The Splendor of the Commonplace


AFTER the specialist had taken me aside, and had said to me, ‘She can live just about a year, certainly not longer; she will not suffer; no, do not tell her till I give you leave,’ she became all at once a person alien, apart, possessing a strange new distinction and charm.

It seemed to me that I should want to know, that I might make that year splendid, important, worth while. But the doctor’s orders were imperative, and he knew his patient well. The least I could do, I thought, was to live the time left to her as if it were indeed my own last year of life. And yet, as day followed day, I began to wonder wherein the difference after all would really lie, if I were under sentence to die, as she was, and I knew. And it came to me quite clearly, that if that were the case, one would not lay stress on the big things, which one might feel fairly certain of carrying over into those years ahead, — or into that yearless time which, they tell us, is not time at all, — but on the little, homely, intimate things which one may have to leave behind, which have to do with this earth, as we know it here and now.

And so it has come to pass that, ever since that year, the preciousness of common things, their unthought-of significance and charm, has had strong hold on me. The so-called drudgery of life, the homely task, the daily routine, the meeting of the family at dinner after the busy day — such things as these have taken on a certain distinction and beauty; that ordinary meal has become, in very truth, a sacrament. And even those fugitive, elusive things we forget to notice because they happen often, — the fragrance of coffee stealing through the house when one is half-dreaming; the way the sunlight slants across the lawn on a June afternoon ; the crooning of hens on an April morning; the feel of clean sheets when one slips into bed, — all these joys of the senses are never more to be taken for granted since that year.

It came to me quite suddenly, as I read the leading article in the May Atlantic on ‘The New Death,’ that our boys in France were realizing life somewhat as I had done, when I lived vicariously that last vivid year of one who was under sentence to die. We have certainly felt — we who are left behind — that there is something going on over there of high import, which has nothing to do with military victories or defeats; that they are finding — those young illuminati — in this horrible war something that we, as a people, cannot afford to miss; whether it be some new crusade of the spirit, or only that old way of the Cross, well worn by saints and martyrs, but strangely unfamiliar to feet used to stepping blithely down the broad highway of success.

And curiously enough, as one reads such articles as ‘The New Death,’ and letters and reports that come to one personally, one finds that the interest of our boys in France is centred just where mine had been that unforgettable year, on the quaint and homely happenings of everyday living. The big certainties — life, death, immortality, God — they take joyously for granted, with their strange new insight into things spiritual, their prescience of Reality; but, perhaps for the first time, they are realizing everyday joys; know what quiet means, and rest and needed sleep; are aware of the holiness of clean clothing, the exquisite flavor of coarse food, the divine loveliness of dawn, and noon-time, and night.

And so, having found out about Life, they know all there is for us to know about Death. Instead of losing its strange distinction, death for them has taken on a new splendor, as have the common things of life.

And as to their losing the Vision, forgetting, — those who live to come back, — they may. But they have known Reality, those boys, and one does not easily drop into materialism after one has attained that knowledge. And as to their keeping their belief in God and in Immortality — in these high matters they have gone forever beyond theory and belief; for they realize God, and experience immortality here and now. They are tasting what old Father Caussade is always calling the Sacrament of the Present Moment, they, who know so surely that each present moment is quite likely to be their last. ‘He has set the world in their hearts’; they are in love with it. And if they come back to us, it may be to find a New Heaven and a New Earth; and those who never come back can say with that poet and mystic, who knows so surely that living and dying are of the same piece, ‘Because I have loved this life so well, I know I shall love death also.’

What wonder that their letters home drop quite naturally into unconscious poetry. The most prosaic and practical of these boys are learning what the secret poets and mystics always knew. It has taken a world’s war to teach them, and us common people at home through them. Because the price paid for our knowing has been so high, it is for us to see to it that the quality of our daily living shall take on such distinction that those who come back will not feel as aliens, and that the young dying of those others may not have been, so far as we are concerned, in vain.


I was at a lecture in a well-known club. The lecturer talked about a great plan: to establish a new Eastern front out of the small Slavic nations, who hate Germany and want independence.

‘Poland is not a small nation!’ burst out one of the audience.

I applauded, as I am Polish myself.

‘I beg your pardon,’said the lecturer, with a polite bow; ‘certainly; Poland is bigger than Bohemia, for instance.'

At that point a loud murmur of disapproval was heard from the representative of the Bohemians.

The lecturer tried to continue as impartially as possible. When he finished, his forehead was wet with perspiration.

‘It is not an easy job, you know,’he complained to me afterwards. ‘All these nations are so jealous of each other! To hold them together is like running a class! A class of immigrants who don’t understand each other. Germany poisoned them for centuries with this unhealthy jealousy, and tried to make all the differences much more important than they are in reality. And now — you see the results.'

I rather heard them: there was a passionate discussion among the Slavs. I never heard so much noise in my life!

‘I am now drawing the maps,’said the lecturer. ‘It is hard work!'

‘I know how to do it; I may help you!' said I recklessly.

‘Thank you very much. We will plan the future frontiers of the reconstructed Slavic countries.'

He took me to his office and showed me all his materials. And then my unhappiness began.

Poland at her golden age was a great country: she had exits to two seas; she held Ukrainia. I am a patriot and would like my country to be mighty again; but I have a conscience, and tried not to give her too much space on the map.

Lithuania does not want to be joined with us again, although we were united for centuries. All right: love is free; let us be divorced! With a heavy heart, I outlined a new state of Lithuania.

The Jugo-Slavs want to have an exit to the sea. What is to be done? They are far from any sea. It would be good to give them the right of trespassing. Why not try to internationalize some rivers? That’s the idea! But may I do it on my own risk? The heavy weight of the political responsibility made me bend lower over the table.

‘Serbia will never, never, be quite friendly with Bulgaria!' the old whitebearded leader of Serbs stated. Would you draw their frontiers after that?

I was perspiring. I felt unhappy. I was as tired as could be.

At eleven o’clock the telephone rang violently. The excited voice of the lecturer asked me to come to the club at once and bring my maps: an extraordinary meeting was to be held; seven official representatives of the Slavs would discuss a most important problem.

When I entered the large hall of the club, I saw seven men sitting at the round green table. Each wore the picturesque national costume of his country. They looked like a living rainbow.

The old white-bearded Serb presided. He was armed to his teeth. The others also had a very military air. They were all discontented with my maps.

I was discouraged and felt guilty. I started to explain that I did not draw the maps according to my personal ideas: I had followed faithfully all the directions which had been given to me. But they did not listen: they reproached me all together, in many tongues. I felt lost!

Suddenly a wonderful monster approached me: it had two heads; on one was a sign, ‘Jugo; on the other, ‘Slav.'

I was terrified. But it seemed to be a kind sort of monster: it did not scold me; it only shook its two heads reproachfully, and said in a pitiful voice, —

‘Why did you not give us a piece of the Mediterranean?’

I tried to excuse myself and to console the monster. I said that the map was only a map after all, and could be drawn anew. But the Jugo-Slav was sad and his look tormented my conscience.

And the worst was yet to come: it came in the form of a huge Bulgarian. He had the traditional long nose, and a crooked dagger in his hand.

‘You gave them Saloniki!’ cried he. ‘You must die!’

I ran to the street. But the street had changed: the houses were very low, and old-fashioned carriages passed by instead of automobiles. It was no more the street of New York.

Two barefooted guards appeared from behind the nearest corner, and they had gilded axes in their hands. They ordered me to follow them. I was condemned to be executed.

‘For what?’ I asked in despair.

‘For high treason against your country : you wanted Lithuania to be a separate state. It is a betrayal of Poland!’

‘Thank God, I am in Poland! Then it is not so hopeless: I know how to talk with my people; I will defend myself!’

‘We have no free speech yet,’ said the guard. ‘It is the reign of Jagello. So your eloquence will not help: you will be burned with your typewriter.’

They dragged me to the fire. There were lots of people hanging around: the knights with skins of leopards on their backs, the fat priests, and the newspaper boys. Jagello, the first baptized King of Lithuania, sat on the streetbalcony. A crimson flag with the white Polish eagle on it fluttered above his head. His beautiful wife, Jadviga, the Queen of Poland, sat by his side. When she saw me, she stretched her white hands toward her husband and cried, —

‘I pray thee, spare that poor shorthaired suffragette! Let her go to the convent instead of burning her! She might be converted yet!’

‘Send me rather to exile, O generous Koroleva!’ I yelled; ‘send me to America!’

‘Can’t we send her to America, O husband of mine?’

‘No,’ answered Jagello thoughtfully, twisting his long beard. ‘No! I would like to fulfill the desire of your noble and pitiful heart, O Jadviga. But d’ ye see, America is not discovered yet.’

The last ray of hope disappeared for me. I would inevitably have been burned, together with all my property, — with my Corona typewriter, — if I had not waked in time.

No, I will never draw those maps again. I know that it is important, and must be done. But not by me: I am only a woman, and a very nervous one.