Just Breathe; All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Musicals
I remember watching the Tony Awards in 2008. I was sitting in the living room with my tiny baby Anna on my lap. The scenery changed to a neighborhood in New York City and a man with a red shirt and a cap came out and started rapping. I was captivated. I pushed pause on my TiVo (can't you just hear the sound? I miss TiVo.) Anyway, I said, “Ryan! You have to come in here! I don’t know what this is, but it’s amazing.” The musical was "In The Heights" and it starred a young Lin Manuel Miranda who just happened to also be its creator. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who thought it was great since it won 4 Tonys that night -including Best Musical.
Big picture, this musical is about gentrification. When we think about an "up and coming" neighborhood, we miss the other side of the story which is real people who have to move because they can’t afford to live in their homes anymore. It's about social justice, and change, and community, but my favorite character is Nina, so I'm choosing to focus on the things I've learned from her experience. Nina taught me to breathe, perceive, and believe. Let me explain.
The story is told by Usnavi, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who owns a bodega in Washington Heights. Nina Rosario, the pride and joy of her block, arrives home on the hottest day of the summer from Stanford where she went away to college. She’s terrified to tell her parents and the rest of the neighborhood that she dropped out when she lost her scholarship because she had to work two jobs and couldn’t keep up with classes. She sings a song called "Breathe" which I couldn't listen to for a while because the first time I saw this show live, I had to be rushed to the hospital during this song because I was having a miscarriage. Later, when I was holding my rainbow baby and "Breathe" came on, I danced with him in my kitchen and cried for the baby we never knew and the sweet baby in my arms that we wouldn't trade for anything.
This song took on a very different meaning for me because of my trauma, but the message is the same. Stop. Breathe. Everything's going to be okay. It's a sentiment I've summoned many times. And my amazing, sweet nine-year-old boy is a constant reminder that God redeems the most terrible situations. Just breathe.
Enter Benny who works for Nina's father and just happens to be in love with her. He tells her he’s proud of her no matter what and that she's perceiving things wrong. One of the hardest parts about quarantine has been less time with the kind of friends who are willing to say things like that. It's an easy way for us to build up a narrative in our heads that's simply not true.
If you’re a fan of Hamilton and wished George Washington had gotten a love song in the show, don’t worry. Here’s Christopher Jackson singing “When You’re Home" with Mandy Gonzalez. Take a minute to listen to it.
So please don't say you're proud of me, when I've lost my way
That may be how you perceive it
But Nina please believe
That when you find your way again
You're gonna change the world and then
We're all gonna brag and say we knew her when…
We’ve all been there. That place where we feel like we’ve failed the people who have been our cheerleaders. Maybe the reason I understand Nina so much is that I got to college my freshman year and found that my major wasn’t a good fit for me. And although I wasn’t failing out, I felt like I let people down. I had a plan and I didn’t follow through.
If you’re in that place now, listen to Benny. If for no other reason than he has an amazing voice and he’s fun to listen to. But in those times when you're a little lost, you can find our way again. And the way you're feeling is probably just a skewed perception of what's happening.
If you’re not in that place, find people who are. There’s a lot of uncertainty and hurt going around right now and there are people in your life who need to hear that you’re proud of them. That they’re still capable of changing the world if they can change their perception of the situation and get back on track. That it’s not too late to come home.
Later in the show, Nina stays out all night with Benny during a blackout and her parents are terrified. Camila, Nina’s mom, gives both Nina and her father a piece of her mind when they are fighting in a song called “Enough”.
No no no no no!
No no no no no! No, you don't!
When you have a problem you come home
You don't go off and make matters worse on your own
One day you're gonna come back home
And you're not gonna find me waiting any more
I know this is a song about an angry mother. However, when I hear it, I think of God. And not because he’s angry but because He wants us to come to him first when there’s a problem. Maybe you’re like me. I’m pretty good at this with the big stuff -the hail Mary situations when I know nothing but God can fix it. It’s the other stuff I don’t give to him. The day to day worries. I (like the character in the musical) “go off and make matters worse on my own.”
If I’m struggling with something, I look on the internet. I talk to others. I complain about it. I stew and worry. And, sometimes, when I’m at my wit’s end, I pray. Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this. Then, I can hear God whisper this to me, “When you have a problem, you come home.”
When I don’t know what do about school in the fall: When you have a problem, you come home.
When I’m worried someone I love will get sick: When you have a problem, you come home.
When I lose my temper and behave like a child in front of my family: When you have a problem, you come home.
You know how going to the gym is hard, but when you’re done it feels so good? I think it’s like that with prayer. I don’t know what keeps me from coming home before I “make matters worse on my own”, but I imagine it’s mostly pride. I’ve never taken something to God and regretted it. I’ve never wanted to take it back. I always feel the relief of a burden I couldn’t carry anymore.
I didn’t miss the next line of the song by the way. It always makes me cringe a little. She says, “One day you're gonna come back home and you're not gonna find me waiting any more.” Whenever I hear that I want to tell her, “That’s a really mixed message Camila! You want her to come home, but you’re also going to give up on her?” It is a mixed message, but it’s also kind of true of people. I hate to admit it, but we give others a few strikes, then we give up. We are so imperfect in the way we love. As a result, people walk around like their in a minefield because they don't want to tread on someone for what could be the last time. And that’s hard. But what we should never, ever do is project that expectation onto God.
You see God isn’t like that at all. We've been training our puppy over the last few months. And the trainer taught us to never reprimand the puppy for coming home even though we're mad at him for running away. A reprimand teaches the puppy to never come home. God has that figured out. He doesn't reprimand us for coming home or even running away. He throws a party when we turn back to him.
These are hard times. And it’s easy to try to fix things on our own, but God is so much better at fixing things. Do you believe that? I hope you do. Being wise and informed doesn’t mean we live in fear. It’s time to take it to our God who is waiting for us to come home to him.
I hope you are in a place where you feel at home. If not, try to breathe, take a look at your perception of things, and believe that God's got this. He really does. Know that I'm praying for you. We all get a little lost from time to time, but that doesn't mean God can't use that experience to grow us and bring us home to him.