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.

Surprises!

Photo Courtesy of Digital Agent

Over the past few weeks, I’ve received some nice surprises. The old adage is that bad things often come in threes, but in my case, these good things have come in threes, all delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

It all started when a mysterious package arrived in my mailbox on a sunny afternoon. It was addressed to Prof. Mary Towles Allison Kintz, and there was only a return address, but no name. Inside was Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Essentially, it’s a book about story telling, and the anonymous sender had marked a passage on transformation for me. Miller had an artist friend named Marco who did a project focused on the purpose of life, and when he asked his friend what he’d discovered, he said:

… “[Marco] didn’t know what the point of the journey was, but he did believe we were designed to search for and find something. And he wondered out loud if the point wasn’t the search but the transformation the search creates.” (p. 69)

Now, as it turns out, our friend Todd had purchased a used copy of this book and had its previous owner, in upstate New York, mail it to us. But the marking of this passage came from the stranger, and I sort of love the mystery of receiving someone else’s book marked in such a way that it sort of poses a question to the receiver, whom he will never know.

The second two surprises came on the heels of one another. Last week, I received a hand-written letter from a reader of my Art House essay. She thanked and praised me for it, offering me and my writing such wonderful encouragement I nearly cried. I’m not telling you this so that you can be wowed that I’m the sort of writer who receives fan mail (as this never_ever_happens), but because it was truly one of the nicest, most meaningful surprises I have ever received, and it taught me a little lesson on going out of one’s way to offer praise and encouragement to strangers. It also answered the question I constantly battle: Why does writing matter? It never occurred to me that something I wrote, something that felt so uniquely personal, could reach out and touch another person and lead her to write me a heart-felt letter. The truth is that my beliefs about why other people’s writing (and my reading of that writing) matters have never faltered, but I’ve never had the opportunity to hear a total stranger say to me, “YOUR writing matters.” Wow. I’m still reeling.

Finally, out of the blue, my friend’s Aunt Gail, who is a great poet and screenwriter living a real writer’s life in NYC, sent me a book: Writers of the American South: Their Literary Landscapes. It is a beautiful collection of photos and prose profiling Southern writers and their writing spaces. I don’t know why Gail sent this book to me (unless maybe she felt a little sorry for me upon reading this post), but I have loved learning about how some of my favorite writers – Ann Patchett, Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Conner, to name a few – live(d) and work(ed). It was such a delight to be remembered in this way – to receive a present that I didn’t even know I wanted from someone whose work and perspective I hold in high esteem.

That all of these surprises came in the mail and made my day makes me want to send a personal note to Congress asking it to preserve the USPS. Being the recipient of so much lovely mail has made me reconsider the way I communicate, and it’s reminded me that being thoughtful and intentional is really the only way to live life fully. So now I’m off to put together a care package … for who, I’m not sure. But if I have your address, it may be you!