This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. --John 15.12-13
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. --1 John 4.7
I sat down at my piano this week for the first time in a while. A few pieces of old music were sitting there, with Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk inviting me to play. I opened the pages and, while it wasn’t perfect, I played nearly every note, in time, and with expression. (Here’s a much more polished version than I could render.)
The next piece of music sitting there was a version of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. You may know this is an orchestral piece, but I have this adaptation for solo piano, without all the flourishes required of the pianist in the original. I tackled that piece next, but you wouldn’t have said I “played” it! I fumbled many of the chords, and runs, and more.
Why were these so different? Muscle memory. I learned the Debussy way back when I was taking piano lessons, in junior high or high school. I probably memorized it for a recital, or just because my teacher, Mrs. Kuyper, assigned me to. I have dozens of pieces like this one that I can sit down, after years—decades, even—and play pretty smoothly. They’re in my fingers, and in my head.
The Rachmaninoff isn’t familiar in that way. I have long loved the piece, but from a recording rather than sitting at the piano bench. I think this piece of music came to me with many others after my Auntie Jean died. She probably taught it to some of her many piano students, and I am glad to have her copy. I’m sure I’d played it before, but I never learned it. It’s not in me the same way.
We all have muscle memory that works like this. For some of you, it’s connected to running, or playing ball, or bowling. For some, it has to do with cooking, or quilting, or making art, or building things. Sometimes I’ll go to use some disused household item and I can’t consciously remember how it works, but my hands seem to know the answer. Our bodies learn things from repeated practice, and then they’re there in us, deeper than we can really name.
In this time of easing back into things after a year of pandemic dormancy, I’m having a rather rocky relationship with my muscle memory. My muscle memory says SHAKE HANDS NOW before my brain catches up to say NO TOUCHING. I’ve had more than a few awkward moments where my or someone else’s overture gets laughingly turned to an elbow bump or a rueful “Oops.”
On Sunday, we had young children in the sanctuary during worship for the first time since we reopened for in-person attendance. We came to the Children’s Time, which I’ve offered to a camera for all these months, picturing children who were joining from home. And I found myself doing the most natural of things, which I’ve done hundreds of times, which was to invite those little ones up to the front for a conversation with me—even though I had not planned to do so, even though best practices suggest they should stay seated with their families. It was muscle memory, and my brain didn’t catch up soon enough to stop me.
This is bound to happen as we return to worship and other settings in which our bodies have plenty of experience of how things “are.” The chords and trills are so familiar, they simply happen, needing none of the conscious thought that would have kept them in check. I hope we can offer ourselves and others great grace as we fumble through all this.
There’s another side to this muscle memory that is worth considering, too, which has to do with movements our muscles have tried but never quite mastered. I was thinking about this yesterday while I was swimming laps, though not very skillfully.
I learned to swim the fall before the pandemic hit. Despite multiple summers of Red Cross lessons and some private lessons as a girl, I had never mastered the breathing part of the American Crawl. I found myself in a beginner’s swim class in the fall of 2019 and, somewhat to my surprise, my teacher Von did teach me this skill! With great joy, I would go to the pool two or three times a week, practicing my slow freestyle laps. Then the pandemic hit and I was out of the water until I rejoined a gym last January.
When I swim today, it feels great to be in the water and, yes, I am doing the breathing that I mastered with Von’s help. But I’m aware that my stroke is uneven and my kicking is sloppy. The muscle memory I developed in that beginner class gets me back and forth in the pool, but it’s not strong enough to make me a good swimmer, with any form or speed or finesse. I’ll enjoy being in the water more when I’ve learned better, and when I’ve practiced more under a good guide.
It strikes me that there are things about returning to “in person” that are a little like my clumsy swim stroke. We probably all have some experience of making new friends, or welcoming new people into worship with us, and some of that will come back to us. But few of us have mastered the art of welcoming, and including, and connecting with new people, especially if they look different from us, or if they’re of a different generation, or otherwise challenge us. Our muscles for this work weren’t as developed before the pandemic as we might have wished, so we emerge now with a gap between our ability and our intentions.
This is a great time to notice that gap, actually. When better to say, you know what? I want to be better at this! Having spent a year lamenting the distance between us, this might be exactly the time to strengthen our muscles for loving one another. After all, shouldn’t love be the strongest of all our muscle memory? This is the time to make it so.