On a fake flock of birds at twilight

Kevin.Fai/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed

What I'm thinking about today: the moment at a live children's show I saw last weekend when a flock of birds flew by on stage, and the entire audience gasped.

The stagecraft was not exceptional—three puppeteers with 4-5 bouncy poles apiece attached to their belts, each pole ending in a bird model. With the low lighting, though, we couldn't see the humans right away, and what did catch our collective attention was the lifelike sight of swallows darting at dusk. We couldn't help ourselves—we oohed in unison, reflexively—and hot tears sprang to my eyes, also a surprise.

The first holiday season we spent in pandemic lockdown, I was decorating our Christmas tree and watching the movie musical White Christmas, as is my personal tradition. At the end of the movie, the main characters conclude their stage show for all their old Army buddies by opening the backstage doors to the outside and revealing a perfect Vermont snowfall, complete with a jingling sleigh. Filled with the spirit of the season, the audience joins in the chorus of the titular tune, and the camera pulls back to reveal a full auditorium of beautiful, joyful people, all singing in four-part harmony.

I've watched this scene 20 times in my life with nary a tear, but right then, hearing the song swell and seeing all those people gathered together caused me to break down in my family room, with sobs loud and sustained enough to arouse concern in my then-toddler. How to explain to a 2-year-old that Mommy wasn't hurt, just heartbroken? What I yearned for more than anything in that moment was something I'd taken for granted the first 37 years of my life: the chance to breathe alongside friends and strangers, to blend our voices, to share an experience that transported us. I was mourning the ability to exist within transcendent moments of art, and I would continue to mourn it for another two years.

Since pandemic restrictions have eased, I've attended a number of live musicals and concerts, and I have reliably cried at least once at each of them. Part of it is relief that we can experience live performances in person together again. Part of it is residual grief for that lost time, those lost opportunities to participate. But the biggest part of my emotion is the prompt to wonder: If we can collect our imaginations enough to believe that fictional characters live and walk among us, that passersby harbor the ability to break into song, that flocks of birds can fly across an indoor stage, then what else—with just a smidge more energy, effort, and intent—might we imagine for each other and for the world?


Prayer #394: Stagecraft

O humanity, you dramatic composition
of infinite conditions
that represent (and misrepresent)
what is possible in our lives,
our countries,
our shared existence.

I urge you—beg you—
dance across the empty stage,
belt into the darkened seats,
find your light and hold it.

We can't have an encore
without a second act.