The Thread

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

–William Stafford

How simply William Stafford lays it out: There’s a thread you follow. In the stripped syntax of his poem, the concept almost sounds benign. And in the beginning it often feels benign. Its first tug is a gentle one. But then it takes on a life of its own.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

I know that thread-centric lives are different than the ones that are not. Most of my writer and artist friends understand intimately what Stafford is describing. An odd visual lexicon emerges on its own and will not be silenced. A fictional character will not conform to intended outcomes. Creatives know about those elements in their work that cannot be controlled or managed.

You have to explain about the thread.

It can be confusing. Frequently people use words like obsession, irrational, out of touch, stubborn, extreme, impractical, unrealistic. But that thread is quite possibly a lifeline. Your lifeline.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

This is usually a statement of fact, not an injunction.

There is a powerful thread that serves as the throughline in Yerma, a play by Federico García Lorca about a young woman who has a singular desire to have a child. For whatever reason, that outcome is thwarted. The thread in her is not to be abandoned however, no matter what.

Yerma is a woman’s story, written in 1934 by a man, one who had no children of his own. But it is so much more than an account concerning female infertility.  We now live in an age when uncooperative bodies are frequently coaxed into reproductive success through medical technology, but the specter of barrenness is profound and potent. It is a denouncer of all generative impulses: The child we cannot have. The book we cannot write. The art that we cannot bring into form.

A recent production of Yerma, adapted by Simon Stone, set the story in present day London. In this version Yerma is a young professional woman who is used to achieving success and cannot comprehend that her body will not comply to her will. It is a narrative that feels familiar to contemporary audiences accustomed to the personal writ large in this social media sharing age.

But Lorca’s original play is dreamlike, archetypal, poetic. It has a fable-like magic that is of this world and yet not. Ten years prior to writing this play, Lorca published Poema del Cante Jondo, poems that called upon the cante jondo (“deep song”) tradition. Those poems informed all his works that followed.

Lorca’s description is evocative:

“The cante jondo approaches the rhythm of the birds and the natural music of the black poplar and the waves; it is simple in oldness and style. It is also a rare example of primitive song, the oldest of all Europe, where the ruins of history, the lyrical fragment eaten by the sand, appear live like the first morning of its life.”

This incantatory approach to Lorcan storytelling is at the heart of Melissa Lopez’s adaptation of Yerma currently being performed by Boston’s Huntington Theater Company. Directed by Melia Bensussen, this Yerma is told with full access to the magical and the mythical. At the center of the stage (a wonderfully evocative design by Cameron Anderson) is Yerma’s marriage bed surrounded by a field of sunflowers. The fecund flowers are slowly harvested over the course of this tale of loss, failure and tragedy. Guitarist Juanito Pascual and percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo weave a continuous soundtrack to hold the Andalusian poetic spell of the story in tact.

“Our people, the Andalusians, cross their arms in prayer, gaze at the stars, and await, in vain, a sign of salvation. It is a gesture filled with pathos, but a true one. The cante jondo either poses a profound and unanswerable emotional question, or resolves it in death, the question of questions,” Lorca wrote.

Poet Paul Éluard famously said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” While Yerma is an invitation into another world where we encounter a “profound and unanswerable emotional question,” it is also one that maintains a deep connection to the shared reality we call life. I was enchanted by this adaptation.

Stafford’s thread takes on a different life of its own in another production in nearby Cambridge–the American Repertory Theater’s premiere of We Live in Cairo. A musical treatment of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and its aftermath written by two brothers, Daniel and Patrick Lazour, Cairo spans the years from the euphoric triumph of Tahrir Square and the forced resignation of Mubarak to the bleak outcome that followed, resulting in a military regime more oppressive than the Mubarak era.

The story line is not new. Young, idealistic students have a passionate desire to create a new country. They are relentless in mobilizing their fellow citizens to end the long oppressive dictatorship of Mubarak with the cry of “bread, freedom, and social justice (`aysh, hurriya, `adala ijtima`iyya).” In what feels like a miraculous moment, they actually succeed. But how quickly the void is filled by new forms of oppressive power—the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually, the military. By the end of this extraordinary chapter in Egypt’s history, repression is rampant and many of the revolutionaries have been killed or are being held in prison.

What did it all mean? How is this story to be told? Was it all for naught? By dividing the play into two distinct parts—a high energy, hopeful first half before Tahrir Square followed by a brutally disappointing denouement—we are left questioning the meaning and nature of idealism, hope, activism.

It is the thread. Again.


Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.


Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.


You don’t ever let go of the thread.

In her thoughtful article, In Praise of Lost Causes, Mariana Alessandri discusses the philosopher Unamuno and the Spanish classic by Cervantes, Don Quixote. Her words put this story into a useful frame:

“If we want to be legitimate actors in the world, Unamuno would say that we must be willing to lose the fight. If we abandon the common-sense belief that deems only winnable fights worth fighting, we can adopt Unamuno’s “moral courage” and become quixotic pessimists: pessimists because we recognize our odds of losing are quite high, and quixotic because we fight anyway. Quixotic pessimism is thus marked by a refusal to let the odds of my success determine the value of my fight.”

I was also reminded of one of my favorite passages by Howard Zinn in a book that has kept me afloat many times, one I have referenced frequently on Slow Muse: The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb:

“The bad things that happen are repetitions of bad things that have always happened—war, racism, maltreatment of women, religious and nationalist fanaticism, starvation. The good things that happen are unexpected. Unexpected, and yet explainable by certain truths that spring at us from time to time, but which we tend to forget.

“Political power, however formidable, is more fragile than we think. (Note how nervous are those who hold it.)…

“Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society…

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton revolutionized musical storytelling, making a new space for theater that is grounded in historical narrative, utilizes contemporary formats and is dramatically compelling (among many other innovations.) We Live in Cairo is the first major work by the Lazour brothers, and a few rough edges are still in need of being polished. But Cairo is Mirandian in its ambitious undertaking of a big story, one that deserves being told and being seen. Bravi to inspired direction, casting, choreography, music, writing and advocacy for this memorable production.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Yerma, at the Huntington Theater Company, runs through June 30.

We Live in Cairo, at American Repertory Theater, runs through June 23.

One Reply to “The Thread”

  1. Diana Johnson says: Reply

    This leaves me overwhelmed thus convinced my thread is to do the next right thing and trust. Believing the tolleism, life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your conscience. Deb, more questions!

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