Art & culture


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.

It’s been 15 years since Rachel Barenblat started blogging as The Velveteen Rabbi, and recently Rachel suggested that several of our long-time writing friends create a post to mark the occasion. The result was a rambling Google Doc conversation with Rachel, Beth Adams of The Cassandra Pages, Dave Bonta of Via Negativa, Dale Favier of Mole, Natalie d’Arbeloff of Blaugustine, and me: six writers reflecting on 15 years of blogging and the friendships that grew out of it. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

Buried Temple, by Natalie D’Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.

Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.

Dave: At some level, it’s easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I’m an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I’ve been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other’s sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I’m OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I’ve enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive, but Luisa’s commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there’s Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren’t mining it for blog fodder.

Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message. There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media. Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling…or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.

Dale: I didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days… I’ve outlived some of my personas — I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be 🙂 But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”

Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.

Beth: I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!

Overstory

Over the waning days of summer, I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, a novel about trees and interconnection. It’s a big, fat book, and I read it slowly, at a tree’s pace: page by page and leaf by leaf. Trees outlive us–at least the largest, long-lived species do–and thus they have much to teach us about time, patience, and the virtues of rootedness.

Looking up

This past March, one of the tall pine trees that fringe our backyard fell directly onto our neighbors’ house after a heavier-than-usual snowfall. Last month, we had an arborist come to look at our remaining trees: not just the tall pines out back, but also a slowly-dying ash near our back door. This particular arborist had never seen the pine that fell, but he examined the slivers of stump that remain. Could we have predicted, we asked, whether this tree would fall, or in which direction? The arborist suggested the tree’s trunk was sound, but its root system had been compromised by some nearby driveway work. But could construction work done nearly two decades ago have an impact on a tree today, J asked, incredulous, and the arborist said yes, of course. Trees live according to a different timeline than we do, our hurried scurrying looking like a blur when viewed from their ponderous perspective.

Five-fingered maple

Trees can teach us much about steadfastness and resilience, but we need to slow ourselves down to hear them. The most resilient trees tap their roots deep, while the wide-spreaders hug shallow soil and are easily uprooted. My mind branches widely and wildly with distraction, and I quickly grow discouraged by superficial trifles: I’d do better with a deeper taproot. Trees and the people who understand them best know a decade is the mere wink of an arboreal eye, and for a tree centuries pass like days. Marriage is easy, my grandfather used to say; only the first fifty years are hard. This is a statement to make a tree chuckle.

Dying ash

The arborist we hired will cut down the dying ash in our backyard, as it is growing too close to both our house and our neighbors’ garage, and he will grind the stump to sawdust, as its roots are far from any nearby trees. But the arborist suggested we cut but not grind the stump of the fallen pine, as its roots are tangled up with its neighbors’. I close my eyes and imagine the grief of trees: when one falls, his fellow forest-friends tremble down to their subterranean toes.

The Overstory is a fat book because it tells a complex web of a tale. The stories in the initial section are branched like roots, and later, they connect together in subtle and surprising ways: an ecosystem of individuals whose roots touch and tangle. The whole time I was reading the book, I found myself looking up on my daily dog-walks: who, exactly, are these quiet creatures who live their woody lives in our midst, silent and swaying, overhead and too often ignored?

Mormon heaven

This weekend J and I went to see The Book of Mormon at the Boston Opera House. The only thing I knew about the show beforehand was that it was written by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, so I fully expected it to be foul-mouthed, irreverent, and funny. What I didn’t expect, however, was for this zany story of young Mormon missionaries proselytizing in rural Uganda to be sweet.

Boston Opera House

Stone and Parker get away with lampooning Mormonism and offering a cartoonish caricature of Ugandan village life because the characters they create are essentially likable. Mormon missionaries Cunningham and Price are young, idealistic, and naive…but so is Nabulungi, the young Ugandan woman who is the first to accept a particularly warped version of traditional Mormon teaching. The degree to which Elders Cunningham and Price have been sheltered from anything but First World Problems is apparent the moment they arrive in Africa, and they never entirely lose their cluelessness, with one running gag focusing on Elder Cunningham’s complete inability to remember Nabulungi’s name even though he’s clearly smitten with her. The Book of Mormon lambasts Cunningham and Price for their naivety, but the audience can’t help but root for them.

Boston Opera House

When faced with trouble, people can either curse or bless God, and The Book of Mormon demonstrates both approaches. One toe-tapping, wildly NSFW musical number, for instance, features the Ugandan villagers teaching the visiting Mormons a phrase they utter whenever things go bad, and while the missionaries assume the phrase means “No worries,” it turns out to be pointedly blasphemous instead. Both Cunningham and Price try to convince the villagers to find solace in God, but this approach falls flat when the previously-pious Price has an epic crisis of faith the first time he faces true hardship. Initially, the missionaries’ message falls on deaf ears because its otherworldly idealism is so far removed from the harsh realities of life.

Mormon humor

But because The Book of Mormon is a comedy, it cannot end with existential dread. Although Cunningham, Price, and their fellow missionaries travel to Africa with the intention of teaching the villagers there, of course they end up learning more than they’d anticipated. Mormons, it turns out, believe a lot of crazy things…but so do Christians, Muslims, Jews, and optimists of all sorts. The Book of Mormon is a sweetly uplifting story–despite more than two hours of irreverent humor, crude jokes, and obscene language–because it suggests the metaphors underpinning religious faith are ultimately helpful and worthwhile if they lead ordinary people to treat one another more kindly.

I don’t know if God has a sense of humor, but if he does, I’m guessing he’d approve that message.

Pan with his pipes

I recently finished David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso, a collection of essays that was a perfect follow-up to Theft By Finding, which I’d read last year. Theft By Finding was a collection of journal entries, and the essays in Calypso make perfect sense when you remember that Sedaris isn’t just a comedic writer; he’s a long-time diarist.

Moss steps

Reviews of Calypso invariably point out that the book is darker than Sedaris’s previous books. Many of the essays feature the beach house that Sedaris and his partner, Hugh, buy in North Carolina and the vacations they spend there with Sedaris’s father and siblings. Essays set at the house Sedaris names the “Sea Section” often mention the death of his alcoholic mother decades before, the suicide of his sister Tiffany in 2013, and the inevitable embarrassments of aging.

Turtle fountain

This isn’t to say, however, that Calypso isn’t wickedly funny. What makes the book striking, in fact, is the manner in which Sedaris writes essays that are simultaneously funny, poignant, and honest without a hint of pity. This emotional fluidity makes perfect sense when I remember Sedaris’s journals. As a diarist, Sedaris has trained himself in the nonjudgmental art of keeping an account of all the intellectual and emotional detritus of his life.

Castor and Pollux

When you keep a journal, you keep track of whatever is on your mind: the profound stuff, the silly stuff, and everything in between. Keeping a journal is very much akin to the litter-picking Sedaris does while he walks the roadways around his home in Sussex: you notice and pick up everything. If you’re not used to walking for miles and picking up trash, it will leave you sore, but it’s just another day’s work if that’s what you’re in the habit of doing.

Turtle fountain

One of the things that makes David Sedaris funny is the way he doesn’t censor himself: whether he is saying something tender, rude, or self-deprecating, he makes a statement then moves on without justification or apology. This is, I’m convinced, a skill honed through long and regular journal-keeping. The mind is like a child’s corn popper toy, where colored balls pop and tumble inside a clear plastic dome. Pop, pop, pop come your thoughts, which are disparate and nonsensical, and the diarist’s hand simply records them, one by one, without stopping to explain or make sense of them.

Faun of summer

When you’ve trained yourself to sit with your corn-popper mind, you learn not to judge or reject: you simply record without shame or blame. You also learn to appreciate the beauty and even wisdom of randomness. Things don’t have to fit to get along, and disparate things can happily coexist. It is this tolerance for randomness–an absolute fearlessness about saying anything that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t fit or flow with whatever preceded it–that is the main genius of Sedaris’s work.

Faun of wine

I’m not suggesting, to be clear, that Sedaris’ essays aren’t consciously constructed and revised: it takes a good deal of craft to assemble and arrange just the right assortment of anecdotes, and this means knowing what to leave out as much as what to include and accentuate. But if you’ve never arranged a bouquet, you might think the flowers all need to match, whereas an experienced florist knows the value of complementary colors or an occasional splash of the unexpected.

Classical

If you’ve never sat down and watched your corn-popper mind tumble thoughts, you might not realize how humor complements pain and how a seemingly irreverent story can be particularly poignant if includes just a dash of sadness. Readers who aren’t writers might think that sad stories, funny stories, silly stories, and serious stories can’t and shouldn’t mix, but journal-keepers are long accustomed to the way the colors of the mind blur and swirl.

The most tragic stories aren’t necessarily the ones that are solely and unremittingly sad. One of the most poignant moments in Calypso, for instance, is a brief, passing mention Sedaris makes to the last time he saw his sister Tiffany before her suicide, when he directed a security guard to close the door in her face after she’d shown up unannounced at one of his readings.

Forest folly

Many writers would have been tempted to linger on this story, voicing regret or offering some sort of explanation. Sedaris, however, mentions the memory in passing and lets his readers decide what to do with it, the details of his life slipped like a live grenade into his reader’s pocket. Sometimes a serious topic is best approached slantwise, like a wisp of cloud troubling an otherwise sunny sky.

Halcyon Lake

Last night I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’d mentioned earlier this week. Many reviewers have compared Ward with both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and I agree that the novel is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved.

Great blue heron

The other novel I kept thinking about as I read Sing, Unburied, Sing is George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which was also published in 2017. Saunder’s novel is told through a series of historical and ghostly fragments as Willie Lincoln, the President’s newly deceased son, finds himself in the transitional place between the Here and the Hereafter. The narrative format of Ward’s novel is far less experimental, but both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo are ghost stories that speak movingly about loss, grief, family, and compassion.

Solomon's seal

As I read Sing, Unbured, Sing, I found myself wondering why stories about race in America so often feature ghosts. Is it because our history is particularly haunted, or because we so often fail to believe and heed the truth tellers from our past? Perhaps the perspective of magic realism is the only lens that can accurately portray the true nature of time, death, and eternity.

Hiding in plain sight

Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo call into question our conventional view of time. Since we typically view time as linear–moving, that is, from past to present and then to future–we fall for the illusion of progress. How many times (for example) do people respond to current events by exclaiming “But this is 2018” as if the ghosts of the past aren’t still alive and active?

Dogwood

If we take a circular view of time, all eras are now, and with them, all errors. We don’t outgrow or move beyond the mistakes of previous generations: instead, we are tempted time and again to repeat and relive them unless we make a conscious effort to revise and reject. If we take a circular view of time, both individuals and societies carry not only the promise of who they will become but the burden of everything they have ever been.

Star of Bethlehem flower

We want to believe history is a line because we want to believe that Back Then was radically and intrinsically different from Nowadays. But human nature hasn’t changed; we’ve just grown tired of fighting it. Humans were bigoted and cruel during the days of slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and humans are still as bigoted and cruel as they allow themselves to be.

Trillium

So, what should we do with the seeds of hatred and cruelty that lie buried in the soil of our psyche, either dormant or fully sprouted? Earlier today I heard an NPR story on Fred Rogers that featured a vintage audio clip of him explaining to parents how to talk with their children about the political anger leading to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Rogers didn’t suggest denying or eradicating anger; instead, he helped children (and their parents) interpret anger by acknowledging the various ways different families, countries, and cultures might express it.

Eastern kingbird in ginkgo tree

Have we come to a place in history where we need a dearly departed children’s television host to help us make sense of our feelings and where we need novels about ghosts to teach us the true nature of history? Perhaps. It was, after all, Faulkner himself who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Yellow iris

We want to leave the past behind, and in fleeing from it, we tempt it to chase us. What novels teach us, however, is that the spirits of the past are always with us. As the character of Mam in Sing, Unburied, Sing explains as she lay dying, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” When we realize the past has never left us, we can sit face-to-face with our ghosts and learn every song they have to sing.

Grief personified

I recently started reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that several of my online friends have raved about. I saw Ward read from the book at Harvard’s Memorial Church in early May, and I’ve been waiting for the leisurely days of summer to start reading the signed paperback copy I got at that event.

Jesmyn Ward signs my copy of Sing Unburied Sing

Because I’m currently reading several books, I’m reading Sing, Unburied, Sing slowly, which means the story is working its power incrementally. The novel starts simply. Initially, it is a story told by JoJo, a thirteen-year-old boy in rural Mississippi who is helping his grandfather slaughter a goat. Later the narrative shifts to JoJo’s mother, Leonie, who is addicted to drugs and intent on traveling to the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm where her boyfriend–JoJo’s father–is set to be released. For the first half of the book, the narrative alternates between JoJo’s and Leonie’s perspectives, but when the family arrives at Parchman, the “unburied” of the novel’s title start to sing.

Pipe organ

By any metric, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heartbreaking story. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who was killed by her boyfriend’s cousin in a racially-motivated murder, and JoJo is wise beyond his years, helping to raise his younger sister and becoming unusually close to his grandparents, who are his de facto parents in the face of Leonie’s neglect. Because of JoJo’s relationship with his grandparents, the boy is haunted by stories he’s heard about his grandfather’s own days at Parchman. Tragedy, Ward suggests, is hard to bury; instead, it arises again and again, passed from one generation to the next as a family’s most lasting legacy.

Jesmyn Ward and Clint Smith in conversation

Ward’s narrative is like a warm bath: you sink into it slowly, and it seeps into your bones, loosening and opening them. Or, to put it another way, Sing, Unburied, Sing breaks your heart incrementally, each hairline crack seeming small and insignificant until the entire thing eventually shatters.

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