Art, Generosity, the Airport Shuttle

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My flight arrived at 10:30 at night. There were about a dozen of us on the shuttle bus to long-term parking, and I was careful not to make eye contact with anybody, lest I find myself engaged in a conversation. Across from me sat a man with a banjo case. To my right, one of those old boys–a salesman type–who’s always striking up conversations with strangers who would just as soon be left alone. He started egging on the banjo picker to play us a song.

To my surprise, the man opened up his case, pulled out the banjo, and played us a ripping rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It was an amazing thing, to be cruising around the airport parking lot in a bus with this banjo picker playing his heart out for us.

banjo.jpgI don’t suppose I’ll ever forget how that little space was transformed the moment the first few notes rang out. At the risk of overstating the case, something resembling a community began to emerge among people who would have normally treated one another with jealously guarded indifference. In one of most impersonal, clock-managed, overly technologized settings you can imagine, humanity exerted itself.

When the banjo picker packed up and got off at his stop, one of the remaining passengers on the bus turned to me and said, “You know who that was, don’t you? That was Bela Fleck.”

I hesitate to provide that detail, lest this story come across as a celebrity-spotting, my-brush-with-greatness anecdote. That’s not the point at all. The music did its work on us just fine without our knowing we were being treated to a private concert by a celebrity virtuoso.

But knowing that it was Bela Fleck who played for us only amplified what I already understood: his performance on the bus was an act of generosity. Mr. Fleck was coming off a concert tour of Asia and Australia; if I’m not mistaken, when his plane landed that night, it was the first time he had been home in over a month. And yet he pulled out his banjo and played a song for a dozen people who had no way of knowing what they were getting.

Why would he do that? I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it was because he was the only person on the bus who could do it. The artist’s imperative, at its heart, is to give what nobody else can give.

An artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


7 Comments

  1. evie

    Hey I know that guy. Not Bela, but that “get-everyone-riled-up-and-happy” salesman guy you speak of. He must do a LOT of traveling because it seems like he’s everywhere. (Although I could go ahead and shamelessly lay claim to Mr. Fleck…a friend of mine almost mowed down the Banjo Authority while pulling out of his driveway…I hear he was very forgiving. Doesn’t that count as knowing him?)

    Moments like this one, which you have so vivdly captured — they are what make life down here on earth bearable and bright. Here we are, trudging along with our faces toward the pavement, with hairy teeth and bleary eyes, tired from the flight. How gracious our Father is to bring about these glimpses of kindness and love from one limping, grey-faced human being to another. He knows our yearning for freshness and color, and delivers it to us in these strange, magical little slices of life where we feel His pleasure and are reminded that, “this…this is what life is about.”

    Bravo, Bela, bravo.

  2. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Pete, your teeth are indeed hairy, though “whiskery” might be a better word.

    Jonathan, I love the post. The image rings true, and is made even better by the fact that it was Bela-stinkin’-Fleck. I’ve heard similar stories about David Wilcox. That’s a kind of humility I haven’t figured out yet–the kind where you’re confident enough in your gift to play your banjo on the shuttle bus, but you’re humble enough to realize that your gift is for service. If I were on the shuttle bus I would have absolutely refused to play a note out of fear of being perceived as cocky. Just who do I think I am, whipping out a song in a situation like that? Bela Fleck?

    I remember C.S. Lewis saying somewhere that true humility allows us to see something we’ve made as objectively as if someone else had made it (and in a way, someone else did). If the work is good, we should be able to take joy in its beauty and goodness, and should share it whenever possible.

    But there’s no way I’m playing on the shuttle bus.

  3. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    AP, you might be referring to “The Weight of Glory”: “True humility dispenses with modesty…If God is pleased with the work, the work may be pleased with itself.” My wife has a friend who occasionally shows up with soup and says, “You’ve got to have some of this soup I made. It’s so good I had to share it.” False humility would have deprived us of the soup.

    This makes me feel better about my habit of reading my own books and laughing and laughing at the funny parts. If they aren’t funny to the writer, who could they possibly be funny to?

  4. Melody Prout

    this is amazing…in your art of writing you have captured what i could not have expressed myself…which is, of course, the point altogether.
    i write to let freedom out through words where others simply could not. i look for art to find a way to say what i have not been able to say. i sing to raise a sound that i could not find words for. what a lovely circle we artists weave for ourselves and others.

    well writen, friend.
    melody

  5. PattyT

    Jonathan and Andrew, I think it’s actually chapter 13 in Screwtape Letters (or rather I know that it is Screwtape and believe it to be chapter 13) in which CSLewis gives the most amazing extended definition of humility. Being as proud in what you did as what someone else did and as proud in what they did as the best of what you’ve ever done. Being proud of a sunset. Being proud of the majesty of an elephant. It is one of my favorite passages from him ever, as well as one of my favorites about humility, pride, or most any other piece of human condition. It helped form who I am, and in the past few years it has really helped me become a much better person than ever I was before.

    Loved this entry, too… it is hard to balance humility and confidence and it is hard to balance other people’s perceptions (good or bad, and your reaction thereto) into that equation. Serenity Now.

  6. Profile photo of Lancia E. Smith

    Lancia E. Smith

    @lanciae-smith

    Jonathan, while you wrote this piece years ago, I am new to The Rabbit Room and thus this piece is new to me. What a good tale you have shared. Your closing lines – “The artist’s imperative, at its heart, is to give what nobody else can give. An artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” – echoes something Anais Nin said. ” The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.” You have said beautifully what is true for each of us. Our calling is to give what no one else can the same way and to do for others what they cannot do. Thank you.

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