Monday over Coffee: "Saints & Poets"

Published October 31, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

The saints and poets maybe—they do some.
— Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town

What if you had died yesterday, but today somehow were granted life again? Think about it. What if you had passed away last night, but this morning were restored to the very circumstances you find yourself in right this minute? With the family you have. With the friends you have. In the community you live. With your health even such as it may be. Restored to the present in all things. Repatriated to this place. Brought back to this particular moment. How much would you savor this altogether ordinary right now?

In the coming months, one of New York's Broadway theaters will stage a revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. Dustin Hoffman will be portraying a character known in the play simply as the Stage Manager, a sort of narrator, but one who sometimes interacts with the other characters. The show is set in 1903 in a sleepy little town called Grover's Corner. It starts out with the Stage Manager introducing us to a few of its citizens, including a girl named Emily Webb and a boy named George Gibbs. The audience sees Emily's mother fixing breakfast before Emily and her brother go off to school. Men and women are working around town or at home. It's as ordinary as a day could be. That's the whole first act.

In the second act, perhaps even less happens. Emily and George, now a few years older, get married, buy a farm, and struggle along with the rest of the town with the mundane matters of life. So little happens in the second act that an audience member might be forgiven for asking, "So, how did this show win a Pulitzer Prize?" Well, there's a third act.

In the remarkable last section of the play, set a few years later, we learn Emily has died during childbirth. She observes her own funeral taking place in the town cemetery and even speaks to some of the other dearly departed citizens of Grover's Corner, including George's mother Mrs. Gibbs, who has also passed away. There in the graveyard, Emily sees George suffering and laments to Mrs. Gibbs, "It won't be the same to George without me, but it's a lovely farm." Then Emily asks Mrs. Gibbs, "Live people don't understand, do they?" Mrs. Gibbs replies, "No, dear—not very much."

Emily is then told if she chooses to do so, she can return to a single day in her life. Mrs. Gibbs advises Emily that she not choose the most momentous of her days, but rather choose the least important one. "It will be important enough," she tells Emily. Emily decides upon her twelfth birthday and as the day unfolds, she's so overcome by what she's experiencing that she finally turns to the Stage Manager who's been standing off to the side and with mounting urgency complains to him: "It goes too fast. We don't have time to look at one another." She then breaks down sobbing. "I didn't realize," she says, "all that was going on and we never noticed." At the end of the third act, through her tears, Emily asks him, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" The Stage Manager replies, "No." But then he thinks for a moment and adds, "The saints and poets maybe—they do some."

I admit that the question What if I had died yesterday? can be a pretty grim one to ask ourselves each morning, so maybe we can begin to think more like saints, more like poets, by asking another sort of question. Try this one: How can I make this current situation I'm in today—the one I'm in right now—holy?

It might mean looking around to notice a fallen leaf, the slope of an anthill, or the construction of a wasp's nest. It might mean slowing down to really look into the eyes of the person right in front of you. It might mean including someone standing off to the side who's been left out. Maybe it's reconnecting with the family you have, or a friend you've forgotten. It might mean savoring your breakfast a little more, listening to someone's story a little more intently, sending a note to someone who's lost a loved one recently, resting in silence, or just letting yourself laugh a little more deeply at something funny. It might just mean ruminating on the question for a bit to realize all that's going on that you never noticed before. And simply by noticing it, make it holy.

God — Help me to sanctify this very moment. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk