Published on February 25th, 2013 | by Katy Evans0
Tacoma’s Courts of Miracles
It’s coming on Mardi Gras; the time of year when many cultures celebrate the transition from winter to spring with rowdy Carnivale celebrations, followed swiftly for some with the solemn restrictions of Lent. Although one of these practices is definitely more attractive than the other, this season of ritual always inspires me to think about my own local rites of spring.
I have grown to love the transition from winter to spring and all the ceremonies, both natural and orchestrated, that surround and engage us. I eagerly watch Tacoma flora come back to life and I make garden plans; I use seasons as excuses to make ridiculously extensive holiday-specific playlists; I commemorate with local food and drink; and I write and I revisit books that remind me of the importance of accepting transitions — preferably through means of revelry, rebellion, and ritual.
Rituals help us develop an understanding, a way to structure that which is beyond our ability to understand or control. Thanks to way too many Evergreen State College literature programs, I now obsess about both mundane and sacred rituals; and this season is the perfect theater to explore the methods we use to mark change and what those methods mean.
There are many works of art and literature from around the world that explore our human instinct to celebrate and ritualize, and one of my favorites is Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.
Hugo uses the city of Paris to examine the Western, turn-of-the-century obsession with introversion and self-scrutiny – the more one delves into oneself, the closer to the unknown one comes – but the story is more than that. Notre-Dame de Paris is just one generation’s investigation into the never-ending human struggle to balance order and chaos: Paris, with it’s sacred heart of Notre Dame at the center, is both the stage and a player in Hugo’s drama where protagonist Pierre Gringoire dives into our natural urges to foment and create within and in spite of our self-imposed structures.
Hugo shows us that cities don’t make the human undercurrent of chaos safer: the development of urban spaces and the way inhabitants interact with them create conflicting striations of hierarchy and chaos, and between those lines, we find places where instead of running away, we can instead engage and honor that clash.
What better place to explore these attempts to ritualize transitions, to insert chaos into civilization, than in a city like Paris (or maybe like Tacoma)?
Hugo may have written this story for Parisians of 1831, but this technique of exploring with the intentionality of ritual can be applied to any diverse and adored city. Notre-Dame de Paris initiates us into the importance of ritual and transition when we, as readers, are guided into Paris’s Court of Miracles. Here we get to see what urban chaos really looks like, and decide if we want to join in.
Early in the book, Hugo’s protagonist Gringoire follows the tantalizing La Esmeralda through the streets of Paris and finding himself lost, stumbles into the Court of Miracles. Hugo describes the Court of Miracles as “a magic circle,” “a city of thieves,” “a hideous wen on the face of Paris,” “a sewer,” “a monstrous hive,” “a bogus hospital,” and “a vast dressing room.”
This description compounds the Court’s magic and mystery: it necessitates myriad brands yet escapes any true definition. It is a place of where truth and lies flippantly switch masks, their roles interchangeable and meaningless, and life and death become a game. You know, like at The Silverstone.
Victor Hugo leads us further into the Court of Miracles, revealing its nature through the descriptions of the inhabitants: “Amongst this population, men, women, animals, age, sex, health, sickness, all seemed communal; everything fitted together, was merged, mingled and superimposed; everyone was a part of everything.” Hugo brings both the reader and Gregoire into the Court’s thrall, letting the rhythmic words spin the enchantment further. “It was like some new world, unknown, unprecedented, shapeless, reptilian, teeming, fantastic.” A Tacoma house show, at its very best, approaches this same kind of turmoil.
Without the Court of Miracles the fantastic story of the Notre-Dame de Paris could not develop. The Court spews its witches, gypsies, defrocked priests, thieves, idolaters, beggars, and prostitutes into Paris, channeling miracles through monsters, enveloping Hugo’s characters in adventure and tragedy. The point is not for the players to know their role – that’s Hugo’s job. As the acolyte, he identifies the Court’s chaos as a portent to ceremony and the story becomes the result of the rite.
The teeming potential of the dark center of any space shouldn’t be ignored by its neighbors: it must be embraced.
Hugo’s Paris finds its dark heart denied by its citizens and embraced by its bastards, and here’s a difference between Tacomans and a typical 19th-century Parisian: Tacomans appreciate our surrounding grime and shadows, and embrace many of our local miraculous courts (oh, and our line between legitimate citizen and bastard Tacoman is also fairly transgressive.)
Courts of Miracles keep our cities sacred because without them, we’d be without a place to initiate the rites that drive the story of our city: Paris, like any city, is a mortal deity and without homage paid, her magnificence and mystery fades to obsolescence.
Tacoma’s seedy underbelly and chaos spaces, our Courts of Miracles, have dwindled drastically. Yes, we may still only be safer than 3% of other cities in the US, but gone are the boomtown days Rudyard Kipling described as when “The crude boarded pavements of the main streets rumbled under the heels of hundreds of furious men all actively engaged in hunting drinks and eligible corner-lots.”
Our abuses and vices, though still significant, are not quite as blatant. These days you have to work pretty hard to find a street you’d feel uncomfortable walking down, let alone a magic circle brimming with thieves, witches, and idolaters.
It’s difficult to remove the societal and economic aspects of miraculous courts — but even more wrong to deny them. Choosing to engage in, care for, and honor what may be considered fringe does not mean you’re suddenly in dangerous hipster racism territory.
These days, the line between truly contributing to a ceremony and denigrating something unknown for trend’s sake can be thin, especially when it comes to joining a local ritual. But the key to a honoring a custom successfully lies with the initiate. It is up to you to embrace the act and believe in its effect, otherwise we will see the authenticity of our rituals fade to rote; we’re talking about magic that incites potential not destruction.
Perhaps the immediate danger of our Courts of Miracles have subsided, but that doesn’t mean our ritual spaces have been completely abandoned.
I discover little thrills of chaos in many happenings in Tacoma, and in these opportunities, means of honoring change and transition. We revel in events like Monkeyshines, at the Tacoma Mob Riders bike mobs, and at burlesque shows by the Gritty City Sirens.
I find rituals enacted in places like the Graffiti Garages, the Java Jive, Swan Creek, the arts business district developing in Hilltop, the old Elks Building, at Reverend Colin’s karaoke and cult film nights, Sacred Harp singings at Fort Nisqually, in exploring Tacoma’s port, and even when people-watching along 6th or Pacific Avenue during their debauched witching hours.
I write this less as a call for carousal and mischief-making, and more as encouragement to find meaning in those frenzied moments that take us outside the ordinary. We can be both participant and translator, as Victor Hugo is as a narrator: both a creator and a constructor.
Seek out and name your rites of spring (and other seasons), find the places where magic and Tacoma clash and mingle, embrace your initiation, and keep our city sacred.
Tacoma artist Jeremy Gregory is one our community’s most curious and regular seeker of Courts of Miracles. Using his keen eye and rowdy puppet pals, he explores Tacoma’s dark and hidden spaces, celebrating them through the adventures of The Believables. All photographs and puppets in this article by Gregory.