Sneak Preview: Reeling Through Life

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There are those who believe that when you die, you will be required to watch a movie of your life. The whole story will be there, reel after reel projected on some celestial screen. Choices, wise and otherwise. Impulsive gestures. Forks in the road. Acts of heroic kindness, and limp gray sins of omission. Scary footage of you at your very worst. Inspiring footage of you at your very best. When the lights go up at the end, no other judgment will be necessary. The next step will be clear.

It’s a prospect that fills me with consternation for a number of reasons. We all know that the camera adds five pounds, so there’s that. I haven’t been ready for my close-up since about 1977. Vanity aside, we also know that good filmmaking is all about the editing. In any life, surely, there is much that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Or is there? I used to think that life was a series of bullet points, defining moments when true character emerged. The rest was just background, the landscape against which these dramatic scenes played out. Now, fully launched on my own life review, I wonder: Is anything disposable?

It seems that way, watching an average day roll by. All that tedious maintenance, the eating and the drinking and the washing. Not to mention time-suckers like vacuuming. Or leaf raking. Or watching small children fight over toys. Or sitting in airports for six-hour flight delays. This is not the stuff of riveting cinematography. Nothing’s happening.

Except that it is. Beneath the hum of the vacuum and the fretful voice of a toddler there is another soundtrack. The sound of breathing, in and out. The sound of a heartbeat. The whirring sound of unspoken thoughts, ideas, wishes. The insistent sound of the two questions that never go away. Who am I, really? Why am I here?

I’m coming to believe that it is in the long, flat stretches between bullet points that real life happens. Maybe those featureless plains are the proving ground for the Big Deal peaks and valleys, the stretching exercises for the killer sprints that we all must run, like it or not.

Lately I have found myself pulling back, like a camera, to look at the picture in the frame. The deep green and gold of early morning, or the way the shadows move across the lawn at the end of the day. The quick red flight of a cardinal in the backyard woods. The sight of my husband across a restaurant table, scanning a menu as he has a thousand times before, glancing up and smiling, asking what looks good to me. This is it, something whispers. Don’t miss it.

But miss it I do, more often than not. The world crowds in, noisy and demanding, waving its glossy catalog of distractions. There’s plenty of time, croons the siren. Lighten up.

In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Emily, a young woman who has died in childbirth, begs to return to Earth for just one day. Someone who knows better warns her against it. When Emily insists, she’s told to choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day of your life. It will be important enough.

My movie needs work. There’s a lot I’d like to reshoot, and great blocks of dialogue that cry out for a rewrite. Mostly, though, I’d like to slow it down, let the camera linger on the parade of ordinary days, the unremarkable hours. I’d like to give the flat stretches another look. Somehow, I think that’s where the answers are.

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