So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
I sat outside this morning on this most ordinary day, and watched the sunrise. Just as the sun painted everything golden I thought of Emily’s question in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”
Wilder said that he wrote Our Town as “an attempt to find value above all price in the smallest events in our daily life”. He longed to cherish every, every minute, of every, every day. Wilder believed that the seemingly unimportant happenings in the day are among the most important.
The setting of Our Town is a small, ordinary New England town that Wilder calls Grover’s Corner. Everything about Our Town is the essence of the commonplace. The characters are all simple townsfolk living uneventful lives in an uneventful little town, ordinary in every way. Wilder makes it clear that no one from Grover’s Corner ever went on to fame and fortune.
The play’s three acts comprise the familiar essentials of routine, common, ordinary family life. We watch the daily rituals of two neighboring families until the daughter of one, Emily, marries the son of the other. It is all the stuff of ordinary life, until ACT III when Emily dies in childbirth at 26 years of age.
Here the scene takes place in the town cemetery as the people buried there talk about life in their hometown. The recently deceased Emily looks back to her earthly life wanting to relive just a single day. She asks the Stage Manager, who also serves as Narrator, if she can return for a brief visit. The Stage Manager advises her to choose the least important day of her life, because “It will be important enough”.
But Emily makes the mistake of choosing her twelfth birthday, a day she finds her father consumed with his work and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. They don’t have the time to pay attention to each other or to life. After watching for while, Emily pleads with her mother:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama! Fourteen years have gone by! – I’m dead!…But, just for a moment now we’re all together – Mama, just for a moment let’s be happy. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed!
Emily is grief stricken by what she sees and pleads with the Stage Manager to return up the hill to her grave. But before she returns, she asks for one last look at life:
But first, wait! One more look. ‘Good-by! Good-by world. Good-by, Grover’s Corner, 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.
Emily looks at the Stage Manger through her tears and asks “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?” The Stage Manager answers: “No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.”
I am neither a saint or a poet, but I do long to live every, every minute of life. I want to see the extraordinary in every ordinary day. Watch the sun come up. Smell the flowers. Drink a cup of coffee. Talk to my sons. Look out the window at the moon. Look for God in everything.
The Stage Manager suggested to Emily that maybe “saints and poets” live each day to its fullest. So let me close this ordinary reflection on an ordinary day with the prayer of a saint, and the prayer of a poet. Each one helps me treasure the life that goes by so fast.
The first prayer is that of a saint, Moses: “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). Help to live and treasure each day!
The second prayer is that of a poet, E. E. Cummings (please excuse his life-long refusal to abide by the rules of conformity, punctuation, and good grammar):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Grace and peace; may the eyes of our eyes be open this ordinary day!