The Ordinary is the Extraordinary


One of the most powerful moments in American literature occurs in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.

Emily, a main character, has died in childbirth and gone to Heaven.

The Stage Manager, a narrator and commentator, asks Emily to identify a time in her short life to which she would like an earthly return. Emily says she would return for an ordinary day (the type we all take for granted). She does go back for her 12th birthday, and after watching her parents (who look so young!), she comments to Mrs. Gibbs that, “Live people really don’t understand.”
Mrs. Soames, also a member of the Dead, laments, “My, wasn’t life awful–and wonderful.”

I taught Our Town many years. When I was younger, in my 20’s and 30’s, I had few problems moving my students through those poignant lines. After all, there were more days ahead for me than behind.

After my grandparents died, the lines in the play began to take on a little emotional crust. When my Dad died in 1995, I couldn’t get through the play without choking up. Ahhh…the ordinary days we squander away, worried about our bank accounts, the election, our kids’ grades, our schedules. Mr. Wilder was on to something precious.

Today’s parents of upwardly mobile and affluent kids often miss the boat. Instead of taking those ordinary daily activities, such as breakfast, a football game or badminton tournament, or the car ride to school, and savoring them as they would a spicy dish, parents push their kids in ways that suck any appreciation of the ordinary into the Black Hole of Intensity.

The B+ is a failure.
Getting into UC Irvine is a failure.
Scoring 1900 on the SAT is a failure.
Not equaling cousin Jeremy’s GPA is a family disappointment.

As Emily watches her birthday celebration, and the giving of gifts, she realizes one of Life’s most important messages: It is the little things in Life that really matter. Our Town ends with Emily’s haunting lines, “They [the living] don’t understand, do they?”

This week I heard three pieces of troubling news:

My mother’s dear friend Mary, in her early 90’s, died suddenly in the night. Mom had just played bridge with her that day.

My friend in his 50’s was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer.

My former Mission student and a dear friend’s son, age 35, had a heart attack last week. He lived and will recover fully.

Thornton Wilder ended his play with the Stage Manager’s rudimentary call to say Good Night. Life on Earth in Grover’s Corners would continue the way that Life does around the world.

Today, as you move about our earthly sphere, the Dead may be watching.

It is the ordinary that is extraordinary.

Good Night.

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Ordinary is the Extraordinary

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the important reminder. Being grateful is the key. We are surrounded by so many wonderful people.

  2. Jen S says:

    I enjoyed your very thoughtful post. Makes me want to read the book! I found your group on Facebook and now your blog through “The Grammar Girl’s” group.

  3. Jen S says:

    Oops! I said “book” when I should have said “play” in my first comment. That’s what I get for racing through your blog and leaving a quick comment (which reminds me, I loved the nail polish story too!) 🙂

  4. tsblock says:

    Absolutely wonderful. Ahh, so much we can learn through literature. Great connections Mrs. Block Sabraw! Loved it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    As a former English teacher myself, I loved your blog. It brought back many memories of teaching Our Town and my reaction to those very same lines. Your writing is lovely. Thank you.

  6. Rozeta Yaghoub says:

    I must say this is a great reminder that we should really appreciate everything we have and do not have. We have learned to focus on “being successful” which it means becoming rich and making money that the value of being a family and love has lost its meaning.
    I really like this blog.

  7. Missy says:

    This is such a nice blog post. Thank you.

  8. Ash says:

    As I’ve learned from experience, you never know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
    Great post, Mrs.Sabraw.

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