Do You Stop to Appreciate Beauty? This Writer’s Confession.

Natural Beauty. Alaska. Photo Credit: Leni Parrillo

***

I’m kind of obsessed with Gene Weingarten, and after you read this you’ll understand why.

Ever since last week when I had this semester’s group of feature writing students read his Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” I haven’t stopped thinking about the very question he poses to his readers. I’m hoping my students are still doing the same. It’s a question worth pondering and one that we should continue to consider as we move through life.

For those of you unfamiliar with the piece, I’ve linked to it here, but I can offer a quick summation so you’ll stay with me. Weingarten, along with The Washington Post, the paper he writes for and for which he also writes a weekly column in The Washington Post Magazine entitled “Below the Beltway,” decided to do a little experiment. They partnered with world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell and tested the following hypothesis: In this fast-paced world, do we Americans take the time to stop and smell the roses?

Bell set himself up in one of Washington, D.C.’s metro stations during rush hour, L’Enfant Plaza. Wearing street clothes, Bell opened up his violin case, threw some coins inside it, and began to play classical pieces on his violin. The test was simple: Would busy people take a moment to stop and listen to a performer and rare talent like Bell (who can pack Carnegie Hall) play music that warrants people stopping?

Not many did.  And it caused Weingarten to pose us a question: Do we take the time to appreciate beauty?

To quote Weingarten directly from the piece, he writes, “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?”

***

Since the middle of last month, my son has been suffering from a virus/illness/sinus infection/horrible cough. Roll them all together and you get a big, fat mess. He’s missed a ton of school because he couldn’t kick this bug and the medicines weren’t working until now. I’m happy to report he’s on the mend.

However, as I slept with him for three nights last week sick with worry, he on one couch in the basement, I on the other, the humidifier going full blast, pillows propping him up, I thought about what Weingarten asks us to consider. Do I take the time to appreciate beauty? And, do I encourage my children to stop and do the same?

There’s no doubt we live in a crazy world where things move quickly and life can pass us by if we don’t stop to look—or listen. I remember years ago, before my children were born, when my husband and I took a trip to Italy. We were in Florence and were hungry for lunch. We bought bread, prosciutto, mozzarella, oil and vinegar, and some drinks and planted ourselves outside, a little picnic that we made for ourselves, next to the Ponte Vecchio as we watched Italians go about their day.

I was miffed. I turned to my husband. “What the hell are we doing wrong in the United States?” I asked, reflecting on the passion with which the Italians work to live and live, not live to work, as we tend to do in the grand old USA. I remember distinctly feeling like I needed to stop, look, listen, and appreciate things a little more.

***

Now more than 10 years have passed. I have two kids who keep me extremely busy. My husband can exhaust me as well. (wink). Work and activities and friends and family come in to play, and voila!, we have a very hectic, chaotic life.

And so now it’s time for my confession, Mr. Weingarten: If I had been one of those people in L’Enfant Plaza that day, rushing to work, hurrying along trying to make it to my desk on time, I don’t know if I would have stopped. Even if Joshua Bell’s music was filling the air.

Shame on me.

But that was then. From this point forward, I am pledging to change my ways.

8 thoughts on “Do You Stop to Appreciate Beauty? This Writer’s Confession.

  1. I vividly remember, about 10 years ago, I was rushing home from work and had just picked my kids up from daycare. We were circling through the streets of the neighborhood and came across my friend Stacey. I was just amazed at what I saw.

    She was sitting in her car with her kids and they were watching the sun set over the South Creek in Southern Anne Arundel County. I was busy trying to get my kids home to feed them so we could rush back out for one of their practice and they were just sitting there relaxed and enjoying the beauty of the end of the day.

    Wow!

    I had to stop and compliment her and then I sped away! Huh, not sure I would have stopped either but like you I will be more aware of what I am missing in life! Thanks for opening my eyes!

    Elizabeth

  2. Fabulous post. It’s true, and sad, that not many people would stop. I probably would have stopped, but I can’t say for sure. I did stop once, in an underground tunnel through Budapest, to listen to a man playing startlingly good violin which reverberated along the cement walls. It was amazing – but we were in no hurry at all.

  3. Stephanie, Don’t feel bad that you might not have stopped to listen to Mr. Bell’s impromptu concert. During the peak of rush hour in the morning, when folks are thinking of anything but roses, a lone man playing what might arguably be considered banal music (a single instrument playing songs intended for an entire ensemble) stands out as simply average.

    On the other hand, during the 5:00 pm rush hour, things change. Finished with work and in a great hurry to get home, DC commuters, by the thousands, still find the time to stop, listen, donate, and converse around the myriad of musical maestros that spread themselves across the metro-served region. Some days it’s truly magical. Some days it’s even dangerous as crowd size grows to traffic-stopping dimensions. Whether an 8-piece pan flute orchestra, a one-man band keyboardist, a folk-singing trio, a lone flautist (a la Ian Anderson), or a 6 man tuba ensemble, the talent is out there and the audiences are ready and willing to “stop and smell the roses.”

    But Gene Weingarten probably wouldn’t know this. He drives to work. He only rode the Metro as a part of this story to find a station that would offer shelter for Joshua Bell and his Strad in the inclement (and quite cold) January weather. He’s otherwise blind to the music culture that pervades the Metro scene – a topic that would make an even more interesting, Pulitzer-worthy story that wouldn’t rely on contrivance to make a point.

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