Unexpected Beauty

Through the course of life, we often come to anticipate or expect beautiful sights, sounds or moments in certain specific locations. In previous essays, I have commented on the beauty of a sunrise on the Atlantic coast, or a moonrise over the Columbia River in eastern Washington State. Both were moments of tremendous beauty and both in what I would describe as beautiful environments. Additionally I have written about the moments of experiencing beauty in museums, being absolutely blown away by the marvelous impressionist paintings on view at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Breathtaking indeed! What I want to share today is a recent experience where I was overwhelmed by “beauty” in an environment where it was least expected.

IMG00034-20110609-1600My family and I recently returned from a marvelous vacation to Paris. We had been itching for a “big trip” and while there were a hundred reasons why it would have been “smarter” to take the trip at some later date (the kids are too young, it’s too expensive, there’s too much going on at work, etc.) I was reminded this spring on just how fragile life can be so we eagerly made plans to head to France. Our plan was simple; we would spend the whole time in Paris, each day exploring two or three sights, taking a rest in the afternoon, and heading out in the evening to find a café to enjoy a great meal. Obviously a number of the “sights” would be museums (The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, L’Orangerie, etc) and churches (Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Sacre Coeur, Saint Sulpice, etc), all locations of anticipated beauty. We were not disappointed, the shimmering stained glass light in Sainte Chapelle literally did take our breath away and the water lilies by Monet at L’Orangerie were unbelievable. Huge floor to ceiling panels of Monet’s famous Japanese garden in Giverny, completely enclosing two oval rooms, absolutely overwhelming. This past year in school, Marie had done a report on the artist Edgar Degas. Watching her come upon his “Tiny Dancer” in a temporary exhibit at Musee d’Orsay was outstanding. Indeed, having her strike the statue’s famous pose brought tears to these eyes. Additionally, watching Bryson working away in his sketchbook as we visited the Louvre, sketching various statues near the Marly horses, was absolutely inspiring. How did Jennie and I get lucky enough to have these two wonderful kids???

As you can tell from the above, we did indeed experience “beauty” in numerous “expected” environments. When you visit the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa, or the Venus de Milo, you expect to find “beauty,” and we were not disappointed. It was on our journey from the Louvre back to our hotel one day that the unexpected occurred. We were constantly using the Metro in Paris and by the end of our week, we became pretty good at navigating its system. We changed trains and changed lines regularly and even used the RER line to get to and from the Charles de Gaulle Airport. The route from the Louvre back to our hotel in Montparnasse required us to change trains in the Chatelet station that day in order to head back to “our” metro stop, good old Raspail! We had changed trains at Chatelet before, without incident, but we had been left with one strong memory… the smell! For some reason, this station was obviously used by a number of Paris’s homeless community as their underground bathroom. It reeked! Jokingly, we all held our breath as we moved from one rail line to another to work our way home to the Raspail metro stop. It was in this “least expected” environment that beauty struck an amazing chord.

We literally were in the beginning of rush hour and the crowds were starting to increase as we made our way through the Chatelet station. As we turned a corner, still holding our breath a bit, we started to hear music. It wasn’t unusual at all to hear live music in the Paris metro. I am certain that we heard an accordion, a guitarist, or possibly a lone violinist every day during our visit. What was unusual at this moment was that the music grew louder and larger as we drew near. Rather than a lone musician, there were nine or ten musicians; all gathered in a small passage way, playing what I think was a Mozart string concerto, fiercely. It was unbelievable! Very few of them were reading any music, they played in wonderful unison, and the acoustics of the tiled metro station were unreal. The music stopped all of us in our tracks, and we moved to the side, up a few steps, to get out of the way and enjoy the “beauty.” I was so moved by the moment, watching my family equally consumed in this unusual scene, overwhelmed by the music that I began to cry. Marie turned to me, seeing my tears, and asked why I was crying. Was it the music? Was it the jet lag? I’m still not sure what triggered the tears. I really had no answer other than I was overwhelmed by the moment and I was so happy to be together as a family. I gathered myself as the music came to a finish, a most amazing moment in a most unexpected location.

I wanted to share this story because since our return a few weeks ago, my thoughts continue to return to that metro station. Moments like that cannot be planned, created, or even anticipated in a travel itinerary. We could go back to that metro station today and while I am confident in the smell that we would encounter, I am doubtful that we would encounter the overwhelming “beauty” of that recent moment. I think we all need to be aware and open to what might be awaiting us through the twists and turns of life. As I have written numerous times, life is fragile and life is short. Whether I think back to my mother Arline, my sister-in-law Carrie, my dear friend Bruce, or my mother-in-law Jane, all are sweet fond memories that were lost too early. Life is now, beauty can happen anywhere, whether in a historic museum or in a smelly Paris metro station. I think it’s our opportunity to try to live this life as fully as we can, keeping our eyes and hearts open to beautiful moments wherever they might occur.