Bookmark and Share

We are all in this together

“Qui c’e tanto freddo. Segga vicino al fuoco ... Aspetti ... un po di vino... “

“Here is so cold. Sit by the fire … wait … a bit of wine … “

A phrase still perfect for mid-February, as we continue to gird ourselves against the world with soft wool and layers of ice, hungry for stirring dull roots with spring rain, inured to the world around us as our frozen fingers navigate the keyhole and hope the engine will turn. What little bit of thaw we get lines the eaves with icicles, caging our vernal desires of escape from this winter prison, “the frosty silence in the gardens.”

In this winter of our discontent, we were fortunate (ironically) to have had Haiti awaken us, so soon after the Christmas season, a call for us to give yet again; to see our delicate thread to the rest of us strummed and its vibration awaken us to a reality so obscene, we could not ignore it.

Depredation of decades on a scale that should have made us all ashamed, the promise of a “new world” reduced to a shallow hoax so that, there was no choice. So we pulled out our cell phones and texted 90999 to give $10 (and those who didn’t continued to lie with the dogs they lay with) or built shelter boxes or called into telethons hoping to speak with Brangelina or some other airbrushed avatar of what we are supposed to be as a society.

We’ll see what Haiti becomes in the aftermath. My wish is that the buildings are all green and the infrastructure makes the island self-sustaining and that, in another decade, they’ll look back on their poverty and regard it as the “back then” in the same way our shadows remind us of the great depression.

If Haiti is rebuilt in the way I fantasize — which I doubt because, cynical as I am, corporate interests will move in and rape every man, woman and child with cold calculation and a golden phallus inscribed with the signature of Adam Smith — they’ll hopefully recall every reactionary and repressive policy that brought them to “back then” and reject that, wholesale, demanding true democracy.

Phoenix-like, they can show us how it’s done — in my fantasy, making our multiple 90999s something worthy and admirable.

I wish I could go to sleep knowing that my texts mattered but I’m afraid that there’s someone out there figuring out how to make billions on the backs of impoverished millions.

“Qui c’e tanto freddo. Segga vicino al fuoco ... Aspetti ... un po di vino ... “

In the first scene of Puccini’s “La Boheme” Marcello (a painter) and Rodolfo (a playwright) are staying warm on Christmas Eve by burning pages of Rodolfo’s latest work in order to stay warm. In the midst of their misery walks the landlord, demanding his rent. Plying him with wine (and the burning papers), they eventually get him drunk and send him on his way. Moments later, Mimi knocks on the door — and that’s where the opera hinges. Rodolfo digs her and she’s into him but not as much as she’s willing to allow him to run her life.

“La Boheme” is a perfect opera in my estimation. All the elements are there: love, death, tragedy, and reasons to sing really loud.

However, what sets it in a class all alone is the fact that and Mimi is — or should be — a feminist hero. She gives up everything to be herself, unwilling to feed into a Love Conquers All fallacy, ready to make her way without Rodolfo. Announcing herself with confidence and independence (in “Mi Chiamano Mimi”), she is self-assured and singing with her feet firm on the ground and a soaring soul, “il primo sole a, mio!/il primo bacio dell’aprile a, mio!” — “The first sunshine is mine!/The first kiss of April is mine!”

In fact, after leaving Rodolfo to his neurosis, she only returns on her own terms — and he must admit his own shortcomings before she’s ready to give her heart to him. Mimi calls all the shots; not because she is some harridan (his charms working on her as the first act in “O soave fanciulla”) but because she’s sized him up, had him figured out, sees him for all his bohemian pretenses and failings. In the end of the second act, she walks away, happy, pretty much saying, “If you want me, on my own terms … well, you got the number, boy.” Sure, she crawls up the stairs to Rodolfo in the final act but Puccini makes it clear that it’s not for a love of Rodolfo (she doesn’t even know he’s there) but because it beats dying in the gutter of the Latin Quarter.

The fact that Rodolfo runs to her and declares his love is (except for the final aria) inconsequential. And so it ends, as so many operas do, with a lover crying over a corpse.

For those of you who are running on limited synapses, an aversion to opera, or otherwise scrambling for a clue, the back story involves crushing poverty, the type we (in modern society) assumed no longer existed, nearly 150 years later. Weaving in a tale of timeless (yet, surprisingly modern) love, with characters trapped by their circumstances, all of it a sly running commentary of art subsumed by the cold heel of commerce, Puccini creates his greatest opera, capturing a world he hoped would change for the better. Like the novels of Zola or Dickens, “La Boheme” was, despite its dark background and denouement, optimistic in its belief that art would ultimately triumph, that society would eventually rise in such a way that everyone’s condition and circumstances would improve.

Yet, here we are attempting to wrap our virus-malware-spyware-minds around the fact that people were getting by on two dollars a day and didn’t have access to fresh water — even before the earthquake.

Probably the best question to the school board, during last week’s open forum on cost-cutting, was “How much did that bottled-water cost the district?”

Probably not much but the superintendent twirled his half-empty bottle, embarrassed, like a kid attempting a magic trick with a beer, in the presence of a cop, silently acknowledging that maybe the board could get by on a pitcher and seven cups. Having declared that, by filling the cistern in the nurse’s station in the sink rather than using bottled-water, the district could save around $2,000, it had to have been a very awkward moment for the board.

As our local schools suffer — and will suffer more — under draconian budget cuts resulting from three decades of national economic policy that rewarded wealth rather hard work, it could seem ludicrous that we’d ship some of our resources to a faraway island while so much needs to be done right here. “La Boheme,” however, reminds us that the condition in Haiti (or elsewhere) is not so far away. It’s immediate, it touches us, the stale breath of suffering brushing our cheeks such that, if we cannot wince at the stench of mass graves, we ourselves are dead.

“La Boheme” reminds us that we are all in this together and that we all experience love and loss and hunger on the same human level; our yearning is universal and, no matter our circumstances, we desire warmth, a brief escape from the winter’s chill, the comfort of an embrace. Our needs are, on the most basic level, all the same.

We need water.

We need wine.

“Qui c’e tanto freddo. Segga vicino al fuoco ... Aspetti ... un po di vino ... “