Into the Woods

I saw Into the Woods a few days ago. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine capture something compelling and provocative with their lyrical rendering of “the woods”: life is an uncertain journey into mysterious unknowns by way of a path that twists and turns and abides by no discernible map.

No absolutes.
No one as independent as she imagines she might be.
All of our fates intertwined.
These are the most prominent signposts of the woods.

An image from the film came to my mind as I visited my mother today. She lives in a senior adult community. The name of the place where she lives includes the word “woods.”

Early in the movie, Red Riding Hood skips into the woods, her crimson shoes leading the way. She sings as she goes:

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Red Riding Hood is young. My mother and others who live in her community are not so young. But I suspect that each has carried a version of Red Riding Hood’s song along as she or he made her way into the woods–away from home and into the uncertainties of aging.

Who are we in the woods? In the film, we encounter a baker and his wife, a witch, a giant, a young boy, two princes, a poor villager, an orphan, and others. In my mother’s woods?

One of the first women to gain her credentials as a pharmacist.
A chemistry professor.
Mother of nine.
Gilbert and Sullivan vocal artist.
Manager of harness racing association.
Bank vice president.

Somehow, once in the woods, these identities fade. The commonalities of shared humanity surface, and one of those shared realities is how lost we can feel when we go into the woods, how unsure we can become of those social identifiers that for so long and with such power shape who we think we are.

Red Riding Hood continues to sing:

Into the woods
And down the dell,
The path is straight,
I know it well.
Into the woods,
And who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?

But the path is not so straight as we’d thought or hoped, not for Red Riding Hood, not for my mother and others in her community, not for any of us who travel down life’s dells. What, indeed, awaits us on the journey? Neither the wisest nor most mystical of fortune tellers can know for sure. And yet, we must journey on. This is perhaps one of the only certainties of human existence–that we must continue into the woods.

One of the messages Sondheim and Lapine offer is that though the woods may be dark and tangled, we are not alone. That, too, is part of our shared humanity, one of life’s most beautiful and lasting gifts. Listening today to older people recount their “once upon a time’s,” their eyes shining with remembered youth as they spoke, I found myself wishing as the characters do in the movie: I wish for 2015 that those in the woods know that no one is alone. Of course, that knowledge comes to embodied life only when we are willing to sit together and let the story continue in our sharing of it. . .

Into the Woods