One day last week I was driving and fiddling with the radio, trying to find something entertaining to keep me awake. I came upon a Kenny Chesney-Dave Matthews duet called, simply enough, "I'm Alive." The words aren't particularly original, maybe even a bit trite, but the message I heard as I rode along was quietly uplifting. With Thanksgiving upon us, and all of the incumbent expectations to enumerate the contents of our lives for which we are grateful, the lyrics struck me as the perfect message for all of us living in this complicated age.
The singers tell us that it is "So damn easy to say that life's so hard/ Everybody's got their share of battle scars/ As for me, I'd like to thank my lucky stars that I'm alive and well/ ... And today you know that's good enough for me/ Breathing in and out's a blessing can't you see/ ... I'm alive and well." These quietly optimistic words provide some sound advice, even when angst and uncertainty swirl all around us.
As I listened, my mind made an unexpected zig-zag to a literary work from the early 20th century - Thornton Wilder's famous play about the beauty of appreciating life's simple gifts. When I was a high school English teacher, I must have taught Our Town a dozen times, but I never got tired of its sentimental, profound message about never taking any aspect of life for granted. A testament to the play's universal appeal is that even the most jaded and nouveau-intellectual of my teenage students unabashedly loved this play.
As the music played, I recalled the scene when Emily, a young woman who has recently died in childbirth, asks to relive just one day of her life before she moves on. Told that she must choose a relatively unimportant day, Emily selects her 12th birthday. As she is allowed to travel back in time, she becomes a spectator, watching herself interact with her family on her birthday. Moved to tears by the memory of life's simple gifts, Emily concludes that the living take far too much for granted.
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When she is told that she must now leave this family scene and pull away from the earth, she speaks a valediction that enumerates mundane elements of her life that she now realizes were precious: "Good-bye 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 far too wonderful for anybody to realize you." Simple sentiment, yes, but like the song, "I'm Alive," there is a beauty in the uncomplicated message that speaks volumes in our complicated times.
Two pieces I have read in the last couple of days in the media also contribute to the personal Thanksgiving anthology I am creating this year. From a popular song to a play that is nearly a hundred years old, I move on to a column that Thomas Friedman wrote this week in The New York Times and an article by Fareed Zakaria in the most recent issue of Newsweek. Both address values and traditions connected with the American spirit, and both advocate for recognition and appreciation of the hard work, creativity and intellectual innovation that has made America such a dominant force.
In "Advice From Grandma," Friedman describes the importance of appreciating America's capacity to produce citizens who use their imaginations abundantly. "In such a world," he writes, "societies than can nurture people with the ability to imagine and spin off new ideas will thrive .... America - with its open, free, no-limits, immigrant-friendly society - is still the world's greatest dream machine."
In Newsweek, Zakaria explains why Americans must continue to be the most innovative thinkers on the planet. He advocates recognizing and appreciating the elements that have made us such a land of opportunity. He describes our open geography and frontier spirit, the flexible economy, the strong work ethic and a workforce "constantly renewed by the next generation of talent from around the world." He concludes that "Other countries can perhaps emulate some of these traits, but none can replicate the creative cocktail that is America."
In these contentious times in which we are debating one another over health care reform, the economy, the war in Afghanistan and a myriad of other issues, we still take time to celebrate Thanksgiving. This year, my holiday will be heightened by learning a lesson from Emily's lament that we don't realize how wonderful our lives are while we live them, by the words of two national columnists who describe how special our national spirit is and most especially, by the lyrics to the song that remind me that "I'm alive and well."