The Power of Stories (Or an Essay on Why I Don’t Usually Like Things Casually)

I don’t like things casually.

This occured to me as I was watching the Hamilton performance at the Grammy’s while I sank slowly into the couch cushions and got tears in my eyes, intermittently emitting a soft squeak. To be fair, I wasn’t alone in this; my roommate was grabbing the sleeve of my sweatshirt and many of my friends were shouting about the performance on the internet minutes after it aired, but I think this just goes to show that I also collect friends who don’t like things casually. Something about the inability to like things casually has been with me since I was small; one of my earliest memories is of my mom getting me a VCR for my room- much to the chagrin of 90s parents who thought TV rotted your brain- because she just couldn’t watch a particular Bert and Ernie episode of Sesame Street again, even if she too, was prone to repeat listens of songs and rewatches of movies. “She’s practically already a bookworm,” my mom said, fending off concerns. “I think her brain will be fine.”
Turns out my brain WAS fine, but I never did stop doing that thing where when I REALLY liked something it basically became a part of my DNA. I’m capable of listening to the same song or the same album on repeat for weeks. I learn the dialogue to my favorite movies and theater shows by heart. My favorite books (unless it’s an expensive copy!) are underlined and the margins written in. If you know me well, you usually know the things I love, and my best days are when a friend picks up a book I love or watches or listens to something simply because my enthusiasm prompted them.
I’ve been accused in the past of liking EVERTHING. This is untrue. I’m actually pretty picky, and it took me until the release of the second Hunger Games movies to be convinced to read the books, which I subsequently devoured in three days. Though ironically the Hunger Games IS one of the things I like casually. I don’t like everything because I couldn’t find the time; a lot of my most major obsessions represent themselves when you walk into my room (though it’s still under decoration construction); there’s the panoramic poster and ornaments from Phantom of the Opera; there’s Pirates of the Caribbean collector cups; there’s a poster full of Shakespeare quotes, there’s posters of Agent Carter and Captain America, there’s a House, M.D. poster, and a cat named Spencer from the character from Criminal Minds; there’s a Star Wars and a Sleepy Hollow poster; there’s a replica copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and decorative wine bottles reading “Liberte” and a second with Alexander Hamilton’s face on the label; there’s tributes to Paris and London. There’s a fake Hogwarts diploma and Gryfffindor paraphenalia. Most prevalent are the tributes to Les Miserables, present in prints of fanart and posters framed and in collages, all hanging on the wall. Even my bedding is red and black in an aesthetic tribute to the musical adaptation. Loving things so intensely has always been a way in which I’ve defined myself, and surrounding myself with those loves as decorations I can come home to every day.
I’ve always found it odd that it’s considered almost weird to be so passionate. Americans find it completely normal for grown men to paint their entire bodies and scream at a sports event, but someone going to midnight premiere of a movie in costume is considered childish to some, or “nerdy” (though I’ll take the nerdy as a compliment, thanks) even when the movie might be a huge pop culture event . Participation in a fandom or writing fic is a pastime many people pursue, yet you wouldn’t so much talk about it in a breakroom with your co-workers. If you don’t really love things, I think to myself often, what do people think about on the commute home? Granted there’s lots of things to think about, but I fill so much of my own headspace with things like, for instance lately, how Alexander Hamilton would react to seeing his life spilled out onto the stage in a groundbreaking hit musical. And also how long it would take for him to punch Donald Trump in the face. As a society we talk about falling in love with people all the time; there are songs and movies and books and entire days dedicated to the idea of romantic love (there’s not enough focus on platonic love, but that’s another blog post) but what about that moment when a piece of art changes your life? When you fall irrevocably in love with a book or a song or a movie or a play? I’ve had my life changed again and again by these sorts of moments, the times when I’ve stared at the page of a book or at actors on stage and thought “how do you know me?”
Moments like these have shaped my life; I learned I had an unavoidable passion for writing when I started writing fanfic as a teenager based on an older but still quality anime called Rurouni Kenshin. That love for writing has and will continue to take many forms, but I don’t know who I’d be without it. I’ve met friends I can scarcely imagine life without. I’ve found community. And in large part, I found myself. Particular pieces of art (fiction or non-fiction) cropped up in my life right when I needed them like they were sent to me by some sort of fandom god from on high. And I think often we don’t consider that power enough. People help us along our journeys without a doubt, but often, so do stories and the people contained within them. And I think those stories matter. I know that lots of things I love could not truly be separated from my personality.Lots of things come to mind when I think on this; stories that stayed with me, characters I loved or found myself in, songs that I listened to on repeat for a month. But three stand out in particular to me, three that fell into step with me when I needed them most.
Phantom of the Opera came along a few months after my parents died, not long after I’d turned 16. Granted Phantom had been around for a long time by then and I’d been into it as a kid, but I’m talking the 2004 movie here. I KNOW, it’s not a stellar piece of cinema or what not and the stage show is better, but it was my re-introduction to the story, and I fell as soon as the overture roared through the room and the chandelier rose. I saw the movie twice in two days and six times in total. I listened to the soundtrack until it was in my blood, for months and months and months. I begged for tickets to the stage show for a year (I’ve now seen it 4, and hopefully soon to be 5 times). I could watch Christine Daae grieve her father and experience all of this trauma, and yet she came out on the other side. People might have thought she was weak, but in the end, she was strong. She had to make hard choices and save the day, and I couldn’t help but find inspiration and comfort in that. Unlike most other people at the time,  I was also rooting for the Phantom (though of course I loved his songs I mean. Duh.). Raoul de Chagny was the one I stood by, and “All I Ask of You” remains one of my favorite songs. I was stuck in my own darkness, and the talk of no more night hit me where I lived. Truly, it kept my hope alive as I listened to it every night before I fell asleep. Something about it kept me going.
There came a time where I didn’t think I could love anything more than I loved Phantom, and though a few things came close, only one managed to surpass it, and I can blame Victor Hugo for that. I wouldn’t have known that watching the 25th anniversary concert on DVD while studying for my comprehensive exam in grad school would lead to reading the massive novel, which would lead to seeing the stage show (twice now), which would lead to seeing the movie 5 times, which would lead to my joining the fandom and writing some of my best pieces, which would lead to me making friends both in my city and across the world. I’ve found a treasure trove of friends who live just down the road, and I’ve run joyfully through airports to greet friends flying across an ocean or driving over state lines to see me. There’s even more that I haven’t met in person, friends who exist on the other side of an email or a chat, but still decidedly friends. All because we picked up the same book and fell in love. I can easily say that these relationships are some of the strongest I’ve forged, because if you have something this strong in common, other things usually follow. Within the pages of Les Mis, I found me. No single thing has changed my life as much as it has and I could on for 10 years about why, and even more than that, it gave me the courage to jump into things I was already on the cusp of. When you grow up in a small, southern conservative town, you can’t help but take some of that with you. When I found Les Mis I was already deep into questioning all of that, and when I put it down after finishing the final chapter, the change was complete. For me that manifested in reading piles of political books and writing articles that lean decidedly left and switching the sort of protests I went to. It manifests differently for everyone, but I don’t know how anyone could pick up that book and not be at least a little different afterward. It taught me, in large part, who I was, like the words called to me across the dusty centuries somehow.
The third thing, and very recent, is Hamilton. If you know me in real life I have not managed yet to shut up about it, and I devoured the 800 page biography by Ron Chernow that the musical is based on in about 2.5 weeks. I bought a collected edition of Hamilton’s writings and then I read a book on Lafayette’s life (Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, if you’re interested). But if I’m honest, Lin Manuel Miranda had me utterly hooked pretty much from the first time I heard “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman/Dropped in a forgotten in the Carribbean impoverished in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The man’s magic, I think. Or something. There’s a million things to love about Hamilton; the story itself is fascinating, and I’m so pleased that Alexander’s status as one of our Founding Fathers is finally getting it’s due and that in turn, the work of people like his wife Eliza and John Laurens is being recognized; the cast full of people of color telling America’s history through hip hop and high-fiving about immigrants and confronting slavery is groundbreaking and unquestionably powerful; the music itself, the lyrics, the acting the dedication of Lin Manuel Miranda, is incredible. Again, I could go on forever. There are lots of things that I enjoy and that strike me about Hamilton. But one of the things that hit me hard personally is Hamilton himself, and all of the things he went through (his childhood was. Wow.Talk about some trauma ), and the way writing shaped his life. He (definitely) crossed lines and made big mistakes, but I couldn’t help but be inspired by the way he stormed onto the scene and kicked down metaphorical doors and got his talents and his amazing intelligence noticed and changed the literal face of our country. He worked and worked and worked. The way he turned to his writing, was something that did that thing where I feel as if someone hit me in the chest. I remember listening to “Hurricane” in Act 2, and hearing the line “And when my prayers to God were met with indifference/I picked up a pen/I wrote my own deliverance.” SHIT was what I think I exclaimed, probably at work (whoops) when I first heard that line. Something similar happened when I heard “Why do you write like you need it to survive?” in the finale of Act 1. I got into writing during the hardest times of my life, and ever since it’s been a part of me that’s like another limb, whatever form it takes. Hamilton came into my life when other people were telling me who to be, and I think it’s given me the courage to push back and stand firm in who I know I am. So maybe I can’t write 51 essays in six months, but I think I understand you, A.Ham.
Books and music and movies and plays and the stories they tell race through our blood and take up residence in our hearts. Sometimes it feels as if they find a piece of our souls and articulate the things we couldn’t and recognize us where we are, as well as showing us where we want to go. And I think that matters. When I’m walking home from the train and I walk in time to the music I’m listening to (this week, it’s definitely the new Hunchback of Notre Dame soundtrack) and feeling like it just might swallow me whole in the best way possible, I think that’s something to embrace. We spend too much time trying to be “normal” when really, I think we should spend more time just being us.
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2 comments

  1. I love your enthusiasm and writing style. Also I recently discovered Hamilton, and life will never be the same.

    1. Ah thank you so much! Hamilton is a complete life changer oh gosh, I’m so glad you discovered it! 🙂

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