Reading

Orpheus is Hip Again

He is timeless, of course. The impulses are all just as real, the loss just as horrible, the potential just as tempting. In the new Broadway musical, Hadestown, Hermes keeps repeating “It’s a sad song, but we’re going to sing it again.” It really never gets old.

Orpheus is a worldsinger. He is able, through his music (helloooo, poets!) to control the natural world. His music makes trees uproot themselves and walk closer to him. It makes rocks hurled at him fall out of the sky and roll up to his feet, prostrating themselves before him, asking forgiveness for their audacity (at least in Ovid’s rendering.)

His music makes the furies cry. It makes Hades relent. It changes the world.

Orpheus plays the lyre.

When Orpheus goes to hell to find his bride, all lovers and artists go with him. Anyone who has ever tried to write something or create something to capture the spirit of someone they’ve lost knows what he’s doing. If we can remember our loved ones, they’re still with us. So we take pictures and write letters and bake their favorite cake, and try to feel what it was like when we still had them.

But Orpheus actually goes after her. His art gives hope to all of us; it succeeds. He makes Hades feel remorse. He makes Hades feel empathy. He reminds Hades of his own love, and Hades relents. He agrees to let Orpheus take his bride back, conditionally, of course.

This is the magical moment in the new musical by Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown. In this version, Hades has turned the underworld in to a mine, and the inhabitants are working for him. Hades has been working to craft jewelry to keep Persephone happy. He has been convincing the dead souls that they need him and a wall to protect themselves. He has doubts—about his love, about his power, about everything.

In Mitchell’s hands, the story of an artist weaving a spell capable of overturning death takes on shades of class and social justice and ageism, along with the birth of seasons and love. Mitchell’s Hades is a surly foreman and a jealous, older husband who returns for Persephone early because he misses her and because he doubts.

Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney as Eurydice and Orpheus, respectively, in Hadestown

The descent of Persephone brings the onset of winter, which makes Eurydice hungry. In fact, hunger is Eurydice’s defining characteristic in this production. She is poor but scrappy, and she ultimately trades her life with Orpheus for the comfort and lack of want that Hades peddles. Perhaps that is the greater tragedy here—not that art cannot bring love back, but that art is a luxury that many can’t afford, can’t even survive long enough to enjoy.

When Orpheus arrives in Hadestown, Persephone advocates for him. Against all odds Eurydice remembers him, and Hades succumbs to his magic. But as they leave, Hades adds the condition—Orpheus must not look back. He must not give in to doubt. This is made all the more clearly a test, given that Hades has already exhibited even he doubts his love. What chance does Orpheus, just a poor boy with a song, have?

The possibility that others will follow Orpheus and Eurydice looms in the musical as well as the myth. If Orpheus can escape, why not others? This is the underlying problem with people like Orpheus; their unearthly power threatens the natural order. Letting Eurydice go back would be one thing. Starting a zombie revolution is quite another.

But that’s another of the threads woven through this new retelling—revolution. The possibility of revolution in response to poverty is terrifyingly real. And the idea that despondency can be alleviated by art and beauty is powerful—empowering. For me the take home message of Orpheus has always been that love, expressed through art, has the power to change everything.

Yeah, Orpheus will never not be cool.

Living · Writing

Candles and Flames

This is the summer of non-blogs. And I’m a day late again.

I thought of not posting at all again, but that seemed a cop-out.

I’m not posting readily this summer because while my summer has had bright spots I would normally post about (a card-making crop, some great books, and some other wonderful moments), this summer has also been plagued with ICE raids and mass shootings, and it seems flippant to say it’s a lovely summer when it’s not.

I am torn. I am doing what I can to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I am trying to keep myself strong so I can lift up others, and I am sending more cards to people just to cheer them up than ever before, but I’m not blogging consistently. The kinds of blogs I tend to write threaten this summer to make me sound like a tone-deaf happy-ass. I am a happy-ass. I hope I’m not tone-deaf.  

I don’t know what to offer here this week, but I will say I squarely still believe in humanity and in the power of little things to overwhelm the world with goodness. I also hope we can get some big things straight in terms of more humane policy in the near future, so there’s not quite so much pressure on the little things to make us happy.

Meanwhile, I wish you all strength and hope and light above all. Shine on, you beautiful people.

This is one of the ways I imagine hope.

And before I leave, here is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti entitled “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” Enjoy.

“I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”

Living

The Grateful List for 2018

It’s no secret that the United States is going through a divisive, difficult time.  Human rights issues I keep thinking we should be long past are flaring up everywhere. People’s very identity is being questioned, challenged, denied. The divide between the rich and the poor is unspeakably wide, fomenting tragedy after tragedy. And old, medieval-era hatreds are sadly, not dead.

So what, then am I thankful for this Thanksgiving? The usual. People.
I’m grateful that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back to work the day after she cracks ribs.
I’m grateful that my husband teaches, reaches, and defends Dreamers and other vulnerable students.
I’m grateful that my kids go to a diverse school where they are asked to engage real world problems and read a wide variety of texts—that their friends include Muslims and non-binary kids and immigrants and that they respect one anothers’ differences while learning to build bridges, not walls.
I’m grateful for young voters.
I’m grateful for artists—for painters and songwriters and musicians and storytellers—for everyone who makes us see new beauties and question old patterns.
I’m grateful for my cousin Carole, who passed away this fall, but who leaves behind a legacy of hard work improving literacy in her third grade classes, and for my aunt and uncle, her parents, who spent part of their retirement decorating her classroom, stocking her library, and reading at storytime—filling gaps in funding and staffing with service that so many classrooms in the US need.
I’m grateful for the firefighters, first responders, emergency crews, and neighbors who come together during disasters like the horrific wildfires California has endured this month. For the Auburn Girls Volleyball team, who lifted up the Paradise team, raising money, providing new uniforms and equipment but also food and companionship and solace.
I’m grateful for my family. Though I feel deeply for so many, my own life is marked by luck and serendipity and undeniable privilege. I’m grateful to be able to raise my kids as I like—in comfort and in love—and to have a partner who partners. When the world feels chaotic, they sort me and support me. My daughter reads me well and administers hugs when needed. My son tells stories and plays games to bring people together. My husband makes me laugh every single day.

I’m grateful for my colleagues and my students, who strive every day toward improving the world. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able each day to try and do a little more.

I wish you a full belly and a full heart this Thanksgiving, friends. And maybe a little time just to sit and be.

(These pictures are from one of my favorite photographers, Tiina Tormanen, and from Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books. Viva Finland.)