A lot of times I’m a little bit nervous about even mentally claiming credit for creative work I’ve done. Today at the ballpark, however, as I watched T2 revel in his role as catcher — skipping from base to base with every hit or steal — I looked at my little work in progress and puffed up my chest as I whispered, “I helped create that.”
I admit it. I have never loved The Crucible.
I read it in high school and then again in college. I went to a few performances and even watched the movie to try to love it. I love history and I love reading about this period, but I never got into this play. When I read or watched the play, I rarely felt invested in any of the characters. I felt sorry for them, but most of the time, I just wanted this play to be over.
Last Sunday, Thing1 volunteered to babysit Thing2 so I could go to Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY and see my husband perform in the Crucible as Giles Corey. I was excited to see him and other actors whose work I’ve come to love, but I was skeptical about the event, even as I climbed the steps to the darkened theater.
So I sat down and got out my sketchbook, doodling in the dark as we watched girls, caught dancing in the forest, try to assuage their guilt by turning a town upside down. I sketched a few more vignettes, but soon I realized I was just gripping my pen as sadness over the impending fates of the girls’ victims took over.
I watched John and Elizabeth Proctor (played by David Snyder and Erin Ouellette) tried to repair a damaged marriage even as the world began tearing them to pieces, and suddenly there was more than just pity. There was an irrational hope that history would change, and, as Elizabeth Proctor was torn from her home, all I could do was grip my sketchbook from the end of that second act until John Proctor was led to the gallows at the end of the play.
For the first time since I’ve known about this play, I felt the incredible sadness but also new admiration for victims of the witch hunt who were defiant until their last breaths. I even experienced little momentary pity for the instigator of the chaos – the damaged and deceptive Abigail Williams beautifully played by Catherine Seeley Keister who managed to bring depth to a character that seems to lack dimension on the page.
Each member of the cast brought new life to the characters they portrayed. Deb Borthwick as Rebecca Nurse had a perfect no-nonsense attitude to the early accusations that only someone who has weathered a host of fussy eaters could muster. Lia Russell-Self as both the trapped Tituba and the pitiless Judge Danforth expertly walked both sides of the mayhem, and Digby Baker-Porazinski (still in high school) was the picture of conflict as he portrayed Reverend Hale, an expert on witchcraft who comes to regret the events he has helped to accelerate.
I know more experienced theater critics will have their opinion of this performance, but this isn’t a critique. It’s a thank you note to Hubbard Hall and places like it that recruit seasoned veterans, up-and-coming actors and talented amateurs to create a community of artists that breathes humanity into something that was once dull and lifeless. It’s gratitude for creating something new.
It’s what great art does, and as I headed home, thinking about the message of the Crucible as if for the first time, I remembered once again why art matters so much not just to those who create it, but to the people they inspire.
I’m gearing up for a busy spring and summer, finishing a book, participating in an Open Studio Weekend memorial day weekend and a big show at the Spiral Press Café in Manchester Vermont in August. I’m looking forward to the summer, but the busy schedule that’s just starting makes me appreciate these evenings at the park watching Little League practice.
I’m not looking forward to a summer of politics, but knowing that some of it is unpreventable, makes me more determined to appreciate and save these simple small town pleasures as they happen.
We got to the park just as the sun was moving behind the mountains on the west side of the park. T2’s ragtag team was already scampering around the field practicing pitches and catching. T1 stayed for a bit to yell encouragement and instructions at T1 and then went to meet friends at the nearby golf course.
For the next 45 freezing minutes, I painted the scene in front of me, listening as one of the parents – T1’s history teacher – caught us up on some of the happenings at the high school.
Arlington, Vermont is a picturesque town, but it is not an affluent one. Almost 2/3 of the kids in our school system are on free or reduced lunches at any time. Despite a lack of wealth, however, Arlington Schools consistently do well academically and socially, and the scene at the ballpark was a clue to its success.
I’ve known many of T1’s teachers for years. I’ve known most of the parents on T2’s team for years. We see each other at the park and at the country store. We trade gossip, we also offer support and help when it is needed.
It is 1,000,000 miles away from the large affluent high school I attended. Located in a suburb of a large, efficient, Midwestern city, it was easy to fall through the cracks almost unnoticed, as one of my friends did during my junior year and I almost did the following year.
I don’t worry about T1 or T2 slipping through the cracks. I know from experience that if someone at the school senses a problem, they’ll pick up the phone or pull me aside at the ballpark for a quick chat. Those simple acts of kindness cost nothing and mean everything.
Some authors have written powerfully about the decline and even the disappearance of small towns as our society has elevated productivity and profit to a cult that cannot extract enough financial value from the perceived inefficiencies of rural life.
Last night I was reminded again of those writers who, like me, still see that the value of the small communities is not found on a balance sheet. And, as I watched a carefree T1 disappear with his friends to another part of the park, I didn’t think about the things efficiency could bring us, I thought about how rich we already are.
Back in the 70s there was an oil spill spill in southwestern Lake Michigan. I don’t remember if it made the national news; I learned about it when I went down to the beach for the first time that summer and found black sticky sand everywhere. My grandmother explained to me what had happened, but the impact of what that meant didn’t hit me until a few years later when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, dumping enough oil into the Alaskan waterways to make the evening news for weeks and even months in an era long preceding the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle.
I remember watching the news of the Valdez spell and being horrified at the irreparable damage to wildlife and to the shores and then wondering what the oil spills in Michigan- there have been more since – were doing to the people.
My parents and grandparents being upset about the spell, but it seem to be anger at the spills’ impact on our enjoyment of the beaches. None of us considered what the tarry sand might be doing to the health of the people who lived along the shores year around. These bills were just the occasional price to pay for our collective way of life.
I was thinking about the oil spills as I was looking for one more picture to paint for my fingerprints show. Most of my paintings of focused on places we’ve shaped and abandoned, or the more benign and picturesque fingerprints we have left, and I knew I wanted one more of Lake Michigan.
As I went through my pictures of the Lake, I found another image of decaying breakwaters and, for the first time in a long time, noticed black sand that, even 40 years later testifies to the long term, and sometimes, damaging fingerprints we can leave.
What struck me most, was that in my search for a picture of Lake Michigan, the fingerprint that jumped out at me first was the breakwater. Over the last 40 years the tarry Blacksand have become so much a part of the landscape, that I had to remind myself that they weren’t always there. It was a stark reminder that easy it is to begin accepting The mantra that destruction is just the price we have to pay for our lifestyle.
The reality is that it’s not an occasional price. It’s one that people in Michigan are still paying and continue to pay over and over again.
I don’t look at environmental issues like these hoping for easy answers,and, even though we do live in an earth-sheltered off-grid “cabin” in the woods, I appreciate and take advantage of many advances of the last century. I know we need to use energy to power them, but accepting that the wanton destruction of the environment that sustains us is the necessary price of progress is complacent. It is the opposite of progress. And it makes me think much more carefully about the type of fingerprints I want to leave on the land and the future.