Wednesday, January 2, 2008

A Wedding

Above is the view from the back of the church.

Below is the view from the altar, looking at the chancel steps and the wedding party benches below and the nave beyond.

We had a wedding on New Year's Day. A Burmese couple, one of whose family is Anglican, wanted to be married on a day when all their friends and relatives could attend -- New Year's being a holiday when most did not have to work. So, with the help of a translator, pieces they wanted from C of E hymnals and prayer books, it happened, with joy and a bit of fanfare, organ music and guitar, with the local Karen singing group from the Baptist church.

I can't begin to describe what a wonderful and happy occasion it was, even for those of us with limited knowledge of the people and their customs. The decorations were colorful, with the focus on the benches (borrowed pew sections) up front, facing the altar and the priest, where the wedding party was seated during the music and readings. Food and people poured in throughout the morning before and after the ceremony, at which something like 150 people attended. It was an honor to share their day of celebration.

Monday, December 31, 2007

The New Year

Umberto Boccioni, courtesy

Well it's about to be a new year, of one kind or another (never mind that the Jews, the Orthodox, the Chinese, and many others see it otherwise). I'm not much for treating this day or tomorrow any different than any other day, though I certainly do not mind the time off of work.

When I was growing up I spent the time watching t.v., Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show and the Astaire and Rodgers films. I recall one ghastly New Year's Eve home from college trying to emulate an Anglophile friend who had recently taken to sipping gin over ice with barely a smidgen, if any, of tonic water. To this day I can't come near the smell of gin. In later years, I gave up the alcohol part altogether, finding alcohol anything but a sign or means of celebration while I was married to an alcoholic.

This year I actually will be going out for a change, thanks to an invitation from friends. It will be a bit odd, I think, three couples, comprised of three Episcopal priests (two male and one female, if anyone's counting), a lawyer, teacher, and entrepreneur. Wonder what on earth we'll talk about. (Let's pray it will not be the ++ABC). We hope to wine and dine and dance and, who knows, maybe even stay awake past 9 p.m. or so.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere no doubt will carry on, seamlessly turning over the year from time zone to time zone. I do not wish to bury my head in the sand, but I must confess that I have grown weary of news, reaction to news, reactions to the reactions, whether it be the ongoing drama of As the Anglican World Turns or the vagaries of U.S. and international politics. I am tired of my own and sometimes others' outrage when it has little or no chance of spurring positive action or change. I am tired of rage and conflict, in the world at large and in my own home and community. There's no escaping it, I know, and I hope for much more than keeping a distant eye on things, as does the man with the arched Welsh eyebrows. But I do believe that building bridges and connections are the best that the internet can provide, not new ways of building virtual gated communities that only tolerate one kind or another and claim, right, left, or middle, to be able to discern what is truth and knowledge, meanwhile standing back looking at those with whom one disagrees with contempt and disdain. That is not, I believe, the way to keep an open mind -- seeing others as "not simply as wrong but as corrupt and wicked," or, at best, inexcusably ignorant. If we (including and especially me) continue to proclaim loudly and and as widely as possible that we simply cannot "imagine" how so and so could possibly think or act a certain way, then we need to start not only imagining better but also come to meet with others face to face.

So as part of my New Year's celebration, I salute Howard W., who earnestly believes in and practices the art of dialogue, and resolve to someday learn to do it so well.

Happy New Year to you all!

From Howard:

Civic Reflection

Eugene Bohm Dialogue

Extreme Tao of Democracy Inquiry

Global Transformation - Richaerd K. Moore

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation

Study Circles

The Dialogue Group

National Issues Forum

Selected Websites On Dialogue

Making space and keeping it

Jane has called attention to Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which I, for one, lost sight of in the midst of daily episodes of As the Anglican World Turns. There's a lot of food for thought in it, but I'm struck by this snippet:
And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears: "Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold on to it, don't let it go."
Lessing is known for many works, including The Golden Notebook (acclaimed by feminists but for which the author refused to be a banner bearer ["What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness." Doris Lessing]. In her acceptance speech, she spoke in part to the space that writers need, but, at the same time, advocated for the kind of space that all humans need to thrive.

Lessing's kind of space is strikingly different from the kind Pope Benedict recently spoke of:
The family "founded on the indivisible union between a man and a woman" is the "privileged space in which human life is received and protected from its beginning to its natural end," the pontiff said.
(courtesy of Mad Priest). Had Doris Lessing stayed in that space, with her alcoholic father and her long-suffering mother, or perhaps even her family with her first husband, all bound up in the constricted space of colonial Rhodesia, the world would have been far poorer, I think. While physically leaving families, marriages, and homelands is not always necessary or desirable, space for one's humanity (and, I would add, those glimpses of divinity that we struggle to help God let shine through) and that of others requires something far different than being walled into a man-woman marriage and the family relations that surround it. Stability, comfort, love, and loyalty may, in fact, thrive in such structures but so, too, can their opposites. It is the space within that matters and the ways in which we can help create it for others not so blessed with the means to find it.

No Country for Old Men

The other night I went to see No Country for Old Men in hopes of seeing a serious, well-made movie for a change. That I got, a brilliant piece of movie-making from Ethan and Joel Coen, the creators of Fargo (which I've always considered a masterful account of the kinds of evil that lurk on the edges of ordinary life).

A brilliant movie, however, is not necessarily a good movie. Unlike Fargo, No Country for Old Men is driven by an extraordinary psychopathic killer, a foreign hired gun, Anton Chigurh, rather than the unraveling of everyday life that occurs when people give in to the temptations that have led humans astray since time immemorial. What this new movie does instead is depict, in excruciating detail and with slow, quiet, carefully crafted suspense, a series of killings that take place in the wake of a drug deal gone bad when the protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, stumbles upon a suitcase full of cash amidst the carnage in the desert and decides to take it and run, only to find Chigurh one step behind and sometimes in front of him. Chigurh was hired to retrieve the money, but he's on a mission of his own dictated by his own peculiar brand of "principles" -- namely, killing bluntly and coldly anyone and almost everyone in his path.

What is brilliant about the movie is not simply the nuts and bolts of its cinematography, sounds, rhythms, and pace, the fine acting from Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and others, but the way it upends the conventional Western in which the good guys track the bad guys and eventually prevail, one way or another. It plays with all the conventions but attempts to hide the artfulness in what seems, at first blush, a naturalistic style, which some reviewers have found stark and bare of the kind of acerbic humor and disrespect for "simple folks" found in Fargo and some other Coen movies.

What keeps it from being a great movie is that the distance is still there, there being little art, imagination, or understanding behind the artfulness. Framing the entire story is the perspective of Sheriff Bell, who laments the loss of the Old West in which the Old Men fought the good fight and generally won against the forces of evil. In the contemporary world (depicted as Texas in the 1980's), there is something new and more powerful, epitomized by the story of the fourteen-year-old killer, described in the opening narrative as killing for the sake of killing, and the story of Chigurh's killing spree that unfolds in the movie. Bell and the unblinking locals who are killed on roadways and in gas stations are not sure what that new evil is or where it comes from, but it is real and terrible and won't be stopped. All Bell can offer by way of explanation are lines like: ''It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight.''

This might be grimly funny, but it seems that the Coen brothers (and perhaps Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel), are playing it straight. They seem to think they are being cleverly existential, staking their vision in the person of Bell who says matter-of-factly that he waited all his life for God to come into his life, but to no avail. So he trails the killings and finally retires, left with no knowledge but that the end is in sight and dreams that when it comes his father, one of the Old Men, will be waiting for him.

The result is a shallow vision of good and evil and, worst of all, history. One doesn't have to look far to another kind of artful upsetting of Western conventions, the HBO series Deadwood, to realize that the Old West (with its virtuous Old Men and no comparable Old Women to speak of) was a figment of the Hollywood imagination. For those who care to look further, one can dig deep into the myths and folklore of the American West, the Turner thesis, and the hagiographies of various figures in American history, and find all the hard work later historians have brought to bear to bring them out into the light of a fuller, more complex historical reality, as best they and we can discern it. What we learn time and time again, once we delve below the surface and try to fathom real lives, is that the evil that comes from greed, betrayal, and love of power is pretty much the same as it has always been, and there is no clear dividing line between the ignorant local folks and the sophisticated, knowing oustiders that sets the boundaries between good and evil. (And what one can sometimes only imagine, because the historical record is sparse, is that it has often been the women, like Trixie and Calamity Jane, who have seen the bigger picture far better than any of the men, old or young.)

Artfulness that pretends otherwise, buys into the good 'ol times as historical reality to make a cinematographic point, strikes me as sorely lacking in imagination. Full-blown myths like The Lord of the Rings come closer to the truth because they unabashedly take the myths as our dreams and aspirations rather than a fundamentalist bygone age that must be recaptured or, at best, lamented while wallowing in the pain and confusion of its loss. Meanwhile, God only knows how many will see No Country for Old Men and simply be entertained by its clever carnage. Straw Dogs did it better, I think, but maybe that's just nostalgia for the good old days.