You Built Me Palaces out of Paragraphs

Most of our country has been in some form of quarantine or social distancing for about three and a half months.  I was sent home from work on March 5 because I had a sneeze. Fear was already high in the Philadelphia area. Those first eight days, I had some freedom – I still went to teach at religious school the following Sunday and Wednesday in New Jersey.  I had no idea that a few days later, my entire office would be sent home, and our state would put in place a stay-at-home order.

Isolation is hard, especially when you’re away from everyone you love. I had Nico and Olivia, my pet-children that I share with Nick. But Nick was gone in isolation with his grandfather, my family lives 18 hours away, and I was unable to see the kids I teach or my friends.  We all went through this, and it’s been hard.

It’s those hard times that makes everything that helps us feel a bit of the old normal that much sweeter. When the riots began, I left the city. I had to get myself, Nico and Olivia out of danger – we live in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. Near my home ATMs were broken into via explosions, an entire corner block of homes burned down 2 blocks away.  I completely support the movement, but safety first – and support from a distance.

My leaving the city meant I was able to see Nick for three and a half days, and since then I’ve seen him around another eight days. Those times have been the sweetest of times in an uncertain world, and I treasure every moment I get to hug him and talk unceasingly to him while driving him crazy. And while those moments aren’t many, I’ll take what I can get.

However, there are also other moments of joy that have happened during this pandemic. It’s nice to have things to look forward to: a book that’s released, an upcoming move into a new and better place to live, and for many, it’s been waiting for Hamilton to be released on Disney+ today, July 3.

The arts as a central part of my being

I’ve always been a fan of the arts. My most happy of memories always have something to do with the arts: dancing in my ballet recitals, marching in band, my Dad storming through the front door late at night to wake us all up to listen to his new favorite album while we all dance around in the living room.

My parents are both creative types.  My mom is much more subtle with her quiet piano playing, or sewing clothes, including my prom dress.  She gave me the love for classical music, an understanding of the way music works, and design. 

My dad’s artistry comes in the form of pop culture, architecture, interior design.  We all jokingly call him the “gay interior designer” – because it’s him who I would spend hours with drawing on graph paper dreaming about future homes.  It’s because of him that I was an award winning member of the interior design club in 4-H.  It’s him who I called yesterday while sending him pictures of different shower curtains to talk about how it would work in the size of the room, the fact it’ll be the first thing someone would see when walking into my new home, and what the color says and how it’ll work with the rest of the home.

When you put my parents and their passions together, you’d have moments in the car listening to Phantom of the Opera or Cats. You’d have moments of us listening to music, while coloring.  You’d have a man who wanted his children to be athletic, but still revel in the fact that they were musical.  He encouraged our artsy nature, and was our loudest cheerleader – while his wife was a quiet, but the biggest cheerleader there was.  Four years ago for Christmas, I sent them the Hamilton soundtrack as one of their joint gifts.


So what is it about Hamilton that I’m so drawn to?  The list is long.

The Hamilton musical does a beautiful job of telling a not completely factual, but close enough account of Alexander Hamilton’s life.  It shows from a young age his insatiable thirst for life, and part of that is through his acquiring knowledge through the written word. He has a thirst of reading like none other.  Reading and writing were Hamilton’s true loves – he read as though he needed it to survive, that his life would never be complete without learning more, without understanding the depths of thought that others had to share.

There are times that I spend with Nick, and I wonder if he reads as much as Hamilton read – if this is how all those who were part of his life felt.  Nick wrote an essay on here the other day about how “Books Can Save Your Life” and stated, “Reading fiction is like stepping inside an author’s mind, seeing the world through his or her eyes. I feel it makes me more empathetic and keeps my skills sharp as a writer.” Today is his birthday, and I wish he could spend it with Hemingway and Hamilton sitting in a room reading books together.  I’m sure they would have been great friends.

Hamilton was not only a huge book nerd, but it was also a prolific writer. The Federalist Papers were mostly written by Hamilton – as he wrote 51 of the 85 articles.  It’s joked throughout the entire musical how he “writes like he’s running out of time.”

The pen is mightier than the sword

I believe in the power of words.  But there are times when words are not enough.  I feel like this play showcases that.  You see Hamilton constantly writing, and everyone touting that his “skill with the quill is undeniable.” His words helped shape the legality of our constitution, and set America up to not be in bankruptcy at it’s inception.  He was also an abolitionist and used his writings to further the cause.

But writing wasn’t enough for Hamilton. He wanted to be in the action.  He wanted to lead – and not by his writings, but by this “tactical brilliance” on the battlefield.  Even while writing, he was always at the ready to lay down his pen and pick up a sword, or even a gun for a dual.

The dichotomy of passions in his life is his ultimate demise.  He is constantly upstaging Aaron Burr, who interestingly enough is the grandson of revivalist and theologian Jonathan Edwards. It gets to the point where they end up writing a series letters back and forth, with neither side accepting blame. They lay down their pens, and pick up their guns. This is where Hamilton’s life ends, in his late 40s.

I’m searching and scanning for answers

Let’s be honest – Alexander Hamilton is not actually the star of the musical. We don’t actually figure out who the star is until the end of the show.  The character is seen from the very beginning, and even has moments in the spotlight – but at the end, you understand the show is all because of her: Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, also known as simply, Eliza.

Throughout the show you see her growth and it’s actually very inspiring and beautiful to watch.  You see her start off as a silly little girl who goes into town with her sisters to check out all the soldiers in their uniforms, to becoming a young lady who falls in love with the man across the room and gets lost in his eyes, you see her as a wife and mother fighting to keep her family together and alive.

The moment I most deeply connected with her is when she found out that her husband had betrayed her. At this point, she has reached what you think is her peak, the top of her arc, her moment of revelation to the world of who she is.  She has just learned that her spouse has cheated on her, even in her own bed.

I remember when I first listened to this on the soundtrack.  I felt her pain, I felt her anger. I felt as if we understood each other on a level that only those in that situation could ever understand – and something you want no one else to ever have to live through.  Her ballad, “Burn” is the most powerful song of a woman scorned (seriously, check it out here).  And that time in my life, I understood every word, every pause, every breath she took in that moment.

Next, she lives her worst fear – worst than being publicly cheated on – the loss of her child.  She becomes a shell of herself, and we see her struggle as any human would, but then we see her find her strength and her relationship with her husband rekindle itself. And this is when he leaves and dies.

At this point, you think the story is over.  And you don’t realize that it’s not.  It is in this moment Eliza literally “puts herself back into the narrative” and shows you how everything we know is because of her. She continues the work Hamilton (and his best friend John Laurens) started with abolitionism. She helps builds monuments, such as the Washington Monument. She interviews other soldiers and founding fathers – she is why we can tell the stories we know today.

But then, she went further. She opened the first private orphanage and saved what is now the New York State museum from auction. You watch Hamilton and you see the lifetime works of a strong, brave and beautiful soul of the woman, Eliza.

These things are probably what attracts me to this musical the most. It’s not some silly musical that’s all happy and fun.  You see the pain of a boy who’s lost everything, and he fights to become better than who he could have even been without the belief in those around him. You see his mistakes.  You see another man who was given everything on a silver platter from birth, who just couldn’t come to terms that maybe he was only second best.  And you see the story of a woman who fought against the odds and became strong and independent in a time where that was almost impossible.

Since today is also Nick’s birthday, I want to end this piece with a remix of one of the songs from Hamilton – by one of his favorite Philadelphia bands: The Roots.

Note: The title of this blog post is taken from a line of the song “Burn” in the Hamilton musical written by Lin Manuel-Miranda: “You built me palaces out of paragraphs, you built cathedrals.”

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