Category: Patron Saints

Patron Saint: Stephen Sondheim

Way back when Synchronized Swim was just an idea in a notebook, one of the very first concepts Amy and I knew we wanted to write about was that of patron saints.  Amy followed through immediately and wrote about Madeleine L’Engle; I am just now getting around to it (in my defense, I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs toward him along the way).  I get generally irritated by the notion that anyone accomplishes anything alone – “hustle,” “self-made man,” etc.  Hard work and vision are irreplaceable, but they are always (often outside the photo frame) holding the hand of outside encouragement.  We are more often than not influenced more deeply by people we don’t know than the ones that we do, people who came before us and “successfully” did what we hope to.  I have been holding Stephen Sondheim’s hand since I was 10 years old, when my sister came home from school one afternoon and told me about the movie they’d watched in her literature class: West Side Story.  We have patron saints so that we can know for sure part of the good that lies ahead – someone one (or several) steps ahead of us in our practice, be it writing or acting or chess, and typically better at it, to tell us, “Hey! No one is alone.” (I couldn’t resist.)  Geniuses to look to that say for all you know, you might be a genius too, finding your way into the same family.

For those who don’t know, Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer of musicals who is considered the best in his field, living and perhaps ever.  I’d seen West Side Story and Sweeney Todd during my childhood, but my first real encounter with him came my senior year of high school.  I was 18 years old, crying on the carpet of my voice teacher’s studio after finally making my way through Somewhere without her stopping me.  She told me that after graduation, I should do myself a favor and print out every lyric he ever wrote and put it in a binder.  “You’ll have a 6-month course in philosophy better than any school you end up attending in the fall,” she told me.

She was right.  Lucky for me, Sondheim did it himself and saved me the trouble.  There are two volumes of his collected works: Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made A Hat.  I can’t even properly touch on half of my favorite songs for the purposes of this essay (Something’s Coming! Opening Doors! Green Finch and Linnet Bird!), and as far as I’m concerned, 6 years isn’t nearly long enough to melt into his lyrics.  The man is unparalleled.  Though of course his lyrics are best taken in when set to music as God and Steve intended, there is something very, very special about reading the words by themselves and just sitting with them, looking at his notes and seeing the reasoning behind choosing one word over another.  It makes sense that I care more about the words than the music because I understand one language better than the other, but if you’re a musician reading this I promise you he has the same effect across the board.  The titles of these tomes are drawn from his infamous (and perhaps most autobiographical) song from Sunday in the Park with George about the pioneer of pointillism, Georges Seurat.  My best friend used to make fun of me for singing the song all the time; I’ll admit, out of context it sounds a little silly.  It goes like this:

Finishing the hat – how you have to finish the hat

How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat

The song’s purpose is twofold: Georges is processing the dismantling of his relationship with Dot, the only woman he’s ever really loved and probably the only woman that could love him, while simultaneously getting caught up in the all-consuming creative process that made her leave him in the first place, which, in his case, expresses itself in painting canvases.  The song ends with the declaration, “Look I made a hat – where there never was a hat.” His joy in creating something that didn’t exist before coexists with his full understanding that it will always keep him slightly at a distance from everyone around him.  To be a genius, you must always be looking for a place where no one else can reach you, which means you must be alone.  I listened to an interview with Steve on my favorite podcast, Desert Island Discs, about a year ago.  It didn’t take much listening to hear that he is a man very much alone, surrounded by exquisite hats – but I couldn’t help thinking that they make for better company.  He sounds so unhappy, despite having come closer to perfect expression through song than anyone else in his field.  The price you pay, I guess, for being able to make a perfect hat.

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Patron Saint: Madeleine L’Engle

It was Madeleine L’Engle’s birthday recently, and I didn’t celebrate it. I should have written or drawn something that day, or at least taken a bath, something small and personal to celebrate the life of a woman who has come to be so important to me. But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything. I let the day come and go. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

I never read anything she wrote until college, when I was assigned Two-Part Invention in a non-fiction writing class. When I read it, I felt a sort of confirmation, a chance to exhale. I thought, thisThis is the sort of writer I want to be. This is the sort of writer that maybe, somehow, I am, or could be someday. Her pureness of heart, her simple thoughts given value and dignity in ink on a page, her persistence, her humility, her questions, her longing.

I have one living grandmother, and I love her very much. She’s quirky and kind, she smothers me with love, she had hundreds of tea parties with me when I was six. But she hasn’t been a fountain of wisdom for me, the sort of thing I long for from a female relative. It’s a thing that seldom exists, the thing I want. I want a singled-out knowingness. An ability to speak prophetically into my life. A mystical mother. A godmother, if you will, fairy or not. That’s what I’ve always secretly wished for and never had. Never, that is, until I adopted Madeleine L’Engle as my godmother. I just decided it one day. She’s it. A mentor, a friend, someone to speak into my life. Even though she’s not alive. Even though she never knew me and I never knew her, even though we never once shared space on earth. I think it still works. In fact, I know it does. This is why she wrote, I’m sure of it. And it’s why I write too, I think. On the thin hope that somehow, someday, someone will read these words and feel known, spoken directly to. That they’ll feel a spider’s-web-thin thread of a feeling that someone somewhere has known them, has lifted them up to God. I think the world works that way, that things span time and space, things we can’t touch. I think Madeleine L’Engle thought that too, in fact, I know she does because she wrote about it. Kairos.

I think Madeleine L’Engle is my godmother. I think she is if I say she is.

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