My mother’s grand piano, a shiny black Yamaha, was one of the few constants during my childhood. It accompanied us as we moved to new houses, cities, and states, each time settling into its own room. Every day, my mother would sit on her matching upholstered bench to practice while I played beneath it on a rug stitched in the blues and muted greens of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie or beside it on a white loveseat trellised in royal blue with green vines and bright yellow blooms. Nowadays, when I visit my parents, I return to that very couch and sit facing the keys, watching my mother’s hands dance across them. Around us, the walls are painted as pale as seawater caught in sand pockets on the foreshore. And, as it’s always been, nested atop the piano lid, which she mostly keeps closed, are our family’s photos.

My mother often rehearsed the Sunday hymns, but when I think of my childhood, I recall the bright, birdlike flight and steady bass of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, the river’s moonlit ripples in Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, and the suspense and lightning of Aaron Copland’s Passacaglia, so like the mystery books I read in adolescence. Our weeks had rhythms of school and church and shared meals, yet I can think of few things so ordinary and daily as her practicing.

Given that the patterns of our childhood homes and families of origin shape us in ways we cannot always see, I have been wondering how my mother’s music may have formed me and, more broadly, what a home that is filled with music does to a small person. It’s daunting work to decipher one texture within the entire atmosphere of a childhood—it’s like staring across a field of high grasses and discerning the breeze’s pattern in their sway. 

The piano arrived before I did, four years my elder, so that in all the memory flashes of my earliest play, I see myself sprawled on that blue rug or in a room nearby, spinning my little Fisher-Price plastic figurines on a merry-go-round or moving them through an unhinged Tudor dollhouse in a story I’d dreamed up, and all this while my mother played the piano, her music swirling around me. It was the air in the room, a wind coursing this way and that above my head. It felt like another language, an unseen nightingale whose song sounded the space between a series of trees and me, threading me through a strange wood, or like a wide undulating plain, the sky around me a veil through which something was being sung or said.

Maybe this is why, despite growing up in cultures that emphasized common sense and visible reality and veered toward the didactic, I always sensed that something else was present, too. My mother’s music told me so. “There is another world,” the poet Paul Éluard writes, “and it is in this one.”[1] Another Paul wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV)—the same Paul whose confidence was shattered in blindness, whose healing held fuller vision, and who could then confess what he saw and what he could not.

It used to seem odd to me that Jesus had to heal the blind man at Bethsaida twice. Now, I think he was telling us something of true vision, of how, if we ask and seek and willingly receive, our entire lives are a wiping away of mud as we accept the ongoing grace of deepening revelation. It wasn’t for lack of power that Jesus acted twice but to show that the faculty of seeing—that is, physical, spiritual, and intellectual sight—takes time to heal. The man knows he hasn’t fully recovered; he realizes these blurs aren’t yet the true forms of his friends. And he desires more, a desire that Jesus meets again (as, is implied, he will do again and again), giving him greater clarity to see what is.

So as grace goes, always preceding us, I find that we are primed for these desires. We are drawn by hazy glimpses, outside us and within us, that signal some excess is present. And that was the mystery gentling me as I shuffled my dolls room to room, as they had campouts and picnics and conversations I dreamed into being: what I could see wasn’t everything. My ears tuned to something more happening beyond sight, for there were ways of seeing that I lacked and for which I subconsciously began to long.

Several years ago, I heard the musician and theologian Jeremy Begbie describe Western tonal music as holding patterns of “home—away—home.”[2] First, there is the imbedded narrative wherein a musical piece orients us to its home, its key and tonic, and its tempo and opening phrases. Sometimes this is a world that we recognize already through previous exposure. But then, we’re carried away into a musical landscape of new pitches, new patterns and renderings, modulations between dissonance and resolution, until it eventually returns us, changed by what we’ve encountered, to the once-known place made new.

As a child playing on the floor, I was already enacting this home-away-home movement. I was in my house, shaped by what my home life offered and absorbed with my toys in an imaginary narrative, lost to time and roaming free in that other place until I was called back to the present. But with music vibrating the air around me while I played, I was given another layer of this; it was the gift of encountering unfamiliarity within my most familiar place. And this occurred not just with my own imaginings but with the narratives of the music, too, so that safety and exploration coexisted and were gifted to me as normal.

Music thus both grounded me in the present and took me off on its journey. Because I was already in imaginative play, my mind in a storyline and place beyond the room, the music tethered me to the ground of our home like a strong but generous kite string. And it simultaneously took me away, carrying me with it while I was otherwise preoccupied. I suspect this duality existed because the music came from my mother’s hands on the white and black keys, not some record or radio tunneling in tunes from elsewhere; it was as if she mediated these two-worlds-in-one. Somehow, her hands narrating these aural tales emotionally tuned me with their tensions and surprises, their disorienting edges and key shifts, estrangements and resolutions. This is one reason I’m thankful for the kind of music my mother played, for its complexity in texture and telling, rather than pieces that may have implied a simpler life, a narrower bandwidth of emotions.

Music tends toward the imagery of story, of journey, in part because music is temporal, unfolding within time, bookended by silence, and we encounter it chronologically as it begins, progresses, and ends. The tempo and notation indicate a relationship to time, each sound there and then gone, given way to the next. As each sound happens, it shapes what we hope will follow, and as it leaves, it fits itself into our memory, part of the whole of what’s being told.

And though, as a child, I did not recognize my own temporality—I was in fact living that childhood blessing of timelessness—I was nonetheless listening to what holds true of human life: we live inside unfolding stories we are incapable of knowing fully at the outset, stories that demand, like music, to be lived out one moment at a time, and these moments are subsumed into a whole that we can’t yet see or hear. In its way, music invites us to grow in trust, helping us confront the tension between residing in the familiar and heading out into the unknown, or of being thrown into the unknown, as when we find ourselves facing unavoidable and uncharted-for-us territory. Because I felt safe as a child, music encouraged in me an openness and curiosity about the unknown, as well as a tendency to listen to a place before I acted, knowing that the place would tell me something of itself and how to be within it.

And this is important because I know what it means to be at home in oneself and yet separated from oneself or from the life one has known. I’ve felt a comfort in myself, even among strangers or in new places, and then suddenly felt awash in self-consciousness. And I know what it means to feel, like several of my friends right now, fragmented and exiled from who I was before devastation. Music can soothe and uphold us amid difficulty. It can, for example, bind us to a place and time, a familiar song reminding us in lonely droughts of belonging and nudging us to continue onward, both held and sent forth. It can give us a form in which to grieve, as it does for me when I hear Alonso Lobo’s “Versa Est in Luctum,” the sopranos ranging the skies in long, drawn-out lament. So often, music nourishes in us hope, admitting dissonance but not giving it the last note. And it can enact in us joy, as when we sing, after weeks of minor key, festal songs on Easter morning. Even when we aren’t actively in need, by taking us to varied emotional terrain, music helps us practice how to inhabit those realities in our lives when they arrive—to bear longing and sorrow, grief and hope, desire and celebration.

In these ways, music invites us to practice risk-taking and exploring, widening our emotional range and strengthening our ability to stay present to what the moment holds. Because each piece of music has an end, it implies that our venturing out does too, granting us increased trust that we will arrive at places of respite and resolve, that, when everything around unsettles us, we will not be abandoned there forever, that the telling is only partial, the unfolding still at hand. It asks us to trust slow revelation when we want to know the whole and are incapable of doing so, impressing upon us that the only way to know the whole is to live through it, never to skip to the end, for we will have missed all that made the ending what it is. And this suggests that music grows in us intrigue at what we do not know, the riches of the world and our lives within it, and it increases in us courage to set out, resiliency with what occurs, patience in the unfolding, and belief in the necessity of living through the work, living into the return home, or, as Rainer Maria Rilke said, to “live the questions” and “perhaps . . . gradually . . . live . . . some distant day into the answer.”[3]

When I was seven, I abandoned the purple piano primers and set out on my own adventure, signing up for dance classes. In the studio, I was, in a sense, at home again, listening to music, an eight-count metronome in my head, and at the same time, I saw myself in the mirror, muscling into the awkward shapes my teacher taught us and beginning to adapt and belong among my classmates, all of us learning to control the movement and pace of our bodies, then slowly learning to move together as one.

This is something else that my mother modeled for me, first by being unwavering in her solitary practice and then by joining choirs and orchestras, becoming a part of something larger. During my own solitary practice, I would wobble and fall out of pirouettes time and again, and I think my mother’s consistent practice in the next room helped spur me on. After all, I know the sharp arc of her sighs, the fumblings and abrupt stops when her hands tangle in a complicated rhythm, when her eyes and mind understand the movements, but her fingers lag.

Over and over, she’d play a piece until her fingers were finally united, mastering the new patterns at just the right speed, and as they did so, I’d hear her style begin to find a voice in the weight of her fingers, the fluid sweep and glide of her hand, the breath of her pedaling. My mother intuits the space between the sheet music and her own expressive rendering, and when she plays with others, this style both animates and submits to the communal as they adapt themselves into a unified entity, seeking cohesion and their best rendition of the piece for this particular time and place.

For my mother, music is a home older than her marriage and longest friendships. She reads its language, speaks it with her hands, hears it before it sounds. At the bench, she sits in the solitary safety of herself with music, and when she plays with other musicians, she carries that solitude into community where the orchestra with its many members calls the music to fuller life. This familiar movement for musicians gives us a vision of how individuality can exist—even flourish—within community.

Like those musicians, we who listen can hear music calling us out into the patterns and the world that it opens. It calls us as ourselves. It asks of us our truest responses within the context of the work. This is a movement manifested in the larger human community, too, the singular self extending outward into larger belonging, into far grander witness and riches, reminding me of what the theologian Junius Johnson offers when he writes, “If God is to be imaged in creatures, it can only be by means of a symphonic witness, for no one creature . . . could give any sense of the infinite variety that exists in the divine exemplar. This is what is lost if I fail to see a beauty of which I am uniquely capable.”[4] When this singularity is cultivated and offered, it animates individual and corporate life and is divinely reflective: the self in community, the home within carried outward, beyond oneself, arriving, we hope and trust, into a greater and fuller communion, a communion that originates and ends in the relational triune God.

And quite wonderfully, in this model of home—away—home, we can see how music honors and encourages our deepest, existential, and spiritual longing; our sense that we are made to be better than we are, made for something whole, unified, and truer than what is before us each day. This model offers us a different posture toward longing than what we normally inhabit—rather than ridding ourselves of longing, music suggests that longing is the very thing that compels us onward. Or beyond that, music embodies this suggestion: a piece of music expresses, develops, teases, and satisfies a listener’s longing, but the listener’s longing is something far more innate and essential to human life. Longing precedes and extends beyond music, but music welcomes it, plays upon it, and exercises it. That’s at least one reason my mother is, very likely, in this moment practicing, her fingers both awakening and chasing that longing as it leads.

Not long ago, she told me the piece that she thought she’d never get right was Claude Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse.” Even the title moves me. The joyful island, the place she struggled toward and still does, note by note. I can’t help but hear my own name, too—Joy. I can’t help but hear the home I am and am still searching for, orienting toward, that singularity of being which is only a beginning, the first island in an archipelago, measure unto measure, solitudes constellating in communal belonging as each of us in grace finds our way from the familiar to the unknown to what we’ve always sensed was somewhere out there, the place for which we ache and listen and upon which we hope, at last, to land, that shore we’ve somehow always known. It is a shore, I trust, that’s not a shore at all but the ground already beneath us, the God whose tonic note trembles in every chord and creature and haunts us with lost memories of a place, a life, a communion we keep trying to return to. And when we do, we’ll suddenly realize, with ears cleansed of all their mud, we’ve always heard that sound—it’s the very note that began and transformed us into singular pieces of a much greater work, the note that led us home to our resolution and endless beginning.

[1] The original source of the English translation of the Éluard quotation is unknown; I encountered it on a postcard that I received.

[2] Begbie, “Music and Hope,” Scholar-in-Residence Lecture Series (Union University, Jackson, TN, March 12, 2019).

[3] Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1934), 27.

[4] Johnson, The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 65.