Songs for My Eyes

Piano - 08

Sailing piano on the Racetrack Playa.

Synchronicity: (n.) the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

Followers of this blog know how dependent I am upon the kindness of strangers. I couldn’t write authentically about sabotaging toilets, applying for the novitiate, blowing up coal mines, working as a reader in a Cuban cigar factory, or hauling a 560 lb piano through Death Valley in order to photograph it without input from subject matter experts.

When I started writing THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO, I looked for photographers who’d spent time in Death Valley National Park to ask advice. I’m an okay photographer, but I’d never been to the park, and I’d never imagined the opportunities and obstacles that one would encounter there, especially with an upright Blüthner in tow.

Cliffs on the road to Badwater.

Cliffs on the road to Badwater.

Inspired by the Hammers and Strings series by Clayton Austin, I found and then reached out to professional photographers John Batdorff and Staci Prince, who’d run several workshops in Death Valley. They generously, graciously answered my many questions. With their help—and that of my talented friend (and middle school classmate) Andy Biggs—I put together my characters’ itinerary, and started writing.

But imagining a setting like Death Valley is one thing. Relying on other peoples’ photos and Google Earth and travel accounts. Actually being there is quite another. And that’s where the synchronicity comes in.

Carl Jung describes the phenomenon of synchronicity in his book, THE STRUCTURE AND DYNAMICS OF THE PSYCHE:

“A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me her dream, I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”

Piano - 03

Entering Death Valley.

I had already written much of the book when I learned that John and Staci had just one spot left in their workshop that would go the exact week in November that Clara and Greg were there. Actually, the exact four days. And out of the 3 million acres that the park comprises, they had chosen to visit the very same places that I had already written about. In a place known for its extremes, any other time and place wouldn’t have allowed me to experience what my characters have: the hour and angle of the moonset (4:50 PM 72° ENE the night we arrived, 8:09 PM 68° ENE the day we left), or the fine clay silt that covered my clothes when I lay down on the Racetrack Playa to photograph one of the sailing rocks, or the wind chill atop Dante’s Peak, or the two hours of teeth-chattering vibration down a 27-mile washboarded road.

Piano - 01

Liberachnid plays Rhyolite Ghost Town.



I bought a tiny metal pencil sharpener shaped like a piano with a moveable lid on an auction site in the UK, and I took it with me to all the sites where Greg had already photographed Clara’s Blüthner. In the photos I took, it doesn’t look like a full-size piano, but pretending it was certainly made for an interesting exercise.

It was as though I stepped out of my life for a few days—a scarab flying through an open window—and stepped into the pages of my book. Life imitating (and hopefully improving) art in a most synchronistic way.