Monday, March 12, 2018

What’s Missing: A Wrinkle in Time, the Movie

The other night we went to see the new movie A Wrinkle in Time. I was eager to see it, because the book by Madeleine L’Engle has been a favorite since I first read it as a freshman in college. The movie was good—you should all go see it. It is warm and uplifting. Storm Reid as Meg Murray is pretty much perfect. Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which and Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit are delightful.

But, leaving the theater, I felt something missing. So I went home and stayed up late rereading the book. I discovered what is, at the heart, missing from the movie: God.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, here’s the basic plot: Meg’s scientist father has disappeared while doing top secret work. An eccentric trio of visitors from outer space appear; Meg, her precocious little brother Charles Wallace, and her friend Calvin go with them to rescue the father. They end up on the planet Camazotz, which has been taken over by the Darkness, by "It." The father is imprisoned there, and Charles Wallace is captured in the course of the adventure. Meg is able to rescue both her father and brother, and they all return to earth.

The movie follows the plot pretty closely. What it misses is the real reason Meg is able to complete the rescue.

In the book, we get the first indication of that power early on, when the three visitors – called Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which--take the children to the planet Uriel to explain the battle they are to enter. There they experience the transcendent beauty and peace of the place, where angelic creatures are singing “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth.”

Only after hearing God’s praise are the children allowed to see the Shadow “that was so terrible” that it “chill[ed] her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?”

Though neither is named directly, the power of light and the power of darkness are clearly God and Satan.

Mrs. Which explains the shadow is “Eevill. Itt iss thee Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!” When the Mrses encourage the children by listing those who have fought against the shadow, the first warrior spoken of is Jesus, “The light [that] shineth in the darkness.”

On Camazotz, where the Shadow reigns, everyone is the same. “We are all happy because we are all alike.” Just as Satan’s plan was to force everyone to do his will, the Shadow allows for no agency.

None of these references is in the movie. It is out of fashion to believe in either God or Satan.
But in the book we get the clear contrast of the two great powers.

The Mrses are not just eccentric and powerful beings; they are “Angels!. . .Guardian angels! . . . Messengers of God!” When Calvin names the beings as such, at the time of greatest need, they immediately arrive to aid the children.

At this climax of the book (which is completely left out of the movie), in contrast to the mend-bending, mind-numbing power of the Shadow/Satan, these angels give Meg a choice. Only she can save her little brother, but she is the one who must decide to do it.

“I can’t go!” Meg cried. “I can’t! You know I can’t”
“Ddidd annybbodyy asskk yyou tto?”
“All right I’ll go!” Meg sobbed. “I know you want me to go!”
“We want nothing from you that you do without grace. . .or that you do without understanding.”
Meg’s tears stopped as abruptly as they had started. “But I do understand. . . . That it has to be me.”

Then Meg returns into the shadow, back to Camazotz, to rescue her brother. But first she is given powerful gifts, and all the gifts are the same: Mrs. Whatsit explains, “I give you my love, never forget that”; Mrs. Who offers a charge to remember “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty”; and Mrs. Which reminds Meg, “Yyou hhave ssomethinngg that ITT Hhass not. . . Bbutt yyou mussst fffinndd itt fforr yyoursrssellff.”

Then Meg walks into the darkness and finds her baby brother completely overcome by the Shadow, “eyes slowly twirling, his jaw slack.” But she finds her gift: it is love and she speaks it. “Charles, I love you. You are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

And love, through the grace of God, saves Charles.

This is the place in the book where I always cry. Because the power of light, the power of God, the power of love is so much greater than the power of darkness. And we, foolish and weak as we are, we can always love, and through loving, share in the power of God and bring salvation.

And this is what I missed in the movie. Though Meg speaks the words of love for Charles, the movie seems to be more about empowering Meg than about the power of love through the grace of God. I was happy as Meg triumphantly returned home, filled with confidence she lacked before. But my soul was not touched as the book touches it.

So go see the movie. It’s good. But be sure to read the book. It’s better.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

My Grandpa, the Cowboy

I was 25 when my Grandpa Finch died, and he was 97. It seemed to me that he had been old for all of my life, and I guess he had. It wasn't like some people who grew older as you watched, Grandpa was just always old and slow and deaf, it seemed to me anyway. 

I remember when I was really little, Grandpa took me to the rodeo and bought me so many hot dogs and so much Cracker Jack that I was sick to my stomach. Every time the hot dog man or the drink person or the Cracker Jack boy came by Grandpa would say "Do you want some?" and I was just too scared of him to say no, so he would buy me some and I would eat it until finally I was sick. Even then I thought Grandpa was very old.

I don’t have many other memories of Grandpa until I was a teenager in the 60s, when he would come stay with us in Minnesota for several weeks in the summer.  He was so quiet you hardly knew he was there most of the time. He would stay in his room for a while, then take his cane and walk out through the back door to the yard, and sit for a while in the lawn chair and chew tobacco. After a while he would walk slowly, moving that cane before him, over to the big oak that had the wooden swing Daddy had put up for me when I had been younger. Grandpa would sometimes lower himself down to sit on that swing, or sometimes he would just stand there, leaning on his cane and spitting tobacco juice.

In time he would shuffle on around to the screened sun porch to watch the trees and the weather. Coming from the Utah dessert, he loved to see how green the trees and the grass were. I remember his standing in the sun porch watching one of our big violent Midwestern thunder storms. He would grin out at the storm and exclaim, "Damn, that's a fine rain!"

Grandpa appreciated rain because all his life he had worked to coax a living from the dry Utah land. Born in 1880, the youngest child of Mormon pioneers, Grandpa was a cowboy. When he was about twelve, his dad put him on a horse and sent him alone up Provo Canyon to live with his married sister and help with their ranch in Park City. That was the end of school for him.

When he came back to Spanish Fork as a young man, he was tall and lean, more comfortable on a horse than anywhere else. His mother had died, and he and his dad were batching it.  I’ve heard they  both spent much of their time in the local saloon.

One night, as my Aunt Kathryn told the tale years after his death,  Grandpa and some buddies heard about a church dance up at the Fourth Ward building. They decided to have a little fun and rode on up to the church hall--right through the door and into the midst of the dancers. My grandmother was there as a chaperone, a small redheaded woman who had worked in service for other families since she was eight. But she was feisty.

She ran right after the tall cowboy on his horse, shouting to him to stop. Hands on her hips, she yelled, “You boys get right on out of here! You can’t break up this dance!”

As I see it in my mind, Grandpa looked down at that little redhead and fell immediately in love.

In any case, they were soon married and moved in with the dad, where Grandma set about civilizing both of the wild cowboys.

Grandpa settled down to be a hard worker and they made a success, raising cows or sheep or hay or peaches, as the opportunity arose. They also raised five boys and two girls who all learned to work hard.

But I don’t think Grandpa ever went to church, and I think the saloon was still a favorite place to relax. When Grandpa came to visit us in Minnesota, I used to be embarrassed by his swearing and by the way he chewed tobacco, though he was very clean about it and never used it in the house. Also he drank coffee, and Mamma had to fix him some every morning, which seemed very wicked in our Mormon household.

Daddy used to take Grandpa for rides in the green rolling Minnesota farmland. Grandpa would stare out the window at the tall fields of corn and the fine red barns and big herds of dairy cattle grazing on the green fields. "Damn, this is a fine country." he would say, his face suddenly lighting up in a grin that spread from one huge deaf ear to another.

One summer day, Mamma had to be gone at lunch time and left me to give Grandpa lunch. I fixed him what was my most sophisticated lunch at that time--cottage cheese salad. He obligingly ate a bite or two, and then quavered, "I like a little sugar on my clabber." I got him the sugar bowl but felt greatly insulted, that he should call my elegant creation clabber. That same lunch time I remember him talking to me, something he rarely did. It was a story about driving the cattle somewhere, far away--it wasn't clear to me where--and something happening, something that sounded very exciting, involving guns and rustlers, something like the plot of a TV western, but the story rambled and his voice trembled. I really couldn't follow it.

Now, as I look back on that afternoon, I wish I had made the effort to listen to him. What could he have told me, if I had only asked, if I had only tried to understand? In the 1960s, my cowboy Grandpa was like a traveler from another planet, and I didn’t make much of an effort to learn about his world.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Robin Hood and Me

When I was 11 or 12, I used to tell myself stories every night before I fell asleep. I read a lot of Victorian novels at the time, which were filled with consumptive heroines and handsome lovers who would do anything to save their dying love. So most of my stories were about me, laid low with some terrible illness and my current crush coming to cry over my bed-ridden, wasting form.

Or sometimes I had saved my love’s life. The villain had unexpectedly pulled a pistol from his jacket and fired at my hero. I had seen his movement and thrown myself across the room to protect the man of my dreams, taking the bullet meant for him in my loving heart. As I bled out on the floor of the ballroom/pirate ship/country estate, the handsome heartthrob would hold me in his arms, sobbing, “Oh, if only I were dying in your place.” I would weakly smile up at him and whisper, “I can die happy, knowing that you live.” Then I would expire, in the most graceful and lovely way possible. And then, the story satisfactorily completed, I would fall asleep.

As a preteen and really into my early teens, I had a very strong imaginative life. In some ways the stories I imagined seemed almost more real than real life. Because in comparison real life, let’s face it, was pretty boring.

My stories not only put me to sleep at night, I also had similarly imaginative friends, and we would create epic stories together, sometimes taking whole Saturday afternoons.

We would gather in Stephie’s  back yard, just up the street from my house on Idylwood Drive. There would be maybe three or four of us, sitting on the grass, and someone would say “Let’s say we are pirates!” Someone else would add, “Some are pirates and some are lords and ladies sailing to Spain.” And someone else would continue, “Let’s say that the pirates attack!” Then we would just start acting it out and see what would happen. It was improv and story and play. There would be villains and heroes and danger and love. Who knew what would happen?  The hero and heroine would be brave and clever. The villains would be dastardly. We would be so deep into our story that when the street lights came on and we had to go home to supper it was like being wrenched out of another world.

One memorable summer, the boy across the street had seen Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty. He was consumed with the story, and wrote out a full script in long hand before casting all the neighborhood kids in the roles. I can’t remember my part—probably native woman with no lines. But lines were learned, costumes were cobbled together, and, in the gala performance for our parents, quantities of ketchup was served up as bloody wounds.

Sometimes the stories were played by just my friend, Jill, and me, at a sleepover perhaps, when our basement rec room would be transformed in our minds to a castle where one of us was held captive and another would be rescuing. I would pace the room from the ironing board to the TV, crying out, “But, Lord Horatio, how can you ask that of me, knowing how I hate you! You have dishonored my family and caused my father’s despair and death. How can you now speak of love?” My girlfriend, Jill, would agreeably take the role of the dastardly Horatio, threatening and glowering. Another time, Jill would be the brave heroine, and I would be the villain, or the hero, or both as the need arose.

Sometimes I would write these stories down. In 7th grade I drafted an entire novel based on Robin Hood (I guess today you would call it fan fiction), written in pencil on lined notebook paper. The TV series “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1955-1960) was at that time playing in reruns every afternoon. My mother taught school, and I was supposed to practice the piano in the hour or so I was on my own before she came home. Instead I, of course, had to hurry home from the school bus to watch the brave adventures of  Robin of Locksley, Maid Marian, Little John, and all the rest of the merry band. Then I would take out my notebook and write my own stories.

I loved working out the details of the plot. How would Maid Marian outsmart the wicked sheriff this time? What clever disguise would Robin use to thwart the evil plans of King John? What kind of language would Friar Tuck use in his dialogue? I wrote in pencil, and didn’t hesitate to erase if I thought of something better to insert. I took my story to school and wrote in the odd moments when I had finished my assignment. I wrote at my desk when I should have been doing homework. I researched period dress in the school library. When we had a school holiday, my first thought was, “I’ll have time to write the next chapter.”

 Once I was sleeping over at Susie Peterson’s house and as we lay in her flouncy canopy covered bed, I started telling her the stories of Robin Hood. She proved a satisfyingly enthralled listener, gasping and sighing as appropriate. When we got to a stopping place, she asked, “How do you do it? How do you think of these stories?”

I lay there for a little bit, staring up at the lace canopy above us. What a question. How did I do it? Didn’t everybody do this kind of thing? Why did I do it? I didn’t know.

Finally, I responded the only thing I could think of. “I don’t know. It’s just fun.”

The question I ask now is, when did I stop having fun creating stories? All I know is I stopped doing it as I grew older. Did I get busy with more and more adult-like responsibilities: studies and work and driving? Did I realize the books I read were so much better than the ones I made up that I could never measure up? Did I just begin to engage more in Real Life, and find that I no longer needed to invent excitement in my life?

Whatever, I stopped making stories either in my head or on paper, and somehow I can’t help feeling that is a loss.

Though, on the other hand, I did just write this little piece. Hmmm.