Really Being Present

by Mary Ann on August 26, 2010

When I was sixteen I portrayed Emily Webb in the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. I love that play. I didn’t understand it when I was sixteen. It was just an opportunity to do what I loved back then, be on stage.

As the years have gone by I have thought about that play on and off. Some of the scenes and words would come back to me and I would feel nostalgic about it, about growing up and getting older and moving away from that time. But I don’t think I really understood the play, not much better than when I was sixteen.

Emily: Live people don’t understand, do they?

Mrs. Gibbs: No dear-not very much.

Emily: Oh mother Gibbs, I never realized before how troubled and how…how in the dark live persons are. From morning till night, that’s all they are-troubled…But Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again…into the living.

Mrs. Gibbs: Yes, of course you can…All I can say is, Emily, don’t.

Emily: But I won’t live over a sad day. I’ll choose a happy one-I’ll choose the day I first knew that I loved George. Why should that be painful?

Mrs. Gibbs…At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.

Emily:…I choose my twelfth birthday.

Emily: Mama, I’m here! Oh how young Mama looks! I didn’t know Mama was ever that young.

Emily watches breakfast being served and conversations between her family members.

Emily, with mounting urgency: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead…Mama. Wally’s dead too…But just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.

Emily, in a loud voice, to the Stage Manager: I can’t. I can’t go on. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed…Do any human beings realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?

Mrs. Gibbs: Were you happy?

Emily: No…I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people…Mother Gibbs?

Mrs. Gibbs: Yes Emily.

Emily: They don’t understand do they?

The play is about the short life of Emily Webb, her growing and loving and dying. It is about going with her after death and her realization that all that really mattered in life were the relationships that she had but that most of us are so busy with things, cleaning, cooking, work, hobbies, getting through each day, that we miss the most important part.

What brought me to thinking about this play today? I was looking through old photos and weeping and weeping. I saw my two brothers who are gone and my dad who is gone. There were aunts and uncles and cousins, all gone. I spent time with them. I went to picnics and reunions with them. I lived with some of them. But I didn’t know them, not even my dad and my brothers.

Boe Dean, the poet

Brett, gone over forty years

Here is the beginning line of a poem written by my living brother not too many years before my dad passed away- “I know this man as father, yet I know him very little.” It is a beautiful poem, all about what he learned from my dad that has helped him in his life. Yet the beginning line holds a world of meaning and experience between the two.

Here is an excerpt I found in a letter I had written my dad many years ago. “Thank you for a piece of yourself. The letters from you to grandpa confirmed something I already knew, that as we grow older we make friends of our family members.” Why is that? Why do our children have to grow up and go away before they become our friends, before we know who they are, who they really are, if we ever even get that far? I think it is because we are so busy keeping track of what they will eat and won’t eat, how well they read, how they take care of responsibilities, what are their grades like, who do they hang out with, do they speak politely, and all the other concerns of good parents.

We need to be present. We need to listen to each other. We need to ask searching questions, beyond “how are your kids” and “are how is work going”? Questions like “How are you feeling”, “are you scared”, “what do you need”? We need relationships that go beyond just sharing a home or a work space or a church pew.

I clearly understand being present. I teach it all the time. When I have my grandchildren here I can be present while we use The Spark Station, an hour or two. But being present in my life is tougher. I admit it. I don’t call my mom enough. I don’t sit and listen to my husband dream enough. I don’t know enough about the hopes and dreams of my adult children. I don’t think enough. I don’t call friends enough. We live as if life will always be the same. The people we love will always be here. We have plenty of time to know them, to love them.

But we don’t! Life moves on relentlessly. People move away, sometimes they die. Sometimes they just stop being an everyday part of our lives. Making memories is wonderful. You know the birthday parties, graduations, births, etc. But really connecting with people we love, everyday, in all the mundane moments, that is the essence of a life well lived; not always hurried, stressed, worn out, or worried all the time. The everyday moments when we really talk with each other, when we hear each other, when we see each others Sparks and respond, that is real life!

These moments happen at the dinner table as we talk about great books, great people, current events and how we can serve, not about who spilled the milk, whose room is a mess and who needs to go where next. They happen during bath time and bed time and structured family learning time, while we share our hopes, dreams and interests with our children and they share back. They happen in the car on the way to the store. No cell phone at the ear, but good music playing as we talk about our community and what is going on. These moments happen as we weed the garden, clean the garage, take a walk, and do the dishes together. They happen when we free our mind from the babble of what has to be done next and focus on what is happening now, right now, with this child, with this spouse, with this friend, with this parent or sibling. They happen when we are not so caught up in life that we can’t appreciate life.

Being Present is an art. We have to practice it with real intent. When we fall short we practice some more. Whatever we focus on has to grow and expand. We can use this principle to become better at our relationships and our ability to be present.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Cindy August 26, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Breath taking…loved it.


Mary Ann September 18, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I loved it too. It really hits home doesn’t it! Thanks sis.


Jane December 21, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I just wanted to write and thank you so much for your wonderful Blog!!! I have been pouring over all your post and loving every one of them. Finding answers to questions that I have had and conformations on little insights I have recieved but to unsure of myself to follow through. I feel that I have touched hearts with a kindred spirit thank you for the time and effort you have put into this beautiful blog!!!


Marita April 19, 2013 at 8:28 am

Wow. I am so grateful to have happened across this today. Especially the picture you painted of Emily going back- that was very powerful.

Thank you for the reminder to be present. Getting off this computer to go and enjoy the privilege of being present with my family. Thank you!!


Mary Ann April 19, 2013 at 8:04 pm

I am so glad that this was helpful Marita. Thank you for stopping by and I hope you keep coming back. There is a lot here to share.
: )


Myra April 28, 2014 at 8:15 am

This is beautiful, MaryAnn, simply beautiful. Thank you for it.


Mary Ann April 28, 2014 at 8:50 pm

Thank you Myra. When you live a lesson and then share it, it is powerful!


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