mug, tea, writer

That Monstrous Country

That monstrous country where I lived

when I was a child,

where everybody looked like me;

that monstrous country

where we played cowboys and Indians,

and the Indians were fierce warriors,

and the cowboys rode over the hill

to save us;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always won,

and the bad guys died peacefully,

tumbling down like leaves

and lying still;

no blood, no shattered bones;

that monstrous country

where the good guys always 

looked like us—

that monstrous country 

is still with us.

The wounds are bloody now.

This is a poem I wrote during another dark time, in 2017. God bless the people of Iraq and Iran. And of my country, too. May we all work for peace, and help to bring it. 

Mary Johnson

mug, tea, writer

Sacrifice of Angels (thoughts on DS9's "Past Tense")

I have been rereading Carol Plum Ucci’s excellent teen novel, “What Happened to Lani Garver”, and that caused me to start considering angels, and what they really are.

Epstein's Saint Michael the archangel, Coventry Cathedral
Epstein's Saint Michael the archangel, Coventry Cathedral

It is now October, 2019. In a little less than five years, as all passionate Niners know,  the Bell riots will take place in San Francisco. Government troops will open fire on impoverished, homeless citizens and kill hundreds. 

Showrunner Ira Steven Behr commented that, as they were filming the show, politicians were actually talking about putting homeless people in sanctuary districts—ghettos like those we see in these episodes. He was appalled at how close to real life a science fiction story became.

In Donald Trump’s America, where children are being torn from their parents’ arms and locked in cages, these episodes seem even more relevant than they were thirty years ago. The world of the Bell Riots and the sanctuary districts is a world of extreme capitalism, casual racism, and great wealth juxtaposed with dire poverty. It’s no wonder Past Tense, in spite of some weaknesses, is among the most admired of DS9 episodes.

Plenty of reviewers have discussed Past Tense. They’ve looked at the way the story shows the mentally ill, class divisions, government, and even redemptive violence.  They’ve quibbled about the technobabble and some minor logical glitches in the time travel. All fair enough! But, so far as I know, no one has focused on the story’s spiritual overtones. 

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mug, tea, writer

A Difficult Question (political! please skip if you get annoyed by politics.)

I have some trepidation in writing this, but I think it’s necessary. Here goes.

I’ve asked this before, but previously I friendslocked it. Now I’m asking in public. It’s a very simple, yes-or-no question: Do you believe all human beings have, or should have, equal rights, regardless of sex or sexuality, race or religion?

If the answer is “yes”, as I hope it is, you must support the Palestinian cause.

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mug, tea, writer

The Listening Heart and the Artist's pen

In a modern fantasy series (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver), the young hero is called the listener. The author explains that this is because the boy Torak is an expert hunter. Even though we humans are very visual, the boy perceives more about the natural world by listening than he does by looking.

I’ve quoted this before, but I think it’s pretty powerful—and true! So here it is again: “For when you come to think of it, the only way to love a person is…by listening to them…(Brenda Ueland, from the paperback edition of If you Want to Write, page 6).

This past Friday, my sisters and got to see a wonderful example of what can happen when someone truly listens to another human being. It was at the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library.

Needless to say, the exhibit was fantastic. As one attendee said, it was hard to believe a single human being could be so talented in so many different ways. I loved the photos of the family, the doctoral gown from Oxford on display along with a photo of Tolkien wearing it, and the insights into his creative process. And then the artwork! My twin sister really loved Tolkien’s abstract paintings; I loved his maps and charts; but our younger sister loved best a tiny painting Tolkien made for his son.

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It was a little owl, almost perfectly circular, with rainbow plumage, fierce eyes, and jutting eyebrows. On the plaque next to it was its story. It seems Tolkien’s son Michael, as a little boy, had nightmares about an owl that perched in high places in his bedroom and glared down at him. Tolkien drew this owl for his son. By doing so, he helped him conquer his fear. Michael said his father was extraordinary in the way he listened, with total attention and respect, as if his little boy was another adult. He said J.R.R. Tolkien was the only adult he ever came across who listened in that way to a child. His words on the plaque next to the owl were: his father was ‘both father and friend, ‘a unique adult, the only ‘grown-up’ who appeared to take my childish comments and questions with complete seriousness.’

So I think now my younger sister was right. There was so much that was special in this exhibit, but this tiny pen drawing, done to help a little boy, showed so much about the artist as a human being. It’s also quite a spectacular owl in itself!

I gather Netflix or amazon or someone is going to make a series based on Tolkien’s works. I would personally love a series about a little boy and his owl fighting shadows and fears. Is anyone listening?

mug, tea, writer

Lully Lulla Lullay Philip Stopford

It's been forever, I know! But I want to wish all my live journal friends, and everyone who follows this blog, a very Happy Christmas, belated Hanukkah, happy Solstice, Kwanzaa--all festivals of light and joy. To me, this song, especially in this arrangement, is a prayer for peace.
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mug, tea, writer

The Merchants of Death, part 2

A quick quiz: What do Ahed Tamini and Emma Gonzalez have in common?

(note: This image of Ms Tamini with the flag is courtesty of the Irish artist Jim FitzPatrick.)

I am not saying anything new in this post. Martin Luther King, Jr., said it long before I was capable of thinking such things, and so did Thomas Merton, and so, I am sure, did many other good and wise men and women. But it bears repeating.

To get back to my original question, what do Emma Gonzalez and Ahed Tamini have in common? Not that they are teenage young women in the news; not that both are being attacked by right-wingers; not even that both, in their different ways, are fighting for justice. What, exactly, are these girls fighting?

You might say: Ms. Gonzalez is fighting for gun control and Ms. Tamini is fighting the Israeli occupation. Fair enough. But look a little deeper

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Mademoiselle de Maupin

Easter Eggs

Eileen watches as Severus hunts for Easter eggs

This little painting was made specifically for everyone to whose kind comments I failed to reply in a timely manner in ... January. All through November, December and January, I worked very hard on a specific project at the office that took up most of my time and energy. But other people were busy too, and they replied to their fest comments. So it's me. I am unforgivably disorganised, and at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, it was worse than ever. 

I didn't get round to replying, and as the weeks stretched into months, the situation became more and more embarrassing and ridiculous. But the matter never sat well with me — not least because of how much these comments mean to me. So I wanted to apologise with a small gift, on the next gift-giving occasion. 

Please, dear reviewer, accept my sincere apology and this Easter egg. I hope you can forgive me for having been such a rubbish fest participant.

    mug, tea, writer

    Damsels, Crones, and Heroines: a review of Disney's Wrinkle in Time

    On Damsels, Crones, and Heroines—a review of A Wrinkle in Time

    I was apprehensive about the new movie; I’ve loved the book almost my entire life, and, when I saw the trailers, there was almost nothing I recognized. Still, I was bound to see it. At the very least, it seemed to be well cast and visually interesting.

    It was both those things. The little girl who played Meg could hardly have been better, and the boys were good, too. The little fellow who played Charles Wallace was a charmer! And there was a bit more of the book in the movie plot than I’d expected. Still, the movie is not the book. I’m not sure I could even call it an interpretation of the book. As fine as the young actors are, as good as the effects are, the story was altered too much.

    I could try to compare and contrast book and movie, point for point, as has been done for the earlier movie, But I’m not sure I could; I’ve only seen the movie once.  Instead, I’m going to focus on three key words and show how they are changed in the film. The words are damsel, crone, and heroine. I’ll then take a look at the spirituality of book and movie through the lenses of these words. (Yes, I know. Words don’t have lenses. But damsels, crones, and heroines do.)

    Damsel? I can almost hear you asking. You don’t mean Meg, do you? She’s not a damsel!

    Indeed she’s not! A Wrinkle in Time, the book, is refreshingly damsel-free. Book Meg is young, uncertain, prickly, and vulnerable. She wails, cries, lashes out, and says self-deprecating things about her looks and abilities. But she’s also a fighter. That’s one of the first things we learn about her. She beats up an older boy who’s made fun of her little brother. In addition, she’s smart, loyal, and brave.

    Storm Reid got these qualities of Meg’s across brilliantly in the movie, in spite of the way her spiritual journey is curtailed (more on this later). But there is a damsel in the film. His name is Calvin O’Keefe.

    In the book, Calvin is 14, an excellent student, a star athlete, and a gentle, self-aware soul. Mrs. Who does say of him (as she does in the film) that he wasn’t her idea, but she thinks he’s a good one. Though not as brilliant as Meg and Charles Wallace, Calvin’s also gifted, and the Mrs. W strengthen his particular gift. That gift is the ability to communicate.

    Interestingly, in the theater behind us when we saw the movie on opening day were three older ladies who had never read the book. One of them was a teacher of the deaf. They all said they thought the pacing of the film was off, and that it could have spent more time on certain themes it brought up, such as communication! So right! It could.

    Those women were thinking of the idea of communicating to the flowers—a scene that is nowhere in the book. In the book, as we fans know, Dr. Alex Murry is imprisoned by the Darkness in a transparent pillar. He can’t see out, but the children can see in. Meg manages to rescue her father by using Mrs. Who’s spectacles, which let her rearrange matter. But Calvin also tries to communicate with Dr. Murry. A little later, he almost succeeds in reaching little Charles Wallace, who has voluntarily gone into IT, and he quotes Shakespeare while he does. The text Calvin quotes is Prospero’s speech to Ariel in The Tempest, where the magician reminds the spirit how it was trapped in a cloven pine. Finally, Calvin’s the one who comes closest to explaining the Mrs W to the inhabitants of Ixchel.

    Calvin’s role in the movie could hardly be more different. There is a cloven pine—literally--but it’s not a prison Calvin tries to free people from. Instead, it’s a means for Meg to save Calvin. The children huddle into the tree and let a maelstrom hurl them over some sort of wall. Needless to say, this scene is nowhere in the book.

    Also absent from the book is the scene when Calvin falls off Mrs Whatsit’s back on the planet Uriel. (To be fair, the Darkness flings him off, but still.) Mrs Who has to rouse the flowers to rescue him. In both these scenes, Calvin is a damsel. He is there simply to be rescued, and that’s his only function in the plot of the movie.

    Now to that ambiguous word, crone. It usually denotes a witch, and Mrs Which takes dry pleasure in appearing as a stereotypical witch. Needless to say, she doesn’t do so in the movie. In the book, the two younger beings, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit, basically dress like bag ladies. And, to the children, they look old.  In fact, they are. Being former stars, they are billions of years old, but Mrs Whatsit is many orders of magnitude younger than Mrs Which. Still, when she manifests as a human being, she is grey-haired and wrinkled.

    These very ordinary-looking old ladies have been replaced, in the movie, by attractive and glamourously dressed women. In the book, Meg realizes what the Mrs W look like has nothing to do with what they truly are. This insight is weakened in the movie. Also, Oprah, the oldest of the Mrs W in the film, is still only in her 60s. That’s hardly elderly in modern America. I would have liked to see some respect given to old age and the wisdom that can come with it. I would have liked to see the Mrs W played by old women. Basically, there are no crones in the movie. To me, that’s a loss.

    Meg’s heroine’s journey has been altered, as well. I was heartbroken that the scenes on Ixchel were left out. Dr. Murry, desperately fleeing IT, lands there with the two older children. They’ve had to leave Charles Wallace behind in the clutches of IT. Meg has been injured by the Darkness, which is bitterly cold, but the people of Ixchel come to her aid. These people are blind. They are also frightening-looking to the traumatized humans, but are gentle, generous, and wise souls.

    It’s on Ixchel that Meg expresses her rage and disappointment that her father, the adult and the scientist, is helpless to put things right. It’s on Ixchel that she then apologizes to him—as he does to her—and states her understanding of what she must do. She must go back to the darkened planet, Camazotz, alone. And she does it.

    I’ve said before that there is nothing in the new movie even half as terrifying and inspirational as Meg’s long, lonely walk to IT. Here, we see the little girl display a quality I’ve written about before as the height of courage. It’s integrity. She understands what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it. She’s terrified, but she doesn’t let her fear stop her. Body, mind, heart and soul are united in her actions.

    And, before she goes, the Mrs. W give her gifts. Mrs Whatsit gives her her love; Mrs Who the beautiful quote from Corinthians (which I would have liked to have heard in its entirety, but which was left out), and Mrs Which tells the child she has something the apparently all-powerful IT doesn’t’ have, and that thing is her only weapon.

    Why couldn’t the filmmakers have left this in? Instead, we basically see Meg’s emotions rewarded. She breaks away from her father by herself. She never has to apologize to him, nor come to the difficult, adult understanding that grown-ups can’t always save the children they love and don’t always have the answers, however much they may wish they did. All she has to do, it seems, is be herself.

    Which—well, in a way, that’s in the book, too. But the Disney version privileges impulse and emotion over integrity. And it’s a loss.

    There is much more that I could say about the movie. There were some lovely things in it, and some ideas from the book, but in the end, I really don’t think it told the same story. I’ve tried to explain why. As always, comments and critiques are welcome.