November 2018


View from our seats

Last week, J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Hamilton. It’s been just over a year since we went to the Opera House to see Fun Home, and I had high expectation of both shows, albeit in different ways, and both performances exceeded my expectations.

Overhead

With Fun Home, I had high expectations because I’d read (and loved) Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, so I was curious to see whether the musical could match the power of the book. (It did.) Whereas J watched Fun Home with no previous knowledge of the story, I couldn’t help but compare the musical with the book. I loved the musical version of Fun Home because it did such a good job translating Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father into an entirely new medium: the same powerful story told in a slightly different way.

In the room where it happens.

With Hamilton, I went into the Opera House with an almost entirely empty mind. I didn’t read reviews of the show, and apart from knowing a handful of lines from “My Shot” and the title of the song “The Room Where It Happens,” I didn’t know much about the musical itself, other than everyone I know who has seen it has raved about it.

As it turns out, I learned a lot from the musical, and the first thing I learned was how little I knew about Alexander Hamilton himself. Yes, I remembered from high school history class that Alexander Hamilton was the first secretary of the treasury, and I knew he was shot in a duel with Aaron Burr, but that was the extent of my historical knowledge. The musical did a very good job of sketching the contours of Hamilton’s life, the Revolution he fought in, the political debates he partook in, and his complicated personal life.

Boston Opera House

The genius of Hamilton, of course, is that nobody ever thought to use hip-hop as a genre to tell the story of an American Founding Father. After the first few minutes, however, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unique coupling of musical style and subject matter seemed entirely natural and even inevitable: how could it be that it took a couple hundred years for this particular story to be told in this particular way?

I wasn’t surprised that Hamilton taught historical lessons, and I wasn’t surprised that the hip-hop numbers and choreography were amazing: I trusted, after all, the opinions of the many people who had raved about the performance. What surprised me, though, was how emotionally moving the story was. Although I knew Hamilton dies in the end, I wasn’t aware of the other tragedies he and his wife faced, so I wasn’t expecting a hip-hop musical about an American Founding Father to make me cry.

Boston Opera House

In retrospect, I didn’t learn (or at least remember) much from my high school history classes because those classes never captured the emotional import of past events. It’s one thing to memorize dates and names; it’s another to understand the personalities behind historic events. Not only does Hamilton capture the political battles that happened when the Republic was born, the musical captures the personality, moods, and motivations of the people waging those fights. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece not only invited me into the room where it happened, it took me into the minds and hearts of the people there.

November carpet

When I walk in the woods, I spend a lot of time looking down. Maybe it’s because I’m short, maybe it’s because I spend the spring and summer months looking for wildflowers, or maybe it’s because I let my ears alert me to birds overhead. But in November, looking down makes sense, as many of the brilliant leaves up above have already fallen, leaving a thick, crunchy carpet underfoot.

Above

But even these days when the dog stops to paw and sniff, rooting through leaves for whatever treasures she smells underneath, I remind myself to look up, where the remaining leaves shimmer against a sunlit sky. Soon enough, all there will be above will be the veiny lines of bare branches. In November, I remind myself to remember the gleam of golden maple leaves before they fade away.

Honey locust

Maple leaf

Golden shadows

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s midterm elections, I’ve been thinking of a line from Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts”:

Golden age

The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls- the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.

In even the best times, voting is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Now that a record-breaking number of people have cast ballots in an election that many saw as a referendum on Donald Trump’s politics of fear, pundits are trying to parse the results: is this a win for Republicans, Democrats, or the country at large? Many on the left had hoped for a complete repudiation of Trumpism, as if a single election could eradicate racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But as Thoreau observed more than a century ago, simply voting isn’t enough.

Pine and maple

The social dynamics that propelled Donald Trump into office have not changed: fear, anger, and perceived victimhood are still powerful motivations for a particular segment of the voting public. Not even the biggest blue wave could sweep away America’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy, patriarchy, and economic injustice. Karma is long, and any given election cycle is short.

Democracy depends on voters, to be sure…but a just society depends just as heavily on engaged and active citizens. Showing up at the polls is a good start, but it is just that: a start. In the present the aftermath of this year’s midterms, we each are faced with a question: what next? Given the deep divisions, lingering resentments, and daunting injustices our country still faces, what can each of us do–both individually and within our communities–to work for a better world?

The morning after

The first thing J did the morning after the midterm election was take down our yard sign for Joe Kennedy, who easily won re-election. We’ll put it out again in another two years.

Voting Is My Super Power

J and I voted early at City Hall over a week ago, navigating a confusing array of sidewalk construction on our way into the building. As we waited in line to deposit our ballots, we overheard a poll worker mention that she has voted in every election since becoming a citizen.

Penultimate pile of #PostcardsToVoters

“Where are you from,” J asked, and the worker described the circuitous journey that brought her to America via New Zealand and China, where her parents had fled from Russian pogroms. “I don’t take for granted what I have here,” she said as she handed us our “I voted” stickers.

That was the day before the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, and I’ve occasionally thought of that poll worker and her roundabout flight from the oppression that drove her parents out of Russia. Today during my office hours, I scrolled through my social media feeds to see photo after photo of friends who didn’t take their vote for granted, and in my afternoon classes I was cheered to see more than a few students wearing “I voted” stickers, too.

Final batch of #PostcardsToVoters for this election cycle

Seeing young people excited about voting reminds me of Election Day 2018, when I voted for Barack Obama alongside long lines of first-time voters. It felt good to be a part of history then, and I had hoped to be part of history in 2016, too. Back then, J and I chilled champagne in advance of what he’d hoped to be Hillary Clinton’s victory. This year, we don’t have any champagne on hand, just anxious hopes for a blue wave.

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