Saturday, January 16, 2010

new construction

Let me give you a piece of advice (and I speak from experience): If you’ve suffered a romantic disappointment, or if you woke up with a nagging sense that love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, do not that very day go see South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, in which Paulo Szot’s gorgeous, compelling baritone first overwhelms you with the promise of romance (“Some Enchanted Evening”), then destroys you with the pain of lost love (“This Nearly Was Mine”), before you’re completely undone with a last-minute true-love happy ending (orchestra goes mad, music crashes over you, stage goes black — oof). I staggered out of the theater into a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon and felt about as far from a tropical happy ending as is possible.

My romantic disappointment this time around was a minor one, on paper, yet somehow felt crushing. The only loss, really, was of the castle in the air that I’d built in mere moments, out of nothing but a few thrilling moments and promising “signs” and lots and lots of daydreaming.

“You’re letting your imagination run away with you,” my mother always said to me when I was a child. And it’s true: I did feel that once my imagination got started, I had no control over it. If it wanted to freak me out with thoughts of disaster and danger, off it would go, heedless of my growing terror and quickly working me up into quite a state, where a slow creak or a shifting shadow in our old house would make me nearly implode with panic.

That imagination still causes me plenty of trouble. I may not have to check under the bed at night, or fret about something dropping down onto me from a tree in the dark, but give me a little material and I can build a lovely 3D vision of the future—or rather, a future—that is so lovely and captivating that I can find it rather crushing to come back to earth and return to my real—and much more prosaic—life.

There’s nothing like romance for derailing my ongoing attempts to try to follow the Buddhist advice of living more in the moment. Perhaps this is because romance, bottom line, is all about anticipation of the happy future, about projecting into an imagined bliss. Not matter how enjoyable the romance might be in and of itself, the thrill comes from dreaming of what may come, from hoping that what’s happening now is a promise of what we want to happen later.

So a disappointment can feel wildly out of proportion, because it’s not about missing the actual person, or feeling their absence. It’s about mourning the loss of an entire envisioned life, a relationship and a person that didn’t even exist and yet have left a yawning absence behind. It’s about wrenching your gaze away from some glorious vista of love and happiness and enchanted evenings and returning your attention to what, in comparison, can seem as drab and flat as a cold, gray January afternoon.

My other current struggle with my imagination involves my now-active search for that ever-elusive next apartment. I’ve seen literally dozens of apartments; if it weren’t for the stress of having to make a decision, it would be nothing but fun to see all the different apartments—and all the different lives—available in Manhattan. You can do quirky in the West Village, rugged in Flatiron, perfectly nice in Gramercy, mad luxury in the Financial District (lap pool! three roof decks! room service! ping pong! billiards! indoor rock-climbing! free breakfast!), corporate in Chelsea, charming on the Upper West. (Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of real estate listings? I’m actually having nightmares about floor plans and obstructed views and closet space.)

And you know, it all sounds pretty great. I walk into an empty apartment and instantly visualize my brand-new life—making breakfast in a cool open kitchen, working at my desk overlooking killer river views, kicking back in a sleek design-y pad, all of the above set to a groovy soundtrack and starring a completely organized and with-it version of me.

Early in my search, I found a really fantastic place, which I now refer to as The One That Got Away (damn that broker!). In this one, my fantasies of my future life got seriously out of hand. I had already picked out my outfit for the great housewarming party, had met with clients at the giant metal desk that sat in the middle of the space, had trotted to and from the yoga studio around the corner, zipped over to Whole Foods to pick up some yogurt and apples…. You get the picture. After I had created such elaborate visions, not getting this apartment felt like someone had ripped my whole future away from me. (Again: damn that broker!)

And then there’s the fear of picking the wrong apartment! Of making a mistake! Then what? How will I live with myself and my poor decision?

With all of this pointless anxiety and self-inflicted disappointment, I need strong reminders of why living in the moment is so key. I got one the other night, again at the theater, this one the Sunday following the emotional tidal wave of South Pacific. This time, I had my wine before the show, and this time, the tidal wave was of an entirely different variety.

It was a performance of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theater. (Go, now—don’t miss it.) Our Town has a reputation, I believe, of being corny and old-fashioned—sentimental nostalgia—but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s lean and poignant and packs a major wallop at the end that smacked some sense of perspective back into me.

For those of you who didn’t pay attention in high school English class, Our Town is set in a small town (Grover’s Corners) in New Hampshire, beginning in 1901. Wilder wrote that, with Our Town, he wanted “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” He specifies right up front that there’s to be no scenery, no curtain; we’re just plunged right into life as it’s happening, with no sets or props to distract us. As our guide to the town, the Stage Manager, tells us after the first intermission, “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.” Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and the final act: That about covers it, right?

That final act is set in the graveyard, up the hill from town, with the dead sitting calmly and patiently, remote from the drama of the living. A young woman who has just died in childbirth—a character we watched in the first two acts—comes to join them, but can’t quite let go of her life yet. She asks the Stage Manager to let her go back and live one more day (her twelfth birthday). He warns her against it (“As you watch it, you see the thing that they—down there—never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards”), the others warn her against it, but she must see for herself.

She goes back, with all her knowledge, and tries to live in her life again—her mother making breakfast, her father back from a trip with a birthday present for her, the cold winter weather—but it’s too much. It’s not only that she knows the future; it’s that now she knows the great tragedy of life. She knows that we all die, and yet we don’t pay attention to life while it’s happening. She sees (and so do we, thanks to an astonishingly powerful coup de théâtre that I'm not going to give away) everything that she missed the first time around, everything that was too familiar to be noticed. And she delivers one of the great devastating speeches in theater:


I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. {She breaks down sobbing.} I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager

No. {Pause.} The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Shattered. I was simply shattered, and reading the lines now, I’m hit all over again. It’s so obvious, so simple, and yet so shocking: The clock is ticking, we’re all rushing toward the end, and yet, as Emily puts it, we’re “shut up in little boxes…. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”

In her brief time back among the living, Emily can only be heard by her family when she is speaking as her twelve-year-old self, so her mother cannot hear her great plea, but we, in the audience, can hear it:

Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.


  1. You've done it again, Siobhan, this is a beautiful post... Castles in the sky! And what I particulary like in reading you of late are the references you've mentioned of what to read and see. In weaving your life into these works of art (proving you're a true romantic) it pokes your readers into wanting to revisit those works. I for one would've pegged Our Town dated but reading its beautiful message I see that it's timeless. And now I want to see it.

    Well done, my friend, good luck in finding your castle, and (again!) your blog has the best graphics.

  2. Wonderful, thank you. That bit from Our Town makes me break down crying every time, and more so today, when I discover I've hurt my achilles tendon from running in insufficient footwear (I have since bought good shoes, but the damage was done), hence being UNABLE to run today, hence feeling like a total freaking failure...ahhhh, you get the picture. *sigh*