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Author Biography: MARY CARTLEDGEHAYES is an ordained United Methodist minister. A native of Middle Bass Island, Ohio, she holds a Master’s of Divinity from Duke University and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. She lives in South Carolina.
the felt inside a yamaha piano is made of wool from the underside of sheep sheared on a cold day. If the piano is not tended to properly, moths will eat holes even in this exceptionally tight felt. As a result, the tone of the piano becomes tinny. I know these things because Joe Turner explained them to me when he came to tune the piano in my living room in February of 1998.
The piano doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to my husband, Fred. He bought it in 1974 from Case Brothers, a music store in the small town in South Carolina where we live. According to the receipt he keeps in the bottom left-hand drawer of his desk, he paid $1,575.00 for it, plus tax. Fred had three children from his first marriage, one or two of whom took piano lessons. After Fred’s first wife died and he and I married, one of my two daughters took lessons for a few months.
Otherwise, the piano was ignored. I’d dust it from time to time, and every year in December my friend Terry would bring over a briefcase filled with sheet music and play for an afternoon. The remainder of the time the piano simply sat, taking up space, upright, unplayed and unloved, graced only by whatever lamp fit on top of it.
After nearly twenty years of living with the piano, I decided to have it tuned. I had a hostile relationship with musical instruments, knew nothing about their needs or possibilities, but I was tidying up my life and wanted everything in perfect order because my soul was weary unto death—an unfortunate position for anyone to be in, but even worse for me, because I’m a clergywoman, an ordained minister, a priest, a preacher, a person of the cloth.
When, six yearsearlier, at age forty-two, I’d entered divinity school, my theology reflected the ennui of Qoheleth the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” We are born, and sometime later, having strutted and fretted our hour or year or thirty years or ninety upon the stage, we die.
After three years as the sole pastor of a church of 180 members, plus several of their kin and a number of persistent visitors—three years spent preaching, baptizing, marrying, burying, and visiting house to house—I’d concluded that life, the passing interval between birth and death, is a blank slate upon which people construct themselves. Some people use thick pieces of white chalk to construct careful equations in parallel lines. Others of us clutch in our fists all the pieces of multicolored chalk we can hold, dragging them randomly yet vigorously across the slate and then standing back to see if there is any pattern at all.
To see the holy, you must have the capacity to see the patterns surrounding you. By 1998 I was blind to patterns. I couldn’t tell what, if anything, carried the power to heal and to save.
Nothing, it seemed.
But more likely nothing.
Joe Turner rang the doorbell at exactly one o’clock in the afternoon, as scheduled. A long, lean man with thinning gray hair, he wore gray pants, a white button-down shirt, a blue tie, and a navy sports coat. Joe started grinning the moment he spotted the piano at the far end of the living room.
“A Yamaha,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better piano.”
He strode to the piano, gestured for me to remove the lamp on top of it, opened the lid, and reached in to extricate a three-inch neon-orange plastic space cadet, which he handed to me.
“I’ve tuned a lot of pianos in my time,” he said. “Some friends and I added up the exact number at a piano tuners’ convention a few years ago. We figured out I’ve tuned more Yamahas than any other tuner in the country. Yamaha makes a fine piano.” He offered me a look inside. “You’ve got moths. See the holes?”
I did, indeed, see the holes, half a dozen of them bored so deeply into the brown felt that the base wood showed through. Another dozen holes were smaller, mere indentations in the felt.
“I’ve never seen any moths around the piano,” I apologized. “I didn’t know they were here.” Actually, I hadn’t known pianos contain felt. Wood and air would have been my guess for what was inside.
“If you’ve got a piano, you’ve got moths, even with a Yamaha.” That’s when Joe explained about the wool coming from the underside of the sheep. “They do the shearing on a cold day because a sheep’s wool is tighter in the cold. That way you end up with a tighter felt. But moths are going to get into the felt, no matter how tight it is. That’s why you have to have it mothproofed every twenty years.” Joe bent down to open the panel underneath the keyboard. Inside was an array of vertical strings and, at their base, more moth-eaten brown felt.
Joe fingered the piano keys in what seemed to be a random pattern. “It’s out of tune, all right,” he said.
“I thought it might be. I wasn’t sure.”
Joe nodded. “Now let me tell you your options. I can tune the piano to itself, right now, today while I’m here. Or I can tune it back to its original range. To do that I’ll have to take the action assembly home with me to work on and bring it back to you. That’ll cost more.”
“How much would it cost for you to do that?”
“About three hundred dollars.”
“What do you think?” I asked. “Is the piano worth it?”
“Ma’am,” he said, “it’s a Yamaha. I could sell one like this today for ten thousand dollars.”
Joe left, carrying the piano’s insides with him. He returned on Monday with the action assembly and his son Joe Hal Turner, a smiling, dark-haired young man who looked to be in his early thirties. While Joe Hal replaced the action assembly and dusted the piano’s felt with yellow mothproofing powder, the elder Joe chatted with Fred and me.
“Learning to tune a piano takes a long time. It takes two years before you even know if your ear’s good enough to learn the trade. And then it takes another three years to learn how to tune on your own. First piano I ever tuned alone, I worked on it for three weeks, and when I was done it was further out of tune than when I started.” Joe laughed at the recollection of his novitiate.
I underwent a novitiate, too, but mine was different from Joe’s. First congregation I ever pastored, I worked on it for almost three years, and now I was further out of tune than when I started. I felt as though I’d spent my life reading things that didn’t need to be read, thinking things that didn’t need to be thought, and doing things that didn’t need to be done. The things I’d believed in, worked toward, and achieved seemed insignificant, the sacrifices a waste of time. I had been called into the ministry, had given my heart to the institutional church, did everything I could to conform to and respond to its demands, but it wasn’t enough; no matter how much I gave, it wasn’t enough; it couldn’t be enough because I wasn’t enough. Coming to terms with the truth hurt like hell, which is why by February 1998, when I still had four months to serve as pastor, I was pretty much fucked.
I’d called the piano tuner because I’d decided to normalize my life, and putting my house into order was the first step. My friend Molly and I were working together on the project at separate locations, I at my house, she a hundred miles away at her house. Our friendship arose at the intersection of our similarities and differences. We’d met at an interdenominational conference on preaching in 1995. I’m of average height with brown hair and green eyes; Molly is five feet ten inches, has red hair she usually keeps corralled in a ponytail, and eyes the same honest blue as Fred’s. I had grandchildren; she had three children under the age of six, two of them still in diapers. Even though she was younger than I, Molly knew much more about being a pastor. A seminary graduate at age twenty-four, she’d pastored three congregations since then. She’d become my guide, mentor, and salvation as I struggled with the complexities of a first pastorate. For instance, she could tell me without looking it up that yashab is the Hebrew word for “God sitting down in the temple in Jerusalem.” She knew when you officiate at your first funeral and don’t know what to do next, all you have to do is stand still and look pastoral, and the funeral director will give you a hand signal. She also knew that the day the church door closes behind you after you’ve preached your last sermon, your relationship with the congregation is severed as completely as though you’d never been there at all.
Between us, Molly and I had read every book in the public library on household organization. I leaned toward the analytical ones that begin with sentences like “First take all the clothes out of your closets, stack them on your bed, and go through them one at a time.” Molly, meanwhile, was immersed in Julia Cameron’s books, and she doesn’t remember if it was The Artist’s Way or The Vein of Gold from which she learned that the more you rid your life of things you don’t need, the more creative you can be. The thought reminded her of something she’d heard theologian Justo L. González say more than once when she studied with him in seminary.
“Have you heard of him?” she asked.
I had. His book The Story of Christianity was the text for my church-history classes, and I was also familiar with his three-volume series called A History of Christian Thought.
“González said if you have things you don’t want or need, you’re keeping them from their rightful possessors. He says we need to pass them out of our lives so they can reach the person they really belong to.”
I had a house full of things I neither wanted nor needed, but passing them out of my life wasn’t easy. You get used to living a certain way, surrounded by certain things that give you comfort even if they’re of no real use. I had to start my cleaning out with easy items. The first to go were the records, including the itemized inventory left over from a house fire we’d had in 1986. It was satisfying to rid myself of that reminder of the past, so I continued to sort through the papers hibernating in our three metal file cabinets. In one day I got rid of four feet and seven inches of outdated, unnecessary documents, papers, and journals.
Vitalized by success, I took on the family photographs stored upstairs, downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber. I collected photos for weeks and even then didn’t find them all. Six months later strays were still turning up at the back of dresser drawers or under couch cushions. I grouped the photos by decades, then by years, and then by months. I held intense conversations with myself about acid-free photo storage and finally bought a dozen albums at Wal-Mart, arranged the photos chronologically in them, wrote the corresponding years on the spines, and lined them up tidily on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the living room.
When I finished, I had a pile of leftovers, the ephemera of my life: grade-school report cards, college transcripts, wedding announcements, important church bulletins, newspaper clippings. I slid the papers into individual clear vinyl sheet protectors and put them all into a notebook. I bought a second notebook and filled it with paperwork from my family, including the after-Christmas thank-you notes my twin nephews sent me the year they were in first grade and a magazine article about my brothers restoration of a World War II airplane.
My next project was household artifacts. You’d be surprised how many things five children leave behind when they move into homes of their own. I shipped and/or delivered grade-school, high-school, and college yearbooks to their respective owners: Fred’s first wife’s sterling silver flatware and crystal stemware to her daughter; a scrapbook compiled, with much whining, as a school assignment by my younger daughter during the 1984 presidential election; a math book with a nineteen-stanza poem titled “It” written in the margins of chapters four through seventeen to one of Fred’s sons; and a sleeveless green organza dress my older daughter wore in the spring of 1969 when she was a pudgy orange-haired baby.
“Why are you getting rid of all these things?” asked Fred. (This from a man who kept the twenty-year-old receipt for a piano in the Active file in his bottom left-hand desk drawer.)
I told him cleaning out excess is said to be a sign of good mental health. The undertaking frees you up physically and emotionally, makes room for whatever new things the universe is brewing up for you. He knew I was ready to taste the new brew.
I didn’t tell Fred that I’d have thrown away the perfectly good piano, too, if I’d had that option. Did I mention the piano was only played one afternoon a year? Did I mention it was the most demanding piece of furniture I’d ever encountered? Pianos are delicate, I was told. Their backs have to be against walls, and not just any old wall will do. Pianos are like fragile elderly relatives; they favor inside walls where they’re safe from drafts, which means I’d never been able to rearrange the living room lest I disturb the Yamaha’s tranquillity.
I considered passing the piano on to one of Fred’s children, but there were complications. One of them lived two hours away, one eight hours away, and one on the other side of the country. To get the piano to any of them, I’d have to hire a truck and muscular movers and work out pickup and delivery times. Besides, none of the children had expressed a desire for this or any other piano.
My biggest problem, though, was Fred. He liked the piano. He thought it belonged to him.
I finally decided that if I was stuck with the damned thing, at least it was going to be in tune. I called Molly for the name of a piano tuner. She’d gone to a church yard sale the year before with ten dollars in her pocket. An hour later her pocket was empty, and she was wheeling home a Hobart M. Cable upright piano that had done service in a Sunday-school classroom for seventy or eighty years. When I asked her who tuned her piano, she’d given me Joe Turner’s phone number.
Much later, after I announced to my congregation that I was leaving, after I’d dyed my hair purple and had learned to play Tchaikovsky, I read The Music of the Spheres by Jamie James. The author says the ancient Greeks believed that “music and the human soul are both aspects of the eternal.” It’s a stirring thought, but when I called Joe Turner to come tune the piano, I could no longer deal with the eternal. It was enough to pare life down to the moment’s essentials. My hope in doing so was that I might once again be able to discern what was trivial and what, if anything, was redemptive. One of the essentials, since I couldn’t get rid of the piano, was to make sure it was used for the purpose for which it was intended, and so, after the piano-tuning Turners finished their work and went on their way, I joined Fred in the sunroom where he was watching a basketball game on television.
“Do you know what we’ve got in the living room?” I asked.
“A ten-thousand-dollar lamp stand.”
He nodded and kept watching television. Just to be friendly, I blew lightly on the top of his head and sent flying the few hairs that covered his bald spot. “Somebody needs to take piano lessons,” I said.
I expected Fred to jump on the idea. After all, he’d played “Rhapsody in Blue” in a recital forty-nine years earlier, when he was fourteen, and he’d always said that when he retired he was going to take up the piano again. Didn’t that make him the ideal candidate?
Fred thought not.
That left me.
Posted March 27, 2006
I bought this book a year ago as a result of Jill Conner Browne's review. I read a little over 100 pages and then took a break from it for some unknown reason. It's been calling to me ever since. I decided to finish reading it this past weekend. How glad I am!! The first 1/3 of the book was very good. The rest was extraordinary. Mary Jo's spirit and passion are alive and palpable. My advice? Read this book. You'll be glad you did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 26, 2004
This soaring memoir has moved me to tears, made my soul tremble, and made me realize that music was playing in my head throughout the entire time I read this book. It's not an overstatement to say that this book changed my life. I see grace everywhere.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2003
This is one of those most moving books I have ever read. It was recommended by Jill Connor Brown--the Sweet Potato Queen-- so I had to read it. Mary Jo tells of her work as a pastor in a struggling church. As she is working to build the church and maintain her own faith, she faces many obstacles. She tells her story with a great deal of humor and a strong spirit.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 28, 2003
This is the story of someone who lives a relatively ordinary life, but who keeps bumping into epiphanies about her relationship to God and the Christian church. Thinking herself unfit to be a member of the clergy, she wrestles with a call that to others appears to be undeniable. She becomes reconciled to her call and, as a grandmother, graduates from seminary to become a Methodist minister. The excerpts from her sermons display her talent as a writer and her insight as a pastor. I would recommend this book to anyone who may be struggling with a sense of call. Witty and delightfully written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 28, 2003
When asked for a cover blurb on 'Grace' by the publisher, I responded, 'Why would you want comments on a what looks like a 'chick book' from a throw-back, Neanderthal. It's not my kind of book. The title's a cliché and I hate touchy, feely, religious books that are long on emotion and short on experience and logic.' Their response, 'You may be surprised. We're trying to define the market. If you don't hate it, other more enlightened and thoughtful males may like it. 'And surprised I was--so much for my biases. When I began reading I couldn't put it down. The writer is both real and realistic. Her use of the English language is poetic and beautiful. In an era of banal memoir bombardment, her story is interesting, compelling, thought provoking, challenging and will touch a cord with in most of us--male and female alike. What she says may make us uncomfortable at times, but will also force us to think and assess our own views. One is compelled to keep turning pages to experience the beauty of her writing, as well as discover her reality-based approach to the challenges, traumas and disillusionments of life. In the process she provides a mirror in which many of us will see our own reflection.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.