the violinist and the disappearing city

On a cold Friday morning in January, a young violinist entered the Washington DC metro station during rush hour and, with barely anyone noticing, chose a wall to lean against, pulled his violin out of its case, and began to play. For 45 minutes, lost in a sea of analysts, policy managers, budget officers and contractors all on their way to work, the young man played. Nearly 1097 people passed by him. Of the thousands, only six people actually stopped to listen to him play and 20 people slowed just enough to give him money. He made $32.17.

When I read this story today, I thought of a tale from The Phantom Tollbooth, when the main character, Milo, visits a city called Reality. Though once an extraordinary place full of glorious things to see, the citizens of Reality eventually realized that the quickest way to get from point A to point B is if one didn’t stop to admire the things that came in between. And so they began to walk faster and faster without ever looking up, without ever slowing down, and without ever stopping. Moving as fast as they did, they got to where they needed to be in record time, but at the sacrifice of their beloved city, and of course, their own lives. They never stopped to admire its beauty, they didn’t realize as it become uglier and dirtier each day, and they failed to notice as it disappeared completely. “They went right on living here just as they’d always done, in the houses they could no longer see and on the streets which had vanished, because nobody had noticed a thing. And that’s the way they have lived to this very day.”

The story of the violinist may seem unremarkable, and you may even be wondering why I’m telling it to you; except that that violinist wasn’t your average street musician. He was Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world. The violin he played is almost 300 years old and worth over $3.5 million; and three days before that cold Friday morning in that subway station, he had played a sold out show at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where tickets go for a minimum of $100 each.


The land of the in-between, tucked neatly between where we are at this moment and where we need to be eventually, is absolutely pulsing with life. Let us take heed, therefore, that we have the wisdom and the courage to slow down just long enough to see it.

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