To call my grandfather a rat bastard would be an understatement. He was callous, cruel, and didn’t seem to care about the suffering he caused. It’s hard to describe his cruelty without clichés: Molesting children, torturing cats to death, running over dogs on purpose for the hell of it. This was not what you’d call a nice man, or a good man. And he did cause a lot of suffering and death.
I know you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But describing his character in detail is necessary to understand what I’m trying to say in this post. Because it would be hard to overstate his cruelty to animals and humans alike. The main danger in describing him is to overlook the fact that even the cruelest human beings are still human beings, not cartoon caricatures of evil.
Anyway, my grandfather repaired and built musical instruments. When I was young, I started learning the violin. I was good at it for my age. I didn’t know how good, which was probably a good thing: I was being bussed to the junior high orchestra at the age of six, when most students started at nine and didn’t join the junior high orchestra until, well, junior high. I was there in first grade.
My grandfather loved music. Lest I paint too rosy a picture of him, he performed blackface. So he could even find ways to make music a bad thing. But he acted most like a decent human being in connection to music, of any time I ever saw him.
There was a violin he’d had for years. It was older than he was, a student violin made in a German factory around 1914. These kind of violins varied a lot in quality. This one was pretty good. He kept it in good condition for decades, and when he learned I played the violin, he sent it to me. No explanation. No conditions on what I needed to do to earn it. Nothing I had to do for him in return. This in itself was unusual for him.
I have short arms. And I was young. So I couldn’t play this full-sized violin when I first got it. I got to know it, instead. I got to know it by the feel of the wood on my face, the smells, the sound of the body as I tapped it. I got to know the blue fuzz inside the case, the little documents of its first sale, the history written in my grandfather’s old-fashioned handwriting, the smell of the old cake of rosin, the glint of mother-of-pearl on the bow, the smell and feel of the horsehair. The violin became my friend.
Eventually I was able to play it. Like always, I practiced all the time. I loved playing, for its own sake. I loved interacting with this friend in every way I could. My arms and hands were small, and I had a neuromuscular condition that made it hard, painful, and tiring to hold it up at all, but I did all these things as long as I could, just to play it.
But then I had to repeat fourth grade in a new school. This school had no music program, despite having a lot more money than the public school I had attended before that. I fell out of practice.
I grew to fear this violin. It was so old, I thought I’d break it. I kept it with me into adulthood though.
And then one day in my mid-twenties I picked it up and started playing. I was astonished.
I was not, and will never again be, good for my age at this point. I’m too weak to put in the practice. My technical skills have slipped.
But something else had grown inside me, with time. Deepened. And so had the violin.
So that when I played… I was no longer playing other people’s songs. Songs were playing me. Songs came out that talked about the redwood forest, my original home. Songs came out that talked about everything that was happening around me and inside of me. There was this resonating depth that I couldn’t shake.
And I could feel my feet.
Feeling my feet is always a good sign. If I can feel my physical presence from head to toe, something is going very right. It happens every time I pick up this violin and play it.
This violin came from my grandfather. This thing that brings me in touch with the deepest parts of myself and the world around me, this lifelong friend and companion, this thing that has deepened me and deepened along with me. Came from the guy who used to imitate the sounds of the cats he tortured, just to horrify me.
If you want to know what gives me hope in the world, it is that.
It is that good things can come from the worst places. That some of the worst people we encounter can’t seem to help doing some things that are good, regardless of their intentions.
I’ve called myself the bleakest optimist you’re likely to meet. It’s because I see the good in the world, but I don’t do it by ignoring the bad or pretending the bad is something other than what it is.
I think bleak optimism is what the world needs right now.
I think we need to understand that the world has people in it who torture cats for fun. And all kinds of other horrifying people and events. But that sometimes they’ll give you a violin that does nothing but good. For no apparent reason.
We need to be able to be realistic, yet to hope and see and create good things at the same time. It’s the only way to handle what the world has in store for everyone right now on so many levels.
And my grandfather’s violin is a good example of how I find that hope.