Vedran Smailovic, the real cellist of Sarajevo
I mentioned in last Wednesday's post that I attended a high school reunion over the weekend. Early in the evening, a former classmate came up to me and reminded me of how, years ago, in the back of a math class, I had befriended him. Probably talking when we should have been working on assigned problems, our conversations helped him see himself as someone with a good mind, intelligent, with something to offer. That insight had made a difference as he went on from high school and into college.

Over dinner, another friend of mine told me of a similar encounter she'd had that evening. A few years after high school, she and her roommate had opened their couch to a friend who was trying to get a handle on what to do next. He was there at the reunion as well, and not long after she had walked through the door, had come over to talk, wanting her to know how significant a safe haven had been to him at that point in his life, offering time and space to sort things out.

What's interesting about both of our stories is that at the time, it didn't seem like a very big deal to either of us. But that didn't matter. It turned out that in each case, our actions had ramifications greater than what we were aware of.

Like last week's post, these thoughts brought me back to The Cellist of Sarajevo, the novel by Steven Galloway, based loosely on true events during the Siege of Sarajevo. The main character, whose name we never learn, is the principal cellist for the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. Or at least, he was - before the mortar destroyed the Sarajevo Opera Hall, demolishing a part of who he had been. He sits now in his apartment, overlooking the battered streets and plays for himself, music that tries to reach beneath the daily realities and waken a soul that is shell-shocked by the loss of livelihood and purpose. On a bad day, he reaches into his repertoire for an Adagio, whose balm has always worked its restorative magic. Still he knows the music's power is not infinite, and so, like a man on a life raft with a limited supply of water, he rations the times he allows himself to play this piece.

One day, another bomb falls, this one outside his window, shrieking devilishly downward and leaving in its aftermath 22 of his friends and neighbors, moments before innocently standing in a bread line, now among the many casualties of this war. And for the next 22 days, the cellist takes his instrument out to the small crater on the empty street and plays the Adagio. At the begining, he doesn't know if he will make it, but he knows he will try. In his former life, walking out onto a stage transformed him into an "instrument of deliverance." He gave what he loved most to the people who would come and listen. And so, perhaps without even knowing it, he does so again.

Playing a cello once a day may seem like a small decision, and a foolhardy one at that, given that explosives are no respecter of persons. And, as it turns out, it isn't long before a sniper is sent to silence the notes that daily draw a crowd. But the cellist is unaware of what is happening around him. He does what he knows how to do - offer music - and so affects the other characters in the story. The liquid sound of the Adagio flows like an intravenous drip deep down to their souls, reviving war weary spirits. It encourages those who listen to take their own small steps, made heroic by the backdrop of the snipers on the hillside, and their own internal struggles to do what is right.

In our daily lives, we can feel paralyzed by the immensity of certain situations. Perhaps it feels hopeless to remain uncynical in the face of an election year. Maybe we can't imagine how a marriage can make it through the hurricane winds that threaten to send the roof flying. The problems that we see require resources that we don't possess, and are complicated beyond our ability to sort them out. But we can take small steps. We can do what we know how to do. We don't know the effect it will have on those around us, and how that influence will spread. In fact, we may never find out. 

At least until the final reunion, when all that we've done will be brought out for us to see. And we'll be able to see that they have made a difference, much to our surprise, and to our delight.

Note: I found this photo of Vedran Smailovich on a blog post you can see here, which tells a little more of the story of the real man whose story inspired the novel.

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