A Niche In Time
By John Hicks
When I innocently ignore my birthday, a well-meaning friend helpfully reminds me that I am yet still young – geologically speaking. He is correct, of course. No matter how long I live, I will always remain inestimably younger than any sandstone - anywhere. I feel cheered by that.
Even so my virtual non-presence on the stage of geological time has not quite been a sufficient lesson to me on how really tiny I am. Neither gazing at ocean waves endlessly lapping ashore nor peering at twinkling stars in the vastness of space have been any more instructive in this matter. Of course, I marvel at these natural phenomena, but then I turn to the sports page, so to speak.
Recently, however, Time hit me with a hammer, but not, mind you, with a sledge hammer. To understand my place on the time-line of the cosmos, I did not contemplate the quiet vastness of the Grand Canyon although my visit there two years ago was memorable nor did my heart valve operation affect an epiphany along this theme although the experience did focus my attention on living well somehow. No, I was not affected by anything so grand or pivotal. Truth be told, Time hit me with a rock hammer in the form of the names Bronson Howard (1842-1908), Winchell Smith (1871-1933), and Victor Mapes (1870-1943).
I encountered the names of these gentlemen in my desultory reading. When I learned they were among the most popular American playwrights of their era, I secretly blushed, for I regarded myself as one respectably knowledgeable about theater, but of these once renowned playwrights, I knew nothing, absolutely nothing. Surprised by my ignorance, I was spurred to investigate my knowledge gap further and discovered that the names Annie Baker, Stephen Guirgis, and Lin-Manuel Miranda meant nothing to me either. Nevertheless, they are the Pulitzer Prize winners for Drama in the years 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively.
Alarmed, I rushed to salvage some self-respect by reminding myself that I had not been active in amateur theatricals for years and have lived abroad for decades, quite out of touch with American drama. Still, my ignorance seemed more to me than coincidental. It seemed, I suspected, part of a larger context – that of my own mortal limitations.
I used to view my body as a crude time machine from which I could survey the illimitable past as I slowly cruised into the future. I could wonder at the evolution of the cosmos, the age of dinosaurs, the cave paintings of Cro-Magnon man, the Parthenon, the wisdom of the Stoics and so on. At my leisure, I could wander from century to century, millennia to millennia, eon to eon. Granted, I traveled into the past (or the future) via my imagination, but my life had a breadth beyond the cradle and the grave , or so I felt.
Mapes, Smith, and Howard; Baker, Guirgis, and Miranda, however, have convinced me that I am more time-capsule than time machine. I mean no disservice to my imagination, but I no more travel in time than an oak can be said to be mobile because the earth is spinning. I am as rooted in time as a tree is rooted in the ground. Irrespective of its length, my life is bracketed by my birth and my demise, so in reality, I am embedded in time. I am tethered and my mind fattens on the fodder allowed by the length of its astonishingly short tether. Mapes and Baker roughly demonstrate the tether’s reach.
Do the names of these six playwrights compel you to contemplate your significance in the infinity of Time? Probably not. It is unlikely that we are tuned to the same channel. Although we naturally share some perspectives, we view the world through different windows - so much so that the lesson I drew from the lives of these writers may seem contrived or alien to you. I assure you, however, that they were instrumental in helping me discover my personal niche in time. I am convinced that we all have one – a niche in time. If you have not yet found yours, you may, as I did, find it in a totally unexpected way.