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The Paw Paw River Journal

Published September 18, 1985

Measuring time

Early morning and I am sitting on the back porch. No sounds, except the birds and some trucks winding down the hill from Lawrence on 1-94. I have come out here to think and write in the quietness.

On the way, I plugged in the coffee pot, but I did not turn on the radio or TV. Many people do that as soon as they get up. Background noise is somehow comforting. Everywhere we go… background noise. Most places it is music. A music teacher friend of mine calls it wallpaper sound... in elevators, K-Marts, even many businesses. You call them on the telephone, a nice young feminine voice says, “Just a moment... I must put you on hold...” Then the music comes in your ear. When that happens, I usually hang up.

I have nothing against watching or listening. Many times I do turn on the radio too. I also have favorite TV programs... some of them a little sleazy. That’s not what I mean. I am talking about having noise in the background to keep us from thinking. That is a terrible intrusion.

Somehow I am becoming more and more aware of the finite nature of our time on this earth. It’s sort of unsettling, but I have this urgent desire to think all of the thoughts, hear all of the sounds (natural, not manmade), see all of chiaroscuro (light and shadow), smell all of the smells, feel satiny skin, eat the food, laugh with friends and lover, do all of the things associated with this life. Guess I’m hooked on the whole world, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

Thornton Wilder wrote a famous play called “Our Town.” This last spring, Jim Keech and the Watervliet High School players presented a marvelous production of the story. It is about ordinary, everyday life in a small New England town. The Stage Manager (one of the characters in the story) has extraordinary powers. He shows us, the audience, a series of scenes in the lives of the main characters. The scenes are several years apart, and the last ones are in the cemetery. There, some of the characters are waiting in a sort of purgatory for all of the impurities of their human existence to leave them.

At the cemetery, Emily, our heroine, is newly arrived. She is reluctant to leave life, her baby and her husband. The Stage Manager tells her that she can go back and relive any day in her life that she wishes. The others warn her not to, or at least to pick an unimportant day, because even that will be too much to bear.

So, Emily chooses to go back and relive her 12th birthday. But the bittersweet joy and memories of that day are too much for her, and she cannot do it. She says, “So all of that was going on while I was living?” Then she asks the Stage Manager (who controls everything), “Does anyone realize life, all of it, while it is going by?”

The Stage Manager says, “No.” Pause. “The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”

I don’t belong in either of those categories, but I do realize time is passing. That play helped to make me see it. I do not want the noise of the TV to lull me. I want to keep my innermost self aware -hold back the hands of the clock... if not possible to hold them back, then pack in all of the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and emotions I can.

Emily says, after trying to relive her 12th birthday, “Earth, you are too wonderful for anyone to realize you.” But we can try. We can sharpen our senses, make ourselves more aware. Even then we will surely have regrets. But in the trying we may find joy. And that will be what we call living our lives.

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