The Piano – and the painful goodness of letting go

The Piano – and the painful goodness of letting go October 24, 2012

I didn’t know on Saturday night that they’d be the last notes I’d play on it.  I sat down a few minutes before a woman came in response to our Craig’s list ad and touched the keys with a tune I made up on the fly.  It’s what I do best with pianos.  Those pesky notes from Bach or Mozart have always felt too confining for me.  So I simply sit and play, letting the music well up from my soul and pour out over the keys.  I’ve done that multiple hundreds of times on this piano.  It’s been a friend.  Like a good counselor, my piano’s drawn the depths of joy and sorry out from my soul and given them a voice.

Donna came in while I was playing, a bit emotional, because this kind of playing is part of us.  I wooed this woman with a piano about 35 years ago.  “Here – I wrote this just for you” I said, lying, as I played whatever came forth while she, starry eyed soaked it in.  She’s been my muse ever since.

“This piano was our first purchase” Donna told the meticulously dressed Georgian woman (from the other Georgia, where the accent is Russian) as she ran her fingers over the keys, playing the instrument better than I ever did, ever could.

“Pianos have energy” she said, before telling us about a lovely piano that she’d never allow in her home “even if it were given to me for free” as she went on to explain the dark things that had happened in that piano’s household, with that piano’s people.  “The energy the instrument picks up in a home never goes away” she said, “which is why I select my pianos very carefully.  You’ve brought positive energy to this piano” she said confidently, and we agreed, telling her that young adults from all over the world had often sung songs around that piano late into the night when we lived in the mountains.

That, of course, was just the tip of the iceberg.  That piano brought lots of people together:  my sister (with the voice of an angel) and me; a young girl who lived with us for a summer with whom I collaborated on a music project.  Later, in Seattle, my children would pick up their instruments (viola, violin, drums, sometimes guitar) and we’d riff on a Sunday afternoon together, or a some nondescript weeknight when one of my children just needed to be with me, and music worked better than words.  Like a good climbing rope, the piano kept us connected at times.

“I’ll let you know early next week” she says, as she walks out the door.  I sort of forgot about it because of, you know, Sunday and preaching and all that stuff.  Then there was a fun family gathering Monday night, and some profound nostalgia because of Giants Baseball (which never gets out of your blood), after which I headed to the mountains for three days of intensive study.  I’ve been in administrative mode for much of the summer, and this 3 day window was just what I needed to restore through the disciplines of study and solitude.

Tuesday – Late Afternoon.  I’m finished with a productive day of study when the phone rings and my wife haltingly says “I’ve sold the piano – and they’ll be picking it up tomorrow”.  Grief hits me like a punch in the stomach as I realize that I’ll never play it again.  When we’re finished talking I head out the door into the late afternoon light.  I need to breathe, to know a bit of good grief as I let this sink in.

I drive from our mountain place to a nearby trial.  Vibrant colors on the trees, fresh snow on the mountains, as muted light penetrates the opaque clouds – my heart nearly breaks for the beauty of it. I’m thinking about the piano and more, as I leave the car for my short mile walk around the pond. After a moment of initial clarity, the clouds lower, and macro is eclipsed by micro.  It’s as if all I can see are leaves, the colors, and what I named “the vibrancy of loss”.  

“Listen to the leaves” a voice says to my heart – “they’ve something to say – just for you.” 

I head down the path and think about the early days of our marriage, and our investment in that beautiful instrument.  I was going to be a church musician, and might have been except that I picked up a book on our honeymoon that lit my heart on fire with a passion to know God as a good friend, maybe even a lover of sorts.  Soon my love of music was eclipsed by my love of study.  Still, the composer in me never died, and when I became a pastor, I played piano and led worship a lot.  After all, I led a church of about 40, and after that a house church.  Piano players are hard to come by, and so I was always, at the very least, waiting in the wings as the constant understudy.  I loved it.

If truth is told though, my days of playing are mostly gone.  I still sit to play, even now, on very hard or very good days.  But mostly the piano had become furniture, and when the Georgian woman said with her precisely beautiful Russian accent, “I will use this piano to teach many children how to love music and play well – with heart and feeling”, I knew the time had come to say goodbye.  After all, that’s what I’m doing in all my other lives.

I’m letting go of my children, as one goes off to Europe, another gets married, and another blossoms into independence so beautifully that I cry when I think about her.  I’m shedding my grip on sole leadership as the big cheese teacher in the church lead – not because I’m tired, but out of a strong conviction that passing the torch is the way life is supposed to work.  It’s good letting go but, my God – it’s painful at the same time.  I know this in the rest of life and now, it seems, my piano has become the embodiment of this season of appropriate, beautiful, and challenging change.

These are the things I’m thinking when the leaves begin to speak.  And here’s what the leaves say:

Letting go isn’t just good – it’s inevitable.  Don’t fight it.  I look at a sapling who’s leaves have all surrendered, except four stubborn ones.  They’ll hang on, it appears, until an arctic wind utterly weakens them and forces their surrender.  It’s like they’re wishing it was March, when the children were ten and innocent, or when I was ten and sitting with my dad at a Giant’s baseball game.  Ah… spring.  Innocence.  Childhood.  The vibrancy of youth.  You can let it go, or fight it with liposuction, a new trophy wife, a paranoid grip on power, a perpetual look in the rearview mirror; or you can let your life ripen properly and walk into the glory of autumn, letting old identities, or possessions drop appropriately away.  Choose to hang on though, and you’ll let go anyway – it’s just that the letting go will be uglier and more painful than had you surrendered your death grip on that which God wants to so gently remove from you.  I look at these leaves and pray that I’ll say yes to every letting go God asks of me.

There’s a matchless beauty in the autumn of life.  My life feels more like August than October, but who knows?  What I do know is that for the leaves I love, in this month I love, the final days are glorious.  God doesn’t marginalize old and tired leaves – setting them away somewhere out of sight so that all the beautiful people can enjoy the prominence of youth and power, even though both are as transient as a bus and less reliable.  Why not elevate the beauty of wisdom which, like the leaves of autumn, inspire, elevate, and point to their creator?  I look at these leaves and pray that my last days will be the best, the wisest, the most beautiful of all – that I’ll still be a blessing to the very end.

You’re deciduous, not conifer.  I look at the two trees, in obvious contrast, and think about how we long to be conifers:  perpetually green – always strong, always giving, always…always.  I look beyond the fir tree though and see the other, ripened, beautiful colors, knowing full well it’s about to shed some of it’s life.  “That’s you” says the tree, and pray a prayer of thanks – grateful that I don’t always need to be on, or strong, or green – grateful for Sabbath, and shedding, and rest.

Your letting go will be a blessing.  I look at the ground, at the leaves that have already fallen.  I know that their decay will enrich the soil, which will enrich the new young trees, which will enrich the air, and the fowl, and the watershed, and the whole blessed earth.  I pick up a leaf and say to it, “because you let go – everything’s enriched.”  In a flash, I see children playing piano, some of whom will themselves grow up to bless countless others (for this Georgian lady is a master teacher).

I see new pastors teaching in the church I lead, learning to walk with God, be a blessing in this world, and multiply the presence of hope in our world.  I see my children taking their place at the table as adults, each blessing the world in tangible ways.  “Yes” I say to myself, “it’s good let go” – of old roles, of possessions, of power, of wealth.  Don’t let go too soon.  But in season, when the leaves turn glorious colors, know that God is laying the foundation for a new chapter – and this too will be glorious.  I pray, grateful that in the wisdom of God, our losses and letting go become the soil of blessing for others.

Before it’s dark, I’m back at the chalet with a long list of things to do.  There are lots of green leaves still on the tree that is my life:  pastor/ teacher/ leader/ dad/ husband/ mentor/skier/ hiker/climber.  But it’s been a priceless walk around the lake because I’m less afraid of the changing colors.  Having known a few of them already on the tree that is my life, I’ve been reminded today that in the mercy of God, even losses and times of letting go become blessings.

For a fuller set of pictures from the pond walk, click here.



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  • Pattie Parker

    beautiful posting. Very timely, and I can relate well to your thoughts. You put them into words beautifully.

  • Thanks. That hit home with were I am with my life too. Thanks for the insight. I had mild chills the whole time reading this.

  • Paul Loeffler

    I hated reading this. Of course, I’m sad to hear that the piano is leaving, too, but that’s obviously not the point. I hate it because I suspect I’m trying to hang on when God’s wanting to change my season, too, and I’m really trying to figure out what it all means, and what the next season will look like before I let go… and, as you know, one can’t do that. One must simply let go and trust that the one who controls the seasons, and loves me more than I love my children, will do what’s best for me. But I enjoy being what I’ve been, and I certainly would rather be a conifer. So, I struggled to read this, all the while being very thankful that you wrote it, as it encourages me to let go. I’m reminded of a story from Pooh, where they’re raking leaves, and Owl has to go up and coax one to come down off the tree. Maybe you’re my Owl. Thanks, Richard… I think. And, of course, now that I’ve written all this, God’s going to hold me accountable to actually let go. There’s no plausible deniability. Rats… or Praise Him!

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    and thanks to you too… for playing it all those years in the mountains!

  • Alice Abell

    Thank you Richard for your beautiful story. I’m in the winter of life now, and find that there is beauty and purpose in this season also. So good to know you are still serving and pointing others to our Lord.

  • Peter Olson

    Thank you…an absolute treasure to read this morning in addition to my “usual” morning meditation/devotions. As a change management/org development person, this writing is something I’d love to utilize, with your permission, when speaking w/ individuals/organizations about change, transition, and succession planning. Transition/s are challenging, but change is a human thing, while transformation comes only through God…this is yet another form of God continuing to “transform” you through His/Her great plan. I can picture young children being taught the beauty of music through the new owner and being inspired, uplifted, and experiencing God’s transformation through what you have let go and passed on…THANK YOU for being you…

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    thanks for the encouragement and of course you may use the story. I only ask that your reference the source at

  • Peter Olson

    Gracias mi amigo. Have a fabulous day – I heard sunshine is a great possibility!

  • kalim

    Said Nursi had proved the existence of God in his books.
    I want to share some part From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi (23th word)

    Man is such an antique work of art of Almighty God. He is a most subtle and graceful miracle of His power whom He created to manifest all his Names and their inscriptions, in the form of a miniature specimen of the universe. If the light of belief enters his being, all the meaningful inscriptions on him may be read. As one who believes, he reads them consciously, and through that relation, causes others to read them. That is to say, the dominical art in man becomes apparent through meanings like, “I am the creature and artefact of the All-Glorious Maker. I manifest His mercy and munificence.” That is, belief, which consists of being connected to the Maker, makes apparent all the works of art in man. Man’s value is in accordance with that dominical art and by virtue of being a mirror to the Eternally Besought One. In this respect insignificant man becomes God’s addressee and a guest of the Sustainer worthy of Paradise superior to all other creatures.
    However, should unbelief, which consists of the severance of the relation, enter man’s being, then all those meaningful inscriptions of the Divine Names are plunged into darkness and become illegible. For if the Maker is forgotten, the spiritual aspects which look to Him will not be comprehended, they will be as though reversed. The majority of those meaningful sublime arts and elevated inscriptions will be hidden. The remainder, those that may be seen with the eye, will be attributed to lowly causes, nature, and chance, and will become utterly devoid of value. While they are all brilliant diamonds, they become dull pieces of glass. His importance looks only to his animal, physical being. And as we said, the aim and fruit of his physical being is only to pass a brief and partial life as the most impotent, needy, and grieving of animals. Then it decays and departs. See how unbelief destroys human nature, and transforms it from diamonds into coal.

  • This touched me deeply. I hear you.
    So much of art, music, and poetry is learning to leave spaces, observe rests, and reserve words. So much of maturity is learning to leave spaces, observe rests, and reserve words. The pursuit of God means a lifetime of seasons of receiving and seasons of letting go.
    Thank you for this.
    (The young man who bought my piano just won the award for top singer/songwriter at the Country Music awards. Country. Who knew?)

  • Joe

    As one in the Autumn of life, I truly appreciated your thoughts. As a longtime Cardinal fan, I have to admit that your Giants were and are awesome in the Autumn of this baseball season. God has recently challenged me in the Psalms to not “finish my years with a sigh” Psalm 90:9, but to remain “still yielding fruit in old age” Psalm 92:14. You have reminded us that we can be fruitful while letting go, in fact letting go is exactly the attitude God needs to maintain our fruitfulness. I want to finish strong, but to do so I will remember that in my weakness, He is strong.

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    Thanks for the encouragement and for the shout out to the Giants… they’ve become a story in their own right – my next blog post perhaps. I’ve been intrigued to see how this piano post spoke to the younger generation too, as they ponder a life full of change. The privilege of speaking into their lives and walking with them is both a privilege, and a calling I pray more older folk will embrace.

  • Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. We, as a society, tend to hold things very tightly and letting go is extremely difficult. Learn and Grow plus Letting Go ~ God’s theme for our lives this year ~ and what a year it’s been… Rejoicing in the many lessons and unexpected blessings that He has allowed us to receive!

    You’ve shared so eloquently, through words, what I could only hope to verbalize. Thank you for blessing my day and enriching my life. God is good. All the time.