Our Town, Joni Mitchell, Sad Mall Moms, and Two Kinds of Watching

Margaret was born in September and I spent the rest of the year walking in circles. An irritable newborn, she was happiest outdoors. so I took her for long walks, once and sometimes twice daily, around and around our neighborhood. When it rained, I walked the shopping mall a few blocks from my house, up levels and down, basement food court to rooftop theater. I rarely go to the movies, especially the kind that make it to this second-rate theater, and yet I’d sometimes walk past and cast a longing eye over the marquee. “I wish I could watch Second Act,” I’d think self-pityingly.

I’d arrive at the mall right when it opened, impossibly late at 10am when I’d already been up so long waiting. It was Christmas all three months by retail reckoning and the Bath and Body Works by the front entrance exuded a powerful miasma of peppermint and pine tree.

Sometimes I’d buy my older kids clothes at Old Navy, or some cheering useless present for myself at Cost Plus. I bought a Christmas gift for my babysitter at Hot Topic, I bought Beatrice earrings at Claire’s. Once I bought a beret. Improbably there is nowhere in the mall to buy a coffee, so I’d drink soda in the morning from Panda Express. I’d wind my jogging stroller through the labyrinthine H&M, though nothing fit me as it normally did. Once or twice I tried to try something on, only to find that something about dressing rooms set Margaret wailing. Any small thing might set her off — the aggressive lighting at H&M, the perfumey air at Anthropologie — and I walked the mall like someone trying to defuse a bomb. Occasionally I’d catch a glimpse of myself in a shop window and — I know this is a cliche, but I literally didn’t recognize myself. I looked, terribly, like I felt.

The mall had a covered rooftop dining area where I could sit on warmer days and look down to the street. I watched people walking to work, catching the bus, getting into and out of cars, signing petitions and making phone calls. I felt left out and more than left out. I felt the world had gone out without me.

Inside the mall was bright, quiet, and empty, and I could see the other mothers from a great distance, wandering back and forth in front of the cell phone recycling kiosk with a look of bewildered sadness, like they’d just set their life down a minute ago right here, where on earth did it go? Whenever I passed another mother, I’d make what I hoped was a sort of “we’re all in this together” smile but no one ever reacted at all.

Eventually I became more desperate in my attempts to make contact. I’d make fond comments about the other mothers’ babies. I’d offer to hold a package, hold the door. I’d joke too loudly about Christmas decorations in October. Trying to fit two strollers into the elevator, I’d make great sweeping gestures with my arm, almost a curtsy, “No, after YOU.” But the mall mothers were all locked in their own private afterlives, and we were shades even to each other.

This weekend visiting my sister in Las Vegas we put Court and Spark on the stereo and immediately it brought me back to the long afternoons I spent listening to my mother’s album while reading along with the lyrics printed on the inside cover, my reedy little girl’s voice trying to imitate Joni Mitchell’s perfect insouciance, her voice intimate but astonishing, the way she pulls off the most complicated vocal stunts, not high-wire acrobatics but more like close-up magic tricks. (Much of Mitchell’s work is about trying, and trying too hard, and you can watch her try too hard with much of her songwriting but her voice never seems to try at all, it’s all play and no performance, as though in this one thing Mitchell has no one to impress but herself.)

Listening again, I was struck by how much that album is about being an outsider, as Mitchell alternately makes clumsy attempts to connect with others and darkly insists she never really wanted to connect in the first place.

In “People’s Parties,” she watches a room full of people “in my frightened silence/thinking I don’t understand,” and hopes she can find someone who can bring her out into the light: The party she describes sounds fairly miserable — a lot of sloppy drunk people theatrically performing their misery — and she recognizes it for the shitshow it is but she still wishes she were a part of it.

In “Car On A Hill,” she’s waiting by the window for her lover to appear; until then, she’ll sit alone and listen to the sound of other people’s lives going by. She sings, “He makes friends easy/ He’s not like me/I watch for judgement anxiously,” as she listens to the distant sirens of a busy city that doesn’t include her. (It’s worth mentioning that Joni Mitchell decided not to go to Woodstock and always regretted it, in one of her generation’s most famous instances of FOMO.)

Joni Mitchell is always watching and waiting. She describes the people she observes with such implacable precision it sometimes comes off a bit like contempt. In “Just Like This Train,” she watches the families in a railway station waiting room: “Old man sleeping on his bags/Women with that teased up kind of hair/Kids with the jitters in their legs/And those wide, wide open stares.”

Mitchell has her face pressed to the glass, but her waiting and watching are never rewarded or rewarding. On Court and Spark, her only two options are to remain forever longing or to sink into misanthropic solitude. Like Mitchell, I imagined watching to be lonely and frustrating. I listened to these songs over and over, watching and waiting with Joni to join the real world.

There’s a long artistic tradition of the invisible shade watching (and shouting at) the insensible world. Often, as with Mr. Scrooge and, in slightly varied form, Harry Bailey, the invisible man must learn a lesson.

In my junior year of high school I played Mrs. Webb in our drama department’s production of Our Town and I was amazing at it. I can’t summon a bit of modesty when I talk about it now — I was that good. I’ve always been, basically, a sad middle-aged person, and I unleashed the full force of my precocious weariness onto the character of Mrs. Webb, the simple-hearted mother whose daughter Emily dies in childbirth. (My mother also made the costumes, which were much, much too good for high school theater costumes.) Our theater director chose Our Town as our spring semester play because the entire set is only two benches and two ladders, and we’d already spent our entire yearly budget on a lavish production of The King and I in the fall.

I first read Our Town in junior high, in a collection of famous plays that also included Cyrano de Bergerac and A Doll’s House, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I found it life-changing. As a kid I had immersed myself in fantasies and adventures and historical romances. Our Town was the first piece of literature that told me that ordinary life could be beautiful, meaningful, and worth writing about. It also introduced me to the idea that watching could be a joyful way of participating in the world and not just a sad alternative to doing.

Our Town is told in three acts. The first is a scene of daily life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, on May 7, 1901, from sunrise until bedtime at nine-thirty. The action focuses on two families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, and their teenage children, George and Emily, who begin a timid courtship. Most famously, at the end of the first act, George is speaking with his little sister Rebecca.

Rebecca: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

George: What’s funny about that?

Rebecca: But listen, it’s not finished: die United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God. That’s what it said on the envelope.

George: What do you know!

Rebecca: And the postman brought it just the same.

Even with the play’s mawkishness and its self-satisfaction and its blinkered politics, that still gets me.

In the second act, it’s three years later, Emily and George’s wedding morning and then Mrs. Webb gives her big speech — my big speech — watching her daughter get married, and I cried real, fervent tears at Hoover High School in Glendale in 1996, imagining myself as that 50-year-old woman in New Hampshire in 1907.

The third act opens in a graveyard in 1913. The dead sit quietly in rows of chairs. Emily has just died in childbirth and joins them there.

The other dead regard the world passively, making small comments about the weather, but Emily is still fervently attached to the world she left behind. She insists on living a day of her old life over again, though the other dead people try to dissuade her. She goes back and watches her family on her twelfth birthday, everyone still young and healthy and all together, and she, both in the world and outside it, begs them to just pause awhile and not life move so rapidly by — but of course, they cannot hear her. Finally she’s too overcome with the pain of watching to continue and withdraws to take her place among the dead, still beneath the reeling stars, as they speculate on earth’s place in the universe.

Before she retreats to the graveyard, Emily gives another famous monologue about all the things she’s leaving behind: clocks ticking, and sunflowers, and food and coffee and hot baths and all the other things she never appreciated enough before. It’s sentimental and easy and a chance for some lucky tenth-grader to really ham it up, but it is easy, after all. She wasn’t able to go back in time and reach her family, no one there could here her, but at least she saw things and she loved them. It turns out there’s nowhere to stand in the world that’s outside it.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.