Finding the Sublime in the Ordinary

Being awake to what is around us reminds me of one of my favorite scenes  in Our Town, a play by Thorton Wilder, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945.  This play is about a made-up town in America during the years of 1901 and 1913 through the ordinary, everyday lives of the people who live there. Think of a small town, of a simpler life before cars, indoor plumbing and electricity.  In the first scene we get to know the people of the  town, Grover’s Corners, and  there is  a wedding between Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who grew up together. In the second act nine years have passed. The Stage Manager acts as the narrator and puts our attention on the cemetery, in order to discuss eternity. He talks about all the people who have died in the town since the wedding, and the list includes Emily who died while having her second baby. As the funeral for Emily ends, she comes on stage to join the dead of the town, and one old-timer tells her to forget her former life. Emily is told that being able to see her family, but not being able to interact with them will be too hard. Further, being able to know what will happen in the future will cause her too much pain. 

Ignoring the warnings of the old-timers, Emily is granted the ability to return to earth for one day, to relive  her twelfth birthday. The day starts with Emily enraptured by seeing her loved ones again and her familiar home with everyone and everything she cherishes. She exclaims when she sees her parents, so much younger and vibrant, and some other beloved people in her town, for the first  time in years. Emily’s joy quickly turns to anguish because she realizes how wonderful life is, all the details that make a life rich, but she soon realizes that  people living their everyday lives don’t see the small wonders that surround them all the time. The old-timers were right. It was too painful to go back. She tries to tell her mother in the kitchen about the specialness of the day, but her mother keeps shushing Emily and keeps telling her to eat her breakfast. Finally, Emily realizes the truth the old-timers were trying to tell her, and her joy turns to anguish. This part of the dialogue is from Scene III:

EMILY:  I can’t! I can’t go on! (Sobs a moment) It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. (She breaks down sobbing again, controls herself and looks off to the left)  I didn’t realize. So much that was going on and we never noticed! 

She calls to the Stage Manager, turning slowly back to the scene in the kitchen where she sees her family on her twelfth birthday:

“ Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: wait! One more look!  Goodbye! Goodbye, world!  Goodbye, Grover’s Corners and Mama and Papa.  Goodbye to clocks ticking—and my butternut tree! and Mama’s sunflowers—and food and coffee—and new-ironed dresses and hot baths— and sleeping and waking up!” 

(Emily flings her arms wide in an ecstasy of realization) “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!”

 When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Thorton Wilder skillfully captures the essence of the wonder of life, through Emily’s eyes, coming back to visit for one day. This enjoyment of what we have right in front of us, is an art we can  appreciate and get better at. First we have to notice and be awake to the deliciousness of life– to the soft cheek of a baby, really the miracle of it,  or the laughter as we are doing the dishes together as a family, all there in the same room working together.  After we notice the delightfulness , then we can actually stop and enjoy the scene we are involved in right in front of us–actually being awake enough to the happiness we are feeling in the moment.  The last step is we can have a deep gratitude that we get to be a part of the scene. Really, all the steps and decisions we have made, all the work we have done to create this life we are living, is a gift given back when we notice the sublime moment happening, with us included.   I have posted here about Savor Moments. Sometimes when I am experiencing a simple and sublime moment, I will look at my husband and say, “Who gets this?” and we both know in this question that more money, or luxury, wouldn’t make us happier. We have learned that recognizing these bundles of joy, these Savor Moments as they are happening all around us all the time,  brings a new level of meaning in our lives. 

We can teach our children to work hard, to learn to launch away from us and make their way in the world. Let’s also remember to teach them how wonderful the world is, to enjoy their hard work and be awake to the deliciousness and delight that surrounds us daily.

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