I keep coming back to the violin. It feels like it’s always been such a big part of my life, this wood chalice is part of who I am. But I haven’t touched the instrument in years. The memories it holds, I wish I’d stuck with it, I wish that I could remember how to play it.
Eight grade, after school, a half-hour drive + traffic — downtown Toronto traffic — to the St. Christopher House music school. Leaping out of the car, nauseous from my dad’s wild driving, nauseous from taking the barrages of “why haven’t you been practising every day,” and the “you should *want* to practice,” not to mention the “what are we even paying for the lessons for?” Up, down, up, down, the whole way there until I’m finally asked to speak up, “do you even want to be learning violin?” I say the answer he wants to hear, “of course, I love the violin, it makes me feel free when I play it, I’ve always loved it.” It’s true, but truth is always subjective.
Up and out. Down and in. Up longer, down quicker. Pinky perched on flat cool metal, my thumb stretching, reshaping; my hands are changing, everything is different every day in adolescence. My bow is shrieking with each undulation. Edna stops me gently. The small room, converted office, reappears around me, thin drywall patched over with makeshift sound “dampening” panels and draped scarves. It may not be much, but love has been put into this small room and I feel safe and good here. I don’t want to let my teacher down, but then she has to ask me that eternal question.
“Have you been practicing?”
“Um, a little” (a practiced lie).
“If you’re having trouble practicing, try leaving your case open in your bedroom, don’t even bother taking off the shoulder rest if you can help it… your violin should be an invitation to play.”
“I found something that inspired me.” I interrupt to cover my red-handed lie hastily.
“I was watching Lord of the Rings and I thought it would sound SO much *better* if it was just the violin!”
“Shore puts some great work for strings in that soundtrack, but remember, it takes an entire orchestra working together… a violin is only one piece; but it’s magnificent being part of the larger whole. When I’m on stage with the TSO, I never think about me, it’s about the music and the music alone.”
Part of the whole, a noble idea, but in practic it feels like it embodies cumbersomeness. My vain self can only desire what it thinks it is meant to. For some reason I believe this and gradually I practice less than before. Gradually, I put the violin aside. Like leaves slowly falling off of a branch in winter, feels like its overstayed its welcome, my dream of playing that majestic instrument wafts wearily away. Before I realize what I’ve done, I’m no longer attending lessons, Edna is not part of my life anymore and I feel the loss of something I was told for so long that I was meant to do.
Do I still love the violin? I love to listen to it, I always have, but mine sat out for the next year collecting dust, slowly going out of tune by the time I started high school.
Open coats flap their floppy ends too close to my face. Stampeders rushing to work, from work, business things and other things I know but do not really understand. Grey cloud-defused sunlight re-yellows as it passes to us via the aging futuristic plexiglass arch. Illuminated, our private liminal bubble on this overpass path half-way sits between subway and buses. Whoosh and rush, fast and lumber, the commotion of commuters around my mother and I are just trails of light around the main attraction; the subway violinist.
You see, we have no where to go by bus and the train’s only destination for my mother and I today is where we are; stationary partway between terminals and no return fare needed. The young artist is in a crisp white shirt, faded wool slacks and wearing a nice coat that’s seen a couple too many winters. This is who we’ve traveled to see. I have every one of his albums, the full body of his work, all both of them have well creased inserts and the CDs well listened to. So much so it’s nearly to the point of memory — but only while being babysat by my aunt, and only after what everyone else has asked to listen to. Classical music isn’t popular in my parents’ home. I am transfixed, my head is locked upwards, the magical movements of his bow, the time-stopping sounds, this is a perfect moment, I look forward to it every week.
“Here, did you want to give this to him?”
My mother dutifully hands me some more change to place in his case between movements. I take it but wait, I know there’s more yet to come. I can feel the artist smiling down at me as I patiently wait for him to continue the piece even though we never make eye contact. My eyes are locked on his violin, his are in a world of his own that he shares with only me for the moment. A breath and he’s back into it. Only when he’s finished, actually finished this time, I walk over and drop the change into his case with a barely audible “thank you” before returning to my perch beside my mother. I stand at the edge of the overpass where shackled stone meets metal that meets plexiglass, just clear of the endless flow of commuters.
“Come on, time to go. He needs to eat dinner too.” I can hear from behind me.
We say our thank you’s again and head back the way we came, down into the subway tunnel. I sit at the very back of the train and stare out the rear window the whole way home. Back to the world of my brother, sister and father unable to understand me, back to teachers without the patience for the “way” I do things, back to peers mystified to the point of dismissal by my existence. I watch my liminal bubble, my perfect world slip away down the tracks until next week, reality slowly overtaking us back into its cold clutches. Childhood is *so* much more dramatic when you’re a child.
I don’t talk the whole way back, all I can think of is the violin. If I say anything, I’m afraid it might get back to my father and the conversation about me learning to play would come up again, the conversation about how I was clearly “intelligent” how this could be how I “apply” myself, the conversation about profession, about passion. The dinner conversation I think every seven-year-old must dread, not realizing it isn’t the dinner conversation most seven-year-olds even have.
That “talk” I constantly tried to avoid back then always felt like it was one of well meaning good intentions marred by a vicarious fulfilling of lost dreams and a secret disappointment in me. But so long as I didn’t say anything, so long as I filled my head with the sound of horse hairs on thin metal coils, I was free of any weight.
“$22.85, but for $45.60 we can guarantee it up to $500… and add a little more padding, just in case.” The clerk behind the Canada post desk lifts the large awkward box off of the cool slab of digital scale, passing it, with a professional amount of strain showing, back to my parents. She seems unfazed by the strange wrapping job and excessive layers of duct tape; clearly she’s seen stranger packages… and yet, I can’t help but get the sense she’s still intrigued.
“What do you think, want it guaranteed? I think it’ll make it over just fine if you ask me.” My dad says this as he flips the phone camera around so I can see him and my mom again over the FaceTime call. I’m over 3000 kilometres away in a cold lonely dorm room, only weeks into my new semi-independent living situation for the sake of higher education, and already I’m in need of a resupply shipment. This isn’t a box requested to be filled of essentials like socks and underwear, nor food (though even without being requested, I’m sure there’s plenty in there), and not bedding or even a night light (I made sure to pack it regardless of the fact that I haven’t plugged it in since I was fourteen and am pretty sure it’s bulb is long dead). This is a box of another kind of essentials, comforts. This is a box of what’s always been around, pieces of home for the soul far from home.
“I don’t think it needs it, I’m sure you’ve padded it plenty!” I say over the screen with a knowing look. I’m very sure the oversized clump of duct tape in question has its own bulkheads comprised entirely of snacks and goodies impossible to get ahold of out here in the desert. The dry mountainous Okanagan Valley is a world away from the reassuring skyscraper-adorned breezy city I grew up in. But with anticipation building, looking at this transaction over my odd shaped package, home feels like it’s getting closer already.
“I told you it was fine, here, I’ve got cash.” My mom takes out her wallet in the background on my laptop screen — she still pays for everything in cash. Strangely I’m nostalgic over this modern day oddity.
“You sure you don’t want us to send your violin?” My dad says to his phone in one last ditch effort.
“I’m already sending this!” My mom shouts over shoulder from the background of the scene.
“Well, maybe in your next care package? You could keep your neighbours up!” He asks me, nudging.
“I haven’t played it in years, I don’t think I even really remember how… and I’ve got like no time, school’s been keeping me really busy too.”
“Just let me know if you change your mind, we’re always here for you.”
After they hang up and my screen is blank again, I find myself sitting for a while staring at the corners of my prison cell of a room — my dad’s descriptor, not mine, but it’s stuck and won’t leave my mind. Like most sons at this age, I’ve been working past my issues with him; *absence makes the heart grow fonder!* And perspective is the great gift of time.
In this year leading up to going away for school our relationship had begun healing with newfound haste. However, it tended to linger over me, the ideas he still had about who I was, the way he didn’t have to say anything to make me angry, but still left me fuming after only a few minutes of talking… about a nice thing he was doing for me on top of that! How?! It just didn’t make any sense!
Two to six weeks later I’m opening the package, lovingly wrapped to paranoia, safe from any conceivable drop, bump, or interplanetary projectile. The box opener slides scalpel-like for the third time over the incision I’ve been gingerly hacking away at. Layer after layer of adhesive lined skin peel back until finally I have a soft cardboard patch to pinch and grab into, to throw away patience and pry it apart the way the impatient lizard brain in me wants to.
– Tea (loose leaf, better taste, more caffeine)
– A small stainless steel kettle (for a bachelor… and maybe a gust)
– Pesto (meant to encourage me to cook for myself, realistically going to be eaten straight out of the jar… maybe with fries or crackers)
– Pocket tissue packs (cold season will be upon us soon, and they make for good padding against glass jars.
And then I have to stop the inventory, the remaining contents of my care package blur and fall away into the background. It’s a single CD. In this age of digital deluge the plastic ring with cheaply compressed audio seems quaint. The data on this disk could have traveled instantaneously from Toronto instead of being shipped across the entire country; but then it wouldn’t really be a surprise, would it? I’m overcome by a familiar distant feeling; the world stays still for me in this moment, I am transfixed. Without yet opening the jewel case I can hear taut horse hairs pulling music out of coiled metal strings.
My computer doesn’t even have an optical drive, in fact, I can’t seem to remember the last time I had to use one. Rushing to the dorm floor’s shared lounge; I don’t bother locking my door behind me, I’ll be quick. In, I grab the miniature boom box that’s used exclusively as an iPod dock — out, bring it back to my room and open the mailed album. Inside, my father has put a note on top of the disk. It’s been folded and flattened so it could fit flush without popping the top open. He’s scrawled just a little note in his almost doctor-like hand writing on this full sheet of paper.
“You’re going to be going through a lot of changes in the next few years. These are the years that will define you and you will be given many choices and different paths to pick from. But whatever you do next, there’s something your mom and I want you to remember all the time. We’re prouder of you than we could ever be. That said, you don’t owe us anything! Whatever you do next, do it for you, do it because it makes you happy. Love you, Dad & Mom.”
Occupying the rest of the page below my father’s handwritten note is a photograph. Creased, cheaply laser printed, blotchy a little where toner has been pressed against toner, it’s beautiful. I’d completely forgotten about this moment. The CD fumbles and bumps against the small spindle before clicking into place. I close the plastic protective top of the mini boom box and press play.
Looking down at that photograph, listening to the music of my childhood, the lost moment comes back to life. In the back hallway between the practice rooms of the St. Christopher House Music School and their basement stage. A preteen me is playing the violin with an unflattering intense openmouthed expression of focus and bliss on my face. It was a recital. I was very anxious. I couldn’t go on stage, I didn’t go on stage. But I felt so sad having not been able to share what I’d been working on all term, so I pulled my parents aside after everyone had finished and folding formica snack tables were being ambushed. I asked them to come into the hallway and I performed my little piece, track six of the album in my hand. It was the short version, transposed by Edna in neat light pencil lines. Sweet and full of squeaks, I proudly presented to my private audience.
When it was done, my parents were beaming at me from our cramped narrow bare-brick concert hall(way). Because I could see it on their faces, I asked to be sure, “are you proud of me?”
“We’re always proud of you.” My mom said.
“But did it make you happy? Did you play that for you, or for
us?” My dad asked.
“Me. And yes.”
“Then that’s all that matters to us.”
It’s been a long time now and I still come back to the violin in my mind.
“Package came from your parents today, must have been pretty big, you’ll have to pick it up from the post office tomorrow.” My partner says to me taking the ‘missed delivery’ slip from our door as I juggle keys and groceries through the threshold into our home.
“That must be my violin” I say putting my things down on our worn entryway unit. “I can’t wait to start learning it all over again…”