A Single Glorious Thing: Happy New Year From The Project Room

 Image from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan 

Image from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan 

In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window.  And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress.  And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon.  Until I learned to be in love with my life again.  Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

—Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

On January 10th of the year 49 BC, General Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon River and uttered the phrase “alea iacta est”: the die is cast. In crossing the Rubicon, Caesar knowingly created a point of no return: he catalyzed a civil war in which he would either face execution as a traitor, or become a conquering hero.

Stories of transformation often contain tipping points, fulcrums upon which the narrative shifts and we are suddenly able to split the tale into before and after. But these moments are rarely as clearly defined as the crossing of a literal river, and more often than not, stories of transformation are testaments to the understated power of accumulation. We see progress in retrospect, and it is only when we turn around and look back that we can concretely point and say, “Right there. That is when it started to change.” 

Two weeks ago, The Project Room hosted a conversation with Ahamefule J. Oluo to talk about his recent show Now I’m Fine, a highly personal, genre-spanning pop opera performed at On the Boards. Oluo’s show melded music, standup comedy, and unabashedly intimate storytelling to examine the ways in which we learn to be okay even during those moments at which we are anything but. Oluo joined us to discuss how Now I’m Fine dovetails with The Project Room’s current topic of Transformation. 

The first threads of Now I’m Fine began percolating as Oluo’s life was falling apart. He experienced a death and a divorce that leveled him, and in the midst of this personal low point, he developed a rare disease that caused his skin to literally fall apart. As a lifelong musician, Oluo knew how to find release through making work; but as his skin disintegrated, he could not touch the tools that would allow him some measure of release.

But in the midst of this helplessness and despair, Olou found a beat up old organ out on the street, and he brought it home to his basement apartment. His skin was too fragile to press the keys of a real keyboard, but the cheap plastic keys of this discarded organ were light enough that he could touch them. And so he brought this organ into his closet and lightly stroked the keys with his skinless fingers, making music in the only way that he could. 

And in that small moment, he was fine. 

The title Now I’m Fine can be read in two ways. The first implies a before and after: I was not ok, but now I am. The second is more nuanced: I cannot speak to any larger truth, but within this singular moment, I am ok. It seems to me that this second meaning is more honest: it acknowledges that the resonance of emotional truth always carries within it a fleeting dusting of uncertainty.

Human beings are storytellers. Our capacity for narrative—our ability to define ourselves through self-created mythology—is what makes our species unique. It also makes us melodramatic; we want our stories to be epic. We want our generals to charge across the Rubicon bellowing binary battle cries. But transformation is the accumulation of transitory moments strung together, and it happens with the soothing cadence of walking: we put one foot in front of the other until we can look up to see that the landscape has changed. That we have borne ourselves away to somewhere new. 

So as 2014 draws to a close and we welcome 2015, let us take a moment to pause and reflect on the slowness of one single glorious thing. Let us look not to the flashy reinvention of crossing Rubicon, but instead focus on the small streams that we ford each day. Happy New Year, everyone.