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a hamiltonian history

Last April, I made a small but fateful decision in a grocery store line: I bought a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack.

For the first time ever, history came alive to me. It came so alive, I decided to read the biography that inspired the musical, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton.

“Oh, Deefy. You take such silly pictures.” — my husband, today

What I read fairly well stunned me. Sold, somehow, on the notion that history was a linear progression toward the betterment of humankind, I discovered instead that Americans today are having the same fights that our forebears did two hundred years ago. That those fights were extensions of fights that had been held elsewhere for decades to centuries prior.

While the state of technology has progressed, I saw that the state of the States … hadn’t, in fundamental ways.

I’d been a lifelong Democrat when I picked up that musical in the grocery store line. Democratic officials cared for the little guy, I thought, while Republican officials cared about the little fraction of the population that could fund grotesque, human-crushing legislation. That was pretty much my entire understanding of politics before I heard and then read Hamilton.

Hamilton left me feeling determined to change that. After all, going into the year, I hadn’t liked musicals and had never read history for fun. Just a few short months into the year, both those things had already changed pretty profoundly for me. If I’d come to appreciate musicals and history, was it possible that I could also come to develop more nuanced understandings of and appreciation for politics? Could I remedy my woeful lack of political comprehension and become a genuinely informed citizen?

It was worth a shot, and I (ahem) wasn’t throwing mine away.

I began reading.

At first, I read dozens of articles almost daily. Then, dissatisfied with how few answers any individual article or even collection of articles could offer, I shifted to reading books, beginning with Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some. My horror grew with each page I read.

These grotesque things were happening in my country, and had been for at least decades. Far from being strictly Republican efforts, I saw that Democrat officials had a heavy hand in much of the horror.

I understood I’d barely scratched the surface with that one book, so I read many others. The more I read, the more I saw how much was concealed in nuance not often represented in mainstream media reportage.

Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I despaired. Not only was my country constantly killing other countries’ citizens in the guise of bringing “democracy” and “human rights” to them, it had done the same thing in quieter, less blatant ways within this countries’ boundaries, too.

Things were so much worse than I’d ever bothered to see, and each day, hundreds to thousands of people lost their lives because of it.

Change seemed impossible, but I kept reading. I still needed to understand more.

In August, my husband, Anthony, and I argued for more than one hour of our drive from Oregon back to Los Angeles. The subject of our dispute?

Hamilton.

When I first read Chernow’s Hamilton, I was amused by discrepancies between history and art. Of course Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical’s author, had to tweak history to fit it into a highly condensed narrative!

By the time my husband and I made that drive back home, I was aggravated by those changes. I already saw how easy it was for people to revise history, the better to suit their desires for it. I argued that the show, though entertaining, was also creating an illusion of historical knowledge that would conceal more than it revealed. Illusions of knowledge, I felt then and continue to feel, play an enormous role in the perpetuation of injustice today; people won’t often dive into exploring things they think they already know.

A few months later, I’d briefly follow Miranda on Twitter before becoming annoyed with him personally, too. How, I wondered, could someone with such marvelous insight into the human experience be such a … a neolib?!

I unfollowed him, and I stopped listening to Hamilton.

I kept reading.

Earlier this year, I read an essay by Rebecca Solnit that blew my mind the wrong way. I’d come to cherish her words, so that I was flabbergasted by how much unsubstantiated bullshit she’d managed to pack into a single essay.

This left me, briefly, in crisis. If even Solnit could buy–and then publicly perpetuate–such ridiculousness, what the hell did that mean for the future?

Within a few days, I decided it meant very little. So what if one brilliant writer, political mind, and (general) purveyor of compassion wrote one crappy essay? Chances were, she’d write more, but no number of less impeccably reasoned essays would undo the beauty of her many nuanced writings.

In a charged political environment, I’d come to an important understanding: people are more than the sum of the stupidest things they’ve ever written or said. This perspective, I saw, was good for me as a reader and a writer, for I’ve written far more crap than I have anything else.

Several Fridays ago, Anthony, my two young boys, and I settled into our couch to watch Disney’s Moana together. Miranda wrote much of its music, so that I knew I’d like the music, if nothing else.

Not only did I like the music, I found something I’d lost for almost a year: joy completely, briefly, unmarred by any sorrow.

I watched the movie a couple of times that weekend. After work on Monday, I picked up its soundtrack on the way home from work. My heart absolutely soared when I heard the beginning notes of “We Know the Way.” I played it a half-dozen times on my way back home.

When my husband next got into my car with me, the Moana CD was still playing. “I’m glad you still have love for Lin-Manuel,” he said, smiling.

“Of course I do,” I replied, smiling back. Later, realizing there was no “of course” from his perspective, I explained how one Solnit essay had inspired me to change my perspective, and how joy changed … well, everything.

Having remembered what it felt like to feel good, I could not go back to forever feeling bad.

I stopped reading quite so much, and made time daily for joy.

Yesterday, Anthony and I used our final tickets from our Pantages season passes. A year after buying those passes, it was finally time to see Hamilton.

Hearing it was one thing; seeing it, quite another. We cried, we laughed, and we cried some more.

When the show was done, a young woman took our picture in front of one of the show posters.

We were happy, my husband and I. I was happy, and it showed.

Last April, I made a small but fateful decision in a grocery store line: I bought a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack.

Last night, I saw just how much that twenty-dollar decision–and Lin-Manuel Miranda–changed my life, and I was grateful.

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  1. onalark192
    August 14, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Thank you! I enjoyed reading that. Not just a skim…. It has become a new age of “read” for me as well. It is an administration of fact finders for all or us ( or should be).

  1. August 13, 2017 at 11:48 am

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