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Elan Vitae


  • Paige Nolan


My husband, Boyd, started taking piano lessons a few years ago. It was one of the ways he spent his time in 2020, when the pace of travel and in-person work meetings downshifted and our California lifestyle became more restricted to home life. He channeled his creative energy into mastering the keys, partnered with a brilliant teacher named Bernard, and took his focus away from what he couldn’t control – and put it towards the chord progressions and pedal pressure that he could.

Boyd would describe himself as “competent” on the piano but to me, he has become quite proficient. His playing is often beautiful – plus, it’s become the sound in our home that signifies the end of a workday and the beginning of an evening.

I’ve become attached to this sonic ritual. Boyd emerges from his home office, cracks a cold beer or pours a scotch on the rocks, makes his way to the piano bench, sits tall and stretches his fingers before he rolls them softly and loosely through a series of warm up exercises.  And then, he plays.  There are some starts and stops, lots of blunders and curse words and an enormous amount of repetition that gets annoying to hear over time but then – the breakthrough. That’s the moment when I’m folding clothes or baking chicken and the song he’s struggled with for months flows from him like a best performance from a Kennedy Center Honors tribute night. These songs steal my breath – for a moment, I am awash with full-body-gratitude – because music is transporting. And to witness someone’s path to mastery is inspiring, especially someone you love.

Every now and then, I reach for my phone to video Boyd’s piano playing.

I know he doesn’t like to be recorded, so I sneak around walls and crouch in corners to catch his playing from a distance, behind where he sits. I want him to look back and see how far he has come on the keys.

I wish I could report that I’ve successfully captured one of his most recent beautifully played songs, but so far, I have yet to get a video where some other sounds didn’t corrupt the music.

And those sounds are the brash tones of conflict. This is family life. Boyd plays. And in the background, the teenagers bicker. The dogs scuffle over a bone. Irritation is flung from one person to the next – in words, in looks, sometimes in physical shoves or pushes. Someone takes a bite of someone’s food without asking. Rude!  Someone asks someone to do something like get a document from the printer or retrieve a sweatshirt that was left in the car in our driveway – that person says no. Idiot!  Someone accuses someone of being gross and that someone reacts. She Thinks She Is The Main Character!

We have three teenagers close in age – twin girls who are 17 years old and a boy who is just about 15 years old – and as far as family dynamics go, these kids have a strong emotional bond. They have a great “vibe” together, overall. But after a full day of social conformity, best-behaving at their Catholic schools, they can lead with their short-tempers and fragile egos. I get it. My sister and I had our conflicts when we lived together, too. I monitor the arguments with a neutral face. I intervene only when I need to remind someone of human decency – but mostly, I let the kids work it out. I (intellectually) know conflict is a great life skill and it can, ultimately, make them closer with each other.

Still, I find it (emotionally) jarring.

Their harsh words steal my breath – for a moment, I am awash with anxiety – because discord distracts me.

The arguments, as benign or concerning as they may, derail my ability to be at peace.

I am at conflict with their conflict.

They shouldn’t be speaking to each other this way. It’s so ugly. What if they grow up to be assholes? What if they are assholes now – have I dropped every parenting ball I thought I caught?

And while I’m listening to the insults flying about the kitchen – it all sounds even more foul set to the tune of the most lovely music from the piano.

Until I listen differently.

I had a great conversation with my friend, Scott Levin, recently for a podcast episode.

I wanted to understand what Scott has learned about conflict as an attorney who has practiced family law and now exclusively, divorce mediation, for over two decades.

When I ask Scott to help me understand the key to resolving a conflict – he tells me the most important part of resolving conflict is, “the desire to resolve the conflict.”

It seems obvious but actually claiming that desire and stating what you really, really want can be difficult for people in conflict. They are often too busy feeling, too busy blaming – in my case, too busy thinking in black and white.

Boyd’s piano playing is “good” – the kids’ having their disputes is “bad.”

With my professional work as a life coach, I am trained to observe this kind of limited thinking – I am keen to challenge my clients’ absolutes – and yet, I slip into this cognitive trap seamlessly.

Our minds can easily embrace simple beliefs – right or wrong, success or failure, flawless or botched – it’s easy to understand. It’s also a recipe for mental distress. When we live in the extremes, we miss the middle ground. We can’t see the variations of color that exist beyond and between good and bad – and that means we miss the beauty of where we live.

One person has to take the high road, Scott tells me during our conversation. This is also an important part of resolving conflict. Someone has to be willing to disengage when the conversation devolves.

That someone is me.

After my conversation with Scott, I uncover a new resolve inside of myself – the choice to rise to a new perspective because I want to be at peace in my family life, and I don’t need the kids or the dog or the husband or anyone else to do anything else for me to make this choice.

The only thing I need is a nice long open-minded stretch.

Psychologists call this “cognitive flexibility” and it’s the answer to those polarizing thoughts that keep us at the extreme edges of our experiences, keep us out of the dated beliefs that could actually helps us embrace our changing realities.

Cognitive flexibility is our ability to adapt our thinking – and our behavior – in response to the situation and environment. When we are flexible in this way, we perceive differently – we get more information – and that leads to new connections and creative solutions. We can solve problems in ways we didn’t see before we stretched to see differently, or…to hear differently.

Last night, Boyd was in the flow and I decided to grab my phone for a video.  About 30 seconds in to the take, our daughter Ryan rips out a low, guttural shout of her sister’s name, Mimi – which is mostly how Ryan says Mimi’s name from across the house when she’s pissed at her. In the past, I would have stopped recording. It disrupts the song.

But, in my flexed, open mind, I stayed focused, present to Boyd’s music.

I didn’t respond to the conflict. I didn’t know if Mimi was going to shout back, but I did see that Boyd was unfazed and I quietly listened through the last note of the song.

I walked across the house to find Ryan in the laundry area, sitting on the ground in front of the washing machine, throwing Mimi’s wet laundry into the air hoping some will land in the dryer. “She was supposed to switch her clothes so I could start mine,” Ryan tells me.

“Watch this,” I hold out my cell phone.

The moment she hears the first note of the piano, she smiles  - she knows what’s coming. When it gets to her angry outburst of Mimi’s name we can’t stop laughing. It sounds like a growl. “Play it again,” she says to me. And we laugh just as hard again, and one more time after that.

Boyd’s journey to musical mastery is worth recording – it’s a piece of his personal history that he may want to relive one day. Our children will certainly cherish the footage when they are Boyd’s age and they can better appreciate the discipline it takes to learn an instrument.

And there is something else worth recording  – something beyond the heartbreak of a minor chord or the triumph of a crescendo – something that is not disruptive or corruptive or opposite of the goodness of music.

Something that is real – and sounds like the sounds of us, today.

A dog shaking her head, another dog barking, a basketball bouncing against the glass window and our son yelling “sorry!”, daughters shrieking in the kitchen with their friends, or saying “shut up” to each other even though I have insisted we don’t speak to each other that way in this family. Well, obviously, sometimes we do.  And it’s recorded. So I guess our best move now is to decide our videos are proof of a good life and only a mind flexible and willing enough to stretch can hear how good that goodness sounds.

Photo credit:

Photo by Gabriel Gurrola on Unsplash


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