Thursday, June 27, 2013

Half sick of shadows

It was Anne of Green Gables who first taught my nine year old self to love words.

It was Anne's performance of "The Highwayman" at the White Sands Hotel that inspired me to memorize portions of "The Highwayman" and perform it with great enthusiasm in the privacy my bedroom. And it was Anne's literary ambitions that fuelled the writing of my own poetry on all the beauties of trees blowing in ferocious winds under the moonlit skies, written in the illegible scrawls of newly learned cursive. I longed to be a writer, and a writer of the type who spends most of her time wandering in a daze through dewy fields waxing eloquent on the virtues of moonlight. This was a clearly pragmatic plan.

In the 1985 film of Anne of Green Gables, Anne's love for words open the first scene as she wanders through a forest, reciting words from Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" to herself, "willows whiten, aspens quiver/ little breezes dusk and shiver..."

But with the shriek of "Anne, Anne!" she is brought from the heights of poesy to the depths of prosaic life replete with poverty, abusive guardians and three sets of squalling twins under the age of five to look after.

It is a rude awakening.

"The Lady of Shalott" seems a fitting subtext to Anne's life. The Lady of Shalott, the artist living on an island within sight of Camelot, whose only glimpses of that land are through mirrored reflections that she transposes into a woven web. Hers is a reality twice removed. Though she "still delights/ to weave the mirror's magic sights," on occasion delight is replaced with isolation and she sighs "I am half sick of shadows."

Half sick of shadows. Although she is present in the world, sometimes heard singing by "reapers, reaping early in among the bearded barley," hers is a shadowed existence so solitary and isolated that if she but look to the "water lily bloom"and turn to Camelot a curse will befall her.

And so it does when Sir Lancelot's image flashes across her crystal mirror. With a turn of her head towards the prospect of life beyond shadows, she carries out her final artistic act: she makes herself a bier upon which she floats dying down the river towards Camelot.

And that, my friends, is the plight of the artist who dares not only to see but to act in the world.

It is a tempting thing to be an artist, a creative type, who retreats from the world they take delight in. From Tennyson one gathers the impression that the ethereal realm of crystal mirrors and magic webs is where life is lived, and that dull prosaic world is the world that leads to death. But I disagree.

Anne and her friends act out the scene of the Lady of Shalott's death with comic earnestness, striving to leave through imagination the dull realm of harvests and spelling bees, gossip and housekeeping.

But reality in the form of a leaky raft catches up to them and a romantic river death looses its appeal when that river is full of weeds and the only Sir Lancelot in sight is an annoying boy from school. The Lady of Shalott clearly had it better, even though she died and Anne was merely helped back to shore by the annoying boy.

I think that I would tend to side more with L.M Montgomery than Tennyson in the matter of a life in the shadows. Though as a child I thought that the Anne books all about leading a vivid life of the imagination, I have come to see Anne's as an imaginative life rooted in reality and a sense of humour capable of sensing the dissonance between ideals and reality.

And because I am a grad school student, I simply cannot end a blog post about Anne of Green Gables and the Lady of Shalott without quoting at least one of my books from school. Currently I am reading a book by Roger Lundin called Believing Again.  At one point Lundin quotes the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer who writes in Truth that the artist and viewer of a piece of art "is never simply swept away into a strange world of magic, of intoxication, and of dream; rather, it is always his own world, and he comes to belong to it more fully by recognizing himself more profoundly in it."

Art, for Gadamer, leads not to an ethereal up-in-the-clouds state of poesy, but straight into the world of spelling bees, gossip and annoying people that Anne strives to escape. Art leads not to isolation, but to deeper engagement.

And so, please rest assured that I have forsaken my childhood dream of wandering impoverished through dewy fields writing adjective-laden poetry, occasionally flung into the depths of artistic despair by a rejection slip from a magazine. While I like to keep a strong hold on my adjectives and may on occasion delve into the depths of despair, my hope is that words and pictures charged with beauty will lead me towards and not from the everyday prose of life.

Monday, June 17, 2013


I've had Leah on my mind these days. Leah, the weak-eyed, mandrake-collecting woman of those ancient patriarchal days who marries Jacob because her father tricks him into doing so. Leah's story in Genesis looks like the inconsequential appendage to the greater romance of Jacob and Rachel - the woman Jacob falls in love with from first sight at the well while she tends her flocks, the pastoral beauty set up to be the heroine of a Shakespearian romance or modern romantic comedy.

It looks like Jacob and Rachel's romance is going smoothly after a brief(!) interlude of seven years of work. But then, right when echoes of wedding bells and eternal bliss are beginning to chime above the heads of the beaming couple, conflict bursts onto the scene with the anticlimactic line "When the morning came, there was Leah!" Now it is a story of mistaken identities and conflict uniting to prevent those destined to be together to live out their happily ever after. The elder sister appears in Jacob's bed the next morning, and Jacob and Rachel are yet another pair of star-crossed lovers setting the precedent for the love stories of millenniums to follow.

But unlike Romeo and Juliet, their stars do align with a bit of hard work and Jacob earns the hand of his first true love, their happily ever after only skewed by the continued presence of Leah in their household - no minor inconvenience indeed. But we all know that Leah is an afterthought, a hitch along the way. It is Rachel who is the true heroine of this story. Rachel is Cinderella and Leah is just one of those bothersome stepsisters trying to force themselves upon Prince Charming.

Just when it looks like Leah is destined to fade in the background in the style of Mr Rochester's mad wife locked up in the attic (do excuse the Jane Eyre is a book of marvellously wide-reaching applicability), God reveals himself yet again to be the "One who sees me" (Gen 16:13) as Hagar - another woman unloved by the patriarchs and scorned by their wives - describes him. God sees Leah with all of her cumbersome brokenness, sees that she is unloved, and graces her with children. He speaks into her context, entering into it. But Leah  responds to these children, these gifts of God, as a means to the end of her husband's love. Surely my husband will love me now is her mantra. Love is a competition and children no more than points in her favour.

And then the subtlest of turning points. At the birth of Judah, her fourth son, Leah rises for a moment to shine above her dismal circumstances. This time, she declares, I will praise the Lord. Something clicks and Leah seeks love from the heart of grace. But transformation can be a feeble thing and in just a few verses Leah is swept back into the competition for her husband's affection, offering him maidservants and trading in mandrakes to better her chances for gaining his love.

But this is not where the story ends, with Leah hopelessly unloved and conniving, striving to be the most beloved. Lately I have been reading Eugene Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Those ten thousand places, I am beginning to understand, are human places, places where brokenness has a tendency to outweigh perfection. As Peterson writes, "God deals with us where we are and not where we would like to be." God meets Leah where she is, working out his promises through her. It cannot be coincidence that she comes up again and again in the genealogies vicariously through her son Judah, the son who inspired songs of praise from her heart. Judah, the son through whom God's promises to Abraham and Jacob are fulfilled. Through the line of Judah a messiah arises, a saviour who thoroughly enters into the circumstances of humanity and, by doing so, brings a hope that enlivens those very circumstances, those oh-so-very human places.

I can imagine Leah as a heroine in a modern movie, probably an awkward and lonely high school student. I can imagine the conflict she is flung into, how she feels herself to be unloved. And I can image the ending to this story, where somebody - most likely a vampire or a werewolf - notices her for her inner beauty or whatever it is that vampires notice, chooses her over all the other girls with clearer vision and she enjoys her own happily ever after.

The kindly vampire never does appear. But the God who sees her and you and I does, and not only does he see her but he also acts goodness to her and through her. And through her broken-heartedness we catch a glimpse of full-heartedness yet to come.