Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Time for Beauty

My attention has recently turned to this article about an experiment by the Washington Post a few years ago.  Uber-famous violinist Joshua Bell spent an hour in a DC Metro station playing his heart out to a mostly uncaring rush hour crowd.  The violinist-- who makes upwards of $1000 a minute on stage-- made $32 that hour, which is actually not bad for a busker.

The point of the article, more or less, was that we are getting less and less able to recognize beauty when it is sitting right in front of us.  Our lives are so crammed with what we consider necessary that we do not stop and appreciate moments of art, beauty, joy when they happen unbidden.  The author of the article won a Pulitzer for the piece and excerpts from it are all over Facebook.  Curiously, one demographic that gets particular attention are parents with small children in tow.  In the hour that Bell played, every single parent with a child walked by without stopping, often tugging their unwilling children along, hurrying off to those things that needed doing.

On one hand, I get it.  The article makes me very sad, especially on behalf of our children who didn't and perhaps won't ever get the chance to see one like Joshua Bell in the subway station because parents are too... whatever... to stop and pay attention.  It is a terrible state of affairs that we are in, too busy to appreciate music-- any art, really-- as we rush from one thing to the next.

That seems to be the meaning of the article, that we have lost the ability to appreciate beauty even when it is free and obvious in front of us.

On the other hand, the "moral" of the article ticks me off, both as a parent and an individual.  The premise, that if music/beauty/art is offered freely and easily everyone should stop and enjoy it or else we're not paying attention, doesn't take into account some of the most basic and obvious factors of my daily life and the life of other people I know and love.  The most primary factor that it doesn't take into account with its rather precious finger-wagging is that most of us are doing the best we can.

I would like to think that my kids and I would have stopped to listen to Mr. Bell.  I certainly would have wanted to.  We have stopped and listened, danced, and clapped to far lesser buskers before.  But I also know that that morning might have been the one when I was on my third "strike" of the month for being late to my son's preschool class, an offense that could find us kicked out of the program.  It might have been the morning when I was in charge of the early Eucharist, on my way to be a part of beauty of another kind, my rushing to get there a joyful one.  How would this experiment have been different if Bell had played at 3pm on a Saturday at the entrance to the zoo?  Or at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in front of a row of restaurants?  Or Sunday morning in a church courtyard?  How would the experiment have been different 50 years ago?  or 200?

The article doesn't take into account that my family does our level best to take part in all kinds of other cultural events, free and otherwise, fairs, concerts, museums, classes, plays.  We do spontaneously stop and take in beauty or wonder or mystery when we can.  I will be the first to admit that, with two working parents, those stops aren't as frequent as I would like them to be but, as I said, we do the best we can with what we've got.  It the Metro had posted a sign saying "Great violinist here tomorrow morning!" you can bet we would have come early to hear it on our way.  Instead, we spent an extra 10 minutes in our pj's, reading one more story.  

I genuinely appreciate what they are trying to do here.  The article is beautifully written and artfully conceived.  But the whole premise rubs me the wrong way.  It feels manipulative and, to me as a mother, it feels divisive and shaming.  It feels rather like the barrage of "carpe diem" and "pay attention, they grow up so fast" that mother of young children are so prone to hearing. That sort of thing sets my teeth on edge.

We know that.  We know that our kids are growing quickly.  We know that we need to slow down and watch them and teach them and listen to them and appreciate them.  When we are at our best, we do those things.  But we are not always at our best.  We are human beings and sometimes we miss the Joshua Bells playing in the Metro stations because, frankly we just have to get to preschool on time today.  But that doesn't mean that the world, our world, our children's world is devoid of beauty or of time to stop and appreciate it.

We are not going to hell in a handbasket because 1,000 people walked by a master violinist on playing in the subway station at rush hour.  I agree that we could all use a little more time to appreciate free beauty all around us. But I don't think there is any usefulness in undermining the very real need that many individuals (parents and otherwise) have to get to where they need to be.  Subways stations are not concert halls, they are places of transit.  Folks are often rushing because they lingered for one last kiss before going out the door or so that they can get home in time to go to the playground.  Or perhaps to make it for the 8pm Joshua Bell concert at Symphony Hall. 

My world is packed with goodness and beauty.  It is also packed with responsibility.  I do my best to make time to slow down, but it isn't always my choice when I am able to slow down, to stop and hear the violins in the subway.     

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