Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Stage Manager, Our Town
Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, opens in the year 1901. His three-act story follows the daily, mundane events of a few families in Grover’s Corners…events which, when all strung together, encapsulate the beauty and mystery of life…mostly unappreciated until it’s over.
Not much has changed in a hundred or so years. Most of us spend our days sleep-walking through the daily-ness of our existence, taking for granted the gifts of health, family, employment, hot water, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We stare through people and rush through moments to get to “the next thing.”
But what if it’s true, as someone has said, that “The divine moment is the present moment”? If divine is to be “of, from, or like God…or excellent; delightful” then each moment holds incredible power. Shouldn’t our perspective change when we remember that each moment offers us an opportunity to influence the human heart—our own and other’s—for good or ill?
To make things interesting, add Simone Weil’s words about beauty and affliction being the only things to pierce the human heart. And let’s be honest, it’s usually affliction which causes us to appreciate the beauty.
In early December I had what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill infection. However, my visit to the doctor turned into some unexpected tests and waiting! For most people this scenario would be a nuisance at best and a bit troublesome at worst. But for a woman with a PhD in hypochondria, this was the beginning of my end.
Len says I’m a walking medical miracle. In our early years of marriage, I was routinely cured of cancers, heart attacks, and a variety of other life-threatening illnesses. It was common for me to say as we drifted off to sleep, “If you wake up and I’m dead, I have a headache…so it was probably an aneurism.”
After a couple of weeks of waiting for results and a referral to a specialist, I had worked myself up to the real possibility that this could be my last Christmas. What if it was?
As residents of the universal Grover’s Corners, we all know death is a reality. And yet every time we hear of someone passing, our jaws drop as if a Cosmic Congress voted at midnight to slip a mortality amendment into the constitution of life.
I have friends who have received actual diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses. I always feel bad for them and pray for them. (Only to be encouraged by their positive outlook in spite of their fuzzy immediate future) But with my recent health scare I was forced to embrace the truth that we’re all terminal. Most of us just don’t know what we’re dying of yet.
For those of us who claim to believe in the stage manager’s “eternal,” the reality of death shouldn’t hold so much power. We might be healed in a temporal sense along the road of life and live to a ripe old age. But if not, we can find solace in the promise of “ultimate healing” in heaven where there is “no more sorrow, no more tears”…no more fear of terminal illnesses. (revised Cindi version)
But I’m greedy. Even though I have had an embarrassment of riches with the life I’ve already lived, I want more! The truth is, often the world my eyes can see brings more comfort than the hope of the one I can’t…even if it’s to be better. Many days my faith is on the life-support verse of Mark 9:24b, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Practicing faith at my house involves not looking up dire scenarios on the Johns Hopkins website.
With my renewed zeal for the precious commodity of time, I realize I have squandered millions of moments. A reflection by the deceased Simon Stimson, from Our Town, sums it up best:
…That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.
Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, this earthly gig will end for us all. So what if I get “the call?” What if you do? How do we want to be living in light of dying?
In the third act of Our Town, one of the main characters, Emily, dies and takes her place among the rest of the cemetery residents and they matter-of-factly discuss how the living “don’t get it.” Emily wants to go back and witness one day of her life, thinking it will be a great joy. Against the counsel of her grave-mates, she chooses her twelfth birthday. After only a few minutes into the flashback, she realizes how the living, really do “miss it”…miss life as it’s happening.
Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks at the stage manager and asks abruptly through tears) Do any humans beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.
Walter and Jack arrived home on the 23rd. I spent hours in the kitchen stirring love into soups, cookies, and coffee cakes. Our little family watched movies and ate popcorn dripping with butter. We worked puzzles, played scrabble and laughed. We talked about the previous years accomplishments and hopes for 2017. I leaned into the Christmas tree and breathed deep the smell of sweet pine. I stared at Len and the boys when they weren’t looking and thanked God for these three gifts. We were in the present together. It was exactly how I would want to spend my last Christmas.
I have some exciting professional opportunities in 2017. Chances are good I will be around to see what (if anything) happens, but you never know. And I’m getting okay with that. Why waste the blessings right in front of me worrying about a reality I can’t change?
We have a grapevine wreath wrapped with little white lights that hangs above the French doors leading into our den. I love those lights but usually stop myself from using them with the thought, “If you use them now they might burn out when you really want them for a special occasion.”
My mortality reality check and a day trip to Grover’s Corners have shown me that today is the special occasion—this very moment a gift.
Life’s too short to not use twinkle lights.