Planting Seeds

If you have children of a certain age, or if you just happen to love musical theater, then you know the power of the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat. My kids’ recent favorite song is “Non-Stop,” but my twelve year old can belt “Helpless” with an understudy’s zeal; my eight year old can roll his r’s just like Jonathan Groff’s King George III in “I’ll Be Back,”; and my ten year old has been known to pass a melancholic, quarantined afternoon with “It’s Quiet Uptown” on repeat.

My personal favorite, though, is a song that the kids usually skip. “The World Was Wide Enough” sets the scene for the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. In a play that harnesses the drama and intrigue of American history to such a degree that even an eight year old can sit watching with riveted attention, this is arguably its most dramatic and powerful moment. As the song builds and Burr fires his shot, the scene freezes around them. Here, Alexander Hamilton gives us his last words:

“Legacy—what is a legacy?” he asks. “It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony …”

If I forced my kids to listen to this bit of drama over and over, they’d whine: “Mom, this is so sad!” and we’d flip back through to “Satisfied,” or “Wait for It,” depending on the mood. But for me, “The World Was Wide Enough” captures Lin Manuel Miranda’s inspiration at its height, and it carries a message especially prescient for today’s America.

We often relegate the word “legacy” to people who are capital-I “important.” Famous nation-builders, writers, artists, physicians and pioneers in all manner of fields leave legacies. But what about our friends and neighbors? What about us? What seeds are we planting in the gardens we’ll never see?

Now less than two weeks from the outcome of an election that could just as easily be likened to a reckoning, I think about this. Last week, as I stood in line for an hour and a half at my local early voting precinct, I felt so proud to be a part of a country whose founders envisioned raising our minds and our voices rather than raising our guns.

Alongside me was an elderly man shuffling through the infinite line dragging his bad leg by a walker. A woman and her husband dressed beautifully for this unique and privileged occasion. She was wearing a feathered hat. Two haggard, unshaven guys behind me discussed the books we passed as we wound through the stacks of the public library before reaching the voting booth. A woman well ahead of me in the maze broke rank for just a second to compliment a faraway voter on her shoes.

America, the beautiful. America, the complicated, the imperfect, the human. The unfinished. How I love thee.

You, yourself, might be standing in line to vote as you read this. Or you might be planning to watch the debate tonight, to see if it will help you make your final choice. You may be wrestling with messages from your upbringing–past wounds and loyalties that get in the way of clarity.

Or, you might feel a bit defeated and apathetic: does any of this even matter? I think we all know what Alexander Hamilton would say to you: definitively, it does.

On our way home from school each weekday, we pass a beautiful white church on a prominent street. I first saw the protesters gather there in May, but they looked a little different from the people peacefully protesting and rioting in the streets of cities’ downtowns. This brave cluster was made up of elderly white people. Some of them leaned on canes; all of them wore masks. They held Black Lives Matters signs, standing six feet apart in their geriatric shoes, and they rang cowbells. (Who doesn’t love a little cowbell?) At first, there were no more than a handful of them — five or six at most. Over the summer and fall they’ve grown to forty or more.

This week we saw them again, and the kids and I had a Hamilton moment as we slowly drove by. “Who Tells Your Story” was on full blast, and we had the windows down. The day held that warm, soft autumn light that makes October in the South so wonderful. My eight year old leaned as far out the window as he could safely do. “The Oldies are protesting, Mom!” he said with delight. In his face was this incredible mixture of hope and joy. I’ll never forget it. They’re planting seeds in a garden they may never see. For my kids, it’s a lesson that you don’t have to stop growing even as you grow old.

Beneath the political noise and the fear-mongering, the paid political advertisements, the endless loop of your newsfeed, and the drone of cable news, Hamilton inspires this one helpful, clarifying question:

What might bloom in the garden where you intend to plant your seeds?

Vote wisely, friends. History has its eyes on us.

Wake Up

Photo Credit: Laura Chouette

At some point during quarantine, our youngest child started giving us all a little nudge.

“Mama … Mom … Mom … Mom … Wake up!” he’d say to me when I was absently scrolling Instagram.

“Wake up!” he’d say to my spouse, glued to the two computer monitors he’d set up in his “home office” (i.e. the kids playroom).

“Wake up!” he’d say to the girls as they did their school work via screens.

“Wake up!” to me, again, as I texted friends, read recipes, researched emergency homeschooling techniques, worked on the stalled-out novel I’d previously been making good progress on, and scrolled Facebook to see if the world really was as crazy as it felt, and if everyone else thought so, too.

What he was saying was “pay attention to ME,” of course. He’d learned how to scramble to the very top of our hallways’ door frames, and how to physically climb our walls, and he wanted us to see. But there was something in his phrasing that carried foreboding:

Wake Up!

What, exactly, were we asleep to?

Like everyone else, we’ve muddled through our quarantines. For a while, I made a paper chain and wrote down each day’s activities: worked on jigsaw puzzle; went for a walk even though it rained; played Yahtzee seven times, cleaned out the closets, etc. Already fairly outdoors-loving people, we’ve embraced, even more, all the open spaces that exist within a three hundred mile radius of where we live. We’ve read lots of books. We taught the kids how to play Hearts, Spades and Russian Bank. We gave them unfettered time on their devices. We bought a trampoline; we let our twelve year old go on solo runs; we granted permission for unchaperoned neighborhood bike rides. We fielded our kids’ unanswerable questions; we held non-celebrations for three family birthdays (four, if you count the dog’s), and my husband and I even went on a “date” in our garage.

We were AWAKE, for heaven’s sake. We were more awake, even, than we wanted to be; more awake, maybe, than we have ever been.

But about a month ago, knee-deep in pandemic fatigue, I took a step back. The kids had returned to school, and I’d started working again, however haltingly. Still, I couldn’t concentrate. My watch and my phone and my computer kept dinging. Every time a news story broke, I was too often propelled to social media, where a tidal wave of opinion, hearsay, fabrications, prideful misinformation, mean fun and hard news would, shamefully, ruin my day.

After a particularly testy conversation with my mother, she asked, “What is WRONG with you?”

I have a thousand answers to that question, but, quite honestly, the constant, muffled rage I’d been feeling was a bit … unnatural. So, I reassessed. I started paying attention to the way my body actually felt when I tapped that Twitter icon, or when I saw the outrageous memes, posted by both left and right-leaning “friends,” on Facebook. I took stock of the low-level depression and the high-level anxiety and the general frustration it all ignited within me.

I became more and more aware that I’ve been holding my breath rather than actually breathing. And I started wondering what it might feel like to be both less irate and less foggy, a paradoxical pairing that nonetheless seems wildly appropriate for today’s social and political landscape.

First, I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, and I found that I didn’t miss it. After a Facebook post announced that no one could be a Christian, an American AND a Democrat–I mean, really?–I gave that up, too.

A few days later, my husband and I sat down and watched Social Dilemma on Netflix, and it affirmed everything I’ve been processing over the past several months. Our perspectives are distorted because we are being pushed around by algorithms and unnatural digital platforms that actually don’t “care” whether we live in a functioning society or not. They don’t value our relationships. The Internet doesn’t mind pushing conspiracy theories or sowing division, and, unfortunately for we actual people, the weaker members of humanity and politics don’t mind agreeing with distorted reality so long as it’s used to their advantage–creating a snowball effect of enormous proportions.

Now six weeks in to my social media hiatus, the itch to see what “everyone” thinks is gone. After turning off all my phone’s notifications, aside from texts and phone calls from real people, the fog has begun to lift. I know where to get my news. But rather than having it dumped on me throughout the day, when I’m in a frame of mind that can abide it, I go looking for it myself.

Which leads me here–twenty-some days out from a major election that will likely impact whether or not social media companies face regulatory oversight. What if we all decided to wake up? The internet only has as much power as we allow it. Without us, its distortions have no agency. I’m not suggesting that we go back to 1990s-era bag phones–only that we begin to think more intentionally about how these pocket-sized computers can be used as tools, rather than allowing ourselves to be the ones who are used.