Last December, I had a routine cleaning at the dentist. As I sat in the chair under the glaring lights, with my mouth full of five random pieces of hardware, the hygienist asked me what I did.

“Piano teacher,” I mumbled around the metal in my mouth. “What?” she said. “Piano. Piano.” I said, and mimed playing the piano. “Oh! Piano!” her eyes lit up in response. “That’s what I want for Christmas. I started to learn piano, but now I need to finish.”

. . . But now I need to finish . . . In all my years of telling strangers that I was a piano teacher, I have never heard someone say this, as if “finishing” was a possibility, right there within reach.

I live in a world where nothing is ever “finished.” The garden is never done, never completely weeded or watered, pruned or planted. There is always more music to be learned for the next performance, a stack of recordings I should listen to, a pile of teaching repertoire that needs to be played through. I always have a backlist of topics I want to explore on paper. The house is never totally cleaned, just moderately sorted out from time to time. A pile of books is always waiting to be read; the next meal always needs to be cooked; there are always new skills to teach. Nothing is ever “finished.”

But that is the practice, after all. There is something sacred about the repetition itself, the meaning in the doing. “It is when we most feel like we don’t need to practice that we have the chance to really deepen our work,” a friend and yoga teacher once told me. In other words, just when we feel like we are “finished” do we have the chance of really beginning.

I have been thinking about this all week. I have just finished my fourth week of teaching, in a new semester that feels like so many other fall semesters, except the kids are older and smarter and taller and funnier. And we all wear masks and wash our hands constantly. We have had our first round of performance classes (“Wait! Real people or just Zoom?” asked one jaded kid.) We are already thinking ahead to a possible fall recital (fingers crossed!). Rehearsals and dinner parties are being penciled into the calendar. In the garden I am cutting down tired sunflowers and harvesting the third (Fourth? Fifth?) round of golden cherry tomatoes. Soon it will be time to plant pansies in pots and tuck cheerful pumpkins in the corners and nooks of the courtyard. All over town, the smell of green chile being roasted reminds us that a New Mexico fall is imminent, despite the blazingly hot temperatures this week. We are, clearly, not at all “finished” around here.

Recently, there has been a lovely revolving door of former students visiting, eager for tea and conversation, processing out loud the world through their constantly evolving perspective. (“Amy! You have so many plants!” Yep, kid, I always did. But now they notice because houseplants are trendy and they are setting up adult living spaces of their own.) New eyes, one friend called it; the kids have new eyes. Suddenly the view from the piano bench they saw every week for their entire childhood takes on new significance and weight. I have discovered that it is not such a leap to shift from our years of “OK. So how did you practice this?” to “Tell me all about your life these days.” In fact, it’s the same thing, really. It’s all practice, the meaning in the details.

There is something to be said for the ordinary routines of our lives, the practices that we stay loyal to, day in and day out, far from any finish line or end goal. “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit,” said Nelson Henderson. I will never finish learning to play the piano to my satisfaction, or finish learning to be a wiser and more compassionate teacher and human being. I will never write the perfect paragraph or give a flawless recital. I will never be so brilliant at a workshop that I never need to give another one. There will always be an unfinished needlepoint project waiting by my chair. My garden will always have weeds, spent blooms, wilting leaves. Life here is so not finished.

But I hope that my dental hygienist got her wish, her Christmas present, her chance to “finish” her piano lessons, her chance to discover that, in the end, the real joy in the work comes when there is no finish line in sight.

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