Monday, March 28, 2011
When I passed along a hand-me-down iPod to Chris, I also explained how to download his CD collection on his PC via iTunes, and then add his favorite songs from the iTunes store for just under a buck apiece. The next week, I asked if he had made the transfer. “No,” he replied, “I’ve been enjoying your stuff too much.” I didn’t take the time to erase my forty gigs worth of music and all. It remained on that old iPod in its entirety.
“Really!” I exclaimed. “What did you find on that old thing?” I wondered to myself what might still be stored in that massive memory. I couldn’t imagine Chris listening to my Jim Croce collection. But then…
Chris smiled. “Les Miz” he said.
Chris’ enthusiasm brought it all back. “You like Les Miz?” I asked, trying not to sound as astonished as I was. Well, why not? The 1980 French musical opened that year in Paris to unbridled acclaim. (Five years later, an English production opened in London, and it is still running.) Why wouldn’t this twenty-four year old be as entranced as me? The answer is simply that his parents took him several years back to a San Francisco performance. He was captivated. I had not anticipated that our shared appreciation of an iPod might create such a powerful inter-generational bridge. I am easily old enough to be Chris’ father. Here we are talking about mobile technology and we discover that we share the same fascination with the Jean Valjean, Javert, The Bishop, Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers (for starters). Master of the House. Lovely Ladies. Castle on a Cloud. Look Down. Bring Him Home. We were off and running.
When Susan Boyle went viral with her stunning performance on Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009, she sang that powerful piece from Les Miz, I Dreamed a Dream. It made her an instant star. (cf. LeaderFOCUS April 26, 2009)
We made a commitment to talk more. We would capture the lyrics from some Internet site, then listen to the actors breathe life into the lyric and we would make notes along the way. Then we would talk. Just this afternoon, we finished our first foray into the world of Jean Valjean. We lost track of time.
Victor Hugo’s epic novel of French revolution is a powerful commentary on the tension between law and grace. The story opens when Valjean is released from prison after nineteen years hard labor. His crime? Stealing a loaf of bread. Breaking a window. His attempt to escape added to his sentence. His prison identification number is tattooed on his forearm – 24601. The law requires that he present his prison papers whenever he enters a village, applies for a job or seeks housing. When he gets work in the fields, his employer learns of his record after the fact, and on the same day sends him walking with half pay. An innkeeper turns him away, too, claiming no vacancy (untrue). Finally, a kindly Bishop (of Digne) opens the door of the rectory, and welcomes the convict into his home. He feeds him. He gives him the first real bed he has slept on in nearly twenty years. He overwhelms him with kindness.
Jean Valjean is undone. The anger, the rage, the obsession with revenge, the despair, the blinding fury toward his accusers (especially the tormenting Javert) all close in on him. He has been branded a thief. He lives up to his billing. In cover of the night, he stashes the Bishop’s precious silver service in his cloak and vanishes into the darkness.
Just outside the village, in the twilight of the dawn, two constables apprehend him. They find the silver. They recognize the place settings as the Bishop’s. They throw the frail criminal down at the Bishop’s feet. “Identify him, and he’s back to prison for life!” they cry.
The Bishop pauses, then lies. “The silver was my gift,” he explains. Then the clergyman adds, “And he forgot the candlesticks. I gave him those as well.” All three men, the two constables and the accused, are stunned, speechless.
And for the first time in his life, Jean Valjean knows grace. Mercy. Care.One word from him and I’d be back Beneath the lash, upon the rack Instead he offers me my freedom I feel my shame inside me like a knife He told me that I have a soul, How does he know? What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?
Jean Valjean has a soul. He is not a prison number. He has a name.
As does Chris. Me, too.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011