April 21, 2017
Every year at this time, I do a “devotional” in the Vermont State House. The time is used for prayer, or poetry, or music, or what have you. I choose to write with a connection to Shakespeare. This year I focussed on the character of Constance, from “King John.”
As we rapidly approach the end of the session, I can feel us, as a body, begin to check out, to dissociate from the connections we’ve made since January, and to focus, like a laser, on whatever the endgame is going to be.
I do this devotional annually as a tribute to William Shakespeare on or around his birthday. Shakespeare, if you know him at all, is about words, rhythms, pauses, caesuras, rhymes that all add up and reveal truths that are as pure today as they were when he wrote them.
It takes some time and patience to read him — say “shakespeare” in a junior high as you reach for Julius Caeser or Romeo and Juliet, and you can be sure the groans will be followed by the sounds of teenagers sleeping in their desks. But if you can get them to get it, they’ll learn about the emptiness of political conspiracy and the way love can almost, almost conquer the nihilism inherent in a generational war between Hatfields and McCoys.
What Shakespeare brings to us, in this building, is his sharp perception about how humans in power negotiate that power — in his histories, that means that the climax leaves the stage riddled with corpses, and some vague glimmer of glory for those just murdered.
His King John ends this way. It is full of palace intrigue, and battles fought over the birthright of men, or the usurpers, or the bastard who ends the play alone, and weakly trying to infuse the glory of the crown. And within this play is a remarkable pair of women characters, mothers, who give the play its emotional core in a way unknown in other of Shakespeare’s plays.
The mother who has shaded me most this year, really since October of last year, is Constance. It is her son, Arthur, who by whatever math the royals use to determine who is next in line, is being held back from his right by his uncle, the feckless King John. John, whose mother is Eleanor of Aquitaine, is brother of Richard the Lion-Hearted and conspires to have Arthur murdered. Arthur’s assassin lets him live, uninjured, and lies to King John, telling him that he did indeed murder the boy. Arthur, in a wicked twist, falls to his death as he is trying to take advantage of his unexpected freedom. Everyone thinks that John, in fact, had him killed, even John.
When she hears that he has died, Constance is angry, angry that others would dismiss her emotion as weakness. The beauty, however quickly it dissipates, is the way her grief grows in front of you, blossoming as she speaks.
It is this grief, and this depiction of grief, and the acknowledgment of grief, that I have carried with me this session, ever since a number of parents from the Mad River Valley and Waterbury were awakened by the call no parent ever wants to receive. From our perch as legislators, the representatives from Moretown and Warren and Waterbury witnessed this grief in our communities. All of us, when we work in this building, and when we hear testimony from mothers who are trying to save their children from homelessness, or addiction, or from the horrors of war, witness this grief. It is the kind of grief that can happen to anyone, and is so raw that it stays with us for years.
Here is how Constance describes it. She says:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
(And then Constance removes her headpiece and says…)
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
So what do I do with this sadness? The first thing I do is to remain grateful to the communities around the state who became Harwood Strong, who reached out to our kids and told them that they were not alone. And to the first responders, who dealt with the horror they came upon. And to the teachers and principals and educational personnel and therapists and comfort dogs who tried to help the students through their pain while they were trying to keep theirs in check. And to everyone who reached out to those families and did what they could to acknowledge and do whatever that little thing was to deal with their own pain of sudden loss.
And here, in the State House, I try to remember that the work we do is for people. No matter the cost, the concept, or the outcome, everything we do affects people. There is great responsibility with that, and if I were to offer a prayer, I would ask that we, as legislators, honor that, in these closing days, we work for the people first, the people always. They are our joy, our food, our world.