Can a woman forget her nursing child? Will she have no compassion on the child from her womb? Although mothers may forget, I will not forget you.
I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
Your walls are always in my presence. Isaiah 49: 15-16
By Michelle Wallace
He didn’t look like much as he emerged from the Metro into L’enfant Plaza station, wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a long sleeved tee. Positioning himself against the wall next to a trash can, he pulled out a violin and began to play. It was middle of rush hour on a cold January morning. For the next 43 minutes the violinist would perform six classical pieces. Approximately 1100 people would pass by, nearly all on their way to work. Each passerby had to make a choice that day, stop and listen or quickly move on.
Three minutes went by before anyone noticed the musician. A middle-aged man briefly paused and turned his head to see the guy playing music but kept walking.
A half minute later the violinist received his first tip. A woman threw in a dollar and then scurried off.
Six minutes into the performance someone finally stopped and stood against the wall to listen.
Things never got much better. A total of seven people would actually stop and listen to the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven people gave money, most on the run, for a total of $32 and change. Which means more than a thousand people hurried by seemingly oblivious, many just few feet away never even turned their heads.
The one who seemed most intrigued by the performance was a three year old boy. But, his mother was in a crunch for time. She deftly moved between her son and the musician to cut off his line of sight. The child strained his neck to watch and listen as they continued on. And the violinist ended one of the most beautiful and enduring masterpieces in history, “Ava Maria,” to a thunderous…nothing!
No one knew it, not even the boy, but the man playing the violin was Joshua Bell, one of most accomplished musicians in the world. He had just played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell played to a full house at Boston’s prestigious Symphony Hall, where merely average seats went for $100.
This was an experiment in perception and priorities. The performance was arranged by The Washington Post to answer the question: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!” Bell also noted that when he plays for ticket-holders, he has no sense that he needs to be accepted. “I’m already accepted.” Here, there was this thought: “What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence …”
This was never a question for Bell concerning his parents. They took him to his first music lesson when he was just four years old. Bell’s mom and dad decided it might be a good idea when they saw their son string rubber bands across his dresser drawers to replicate classical tunes by ear, varying the pitch by moving drawers in and out. They could have missed it, overlooked the boy as a nuisance like some in the station that day. Thankfully they didn’t.
Recently, my son and I traveled to Vietnam to visit an orphanage our friends built a few years ago. We’ve supported and watched the little ministry grow from afar. It began with the rescue of one child into a flourishing home filled with the laughter of more than 80 kids. Watching the mission from 8500 miles away was great, but the opportunity to go and hold and play with the children was beyond words.
The first day we arrived, I heard the cry of a baby in the infant room. As I picked up the little boy with big beautiful brown eyes, he began to smile showing off sweet dimples. His name was Huang and I immediately felt my heart being taken away. “I won’t do it Lord!” I said emphatically. “If I give my heart fully to this baby, then it will be broken when we go back to the states!” Each day at the orphanage, I sensed God calling me to pour myself out for this child. One afternoon, I heard the Holy Spirit say, “He’s yours, he may not live in your home but I’ve covenanted him to you—to pray for him and watch him grow into the man I created him to be. Now, tell him who he is.”
At only six months old, Vietnamese the only language he’s ever known, he couldn’t possibly understand. I held him closely and leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Huang, you are a king. You are profoundly loved and your story is part of a much greater plan.” He’s so beautiful, I thought. I wondered if that would cause him any struggle in life. “Precious boy, our hearts are prone to wander but you can always come back home,” I said through tears.
“Well, there you go, Lord! This isn’t a puppy at the shelter that I’m walking away from, this is a baby…my baby!” I cried. Somehow, God gave me comfort in my fit, reminding me of the great privilege I’d been given to pray and to see the plan of God fulfilled in his life. The last day of the trip, the Lord also showed me the magnitude of the mandate. There was a war raging for the destiny of this child.
Post reporter Gene Weingarten interviewed several people from the station that day. Everyone had an excuse for failing to stop. The shoeshine lady’s chair was the best seat in the house. But she was having a bad day and complained to her patron that the music was too loud. Normally, she would call the authorities and have him removed but: “He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn’t call the police.”
While surprised to learn Bell was a famous musician, she wasn’t surprised people blindly rushed by. She looks toward a spot the top of the escalators and recalls what happened there. “Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.”
Along with the shoeshine stand, there is a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and magazines. A man standing in line remembered every number he played that day but couldn’t recall what the violinist was playing. “I didn’t think nothing of it,” he said, “just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks.” He would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on Lotto.
Interestingly the smallest of those in the Metro seemed to have the greatest ability to hear. Without exception, every time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the child away.
There was nothing wrong with one man’s hearing. He had earbuds in his ears listening to his iPod. “For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists,” said Weingarten.
The song the man was listening to was “Just Like Heaven,” by the British rock band The Cure. Weingarten explains the irony of the song’s meaning. “It’s about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can’t express the depth of his feeling for her until she’s gone. It’s about failing to see the beauty of what’s plainly in front of your eyes.”
I’ve been the passerby, perhaps given a nod, thrown my token buck in the violin case. We’ve been the passerby and we’ve been the overlooked.
The trip to Vietnam was a couple grand in airfare and expenses. It cost a couple weeks’ time between travel, jet lag and laundry. The greatest investment wasn’t in time or money at all; it was my heart. However, the reward far outweighs the cost. I’ll do it again to hear and watch the Master play.