Tag Archives: God

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Les Miserables

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For all my promises that I would be “Movie Thoughts” Girl, I have been posting a whole bunch about not movies. Sorry! Part of that is because mostly I have be watching and re-watching rubbish TV shows on Netflix Instant. Because I am cheap. And super busy. (By the way, this is Rachel, as have been the past 4 posts.)

However, it is now CHRISTMAS BREAK! This is just the best thing ever. It means that I have watched movies, specifically the new movie-fied version of the musical Les Miserables!

Les Miserables

FIRST, (I need to get this out of the way so that my music-person soul doesn’t devour me) I was really disappointed by the singing. The exceptions to this rule were Colm Wilkinson (Bishop) briefly, Eddie Redmayne (Marius) always, Anne Hathaway (Fantine) sometimes, and Samantha Barks (Eponine) in one of her songs. Russel Crowe was better than I anticipated he would be, but my basis for comparison on the role of Javert is operatically trained baritones, the depth and warmth of whose intonation makes you want to weep when you hear them sing warm-ups. So he lost.

As for the rest, for some reason the presence of microphones and close-ups has made several people who should be able so sing for real forget that part of singing is carrying through a phrase. For those of you who are not super interested in the emotional ideas behind different techniques of singing, feel free to skip down to the bolded and underlined  word “SECOND.”

As for the rest of you: part of what makes singing work is that when sustaining a note you are not “holding” a note. It isn’t your thing that you hold onto until you are done playing with it. Rather, you keep your breath, and body, and emotions so completely open that the sound can continue without you getting in the way. What this means is that you “feel” an emotion for a note in a different way than if you were  to feel it normally. If you try to sing feelings exactly the way you feel them, somehow it becomes self-indulgent.When you are sad (I’m talking ugly-cry sad), you are not attempting to let others into your suffering.

WHY ME?!

WHY ME?!

That is why the tenseness, shaking, series of gasps, sighs, and hiccups make sense for that emotion in real life. However, if someone were to ugly-cry a note, while the audience might pity the performer,  it is almost impossible for the audience to enter into that emotion with the performer .  The point of singing is to feel things not for yourself, but in such a way as to allow other people to enter into that feeling.

This mini-treatise on singing effectively is mostly to say that the trick of “singing more naturally” or “with more rawness” that is allowed by microphones is actually terrible for conveying the original intent and emotion of the songs. Hugh Jackman, by sighing, cutting the lines off in weird places, and refusing to sustain notes that are meant to be powerful, open, and vulnerable seriously detracts from his performance. He refuses to let the audience in. What should be a painfully vulnerable moment shared with the audience becomes about Hugh Jackman and all of his feels. This is safer, less human, and  ultimately less interesting.

You can see this distinction between feeling for the audience and allowing the audience to share in the feeling by comparing any of Jackman’s songs to Eddie Redmayne’s performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. The openness, honesty and vulnerability is undeniable.

Now that I have had my little singing rant…

SECOND , this movie was so close to being faithful to considerations of Victor Hugo’s book… but they just couldn’t let it be.

Basically, the idea we are meant to examine is: How ought we, as human beings, to respond to “Les Miserables”-  the miserable ones? What is the right human response to suffering?  Hugo  (and the creators of the musical) give us a number of alternatives, and show us the fruits of each.

1.) Marius and Cosette: The Romantic Impulse

mariuscosette-4_3_r560

The Romantic Impulse, which sees nothing but the beloved and seeks to simply be away and happy is absolutely a response to human misery and suffering. It is the recognition of and desire to escape suffering. This is (quite simply) a young response to misery, and there is there is a certain validity to it. It is rooted in love, that much is certain. Yet, it also results in or requires a blindness to all but the beloved. As we see in Marius and Cosette at the end of the story (once they have matured and truly opened their eyes), both are left with the realization of how much they have benefitted by the sacrifice of others. Romantic love, while it can anesthetize us to the suffering of the world, does not actually make it go away. Sooner or later, we must grow into a deeper love that allows us to do more than escape suffering.

2.) The Thernardiers: Opportunism

Thernardiers

Oddly, this is likely the oldest human response to misery, and the hardest to eradicate. Actually, one of my favorite (and least favorite) aspects of Les Mis is that the Thernardiers keep showing up. They are like cockroaches after the bomb. Nothing kills them, and they always have a new way to take advantage of the suffering of others. Much as we may wish to ignore this aspect of humanity, Hugo does not allow us to. At the end, when idealism and justice are dead and real love is at best a miraculous memory, opportunism is alive and kicking. (Side Note: Helena Bonham-Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen were PERFECT for this!)

3.) Javert: Absolute Justice and Judgment (THE LAW)

Javert

Javert is the ubiquitous man-of-the-law. Oddly similar to Thernardiers, Javert is always there, but always in a new uniform. He is more than a legalistic man; he is The Law. He is Every Law. From jailer, to parole officer, to town constable, to Parisian officer – he is human law, which in every form aspires to divinity it its absoluteness. Except that he is also so human! When faced with suffering, misery, sin and squalor, we WANT to stand beside and become the law. The law seems safe.

My favorite parts of this movie were both of Javert’s major soliloquy songs. Both perfectly illustrate the problem of the “Absolute Judgment” approach. Each is performed with him walking along an impossibly high ledge looking out at a beautiful and cold view of a Paris night. The director, Tom Hooper, does a brilliant visual refrain in each song. As Javert sings about the perfect and unflinching justice of God, which casts men down even as He cast out Lucifer, Javert’s feet are shown teetering, barely staying on this impossibly high ledge.

Hugo uses the character of Javert illustrates the problem of perfect justice. As Javert realizes: we are imperfect. If the response to misery is justice untempered by mercy then at some point we will ALL fall. And so he does. Judgment is not enough, or rather it is too much. For a human being to attempt to maintain perfect justice is  ultimately suicidal.

4.) Enjorlas and the Students: Revolution

Enjolas

Hugo gives us yet another young approach to suffering. Revolution. The good intention is undeniable: make the world better for the oppressed poor. However, it is not an accident that when Hugo depicts this it is a failed revolution. These passionate young students whose idealism keeps them painfully awaiting the uprising of the poor whom they defend…. they die.

This is a problem. This is a young approach to suffering, like the Romantic impulse, because it also is predicated on a sort of blindness.  While the revolutionaries see all of the evil and weakness in the world in the oppressors, they are blind to the evil and weakness in the oppressed. The correct approach to human suffering cannot be blindness to its effects, or blindness to God in those who persecute. In order to respond rightly, we must see rightly every aspect and still love, give, and sacrifice – whether or not it is deserved.

This does not make the deaths of Enjorlas and the students less tragic. It does, however, make Hugo’s opinion on the Revolutionary approach to suffering more clear. Which brings us to….

5.) Jean Valjean, Fantine, Eponine, and the Bishop: Christian Charity and Self-Sacrifice

The essential differences between the students’ self-sacrifice for the people who never come, and Jean Valjean’s sacrifice and submission to Javert is this: the students EXPECT the people to rise, and they fight for that anticipated utopian ideal. Valjean expects nothing, except perhaps for follow after him and arrest him once he has been set free. Valjean performs his sacrifice with no notion of recompense. Every act of self-gift is a perfect and FREE gift. That is Christian charity.

This same charity is demonstrated in EACH of the characters listed above. I defy you to look at Fantine, Eponine, and Valjean and say that they are in any way blind to the misery that can exist in this world. Yet each gives their love unflinchingly.

Fantine, the abandoned, broken, prostitute gives her dignity, honor, and life for the future of her daughter.

I dreamed a dream... so different from this hell I'm living.

Eponine, the ill-parented, unloved young girl gives her friendship, her love and her life for the future happiness of a man who does not love her back.

I love him... but only on my own.

Valjean, the wrongly imprisoned,accursed, hunted convict gives his freedom, money, safety, future, EVERYTHING for everyone he meets.

valjean

They perfectly see the corruption and misery and suffering of the world. They live it. They do not expect it to wipe it away by their individual actions. They are not so proud. Nonethe less, they give love in perfect gift and humble hope, in participation with the love of God. This perfect sacrifice and gift is why these characters make a final appearance at the end of the stage musical. They are each permitted to sing in beautiful and heavenly harmony the moral of the story:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God!”

This is my gripe: the movie makers could not let that moral stand. Even before the last note of that refrain finishes echoing in the Parisian chapel where it is set,  the camera zooms out to a heavenly…. BARRICADE?! On this utopian barricade that spans all Paris, the final refrain is given to the Revolutionaries, and the refrain becomes “Do you hear the people sing?”

 Having seen this musical before, somehow I have never minded the refrain of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as the finale of the show. The ghostly revolutionaries standing and marching in the background of heaven has never bothered me until now. However, the visual jump in the movie from the chapel to heaven as a barricade struck me violently with the sense that they missed the point.

 The cinematographic decision to set that final song on a barricade  (US AGAINST THE WORLD!) completely undercuts that message. “To love another person is the see the face of God.” That emphasis on love as seeing rightly seems to me essential, and the revolutionaries do not see rightly. They fail to see God in their adversaries. They fail to see the effects of sin and suffering in their compatriots. I absolutely believe that Victor Hugo issues a call to action. However, that action is not to battle. It is to Love – to see the face of God in other people. 

This is what makes Valjean the hero: he sees God even and especially in his persecutors. If that ain’t an attempt to be like Christ, I don’t know what is.  

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Help with Gratitude.

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I wrote this post for Thanskgiving. Please mock me, because it is super late, but I just couldn’t post it right away.

This has been a difficult post for me to write, and I have to warn you, it is long.

 On the Monday morning (before Thanksgiving), my father had a serious stroke. It started with sudden double vision and quickly progressed not only to inability to move the left side of his body, but also ignorance of its existence.

My dad, who has run every other morning for the past 30 years of his life, could not walk. My dad, who loves good food and wine, could not swallow. My dad, who loves to read everything from Homer to Henry James, could not see straight. My dad, who teaches not only his students and in class, but everyone and always, could not speak.

I found out all of this on Monday evening, and I can say, bar-none, it was the worst feeling I have ever had. Yet as my mom described all of this over the phone, I received the first of a series of calls to GRATITUDE.

This is the story and the list of things I am grateful for this year.

My parents’ marriage


When he suddenly developed double-vision, the first thing my dad did was call my mom and tell her that he needed her to come. And she did. Immediately. When she got there, she knew something was wrong and was about to take him to the Emergency Room. However, seeing that he had lost his left side, she called UD campus safety for an ambulance instead.

UD Campus Safety

Rather than simply calling and directing the ambulance to the correct building at UD, the head of campus safety rushed up to see and help my dad. As soon as he got there, he called back to warn the EMTs that it was a stroke so they would be as prepared as possible.

Dallas EMTs

When they arrived, the EMTs knew not to take him to the nearest hospital or to the the hospital where his GP practices, but rather to the Parkland stroke center.

A Forest of Neurologists

Because of the advance warning of a stroke, my dad was met at the door of the hospital by no fewer than 10 neurologists whose sole responsibility was to figure out the exact time and severity of onset of his stroke BECAUSE…

Miracle Drugs


No. Really. There is a drug that I do not understand, but if taken within a 3 hour window of stoke onset can work miracles. Outside of that window, it is extremely dangerous and can make things worse.

God’s Timing

My dad made the window. But, lest you think that 3 hours is plenty of time, let me stress something: he BARELY made the window. Moreover, if he had been taken to the ER, they would not have had access to this drug. If he hadn’t been taken directly to the stroke center, they would not have had access to this drug. If they hadn’t known he was coming, the neurologists would not have finished the necessary tests in time and they would not have had access to this drug. If my mother had not had the courage to say yes to this drug, he would not have had access to this drug.

Prayers


Remember Dr. Roper? The professor who has been so important both to my and to Teresa’s lives? He has the office down the hall from my father, so when he found out, he called his wonderful wife, who sat her two sons down and began to pray a novena for my father. My mom has the exact time-line, but that is when the miracle medicine began to actually work and my dad began to come back. (Also, my mom would like for me to add that Dr. Roper was also at the Emergency Room 10 minutes after she was, making ready to help in any ways necessary.)

My dad

Since that time, my dad has recovered completely. He can read, walk talk, speak Italian, and see. (Actually, just as the double vision was the first to come, and it was the last to go. His double vision finally went away just as he was looking at my mother, and so, paraphrasing something he said after they first met, he said,“You are (the) one.”)

The Church

On Tuesday, priest from my parents’ church came, expecting to perform Unction for the Sick. Instead, all there was to do was simply say prayer after prayer of thanksgiving. Because there he was.

My mom said something last night, and it seems so important: “The church understands that we need help with gratitude.”

Really, you would think my father sitting there reading and smiling and talking would be reminder enough of gratitude. Yet, I cannot help realizing that “needing help with gratitude” has two meanings.

1. Employed, blessed, loved, and sheltered as I am, I constantly forget to be grateful.

2. Even when we remember to be grateful, sometimes it is so terrifying to know how. Gratitude is frightening.

Somehow I always forget the root word of both “grace” and “gratitude” is gratis – free gift.  

 There is nothing more frightening than to receive a truly free gift and to really feel the freeness and unmerited-ness. To be truly grateful.

There is a wildness in God’s mercy and grace. 

I think that is why it is so important to have a day set aside for Thanksgiving. Real gratitude is terrifying. In giving thanks, we are placing ourselves in the hands of God, to receive his gifts, awesome  (and I really mean the “AWE” part) though they be.

It should be easy for me to simply accept the simplicity of by blessings this year: my daddy is still here. Yet, that is not enough.  I think that there is a wild and terrifying abandon in real gratitude, reflected in the benediction of Job:

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job 1:21

So, in this Year of Faith and season of preparation and thanksgiving, I would like to ask your help with gratitude. For the Grace of the Lord is free, unfettered, unmerited, magnificent, and there can be only one response – gratitude.

In my conversion to Catholicism, there was a professor who would repeat over and over “100% grace. 100% human effort” as his explanation for salvation. I totally agree, but sometimes, I think that the human effort part is the effort to recognize everything as a gift and a potential grace.

Happy (BELATED) Thanksgiving and Blessed be the Name of the Lord!

Vocation: Where Your Weaknesses Meet the World’s Needs?

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I have been wanting to write a post about how the first two weeks of teaching have gone for me. There are the obvious bits: I am so unbelievably tired; I already love my kids so much; my feet have never been so sore; this generation does not know how to write a sentence; teaching is tricky; and lesson planning was invented by the devil to give me panic attacks.

But this blog post is not actually about any of these things. It is about vocation.

Have you ever heard the phrase “Vocation is where your greatest love meets the world’s greatest need”? I have. Repeatedly. At so many retreats and in so many deep and anxiety-ridden conversations about “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH MY LIFE?!”. And I have always found it vaguely comforting, but also pretty unsatisfying.

I love a lot of things. How am I supposed to know which of those things is my “greatest love”? Heck, the only reason I got  away from college with a single major (or a major at all) was that my other  “greatest (academic) love”, was not an option for a full major, just a concentration.  (Concentration is UD for “minor”.) After graduating I still hadn’t decided on anything, so I spent all last year testing out the possibility of music as a career – Woohoo Opera! The whole time, I was hoping either that the heavens would open  tell me that I was a musical genius who could skip the whole grad school thing and go directly to awesome, OR that I would suddenly realize that I didn’t love music as much as I thought I did…

Neither happened.

So,  I got a job teaching English. (This isn’t me settling. Like I said- I love many things.) Two weeks in, I can tell you that at least for this time, I am EXACTLY where I am supposed to be. Not because the heavens opened. Not because anyone has told me that I have already changed their life or the way they think about literature. And  definitely NOT because my strengths are perfectly suited to teaching.

No. I am supposed to be a teacher right now because all of my most annoying  quirks are somehow a good thing for teaching.

For example: I think out loud and in conversations. The only reason my blog posts ever get to points (if they do get to points), is that I am mimicking my own natural speech pattern and imagining that I am talking to my most patient and intelligent friends.

To see the real weakness of this attribute, I offer up my Worst Summer Job Ever. I worked in a cubicle. I got to sit and write and edit and think up new and exciting things for a non-profit company to do marketing-wise to better serve their clients. To some people this is the good life.

I wanted to die. There are no words for the misery I experienced.  I felt so alone, and so stupid, and so incapable of original thought, and so far from God’s plan for me. My absolute dependence on the ideas and feedback of others was crippling.

Not so in teaching. My desperately relational form thought, somehow makes me responsive to the confusions and thoughts of my students without realizing it. It makes me completely comfortable with asking for help from more experienced teachers. It makes me intensely aware of how much of my continued sanity – ALL OF IT!- I owe to the generosity of others. Because of this weakness, I am actively aware every day of the the community that surrounds me… even when I want to duct-tape  my students to their chairs just to make them sit still.

For another example: if Reesa is the quintessential ENFP, I am textbook ENFJ For now we are going to focus on the J part.

The big difference between Teresa’s P and my J is that where she dwells in and thrives on possibility (specifically the possibility for perfection), I am a closure-fiend.

That feeling you get after you turn in a paper and can no longer be expected to do anything to make it better in any way? THAT’S THE STUFF!

To make it clear – Js consider time as a finite quantity. As in: you can run out of time. That means that, however perfection obsessed a J may be, “Good enough” will always be “Good Enough”. So long as it is on time. I could not care less about the possibility of perfection. Frankly, if the choice is between a perfect action that takes more time and a mediocre one that I can stamp as “DONE,” I will take the mediocre one every single time. 

This is also why my blog posts will always have less-than-perfect proof-reading and sentence construction. Sure, I could take the 10 minutes to double-check. But that would be 10 minutes less of that blissful DONE feeling….
Did I mention that time is a finite commodity to me?

Because of this, I love deadlines. Now, those of you with any knowledge of what it is like to teach might be thinking: “Hang on, teaching is a continuous action. Teachers are always grading, planning, prepping, grading some more, prepping some more, tweaking the lesson plans, grading EVEN MORE, imagining exciting projects, etc…Teachers. Are. Never. Done.”

You . Are. Not. Wrong. So, in order to not go screaming off the deep-end in this wasteland of non-closure, I delight in my own little deadlines: turning in lesson plans before the weekend, entering a massive stack of grades into my grade book, finishing comments on all of my little (or not so little) ones’ essays. Basically, I become the single-minded speed demon of grading.

My pathological obsession with closure (which sabotaged all my professors’ faith in my proof-reading skills, and caused me to turn in more than a few sub-par papers just for the joy of turning in something) means that, so far, I am not behind in grading.

So because, in addition to being closure-fiends, ENFJs (and the other iNtuitive Feelers) are pattern obsessed: I will now make the argument that my particular isolated experience of vocation is part of a pattern in God’s creation.

My current theory on vocation, which may easily be replaced tomorrow when I encounter the massive stack of in-class-essays that I have to grade, is as follows:

Vocation is where our greatest love meets the world’s need. However, that is not enough. God is not satisfied with just using our strengths for the good of the world. He does not just embrace and transfigure our most beautiful and perfect qualities – the ones that we want  to share (or if you are as performer-y as I am, show-off).

Please ignore the sins and flaws behind the curtain!

No. He sees, embraces, transfigures, and uses the embarrassing bad habits, the weaknesses, the weird ticks, the irrational dislikes, and especially the sufferings that plague our short little lives. He allows our weaknesses to fill the world’s need. And because we know them to be weaknesses, when they are suddenly useful and good, it is much harder to say, “Oh yeah! That victory right there? That was all me.”   

Not so much.

After a few minutes of “…What? … How did that just… What?”,  occasionally we can move into “Someone was protecting me,  standing with me, and using me to the betterment of the world, though I knew nothing of it.”

I could list off a fair number of holy people to prove this point…

However, I have yet another annoying habit: I relate everything to movies! So, remember the movie Signs? (I flipping love that movie.) You know how the little girl, Bo, refuses to drink a full glass of water and says that everything is “contaminated”?

As I watched that movie the first time, even the large part of my that loves small children couldn’t help thinking, “THANK GOD I DO NOT HAVE TO BABYSIT THAT OBNOXIOUS BUT ADORABLE CHILD!”

Then, at the end (SPOILERS!), the millions of water glasses all over the house are what saves her family and the world from the creepy alien things!!!

It’s like that. Vocations are exactly like the obnoxious contaminated-water-child saving the world from aliens.

So, for those young (by which I mean probably less than a year younger than me) people who are wondering about your vocation, or what you should do when you “grow-up”: By all means, find something you love that also serves the world, but also watch for the moments when that service comes through your weaknesses. Those moments are Signs (see what I did there?) that you are not standing alone and that you are where you are meant to be. To quote a more reputable source than M.Night. Shyamalan: “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10).