How a Painting and a Piano Inspired Me to Pay Attention

This post was originally published on The Drake‘s blog, April 27, 2016.

Painting in my hotel room at the Drake Devonshire

As a writer, details are important. So, I was beside myself when I realized that a landscape painting hanging in my hotel room suddenly revealed a great white shark, its jaw wide open, sharp white teeth exposed. I had glanced at the painting several times throughout the day. How had I missed the shark? What else had I been missing by not paying attention? I decided to retrace my steps and walked through the Drake Devonshire again, this time determined to pay greater attention. I sat at the bar fighting any urges to get up and do something. Why did I constantly feel a self-imposed pressure to stay busy? Then, I realized the longer I stayed in one place, the more I noticed: the scent of lemons and limes combined with dishwasher detergent lingering in the air, the squeak of chairs on wooden floors behind me.

I stepped outside. The lake was sparkling with the sun’s rays directly over it. I closed my eyes. Again, I fought the urge to move on and tried to stay in the moment. I heard rushing water, the wind, voices. Nearby, on the lawn, was a piano. After being left outside and exposed to every season, it looked like a ghost. I read the inscription: Piano Listening to Itself. I close my eyes. Again, I heard the stream. The wind. Then, I remembered a promise I had made once-upon-a-time to an old friend, now lost to me.

“Piano Listening to Itself”

I met Cathy while we were undergrads at the University of Toronto. I was the type of student who sat at the front of the class, but she insisted that the back was the best place to be: “It’s the only way you’ll see everyone and everything.” Before long, I found myself in the last row of all my Sociology classes. Together we survived long hours of lectures. Cathy had a keen eye for fashion and would make it a point to observe the quirkiest details about how some of our professors dressed. She especially hated white socks with black shoes and threw invisible darts at anyone who committed this fashion faux pas.

We celebrated our twentieth birthday over ten cent wings and cheap beer at the Sticky Wicket, a pub on Spadina Avenue across from the university. Cathy joked that we would celebrate our thirtieth birthday in better fashion, in a gourmet French restaurant, and for our fortieth birthday, after she had travelled the world and I had written a bestseller, we would celebrate by sipping real champagne in Paris, France, under the glittering night lights of the Eiffel Tower.

In the summer of 2008, Cathy and I took our much anticipated trip to Europe in celebration of our fortieth birthday. Our trip didn’t begin without a few glitches. We were in the air already when the pilot announced that one of the engines wasn’t working, and so Cathy and I would have to sit in darkness for the entire six hours that it would take us to get to London. While the other half of the plane enjoyed TV and movies-on-demand, Cathy and I couldn’t even turn our overhead lights on to see what Air Canada was feeding us for dinner.

But Cathy, her spirit undaunted, thought that our descent into darkness was the perfect opportunity to discuss and plan how we would celebrate our fiftieth birthdays. She thought Africa sounded intriguing. The woman in the next aisle agreed that it was an excellent idea and suggested a Kenyan safari. She told us that safari meant ‘long journey’ in Swahili – which would be fitting for two old friends celebrating their fiftieth birthday. The gentleman in front of us suggested the Egyptian pyramids but to avoid it during the summer months because it got terribly hot.  By the time we got to Heathrow Airport, Cathy had befriended half the plane in spite of the fact that she couldn’t see any of them in the darkness!

London was cold and wet. But Cathy didn’t notice the rain. Everything, from Buckingham Palace to the ‘look left’ and ‘look right’ signs painted on the streets, delighted her. However, when we finally got to Paris, her initial reaction to the Eiffel Tower was: “That’s it?”, which made us laugh like school girls. One of my favourite memories was toasting our friendship, drinking champagne as we looked upon a glittering blue Eiffel Tower sparkling against the night sky. I can still hear Cathy’s voice saying, “Isn’t life amazing?”

That night Cathy and I had some of our most random conversations ever. At one point, she turned to me and said, “You’re the English major: what does it mean exactly to ‘kick the bucket?’” I was impressed by the long list of euphuisms she knew to describe dying. Then she asked me what I wanted to be remembered for after I died. “A writer, of course,” I told her. I wanted to be known for my thousand bestselling novels. When I asked her what she wanted, she simply stated, “I’d want people to remember me as a happy person.”

A few months after our trip Cathy grew ill, and after a short and brutal battle with a rare cancer, she passed away. She had been my best friend for over twenty years. During one of our final conversations, as she lay in her hospital bed, she expressed her deep regret at not being around to see my first novel be published one day. “Promise me,” she said, “that when you get your big chance, you’ll remember to sit at the back of the class. That way, you’ll see everything. Just remember to pay attention so you can appreciate it.”

Pay attention. By the time I drove away from the Drake Devonshire, I was convinced the place was a poem, a song, art itself. It demanded time and tranquillity to appreciate everything it had to offer. Guests, if we allowed it, could step into magical places like the Glass Room where apple-green and pink elephant-shaped chairs greeted us and old pianos played lost tunes, but only if we stopped to listen.

2 Comments on “How a Painting and a Piano Inspired Me to Pay Attention

  1. Ann, it’s hard to believe she’s not around to celebrate another birthday. Do you remember the barbecue she whipped up before you went to Europe? I have never laughed so hard! At one point, we were in tears, saying just the craziest things and suggesting potential plots for your upcoming book… I’m so glad she came to visit me in Greece before heading back to Canada. At the airport, I couldn’t hold back my tears as we were saying goodbye. It was the last time I saw her.

    When she fell ill, I remembered that birthday and a greek saying: “…tears of laughter are followed by tears of sorrow…”

    Love, Evie

    • Thanks Evie for sharing this. Even as far back as 1988, she was telling me, “You’ve got to write. Tell your stories.” I’ll always be grateful to her. It breaks my heart a little each time I think about finally getting my big publishing break in 2012, two years after she passed away. I miss her.

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