayed the process of them getting out of the car.

SPACE IS THE PLACEBe patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.

The mother and daughter finally shut the car door and made their way towards the post office entryway. Just as I was about to put my foot on the gas and pull in, I saw a wallet and another personal item lying on the pavement.

I honked, they didn’t hear, and I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing at.

She scooped her things up and smiled a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”

If not for that little bit of space I yielded between initially pulling in to the parking lot and feeling frustration, that whole situation could have gone differently. I could have honked and gotten visibly irritated at the mother and daughter, or angrily pulled in right after their car pulled away. I might not have noticed the wallet—I might have even driven over it in my haste to get a parking space. Not only would the interaction have been unkind, but that mother could have lost some very Important Personal and Financial Information if someone else had noticed that wallet instead.

All of those alternate scenarios involve the Other being separate and unimportant; the Other is a problem, an object in our way, an obstacle. But when we check our reactions, we are nudged back to recognizing our sense of connection, how much we, too, might be suddenly dependent on a total stranger. This is one of the things I love about New York, where you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. We are reminded how we can each influence each other in such profound but seemingly tiny ways.

Back at the post office in Portland, in my isolation chamber also known as a car, I pulled in to my long-sought for parking space, feeling a smidge better about life and humanity in general. I went inside, and claimed my spot in the long-ish line (a post office line I would come to appreciate as small town and friendly in comparison to what awaited me at the Flatbush post office in my new neighborhood, every time a package or piece of mail went missing–which was frequent.)

When I got to the Portland post office counter, I explained my situation: “I sent something overnight on Wednesday and it didn’t get there on Thursday. Is there any way to track it?”

“Do you have the receipt or the tracking number?”

“No.” I had completely forgotten everything about everything and thrown all my receipts away on Wednesday afternoon. “I lost it,” I lied, trying to recover some sense of being a grown adult.

“There’s no way to find it if we don’t have that tracking number.”

My chest started getting tight. “Well, what happens to overnight mail if it doesn’t get where it was sent to?”

The post office lady, seeming to relish the opportunity to bring terror on a fellow citizen, proceeded to list off Every Single Possible Worst Case Scenario: “There are just so many hands it passes through. It could have been stolen. It could have fallen off a cart and gotten kicked in a gutter without anyone even noticing. It could have gone to the wrong address….”

She gave me the number for Consumer Affairs, an office which was right down the hall but which was only available for telephone service, not walk-ins. I could see through the frosted glass window on the door that there was someone in there, but I wasn’t allowed to approach the door and knock. It would have been more natural for me to take this all as an opportunity to make a stink and get indignant about this as an example of all the bureaucratic bullshit the post office does that doesn’t make any sense.

But instead, I breathed. I noticed the very slightest relaxation of my shoulders and neck. Thanks to meditation and yoga practice, this tiny rerouting of a stress response meant I didn’t get tense at a moment when I normally would.

I sat down and called Consumer Affairs (the office I was standing right in front of and not allowed to speak to in person). After several rings–I could see the shadow behind the frosted glass sitting there immobile as the phone rang nearby–I explained my situation to the next clerk. Very quickly, we determined the cause of the mix up: I had bought a first class envelope, not a prepaid overnight envelope.

“Overnight is like twenty dollars,” she explained. I had paid about $1.50.

Feeling just barely like an adult now, and one who knows nothing about anything, I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief. I still didn’t have the assurance that my mail was where it needed to be (I would have had to pay twenty dollars for that assurance). But at least I knew it was all just a goof (my goof). Now I knew that most likely that my envelope was just on its way, and would arrive in about three days.

Again, at any one of those points in my little post office adventure, I could have gotten fussy, desperate, impatient, and mean. I could have defaulted to the entitled, crabby, and supremely self-interested manner of conducting ourselves that we learn, by default, in a highly individualist, gratification-oriented society.

And believe me, it is not in my nature to be patient and wise in these situations. I have burst into tears at the car mechanic and boiled over in frustration as telephone clerks at the bank transfer me from one office to another like a raging hot potato. In fact, regardless of how many service jobs I’ve done and the presumed empathy I should have developed, dealing with crappy customer service, or ineffective channels of communication in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, is an area of Adult Life that a part of me will always object to and struggle with.

My only way around this stuff is meditation practice. I didn’t start to sit with the intention to be more kind—I started practice to get a handle on depression/anxiety/insomnia issues, all of which sitting practice has helped with.

But after you fill up your own tank for a while I guess you start to have some to spill over with. Your practice becomes the benefit of those around you (at least in the sense that there is now an absence of ickiness being inflicted on them that they don’t even know about), and you get the added bonus of others reflecting that benefit back to you. Meditation doesn’t make life all flowers and unicorns; it takes away your latent expectation that life should be all flowers and unicorns.

You can not always get your way, experience things that are bullshit and don’t make sense, and still feel basically okay. Even good. Like an adult!

Practicing patience, nonattachment, and the ethic of kindness that arises out of that means that instead of feeling like an entitled individualist constantly at war with circumstance, you feel peacefully—or at least slightly less aggressively—yoked to the world around you. Each of those moments where we find space instead of falling into a negative reactive pattern is a tiny yield in the cosmic bank account. All of those old patterns of reaction, and defense, and armament, can change—if you leave room for space.

 

 

OPP: Other People’s Pianos

Piano practice has always been the back bone of my life structure. It is foundational and usually comes before all other types of practice, and sometimes before breakfast. But of late, with my living situation in continual flux, my practice has shifted from luxurious focused solitude with the instrument to:

Where can I find a piano, and for how long?

In April I moved out of my studio in the SE industrial district of Portland, an idyllic situation where I shared zero walls with neighbors, where I could more or less play whenever I felt like it. That building used to house La Luna, a venue of the Portland of old, where I saw Fiona Apple (among others) play in the 90s. The building has that sort of spooky, Old Portland energy, despite the increasing presence of condos and New Portland everywhere. (A few years back the space was included in a piece on Portland practice spaces in 1859 magazine).

But the really amazing thing about that studio was that I was able to fit my 7′ grand piano in there. If you have visited my blog before you may recall that a while back I was fortunate enough to acquire a totally killer 100+ year old Baldwin vintage grand piano. I went into mighty debt to obtain it (recently paid that off and it felt great). That piano really has my heart–like instant, love-at-first-sound, magic-of-music, to-be-wed-forever, heart. The Baldwin was part of many house shows and piano-focused soirees. Two piano technicians sang its praises as one of their top 10 pianos–EVER.

Having a high quality instrument you really, really love is like having a therapeutic biofeedback machine in your living room; you input your thoughts and emotions and experiences into sound shapes, and they get fed back to you as highly-refined musical energy. It’s like taking high quality vitamins. Or getting lots of hugs.

And now I am living without.

I literally spent an entire 60-minute therapy session processing and crying about living without that piano.

A wonderful old clunker at my friends' Bear and Anthony's in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony's grandmother taught lessons on.
A wonderful old clunker at my friends’ Bear and Anthony’s in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony’s grandmother taught lessons on for many decades.

After leaving the studio I moved through various temporary arrangements, one for a month, one for a week, and the current one for four months, with the final goal of moving to NYC at the end of the summer.

During my last slow goodbye to Portland, friends have been generous with their pianos. I’ve played an old upright out in the Gorge at the Hobbit House, and friends at the Pink Palace shared their tired old gal donated by Piano Push Play. My new routine has helped me realize that while it is good to create a private, focused environment for music practice, there is also something good about learning to adapt, musically and otherwise, to different situations. Like a band tracking drum parts downstairs; a toddler running back and forth and seeming to stomp very deliberately directly above me from the upstairs apartment; an electric bassist practicing in another room while I make do with a piano with no music desk and a broken key cover; and an alarmed cat staring directly at me from another room for the entire two hours that I was playing. (It was highly distracting).

All of this auditory distraction is especially important to learn to deal with considering that I’m moving to NYC!

As much as any technical skill, adaptability is paramount as a pianist. When you’re locked away in your apartment with a dream piano all the time, your playing is more easily thrown off by a nice-but-quirky piano at a venue or rehearsal (and pretty much every piano at any venue is nice-but-quirky). As my classical pianist aunt Julie always says, regularly playing different pianos is “part of the tradition.” As an example of extreme adaptability, my friend Thollem McDonas does not “live” anywhere, as he’s literally always on the road, and he maintains a regular piano practice nonetheless. “Everywhere becomes home,” he said, and every piano is just part of adapting your overall self to each situation. The mobile Zen pianist.

For me, the borrow-a-piano routine is a bit too irregular for getting much real work done, so the type of practice I’ve been doing on Other People’s Pianos is more maintenance mode–just keeping alive what I have already written, and making sure to fit in some sight-reading. On a day when I have extra time, I do some improvising, and maybe gather some ideas for composing.

Also, when you have to go without, you make do with alternatives. When I was such a junkie for the loud, emotionally intense feedback of my acoustic piano, I didn’t have much reason to spend time with my Nord 73. But over the past few months I’ve come to appreciate all the fun things I can do with pedals and effects; I went in a new direction with a song I would have otherwise recorded as an acoustic piano tune, because the keyboard was the only thing available to me.

At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.
At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.

I don’t know what the future holds for my Baldwin piano. Space is of course ridiculously limited in New York City, and a 7’x5′ grand definitely won’t be fitting in the one bedroom apartment I’ll be sharing with another musician.

But there is a chance that through a piano technician friend I can luck out on a cheap shipping deal. If I do, I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.

But for now, I’ve got a keyboard, and Other People’s Pianos, to keep me going.

If you have any leads on available pianos in the NYC area, please message me in the comments or through the contact form!