Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Drive and Contentment in Hamilton and My Life

I first listened to the musical Hamilton just after my friend Mel Leilani Larson got back from a trip to New York raving about the show, when she told us the soundtrack would be streamed free on NPR for a while in advance of its official release. My huge respect for Mel's judgment was tempered only by my considerable inertia: I pulled up a tab but didn't actually start listening until about midnight, and even then only because Nicole had a lot of papers to grade and happened to be doing so in bed.

It took about a phrase for me to be hooked for the night and about three songs to be hooked forever. I loved the drama and the wit of the show, loved the way its musical references helped bring the real culture of the late-1700s to life for a listener, loved the characters and the way they duel each other verbally and literally--but what grabbed me most was what I suppose you might call the fundamental forces competing in Hamilton.

Hamilton is about a lot of things, of course, but there's a side of the show, which was the first layer I clung to, that's about wanting really badly--relentlessly, obsessively, all-consumingly--to be engaged in the world and leave your mark there. I was already starting to get sick, though we didn't know why, when I first fell in love with the Hamilton soundtrack. But despite the creeping symtpoms, I was still writing long hours on work projects and side projects. Enough that the Hamilton lyric "why do you write like you're running out of time?" was like a mantra to me. In the show, I saw my own obsession with forging something powerful and beautiful, my own willingness to push others to push beyond the norm toward that vision--"I'm never satisfied," I reminded two co-writers (and fellow Hamilton-heads) when asked for my opinion during one editing meeting, "I have never been satisfied." I wrote like I was fighting, and I fought for the writing, and I exulted not only in moments of success but also over being locked in the struggle. I was sick, and I didn't know why, but I kept pushing, I kept working and wanting to work--though I wasn't getting better and doctors kept pushing further afield for explanations--until keeping sanity, family, and writing all intact started to seem like maybe more than I could keep up with.

It was while all this was happening that I found what, to me, is the other fundamental force in Hamilton. It happened sort of by accident...I'd read an essay that talked about what values the antagonists, Burr and Hamilton, represent and I thought, "That not right. Structurally, Burr is not the antagonist." Which was my old script analysis class talking, telling me that just because someone shows up early or makes bad choices doesn't make them the antagonist unless they also sew the seeds of the conflict that gets resolved in the end.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb among Hamilton fans to say that the character of Hamilton is never really tempted by Burr's wait-for-it philosophy and that  the end is certainly not about a willingness to be vulnerably outspoken versus a desire to keep yourself safe and show your cards only at the right time. No: the end is not about Burr at all, though he is one of many who helps get us there on a plot level. The end is about Hamilton and Eliza.

It feels a bit weird, there, putting his last name and her first--but that's actually the point. The first force is the force of the last name and the second force, Eliza's force, is about the significance of the first name. All through the musical, Hamilton is pushing to do good work through a public persona, a last name level of identity. And from the prologue on, it's Eliza's voice that keep calling him back, constantly reminding him that he is also Alexander. He has a home role to fill: time to spend, attention to be paid, and no matter how he wants to speed up and fight for a legacy, Eliza seems to appear in warning to invite him to slow down, to be content with the essential.

For me, the show is most fundamentally about the tension between moving/fighting on the one hand and learning to stand somewhere small and specific on the other.

A lot of interviewers asked Lin Manuel Miranda about the political dynamics of an immigrant upbringing and the influence they had on him, basically questions about the public place of immigrants in America. I hope somebody also asked him--even if they decided not to go on record and print it--what the family dynamics were for his dad and other immigrant dads he saw. Did they have the immigrant hunger and sense of struggle so many first generation people have, the hunger Hamilton embodies? And how did that effect their families for good and ill? What did Lin and his mom and the other kids he knew think about their dads' drive? I've certainly known families where the immigrant dads' relentless need to carve out a space in a new country felt a bit out of control.

And in the musical, Miranda seems to side--ultimately--with Eliza, seems to see Hamilton as fundamentally endangered by his inability to stop being Hamilton at times and be Alexander. Looking back, it was ironic for me to identify so much with the drive in Hamilton's life that destroys him without thinking much, initially, about the neglected place of love and belonging that seems most to anchor and redeem him. But then, like I said, I got sick. And I stayed sick. And I stopped writing like I was running out of time and started trying--despite all the pressure on my patience, despite the low energy and the distracting symptoms--to love like that is the purpose of time.

And for almost a year now, I've learned to be away (more or less) from the world. I mean, I still follow news and Mormon discussions and literary conversations a bit, and I watch weather I won't experience except through my hospital window, but none of it has much claim on me. I am not too much Goldberg the writer and social commentator; I'm mostly just James in the Goldberg family and James among some friends. A year ago I was taking pride in never being satisfied--now I work on being content with whatever I have, on being open to the moments of grace and connection that come with it, and I take precious little thought for the troubles of tomorrow, being well aware (as Jesus said) that every day has evil enough unto itself.

I loved Hamilton's side of Hamilton. I'm living Eliza's now--and, of course, she is right.

And yet...

Last night I was taking one of my many walks around the hospital floor, listening to Act Two of Hamilton as I went. I got to the song "The Room Where It Happens," where Hamilton, without hesitation or apology, trades away New York City's status as the national capital in exchange for the votes that will finally give him the financial system he is sure the country needs. Hamilton is still running high on the achievement when Burr comes in to ask him why he was willing to "sell New York City down the river." And in his explanation of how he just got exactly what he wanted, Hamilton gets a bit reflective about what's driven him through the Revolution and through all the hazards and compromises of government. "God help and forgive me," he sings, "I want to build something that's gonna outlive me."

When I heard that line last night, I felt it all through me. I am planning on living, but have also tried to prepare myself today. I am looking forward, to be sure, to the end of treatment, but have also tried to live as if it will go and on far past my expectations. I have tried to be content living in a land between the normal world of the living and the world of the dead.

But that line. God help and forgive me. I want to build something that's gonna outlive me. 

More than I have in months, I wanted to get back to the world. To my fight to change something for good there, to leave a mark. The old hunger awoke: the old restlessness, relentlessness--and I quickened my step, pulling a pole full of intravenous medications behind, as if I could break out into the world faster by walking. As if I could choose my fate by sheer force of will.

God help and forgive me. 

It is not a simple thing to wish so badly for two things that can seem so contradictory. But I suspect God will help and forgive my ambition. I suspect that wish to break out of these walls is a gift from God, just as my wish to find contentment within them is. And maybe my life is preparing me to carry both gifts acceptably. I've known relentless drive; I've known how discontent with things as they are can help you call new things to life. And I've learned stillness and attention; I've learned to be content with the world as grace can help you see it. Maybe this is what the Sikh gurus could see when they called on their people to be soldiers and saints: they wanted them to have the capacity and will to move together for justice and goodness when history demanded it, and at the same time they wanted them to be able to experience the blessings of simple, honest life, aware of but unencumbered by the struggles that always seem to sweep the world.

And maybe I, grandson of a Sikh, can learn to be at once a soldier and a saint, at once the exacting Goldberg and the patient James.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Grace and Time

In July and August, I had my first round of high-dose chemo, and it was probably the hardest thing I've done in my life. The particular regimen killed all kinds of fast-growing cells: it screwed up my skin, gave me serious sores in my mouth and all through my GI tract, and wiped out my immune system completely, giving space for the bacteria that normally live in me in balance to go haywire. They had harvested bone marrow stem cells from me in advance to rebuild the marrow, but the period between when they put them in and when they started producing was really awful.

About a week after my immune system started to recover, I was eating enough to be off of intravenous nutrition and felt good enough to go off the "pain pump" of on demand pain medication: progress enough to get me out of the hospital.

After the chemo, I had two weeks of outpatient follow-up. At the end of that time, they'd decide whether I was ready to go back in for my next and final round of chemo or go back home to Utah for a while to recover first. Being a "just get it done" sort of person, I was hoping to be healthy enough to just go straight into the second round so I could back to my normal life more quickly. But though other systems had recovered well, my platelet count was still at transfusion-level, so I got sent back for more recovery instead.

It was a little weird, at first, to be home. I was happy to be back, but couldn't get my mind away from the struggle of active treatment. I wondered if that was like what soldiers feel if they get leave home between tours: not knowing quite where you belong or what mode your body should be in.

It was also really good to be home, though, and not just for the comfort of being with my own space--however odd it sometimes felt--and with the people I love most. By coming back when I did, I got to be part of the family rhythm at an important time. Just after I got back, Elijah started school, Kira started Junior High, and Leif started a twice-a-week preschool. Though I was still definitely in recovery, I could sit and work on homework with them, listen to them talk about their days, get their paperwork done and permission slips signed, and generally help them settle in to their new worlds. It meant a lot to me to be able to do that. 

My time home also happened to coincide with a concert at BYU by Leslie Odom Jr. (who had just moved on from the role Burr in the obsession-inducing musical Hamilton). Nicole had bought two tickets--for herself and a friend she had hoped might turn out to be me. I got out of pajamas and into regular clothes for the occasion. His vocal performance was both impressive and fun--and it was really cool to hear a performer I respected share some of his thoughts on art and faith between songs. Over the course of the concert, Nicole and I each happened to start a cheer that spread through the crowd. That was a nice feeling. And after it was done, we got to drive home together and breathe the same air and hold hands and I felt very good about being in the same state. 

Even at home, my platelets stayed quite low for a while and my return to treatment in Texas ended up getting delayed a week. At one point, that would have frustrated me. But that last week was when I got to see Mark and Julie Magleby, who I'd been aching to see since getting home but had delayed contacting for a while because I couldn't imagine doing anything when I saw them but crying. And having the extra week also meant that the day before I left, I got to go to the wedding reception of Rachael Anderson, who'd helped me process my initial cancer diagnosis eight years ago and helped me through the recovery then.

We hadn't seen each other much since, so it was Rachael's first time meeting all my kids. And being with friends who had known me when the cancer started, I thought again about another timing that had worked out: the initial treatment didn't affect fertility and I'd these beautiful children, then Nicole and I had decided after some difficult pregnancies that our family was complete--just before the cancer came back and needed treatment that almost certainly would affect my ability to have more children.

In most cases, life has a certain rhythm and sickness feels like an interruption. I certainly have felt that way at some points in my treatment--like I'm in exile from my regular life. But this last trip home, and especially that moment at the wedding reception, were reminders that there has also been a certain grace to my life between treatments. God gave me a window to have my children. God gave me time to help them start school, and extended that time long enough that I could see and be strengthened by visits with old friends. I even felt well enough at one point to do several days of work from home for my job--and I finished all of the high-priority projects for my talent set a day before my energy levels dropped again and forced me to focus on my body instead.

I'm back in treatment now and trying to trust. Trying to trust that whatever happens: however long treatment and risk extend, or even if treatment and subsequent chance aren't enough to fulfill my three-year-old son Leif's recent prayer that "daddy can not die until he's a great-grandpa," I'm trying to trust. That there is a grace to time, that God will give me all the time I need--sometimes by making it flow in a different way than I first think I want.


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