Recently I was sitting across from my mother and sister on the commuter train, heading home from New York after taking in a matinee production of the musical Pippin. Mom and Tracey had fallen asleep, cell phones clutched in their hands and mouths agape. So, I did what any loving son and brother would do: I took their picture. Then I typed out the caption, “The train makes everybody sleepy” and posted it to Facebook, thus guaranteeing an annoyed chuckle from my drowsy companions upon their eventual stirring. In truth, I was a little annoyed that they had fallen asleep in front of me (I’m not home that often! I was being ignored!) A little embarrassment-by-social-media was well deserved, I thought.
As they slept, I considered the show we’d just seen, a musical my sister and I were in when we were in high school (me in the title role… please, no autographs). Though I knew the music and jokes of the play well, I was struck this time by the timelessness of the plot – something that had eluded my generally clueless teenage self.
A little exposition (okay, or a refresher!) might be in order. In the musical we follow Pippin, the son of the Emperor Charlemagne, as he struggles to find himself. He wants his life to have extraordinary meaning, he wants to be “completely fulfilled” – though he’s not exactly sure what that will entail. The rest of the cast is composed of various itinerant performers who create an assortment of life tableaus for Pippin to try out, spaces and roles for him to try on so that he can find his “Corner of the Sky” (also the title of Pippin’s signature song).
The roles that Pippin the wanderer tries on are many. First he enlists as a soldier, where the supposed glory of war leaves him jaded and confused. Next, Pippin has various flings with women, but the emptiness of these passing sexual relationships brings Pippin only sadness and emptiness, and offers no clear path to his extraordinary aspirations. He then becomes a politician, deposing his own father in what he thinks is a well-intentioned moment of political activism. But the stress of administering the Holy Roman Empire proves too much for the sensitive Pippin, and he lays down the heavy burden of the crown, again unfulfilled.
Depressed and hopeless, Pippin flings himself into the gutter where he is taken in by Catherine, a widow with a young boy. The life Pippin discovers here is extraordinary only in its predictability: there are chores to be done, a child to be raised, and the monotony that accompanies steady relationships. Suffocating and still feeling unfulfilled, it is only a year before Pippin runs, abandoning Catherine and her son.
In the finale of the play, the players create a final option for Pippin, one that will leave him completely fulfilled and remembered for all time: a circus act that requires him to dive from a high wire into a cauldron of fire. Yes, it will bring certain death, but, they argue, only an extraordinary feat like this is suitable for such an extraordinary person.
In a singular moment of clarity, Pippin realizes that suicide is not what fulfillment looks like, and that his corner of the sky might simply be the corner of the room he occupied in Catherine’s home.
As the train clacked down the tracks heading east on Long Island, and my mother and sister continued their post-curtain nap, I had my own high wire moment of clarity.
I’m only home for a few days, why aren’t they awake?!, I thought. Why aren’t they being more present to me?! Why aren’t they loving me?!
I had, in that moment of annoyed questioning, completely dismissed the day we had just shared. The train ride into the city, the walk around Manhattan, the delicious lunch and conversation about my sisters’ upcoming wedding, the generosity of my mother—all the moments of love, all dismissed. And instead I was holding out for something special, something undefined, and well-deserved, and absent.
I was, by waiting on some special thing to materialize in some special way, completely overlooking the ordinary. This happens to me, and not rarely. It happens when life doesn’t fit into some preconceived notion, or when I want love, relationship, success, on my own terms and no others. It happens that I find myself rejecting what is already on offer as I hold out for something greater, holding out for something “special.”
I end up dismissing the love shown to me because I’m too busy waiting for the moment to become a perfect, heart-shaped peg, and to slot itself in, just so. So I end up holding out, expecting love to come later in some deep, soul-bearing conversation.
This can’t be what extraordinary looks like, I think. But it can. And it’s the holding out for something so perfectly special that deceives me, gets me thinking that certain words or actions are the only ways love can show itself in my life, that everything else is just ordinary and unimportant.
“The train makes everybody sleepy,” I wrote. It seemed like nothing at the time, but it was a special caption for an ordinary moment.
Pippin playbill cover image by Flickr user Joe Schlabotnik can be found here.