Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Town, Our Town & Harper Lee's Town

So—people a thousand years from now—this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.—This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
-"Our Town" Thornton Wilder

Day by day I am beginning to be more fascinated by the small, seemingly routine moments of my everyday life. I've come to believe that obsessively looking forward to those "big moments" we often measure our life by - the birthdays, graduations, vacations we have planned, adventures we are counting down to - is often the primary thing that keeps us from enjoying the only thing we can every truly enjoy - The Present Moment. In my own life I have experienced this paradox first hand. If I get into the mode of constantly looking forward to that next "big" event, I start to take everything that is happening right now for granted - it takes on a secondary importance. Like anything else, living in the moment is like a muscle. If you don't exercise it, it will atrophy. So when the day or the moment of that much-anticipated event happens, the catch-22 is that I can't truly enjoy it because my mind is off looking into the future and wanting to anticipate the next big event.

Never has this subtle but powerful point been so beautifully captured for me as in the staging of "Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theater. I walked away from this play with an intense awareness that I must find beauty and joy and wonder and excitement in the life that surrounds me everyday. I need to look on my life anew each morning, even if holds for me familiar locations and people and tasks. The way director David Stromer crafted the third act was as enduring a reminder of that simple truth as any I have seen on stage.

Speaking of simple truths, I finished re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird some time ago and have not yet put my thoughts to paper. Harper Lee's fictional town of Maycomb, Mississippi is much like the town of Grover's Corner in Wilder's play. It is an unassuming town full of seemingly unremarkable characters. Both towns are products of their time and their geographical location. Depression era South in the case of Maycomb and Turn of the Century New England in the case of Grover's Corner. In many ways, these are two unremarkable towns. Yet two deeply reflective artists managed to write about them and capture something enduring and essential about what it is to be human. Thornton Wilder challenged me to try and truly realize and appreciate life as I live it - not only in the rear view mirror or miles ahead off in the distance. Harper Lee reminded me that one can never judge another person unless they have truly walked a mile in their shoes. That metaphor has particular resonance with me now, as I prepare to walk many miles in a few different pairs of (hopefully comfortable) shoes. But it is true. And given that it is so exceedingly rare that we can ever truly know or experience exactly what another person has had to go through or endure, it seems as though the writer of the Gospel of Matthew cut right to the core of it when he quoted Jesus as saying "Don't condemn others, and God won't condemn you. God will be as hard on you as you are on others!"

There is something instinctual in us that wants to judge others. Maybe it is born out of elaborate need to protect our own fragile egos and convince ourselves that we are smarter or more moral or more worthy in the sight of God or of others. Yet our prophets - both religious and literary - are clearly saying something quite different. They are saying don't judge. Try your best to understand and empathize, but don't judge. Let your love and your kindness speak for you. Those human qualities have the melody of a song. Condemnation is more like the sound of nails against a blackboard. Which do you want to be the soundtrack of your life?

Which leads me finally to my town. New York City. I love this town. Its vibrance. Its diversity. Its sheer craziness at times. Beautiful buildings coexist next to run down ones. Poor people rub shoulders in the subway with very rich. Happy people walk the same streets as those who are sad. Hundreds of languages are spoken and listened to and argued in. Life is buzzing around me and all I need to do is appreciate it as much as I can in the Present moment. That way, everyday can be an adventure. Not just the ones that mark the big events of my life.


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