By Carole Greenfield, Mikveh Guide
The other day, on my way to yoga class, and again the next morning, I saw a woman playing a piano. Outside. I watched her work the pedals and press the keys, her fingers moving confidently. She didn’t look up. I didn’t interrupt her. I have seen one or two other pianos around town, pianos that were deliberately left outside for anyone to play, should the mood strike. Whimsically and cheerfully decorated on pretty much every surface, each comes with a tarp and a sign requesting that players please cover up the piano before nightfall.
It never occurred to me until that evening to wonder why the pianos were there, or if this was a phenomenon limited to the town where I work and practice yoga. I lived in this town for nine years and never saw any outdoor pianos during that time, so this must be a more recent development, I’m thinking. Either that or I am simply oblivious, and while I will fully admit to many faults, flaws, and foibles, obliviousness to quixotic elements of my environment is not one of them.
I did a little research on the internet and learned that, according to a March 5, 2017 article in The Newtonite, it is actually an international project which “props pianos in public areas in large cities all over the world, bearing the simple instruction, ‘Play Me I’m Yours.’”
What a splendidly off-beat idea! How can you not love the thought of a free piano, just waiting for you to play it, no instructor standing by to correct your mistakes, no pre-requisites, no judgment. Anyone can play, and apparently, many do, from accomplished musicians to complete novices. These two mornings were the first time I heard anyone playing songs, and I don’t know if they were melodies composed by the players themselves or not. It didn’t matter. Someone was sending live music out into the morning sunshine, and I got to benefit from their generosity, as well as that of the person who donated the piano, to say nothing of the people who got it there.
How often do we offer ourselves up that generously? No, don’t get the wrong idea, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I mean is, how often do we willingly offer up our services, our full attention, our precious time, our loving care? How often do we give of ourselves without resentment, without wanting to be elsewhere? And yet, what a gift it is when we are able to do so.
There’s one place where I can achieve this goal on a regular basis. I try to do it four times a month, and generally manage to. During the school year, I can only do it at night, but on school breaks, I tend to choose daytime shifts, so I can be there in the natural light. Are you intrigued yet? If you don’t know me at all, then I’d feel perfectly confident in offering you three guesses, knowing you’d never figure it out. But if you’ve known me for a while, you may already know that I serve as a Mikveh Guide. A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath. My role as a Mikveh Guide is to serve as a witness, and while I am doing so, I am there completely for the person immersing in the mikveh. It has nothing to do with me; I leave my problems, worries, concerns — my mishegas (foolishness, nonsense), in other words — at the door. It will be waiting there for me when I leave… and if it isn’t, so much the better.
It is remarkable how consistently performing this service changes me for the better. Every single time I have served as a Guide — and I’ve been doing this for close to 12 years now — I leave with my spirit uplifted, and feeling as though I had done something of meaning with my time. In other words, I had been of service. I hadn’t thought about myself. Maybe that’s what it is — taking yourself out of yourself, being fully present for another person, putting their needs, their emotional well-being, before your own.
Now, I’m sure for all you parents out there, this is not a revolutionary concept, not by a long shot. Perhaps it is because I don’t have children that I find the experience so transformative. Perhaps it is because when I do it, it is always by my own choice. It is completely voluntary, and always appreciated by someone there. One of the other Guides once put it something like this: “Everywhere else in my life, I’m not such a nice person. But at the mikveh, I get to be my best self.” I often feel the same way.
Maybe my father was right when he said there was no such thing as true altruism. Even when we are at our most selfless, we get something back: the gift of presence.
Carole Greenfield is an ESL teacher in Massachusetts. When not working with children, she enjoys practicing yoga, puttering about in her garden, and going on walks with her husband. She’s been a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim since December 2006.