except what everyone knows –
if there when Grace dances,
I should dance. ~ W.H. Auden
(image above from This Quiet Lady by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrations by Anita Lobel)
Spoiler alert #1: This post is initially about sad stuff.
Spoiler alert #2: Life is being particularly good to me right now, so I’m not sitting down in order to write a “dark night of the soul” blog post.
So, here it is.
I have a friend who is dying of brain cancer.
She is a college friend with whom I’ve kept up only a little bit over the years. Originally, our acquaintance was that we shared a best friend and became housemates at the busiest (and best!) part of my favorite. four years. ever.
Without searching messages, I have to guess that it was a year (or less) ago that this common best friend had to notify me that a grim diagnosis had been given to our former housemate. The news really came out of the blue. Her story is similar to others who have been touched by this shocking form of cancer. Our friend had a headache one day, and a few short months later she is now home saying her last goodbyes to her children and adored husband.
So, when I sat down to write last week, and was imagining K.’s children spending their summer break watching her pass on, Thorton Wilder quotes were a kind of obvious (to me anyway) place of comfort and wisdom for me.
It’s safe to assume that if you are an American following or stopping by my little blog you have seen Thorton’s play Our Town. It is a favorite of High School and Community theaters for a reason.
It has the best theater lines, ever.
I mean – ever.
I am biased and my reasons are of course personal, but I mean it.
I would offer to turn this post into a place of debate or discussion, but I hate debate and my opinion is not up for ransom or reason. I’m not a jerk though, so feel free to leave comments as I am on summer break (wiggles in her seat) and have time for lively discussion.
The conversations between Emily and The Stage Manager (the lead characters of the show) contain the safest and best theater words for me because they remind me of the enchanted parts of my childhood. My father was an actor, director and teacher and I was his shadow. Literally. As in, Dad couldn’t shake me from his side until my brother broke the rules and taught me how to cross the street alone. At this point I started wandering the streets of our little city and making friends my own age.
So, lucky I am indeed to have shared the stage with my father on the weekend that he retired from his favorite stage. Mind you, these are floorboards that he spent the most time on as a student, theatre professional, husband, and father. He turned 80 this year, so I would guess that time span to be something like 50 or 60 years, give or take a summer season elsewhere here and there.
We were part of a medley of theater scenes during a reunion show, and part of our daughter/father “I love you” ‘s were exchanged in the form of my playing Emily and he the Stage Manager in Wilder’s tender “Good-bye Scene.”
But still – had I been raised by a biologist and my best skill set turned out to be bee-keeping, I would still believe that (with due respect to the Shakespeare) Emily’s good-bye is the most relatable “to be or not to be” string of words out there.
All good theater is good because the script is about life, death, love and hate. Most likely, the writer created an entertaining time travel to all four corners of human experience and wrapped the story up with a bow at the end.
Even good existential shows wrap up at the end – it’s just a tricky “un-bow” kind of curtain call.
What makes the pleading questions that Emily asks of the Stage Manager so perfect is that the joy and pain that she describes can’t be contained by cultural and historical context. Of course her character works well for me because I am a white girl having been raised by a mid-western father, so a white picket fence story is what I know and the life I cherish.
But, context aside, in Our Town, when the character Emily is looking at her life, and struggling with having passed on as a very young woman, her self-doubt and guilt is not about whether or not she raised good children or was a faithful wife.
And. Her anger at the Stage Manager is not that she died young.
She is upset because she missed out. She failed to acknowledge grace as often as she could.
And, with the help of the Stage Manager, her self-appointed sins are absolved as he explains that:
All of which to say, I am VERY thankful for an open window this morning, time to reflect and am reminded to not try so hard.