Les Mis Redux: Finding My Voice

This is a bit more of a personal post than usual, but it is also one I feel very compelled to write, one of those moments when if I don’t get the words down on the page, my soul feels stuck . I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days, but due to a busy week, haven’t gotten the chance to write it down. Today is the second of March, which is a month I generally dread, as it contains the anniversary of my grandmother’s death on the 3rd (three years ago this time around), my dad’s birthday on the 5th, and the anniversary of my dad’s death on the 10th (ten years ago this year). So in short, it’s several days where I simply don’t feel like myself, and when I spend a lot of time burrowed under the covers because facing the world when I’m plunged into such deep emotion, such reminders of my grief and memories of times past, is difficult. Generally I am all about channeling my sadness, turning the hurt into something, but around this time of year, I do my best to allow myself the quiet, to allow myself the generous time to process and sort out how I’m feeling, because it’s different every year. Grief, I’ve found, isn’t something that ends. It’s something that ebbs and flows, something that fits into it’s own corner of your life, weaving through it at different turns, a part of you, but not a definition.

On that note, I woke up today to gray skies and an oncoming snow storm, and reminders of what month it was, feeling that emotion where you feel frozen, when you want to do something with your day but can’t quite manage it, yet spend the day wishing you could. For someone like me who thrives on feeling productive, there’s an odd sort of guilt that goes along with this sort of inner crisis, the sudden incapability of being able to do anything. It’s not the same joy as doing nothing on purpose, taking time to recharge by futzing around on the internet or binge watching television. I’d slept in, trying to rid myself of the cold that won’t seem to go away, and flicked on my iTunes to shuffle as I drank coffee and perused my various social media sites. After a few minutes, the opening strains of “One Day More” from Les Mis came through my speakers (there are something like four versions of it on my computer, but that song is too epic to pass up various recordings of) and something like purpose, something like warmth, bubbled up in my chest. I smiled. I felt something rise within me, the fragments of myself that break every so often around now, the fragments I piece back together each time, learning something about where my fragile parts rest, growing stronger and more certain of myself. It reminded me that I wanted to write this post, and it reminded me of this quote I saw pop up on my tumblr dash about a week ago from Graham Robb’s biography of Victor Hugo:

“Les Miserables etches Hugo’s view of the world so deeply in the mind that it is impossible to be the same person after reading it.”

How immensely true, I thought, the first time I read it, and it only rang louder and more real each time my eyes darted over the words. I considered, thinking of the changes Les Mis wrought in my life. It might sound silly on the surface, but the books we read, the music we hear, the plays and movies we watch, they have the power to change us irrevocably, to challenge our thoughts, and give us the courage to be who we’ve always wanted. This has happened to me many times over with different things: listening to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack on repeat got me through the first two years after I lost my parents, discovering Hermione Granger as an eleven-year-old helped me see I wasn’t alone in being a bookworm. The list is expansive and goes on. (I am after all, as my roommate and dear friend Katy tells me, a level 10 nerd.)

Les Mis helped me find my voice, or to be more specific, gave me the courage to use it, handed me the bravery to speak the thoughts that came out half diluted before, watered down by lack of confidence, washed out by the fear that perhaps my thoughts and ideas were foolish in the eyes of society that hones in on the shallow. But I picked up that brick of a book, listened the lyrics of the soundtrack, saw that red flag fly on the stage and on the screen, and I found my bravery. I found the ability to give voice to my opinions without fear of what other people would think, I challenged myself further and wanted to learn and do more, to expand my mind and break down my pre-conceived notions about how society should work. Vague inclinations became solid. I got back into the politics I’d been so interested in during late high school and college, I broadened my view and didn’t back down from a debate. I started learning about French history (and wow, what I learned in high school about the French Revolution was only the tiniest sliver of the story). Sharing a love of the story gave me a whole new community of friends both locally and abroad, friends that are now so integral to my life that it seems as if they have always been there, as if there were empty spaces just waiting for them to fill. Who knew that picking up a book or buying a 25th anniversary DVD could open up a whole new world of possibility? Who knew it could spur me forward into the final few steps of becoming the person I’d always wanted to be. Spurred me forward to make sure I stayed on that path less traveled by.

Not only did I learn and find all of these new things, but nearly from the moment I read the first words of Les Mis, when I heard the first note of the Prologue, it felt like coming home. The desire to help people, to change the world, to rebel and revolt against oppression and to believe the best of the world, of humanity, to fight for that and hope for it, that choice for optimism, were always things that defined me, and there they were, littered through the pages of a 19th century novel, scattered through the notes of a musical. In Enjolras, the red-jacket wearing revolutionary leader, I found a kindred spirit, a character who was focused, dedicated, and passionate to the point where it exuded from his every crevice, whose life was defined by that passion and that focus, by the love he had for his cause, the people he fought for, and his relationships with his closest friends. He wanted to be a voice for the voiceless, and through my writing, I had always wanted the same, so after I fell in love with Les Mis, I wrote even more than before, and with growing fervor. As Robin Williams so aptly says in the film “Dead Poet’s Society” that I just watched and fell in love with tonight:

“You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer your wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it all. Thoreau said, ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”

So in the end, this is hard month for me.  The start of June will be another, the ten year anniversary since my mom, the biggest influence and most central person in my life, died. Weirdly, last year upon doing research into actual history surrounding the revolt featured in Les Mis (known as the June Rebellion) I found out that the two days upon which it took place-June 5th and 6th, 1832- fell upon the very two days that so changed my life almost two-hundred years later. The day my mom passed away on June 5th, 2004, and my 16th birthday the day following. Freakishly poetic, given my love of Les Mis, but also, in a strange sense, comforting. There are hard days, and sometimes you can even predict them like me with these anniversaries. Sometimes, you find yourself temporarily back down in a place you no longer occupy, sitting at the bottom of a dark hole you only see every once in a while now, where once it was all you faced. But that’s the thing about having something to hold onto, something to read or to listen to while you sit in that dark hole, something that reminds you that you no longer permanently occupy that place, and that you will get up again, that you will dust yourself off and climb back up to resume your life, no matter how much it hurts in the moment. Because even as I occupy this familiar dark hole for a few days, I heard those notes of “One Day More” and I felt the blood rush through my veins, hot and and invigorating, reminding me that I was still full of life even in my sadness.  As John Green once said, “This is what I love about novels, both reading them and writing them. They jump into the abyss to be with you where you where you are.”

In the end, even on dark days, there is always a spark of light somewhere. Sometimes it already exists, and sometimes you have to make it yourself. But always, always search for it, because it’s there: in a book, in a song, in a friend, in a family member or other loved one. In yourself. And as Enjolras says from his speech at the top of the barricade, “Light! Light! All comes from light, and all returns to it.”

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3 comments

  1. I cried reading this! And it made me want to read Les Mis even more. Your post reminded me of the Kafka quote about how books ought to be like an axe for the “frozen sea inside us.” Here, have another:

    ‘Altogether,’ Kafka wrote in 1904 to his friend Oskar Pollak, ‘I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, at a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.’

  2. Wow- just wow… I’ve always been an admirer of your writing on both tumblr, wordpress, fanfiction.net and archive of our own but this… This is absolutely superb and I love it dearly! However: As I love your blog so very, very much I nominated you for the Leibster Award! To check out the rules go here… http://phoenixflames12.wordpress.com 🙂

    1. Oh wow, thank you so much for your very kind words!! Goodness, they are so appreciated! I’m so pleased you enjoy my writing so (there will be a new chapter of Men of Mercy soon!) and it so nice of you leave such a lovely comment. I shall check out your blog! 🙂

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