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The Soul's Music

by Tom Birch

He knew every intimate expression of the love shared only between a human soul and a guitar. Though he had never participated in this love himself, he had watched it grow in his brothers and he longed to immerse himself in the song. Tyler was the youngest of a family of seven boys and by the time he was ten all but himself and John had joined their fatherís passion. They played often at church and always at home where he would eavesdrop as they poured their emotions through the strings. Daily it seemed the house vibrated with their soulís pounding joys or murmuring sorrows.

John was seven years Tylerís senior but to Tylerís remembrance he had never seen John pick up a guitar. "John, why donít you play?" he asked one day.

"Not interested," was the gruff response.

"How can you not be?" Tyler effused. "I can hardly wait for the day that I can play."

"So, why donít you then? I never see you practice. You could start with the old ukulele if you really wanted to."

"I tried it once, but the strings hurt my fingers and it doesnít chord like a guitar so I would have to learn how to do the chords all over again anyway. Besides, I donít think its tuned right or something." Tyler wanted to add that he was waiting for the music to come to him. But it wouldnít make sense if he stated it out loud. Some things were best felt and not verbalized. The daunting gulf between his wooden plunking and his brothersí fluid strumming intimidated him. They were married to their guitars while the ukulele was still rejecting him for a first date. It wasnít that his other brothers didnít encourage him. Rather, he knew he wasnít good enough to join in when they played. He would flip-flop between doubting whether he had the talent to catch up and this confidence that one day the music would just be there and it would make the task of learning easy. He imagined that a true artist must be so possessed by his art that there would be an almost effortless path to mastery. But Tyler was young and waiting for this magic time to come took too long. Finally he saw his chance to make it happen and he snatched at it.

Coming home from school, he stopped to browse in a music store, wistful of buying a guitar of his own. He loathed the thought of learning on that wretched ukulele. Then he saw it. "What is that?" he inquired, his mouth gaping at an instrument on a stand.

"Thatís an auto-harp. Quite the beauty, eh? It sounds like a harp, but you strum it like a guitar. All the chords are done for you with the chording buttons."

 

"How do you hold it?"

"You can just sit and lay it on your knees, chord with the buttons and strum the strings. Itís as easy as that." Tylerís heart raced. "I know I can do that," he thought. "The chords are printed on the buttons so thereís really nothing to memorize. It wonít hurt my fingers to push them the way strings do. And best of all, none of my brotherís will be able to play it. I will be the only one who can, so Iíll be the best. Then I can smooth out my strumming at my leisure without being compared to them." Aloud he asked, "How much?"

"This one is on sale for only $110.00 and Iíll throw in a beginnerís book with it."

"Can I get it on layaway? I have $65.00 and should be able to get the rest in a month to six weeks."

The weeks had flown by in a flurry of odd jobs, while he worked off his biggest secret ever. It was supposed to have been easy, he thought thirty years later, as he looked back at that motionless memory. "Youíve got to find out whatís driving your bus," a recent acquaintance had told him. What a stupid question!

"Thereís nothing driving my bus Ken," he had replied, "and I certainly donít need to relive my past to chart my future." But Tyler was still thinking about the question the night he walked into an AA meeting. He was on the road with work, and the night was dragging. There were some conferences in the town where he was staying and he hadnít booked ahead. Consequently he ended up in a dilapidated hotel near the downtown bars. He told himself he should do some work, but the drinks heíd ordered with supper were telling him they were lonely. "Hi. Nameís Tyler and Iím NOT an alcoholic," He avowed when they came to him. "I just thought Iíd come here instead of going to the bar tonight. Truth be told, I canít identify with much of what you people are talking about. Iím only here because a buddy of mine said I should try this. No offense but he was wrong and I wonít be back."

"Sure," one man held out his hand. "You probably donít need this. My guess is youíre just a social drinker." He paused and then continued, "Then again, it ainít easy walking through that door first time. Something made you do it. Whatís driving your bus?"

Great, it was a stupid AA question. They must drive themselves nuts with cliches. When the meeting ended he managed a few pleasantries and put some coins in the coffee tin. Then he left with most of his dignity, or was it just pride? Still, he didnít go to bars. Instead he sat on the end of the bed thinking.

 

boy playing autoharp -  pencil sketch

The boy came home with his prize and took it to his room to practice. It wasnít long before he drew the notice of his brothers, but he refused to let anyone see it or listen to him. He would master the instrument first and then make his debut. He forced himself to wait two weeks before he offered to play for them, each day grinding through at least fifteen minutes practice. How were his brothers able to come home and play all night? No matter, the music was coming and he would soon be part of the group. When he finally did come out, everyone crowded around to hear the strange harp. "I thirsted in the barren land of sin and shame and nothing satisfying there I found," his voice warbled as he tugged at the strings and fumbled for the chords. In his mind he was playing with his family at the front of the church to a beaming congregation. He finished and looked around. "Can I try?" One of his brothers asked.

"Sure." Tyler passed him the autoharp. None of them had ever touched such a device, so it was safe. "You need to sit down and lay it on your lap." But instead of submitting to this sage advice, his brother cradled it in his left arm and gingerly tested the chording and the strings. Then heaven opened and he was gone. In his place King David began to play. The music danced and all his brothersí voices harmonized. All but one soul was lifted up to their Creatorís throne. Unnoticed, that one descended into a barren land and began a thirty-year search for streams of living water that could quench the thirsting of a soul.

The man dialed his friend, "Ken, I think I know whatís driving my bus. Now what?"

copyright Tom Birch, 2006

Tom Birch lives in Salmon Arm, BC with his wife and 3 children, where they attend Living Waters Pentecostal Church. He has the Bachelor of Theology from a Baptist College and works with Forestry systems in Canada and the U.S.A. Recent published work includes a poem (The Hound of Man) published in the Reverent Submissions Journal.

Contact Tom Birch at TBirch@genusrmt.ca

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