There are a few really poignant scenes in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" that have always stayed with me since reading the screenplay when I was 15. I had to play George in a school play. It was hell for a boy who's overweening goal at that point was to slip through the cracks and emerge by choice into social life when I was good and ready.
Even so, it got me to read the screenplay, and it was my introduction to more metaphysical thinking. Later on, struggling with the awful bullshit of English Lit at college, I damn near gave up on this sort of thing when the old queen who taught the class would wax orgasmic about Thoreau and the transcendentalists.
I hate Thoreau. He was a self-aggrandizing, preening, effeminate failure of a man who's life's work could be summed up by the image of a manlet pouf spending 30 years watching himself masturbating in front of a full-length mirror and then expecting to be thanked for it. Walden had it's moments, I'll admit, but that's about it. Moments.
Yeah, I read. My dad was wicked smaht, as we say where I grew up, so I could always ask him when I didn't get what the hell I was reading. Just because I speak and often act like a lout, and am one often enough, doesn't mean I'm not a self-aware lout.
Anyhow, Our Town, if you've never seen it, well, you probably won't. It's a depression-era play that would be unwelcome in our intensely intolerant 21st century. Discussions and expositions on the need and desirability for stable marriages, examination of the role of age on the practice of sin and good and bad habits, and a message of the hopeful joy to be found in daily life in a small town...
That's the sort of shit that gets that midget little shite Jon Stewart to foam at the mouth. Fucking better clingers, amirite?
When I first read the story, I knew I was reading something that was partially going over my head. A 15-year old, I saw the value of what I was reading, and enjoyed it far more than I expected. 40-something me, I realized that Our Town was a gateway story for me, something that opened my mind a bit and matured me as I read it- I knew I wasn't getting everything I could out of the story, and I also knew that eventually I would. It was a cool moment, there in some English class I barely remember at a time in my childhood where joy was thin on the ground.
Our Town is a 3-act play that follows central characters in a small town through the arc of their lives within the town, focused on key moments in the main character's lives... and I thought of it today when an adult from my own childhood commented on a picture of my wife and I on Facebook, of all things.
Not really my fault- there's a great passage there about the passage of time in a small community, where so many things stay the same, but the people who experience it slow down and age more than the background, and treasure it for that reason, too.
I had a core group of wonderful friends who I am still in contact with. I'm in constant contact with several guys I went to Kindergarten with. Their parents played an important part in my childhood- they were authority figures and role models who weren't my own parents.
To 7 year old me, the grown ups were grown ups. As I grew up, they looked the same. My memories of these people stretch as long as my friendships with their kids- I'm 42, so we're talking 35+ years. It's only now that I see them as they are- when we were kids, they were the age we are today. We've experienced the same key moments in our town, and while we experienced different aspects of them, we share the commonality of it.
The picture I put up today shows my wife and I together- I see the heavy crow's feet around my eyes, and the damage from being in the sun for much of my life, and the hairline receding, and my beard is now only half red, with white overtaking it... and I'm OK with that. It makes me think of what my son will think of in 30 years, when he sees himself at the age I am today.
Some of my childhood friends visited my mom a few months ago. She's elderly now, and frail, and I don't know if my friends realized how happy she was, but they did see that she remembers everything, and treasures the memories.
I'm very aware that my mom is coming towards the clearing at the end of the path now, there to rejoin my father, and while I hope we have more time yet, I don't think she has much in the way of real regret- and for my friends' parents, some who have already gone before, some who are still with us, I think, and pray, they have that in common.
Weeks before he passed away, my dad mentioned a quote from something he was told when he was a kid:
As I see you now, so I once was,
As you see me, so shall you be.
I love the duality of that quote- the frailties and complaints of old age juxtaposed with the marks of a life well lived and loved.
Well, blame it on Our Town. At the time, people thought the play a sappy reaction to the shitty world of the Depression era. To me, the message is that the grand moments are worth valuing in the present even more so than in the past, but either way, both will have lasting impact, not because of the place or even the events themselves, but because humanity itself has value.
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