Right after the election, a meme was making the rounds, predicting that Hillary would come out on stage before the inauguration to sing “Last Midnight,” from Into the Woods. If you’re unfamiliar with the musical, this may have looked like a jab to Hillary’s character, since after all, the song is sung by the witch. In the song, the witch denounces the actions of everyone on stage, dooming them all, before disappearing in a puff of smoke and returning to her “uglier,” previously cursed self. But if you do know the show well, you know that the witch is one of the strongest, most complex and powerful characters of the show.
I happen to know the show backwards and forwards because of the lucky fact that I was an introverted musical theatre child of the 90s and staged an imaginary production of this show in my living room. Nowadays, whenever I see theatre festival notices that state, “If chosen, play must be fully produced prior to the festival,” I think about how I’ll always have the production of Into the Woods in my back pocket, the audience just won’t be able to see my cast of imaginary actors.
Anyway, to put it in a nutshell, Into the Woods sets a bunch of familiar fairy tale characters in one town, all in pursuit of their personal dream. The Witch is one of the story’s common threads. She has a rough past–a history of cursing the baker’s family into sterility (after being robbed by them), and oh yes, trapping her daughter in a tower. But as the play progresses, we hear each character’s side of the story and watch them either grow into empathetic people, fall into a life of crime, or a combination of both. And as an audience, you start to question: who is justified in their quest?
Everything falls to madness when the pissed-off giant in the sky comes down to seek justice for Jack stealing all her things. When faced with this common enemy, the characters’ united front starts to crumble as they look for someone to blame. Who began all this? Where did the original sin that set these actions in motion really start? The song “You fault” leads into the infamous song from the Hillary meme, “Last Midnight.” The lyrics of this song have reverberated in my head since November:
“You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice. I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right. I’m the witch, you’re the world.”
Her “world” reference is a throwback to her loving song to Rapunzel about why she keeps her trapped in a tower–to protect her from “the world.” Lo and behold, the world does indeed kill Rapunzel, when she gets stepped on by the giant. But was she justified in keeping her daughter prisoner? The witch is the first one to admit that it doesn’t matter who’s to blame, just that we must go forward with fixing the problem. She’s also no saint however, as her suggestion is to sacrifice Jack’s life. But nevertheless, during this song, she points out that each character’s obsession with being “nice,” with living happily ever after, has distanced them from one another. They have become so obsessed with money and with the pursuit of their dreams, that they acted by any means necessary, without thought for their neighbors’ wellbeing. And when there are consequences for their actions, they are unwilling to claim them.
The past several months have taught me a great deal about the difference between “nice” and being empathetic; and my experience is that those who try to quiet our fight for human rights, have often been roped into the wrong side of nice. Empathy, kindness, justice–whatever you want to call it–comes from the belief that we should treat others the way we wish to be treated. “Nice”–in the sense that I am talking about–comes from keeping the peace even when our actions do not match up with our words. And so, a falseness, an alternate reality emerges. Instead of building patience to hear one another, we try to quiet the other side, we try to prove them wrong with the facts that suit us. And by doing this, each side moves further and further apart. But there is nothing nice about staying quiet and apathetic. The yells of the Women’s March and the fight made by the Democratic Senators over the past two nights may make some people uncomfortable, annoyed even, but they come from a place of empathy, and a yearning to protect someone other than themselves. It is the fiercely difficult fight for truth and human decency.
This July, I am returning to hike the Camino de Santiago for the second time. I’ve been trying to figure out since returning in 2009, why this experience has moved me so greatly, and how to focus my writing project for this next go-around. And I keep coming back to this one idea–there is a level of human connection, deep care and understanding, and genuine personal support on the Camino that I have rarely seen anywhere else. But you may not expect this at first glance. Get a bunch of people, all different religions, backgrounds, ages, and nationalities, and put them together to hash out their personal demons while hiking a difficult trail for five weeks. You’d think we’d all bicker from exhaustion, drunkenly fight after too much wine, or butt heads when our religious beliefs and politics differ. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. This kaleidoscope of ideas, combined with the common purpose of reaching Santiago, has the power to strip away the bullsh*t–for lack of a better phrase. With nothing else but time, everyone has the chance to speak if they choose. If you choose to close off to someone else’s ideas, you may find yourself without a hiking buddy for a few days–at least until the trail teaches you to work things through on your own. And without distractions, there’s no avoiding your demons; the Camino rips the apathy from you, step by step.
As so, as I mentioned before, “nice” means little without empathetic actions to back up your kindness. Kindness on the Camino is the unspoken vow to make sure all your fellow pilgrims make it safely to their destination, that all around you are fed, have a place to sleep, are cared for–mentally and physically. Even when you hike alone, you are hiking with the millions of those that walked before you, will walk in the future, and all those around you during your 35 days. Without the fear of appearing weak (because hey, we just walked 18 miles with 20 pounds on our backs), you can get down to the real stuff, speak bluntly and honestly, while still caring for each other.
In real life, our industrious society has given us the gift of modern comforts. And believe me, I am grateful for technology and industry, I am not against progress. But at times, we feel that these structures in society support a belief that we no longer need anyone else’s help, that we are fine on our own, and all we need is drive, grit, and money, and we will pull ourselves up alone. Those who are fighting against the current administration’s actions see that this idea is not true. We do need one another, we need to listen, we need to act, we need to–at times–hurt and sacrifice for one another.
The words of the witch do make an impact on the other characters of Into the Woods. When all hope seems gone, and they realize that they nearly lost each other, the song No One is Alone is what brings them back to a place of hope. No longer divided, and no longer seeking happiness from material things, they begin to heal. I may not have solid answers for our greed-driven political climate at the moment, but I intend to continue to seek out the Caminos of the world, both on and off the trail. I will look for those moments of human connection and wildly celebrate them. I choose connection, a desire to teach one another, and a drive to come together, over the apathetic dangers of the wrong kind of nice.
As stated in my past posts: since this blog is place for my personal expression and processing, I ask that you only send political beliefs to me directly, opposed to commenting below. I appreciate your thoughts, but encourage you to walk around with anything that comes to mind before responding too quickly, especially as we are all feeling so raw. As always, thank you for reading. Much love and peace to you all.