How to Fight the World’s Gathering Fires

Screenshot image courtesy HBO

National and world events getting you down? You’re not alone. Fortunately, there are ways to battle back.

Last night I began watching the HBO Original Special Coastal Elites. The program, written and produced in the pandemic’s dark winter months, opens with an arresting monologue. Miriam Nessler, played with brilliance by Bette Midler, is, it becomes apparent, recounting the events that resulted in her current detention within the NYC police station.

Spoiler alert; it turns out Miriam stole a MAGA hat from atop the head of a conservative within a NOHO Starbucks after attempting what she hoped to be a civil conversation with the man, who quickly turns belligerent. While most now know to avoid political talk with strangers, such headgear is a rarity in the East Village. Regardless of personal freedoms deserving respect—Miriam indeed proclaims she would fight to the death to protect the man’s right to wear the hat—most reasonable people understand such behavior possesses the potential to at least spark conversation. New Yorkers, after all, aren’t known for subtlety.

Miriam’s effort, as you’re already suspecting, ends poorly.

Explaining her perspective in a series of ever-escalating statements that includes a creative description of Hillary Clinton as “The New York Times in a pantsuit,” Miriam emphasizes the importance of remaining engaged and informed, continuing curiosity and attending plays. She presents these enriching activities as effective forms of resistance to the infuriating political inferno that’s breeding distrust, discouragement and despair.

But don’t take my word for it. Hear Midler describe the strategy in character. After fleeing the coffee shop with the man’s red hat, and attempting escape into the Public Theater, she recounts being shoved to the ground by the cap’s owner.

“I just don’t know what to say,” Miriam tells the policeman.

Her exasperation clear, she continues.

“I got a bump on my head. I’ve twisted my ankle, but I don’t even care. Because I’m looking around, see, and I say to myself ‘what am i doing here? Why am I trying to see a play and learn about the world and keep up with things? What good does it do? Who does it help?’ And that was the moment when—I can’t say it—it’s blasphemy,” Miriam falters. But then she continues, admitting, “It’s unthinkable. That was the moment when I almost canceled my subscription to the Public Theater,” she confesses to the cop.

“I had looked into the abyss,” she adds. “I said ‘no more.’ No more five-hours plays where people in nice apartments debate socialism. No more musicals about Joan of Arc as she was fighting the Taliban. Because everything, my whole life, my whole image of myself as a decent, cultured, curious human being, why, it was just a bad joke. A cliché. Fake news.”

Fortunately, that’s when the theater’s young house manager, who saw everything, intervenes and encourages Miriam to see the play. She says she’ll feel better. So Miriam thinks about it and realizes she has a choice. She can see the play, or she can surrender. She can have some guts, or she can give up.

Let’s choose to see the play, eh?

“Every ticket is a weapon,” Miriam observes.

Fight, she implores. Attend a play. Stand for something.

“Everyone in this lobby, we all stand for something,” Miriam confirms.

Intriguingly, I encountered another option for battling back within a New York Times essay this morning. In I Never Knew How Golden My Summers Were, professor and author Jennifer Finney Boylan recounts the special seasonal moments so many of us seem to collect and cherish.

Inspired by Christine Lavin’s song The Best Summer, Boylan reflects on her own treasured memories. She recounts a seemingly routine clam-shack lunch shared with her spouse three years previous, while touchingly relating how the occasion proved memorable.

“There were whole belly clams,” she writes. “There were oysters and codfish, and a mountain of onion rings. There were French fries and homemade coleslaw, and ketchup.” And, there was an “I love you.”

With Labor Day weekend marking summer’s traditional end, she laments the pall COVID’s Delta variant and vaccine debate has cast upon all our lives, tainting summer’s end.

“Surely, we all deserved better than a world in flames,” the essay notes.

The trick is not to give up. Remember it’s not a single season that becomes “epic in retrospect,” as she writes.

No, remember “it’s just the small moments, each one as lovely, and humble, as a shell washed up on a beach and then placed, as a memento, on a windowsill.”

Her prescription for the trials ahead? Like Miriam, Boylan advocates rising to the challenge.

“I hope that in some small way I can help to fight back against the gathering fires of this world,” she writes. “If I have any strength in me, some of it will surely come from the gift of all these summer moments, even the ones I did not recognize as precious while they were happening.”

So, go. Create those moments.

Grab a Slush Puppie with your family. Have wonderful meals with your partner. Take a stroll. Read great books. And, when the time is right, catch plays and performances. Miriam will be glad you did.

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