Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Before the Funeral

It’s an oddity: When I stopped posting regularly, my reasons had much to do with the death of my grandmother. So I start to post again, just in time for another death in the family, one so sudden I’m having a hard time processing it. Two weeks ago, Joyce was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died today.

Mum and Joyce have a real bedrock friendship. I think they’ve talked every Sunday for the last 50 years, telling each other their lives as they happened. They have that cinematic difference: Joyce stayed in the dying steel town, married youngish, and raised up three kids largely by herself. Mum became an English professor and moved thousands of miles away from Homestead, from Munhall. She also ended up raising two kids largely by herself, but the family support was way, way different. Joyce’s mom, who is still alive at like 101, abandoned the family when Joyce was a kid. She never helped Joyce or her brother Kenny with anything. My grandparents had their foibles, but they always were there for Mum.

And Joyce was there for them, for us. When my Grandma Fran was dying — my mother’s mother — Joyce helped us manage the day to day that was difficult from several states’ distance. We wouldn’t have made it through without her. I’m friendly with Joyce’s kids, especially Nikki, her oldest. We have kiddos just months apart in age, and our dudes are both techies. She was so much cooler and older than me when I was kid, but a couple decades can level things a bit. We’re both oldest daughters who have daily, concrete relationships with our mothers. Who had. That tense change is such an unbelievable bitch.

The week before has been this tragicomedy of technological failures and unanswered phones. Joyce’s cell went unanswered for five days, and because of some fucking cloud bullshit, Mum didn’t have Nikki’s number. They hadn’t thought to contact Mum because everything was happening so horrifically fast: I still cannot believe that just a week ago Joyce was lucid enough, alive enough, to call my mother and give her the weekly rundown she’s done for nigh on half a century. Mum called me today, early. Joyce had a brain bleed. They didn’t expect her to live more than 24 hours.

She called me again, not three hours later.

She’s gone, she said.

I stood in the kitchen hugging my husband, sobbing. My child heard my weeping and came and wrapped their thin arms around me.

I don’t have anything. I am poured out. I walked through a day of errands and domestic chores while a pathetic fallacy rained down and blew fog all over everything. I’ve been letting the chickens out of the coop because the snow has heretofore kept them penned into our yard. But today, I looked out and found them in the neighbor’s fenced yard, the one who has a dog I call The Moose, and I had to go out there, jumping from ice flow to ice flow, and beckon them back. More like a bathetic fallacy, I thought: this is ridiculous.

Mum came over to drink wine and reminisce, after a day of near misses and almost gettings together. Grief must be scheduled like anything else. A version of “Girl from the North Country” came on the channel we were listening to, one by both Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I’m not much of a musical person, but that song is me right now. Here, now, listen.

Back in the Saddle

I quit updating the ole blog more than four years ago. There was some real world shit that was more important, so I was, as they say in corporate, in a contraction phase. I’d wobbled for about a year after my Grandma’s death and then subsequent deletion of my Goodreads account. Her death kicked me deeper into depression, and then the withdrawal from my main outlet on social media laid me down deep in the hole. (Also, the loss of a few friends due to my being insensate to other people’s needs and feelings didn’t help anything, especially when I realized what an ass I’d been.) So I quit writing, pretty much full stop.

I’m not going to get into four years of the ins and outs of my mental health, but suffice it to say, I feel like it’s time to get back out there and start saying stuff out loud again. Partially because I’m this godsdamned close to finishing the first draft of the zombie housewife novel, and it would be good to keep myself accountable in some semi-public way. I haven’t figured out what that will look like — I’m not the hugest fan of daily word counts or other objective metrics — but I also know how bad I am at sticktoitiveness. Partially because I just miss rattling on about what I read and what I’m thinking about. A little-trafficked blog with absolute shite design seems the perfect place for that! Also maybe I can get Mr. Ceridwen to help with the design.

I spent some time last week going through the several thousand comments this blog had accrued in my absence. Out of the thousands, there was exactly one comment from a real person: the rest were for v1agra, pr0n, other mixes of letters and numbers, and stuff written in Cyrillic. I also looked through the several hundred photos I had in various posts and took down anything that might ding me for copyright violations. I thought I knew what fair use was until I saw this infringement case in the news, and realized it was way more restrictive than I thought. Total drag.

So, anyway. I guess I’m back! I’ll probably post some back-catalog stuff in addition to new posts, at least for the first couple months before I get back in the swing of regular posting.

In Retrospect, Like Meaning

I was on the back porch smoking when it occurred to me to check the date of my account deletion. It has to have been a year, I thought, because it wasn’t so long ago that my sister texted me on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I read it out to my kids, because my son heard my weird exhalation and wondered why. They like to shoulder-surf me. They like to know why I respond like I do to screen ephemera.

Several weeks ago, I was weeping, loud, curled like a corpse. Or no, that’s not right: corpses arch, which is why fossils of dinosaurs always have their long necks stretched back. I was weeping like a woman has been suffering from “minor major depression” for as long as she can remember, which is about two years, maybe more, maybe it’s all roots and memories that stretch back as long as I can remember. That’s the thing about depression: it’s virulent and metastasizes, and all your cells bend to it eventually. All of me was bent.

When I rolled over, I saw her there, a shadow, my daughter, watching me from the doorway. The worst thing in all of this has been figuring how to talk to these beautiful, difficult children I’ve created about how sick I am, and how that is not their fault or responsibility. I remember being this age, and how, even at eight, I would bottle and stopper my emotions because, even then, I was afraid of being stupid or embarrassing. I still feel like I’m stupid or embarrassing most of the time. I wish there was a time when I could feel like a grown up, not this gangly impostor who cannot fit in the children’s chairs at parent-teacher conferences.

She came and laid herself across my body, hip to hip, her head on my chest. I figured how to quiet myself, but I could feel the tears roll down the sides of my skull and into my hair. I talked to her about myself, about my depression. She wants to know if this is something she can catch, which made me pause for a long while. I can see me in them both, my children, good things and bad, all the genetic comeuppance we joke about. No, I said, but this isn’t strictly true.

Later that week, she’ll ask me to go to a website with some silly signs — the kind that are mostly photoshopped — that we’d looked at some time in the last month. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she wants to see me happy, and she thought I was happy the last time we looked at these together. This kills me. Happiness is such an ephemeral quality, seen out of the side of the eye, like stars, or in retrospect, like meaning.

So, a year and a day ago I deleted my Goodreads account, two weeks after my grandmother’s death, in the long fallow darkness of a depression that only got worse. I have doubted that decision — I’m not going to lie — but not much. I know it was a misstep in some ways, but, as I said at the time, my reasons were mostly personal, and had very little to do with whatever the fuck bullshit was going on on this site. But there were missteps, unkindnesses that I was responsible for, maybe even cruelty. This kills me too.

Early in my therapy, I was ordered to stop apologizing, to stop assuming I was the one always at fault because I am the one who is always the worst. A part of me still thinks this is true, but I’ve mostly pinned her down, hip to hip, my head on her chest, my tears rolling down her face. I am not clear-eyed; I know this. But I still want to offer, at the very least, an explanation of my abrupt ending out here in the ‘verse. I was suffering from grief and depression, and I needed to cut myself off. I needed to stop. I did.

I said to my husband, in all the rictus of my coming to understand my illness, that my life felt like a limb that had fallen asleep, and was now coming to life. It hurts. It’s pins and needles all the time, and then bubbles, and then I can slowly put weight on it. I’m putting weight on it here, but it’s a dangerous, broken act.

I broke my foot this year too, like an asshole, kicking the edge of storm window leaned up in the back hall. Jesus, what a numbly stupid metaphorics. I could see the break, in the ghostly x-ray, and it was all frustration to clump around in an orthopedic boot. At night, in the dark, I would walk with a roll on the edge of my foot to protect my brokenness. Numb, dumb metaphors, they are everywhere.

One of my reawakening limbs has been writing again, because I cut that off a year ago with so much else. It’s taken me a long while to decide that writing wasn’t a problem — that it helped me more than it hurt — but it’s been hard to disentangle shit that’s bad for me from shit that’s good. I’m still iffy on whether this is good for me to write in this specific place, but I do want to perfectly and exactly apologize, in the capacity I can, for any I hurt I may have caused, and this is the place for it.

The really fucked thing about this declension of my brokenness is that I still haven’t come clean to many of my friends and family about the…about all of this. God, it’s so hard trying to be a person again, and even this may be wrong-footing my long process of recovering. Whatever, I guess. Every confession is a lightening. All words are stones on the ground. We’ll see if these words remain past a morning’s reconsideration.