December 2, 2013
On January 12, 2007, over a thousand commuters passed through the L’Enfant Plaza station of the Washington, D.C. subway line. A rush of people, reading their morning papers, talking on their phones. Hurrying out for another day of the grind. The vast majority of these Everymen and Everywomen never noticed the violinist playing near the doors. Panhandlers are common enough in the subways, playing their instruments for dimes and quarters that will feed them for another day.
This particular panhandler remained at his spot for forty-five minutes and collected a grand total of $32.17. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only twenty-seven paused long enough to listen. And only one recognized the man for who he was—Joshua Bell, one of the most talented violinists in the world.
I wonder about all those people who passed through the subway station that day. I wonder if they ever saw the newspaper articles and television reports and figured out they had been there, had walked right passed him, without even knowing who he was.
I wonder of Joshua Bell, too, and what he was thinking. All of those people so near on that gray January morning, too hurried to hear the music he played. It was Bach, mostly. And the sound—the most beautiful sound a violin ever made. A sound like angels. That day, Bell used the 1713 Stradivarius he’d purchased for nearly four million dollars.
You might say you’re not surprised by any of this. You’ll say it’s the modern world we live in. People are always in a rush to get from point A to point B. There’s so much we have to keep track of, so many things to do. So much vying for our attention. It’s a generational thing. Our parents and grandparents were the ones who enjoyed a slower life. We don’t have that luxury.
And yet the very same thing happened in May of 1930. Seventy-seven years before Joshua Bell played inside the D.C. subway, Jacques Gordon, himself a master, played in front of the Chicago subway. The Evening Post covered the story this way:
“A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbside concert yesterday noon on an windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears…”
Jacques Gordon collected a grand total of $5.61 that day. Strangely enough, the violin he used on Michigan Avenue was the very Stradivarius that Joshua Bell would use in L’Enfant Plaza station all those years later.
I ask myself what I would have done had I been present there in Chicago or Washington. I wonder if those golden notes would have reached my ears and if I would have paused to listen.
I want so badly to answer yes.
I want to believe that I’m never so busy that I have no time for beauty.
I want to know that in such a dark and shadowy world, I will still make room for music and light.
November 26, 2013
The paper in front of me is blank but for the two words underlined at the top:
I’ve been staring at it for twenty minutes now.
It’s incredible to me that I’ve been asked to fill out my Christmas list so early. Halloween doesn’t seem so long ago. Thanksgiving isn’t even here yet. Then again, a quick trip to the Target or Walmart in town will tell you Thanksgiving really isn’t celebrated that much anymore, at least commercially. There isn’t any money in it. I remember growing up in my tiny little town, seeing the streets all but deserted every Sunday because none of the businesses were open. Now, a Sunday afternoon looks much like a Saturday. There is no Sabbath anymore, no real day of rest, so why should there be Thanksgiving. Go, go, go. Spend, spend, spend. It’s the way of the world now.
Sounds a bit jaded, doesn’t it? A little cynical? Probably so. Then again, I’ve often been accused of being a person trapped in time, more suited to days past than days current. In almost any situation, what you’ll likely get from me is something along the lines of, “I like things the way they used to be.” Maybe that’s just a product of my upbringing. Maybe I’m a forty-one-year-old relic. If so, that’s fine.
But this Christmas list thing is getting to me. I don’t know why. I’ve filled out lists earlier than the week of Thanksgiving many times (when I was a kid, the first draft of my letter to Santa was usually ready by the first of September), and I well understand the need to pinch pennies. All the best sales are in the next ten days. That’s what I’ve been reminded of several times the past week. So yes, I understand. That’s another product of go-go-go and spend-spend-spend. It’s so horrible and painful that it’s best to do it all like a Band-Aid—rip it off as fast as possible.
A secret, just between you and me: Sometimes I just want to skip the whole thing. Buy for the kids, of course. Put up the tree. Get the outside fixed up with candles and lights and the same plastic Nativity that’s so old and worn it’s become a family heirloom. But that’s it. Nothing else. No presents for family or teachers or pastors or Sunday School teachers. Instead, fold all that money up and sneak it into the nearest Salvation Army kettle when no one’s looking. That would be a real Christmas to me. Strip all the glitter and glitz away. Find the real beauty underneath. Like Sundays used to be. And Thanksgiving.
Have you ever noticed that the most special things in life tend to be the most boring on the outside? Sitting down to a meal with family? Kind of boring. Watching the sunset? Boring. Taking a walk? Please.
Talking with your child. Or your parents.
Watching the fire on a cold evening.
Listening to the critters in the woods from the front porch.
How many times have I done all of these things in the past year and decided what I was doing was merely wasting time? Time better spent working, Getting Things Done? I wonder. And now I’m wondering if much of the same thinking that went into opening all the stores on Sunday and having Christmas sales on Thanksgiving Day is in me as well.
There’s plenty wrong with the world. But I guess if you get right down to it, what’s wrong with the world is me.
I’ll tell you what I want for Christmas this year—365 days of those boring moments. I want a life stripped of the glitter and glitz. I want the basics. Those are the things that matter when you get down to it.
Those are the things that keep us going.
November 21, 2013
“Can you help me?”
A common enough question in the course of my workday as a college mailman. Asked by the old and the young alike, but mostly the young. And I am generally in a well enough mood to reply Yes, I certainly can help you, even if I am generally not in a well enough mood to be excited about the prospect. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned in my long and storied career of postal delivery to a bunch of 18-21 year-olds, it’s that they often need a lot of help. A LOT.
So, just a bit ago—“Can you help me?”
Young lady, nineteen-ish. I pegged her as a junior. Not because I knew anything at all about her, but because I’ve been here long enough to be able to guess such things with a modicum of accuracy. It was the way she dressed—pajama bottoms and a raggedy sweatshirt, which told me she’d been here long enough to not care anymore but no so long that she understood it just may be time to start growing up a little—and the way she addressed me—in the eye. She’d laid the envelope, pen, and stamp on the counter in front of her. When I walked up, she was staring at all three as if they were all pieces to some exotic puzzle.
I asked what sort of help she needed, which could have been anything from needing a zip code to how much postage was needed to mail something to China. But no, neither of those.
Instead, she said, “I don’t know how to mail this.”
“Just fill it out,” I told her. “I’ll mail it for you when you’re done.”
“No. I mean, I don’t know . . . how.”
“How to what?”
“You know. Like, fill this out.”
She pointed to the envelope and stared at it. I stared at it, too. Because I had no idea what she was talking about.
“You mean,” I asked, “you don’t know how to address an envelope?”
“You mean, No, that’s not it? Or do you mean, No, I don’t know how to address an envelope?”
Now she looked at me. Her brow scrunched. I got the image of her seated in some classroom desk, trying to split the atom.
“I don’t know how to address an envelope,” she said.
I’ll be honest—it took me a while. Not to show her how to address an envelope (which, as it turned out, took much, much longer than a while, took what felt like an eternity), but for what this young woman told me to finally sink in. She really didn’t know how to address an envelope. Had no idea where to put the stamp, where to write her home address (it was a card, she said, to her mother) and not only where to write the return address, but what a return address was.
Nineteen years old. Junior in college. I can assume this young lady was bright, or else she wouldn’t be in college. And resourceful. And driven. Capable, too—she whipped out her iPhone and danced through so many apps to find her mother’s address that it nearly gave me a seizure. But when it came to something as commonplace as sending a letter? Nothing.
“Nobody sends letters anymore,” she told me. “It’s so 1800s.”
She finished her envelope and affixed the stamp (after being told where that went, too). I had to sit down for a bit afterward. My head was killing me.
Now I’m thinking:
Is this really where we’ve come? Have we really raised a generation of children who are so dependent upon technology that anything without a button is an unsolvable mystery?
But there’s something more as well, something far worse. In our instant world of texts and emails and Facebook posts and tweets, that poor girl has missed out on one of the true pleasures of life. She has never sat at a quiet desk with paper and pen to write a letter. She has never pondered over the words that have leaked through her hand and fingers, never slowed enough to find the rhythm of her words and her heart. She has never felt the trepidation of folding those words (and her heart) into thirds and stuffing them in an envelope sealed with her own saliva—her own DNA—and placing it in a mailbox. Never worried that her letter maybe wouldn’t get to where it was meant to go. Never felt the exhilaration of finding a sealed reply waiting for her days or weeks later.
Give me the new, the world says. Give me the shiny and the bright. I say take it. I’ll keep my paper and pen.
November 18, 2013It was laying in an old box marked BILLY’S STUFF in a forgotten corner of the attic, near where the insulation had been bitten and chewed by a family of long-ago mice. The words were faded and the cardboard brittle. When I pulled the top off, both one corner and a cloud of dust flew.
Normally, I would have moved on. It was only one box among dozens in my parents’ attic and one that was not marked CHRISTMAS, and thus not of interest. Normally, I would have gone on to the wreaths wrapped in trash bags and the candles that have gone in their windows every year since I was a child and the other boxes of ornaments and decorations and pushed them to the door, into my father’s hands.
Normally. But I didn’t this time, not with that box. Because this one said BILLY’S STUFF.
There is a kind of magic in such situations, as though time is blurred such that the past and present become the same in one small tick of life. That’s what I felt right then, crouched down under the eaves. This was the Me I once was tapping the Me I am now on the shoulder, wanting to sit for a while. Wanting to talk. Given all that, I had to open the box. Even if Dad was hollering into the attic, wanting to know where I was.
So I reached down and folded back the remaining sides, feeling like I had just discovered some long lost tomb. Inside were memories long forgotten—notebooks and newspaper clippings, an old T shirt gifted to me by someone who must have been important but whom I’d forgotten, an old fountain pen. And buried beneath it all, a single cassette tape with the word LIFE written on the label.
Dad hollered again, telling me Christmas would be over by the time I got all the decorations down. I felt the stuff in the box. I took the tape. Partly because it was the only thing I could fit in my pocket. Mostly because it intrigued me. I had no idea what was on there, and I wanted to know what LIFE meant to a seventeen-year-old me who believed the world lay at his feet.
I got back home and dug out an old cassette player from the closet, amazed not only that I had one, but that it still worked and I’d remembered how to use one. I sat it at my desk, popped the tape in, and pushed Play. What came over the speaker wasn’t my own voice expounding upon my adolescent wants and dreams. It was music.
Of course it had to be music.
Back then, at that age, everything was music. I had so many of those cassettes back then my truck couldn’t hold them. Half were kept in the glovebox, half in my room. Mix tapes, we called them. I guess you can do the same with CDs now, but I don’t know what they’re called.
Honestly? I was a little disappointed. Was I really so shallow that long ago to think sixty minutes of spandex-pantsed, makeup wearing, hair metal music was the one thing of my past worth preserving for the future?
It wasn’t the first time the person I am shook my head at the person I was and called him an idiot.
But I kept the tape playing. One song melted into the next, and before long I wasn’t only playing air guitar and singing along, I was remembering. Where I first heard that song. Who I was with. What I was doing. What I felt.
Then I understood. And suddenly I realized it wasn’t the person I am cursing the person I was at all, it was the other way around. These weren’t songs at all. This was the background music to a former life.
I’ve just spent the last hour on iTunes, downloading every one of those songs. I miss cassette tapes (heck, I’m old enough to still miss vinyl records), but digital really is the way to go. Right now, I’m turning my past to my present and plan to enjoy the person I was while listening to those songs on my phone while I mow the yard. Listening and remembering.
Because you know what? I haven’t talked with that old me in a long while. Sometimes, I miss him.
November 15, 2013
My house is a disaster. Complete and utter. And there is no escaping it. The mess is upstairs and down, inside and out. Courtesy of a perfect storm of cold weather, a Saturday afternoon, and four children who think they’re adults.
Two kids can clutter a house on their own. No assistance is required. But when those two kids are joined by two more kids, this is the result. Toys strewn across floors and furniture. Hand and even foot prints on the walls and doors. Not to mention spilled drinks, dropped food, and a mammoth pile of dirty dishes.
This is why I frown upon play dates. They have a tendency to turn my home into Lord of the Flies.
And now, with my wife gone to take my children’s friends back to where they belong, this mess is all mine.
Where to start is always the toughest question to answer when faced with this sort of situation. Everything seems so overwhelming. How am I supposed to prioritize what needs to be done first and what can wait? Am I supposed to begin with the small or the large? Should I start upstairs and work my way down, or downstairs and work my way up?
I don’t know. It all too confusing. And in my confusion I find myself asking one more question:
What can one person do to fix all of this?
“Nothing,” I mutter, trudging into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. And since I’m there, I figure I might as well start with the dishes. So I fill up the dishwasher then transfer what’s left to the sink, where I begin the process of wash/rinse/dry.
Meanwhile, the television in the living room is broadcasting the day’s news. Bailouts and unemployment. Taxes. Inflation, deflation, and stagflation. War. Even a reference to Revelation.
Such is life in this modern age. Struggling not to overcome, but to simply keep up. Trying to hang on to job and family. Trying to still believe in this world, that we can fix things and make a difference.
I hate the news.
Not because it’s so bad or usually slanted one way or the other. No, I hate the news because it never stops. There’s always something new to worry about and something more that needs fixing.
Not unlike my house, I suppose.
Both have been made a mess by children who thought they were adults, and both need a good straightening up and cleaning.
I know this. And I know that as God has seen fit to put me here, now, then He must expect me to do some of that straightening and cleaning. But again come those questions. Where do I start? Big? Small? What should I do now and what should I wait to do later?
I don’t know. It all seems so overwhelming, this mess. It’s not just the news stories of people losing their jobs and homes. It’s the feelings those stories breed. It’s the sense of despair and resignation that so many seem to be feeling now. If we are to pull ourselves out of this, we need more than governments and stimulus packages. We need hope. Hope that not only can things get better, we are the ones to make it that way.
It’s easy sometimes to think we’re powerless to alter the course of things. Easy to think we’re too small and too puny to make things better. But I don’t think we’re so powerless.
I can’t clean my whole house, but I can wash the dishes. I can’t go everywhere and do everything, but I can take care of what’s in front of me and do what I can.
The great secret? If we all do our part, however small it may be, we will find in the end that just because things are tough now doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. And just because we can’t clean up the whole mess doesn’t mean we can’t clean up a little of it.