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The Eschatology of Moments
“This is ridiculous. What am I doing here? I’m in the wrong story!”
As the second year of the Twenties comes to an end, I have a lot on my mind. To me, it only makes sense to think of these two years as a unit, characterized not just by the pandemic, but by the extended cultural and historical moment surrounding it. The end of this time feels redolent with disillusionment. The pandemic has very decidedly not ended, after all, yet society has chosen to move forward regardless. I place no value judgment on that, though I know many of us are faced with the uncanny sense that we’re in the “wrong timeline.”
I broke my promise to myself that I would be consistent with my posts on Substack, that I would become a prolific creator of content as a way of exercising my writing skills, and that I would have a website up and running by now. But I am trying to be kind to myself about it. Coupled with the end of this global period was the end of my six years living in Prague, a rich, long era of my life, which still somehow feels like a single passing moment. An entire world that has ended, contained in a gesture or a glance. Writing about it might have been a gateway for me to explore the kaleidoscope of feelings around that, but somehow it didn’t feel right.
Very little felt right, in fact. I found myself stretched between two worlds. Ostensibly those worlds are called Prague and California, but they might also be called Shelter and Wilderness, or importantly, Temple and Town. I knew my time in Prague was over, for now, and that it was the right time for it. But it allowed me to grow and expand and feel safe and free and unbounded for so long. That kind of floating is impossible to find in the United States unless money isn’t a problem for you. The truth is, though, that six years in the clouds is enough to make you forget the ground and miss its cool solidity.
As the end approached, a glorious, almost feverishly happy trip to Spain, the blessed responsibility of creating a unity ritual for my best friend’s wedding, and an extravagant week and a half in Copenhagen and Stockholm were bright moments in a morass of confusion on the one hand and a sort of mania on the other.
It truly wasn’t until Stephen Sondheim’s death on November 26th that things clicked into place for me. It was a grief-stricken but shining clarity.
“Any moment, big or small, is a moment after all. Seize the moment. Skies may fall any moment.”
These quotes are from two conjoined songs from Into the Woods, “Any Moment / Moments in the Woods,” which I have always felt are underrated gems. The pointed cleverness and poignancy of Sondheim’s lyrics feel especially relevant to me in this time. Upon hearing of his death, I first sat in shock, then wept, and then quickly set about building a playlist of all my favorite songs from his vast oeuvre, and I plunged myself back into his music and lyrics in depth for the first time in years.
The complex, idiosyncratic, and endlessly fascinating masterpieces that man churned out became an intense form of therapy for me, and none more than the climactic number from my very favorite of all musicals: “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George. I was suddenly able to start thinking clearly about everything I needed to do to prepare for my big move across the world. I felt inspired to create again, after having not written a word for almost two months.
I came to terms with the fact that the most intense and meaningful period of my life so far was coming to an end, and I was determined to fill that ending with as much transformational significance as I could. I didn’t want to flee from the heaviness of it, I wanted to face it, embrace it, and make it special. I made time to see most (though sadly not all) of the people who meant a lot to me there. I spent hours walking through the city and visiting places that were significant in my time there. I did rituals and yoga and meditations. I felt little to no anxiety or stress about it all, even up until the last day. And if you know me well, that last one is a spectacular leap forward in mental health progress for me.
“This was just a moment in the woods, our moment, shimmering and lovely and sad. Leave the moment, just be glad for the moment that we had. Every moment is of moment when you’re in the woods.”
The fact that it was Sondheim’s death that gave me so much clarity and peace in my own important ending is very fitting. For years, my religion on Facebook was listed as “Sondheim”. It was a joke, but barely so. His work has meant so much to my life, and Into the Woods is chief among them in that regard. I played the Baker in my high school production, and it was through that process that I began to see how the show’s broad symbolic and thematic strokes are interwoven with complex moral and philosophical ideas.
“Any Moment” and “Moments in the Woods” are a delightful example of that. And as I reflect on my own moments in the woods, and their ends, I can’t help but dive into Sondheim’s words to mine them for resonance.
(Spoilers ahead for a musical from 1987 that literally every living person either did or was forced to watch in high school.)
In this scene, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife have split up to find Jack, who has declared that he will kill the giantess who is raging through the land. The Baker’s Wife stumbles upon Cinderella’s Prince, who, philanderer that he is, seduces her.
While we get the impression he is speaking mostly out of his ass so he can seduce the Baker’s Wife, the Prince nonetheless expresses the worldview that every experience has the potential to be a “moment” of significance. So why not fill each successive moment with as much meaning as possible? Later, when the Prince has gotten what he wanted and left, the turning point in the Baker’s Wife’s reaction to the dalliance is when she realizes: “Oh, if life were made of moments… even now and then a bad one. But if life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one.”
The Prince, having known nothing but abundance his entire life, has developed the callousness to cheat on his wife simply because he can, because he wants to live as excessively as he can. “All we have are moments, memories for storing. One would be so boring!” Then he adds, “Right and wrong don’t matter in the woods…”
The Baker’s Wife, understanding the value of a single bright moment, has reached an epiphany about the meaning of her simple, ordinary life. Unfortunately, with the unsubtle symbolism of a fairy tale, the Baker’s Wife faces consequences for having strayed from the path in the woods. She is crushed to death by the rampaging giantess.
The message is easily read: we can and will learn many important things from our journeys into the chaos of the woods, but there will always be a cost. The Witch regains her beauty, but loses her powers. The Baker gains the child he has longed for, but loses his wife. Cinderella marries the Prince and gains wealth and power, but is deeply unhappy.
“First a witch, then a child, then a prince, then a moment, who can live in the woods? And to get what you wish, only just for a moment—these are dangerous woods. Let the moment go. Don’t forget it for a moment, though. Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’ when you’re back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I understand, and it’s time to leave the woods.”
The cost of my growth and expansion is the loss of the beautiful cocoon that was my life in Prague. And I’m so lucky that I understood the significance of that exchange before it happened. Inspired and reinvigorated as I am by Sondheim’s work, I will be writing a series of essays about, or through the lens of, his music and lyrics, starting with a very self-indulgent personal essay about how his musicals have impacted me throughout my life so far. (Forgive me, I must.) There are many powerful and all too relevant lessons we can still continuously learn from him, and I hope you’ll join me in making sense of them.
When a Moment ends, it is the tiny death of a universe. It is a micro-apocalypse. A Rapturette, if you will. All the possibilities you imagine unfolding from that moment collapse into the one truth that proceeds from it. The only thing that escapes the event horizon is you. And you are given the task of making it all mean something.
So, may the deaths of our moments fertilize the soil of our futures.
“Anything can happen in the woods.”