In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility – I welcome it. (JFK)
It’s said that St. Augustine never had a thought he couldn’t express clearly. I am not so gifted. I have so many thoughts and emotions right now that find no outlet in words. I find myself starting sentences but they end before they make any sense. Who knows, maybe in the face of what we’re witnessing, St. Augustine too would be rendered incomprehensible.
All this to say: I’m sorry if the following is a blathering jumble of nonsense. I’m doing my best to process what my mind cannot fully accept.
I realized a few things about myself in the last few days. Maybe you have discovered these things too and are holding out your self and examining it like a strange new item.
One: I have been incredibly naive.
I’m not uninformed or uneducated. I never had any illusions that we were living in a post-racial world. The election of Obama was incredibly significant and symbolic, but it was not a panacea for the blood and enslavement upon which our country was built. Math doesn’t work that way. Having said that, I did believe that the race-relations trajectory we were on was a generally positive one. The line from emancipation, to civil rights and the Immigration Acts, to Black Lives Matter is not a straight one. I know there are starts and stalls, but to see such a stark vote for a full reversal? Well, excuse me for feeling sucker punched.
Two: I was/am a real patriot.
I love America. I have always loved America. When I was younger, it was the land of MTV and cool jeans, as I got older I grew to appreciate what the ideals of the country were and realized there was nowhere on earth like it. We have almost never been truly faithful to those ideals – from the very beginning. But the existence of those ideals defined the goal posts toward which I thought we were moving. Someone suddenly moved those ideal goalposts to the other side of the field. It now feels like we’re all expected to run the other direction; towards everything we thought we were moving away from.
It’s possibly this love for America, warts and all, that made me and my family so susceptible to the Hamilton bug. We were early adopters, buying the CD and Revolution tome soon after they were released. At first we enjoyed the fun wordplay and wacky King George, but every subsequent listen brought out another layer of genius – and I don’t use that word lightly. As the obsession grew, my husband and I tried to bleed it out a bit by going and seeing the show in NYC. It was everything I thought it would be and more. I went in with un-meetable expectations and they were surpassed. My kids were gracious about missing the show, so when the documentary about it came out, we drove them all the way to Albany so they could watch with other die-hard fans.
Imagine our surprise at finding tickets reasonable enough to be able to take the whole family. The catch? The tickets were for November 9. Did we want to leave the safety of our Canadian home to be in New York City the day after the election?
For Hamilton, we did.
We worried that there would be anti-immigrant riots throughout our drive through upstate New York and Pennsylvania, angry farmers and sheriffs with pitchforks and torches. Instead, they were celebrating. We were the ones in tears, bereft. It was a referendum on decency and kindness and decency and kindness were kicked to the curb. The morning of the show the city was subdued in a way I’d never seen it before. Nobody wanted to meet anyone else’s eye. Having seen the show only two months ago, I could sense that even the cast was struggling to stay composed and professional. After a shaky start, they threw themselves into their roles, singing the story of the “American experiment” as a means of coping with the unimaginable. The applause were louder, the audience interrupting the performance to cheer for “Immigrants … We get the job done” and King George’s reminder “When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me”. When Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr sang to their baby son and daughter, “If we lay a strong enough foundation …” the audience collectively shuddered. But it was George Washington (played by the soon-departing Christopher Jackson) singing One Last Time, describing the strength of humility and sacrifice of power for the sake of the nation that brought down the house. I was in tears for the remainder of the show. Hearing the story of the hopes of a young nation, of its dreams and of how much work went into the structures that may soon be dismantled was painfully timely.
I was in a dazed funk for the rest of the day, one I just couldn’t shake. That night, protests erupted just outside the apartment where we stayed. We watched on the news, but could actually hear the chanting and helicopters more clearly outside the window. My son asked, “What’s the point of this now?” With sudden force I told him, “You cannot just lay down and accept wrong! Even if it’s impotent, you must express your disapproval. That is the least we are commanded to do.” He turned back to the screen quietly and a few minutes later, he and my daughter asked if they could go join in. They did. It was their first protest and they were so grateful to be able to be part of it. Peaceful protest is as vital a part of democracy as voting. They’re too young for the ballot, so I’m glad they got that chance.
The next day, by a crazy series of flukes, we wound up getting a backstage tour of the Rodgers theatre, even seeing some of the actors’ dressing rooms and getting to go on stage. While backstage, we met a number of the invisible “pit crew” who make the show a success. There was a man working in the “dungeon” who was resoling the period appropriate shoes and buffing and shining the leather so that each performance began fresh. Nobody from the audience would have seen the scuff marks, but there he was, the day after the planets fell out of orbit, descuffing with such scrupulousness in the bowels of the theatre. Upstairs, I met one of the dressers and we began speaking about Jackson/Washington’s performance. This of course led to a discussion about the actual presidential situation and it wasn’t long before we were both crying. I’m not a hugger, but I found myself in a tearful embrace with a woman I had just met – our mutual heartbreak pushing us to bypass the normal layers and steps of comradery and speak like old, hurt friends. After we left, my youngest said, “I love Christine.”
And so, out of this darkness, there will come light. People will more easily recognize the good and brave in one another. After a period of mourning, we will break out of our self-indulgence and roll up our sleeves, look around and say, “What can I do? Who can I help” even if that help is literally just a hug – let’s hope it’s more though. This will make brothers and sisters out of strangers. It will make activists and organizers and heroes out of ordinary people, it will shake us out of our complacency and temper our naive patriotism with an awareness that we have not been listening to those around us.
It’s been a few days now, Alec Baldwin is not going to jump out of a cake and say, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” This is real. We all have varying spheres of influence and responsibility and we must use that influence to defend what’s right, that hasn’t changed. It’s more important than ever that we do our jobs well and with vigor, even when, especially when, it feels like it doesn’t matter. Shine those shoes and start the day fresh…
Do NOT throw away your shot!