Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Midweek Musing: on belonging, and the gift of presence

People worth listening to: Krista Tippet and Padraig O Tuama. While I'm in Italy this week, giving my presence to my best friend as a present for her birthday, I leave you with Krista and Padraig here together in a conversation for On Being.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Midweek musing: out of the shadows

People have participated in loving, committed, life-long same-sex partnerships for ever such a long time. Until relatively recently in human history, they have participated in those relationships in the shadows.* But now, society is changing, and same-sex relationships are in the light - rather uncomfortably in the spotlight in this heightened time of readjustment of our understanding and ordering of society - but no longer hidden, shamed, punished.**

Why were same-sex relationships so shunned?

Why was heterosexuality so insisted upon?

I suppose for the survival of a species that reproduces by means of the uniting of male and female genetic material, the natural inclination of most of the species will be in that direction. So this establishes a 'norm'. And what differs from the 'norm' is feared.

At a most basic level and in the earliest history of humanity, perhaps that fear has to do with survival of the species - if male and female DNA is not united, the species does not continue.

Also pretty basic for humans is a fear of difference, for it makes us uncertain if we are unsure about who we are. And there is so much in human experience and living that unsettles our confidence in our identity.

In the more recent, post-industrial, human history, however, norms have been capitalised upon and exploited by advertisers seeking to sell the wares of producers. If the majority of the target market are heterosexual, then heterosexuality features in the stories the advertisers tell. This story is perpetuated in other forms of media to the extent that we begin to believe that this story is not only the story most of us live, but that we all should live.

The story that gets told more often than any other is that of boy meets girl and falls in love and after some rough patch or another marries the girl. They have lots of children and live happily ever after.
I remember a boy telling me on a beach one night that he wanted to pick me up and carry me away into the sunset. But he was telling me this as he was putting an end to a relationship that never really started, because I think he saw the solitary person I am before I understood myself. I wanted so desperately to live the narrative my culture told me I should, though I am healthily solitary and community oriented in the way I participate in relationships. The irony of that dominant narrative is that I came to know it and desire it through the stories of such writers as Jane Austen, whose own story was one of a solitary woman by choice or circumstance, but frustrated by her inability to truly be independent.  It is her struggle that makes me grateful for the times in which I live.

A consequence of the norms of a society is the shaping of its laws to protect people. Many women were vulnerable for the longest time in human history because they were seen as property under the care and protection of the men in their family. Laws like those restricting divorce were the wider society's response to that vulnerability, attempts to protect women (and children) from abandonment.

Women are (mostly) viewed now as humans of the same dignity, worth, and independent agency as men, and laws and customs relating to marriage and divorce (and much more of life) have adapted. A couple separating their shared life are protected as two humans of equal dignity and vulnerability.

Laws are changed, introduced, repealed, in response to the growth and development of human societies. Marriage laws have changed so many times; marriage customs have changed over time.

However, I suppose the norm has remained fairly stable, in the light, for a long time, and it has become comfortable. The dominant narrative has pushed not only people of same-sex relationships into the shadows, but people choosing singleness out of the light as well, to the extent that it's not even a celebrated or even understood and affirmed choice any more to join a celibate religious order.

Why are we so incredibly afraid in Australia - a developed nation very slow to introduce laws supporting same-sex marriage - of another change to a fluid and responsive custom?

Shining the light on what is different is making people uncomfortable. Those who seem most uncomfortable, or are the loudest about it, seem to be within the Christian tradition. Is the discomfort due to the exposure of inadequate knowledge of our scriptures, or complacency with shallow or outdated understanding?

Christianity was founded on the counter-cultural way that Jesus lived and taught. Even maintaining the norms of gender roles within his community (the women served in his group of followers, carried out the rituals pertaining to burial, etc.),*** Jesus' relationships with women, seeing them not as a threat to one's honour with their inherent tendency to bring shame, but as humans of dignity and worth, challenged both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. He seems not to have married, himself, and thus through his living challenged the normative path into marriage set by the culture of his time.

I think Christianity has found itself buying into the norms exploited and perpetuated by the empire of capitalism in the West. Christianity has long privileged a dominant narrative of marriage for all women and men to a man or a woman, and been supported in its view by the narrative of the world in which we dwell, but of which we are not called to be.

People of LGBT identity are claiming their identity and stepping out of the shadows, demanding their dignity and worth. This seems to me to be consistent with the way that Jesus lived. Claiming our dignity, nurturing our wellbeing, living with love and kindness, not fear and cruelty - that is the life in its fulness for which Jesus lived and died and lives again.

To change the laws governing marriage is to act with love and kindness, to celebrate love and kindness. Not to do so is to be cruel and to act out of fear, which is wholly inconsistent with the narrative of Jesus, the narrative to which every Christian has ascribed.

* A caveat: I am bemused by the fascination humans have with sex, sexuality, and what others are doing with theirs. There really is a lot more to life, you know (though I suppose there isn't any life without it, so ...).

** I've been re-watching Call the Midwife, with its stories of the really quite terrible treatment, criminalisation, and ostracising of homosexuality in the very recent past.

*** I've been reading William Loader's work on sexuality and the Bible. This may be a more accessible discussion, though.
ABC Religion & Ethics also have some helpful contributions from other Australian biblical scholars such as Sean Winter, Geoff Thompson, and Robyn Whitaker.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Midweek Musing. I'm ok, but ...

I had a plan for today's musing, but then this poem burst forth this morning, so you're getting that instead.

Notice of intent to abdicate

I am no longer coping.
The ghosts are returning
with their would-have-beens,
could-have-beens, should-
have-beens, if I had not ...

I am no longer coping.
The sleep-in has lasted
days, closed curtains
have stayed – I did not
mean to hibernate.

I am no longer coping.
The we will see and what
will be devoid of comfort,
thrill or hope, as I sink
in all this possibility.

I am no longer coping,
teeth gritted, fist
clenched, feet turning circles
about the room, but who
is my opponent?

I am no longer coping.
It is only me to
decide for, but it's only
to decide.

I am no longer coping
with not knowing, not having
a God responsible for the step
by step plan for me to tread:
I would so like to

* I feel like this needs qualification, for mum if for no-one else, I am ok. I just had a moment, which spewed forth into a poem that took on a life of its own.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Julius Caesar: Essential Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe

Ultimate fan-girl: I was first in line! 

Shakespeare. Australian accents. For a bit over an hour, I was home. I was lost in the world of political intrigue, murder, war, ancient Roman Empire. I was found, in the language of poetry and humanity, in the stories of these women striving with, for, against each other and themselves.

It was so polished, the actors were their characters, two or three each. In the round, the effortless playing of the action to all four sides was so carefully choreographed as to feel utterly natural and unrehearsed.

The use of colour to both link Caesar to her soldiers (with red) who then betrayed her, and then with her white cloak to Octavius and show Antony's shifting allegiance from Brutus et al. to Octavius, was  quite effective. Simple costume changes for the labourers / crowd and Lucius clearly established the difference in rank and I'm sure helped to enable the slick and seamless flow of the action.

It was so embodied, we were drawn in; the audience was Rome. I had to stop myself from joining in the three-person crowd's repeated hum and whisper of 'Brutus', 'Cassius', their chants of revolution and rebellion, in response to Marc Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral. It didn't feel like that sort of production that we should join in, but those three crowd members emerging from the shadows, voices growing louder until they leapt into the light with impassioned rallying to the cry of revolution ... I was with them.
The rhetoric of that speech's repeated 'Brutus is honourable' impressed me: Sophie Lampel's delivery was nuanced, well paced, and directed to us, the fourth wall removed, the audience drawn in by emotion to be moved from any support of Brutus' actions against Caesar to condemn it, and her.

Caesar's blood. The use of flowers for blood,
and for the epaulets on the soldier's uniforms
didn't feel to me like a nod to the feminine,
though it may have been. 
Cassius was intriguing, scheming.
Casca's fuming in the corner, disgusted with Caesar and Antony, was palpable.
Sinna / Lucius / soothsayer / poet - the most character changes for any of the actors, and each character was distinct, consistent, present.
Amanda LaBonte's Brutus, even in this heavily abridged version of the story, was complex and developed over the course of the story, as they managed not to jump too quickly into her acceptance of Cassius's proposal, allowed her moments of pause, though she was committed to her removal of Caesar whose leadership she had come to despise.

And it did not feel odd or surprising or confronting that these were female characters (the pronouns changed), or even that Caesar was still married to a wife. This telling of the story demonstrated just how timeless and enduringly timely Shakespeare's plays and portrayals of humans truly are; and how when the actors are committed to their characters, and the staging and costuming are just right, the world of the story is authentic, rings true.

I have loved Essential Theatre's Shakespeare in the Vines program in Australia for close to a decade. There, they mostly play the comedies with a slightly bigger, and co-ed cast. This was different, as Sophie noted when we chatted briefly afterwards, to those productions. It demonstrates the depth and breadth of the gifts and skills of this company and its actors brilliantly.

I loved it. I don't think my words here do true justice to my feelings in response. But I am so grateful that, seeing as though I haven't been able to go to Essential Theatre these three years, they were able to come to me. (wink)

Essential Theatre's Julius Caesar, as others have noted before me, is tight, powerful, gripping. Go see it. You've got one week if you're in Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Midweek Musing: What a weekend!

Come and watch Pride and Prejudice at an old stately home, she said. Yes, I said. And that was just the beginning ...

Knowing I would be coming to stay for a few days, my dear friend planned the final burst of activities for her team's participation in a massive international scavenger hunt for when she could enlist my services for photography and video. I cannot show you any of that, as the competition is in progress, but to those who thought my visit to Lindisfarne Holy Island was for breathing and contemplation, I must apologise for misleading you. That was not the purpose at all, despite such serene photographs as I can show you from our afternoon on the island.

The rest of the afternoon and most of Saturday were also taken up with scavenger hunt activities, before the main event of the weekend: Pride and Prejudice adapted for stage by Illyria Theatre Company. We arrived at the house, and I gasped. (I did a lot of that this weekend). Wow. A Regency era home, in gorgeous sandstone, with gardens and lawns and a view of the river ... sigh. (I did a lot of sighing, too). 
Five actors, all playing multiple parts (although the actor playing Lizzie Bennett only added one to her list, a couple of hilarious appearances as Mrs Hill, the housekeeper at Longbourne). I cannot tell you all the things I appreciated from an artistic perspective, or more simply and profoundly loved as a captivated member of the audience. I'll recount what comes to mind as I write, to give you a little taste of the wonder of the event. 

The commitment of the actors to their characters, extra challenging when shifting in and out of them throughout the action. The costume changes were most necessary for depicting which character was on stage with the actor when the character was in more of a supporting role to the main action. The actors were consistent in their voice, demeanour, posture, for each character they portrayed, that even without the costumes you would know the difference between D'Arcy, Wickham, and Collins (yep, those three by the same actor, who also played Mary!); between Mrs Bennett, Bingley, and Mrs Gardner; between Jane and Lydia, or Mr Bennet, Mr Gardner, Col. Fitzwilliam, Caroline Bingley, and Lady Catherine De Burgh (yes, those characters all embodied by the same person!). Kitty was played by four of the five actors during the course of the action, and D'Arcy's coat and a wig on various other actors represented him on stage for such memorable encounters as with Wickham and Collins. The technicalities for all this were handled with aplomb, and with only one or two slight hitches, which were also handled with ease of skill and good humour by all. 
Apparently some have criticised the abridgement of this version of the play: I have no quarrels with it, though Heather and I agreed that our intimate familiarity with both the story by Austen, and the history of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, enabled us to fill in the gaps and appreciate this re-telling. I am sure I have written here before of my love for adaptations and re-tellings of stories, and the way that they participate in an ongoing conversation with the original story, which really is never 'original', because it is new every time it is encountered, whether read in a book, seen on the stage or a screen or canvas, or heard in music. (For more on that, I refer you to my scholarly work of articles and a certain PhD thesis just finished). 
I loved the humour and intimacy in the relationship between Lizzy and her Aunt Gardner, but didn't think the intimacy between Lizzy and her father was quite as evident as it is in other tellings of the story. I loved being front row on our rug, but felt a little disconnected and as if the actors were talking above the audience, because it is difficult for actors to make eye contact downwards from a raised stage to those sitting on the grass. The dance between Lizzy and D'Arcy at Netherfield was really nicely staged, as was the reading of the letters. Some letters were read by the family all huddled together in a repeated staging that, for me did two things: 1, it drew attention to the family dynamic of the time, and the intimate involvement in each other in the life of the whole; 2, conversely, it highlighted Mary's place on the outer of much of the action and the life of the family, as she was always at the back of the huddle, looking over the shoulders of everyone else, and for the final huddle, she gave up and left the scene (or that's how I interpreted the action there). Other staging decisions that I thought were effective were the use of minimal furniture - a bench, two chairs, and two wicker chests - and the use of scenes in carriages, including the two male actors taking turns to represent the driver and horses (coconut shells), on their haunches in front of the others on bench/chest carriage, with a 'yah' to signal to all the actors, so that all bounced along on the road together. Wonderfully choreographed. 

There was more, I am certain, but that will suffice to depict the causes of my sighs of wonder throughout the evening. We were all also grateful for a perfect evening of weather. 

Just in case you thought that was enough joy for one weekend, apparently Heather thought not. For after she had led church in the morning and we'd had lunch, we returned to Paxton House for their Summer Fayre, and took a turn about the gardens, and a tour of the house itself. 

The view of the river

The house from the lawn / croquet pitch

Garden, inviting lane

Lily pond. Sigh. 

Add caption

I love this grass.The curved part of the building
behind it is the servants' passage from kitchen
on the left (the right of the house as you look at it)
to the house. 

The servant's passage.

I want to live there. Georgian houses are my favourites, there was elegant Chippendale furniture in every room, beautiful wallpaper and hangings and staircases and furnishings and .... I got to play the box piano in the withdrawing room (squee! but I couldn't think of anything much to play!!), and Heather sang in the purpose build picture gallery that now hosts many music performances (the acoustics are lovely). Heather delighted in my delight as with each room we entered I gasped and sighed like a kid in a candy store. I can't even begin on the library. I can't show you inside, no photos allowed: sorry. 

Happy Sarah at Paxton House
Tea room entrance.
Still not finished, we went upstairs to the art gallery, I think in the old hayloft above the stables (now tea rooms, complete with booths set within the old corales if that's the right word where the horses were kept). The current exhibition is inspired by Shakespeare, and our favourite pieces were the most expensive in the room (of course), specifically Shakespearean in their composition. Mixed media, using cut out sections of play books with quotes and headings, gold and black, with birds featuring in all of them, there was a piece depicting the use of music in the plays that I especially liked. 


To top off the weekend, we brought home cakes from the tea rooms and watched The Lizzy Bennett Diaries, an online, interactive, mixed social media retelling of Pride and Prejudice that kept us up till 1am because how could we stop when it got to the good bits ...? 

What a weekend, indeed. Shared with a friend who delights in the same things I do. What a weekend. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Midweek Musing. On being knocked down and getting up again

Captain Picard once said to Data, 'You can do everything right and still lose.'

I remembered this as I processed the disappointment of another 'no'.

You can be an excellent candidate and still miss out on the job, an interview, a scholarship.

The thing you cannot avoid is the feeling, as your application is rejected, that you are not an excellent candidate. The knowledge that someone else was deemed more excellent, a better fit, more worthy candidate inevitably makes you feel unworthy, unwanted, not good enough.

I'll be honest, I don't have a solution, or even any suggestions, for others in similar circumstances.

The reality that for every dozen applications you submit, you might expect to receive one scholarship offer is no comfort when your energy has poured into dozens of applications and the one or two you've received are the smaller ones, meaning you must continue to pour energy into more applications or work, and have nothing left for the task for which you are here.

The reality that many of the factors determining the shortlists for interview are beyond your control and hardly a reflection on your value is no balm to soothe the gaping wounds reopened after a dozen rejections already this year.

'You can do everything right, and still lose.'

I don't think Picard is seeking to offer Data comfort in that observation. I think he offers him something to hold on to, when he is ready to pick himself up and move on.

I might do nothing wrong in the application process and still lose.

I am not comforted by that thought. But it may help me nod acceptance, get up off the floor, dust myself off, and move on.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Story Eucharist

those who gather at this table have chosen to follow a story
the story of God, who loves
who, from an eternal well of love,
created all that lives – created humans for love,
and invited us into a relationship for life: full, rich, life.
The story is a story of human turning away, and returning,
of prophets calling, men and women singing,
God forgiving and restoring, again and again.

The story of this table, this meal,
is the story of Jesus, who we follow;
who was born under a special star,
inhabited by the Sacred Spirit.
Jesus looked at women and welcomed, men, and healed,
children, and delighted.
The story of Jesus is a story of love,
of peace and justice and courage.

On the night when he was betrayed –
for not all understood, or accepted –
he took the bread they were to eat, gave thanks and broke it.
He looked at his friends and said, this is my body, breaking for you
Eat, and whenever you eat, remember me.
At the end of the meal he took a cup and gave thanks.
He said, this cup is a new covenant made through the spilling of my blood.
drink, and whenever you drink, remember me.
We pray that the Spirit, ever present, will bless this bread and this wine,
will bless us, making these gifts the body of Christ in us.

break bread
distribution: (perhaps singing something like The Lord is my Light from Taizé).

The story is told again and again with this reenacting at tables all over the world.
It is a world still yearning for justice,
for courage, peace and love.
May the story we have enacted here shape our living beyond this moment;
May the Christ we have remembered be our Wisdom Guide,
may the Creator scatter seeds and birth ever new, renewing, life,
and may the Spirit breathe in us and through us, peace, deep peace.

Please feel free to use this eucharist liturgy in worship gatherings, acknowledging Sarah Agnew as its author. 

Weekly prayer-poems by Sarah in response to lectionary portions : Pray the Story