Two Violins, which is lesser, pt 2

Auction Day…

Being retired now and having more time than ($$) means, I knew that going into the auction I had a very limited budget available to me, and that if I was going to do something as crazy as purchasing an instrument that I could not play, I had to sit on my hands when the bidding started. No looking at other pretty, sparkly stuff that would sway my attention – and budget – away from the violin.

I had one item up for sale in the auction which would give me a buffer of sorts, but the estimates when we consigned that piece were quite low, and would not buy an antique violin, much less two of them, at a high end auction.

I knew that I could easily buy a most useable instrument locally from my luthier for around $600-700 (before the bow, the case, all all the knick-knacks) so given that the violin I wanted (the newer one, the one going up for sale second) was already set up (ready to play – it was only mildly out of tune, not Wildly, like the other,) in a nice protective case, and with a bow that was probably worth more than the entire instrument’s auction estimate I decided that I would not break a sweat if the bidding went to $500, and that I would have to think (and by think I mean pray) fast if the numbers went north of that.

We were out – no matter what – at $600.

The second problem was that my second choice went across the block first, and then the one that I truly wanted So: a little stress here over how to spend the budget and walk away with at least one of these instruments.

And so we began:

Things didn’t look good at all in the first couple of hundred lots because the people there were paying crazy money for an important collection of folk pottery. Two phone bidders drove the prices well over estimates by 50-80% and there were a few surprises like one lot with a $400 estimate that sold after a drawn out phone-vs-internet battle for $5000.

My heart was not happy.

The day wore on: pottery was Insane.  Jewelry was running very high I ended up within the auction estimate for my piece which was good because it was about double what we discussed at first. I now had that money in the bank to offset this, but still:

the budget is what the budget is.

Furniture was very soft. Some very important pieces of 18th and 19th century antique furniture sold for the cost of the wood. Well below retail for the new stuff in the stores that now reproduced it! That could be a good sign.

I mentally dozed off during the rugs and carpets sections because we have three dogs and a territorial cat, so the last thing I want to do is throw a 200 year-old prayer rug on the floor to become the doggie men’s room!

In the middle of this hubbub about 400 lots in, two cars that came up and the battle was on for them. When those two lots sold, the place cleared out like the house was on fire, so I was hoping that, with the pottery lunatics gone, and the car guys out licking their wounds, things would settle down.

More jewelry (high again), Antique books (way too high)

And then we came to the violins.

I’m not sure exactly who I was bidding against. I had 1 person on the phone, and a few in the room. I’m not sure about the internet because when it comes bidding time, it’s Focus time! It’s me, the auctioneer, and the sound of his voice, and the sound of the voice in my head saying “do not go crazy with the money – remember your budget” added this time with don’t Pad your bids based on what you sold! The budget is the budget is the budget.”

Bidding didn’t jump up at once which meant no reserve bids. He opened in the middle of the estimate, no sound. He lowered it to $200 for a few seconds and with no sound went $175 and knowing that if I didn’t jump in soon, he would withdraw the piece, I put up my paddle and the game was afoot.  Immediately the phone bidder was on me like dogs trailing squirrels, and we went through 200, 225, 250 and stalled, the bid was with me at $250. This could work out well as long as the second violin stayed just as low.

Someone in the back of the room went $275, the phone bidder had time to make up their mind, and went $300, and my card stayed up through all, holding on as the person behind me went $325. I stayed up for $350 and the phone bidder stalled again. Too long: the auctioneer called Fair Warning, and the hammer fell to me at $350.

The first violin was mine.

I still had nearly a couple of hundred left in my hat just in case things did as well for the second one – the violin that I really wanted.

Chemo brain kicks in: suddenly the conversation in my head flew over to “you can always consign the first violin to pay for the second, but you have to stay with your budget!” Meanwhile I’m making a note on my card of how much I’d bid for the lot, else I knew I’d never remember the exact amount ten minutes later….

“Sir. [long pause] Are you in?”

The auctioneer actually stopped in the midst of bidding on the second violin, THE ONE THAT I WANTED, because I was sitting there writing notes on what I’d done, and the sale had moved on! He already knew I’d previewed both and loved the second one. I’ve never seen him stop in the middle of an auction to invite a bidder into the fray.

I didn’t even know where the bidding was. It could have been $1,000 and then I would have been done for! My paddle went up, stayed up, as I caught on to the bidding at 150, 175 on the phone, 200 to me, and…

Silence in the room.

The woman taking the phone bid sat down. This means her bidder is out of play, and the violin went to me at $200 with no other bid from the floor.

There are moments after the great battles in my life like the hours of chemotherapy and re-learning to walk from its aftermath, of coming out of a 2-day coma to fight off my irrational fears of the night time. Those after-moments when suddenly the air clears, it’s daylight again, the sun shines and the black-and-white world of my crisis burns away to Technicolor and Panavision.  In my Author days, when I finally put the end to a book and I could look up from the sidewalk to see the city around me, i called this time time of seeing in color again.

I sat for seven hours in a chair – plus the occasional bio break -I listened to the rattling drill sergeant voices of budget, and had focus when I needed it to step out of chemo brain cloud to accomplish what I’d wanted. Everything fell perfectly into place.

The air suddenly had that wonderful auction house smell of old books and furniture, my fingers flexed a few times to get the tension out, and to my left, Bill smiled what we call down south the Shit-Eatin’ Grin that, once again, as with so many other fights and scraps, I had won.

But he wasn’t the only one: as you know we’re always surrounded by the spirits and wishes that hold us up and mean us well. As the banter of the auction moved on through the lots, I heard in that spiritual ear that some cancer folk have, the sound of the big thick Guarnieri violin, and realized it hit the same notes of the most-unusual laughter of my Grandmother.

She had a laugh that once you heard you never forgot. I have the gut-busting belly laugh and she had a throaty, absolutely sincere chuckle deep in the low range of her voice that was like… chocolate to the ears.

That was the sound that I heard the first night, pulling open strings, and didn’t realize it until then, as somewhere my Grandmother was laughing along with my soul that again, together, we had WON!

Such a simple epiphany there is to be found in a $200 violin.  Such simple realization there is that when we think we’re getting dumped on by Life because we get sick, or somebody leaves us, or we lose the physical ability to play an instrument… when that happens, on the good days, some other instrument falls into our lives, and always by happenstance.

As Mr. Olivander told Harry Potter, “The wand chooses the wizard,” so too, when our lives change in very big and very awful ways, a new and better wand literally out of no possible part of our imaginations will arrive to choose us.

Every day, every moment that we sit here: that is our next thing, and it is then up to us, our strength, our willpower, and our souls to decide how BIG this new blessing will be.

That night we were (finally) drove back home back after an 11 hour day of it. In the back, the two sister violins, they slept together in their cases, head-to-head, and the whole car was surrounded with the chocolaty, throaty laugh of another day and another great victory.

They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.

That’s a tough idea to follow through on, “But preacher, my wife left me.” … “I lost my job.” …  “I’ve lost my faith.” How can all those things place us in that well-watered garden? That’s so easy: we weed and harvest like we should. We rake up the leaves. We carry the water. And we work our lives around in great anticipation for that day when – just like before – the wand chooses the wizard.

That is why we get up each day, and fight, and win.

Keep the faith!
 – Amen

A Tale of Two Violins – which is lesser? pt 1

The Providence and Provenance of Two Violins

While I was gathering my head for what to write about today, I was comparing life [today] to a verse from the book of Jeremiah [31:12] that says:

They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.

This is a story about what happened over a few days, a time reminding me that often, out of the corner of our eye when we least expect it, our lives throws us a little bit of magic.

Another quarter has rolled by and it was time again to visit our auctioneer friends for their big quarterly catalog auction. This is an every-3-months sale at the finer end of antiques. To set the stage there were 696 lots in the auction and the sale starts at #100 and proceeds through the catalog, one sale at a time, running at a clip of 80-90 sales per hour. Do the math. You are there a while.

This is not a party that is strongly advisable for one who has energy issues. But it’s a once a quarter trip and I love it like other people love spectator sports.

We went to a preview party Thursday night for wine and nosh, and folks mingled around the neatly set up auction lots, handled the jewelry, stuck tiny flashlights up the backsides of grandfather clocks, and generally did what Antique Nerds do before spending more than my house payment on a pottery jug … or a painting of a cow.

I worked my way around the room and back into a corner, behind the guns and swords. There I found  two violins sitting alone on a huge desk.

They were two very old violins, both from the first years of the 20th century. The oldest was in its original casket-shaped wooden case with slide hooks to close. The case was something that you’d stick the instrument in and put it in a vault, but nothing that could be carried around today I would be afraid the latches would free, and the violin would tumble out, turning into a nice heap of kindling and gut. That is never a good day for the owner of said instrument. I picked it up and gave it a few turns with open strings – not playing any other notes just bowing the strings. It was quite nice! The old fiddle didn’t have that nasty green sound that you hear in a cheap and freshly-made factory violin shaped object from China.

She was old, old wood, and bench-made. A craftsman had pulled this wood with their hands until it was a perfect balance. It had been refinished many years ago, and had a few life dings and repairs around the bottom half (the lower bout,) but nothing unusual for the age. Sooner, she will need to be restored: top re-set and maybe re-finished. I’m wasn’t so sure at first sight. The color is a very dark brown, and the 2-piece tiger maple on the back is the color of artfully-done cappuccino. It has a Stradivarius shape which is smaller in the upper bout, has a slim waist and a nice regular bottom, so it sings among the higher registers. The problem nowadays is that a new student violin in this shape can sound brittle and downright chirpy.

It was horribly out of tune.

Ad yet I could hear the warm potential the violin had, and thought:

that would be a great instrument to try!

And then I picked up her sister: a much newer, Italian violin. Before appraisal, I guessed around 1920 from the sound and feel. A much bulkier, almost heavy violin, this one had the heft of a viola with a huge boxwood chin rest to match the tail piece and the gold-trimmed finely-carved tuning pins.

Somebody loved this instrument for all it’s physical foibles!

It’s very clunky looking at first sight – it has the thickest finger board I’ve ever seen on a violin and the trim all makes it look heavier than it really is. This one is in the Guarnieri shape, so it’s much wider in the lower bout which gives a more mellow tone that almost prays among the lower notes. My former cello was a Guarnieri and this violin reminded me of the first time I that cello; it reminded me of what the term dulcet means. This one came packed in a high end protective case and two bows: an inexpensive German rosewood and needing a re-hair, and a Pernambuco wood bow (Brazil Wood – becoming more rare as the trees come close to extinction) That bo was as light as air. The bow fairly well molded itself to my hand. It reminded me of that moment in Harry Potter in which Mr. Olivander said:

The wizard doesn’t pick the want.
The wand picks the wizard.

I pulled the bow across the open strings and the best explanation is that this violin produces a sound that is the musical equivalent of chocolate. The violin was such an odd looking thing, and so unexpectedly beautiful that I decided on the spot that, even though I had no violin playing experience, I had to have this instrument.

One problem:

in the numeric sequence of sales, the older violin was catalog #569 and the one I wanted most was #570.  What if I skipped on the first, then lost the second? There was some [spiritual/emotional] danger that I could go home with neither.

Such a trauma. Such stress.

… Or at least it would have been a few years ago. After going through the ups and downs on life’s little dance, I’ve learned that my stressing over events does nothing to change them. I simply do what I can with what I have. I delegate (gladly!) to my support folks. I control what is within my power to control, and I leave the rest to…


Just like the Providence that led me to that back corner, to see those two violins.

One small note here: I didn’t actually play the violin, and yet here I’m considering (well – more than just considering, more like scheming) two of them!  A violin is strung differently from the cello: think: remove one lower string on the bottom, and add one higher string on top.Cello playing is forever gone to me because of the dusting of neuropathy that remains in my fingers. I have long since returned to my deep roots of classical piano.

I had this thought while having God’s Own Grace of being able to sleep on it before the auction, of what it would look like to teach myself the violin (if that’s even possible) based on what I already know of playing strings. And if not (insert Plan B here!) I certainly have very good teachers here from my cello days who can hook me up with the right teacher for a needy adult student like me.  This was a lot to mull over and sleep on for the two days between my first picking up those two instruments and when time would come to put money on the line.

What to do? What to do?

[continued tomorrow…]



What if the answer is … prison?

Ministry: n.Late 14c., “function of a priest,” from Old French menistere “service, ministry; position, post, employment,” and directly from Latin ministerium “office, service, attendance, ministry,” from minister). Began to be used 1916 as name of certain departments in British government. see also: servant minister.

My parish is in the midst of a sort of jobs fair for the social outreach ministries in the church, and let me tell you there are many to choose from. In large and active congregations the group usually has more ministries and activities going on than you can possibly hit, all in one week. And if you are not in a congregation, you are surrounded by tons of local and global causes that would love your attention and action.

How do you choose?

This is where we step into those strange religious words like “calling,” that maybe non-religious people don’t use in quite the same way. Religious people are called by some greater vision to go into a particular field and plant the proverbial wheat.

People who do not practice a particular religious faith do this as a matter of some cause that they are magnetically attracted to. The cause speaks to them, or they have participated (like cancer patients who later do work for cancer support organizations.) Maybe it’s a topic that fascinates them. Or it’s a cause that is fun to work in support of because their friends are there, and it’s a group effort. Not to mention the new friends gained when anyone becomes involved in a ministry.

What if you’re not feeling called to do a certain kind of help? I have no answer for that one because the answer comes from inside you. Maybe it’s a cause that you can help with because you are there in the place where you are, in the time that you have, with the tools you carry. Even things like helping mow a neighbor’s lawn while they’re sick, or bringing over food and flowers to somebody down the street or in your building. That’s a calling, too, whether you hear it at the time or not.

None of the above includes simply writing a check to feel as if you have done your part.

Yes, there are many organizations which most need our money to be of immediate help. I’m thinking of Red Cross disaster relief when folks start sending thousands of toys for displaced children. That means the Red Cross has to pay more money to deal with those material donations. Cash – in the time of immediate disaster – is what those organizations most need to get the proverbial boots on the ground, lights, potable water, food, to the people who need it most.

A displaced family cannot – in good conscience – eat a Teddy bear.

One group in the parish that I have a passing contact with is our ministry to folks who are in prison, focusing on a couple of state correctional facilities within driving distance. I have been so busy over the years with my own list of helpful chores that I appreciated the prison ministry being there, and had to say “not my calling,” and keep working. (Of course it’s easier to say that when there’s a well-formed group of volunteers to keep a particular activity from floundering.)

One of the works I add my help to is the prayer chain. It’s a very simple thing to do and works especially well for those of us who are house bound and can’t get out and do physical, laborious work. The minister who leads the group sends out an email each month of the main points of remembrance (on Monday we pray for our ministers, on Tuesday for the Campus ministry, etc.) Those never change.

We get ongoing personal requests in that email and also individually throughout the month as new ones come in. The only information we have on personal prayer requests is a name and a situation. “Please pray for Mary who lost her mother this week,” etc. The people involved to not need to be members (we call them communicants) of our parish.

One doesn’t need to belong to any particular club to pray, or to be prayed for.

Earlier this year, we started getting weekly emails from a parishioner who works with our prison ministries, and she sends a list each week in the same format: an inmate’s first name, and a situation. That is all we need for prayer to happen.

I took these into account and did the same prayers I always have. Lately, the situations started speaking to me of the great job of humanity we have, even when facing inhuman situations. I’m speaking of the moral fight inside of “praying for” a thief or a murderer, or a drug dealer. It’s so easy for me to see the crime, and have a preconceived image of the criminal, and somehow forget that – in some of these cases – there is a person behind that facade of badness who is asking for our help, no matter how simple. Just a prayer.

I’m sharing the ones from this week’s list, but just the situations. I’ll give them all a fictitious name. Remember as you read these, all of the people on this list are for-real in prison. They cannot simply walk free and take any sort of action. Someone must walk for them:

  • Jesus – whose mother died.
  • Jesus – who hasn’t heard for some time how his children are doing.
  • Jesus – still in administrative segregation pending his disciplinary hearing.
  • Jesus – who will be released and reunited with his family on Monday.  His resolves are to get a job, take care of his family, and get into church. Please pray for him as he continues on his journey.
  • Jesus – who is facing the possibility that he will never be released.

 *Thank you so much for your prayers.*

Did you see what I did there? With the names?

The ones who grabbed my attention most and brought me deeper into these weekly lists are the “may never get out again” or “has found a relationship with God and needs help with that” or “wants to make amends.”

It’s not my place to judge these folks in any way, or decide if they’re telling the truth, or to think anything about their ongoing or future punishments.

My job is simply to pray.

Sure, that’s the easy way out of social responsibility, yet I can be active and responsible in the other works I do. This calling to prayer is more simple, and more heart-and-soul focused.

My job is simply to pray.

Who knew that by doing one activity, I would become at least spiritually connected to another that was on the list of not my ministry? I still won’t be the first in line to sign up for prison ministry (it’s still not my calling, and I have tools and skills used elsewhere for other just as worthy causes.) I love and appreciate all who do this difficult and sometimes dangerous job. For them, and all other ministries, activities, outreaches, and missions of the universal  church,

from my simplicity, I simply pray.
Some days, prayer is enough.

Keep the faith!
 – Amen




This entry is dedicated to my great friend Rev. Martha who was so very involved in the prison ministries at our parish. We were great friends, and talked many hours about the things we are put here to do, and how to do it.

Fly big, and rest easy, dear friend.




*The feature image for this article is an icon called “Jesus of the Maryknoll” by br. Robert Lenz.