OPINION | GWEN FAULKENBERRY: A simple journey to joy

I wrote earlier about how my hometown of Ozark worked together to build a Performing Arts Center for our school children, complete with a beautiful black Steinway piano we call the Precious.

Because the PAC and piano belong to all of us, the townspeople enjoy them as well on occasions like a recent community concert, where I was invited to perform. The lady who asked me graduated from high school with my mom, went to college and became a teacher, and came back to Ozark to invest herself at home.

Andrea does many things around here as an unofficial ambassador for high culture. I am incapable of telling her no. So I agreed to play an arrangement of the theme from "Ice Castles" while some dancers shared the stage. It was something Andrea remembered me playing as a kid, and not very strenuous to get ready.

A week or so before the event, the dancers canceled. So there I was with this piddly little piece. On the program with a retired virtuoso from New York, an un-retired world-traveling master from Japan, the best professional accompanist in Arkansas, and the cardboard piano girl (see last week's column) who grew up to be a composer and artist unlike any other church pianist I've ever known. "I cannot do this," I told Andrea. "You'll be fine," she said.

I tried to resurrect one of my classical songs from the glory days of high school. What I learned: Playing the piano is not like riding a bike. It is more like running a marathon. Decades after winning the Boston, you may still be a decent runner, and you may remember the feeling of soaring across the finish line. You might even train for months or years and be able to run it again with your grandchild just for fun.

But if you haven't played Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" in 20-plus years, it ain't going to be concert ready in a week. Not going to happen.

I sat backstage with my friend Toby Hogan, who was the emcee for the occasion. After hearing the other pianists I told him there was no way I could go out there, to tear my page out of his little emcee book and go on to the next person.

He is an insurance salesman and lay preacher and he said, "That's fine, but let me tell you a story." He shared about delivering the worst sermon he ever had, and feeling like a heel, and looking up from his notes and seeing a woman in the pew crying.

After the service, she thanked him for his message and how it met a need she had that morning. Toby peered at me and shrugged. Then he got up and announced the next performer. By the time he came backstage I had decided it was wrong for me to drop out at the last minute. Andrea was counting on me. My kids were there. What kind of example would that be?

I girded up my loins, stepped in front of the curtain, and walked across the stage to the Precious. I tried to pretend it was just us.

After the concert my kids were proud of me. My mother was too, even as she explained to her friends I had not had time to prepare something better. My fifth-grade teacher said she liked my kind of music better than classical stuff anyway. The reception had a festive spirit--people celebrating a love of music, a sense of neighborly connection. I felt happy.

I believe joy came to me because I showed up. When I heard the real pianists play I was pre-emptively embarrassed. I am prideful and vain and did not want to be the worst pianist in the concert. So I almost dropped out.

But I thought about my friend Toby, who says he's not a real pastor but serves at his church because they need someone. I always see Toby at stuff like this in the community because everyone counts on him to lead. Toby shows up.

I thought about Andrea, who organizes trivia nights, leads the handbell choir, supported me when I ran for office, and works in the flowerbeds around the square. Where would Ozark be without her? Andrea Romo shows up.

I thought about my kids, my mom, and my friends, who showed up at that concert for me. And I thought about how I am always writing and teaching and talking to anyone who will listen about people doing their part. How everyone is needed if we're going to have a state we can be proud of. That we all have something to contribute. All it really takes to make a difference is the willingness to show up, and keep showing up for each other, day after day.

We don't have to be professionals. We do not even have to be good at it. The worst helper is way more help than the one who doesn't show up. The one who contributes the least gives more than the one who gives nothing.

We all have our widow's mite, our Ice Castles. And when we all show up together and do our part, however big or small, there's joy and connection. Great things can happen.

Gwen Ford Faulkenberry is an English teacher and editorial director of the non-partisan group Arkansas Strong. (http://arstrong.org) Email her at [email protected].