Grover's Corners and Dancing in Hurricanes

Back in college, I was invited to participate in a production of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, which was being put on by the drama department of Notre Dame College.  It was a nice diversion from my engineering studies for one thing, as well as causing me to gain two really good friends from the then-all-female enrollment of that school.  I don’t recall ever actually reading for any one particular role, but I wound up with the part of George Gibbs, who starts out as a wide-eyed kid in the first act, falls in love with and marries his childhood sweetheart, Emily Webb in the second, and then finally has to deal wordlessly with her early death in the third.

Much as I always liked the idea of acting, I don’t know as the play or the role of George Gibbs really suited me all that well.  There was something in Gibbs’ wide-eyed, not-quite-innocent character that I couldn’t equate to.  I’d been brought up first in suburban Cleveland, Ohio and Winnetka, Illinois, both pretty sophisticated towns, and the mindset of a country cousin like George just wasn’t in me that I could find.  No great surprise, the environment of Grover’s Corners, its people and unremarkable day-to-day were largely outside of my experience as well.  Thinking back on it, I can’t imagine that I represented George very well to the audience as a result.  I suspect I looked rather a stiff on stage.

I may not have been willing to acknowledge it at the time, but there was a lot that put me off about Our Town, but nothing so much as one line, spoken by Emily Webb, as she comes to terms with her own death during the third act:

Oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Adjacent to that line, she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly recognizes all the wonder of life while they live it, and is told, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

My impression, right or wrong, is that Wilder thought we sleepwalk through our lives, and to a degree, maybe he was right.  It does seem as though many people go through life largely on autopilot, going through the required motions while failing to see the beauty that surrounds them on a daily basis.  In 1938 when Our Town was first performed, people were beginning to get a more global perspective on their place in a world which had content they had no idea about, a world that could impinge on them on something more than just a local basis.  The idea of the Milky Way being only one of a nearly uncountable number of galaxies was a very new concept back then.  The vastness of reality was growing quickly, and it is very possible that people were either dismissive, unaware, or frightened of even a fraction of what that immensity entailed.  Many of them likely wanted to keep their lives simple and not overly convoluted and back then, and mostly they were successful.

The problem has always been, though that external events have a tendency to disrupt such self-involved reveries.  Such events may be as simple as a birth or a death, the entrance or departure of someone from our lives or as complex and tumultuous as those which occurred on 7 December, 1941 or 11 September, 2001.  Such transients superimpose themselves on us, flip a taunting middle finger at our routine, and play 52-Card Pickup with our lives.  They force us to recognize hitherto unrecognized situations and facts, both about others and, more uncomfortably, about ourselves and thereafter to make necessary corrections, which cause even more internal distress.

That is, IF we’re willing to make such changes.  There are those who assiduously resist change in certain venues, especially if the change threatens an established lifestyle or belief.  Some will resist, deny facts on the ground, or make excuses as to why this alteration in their day-to-day doesn’t apply to them.  Then there are those who have the wherewithal to recognize that Life IS Change, that shit does indeed occasionally happen but, to borrow from Louis Pasteur, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  These are the people who LOOK at the world on a daily basis, perhaps instead of staring obsessively into their cell phones, who take in the reality around them.  They recognize reality’s ability to alter or interrupt their lives, but they have chosen to enjoy and embrace it rather than to dread or ignore it.

I submit that it is that second group which makes a lie of Emily Webb’s assertion that the world is beyond the grasp or appreciation of the living, and there are a considerable number such people here on A|N and elsewhere who embody that attitude.  We watch Cosmos or Through the Worm Hole and marvel at the universe.  We see the impact of climate change and don’t just deplore it but determine to do something about it.  We recognize the serendipitous luck that allowed us to be alive, and we deeply appreciate that rare and precious opportunity.  We’re not just glass-half-full people; we know where the water pump is, and we know how to use it.  Do we have a complete and comprehensive understanding of our world?  Perhaps not, but we’re willing and interested in learning and growing, in a milieu which would scare Emily and the denizens of Grover’s Corners to death.

We appreciate and realize Earth and more: we have learned to dance, if sometimes unsteadily, in the hurricane which is life.

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Comment by Loren Miller on May 14, 2017 at 5:39am

John, at some point, I would very much like to hear your take on the whole business of the southern mindset (presuming you can hold the word count to something well below a doctoral dissertation!).  I've heard hypotheses from not getting over the Civil War to obstinacy stemming from an uninformed rural mentality.  Being immersed in it, you KNOW, where many of us simply don't.

A blog entry or something like would be very welcome to me and others, I am sure.

Comment by John Elder on May 14, 2017 at 4:19am

I live in South Georgia Bertold. I am surrounded by tribalist nut jobs of just about every ilk. Ignorance breeds gullibility and unfortunately the ignorant masses are dangerous as well as delusional. There's a conspiracy/ theory advocacy group for every cause imaginable. Down here it's impossible to imagine a benign unified county government, let alone a global one!

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on May 11, 2017 at 12:38pm

Very nicely stated, John. It's kind of fascinating how the very thing we most desperately need, one (benevolent - big qualifier there) world government, is the biggest bugaboo of the tribalist nut jobs who are busy convincing their tools that the black helicopters will be landing any minute to take our guns and brand a sku on our foreheads.

Comment by Loren Miller on May 11, 2017 at 7:14am

Again, thanks, John.

As it comes to your comment to Joan, I've probably thrown out the following quote a dozen times or more here on Atheist Nexus, but it makes an important statement which I think cannot be overstated:

If we’re to grow up as a species, we need to address the systems that infantilize us.
-- TheraminTrees

Comment by John Elder on May 11, 2017 at 6:09am

Joan: I couldn't agree more with your comment: "facing destructive elements join together to confront and overcome the challenges we face." I have come to firmly believe that humanity will not progress in any significant way until we can leave the tired old, compulsive behaviors of history behind us. Primary among those behaviors is our tendency to form xenophobic identity groups that prevent us from unifying as a whole to address reality based serious problems, or to develop common ethics truly based in global common good. As long as we drag around the chains of group think and reject the common humanity of us all we are not really seeking solutions. We are seeking group advantages based in our group's special interests. When we can leave behind the influences of our groups, ethnic, sex, religious, political, nationalistic, etc., etc., then we might move ahead. In the meantime, all we have is Loren's hurricane. 

PS: Loren: I like that analogy so much I think it should become our catch phrase our eras "ball of confusion".

Comment by John Elder on May 11, 2017 at 5:56am

To reply to your comment:"@John Thanks a lot.  This is sort of a different style for me, and I'm glad it had some resonance." I would say that you do have a talent for it. Your piece above is powerfully well written. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on May 9, 2017 at 5:48pm

Each one of you, Loren, John, Spud, Bertold, inspire and inform me. I am grateful beyond words to have you and the others who want to overcome the destructive forces at work during this era. I so much hope we, and those who recognize the potential risks of "common knowledge" and the factors that play into the destruction of the social safety net join together for a coalition of strength and wisdom. Blacks, fighting against racism; women, fighting against sexism; immigrants fighting against bigotry, and many others facing destructive elements join together to confront and overcome the challenges we face. Loren,  

@Loren, when problems accumulate and conflicts spread, you seem to rise to a higher level of writing. Your selection of words, the formulation of ideas, your vision of a preferred future give me goosebumps of hope.  I truly love the way you write. Passion resides in your words.

@John, "the goal is to live in passion," each in his and her way, speaks to my intention. You provide a stabilizing force in your calm, yet passionate, words. 

@Spud, you catch that wind of dancing in the hurricane. I have an image of you and me swirling in a field of potatoes and onions, celebrating the great gifts of life.

@ Bertold, "we will never be here again" puts us on a track upon which we can travel on the track to real wealth, we know this life is all that we have. 

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on May 9, 2017 at 5:11pm

In a similar vein, as The Eagles put it,

We may lose or we may win

But we will never be here again

Comment by Idaho Spud on May 9, 2017 at 12:27pm

I love your final sentence Loren.

I'm learning to dance in the hurricane, due in large part to the teachers here on Atheist Nexus. 

Comment by Loren Miller on May 9, 2017 at 6:12am

@John Thanks a lot.  This is sort of a different style for me, and I'm glad it had some resonance.

@Joan The thing about this piece is that we know what there is to lose, and I think that maybe there are enough people aware of that potential loss to DO something about it and stick with what they do until they succeed and the threat is removed.  We're all doing something.  I'm trying to speak truth to stupid; Joan, you work in permaculture; Ruth focuses on climate change and similar topics, and not one of us has let up, that I can determine.

We're gonna dance that dance, regardless.

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