In the autumn of my forty-third year, I remembered, quite unexpectedly, that I was meant to be a pianist.

I was alone in my car, on my way to spend a weekend with friends. I fumbled through a box of cassette tapes I kept on the front passenger seat, and found one my brother gave me: pianist Arthur Rubinstein performing Chopin waltzes. This might make a good soundtrack for the trip, I thought, and I pushed the cassette into the tape deck.

From the opening notes of Opus 18—quick, percussive repetitions of B-flat—the car seemed to rock in sympathy to the driving ¾-time beat, taken at a wildly joyous tempo. Rubinstein’s complete freedom within the music astonished me, and his abandonment to it was contagious—the music seemed to enter my pulse and carbonate my blood.

Meanwhile, through the windshield, Montana’s luminous Indian summer performed a fitting accompaniment: a sapphire sky hung behind the Elkhorn Mountains, where tawny grasses gleamed in the lowering sun. Quaking aspen lined the banks of the Boulder River; their burnished leaves turned up their bellies to the wind and trembled in unison, a ribbon of gold threading its way up the valley.

I found myself gripping the steering wheel, as if I were hanging on for the ride, gripped myself by a piano-induced rapture that was as sweet as it was searing.

This is all that I want to do with my life. These words arose as if from nowhere in my mind, astonishing me. This is all that I want to do with my life. They hit with the force of an inner directive that cannot be questioned. They arose again and again, as if rising on the swells of the music itself.

The beauty of the day intensified the heartbreak: I felt as if I’d missed an urgent and critical appointment that could never be rescheduled. I had reached my own autumn, and the leaves would soon fall. How then, could I devote my life to the piano?

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