The weekend before last, when we had our Books and Brunch event, our daughter-in-law brought our granddaughter to the meetinghouse, which made it a morning filled with my three favorite things–bacon, books, and Madeline. After we ate, Madeline wanted to explore the meetingroom, and when she saw the piano, she ran over to it, climbed up on the stool and said, “Papa, I’ll play you a song.” So she did. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2 op.18. Quite remarkable for a two-year-old, but then she is exceptional.
So she played Rachmaninoff, then said to me, “Papa, you play a song.”
I said, “Madeline, I can’t play the piano.”
She started laughing. She said, “Papa, don’t be silly. Everyone can play the piano.” And she took my fingers, pressed them on the keys until a note was sounded, and said, “See, you can play the piano.”
I was going to give her a lecture about practice and skill and how the notes had to enjoy some kind of harmonious association with one another for it be considered true piano playing, but I didn’t want her to spoil her enthusiasm. Instead, I just said, “Hey, you’re right. I can play the piano.” So I played the piano and sang while Madeline danced. It was something to see. Ah, the enthusiasm of the young.
Have you ever noticed that when you tell a child they can’t do something, it upsets them? I used to think it was because children were immature and hadn’t yet learned how to deal with disappointment, but now I think they throw a fit because they haven’t surrendered the conviction and confidence that they can do anything, that everything is possible. Of course, I can play the piano. Of course, I can sing. What do you mean, I can’t do something? Of course, I can. Don’t tell me I can’t do something.
The novelist Robert McCammon wrote, “We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow path and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”
Isn’t that a provocative thought: the things we’ve allowed to wither in ourselves, this slow leaking out of magic, of enthusiasm, of conviction, of confidence. You do that to a child, and they’ll fight you every step of the way.
Now let’s think about this. We’re all familiar with the phrase born again. If we were to ask what it meant, we would likely be told something like this: We must accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior so we can spend eternity with Jesus in heaven when we die. Of course, that means a majority of the people who have ever lived will roast in hell. People like my agnostic nephews, my Jewish literary agent, our Hindu visitors, our Muslim neighbors here in Plainfield. It leaves out an awful lot of folks we’ve grown used to having around and rather appreciate and enjoy. On the other hand, it probably also leaves out Justin Bieber and the Kardashians, so it’s not all bad. Nevertheless, it is morally repugnant, because Roy Moore goes to heaven and Gandhi doesn’t.
So we have this phrase born again, and the people who use that phrase usually insist we define it as they do, but the neat thing about spirituality is that many of these terms are multi-valent, that is they have many layers of meaning, so no one can ever say to another, “I’m sorry, your understanding of what it means to be born again is wrong.” Well, I suppose they can say it, but they can’t arrest us. Which means we can suggest other meanings for born again, one of which is the recapturing of the magic, the recapturing of the confidence and enthusiasm we had as children. All of these years it’s been pounded out of us, churched out of us, scolded out of us, lectured out of us. We can’t do this, we can’t think this. We must submit. Obey. And straighten up, for God’s sake. So that over time we lose what I will call our “first enthusiasm.” It withers up within us.
Given the revelations of this past week, I can’t help but wonder if this dissipation of spirit, this inner withering, causes us to not just stop believing in our own worth and potential, but also the worth and potential of others, until they become simply objects to us, who can be exploited, abused, and misused. We hear about Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Al Franken, the President, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly and we realize something is missing within them. The other day I heard someone say of them, “They are all too human.” But perhaps just the opposite is true, that they are not human enough, that some Life Within them has been diminished, has withered away.
Joan and I were out in Phoenix several weekends ago to attend a wedding. We were sitting in our hotel room and I asked Joan if Helen Slemons still lived in Phoenix. Helen Slemons is a woman who used to work with Joan back in her system analyst days some 25 years ago. Helen had retired to Phoenix. So we Googled her, found her phone number on a website about a walking vacation through Spain she had just taken at the age of 85. We phoned her, and had a wonderful conversation. She couldn’t talk long, because she was packing for a trip to Iceland.
After we hung up, Joan sighed and said, “I want to be like Helen when I’m 85.”
I said, “But Helen’s a widow.”
Joan said she was aware of that.
We’ve always admired Helen, without ever putting our finger on why. And now I know. She’s never lost her first enthusiasm. All the magic that started out within her is still present. Her whole life is one example after another of being born anew, day after day after day.
I agree with Joan. I want to be like Helen, too. I want to wake up every morning and play the piano and if anyone should walk past our house and hear me playing and knock on the door to tell me I can’t play, I’ll tell them what Madeline told me, “Don’t be silly. Everyone can play the piano.”
And if they laugh and say they don’t recognize the song, I’ll simply say, “Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.2 op.18.”
Friends, keep hold of your first enthusiasm. Don’t ever let it wither and die within you.