When they ask us to play, lord, we take what we can get.
Those words come from a song I wrote back in 2006, and, honestly, it still rings true 10 years later. So when I was asked to play a "one-off" gig — show up and sight-read the music, no rehearsal — with a community orchestra here, I took it. Every penny helps, right?
Except when the easy, one-off gig ends with an accidental scratch, caused by a well-meaning hug, to the varnish on my violin from 1925. My 90-year old violin, that I have owned for a full third of its life on this planet, a violin with whose history I have been entrusted, not only as a player, but as a custodian who will eventually pass it on to another player.
When it happened, I was devastated. When I looked at the more than inch-long mar of the violin's varnish that has otherwise remained intact for 90 years, my breath became tight and shallow and constricted. But there it was, across the grain, little tiny dips revealing bare wood, wood that had been clothed in a rich amber varnish for its whole life. I wanted to sob, I wanted to throw up, I wanted to blame someone for the damage to this instrument that has been an extension of my being for 30 years. (I didn't. I couldn't. It's why the word "accident" exists.)
In spite of my role as a storyteller, I'm not really a big fan of drama. But my reaction that night felt like high drama of the worst kind, what with the tears and the wanting to throw up and the inability to even look at my violin. "It's just a thing," I told myself, "just an object. It's superficial, cosmetic; the scratch won't change the sound or the integrity or what the violin is." But even with my intellect's most reasoned pleas to my heart, I was having a hard time convincing myself that it was okay. The scratch became a flashing neon sign, not only calling attention to the blemish on the rich, amber brown varnish, but advertising the fact that its owner was irresponsible and couldn't be trusted with something of such beauty.
Of course that is not true. What is true is that in 30 years of ownership, carting it all over the country (and across the Atlantic), playing in concert halls and pubs, in coffee houses and private homes, that scratch is the first major trauma to occur to my violin while in my possession — and I can't even really call it a major trauma. But that it is how it is with our traumas great and small. At the time they happen, it seems there is no greater wound we could be experiencing. Until we survive and move on and grow stronger, which is a damn good thing because there is sure to be more trauma in the somewhere-down-the-line of our lives.
The violin shop reassured me that there was no damage to the violin's value, no matter how much damage was done to my heart. Apparently the older the instrument, the less likely a superficial wound will decrease its value. Not so with newer instruments; they do not get the blessing of age. It makes sense, really. We're not supposed to get to a certain age without at least a few scars, a few wrinkles and dings and dents on our bodies and our souls. Oh, how I grieve for my 20-something self that worked so damn hard trying to always be perfect, and that somehow, if I tried hard enough, I could and always would be.
Scars, visible and invisible, help us tell our stories. They help us become our stories. They teach us to accept what is, forgive what has happened, and figure out how to move on. I am relatively lucky. My physical scars are few, but like all scars, they come with a story: the tiny scar above my lip when I was learning to be a mom to a squirming, wild puppy (puppies are cute but their teeth are lethal weapons); the scars on my elbow and my shin when I took a detour from music and hit the outdoor world with a vengeance (gravel and tree branches not being kind when you hit them fast and hard from a mountain bike); the scar on my abdomen from when I swallowed something I shouldn't have at six months of age (thanks to my brother — which may explain our occasionally fractious relationship).
My emotional scars, those invisible scars, are mostly tiny, at least in light of the emotional scars that we humans can inflict upon ourselves and each other, but I wouldn't say they are few. (Maybe they're not so tiny either. I don't know.) Sometimes, though, the collective story they tell feels far greater than their individual chapters, making the carrier of these scars (that would be me) feel like one giant, neurotic, crazy mixed-up mess.
But like my violin's scar, it's just not true. It can't be true, because I'm still here, I'm still moving forward, even if that forward movement is sometimes slow and plagued with doubt and fear and can't-I-just-crawl-back-in-my-cave thinking. Even if every day seems to bring a few more reminders that I am not really young anymore.
Most importantly, though, I'm still embracing the scars I continue to collect. That one on my lip? It's one of my favorites. My dog has been gone 2 years now, but every time I see that scar, I think of the beautiful love and companionship he gave for nearly 15 years. And the one on my abdomen, well that easily win a challenge-everybody-in-the-bar-for-the-best-scar-story, knife fights included. (But that story can wait for another time.)
My violin has been repaired. The varnish was touched up, the shop doing its best to match the color and make it almost disappear. But I can still see it, sometimes barely, sometimes not really at all, and sometimes, when the light is right, it's that glaring neon sign again. My cringes and reprobations, however, are growing smaller every time I look at it. It is, after all, one of the founding members of Society of Broken Souls. Who would it be if it still was flawless after all of these years singing the song of the human condition, in my custody and the custody of the players before me? Who would it be if it didn't show just a little of the ways the world can be a little unkind, all the while turning our life experiences into beauty and art and the soul's balm?
There are instruments out there, far more valuable and precious than anything I own ever will be, that spend their lives locked behind a museum case. Understandable, I suppose, but in my mind, mostly a crime against humanity. We're here to sing our sorrows and our joys and our loves and our losses, which means getting a few beautiful scars along the way. I say bring it on.
March 3, 2016