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I began writing this a little after eight this morning.

I know that because as I ventured from the kitchen to the front porch with a coffee cup in one hand and my UE Megaboom speaker in the other, Morning Edition was about to go into its final hour. (Before noon I keep what I call NPR time.) It’s quiet out there then. No one around – good time to think, or to read that book you just haven’t managed to get around to.

I’ve been reading a lot of books this summer, or more accurately, buying a lot of books and then rotating through them fifteen minutes or so at a time. In one of them, perhaps it was “When Things Go Bad”, the author talked about the importance of breathing in the bad stuff and breathing out (whatever you want to call it) the good stuff – peace, doing unto others, kindness, or as a last resort just being polite to each other. Breathe in the hate, breathe out the love. I find our front porch here on Hastings Street provides the perfect atmosphere in which to practice this exercise. It’s quiet, neighbors still stop to engage in a few moments of talk as they make their way up or down the hill. Will just stopped by to ask me how my column was coming along, Don and Meriam went by with their dogs, to tell us about their daughter in California, Bill the mayor, waved as he headed downtown, Ann Marie from across the street asked for planting advice, and Stevie, who is married to Will and lives two houses up and is also a gardener, laughed at my trellis joke. It was a good thing she did because there aren’t a lot of jokes in this genre and I didn’t want to deplete my entire repertoire for the sake of a single laugh. All in all, what has progressed here, from a typical June morning to a typical June afternoon as I continue to write this , is just the way it’s always been in the thirty-one summers since we moved into  Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood (which it actually is – he lived just up the street at the corner of Hastings and Beechwood.) Stevie passes by again this time with her two little girls. The older, Mabel, gives me a shy but warm “hi” and a wave. My mood brightens. It really doesn’t take that much to turn me around.

That’s my prolog for this letter, just my way of hopefully lulling you a bit in the reassuring air of “good stuff” before I plunge you into the serious stuff at hand. Which is: it’s Hamlet time. Hamlet, which you can watch live on YouTube this Thursday, is the 4th and final episode of Irondale’s 1599 Project. 1599  is composed of the four extraordinary plays Shakespeare wrote in the course of that single year. (I’ve gone over this before but to recap quickly for those who have missed it, 1599 was a monumental year both in English history and in Shakespeare’s life and career. If you know this part please feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph) England faced an uncertain future under an aging and out of touch ruler, while dancing around the plague and fending off economic and military challenges from a rising foreign power. That year Shakespeare moved, for the first time, into his own theatre and wrote, in order: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You like it and Hamlet. It was difficult for us at Irondale to avoid the comparisons between Shakespeare’s time and our own when we created our 1599 four years ago. Now with plague raging throughout our own country, the comparison is eerily and regrettably complete. Are we learning from history or just repeating it? Aye there’s the rub. “Does Old Will leave us with any words of wisdom?”

Shakespeare’s uber story, the one thematic story encompassing all 4 plays, in our version  became a tale that began with the certain but perhaps naïve, optimism of an idealistic young Henry V, it moved on to show how the idealism of the world of Julius Caesar came to be corrupted and ultimately was collapsed by the temptations presented by power, jealousy,  and cynicism. This called  for a respite, a pause, As You Like It in the idyllic Forest of Arden, before returning our central hero, now in the guise of Hamlet to the court to face the challenges of a now totally corrupt and politicized society armed with a maturing intelligence, and the resolve to pursue solving  even the greatest of problems through carefully reasoned thought and object rationality. But at its heart, Hamlet offers not a solution but a warning as it becomes a cautionary tale showing us how even the best among us can, in the course of 5 acts, be reduced to someone who declares from a position of unabated anger and a desire for sudden and final revenge, that “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”,

Later comes Hamlet’s subsequent line of redemption:

Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong;.
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.

It comes too late to prevent the deaths of the entire Danish court.

I hope this is not where we are going here, in our own lives right now in a time when, all too often, I wake up in the morning angry and go to bed at night exhausted. Each day I hear screaming and chanting on the television and the radio, but so far not on my own street (except for last Friday when a few hundred very peaceful protesters sat down in front of Bill the mayor’s house and peacefully chanted a bit before moving on. It was all fine-serious, decent people, wanting to follow their beliefs and do the right thing. But will we agree on what that right thing ultimately is? Can we move forward together as one? Or do we even want to. Will power, jealousy, and corruption lead us down the Hamlet hole once more despite our best intentions. It’s so hard and the memories of past attempts and failures loom before us once more. I wish Pete could have been there at the demonstrations to lead everyone in “the River is Wide.” Ultimately that brings into focus my personal Hamlet question: “To be or not to be, can we make this work if we don’t all ultimately jump in the same boat and ultimately row and sing the same song?”

The water is wide I cannot get o’er
And neither have I wings to fly
Build me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row.

One more thing. We were driving around the other night, and I asked Barbara if she knew the musical Ben Franklin in Paris. (We’d been talking a lot about Ben Franklin lately.) She said she didn’t, so thanks to the magic of Apple Music we were almost immediately listening to its cheery score as we made our way to Frick park for an evening walk. There’s a song in the show that Ben (Robert Preston) sings to his little grandson following the news that Philadelphia has just fallen to the British. The song begins “Half the battle is picking up the pieces and starting over again.” And my personal favorite line, one that is making me feel encouraged even as I write this out right now on Tuesday at 5:29 pm is:

“Just as long as I can keep alive the will to clown,
well they’ve won the battle, hell they haven’t won the war.”

That works.

Or you can always listen to a little MC5’s Kick out the Jams. That works too.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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