Pearls Before Breakfast – Training Our Minds To Take Note

On days filled with plumbers and toilets, caulk disasters and puke, sometimes its hard to see past all of the shit (literally) to the beauty that I try so desperately to draw out with this blog. I have been mining my days and thoughts lately trying to seek out positivity, not just to write about here, but to adjust my own mindset and derail the doldrums. So far, I can’t seem to find many gems, but at least I’m digging.

In the mean time I wanted to share an article that I recently came across on Facebook. The article, a Washington Post piece entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” generated international discussion about how we perceive and appreciate beauty, art, and music, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2008. It addressed the idea that context can play such a huge roll in how we discern beauty. That outside of the contexts in which we expect to find it, beauty can be elusive and our appreciation or even awareness of it can be minimal if we do not train our minds to take note.

Here is a brief summary, verified by Snopes, of the extraordinary story:

“A man stood in a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle-aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

Perhaps we should all take a little more time to stop and smell the roses . . . hear the music . . . watch the sunset . . . be drawn in.

Surprising Indulgences

Yesterday was a day of surprising indulgences for a working mother of a two-year old. Personal time and relaxation are both commodities that are hard to come by at this stage of my existence. Yet miraculously, my day started with a glorious half hour of quiet solitude complete with a cup of french vanilla coffee and a cinnamon bagel. This was after I had the privilege of sleeping in till almost 8:30 since both of my boys slept till 9:00. The worrisome part of me wanted to go in and check on my little man since this occurrence is so rare, but my more rational side won out as I let him sleep and enjoyed my quiet, solitary breakfast. The level to which I savored this event is almost (but not quite) sad.

Woman in Her Bath painting by Edgar Degas

This was not even my only spoiled moment of the day. After a long and fulfilling morning working outside in the yard as a family, I got Aiden fed and in bed for his nap and then drew a hot bath with epsom salts, candles, and book and proceeded to soak away all my muscle aches, tensions, and worries and simply relax. As I laid flat on my back with only my nose and mouth above water, I began to contemplate how very lucky we are. There are so many things we take for granted. Little things like being able, at a moment’s notice, to fill an entire tub with enough hot water to completely submerge ourselves. As little as 60 years ago this would have been considered decadent. The only way you could have such a bath was if you heated all the water on the stove first (after chopping and bringing in enough wood to do so) and probably shared it with other siblings or family members, hoping you were the first in line. My mother remembers living in a house with no indoor bathroom! Even today, in other places in the world, such extravagance would never even be considered. Yet I simply turn a knob and don’t even think twice about soaking my cares away. We are indeed blessed. How many other simple, everyday activities do we take for granted. How many conveniences that we see as basic necessities were never even available to our parents or grandparents? How many of them will still be available to us tomorrow? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that today I am grateful.

Is it Kitsch or a Catch?

As a pseudo-artist myself, surrounded by a community of artists, I have traditionally found kitsch rather hard to stomach. Especially in large doses. However, yesterday, as I spent the afternoon perusing the many, MANY booths at the Canton Flea Market, I felt a certain solidarity with the community of craftsmen there and the simple, unassuming humanity that was exhibited in even the lowliest of their wares.

Sometimes it was the most ridiculous, the most kitschy of all the displays that made me stop and smile. That brought to mind images of country farmhouses and family gatherings. They were, perhaps, not as justifiably artistic as “real” art, but they were homey and comfortable, silly and nostalgic.

Maybe I am losing my standards in my old age, but I had more fun photographing these amazing examples of Americana surrounded by funnel cake trucks and snow cone stands, than I would have had in a stuffy gallery quietly making judgements about the authenticity of an abstract modern work (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

There was also something amazing about seeing an entire community come together to create something so immense. Every street anywhere near the downtown square was lined with booths and booths of craftsmen selling their wares. Proud of their merchandise because it stood apart from all the Made-in-China, Big-Box stuff we buy everyday and fill our houses with.

Customers and vendors alike partook in the frenzy of people eager to find something to give during the holidays that was not like everything else they already have. Something unique and hand-made. And kitsch or no, it was lovely.

And what did I bring home from this festival of craftsmanship, you may ask? I found three little gems that made me very happy:

Hand-made wooden toys! (And yes, I did buy my 2 1/2-year-old son a gun, and he LOVES it!)

A vegetable peeler hand-made in Switzerland, that I succumbed to buy after a very good salesman gave me a demonstration ;)

And a very long string of freshwater pearls that I could not resist at their $10 price tag.

And on the long walk back to my car, I couldn’t help but take this photo which demonstrated the intense southern-ness of the town in which the market took place. I don’t even know what chitterlings are, but I’m kind of afraid to ask.

Bon appetite and happy shopping!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book entitled, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” I read it for a book club that I lead once a month, but I did not select it. It was chosen by a friend of mine and I must admit, I was sceptical at first. As a matter of fact, I was still sceptical a quarter of the way in, much like one is sceptical of an odd new acquaintance that they just might like to befriend, but they’re not quite sure. Yet the story and the characters so richly developed as I made further progress, that I could not help but be swept away by the poignance, beauty, and humanity that was exhibited in it’s pages. As I began the book, I felt that there was a pervasive cynicism that would be hard to overcome for someone as deliberately optimistic as myself. The two main characters were so isolated in their own minds, that they themselves had a hard time overcoming it. But it was this change from cynicism to hope that gave the book it’s depth. It was utterly beautiful to walk beside, and actually in the very minds of these two women as they learned to believe in humanity and the endless potential hidden in some people that we are fortunate enough to really see and call friends. The story is saturated in philosophy and psychology, which can make it a bit burdensome at times, but also intellectually stimulating and enriching. Because it ends with such a worthy example of what I am trying to accomplish here in my blog, finding beauty in the little thing and using those beautiful moments as building blocks of our happiness, I thought I would share the book with my readers along with my definite stamp of approval.

“In a bourgeois apartment building in Paris, we encounter Renée, an intelligent, philosophical, and cultured concierge who masks herself as the stereotypical uneducated “super” to avoid suspicion from the building’s pretentious inhabitants. Also living in the building is Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot bear to live among the rich. Although they are passing strangers, it is through Renée’s observations and Paloma’s journal entries that The Elegance of the Hedgehog reveals the absurd lives of the wealthy. That is until a Japanese businessman moves into the building and brings the two characters together. A critical success in France, the novel may strike a different chord with some readers in the U.S. The plot thins at moments and is supplanted with philosophical discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor.”
Review by Heather Paulson found on Amazon.

Re-defining Design

For the last several months, we have been hunting for the perfect place to call home.  Having had our current home for sale for some time now, we do not want to be caught with no place to go if/when it sells.  The process of trying to sell and buy a home at the same time is one filled with discordant emotions:  The constant hope that it will sell, mixed with the anxiety of, “What if it sells?!?”  Looking for a new house with eager expectation, while the devil on your shoulder keeps telling you, “This is a waste of time . . . It could take another year before you sell your house and this house that you love will be LONG gone by then!”  But despite my doubts, reservations, and anxieties about packing up and starting over some place new, and despite the constant stress of having to keep our house immaculate on the off-hand chance that someone might want to come look at it . . . at times I allow myself to dream about starting fresh.  My home is very important to me and I strive to make it a beautiful, quiet, comfortable space that feels lived in.  I imagine myself to have a flair for design and am consistently inspired by beautiful spaces but, up until now, my design style can most accurately be described as traditional.  Safe.

 I am ready for something new.  Granted, I will not have a signficant redecorating budget after the expense of moving, but I know there are so many simple things that can be done on a dime.  Photos can be taken and digitally manipulated and then hung in spray-painted frames found for $0.50 at the Salvation Army.  Pillows can be made or recovered from scrap fabric found in a bin at most fabric stores.  Curtains can be bought for half the price when you look in the shower curtain section and have a working sewing machine.  I know that I have the capability to make a change and I am ready for it.  Afterall, acceptance is the first step toward recovery.

I also have the distinct privilege of having wonderfully artistic and design oriented friends who have recently moved and been able to re-define their style.  I look at the pictures they post and glean ideas and inspiration that I file away until it is my turn to re-draw my living space.  Here are some of their photos.  Hopefully they will inspire you as they have me.

Katie's New Home in NC - You can see more pictures on her blog, ChaiThoughts.com

Morgan's New Home in Downtown Jackson