Sacred simplicities

By Ched Bradley

In high school I had a small part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, that iconic American play celebrating simplicity. Recently I saw a film of the 2003 stage production starring the late Paul Newman as the Stage manager. I had a dim understanding of Wilder’s point in 1962, but now I understand it more fully.

In the play, the young bride Emily dies in childbirth. In the afterlife, she learns that she can return unseen just once for a day. Her departed relatives and acquaintances counsel against it, because “the living don’t understand.” They don’t understand that they’re too busy to notice the sacred in the ordinary. But in a longing for reconnection, Emily returns to learn that her counselors were right.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi captured the corollary; “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” I wish I could relive the simple times spent with my maternal grandfather – a bright, gentle man who deeply loved me, God only knows why. We played catch on the beach; he serenaded me with folk songs; and made fun of my doting grandmother’s tireless and mostly failed efforts to teach me manners. I wish I could spend just one day with my mother. We talked about trivia, mostly, because many subjects were perilous. But, like my grandfather, she loved me unconditionally which I felt in my soul. I miss my Kansan grandmother, a creative volcano who taught me to drive in a cemetery, and who led me down a rose trellis (from the second floor) to outflank my crotchety grandfather who forbade us to leave to explore tornado damage.

Why are life’s daily simplicities sacred? Perhaps it is because they are so often about love. I appreciate now the love that we experienced in the ordinary. Must it remain true that “the living don’t understand?” Probably, though I suppose if I adopted a moment-to-moment earnestness, people would wonder (even more) about me. But the longer I live the more important is the unadorned company of family and friends, and the better I understand that simple love is the meaning of life.

In his book, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Alexander McCall Smith says, “…for that is what redeems us, that is what makes our pain and sorrow bearable – this giving love to others, this sharing of the heart.” Our children can learn from us the sacredness of simplicity appreciated over a lifetime. Jane Sigloh writes, in Like Trees Walking that “…old lovers leave a legacy for the young because what binds them together, even when separated by death, is deeper, broader, and higher than they ever imagined was possible.” In Wendell Berry’s poem, To Tanya at Christmas, the poet speaks to this legacy:

Our lives rise

in speech to our children’s tongues.

They will tell how we once stood

together here, two trees

whose lives in annual sheddings

made their way into this ground,

whose bodies turned to earth

and song. The song will tell

how old love sweetens the fields.

Amen. Amen.

Ched Bradley is senior warden at St. Luke’s, Bethesda.

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