coming out of the fog…

Every now and then I emerge from the fog of loss that seems to continuously waft over this blog and remember that one of my goals for it is to, on the rare occasion that I can think of something worth passing along, offer some of what I have learned from my so-treasured experience as a mother.  For once, I’m on the case.

The other day, I heard Joshua Bell interviewed on my radio station. In case you don’t know, as I didn’t before the interview happened upon me, Joshua Bell is a really famous, world famous, so-famous-he-just-won-a-prize-that-they-haven’t-given-out-for-three-years-because-no-one-was-worthy-enough-famous violinist.  He plays a violin so exceedingly fancy that it has a name – the Gibson ex Huberman.  It was made by Antonio Stradivarius in 1713 and cost Joshua Bell somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million dollars.

One morning last January, Joshua Bell took a cab to a Washington, D.C. Metro Station just three blocks from his hotel (ah, the sacrifices one makes for a violin with a name and the original varnish from 1713).  Anyway, Bell dressed down for the occasion in jeans, T-shirt and a baseball cap.  Once inside L’Enfant plaza, he took out the Gibson ex-Huberman, lay the case at his feet, threw some coins into the case and began playing Bach’s “Chaconne,” a piece of music so fiendishly and gloriously complex that some musicians spend a lifetime playing it.

After the 14 or so minutes it took Bell to play “Chaconne”, he moved on to Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita”, then a piece by Jules Massenet and then a Bach gavotte.  All in all, he played for 43 minutes and in that time, 1,097 people passed by as he played.  Guess how many stopped to listen?

Got a number in mind?

If it was  seven, you should get a prize. Too bad I don’t have any handy.

A grand total of seven, count ‘em, seven people stopped during rush hour to listen to one of the best musicians in the world play some of the most renowned music ever written.

Twenty-seven people did give money, but most of them kept walking.

That left 1070 people to walk by, completely oblivious to the unexpected, outrageously out-of-context beauty that was filling L’Enfant Plaza that morning.

If you haven’t fallen out of your chair in amazement and sorrow at the bald statement this story makes about our society’s relationship to accidental beauty, you may well be wondering what the big deal is and while you’re at it, when am I going to deliver on my aforementioned promise of mothering wisdom?  Oh, fine. Be that way.

Gene Weingarten, who dreamed up this experiment, wrote an excellent and comprehensive piece about it in the Washington Post Magazine (Go see! It has audio and video too!)  Here is the paragraph that really struck home with me:

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding.  Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups.  But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent.  Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Every child tried to stop.  Every parent refused to stop.

So here’s where I finally get around to my take-home message:

The chances are good that your child is more available to beauty than you are. The chances are also good that, while you were once a child to whom beauty called, you have probably morphed by now into some version of the 1070 drones who passed by Joshua Bell without missing a single, well, beat.

Here is my suggestion.  Ask yourself if that is what you really want.  For yourself and your child? 

I know I don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure I have, a thousand thousand times over, allowed errands, requirements, anxiety about the future, phone calls, schedules and frenzy to propel me past some piece of accidental beauty that my child, neck craned, wanted to stop and soak in.

But over and over, your child will be grabbed by life. He will notice the fiery feathers of a parrott on a man’s shoulder at the farmer’s market.  She will, with a stunned and silent, “Oh”, notice a waterfall through the dappled woods.  Over and over, your child’s forward movement through the day will be halted by the minute as well as the grand gestures of life.

Let your child be stopped in his or her tracks.

And while you’re at it, let your child stop you in yours.

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15 thoughts on “coming out of the fog…

  1. Wow. Anna, thanks for passing on this story. It says something about the nature of children, and also quite a bit about the accepted norms in our culture.
    Wow.

  2. Yep, you hit the nail on the head with that one. We’re all just too damn busy with our own agendas to take even a minute to notice anything. But a child, on the other hand, has no schedule… no obligatory list.
    While we spend so much time teaching our children, we often fail to realize there is a great deal we can learn from them.

  3. My comment got eaten. ??? I loved this, anna. Not only as a fan of Bell, who came to our town not long ago, not in jeans, and not with his case splayed out in front of him to catch change, but to play in our concert hall.
    You are spot on about children’s ability to see accidental beauty.
    I must go find a copy of The Washington Post Magazine.
    Lovely post.

  4. Thank you! The next time dudelet drags his feet when I’m so intent on getting, I don’t know, somewhere, I’ll pause, re-wind and remember that. Beautifully expressed, too.

  5. I certainly could use a little more childlike wonder in my life. I promise to let them lead a little more. Stopping to smell the roses is not my forte but it’s certainly theirs.

  6. lovely. i’ve long acknowledged that babies are born closest to the truth and lose their way as they get older and then become us, desperately trying to find our way back to the truth.

  7. I watched this on youtube… and found it astounding… but the truth is, if he’d been playing in the NY subway whilst I was working there I would have marched right by too – in too much of a hurry to get home or get to work to stop and listen. what a sad state of affairs!

  8. Good advice, Anna, thanks.
    Every time I hear about this Joshua Bell story, I think of that Joni Mitchell song, For Free. Same contrast, but across two people. Pasting the lyrics here, at risk of cramming too much text into a comment:
    I slept last night in a good hotel
    I went shopping today for jewels
    The wind rushed around in the dirty town
    And the children let out from the schools
    I was standing on a noisy corner
    Waiting for the walking green
    Across the street he stood
    And he played real good
    On his clarinet, for free
    Now me I play for fortunes
    And those velvet curtain calls
    Ive got a black limousine
    And two gentlemen
    Escorting me to the halls
    And I play if you have the money
    Or if youre a friend to me
    But the one man band
    By the quick lunch stand
    He was playing real good, for free
    Nobody stopped to hear him
    Though he played so sweet and high
    They knew he had never
    Been on their t.v.
    So they passed his music by
    I meant to go over and ask for a song
    Maybe put on a harmony…
    I heard his refrain
    As the signal changed
    He was playing real good, for free

  9. Great post. I am always trying to light dynamite under my dawdler toddler. It’s a fine line that we have to walk with our kids: we want to let then discover the world and yet our lives do play out according to very strict schedules.
    BTW, did you read Crazymumma’s Woman on the Streetcar post? I quoted from it in my latest post. The bit I quoted doesn’t really get to the heart of her overarching theme: it is about found art and our ability or willingness to see it. http://crazymummasays.blogspot.com/2007/04/woman-on-streetcar-i-saw-her-from.html

  10. I heard about this on NPR. I ran home to tell my husband about it. Then I had a good cry. There was a tape of what Joshua Bell actually played. Omigod, so beautiful.
    Such a sad story.
    Slooooooow down.

  11. I read that piece too, but hadn’t focused on your great observation about the children vs. the parents. I will definitely pay more attention to PunditGirl when she is pulling on my arm to look at something.

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