Part of my daily ritual is reading The Writer’s Almanac, both for the poem offered and for the historical notes for the day because they often set me sailing on the sea of my thoughts with their gentle breezes of suggestion. Today was no exception because I learned eighty-two years ago today Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was performed for the first time. Wilder holds a special place in my heart for several reasons, not the least of which is the play itself. I remember acting it out in my high school classrooms, both as student and teacher, always intrigued at how universally the particular lives of the people of Grover’s Corners spoke to students.
My most enduring memory of the play is Rebecca telling George about the letter Jane Crofut received from her minister, and the way the envelope was addressed,
United States of America
Continent of North America
The Solar System
The Mind of God
I still feel what I felt the first time I read the scene, though I couldn’t name it then: visceral wonder. On the front of a simple envelope, Wilder captured the paradox of what it means to be human, to live lives of appropriate insignificance.
Wilder is also responsible for one of my favorite novels, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is the story of a priest who sets out to find about the lives of five people who die when a bridge collapses, seeking to answer the question, “Do we live by plan and die by plan or do we live by accident and die by accident?” His search gives him more than answers. I also feel connected to Wilder because of one of my writing mentors, Timothy Findley, who was mentored by Wilder, now over a half a century ago. (You can read that story in this post.)
I had the chance to spend the afternoon with Don, an old friend from Massachusetts, before I took him to the airport. I gave him a quick tour of Durham, including stops for hot dogs and coffee, but the highlight of our time together was the endless stream of conversation that wandered through past and present, profound and mundane, stacking up our words like stones for another altar in our friendship. I came home to find the Hope for Haiti Now telethon on most every channel. Some of the music was amazing: Springsteen singing “We Shall Overcome,” Mary J. Blige’s cover of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and Justin Timberlake singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In between the songs were stories of hurt and hope from the streets of Port au Prince and the call to help our sisters and brothers who are crushed and broken and homeless, our fellow citizens of the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God. George Clooney opened the evening asking why we should help. He gave stark statistics about Haiti before the earthquake, when it was a disaster, like Darfur, unworthy of the 24-hour news cycle. And then he called us to have hope enough to rebuild what was not there before.
“Hope, like faith” Wilder said, “is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”
The relief and attention being aimed at Haiti right now is crucial and beautiful and important, and it will not be enough. We will be rebuilding Haiti for the rest of my life – and that’s without another earthquake or hurricane, and long after the telethons have run their course, not unlike New Orleans and southern Mississippi. When I was looking up the website for the telethon, one of the links was to a news story about Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio each donating a million dollars to the relief effort. Jim Wallis was on The Daily Show this week talking about how the $150 million in bonuses the big banks were paying out could cover all the houses in danger of foreclosure until 2012. Big tragedies make us want to look at big numbers and wonder why those rich guys aren’t doing more. It’s a fair question, but if I go back and check the address, remembering that the ultimate neighborhood we share is the Mind of God, I bump up against the visceral wonder of the imagination that gave birth to us and built us to care for one another, and I catch a glimpse of the hope that helps to make us whole.