Spring Awakening debuted on Broadway in 2006 or 2007. A couple of years ago, a production was performed at the Adrienne Arsht Center and I got to see it. Two years later, I continue to reflect on the whole production, but especially, I have thought a lot about two of the musical pieces. Doing the first week of the Ignatian Exercises, with it’s focus on sin has brought them into sharper focus.
As the lights come up in the first scene, there’s a young woman getting dressed—at first you only see her through the shadows of a space still in the dark of early morning. As she finishes dressing, she moves to stand on a chair and sings. I was mesmerized. Like all good theater and music, the piece sang powerfully about my own life, my own sense of myself as a young person. The friend I’ve known the longest, Carolyn, was here last weekend and went with me on one of my rambles. We talked about being 18 and college roommates. I had been determined to come to this country from the time I was a child and I’d pulled it off, only to fall apart inside. The line, “Mama who gave me no way to handle things”, was a shocking reminder and recognition of all the ways I experienced my life from a place of powerlessness.
Mama Who Bore Me gets at a rather bizarre paradox that maybe exists in all adolescents and young adults, and certainly existed in me—in fact, it stayed with me for decades. As we become conscious of ourselves and our existence, we cannot fathom that what is bad and broken and unholy in us is of our own doing and choice. Surely, it is something passed on to us by others. In the very same breath, I would have been incapable of saying that there was hardly anything good, or lovely or worthwhile in me.
My body had been a battleground for good and bad all my life. Once my dislocated hip was diagnosed, once all the drama associated with that truth about me had started playing out, everyone around me referred to my left hip, my dislocated, fragile, reconstructed hip that held me up against all odds, as my “bad hip”, that leg as my “bad leg”. Conversely, my right leg was my “good leg”—dichotomy and contradiction was built into the common, everyday vocabulary about me. Over and over again, it seemed like bad triumphed over good, that the pain, the ugliness, the isolation all seemed so much more powerful in defining me and my life. By the time I began to discover desire, I am not sure I would have been able to see it as anything but bad, even if it was infinitely fascinating. Adding desire to the mix of embodiment, only heightened my sense of being trapped and powerless. As I listened to the young actor sing Mama Who Bore Me I ached for her and for the young person I was once.
The very first step of this first week of the Ignatian Exercises is an invitation to consider that sinfulness existed long before I came into the world and is something passed on, generation to generation. What is so haunting and also helpful to me about Mama Who Bore Me is that it puts into words how we start reflecting on that and trying to give it meaning in our own lives. At some point in my very early twenties, when I was depressed to the point of being suicidal, I finally got into therapy and began to make the connection that the profound, bone-breaking sadness I lived with had something to do with my experience of being flawed and bad, but not by my own choice or making. But I also began to understand that now, living on my own, in a new country, disconnected from all the people and circumstances I could blame for that sense of being so worthless, the decisions I was making also added to my sorrow.
I continued to consider myself powerless to do anything about that for many years. I made some wretched choices along the way and caused way more damage than I usually care to acknowledge. But perhaps the first real step into adulthood is when we quit worrying about how we came to be bad, sinful, broken, flawed—whatever you want to call it—and accept that at some point, we simply have to carry the burden of that knowledge and start finding better ways to handle things.
In the summer of 1979, I spent incredibly long stretches of time alone in Fairfax, Virginia, living in the fullness of my depression and despair. It was that same summer that a friend gave me the book Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Though I had no car, I started learning to move around on buses and the subway in D.C., and got into a routine where after classes, most days, I packed a sandwich of peanut butter and banana, and took public transportation down to the Mall. I was particularly fond of the Hirschorn Museum with it’s sculpture garden. I would alternate between reading C.S. Lewis and going in to immerse myself in the artwork. Often, my heart just raced with the sense of discovery and new horizons. I still couldn’t love myself a whole lot but it began to seem just as possible that if something outside of me had made me “bad” then maybe something outside of me had actually made me and found that I was good.