Hadestown: A parable of hope during collapse

Hadestown is a poignant, collapse aware, attachment-focused, spiritually enlightening, music(al theatre) masterpiece.  All three available album versions are stunning: the folk opera of the wonderful Anais Mitchell, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and the one and only (idol of my adolescence) Ani Difranco is fantastic, and was my entry point into obsession with Hadestown.  But as Hadestown transitioned from a folk album to multiple tony-award winning Broadway Musical, we are lucky that the Original Cast made an album in *addition* to the official Broadway cast.  Three versions of the same story, same characters.  They all have their own flavor, their own slight twist on the themes.  

Themes of hope and despair.  Of Insecure and Secure attachment.  Of collapse. Of the honorable harvest.  Of faith, and hopelessness.  Of oppression and inequality triggered by capitalism.  Of climate change.  Of the spiritual and physical realms (and how we can’t spiritually manifest when there is oppression in the physical realm).  Of Addiction. And of course, Mythology: Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone. 

Critical Note: The themes I free wrote above are topics in which I am not an expert, but I am an enthusiast and forever student.  I will try to provide the best information that I am aware of at the time of writing, but this blog is a process, quite literally my continued processing of art that has truly touched me and changed me for the better in ways I want to sit with and learn from.

Hadestown is a prophecy, telling the truth of this present moment.  It doesn’t shy away from the full magnitude of human emotion, and it does so in a way that leaves me feeling hopeful, enlivened, joyous, and energized every time I listen.  

And dear reader, listen you must.  These posts are meant to be interactive so when I link a song, I hope you will take the time to listen.

Road to Hell

The story begins with the “Road to Hell” and the sauciest intro to any musical.  The folk album does not include a version of this intro, but this song appears on both musical albums as a way to set the stage and introduce the characters.  We learn the setting is in “the world of gods and men,” and that this story we are about to experience is “an old song from way back when, we gonna sing it again,”  “a sad song, a tragedy, and we gonna sing it anyway.”

We learn of the “the fates,” who are to me *such* an interesting role because they are not “characters” in the traditional sense because the song tells us that they are “always singing in the back of your mind.”  They function as a sort of “inner critic” in addition to their role as enforcers of destiny.  (Again, any mythology knowledge on these characters beyond the scope of what is in the musical is beyond the scope of my writing at this time.)

We meet the narrator, Hermes the Messenger God, able to travel between the world of the living and the dead, a psychopomp who can “help you reach your final destination”– very fitting for him to be in the narrator role.

Hermes introduces us to Persephone, who travels on this train (“on the road to hell”), with a “suitcase full of summertime”– As the myth goes, Persephone’s return at the end of winter announces the arrival of spring, and likewise we learn in Act 2, she brings some intoxicants of springtime to make life more bearable for those in the underworld.

In the original cast version, all we learn about Orpheus is that he is a “young man on bended knee” evoking a vulnerability, and eagerness, perhaps even a desperation, which seems more evident in the Broadway version, that instead informs us that he is the son of a muse (who was also a friend of Hermes’) who is “working on a song” and that he was “touched by the gods themselves.”  (Which is an understandment, as we soon learn that Hermes is a godfather character to Orpheus). One lyrical thing that always struck me as odd while listening to the Broadway cast version is that Hermes announces Orpheus’ name twice (“Let’s give it up for Orpheus!! Orpheus.”) But I recently read (since I haven’t yet seen the musical) that we see in the stage blocking that Orpheus doesn’t hear Hermes introducing him, so Hermes needs to say his name again to get his attention. This shows just how wrapped up Orpheus can be in his passions and also serves as a foreshadowing device.

We also meet Hades, who lives “where the sun don’t shine, at the end of the line…he is the king of the mines.”

I also love that we are introduced to the ensemble, and we learn that the setting is “hard times in the world of men” (*ahem* you can SAY THAT AGAIN!).  But it is cool, there is a dance break, a joyous amping up of energy that this intro has to really set the stage.  It is also worth noting that throughout the musical, dance breaks only happen on, let’s just say, “this side” of the old railroad line.  The underworld of Hadestown is not a joyous place.  We also are briefly introduced to Eurydice as “A young girl looking for something to eat.” 

And to be clear, this introduction is a great contrast between an upbeat song, rhythm you can’t help but sway to, and that sassy trombone throughout, that feels like a celebration, yet we are reminded time and time again: It’s a sad song, It’s a tragedy, We are gonna sing it anyway.  It’s an old tale from way back when and we are gonna sing it again.  The beauty of holding that contrast between lyrics invoking tragedy and music invoking joy, right from the start is absolutely breathtaking.  

The Broadway version has Hermes adding: “Someone’s got to tell the tale, whether or not it turns out well, maybe it will turn out this time”  which I love that it has a hopefulness to it as well as the obligation to be a bearer of bad news, a singer of sad songs, that there is value in experiencing pain or disappointment.  The original version has Hermes end with “A love song that never dies, about someone who tries.”  

This musical makes it clear from the intro song that the ending is not a happy one, but that there is a lesson in doing the hard thing, that sometimes we can only see the battle ahead, and even if “success” is futile, there is hope in trying.

Personal Reflections on Road to Hell

The open admission of how this story is a sad one, *and we are going to sing it anyway* is really quite profound, and the “maybe it *will* turn out this time” lends such a hopefulness that is hard to grasp in these times of collapse.  

Where do I hold sadness in my body? 

What would it take to actually allow myself to have a “somatic completion” by allowing myself to feel it, not resist it?  

Perhaps it is by acknowledging where I am stuck in sadness that I will find the key to joy, that a life of happiness isn’t one where we choke our tears back, but we let them flow freely in grief and praise of a full life well-lived.  

How might our world change if we didn’t resist the uneasy, quiet the sadness, and hold back from speaking hard truths?  

What would it look like if we could dance while singing a sad song?

**Click Here for Next Track** 🙂

Recovering Teacher

It is a paradox.  In my passionate unlearning to become a better teacher, I found myself no longer passionate about teaching.

After 10 years of teaching Biology in the public school system, I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. To say that the last two years (2020-2022) have been challenging would be an understatement, and I finally succumbed to the burnout.

I will also add that I started therapy 18  months ago (I am an HSP with anxious attachment style, a wounded daughter working towards becoming a healed mother (#motherhoodraisedme), and I am only beginning to reckon with my collapse awareness and learn to regulate my nervous system.)

Since leaving teaching, I have been (un)/learning a lot: Embodied Social Justice and the Framework for Liberation (rev. angel Kyodo Williams), trauma responses and neurobiology, attachment/polyvagal theory and somatics, reconnecting with my ancestral roots and Collapse Awareness (Carmen Spagnola), and Rewilding.  I enjoy the person that I am becoming, and I have no idea what that person’s next vocational venture will be (or, as People’s Oracle says “How I will be selling my time and labor in exchange for currency”!)

“Pursuing social justice by increasing equity in education.”  I still believe in it.

Stepping away from the profession is such a hard hit to my identity and perceived purpose in life.  I used to wear the title of “public school teacher” like a badge of honor, where everyone who knew me would think “oh look at her, she is a good person!  She is a teacher!”  And personally, so much of my life’s mission statement and purpose was found in being a teacher, “pursuing social justice by increasing equity in education.”  I still believe in it.

During the summer of 2021, I was excited at the opportunity to harness the upheaval of the pandemic and make some of the changes that I saw necessary to truly “nurture and enhance the spirit of our communities” and live up to our newly adopted mission statement.  I realized that I needed to drastically change how I teach!  But more than anything, I realized that I had a lot of un-learning to do before I could put myself back into a teaching role.  It is a paradox.  In my passionate unlearning to become a better teacher, I found myself no longer passionate about teaching.

I have no interest in teaching Biology as it is dictated by the standards

How might we be less likely to exploit, extract, pollute, and destroy natural resources if we also viewed them as living?

I love Biology, science is amazing! But it has its limitations.  I don’t want to be a biology teacher right now.  Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass” was still resonating as I was preparing my “Characteristics of Living Things” lesson for fall 2021. For 10+ years, I have never flinched teaching the “requirements for life” (cell-based, requires energy, etc). But learning that many traditional indigenous cultures think of water and rocks as alive, it made me question how that definition frames our perception of and relationship to the earth.  How might we be less likely to exploit, extract, pollute, and destroy natural resources if we also viewed them as living?  Put another way… I started really unpacking a lot of assumptions I made through my scientific upbringing that perpetuated the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”  (thanks for the terminology, bell hooks!).  And, if “the role of the colonizer is ‘I have everything to teach and nothing to learn,’” it is time I roll up my sleeves and challenge my colonial mind by unlearning a lot of what I thought I knew!  

I have a lot of *internal* work I need to do before I can return to the classroom

Education has been training us for hyper individualized capitalism and I am done with it.

Sadly, old habits die hard…and as much as I wanted to disrupt the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” within my classroom, I recognized just how deeply engrained many of my thoughts and behaviors really were, and much of the wounding underneath.  For example: I graduated top of my class in high school, but I (like many of our “high achieving” students) was successful because I learned how to exploit myself at the expense of my wellness, sacrificing the well-being of myself as an individual in relationship to the collective for my individual academic output. As a teacher, I would see how my idea of “success” had often been “blowing that trauma” (Resmaa Menakem) through to my students and exploiting them in turn (Because “Hey, I had to ____ so they need to also!!”).  “Students aren’t learning if they aren’t producing, right??  And they must prove their learning on their own!!”  Education has been training us for hyper individualized capitalism and I am done with it.

The Rubber Meets the Road; How The Gradebook Gave me Anxiety Attacks

So  I focused on Restorative Circles and classroom community building (that I realize I never utilized before the pandemic made me teach via Zoom and then I vowed to myself I would never go a day of teaching where I didn’t invite every student’s voice to be heard upon our “Arrival” time at the beginning of class).  I yearned to move away from the “transactional” approach in my classroom (“redo ___ and then turn in ___ and then you will get a ___%”) to “relational” teaching and learning (who are you/we? What matters to you/us? What are you/we learning, why does it matter, what questions do we have now? Etc).  But the gradebook is inherently transactional, and ultimately was my downfall.  I would get such anxiety putting grades in (it was almost the end of Q1 before I put anything in!). I literally would freeze when I would try to assess my students “objectively” because they are all so different, with different skills, desires, interests, privileges, challenges, etc. 

I yearn to embody *relational* instead of *transactional* in a classroom setting 

 I asked my students to grade themselves: create their own rubrics and goals, and I realized how any attempt I tried at dismantling the status quo in my classroom was met with lots of skepticism in my students.  The engrained “transaction” of school was already alive and well in my juniors, many who still couldn’t trust that I wasn’t just pulling out hoops for them to jump through.  It felt like so many of my students had such a deeply dysfunctional relationship to school, and how can I support them in the unlearning of that dysfunction if I haven’t unlearned it in myself first?  I was still carrying the trauma I carried in being a straight A high school student.  (Transacting “if I just get through the — unit by —-, then I will be a good teacher!” vs, the relational “If I can just hold a space for us to cultivate compassion, curiosity, and creativity then I am in right relationship with my students”). 

The trap of contagious negativity

It is hard to turn over a new leaf on old stomping grounds.  Old patterns and behaviors die hard.  In my 11 years at my district, I had experienced the leadership of 3 superintendents and 5 principals. I had been a building union rep on and off.  

I have also been a magnet for negativity, because:

– it is addicting (doom scrolling, anyone!?), 

-binaries feel coherent (good vs bad, us vs them, etc), 

-and I believe that I created and fueled negativity in order to seek belonging

Wanting to start fresh and transmute that constrictive negativity into expansive possibility is *really* hard when I have cultivated a culture around me that really held space for negativity and negating.  I perfected the “yeah…but….” (“yeah we need equity, BUT THE STANDARDS!”  “Yeah ___ had a good point in the meeting/email, BUT THEIR TONE!!,” etc) that I had been dealing out “yeah buts” as tokens to help foster a sense of belonging.  I am throwing myself under the bus in order to share that under my negativity was rage and beneath the rage was and is grief.  Both grief and rage need containment and release, and I resisted both.  My negativity spilled out into every conversation and yet I never *actually* allowed the release of the underlying emotions.

I cry more now so I can rage less

Not a week goes by now that I don’t cry, and I attend a monthly grief vigil to weep in community.  It has been very healing, because the negativity stops looping once it is released from the body (stress hormone cortisol exits the body through tears, y’all!).  I have a lifetime of grief I am beginning to metabolize now, and I believe it is the work I have to do before I can gain any clarity or confidence around what comes next for me.  But I am sorry for the ways that I did not make the space for possibility and positivity, for paradox and multiple truths, and for how I blew my trauma onto my beloved students and coworkers.

To my students

I love and miss you dearly.  I think of you often.  I want to say “sorry, I wish I could have done more for you.”  I wish I had been more healed, more whole for you.  There was so much community I wanted to build, trust I wanted to cultivate, imagination I wanted to facilitate, and purpose I wanted to watch you ignite in yourselves and each other. 

 I wanted my classroom to be a space where we could focus on collective healing from and critical interrogation of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy “status quo” while dreaming up a different way of being by embodying it together.  

I wish I could have taught you about traditional ecological knowledge, but I was never taught that, and still have so much to learn before I can facilitate learning in a way that is in alignment with my values. 

 I wish I could have engaged in a conversation with you about the nuances of cannabis use (it is a plant medicine, after all!) and not felt too scared about the repercussions.  I wish I could be comfortable being 8 weeks “behind” the other classes, because I would want to stop class to discuss the biology of reproductive health and abortion, wanting you to know that there are simple and safe medical ways to end a pregnancy.

“You taught me so much by all that you did NOT have to unlearn, and I thank you.”

 I wish I could have facilitated a collapse-aware classroom, teaching, noticing, and modeling nervous system regulation to better survive the long descent of human civilization as we know it (*lets out a moan, looks left and right, brings on arms and legs*).  I was proud of the work we were doing every day, arriving together, often in circle so we could come together as a class.  In 7 classes a day (of 45-50 minutes) 5 times a week during a/several pandemic(s) was simply too much for me too quickly.  I burned myself out.  My inner critic (“yeah, it would be cool to hold space for your students in this way…BUT THE GRADEBOOK!”) fried my nervous system to the point where anxiety attacks were a frequent occurrence.  I hope that you will be able to make the same choice if you ever must choose between your wellness and your perceived obligations.  It is my prayer that the privilege of choice, and of rest, will become more and more widely available as we fight against capitalism, and control by an elite minority that benefits from our dis-ease.  It gives me hope that so many of you had wised up to the b******t indoctrination of “education,” you taught me so much by all that you did NOT have to unlearn, and I thank you.  

I don’t yet have the stamina to be the teacher I want to be.  That you deserve.  That I want my own children to have.  I honestly am not even sure that there is a school that will want me if I ever even come close to “arriving” to the elder that I want to become before I can be in the classroom again.  But I hope we never stop (un/)learning.