Together, we tear open the packages of new strings, gingerly remove the old strings, and replace them with new ones, all shiny and bright. The new strings don’t come with directions, and folks who buy violin strings are probably presumed to know what they are doing. Trial and error become reliable teachers, and our first experience in restringing a violin soon brings results.
He tightens each string, checking the tuning, a smile creeping over his face as he realizes his violin now has a clearer, brand new tone. Yes, he can do this. He can restring his violin, a new task is learned, and a big accomplishment is made.
The violin has been a good teacher these last few months, offering challenges, and stretching his fingers and his fascination with making music with a bow, strings, and a centuries old design. My friend, “Jim”, is finding his voice with this violin, a place to put his emotions, and his fears. He’s getting out of prison in eight months, and there’s a lot of fear in him now, about how to live, and how to be a man on the “outside”, for the first time in his young life. Six years is a long time behind bars, especially when you are twenty three.
His grandfather’s gift of the violin has brought him some genuine excitement, and a place for his emotions, his love for creating something beautiful. He is finding a voice for his soul to spread its wings and soar.
We work quietly, offering each other suggestions, each contributing a finger to hold a string, or add a bit of tension, only a word here and there to solve a problem of a reluctant tip of a wire string, or finding the correct direction to turn a tuning peg, the right groove for that particular string.
He retunes and retightens, again and again, as the new strings stretch, now becoming part of the violin, part of the whole of what he tenderly holds in his arms and under his chin, his bow finding its place, creating new notes, clean and bright.
We were supposed to work on our weekly task, reading comprehension and vocabulary for his college entrance tests. He kept failing the tests on the computer, and was getting frustrated. He’d seen me helping other young men here with their studies, and had finally screwed up his courage enough to ask me for some help.
In the past two months, we’d been faithful to our task, making progress, but today was different. As soon as I walked into the multi-purpose room for the prison camp, and its eclectic chaos of books, videos, craft supplies, a few beat up guitars, and “Jim”’s violin, he talked excitedly about everything but our work. He was a tea kettle getting ready to boil.
Our stringing task complete, I’m thinking we could get our studying done. But, the water’s still hot and “Jim” is ready to unload on something else. We move on to a new topic, and soon he is showing me photos of his family, and telling me their stories, and the stories of his young life, stories he’s never shared with me.
There’s the grandfather who sent him the violin, smiling, picking his guitar.
“He’s real proud of me, for working so hard on the violin,” he says. “I got to talk to him on the phone the other day, first time in a year.”
As he flips through the album, he lets me deeper into his life, sharing some more sad stories, some of his pain, his worries about people he loves, and who he really might be, inside.
And, finally, the last page of the album, the real reason he’s emotional today. He lets me inside of his heart, and shares a deep, sad story, so intense and personal that the details, the intimacy, aren’t to be shared with anyone else. Yet, he trusts me to listen, to hear his story, and why he is so sad, and on edge today.
I want to find a corner and cry my eyes out, the pain in “Jim”’s voice filling me with sorrow. But, I have to keep listening, No one else is.
It’s a matter of fact tale, just part of his young life, just what he has had to experience. I lean in, and listen hard, my few questions telling him I’m really listening, really paying attention to him, and his Divine Comedy, taking me deeper and colder than Dante’s version of the deepest part of Hell.
We’ve gone so far today, from mentor and prisoner, to tutor and student, to amateur violin restringer and tuner, to spiritual surgeons, working on a broken heart. My job now becomes the listener, the friend, the other human being in the room who gives a damn about this young man and his pain.
He tells his story, letting me hear his pain, and his deep love for what he had in his arms, and then lost, and how he has gained from all of that, and become a loving, good man, at peace with God, and content in his life. Oh, there is still some bitterness and some righteous anger, but instead of poisoning his soul, he uses all that to feed his soul, and nurture his gentle, peaceful spirit, and give himself guidance and purpose in his life.
There are angels in this room now, surrounding us, and filling this space with love and a sense of serenity and comfort. I think “Jim” senses them, too, and his shoulders drop, and he is, at last, becoming at peace with his story he has just shared. In the telling, he has found some acceptance, and compassion, some support in his journey. He is not alone, now, in that story, that part of his life that nearly pulled his heart out of his chest.
I grab him and hold him close, and he holds me tight, and sobs, at last. Together, we grieve, the soothing words we both need now not spoken, but filling the room, and healing his heart, resounding loudly in our souls. What I try to give to him now comes not from me, as much as it comes from the angels in our midst, the air heavy with the unconditional love of the universe.
Our time is up, now, and I have to go. We’ve worked on our vocabulary, the words that really matter today, and we’ve restrung a violin, giving both “Jim” and his violin a new, brighter voice. We’ve put in some new heart strings, too, giving me a chance to love this young man a little harder, a little deeper today, giving him some space to play his songs, and be loved.
Thank you for being such a gift in this young man’s life Neal.