Monday, October 17, 2011

A Melancholy Memory (sort of) in Honor of Friendlys

Friendly's is an institution in the Northeast. I just read the news that it's facing bankruptcy and in danger of closing. 

Since I started taking piano lessons at the age of 4, my parents would take me and my sister to Friendly's after our piano recitals as a special treat.  One time my parents let us share one of those big fat sundaes which we ate in six minutes flat.

I was never very good at piano. I didn't have any sort of natural skill and I didn't like practicing, but my piano teacher was a family friend who I loved, so I stuck with it long past when I should have given it up, more for her sake than for mine (and probably a little bit because of the Friendly's treat). My sister gave piano up at age 12, but I played until I was 16.

In what would be my last recital, I was to play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." It sounds like moonlight, soft and slow and quiet. It doesn't have the flash of faster pieces but the beauty is in the touch, which has to be light.

I hadn't practiced enough going into it, so I didn't have the piece memorized like everyone else did with their pieces. Not only that, but midway through I lost my place and had to play one particular phrase over and over again until I found where I was supposed to be.

As soon as I finished and sat down, I wanted to leave. I knew I hadn't done my best -- not even close to it. I was disappointed, and I tried to avoid everyone when I was done, even my piano teacher. One woman who managed to stop me told me, "I could tell that was a really hard piece," which in my mind was a really bad way of saying, "I understand why you were terrible."

When I was on my way out the door, a guy from my church who was a gifted piano player, stopped me with a hand on the shoulder. "Christina, listen, no matter how you did, everyone here loves you. Everyone wants to support you and encourage you. No one is here to judge you or put you down." At the time, I hated his words. I couldn't even look him in the face while he said it. I thought to myself, "No one wants to support me! I'm awful!"

At Friendly's I didn't finish my sundae. I felt like I was too big and too old for everything, for piano, for recitals, for sitting in a booth with my parents, for sundaes. I felt like my life was a poorly made sweater, and every time I tried to pull it or shift it around, it still felt uncomfortable.

I got over it, as adolescents do. Last year as my confirmation students were practicing their speeches for the church, one young girl in particular looked like she had on that poorly made sweater. Putting her face in her hands, she couldn't even start reading what she had written. Her speech was excellent, all about her friends going through hard times, and how God uses us when people are hurting. I told her it was excellent, but it didn't help.

"What's the worst thing you can imagine happening?" I asked.

"I'll mess up." she said, "People will laugh."

She reminded me of myself, trying to slip away from the piano recital And the words of this older boy came into my head, words at the time I had hated, words at the time that I hadn't believed. Words that suddenly became true when as a confident adult I was facing myself as a teenager, when the task of feeling comfortable in my own skin had felt completely impossible. I thought about this girl in front of me, terrified about exposing her thoughts in front of our congregation, and I thought of our congregation, and how proud they would be of her, and the words she was saying, and how much she had grown, even if she stumbled over her words or giggled in the middle of her speech. Everyone here loves you. Everyone wants to support you and encourage you. No one is here to judge you or put you down.

"Let me tell you a story," I said.