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My father insisted on piano lessons for me. I was enrolled at the Julius Hartt School of Music at an early age with parental hopes I’d be an accomplished pianist.
However, I knew in my heart I’d not be on a concert stage. I had no such desires or ambitions. My interest was only in learning a few popular pieces, and quickly to boot. Further, I was drawn more intently to the guitar. With little concern for my tender feelings, Papa declared that I had no ear for music and should stick to the piano. Our diverse expectations frustrated both of us.
I hated practicing the mandatory scales and the “silly” songs that were prescribed for beginners. I was not a candidate for recitals because I froze, and forgot all that I had memorized. Music became the nemesis of my existence. Yet, I love to sing — on- or off-key. I love to listen to harmony I cannot achieve, no matter how hard I try. It is no wonder that I was drawn to view “The Soloist,” a movie version of a true story about a homeless musician whose presence intrigued a hardscrabble reporter and drew him into a life he’d probably would otherwise never have known.
It drew me into that life, as well. This was a transporting tale. It demonstrated how music carries us from reality to Reality. The sound of music drowns out the noise, internal and external, that pervades our existence. It helps us to follow a beam of light or a bird in flight. It is soul silence — a commodity we can neither buy nor sell because it is a God-given gift to be opened, cherished, revealed, and revered.
Interestingly, the gift is more grandly appreciated in the realm of relationship. A man on his way to stardom was struck down by an illness that did more than interrupt his life. Schizophrenia became his way of living. He left the corridors of music halls for the tunnels of homelessness. Yet, he was not dismayed. He wondered if writers think about themselves as he thinks about musicians?
As a musician, he thought about everyone as children of God, different from him in many ways, but identical in the essentials of humanity. Everyone had desires, needs, wants. Everyone craved love, experienced hungers of all sorts, thirsted for acceptance and understanding. All communicated in the way they could and hoped their message could and would be heard and respected. Everybody sought a group to which they could belong. They were all lost travelers living in a world where rats lived off the squalor of the places where the lost colony of these broken, helpless, lost souls lived.
It was in this world that Nathaniel Anthony Ayers lived. In this world, Steve Lopez, a reporter for the L.A. Times, was transformed. Lopez was so inspired by the tenacity, the unique ability, the patience and vision of this apparently woe begotten musician that he thought seriously of getting out of the newspaper business and starting a second career.
Both men were cognizant of a wildly spinning world. Both men traversed the earth talking to themselves. One was considered eccentric, but intelligent. The other was diagnosed as mentally ill. For the homeless wanderer, music did not move no matter where he was. The notes were in the same place, as they had been for centuries. In that stability, there was love. In that security, there was balance. Substitute words for notes and the steadiness and passion was identical for the reporter.
Both men felt an impelling need for the freedom to express themselves, freedom to be a presence for others. Ayers loudly proclaimed that he could not play where music is locked up. He needed open air. Lopez slowly grew to understand that his words required equal access. Notes and words alike could not be bottled up or blocked from passage. They would not return empty to the senders.
Despite his best efforts to leave the story, to leave Nathaniel, Lopez could not depart. His every sense told him to enter Nathaniel’s world, to believe that Beethoven is in the room. Beethoven is near and real. To be as present to him, as Nathaniel was, would allow him to be transported. It would increase his awareness that there is something out there. There is Someone out there who is listening. Someone is speaking to those who have the ears to hear and the heart to heed the communication.
Nathaniel heard. He attended to the message and then announced it to Lopez. Nathaniel said, “You are my God.” Lopez, like many of us, could not bear the burden of divinity. He wanted to run from it. He tried to escape it. He couldn’t play that music because he was locked up — and the music needed open air.
His quick reaction was to resign. Leaving the newspaper business would be salvific, he thought, until he was reminded that he can’t fix everything or everyone. He, and we, can only be friends and show up.
The truth is that we are all soloists in the orchestra of humanity. We play our individual instruments uniquely in the symphony of life. Yet, we are also in harmony with all the other musicians. Each of us is homeless, in a sense, hearing our own music, writing our own words. Together, we are witnesses to the power of courage, humility, and loyalty to our beliefs. Together, we empower the dignity of being human. Together, we carry each other home.
This is the friendship that describes God’s family. It is the friendship that can change our brain chemistry. It is the friendship that allows us to say to each other what Steve Lopez told Nathaniel Ayers, “I am honored to be your friend.”
The film ends. The story does not. Credits roll and the audience reads the following: “Mr. Ayers still sleeps inside and is a member of LAMP. He continues to play the cello, as well as violin, bass, piano, guitar, trumpet, French horn, drums and harmonica. Mr. Lopez continues to write his column for the L.A. Times. He is learning to play the guitar. There are 90,000 homeless people on the streets of Greater Los Angeles.”
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives,” lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, Religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.