Poem: Zither in the Night

Zither in the Night

Your mother taught piano to pretty much everyone
except you. Neighbors. Daughters. Church family.
All of them sat in our living room, music splayed out
learning the arcane magic of notes and rests and keys.

Somehow, you were resistant, content to sing
without knowledge, picking up nuances and notes
without discipline, and likely not as well
as you should. Still, music was an irresistible force

and it never occurred to you how much you missed.
Your ignorance was bliss as you sang, and later directed,
blindly believing if you could hear it, you could sing it,
you could teach it. Somehow it worked,

setting a pattern of launching into adventures
you were utterly unqualified for, somehow succeeding
as you fell down, building wings on the way down,
failing only when you were best prepared.

You still do not understand it,
but live long enough and you come to trust your madness,
and the universe, like a proud parent, never holds you to account,
but plays along, dancing as you sing, laughing

at the silly eccentricity of a man it has created,
clapping its hands to the music of a zither in the night.

About this poem.

I am a fan of old time radio programs, particularly the mysteries. One of my favorites is the “Harry Lime” series with Orson Welles, whose intro music is played on, of all things, a zither.

My mother did teach piano in my home when I was growing up. She had a baby grand, not nearly as ornate as the one in the picture, which lives in the Clark Museum in North Adams, Mass. I didn’t learn it from her, learning music only when I was 50 after years of singing and directing. It’s never too late.

I do have a habit of stumbling into success. I’ve never quite understood it, but like the poem says, you come to trust your madnesses.

From all those things, this poem.



  1. Tom, I’m envious that you play (pretending I haven’t read the post for November 18). The piano is my favorite musical instrument though I don’t play – my wife and son play. That you learned at 50 is admirable.

    I used to listen to my sister play when she came home from school. I could always determine how her day had gone as I listened – and even today as I listen to my wife. Always envious that they had such an escape.

    I was interested to learn that Philip Yancey was self-taught while attending college. He also finds escape there. I’ve come to recognize that I find my escape in my woodworking – accompanied by various pianists on my headphones. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing.

    • I am glad you have an escape. We all should. It is good for our soul. I may not have been clear in my writing. I learned to read music at 50, not play the piano. It helps in my singing (choir) and occasional directing. But on the piano? I am still a fumble fingers. Like you though, I love to listen to piano music.

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