I had breakfast at a diner this morning. Yes, that's right, you heard me: an actual diner. Indoors. Unmasked. I mean, I wore a mask when I came in, but for the meal I took it off. Everyone there was totally OK with that. There were lots of other diners, too, and from what I could tell we all had the same vague feeling but this was both exhilarating and deeply normal. And the normality was part of what was exhilarating about it.
Two years ago if you had told me that I would be making a big deal out of this I would have not have taken you seriously. I mean, I've always been grateful for the quotidian blessings of life in the United States, and that definitely goes for many of the features of our consumer market society; because I grew up out overseas, I always knew that you couldn't take things like this for granted. Even today I get a very strange remembered exhilaration when I walk into a giant grocery store. But of course I had taken them for granted, and I should have taken them for granted, because no one can go into a diner all the time and get teary eyed at the idea of being around other people. Not only would that be unseemly, it would just delay the ordering process, and the wait staff wouldn't like that.
It’s an old story, our belated recognition of the blessings of the ordinary, of the taken for granted. It is indeed a repeated thing, a very common theme in literature and life. The most powerful piece I ever encountered it is in an incredible scene in John Hersey's book of reporting from 1942, Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal.
It is a closely reported narrative of going on a combat patrol with a company of marines in a valley on Guadalcanal in October 1942. Despite the pressure for propaganda and the looming presence of military sensors, Hersey managed to capture a great deal of the boredom and terror that was intrinsic to what the Marines were trying to do. But perhaps the most famous and the most poignant moment in the book comes not in combat or in a moment of high tension, but in a moment where her see simply asks the marines he is with: what keeps you doing this? Why are you here fighting this war, beyond the answer that you were ordered to be here? Famously, at least to a small constituency of us, the marines don't answer it first; and almost embarrassed silence falls over the group. Then, finally, one speaks up: “Jesus, what I'd give for a piece of blueberry pie.” Others concur, naming other pies.
What they knew was that this was an ordinary piece of pleasantness in the world that they had come from, and it was a world that they had lost in going to the war. And now, squatting in a jungle in the South Pacific, they are astonished both at how much they miss that ordinariness, and also how very little a thing it is that symbolizes for them the goodness that their lives had always been surrounded by, but that they were too blind to see.
I read this story in excerpted form before I was ten years old, and I read the whole book soon after that. It's a great book, and an interesting and powerful compliment to Hersey’s much better known and much more consequential book, Hiroshima. I recommend both, in no particular order. Both have a great deal of compassion for the humanity of the people about whom the stories are told, even though they are on opposite sides of a vast war.
The compassion is interesting, because it feels like it is the fundamental virtue of living in this world, a compassion we need to direct to all of creation, including ourselves. If we did that better than we do, maybe we’d be more able to be grateful for our ordinary, our everyday.
We are going to be feeling a lot of gratitude in coming months, and we are likely going to be astonished at it. Thta is ok. It would be nice if we could figure out ways to ensure that that gratitude stays with us. I don't know how to do that myself, apart from simply repeating a kind of weird koan all the time, like an under my breath, quasi-Kantian imperative. Maybe I start with that?
Anyway, enjoy your normal, as best you can.