On Watership Down and the Creative Home
I wonder if every child that grows up without much religion finds those earliest, indelible rhythms of what faith they have in books. For me, that was true, and no book burrowed deeper into how I live than Richard Adams' tale of rabbits, Watership Down. And as it is New Years Eve and time for resolutions, I thought I'd write a little while about why a band of silly rabbits remains so central to who I am, and my dream of building a creative home.
For those unfamiliar with the book, Wikipedia is here to help you, though if you saw Jacob's House, you saw as much of Watership Down as you did the Old Testament. A runt of a rabbit, Fiver, has a vision that sends a group of rabbits, led by Hazel, on a dangerous odyssey to find a new home. It is a gorgeously dark and vital book, and as a child, I remember it felt more like life than anything else I'd read.
Of all the characters, I connected most with Hazel because he was a completely different kind of leader than I'd read before. He was not capable of any skillful violence, he had no magical power, he wasn't the fastest or the strongest or the cleverest, he was not a favorite of destiny nor was his leadership defined by dominance. He wasn't, in fact, particularly good at anything except one thing: the capacity to see what was best in others and call it out into the world.
As a child, I was profoundly moved by this, even though I'm not sure I could've articulated why. Every other model of leadership I'd seen was entirely individualistic - a character accomplishes great things because they themselves are great - and today, whenever I read those endless streams of articles about leadership, most continue to define it this way.
The idea that the survival of community lies not in a single greatness, but in the capacity to see what is good in every one and call it into action, continues to feel like a radical and sacred ideal. As I get older, and see clearly I am not the strongest or fastest or cleverest, it is this ideal that calls to me with ever greater urgency, to find or build a creative home.
Home is such a powerful world; simply say it with intention and let it live in the air awhile, and some strong emotion will usually follow. I think this is because, like the characters of the Old Testament and Watership Down, most of us don't feel a sense of home; most of us are in exile.
For many, that exile is despairingly literal; some power prevents them from returning to the place they call home. For others, they live in the place but that place has changed, and no longer calls to them with that voice of belonging; they are exiles in their own house. So much violence comes from exiles trying to return and others trying to keep them out; from those wanting to keep their home as it always was and others wanting to turn it into the place they left behind.
A grace of Watership Down is that the rabbits do not try to return to their original warren after it is destroyed; home is not a location for them. Rather, home is a place defined by something else: safety, belonging, the capacity to speak in your true voice and be truly heard; a sense of destiny through community; a balance between continuity and change, difference and shared purpose; peace; love. It is home defined by people instead of place.
Theatre, through its powers of imaginative empathy, is one way to see what is best (and worst) in others and call it out into the world (or exorcise it); it can help create a home defined by people instead of place. It is one way, not the only way, though it is the way I love best.
There are many exciting things I'm looking forward to in 2011; marriage (!), directing Ajax in Iraq, producing Dog Act, trying to beat the seven full-length plays I wrote in 2010, writing my first book. But through all of that burns a singular resolution to better see what is best in others and call it into the world, to help all of us exiles find or create a home in each other.
What are you looking forward to in 2011? Any Watership Down lovers reading this blog?