The Lives We Never Live

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I was watching the BBC miniseries Daniel Deronda the other day. Based on the George Eliot novel of the same name (which I’ll have to hunt down and read now), it follows the career of the titular character, who ends up having to choose between two love interests. It’s a beautifully done series, and it’s on Netflix, so if like me, you have a weakness for 19th century period dramas, it’s one of the better ones out there.

Hugh Bonneville is creepily magnificent as the aristocrat who enjoys his domination over others. Romola Garai is brilliant in the role of Gwendolyn Harleth, the young woman who must choose between love and her family’s financial security. She was arguably the most interesting character, and I rather think Eliot could have left out the part about Deronda’s other love interest, and named the book after Harleth. We all love the stories that follow Lizzie Bennet’s injunction, “Do anything rather than marry without affection.” However, the reality for most young women in financial straits in 19th century was that dreamy Mr. Darcy, the perfect gentleman AND in possession of £10,000 per year, did not often come along. Gwendolyn Harleth (whose name, by the way, I think is at least as mellifluous as Mabel Lane Fox) is a sympathetic and compelling character, and it’s hard to really fault her too much for her choices, even as one is horrified by both the choices and their consequences.

But what I wanted to talk about was Daniel Deronda. Hugh Dancy, of course, is handsome and brooding as the good-hearted but troubled Deronda. We meet him as he first catches a glimpse of the lovely Gwendolyn Harleth, losing at billiards, and secretly buys back a necklace she pawns. Later, he rescues the beautiful Jewish singer Mirah Lapidoth from drowning herself in a river, and the stage is set for a love triangle. Only this love triangle is about more than just love. It’s about Daniel Deronda’s quest to discover (and decide) who he really is. Eventually, the choice of whether to pursue Gwendolyn or Mirah becomes more about how Daniel sees himself, and what he wants to do with his life than his feelings for either woman.

In a weird way, Daniel’s dilemma over whom to marry (and by extension, who to be) reminded me of this series of photographs by Czech photographer Dita Pepe, in which she imagined what she would be like married to different men. It was striking to me how different she looked in the different photographs, and what different assumptions I made about her as a person.

Whom to choose as a life partner is certainly an important decision. But in these cases, it serves as a sort of metaphor for the roads we might have taken in our lives, and the people we might have been. I know that I have far more things I’d like to be than lives available to try them. I’d like to be an international human rights lawyer, an artist, a writer, a university professor in comparative literature, history, Middle Eastern Studies, European Studies, 19th century British literature, philosophy, and/or a dozen other subjects, a field biologist, an environmental activist, an editor at a publishing house or a magazine, and an investigative journalist. Those are all things I can picture myself being good at. But there are other things I’d like to try being, even though it’s not easy for me to picture myself being good at them–like a ballet dancer, or a theoretical physicist, or an astronaut.

This is probably also one of the motivating factors in my desire to travel and live in as many different places as possible. Because every new place is kind of a different life, and allows me to explore different facets of who I am.

My Top 20 Books

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You know that Facebook thing that’s been going around where people tag you and you have to list your top ten books? Well, I was waiting and waiting to get tagged. I finally did a couple of days ago (thank you, Jared) but by then the number had ballooned to 20 books. Which I guess is OK, because I had a hard time as it was narrowing it down to just 20. And I didn’t think I could just post a list without explaining what each and every book meant to me. So it got too long for a Facebook status, and ended up on my blog. Here, in no particular order, are my top 20 books:

 

The Left Hand of Darkness

Part of me thinks this should be a list of authors rather than books. Ursula LeGuin writes so many brilliantly insightful books it’s hard to choose just one. I’ve loved this book ever since I was a teenager. Besides her insights into what patriotism is, what gender means, and why uncertainty is a necessity for life, there’s one particularly beautiful scene that expresses better than anything else I’ve ever read how lonely it can sometimes feel to be an expat in a foreign country.

 

The Once and Future King

I have read a great many King Arthur stories, and this is by far my favorite. It is wise, charming, and heartbreaking by turns. I wish every political leader could grow up like T.H. White’s Arthur, or at least read this book.

 

The Birth of Tragedy

I took a class on Nietzsche back when I was a philosophy major, partly for the delicious irony of studying a philosopher who famously claimed that “God is dead” at a university that nicknames itself “The Lord’s university.” This is the book that introduced me to the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy, and taught me that art should be a “transfiguring mirror.”

 

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

This is actually a children’s picture book by the incomparable Chris Van Allsburg. It was also the center of a secret literary society I formed as a homeschooled kid to write stories about the mysterious paintings in the book.

 

The Original Homeschooling Series (Charlotte Mason's Original Homeschooling #1-6)

As well as growing up homeschooled, I have read dozens of books about homeschooling, and this series of six is still my go-to manual and source of inspiration. 19th-century British educator Charlotte Mason talks about treating children as persons, giving them an education that is both wide and deep, and helping them to connect with everything they learn on a personal level.

 

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Patricia McKillip has always been one of my favorite authors. This book is a beautiful parable about betrayal, revenge, and love. Also, if you have ever wondered where my email address and miscellaneous internet handle came from (Lyralen), it’s my intentional misspelling of the mythical white bird in this book.

 

Measure for Measure

During my freshman year at university, both my history of philosophy class and my literature class analyzed this play. It was fascinating to read it from the viewpoints of two such different disciplines, and it’s been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays ever since. I love the themes of hypocrisy and forgiveness, and I think this play has weathered the years exceptionally well even for Shakespeare.

 

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)

What can I say about Lord of the Rings? I’ve probably read it more times than I’ve read any other book, and worn through several paperback editions. As a kid, I paid my seven-year-old sister a quarter every night to stay awake while I read the series aloud to her. When I got married, this was one of only two books that turned out as duplicates in our combined library–except that Tony’s copy was the leatherback edition from the locked case in the bookstore, and mine was yet another dog-eared paperback.

 

Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades, #1)

I really debated over including this one. My orthodox Mormon friends hate it, and my feminist friends hate it, for entirely different reasons. But it had a huge positive impact on my perception of my sexuality (not to mention my sex life with my husband). Which is already TMI, so I’ll leave it there.

 

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

There’s not a lot of nonfiction on my list, but this is a great book. I’ve traveled around the world enough to see the massive disparities in technology and living conditions in different countries. This book tackles the big question of WHY those disparities exist, and which historical and geographical accidents gave certain civilizations the tools to conquer and subjugate others (spoiler: it was climate and geography, not genetic superiority).

 

Cloud Atlas

I think of this as a sort of novelization of Guns, Germs & Steel. I’m equally enamored of the movie, even though it’s more of a fantasy on a theme than a faithful reproduction. As a meditation on power, human goodness, and our inseparable connection to one another, this story moved me profoundly.

 

Phineas Redux

It’s hard for me to explain my adoration of Trollope’s novels, even to myself. This is book four in his ponderously lengthy “Palliser Chronicles,” which center around 19th-century British politics. It’s fascinating for the period detail, expansive vocabulary, and colorful characterizations of even minor characters.

 

Anne of Green Gables (Anne of Green Gables, #1)

I am currently in the process of reading this aloud to my children, all the while realizing just how much Anne influenced me when I was growing up.

 

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine

Most Christian religions have (at least!) a few problems when it comes to traditional treatment of women. My spiritual journey is a little different from Sue Monk Kidd’s, but her book was valuable for me as I was articulating to myself my experience as a woman in my church.

 

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury at his very best. I can’t resist a book about books, and this is the iconic book about books. I’ve never forgotten the opening scene where the woman burns in her house full of books. “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” 

 

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

This was sort of the beginning of me coming to terms with the good, the bad, and the weird of Mormon history. Joseph Smith was an extraordinary person, and it was great to get to know him, especially in the rich historical context Bushman provides.

 

Les Misérables

I sobbed my heart out when I read this book as a teenager. I hadn’t much use for the somewhat sappy love duo of Cosette and Marius, but I was in love with Enjolras. This probably led directly to my soft spot for revolutionaries everywhere.

 

The Sun Also Rises

This was my first introduction to Hemingway. I had no real concept as a teenager of the harsh post-WWI background the novel embodies, but wow, could I ever relate to the angst.

 

A Tale of Two Cities

When I was at university, my best friend and I printed out the first paragraph to this book, memorized it, then tore it up into little pieces and ate it. Because that’s what we did for kicks back then.

 

The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights

I’ve always been fascinated by these Middle Eastern fairy tales. And the underlying premise of a woman who must use her wits and her stories to stop a mad tyrant from killing her and the rest of the young women in the kingdom is an enduring testament to the power of the stories we tell ourselves and others.

 

So. If you’ve read this, go ahead and consider yourself tagged. What are your top 20 (or top 10, or top 5) books?

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Friday Afternoon Blues

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“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
“Yes.”
“All like ours?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
“A blighted one.”
Thomas Hardy

Am I just in a bad mood, or has it been kind of an awful year so far?

Working loosely backwards, there’s Ebola, which while it hasn’t killed anywhere near as many people as more prosaic diseases like malaria and the flu, is wreaking serious havoc in West Africa, and is nowhere near containment or control.

There are the two Malaysian Airlines disasters. One plane just disappears, leaving loved ones in limbo for months as hope slowly disintegrates. The second, in an event that would seem simply bizarre if it were not so horrific, is accidentally shot down over the Ukrainian conflict zone. It’s the epitome of “senseless” violence.

And Crimea and the Ukraine conflict in the first place–déjà vu anyone? I thought we didn’t do this stuff anymore, especially on that continent.

Not that there isn’t plenty happening on other continents to go around. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again devolved into full-scale war, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured, and what can only be described as the opposite of progress on any type of diplomatic or negotiating front.

And just when I thought the situation in Syria could not possibly get worse, ISIS declared an Islamic state over large swathes of Syria and Iraq, where it currently presides over a chaotic melee of sectarian strife, in the absence of any sort of functional government.

Even on the U.S. border, we are grappling somewhat less than gracefully with a flood of unaccompanied children fleeing drug violence in Central America. Some of these kids are not much older than mine. How bad do do things have to be for you to let your children leave you for a deadly dangerous 1000 mile journey with an uncertain ending?

All in all, it’s enough to send me off to read some Thomas Hardy. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and the world will seem splendid again.

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The Doctor is In

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In theaters August 25th, that is! The first episode of the greatly anticipated 8th Season of Doctor Who will be coming to theaters across the U.S. later this month.

I already have tickets.

This is exciting because it’s my first real-time experience with Doctor Who. I only recently became acquainted with the series due to a several week Netflix binge that began while my husband and children were in California earlier this year. So I feel like I’m catching up on a lot.

Doctor Who is one of those things you always hear about from your geeky friend but think is way too complicated to start watching. At least that’s what it was for me. Once I finally gave it a chance, though, it didn’t take me long to get hooked. And by the time David Tennant walked on the stage in season two, I was completely smitten.

I’ve had some time to digest the series somewhat by now. In fact, I’ve watched all seven seasons of the “new” Doctor Who, and am re-watching them on an extended timetable with Tony and Axa separately, since nobody else in my house wants to watch every episode three times, and I enjoy watching them with someone else rather than alone. Netflix has an assortment of episodes from the first seven doctors too, so I’ve been working through those as well. And I’ve checked out a few random things from the Library, including the 50th Anniversary Special and the 1996 movie. I’ve also read a smattering of commentary.

The thing that surprised me most about Doctor Who was its depth. I like my science fiction “soft,” because I want it to do the same thing other literature does–illuminate the human condition and explore moral and philosophical themes in meaningful ways. Doctor Who is full of profound emotional and ethical moments. And the Doctor himself is somewhere between a tragic hero, a lonely god, and wise Shakespearean fool.

In the Doctor I found both a kindred spirit and a brilliant role model. He looks at the universe and sees exactly what I see, and most days he’s everything I wish I could be.

DOCTOR WHO

Here are a few things about the Doctor that I most admire.

Wanderlust – obviously, I identify with this one. The Doctor travels the universe in a blue police box (the TARDIS), just for the sheer joy of seeing new landscapes and meeting new people. He wouldn’t think it was weird at all that I can’t bring myself to imagine settling down anywhere, or that I find the experience of encountering a new place both intoxicating and addictive. He misses home and loves coming back to earth, but not enough to ever keep him in one place for long.

Empathy – the Doctor’s idiosyncratic moral system appears to have its basis in his deep empathy for everyone he meets. No alien is too strange, and no villain too despicable to feel the Doctor’s understanding and compassion. He’s a great believer in negotiation and second chances. He’s willing to make incredible sacrifices to save someone he’s just met, to say nothing of the friends and companions who travel with him. The Doctor honors the eternal uniqueness of each living being, and has a great reverence for diversity and life in all its forms.

Non-violence – if owning a firearm is part of your identity, we can still be friends. But I share with the Doctor a visceral aversion to guns in particular and violence as a way of solving problems in general. These past few years living in the flamboyantly gun-positive culture of Florida have been difficult, and watching the Doctor’s exasperation at the American affinity for guns is incredibly cathartic for me. If I’m a fringe lunatic for thinking the world would be a better place without the cult of firearms, then I’m in good company.

Wonder – reducing the Doctor to a single essential characteristic is probably impossible, but if I had to choose one, it would be his limitless capacity for wonder. From the Doctor’s delight at the British invention of “edible ball bearings” to his awe at the beauty of an alien landscape, he is endlessly fascinated by the universe. Even after over a thousand years of life, he still finds things that surprise him. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons he loves having a companion is being able to see everything anew through someone else’s eyes.

Optimism – no circumstance is dire enough to cause the Doctor to lose hope. In what seems like a desperate situation, he keeps a cool head, considers his assets, and comes up with a brilliant plan. He’s endlessly inventive and incredibly resourceful. And he has a gift for inspiring hope and optimism in other people when they’re tempted to panic or give up. As he tells one of his companions, “I am and always will be the optimist: the hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of impossible dreams.”

Plus great British accents, deliciously eccentric clothes and accessories, and a memorable cast of supporting characters. None of what I’ve written above actually does the Doctor justice, and I’m sure reams of similar blog posts have been written. But this is my personal tribute. And if Doctor Who is your thing, or you think it could be, join me on August 25 (or if you’re lucky and live in Britain, on August 23) to meet the new Doctor.

The clear expression of mixed feelings

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Here’s a rare thing–a secret about myself that I have not yet disclosed on this blog. I am a poet.

I fell in love with poetry as a little girl. I loved the images it made in my head, and the startling flashes of insight it gave me. But most of all, I loved the sound of the words in my mouth. Memorizing poetry became a habit, and a weapon against my recurring insomnia. I don’t know that I ever made it to the end of Paul Revere’s Ride without falling asleep.

At a used book sale once, my resourceful homeschooling parents picked up a copy of Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. It’s a high school textbook, full of the minutiae the boring English teacher tries to cram into his students at the beginning of the movie Dead Poets’ Society. You know, all the facts and terms and analysis that are supposed to kill people’s love of literature. Only they didn’t kill mine. They woke it up. I could not get enough of synecdoche, dactyls, and onomatopoeia. I read and loved the poetry section of that book to death. I was fascinated not only by the poetry itself, but by all the elements that made it up–the nuances of sound and image and meaning that turned common words into art.

Once I’d been reading for awhile, I started writing. It made sense in my family. My grandma wrote poetry. My dad wrote poetry. So I wrote poetry. I’ve always been a little shy of other people reading it, though. So mostly my poems sit in folders in my closet or on my computer, and in my head, where I keep them filed shyly next to Millay, Neruda, and Shakespeare.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I decided I would start posting some of my religious poetry on Times & Seasons. Mostly because I’ve been a slacker permablogger there lately, except when I get in a bad mood and decide to write something controversial, and then end up having an emotional breakdown over the resulting disagreeable comments. People don’t tend to complain about poetry, or even to disagree with it. Because disagreeing with a poem is like disagreeing with a painting.

So if you’re not a regular reader at Times & Seasons, feel free to pop over and check out some of my poetry. For each poem, I’ve written an accompanying post, not to explain the poem really, but to talk about the context and some of the issues in the poem itself. Although as always, it’s just another illustration of the fact that it takes ten times as many words in prose to say far less than one poem.

I’ve posted three so far, and intend to continue the series for awhile, until I get bored, or someone actually does complain, or I run out of poetry.

Bread of Life

Living Waters

The Lost Sheep

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think.

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The Working Life

Tony and the kids popped in to my work on Thursday, and Tony of course had to document the moment, like every other significant and insignificant moment of our life, for inclusion on the family website. So here is actual photographic evidence of my industrious ways:

And in fact, I’ve been at my job for a month now, and Tony and the children have been back for the past two weeks, which seems long enough to state some preliminary observations about how things are going.

The short answer is, I am happier than I’ve been in quite a while. I have way more patience for my children when I come home at six o-clock from an office full of adults than I did when I was at home with them all day. My emotional resources are magically magnified by being away from home during the work-day doing something interesting and creative, and I am much better able to deal with the inevitable complications and setbacks of life.

And it is so nice to not be living paycheck to paycheck anymore. Worrying about money all the time and freaking out when we had an unexpected car problem or other non-budgeted expense was not an easy way to live. Life is a little more hectic, and we don’t see quite as much of one another as we did, but for us right now, it is worth the trade-off.

If you’re wondering why all of this is a revelation to me, here’s the reason: I grew up in a home where SAHM-hood was the expected and ideal destination for a girl. My mom quit her job when she was pregnant with her oldest child (me), and for my entire childhood, I don’t remember her ever working, except to give piano lessons for a couple of hours a week. My parents viewed it as a religious imperative for a woman to devote all (or at least the vast majority of) her time and talents to raising her children.

I remember a long conversation with my dad out in the garden one day about how I didn’t think it was fair that I could go to college and study something I loved, but I wasn’t supposed to ever use it in a job I loved. He didn’t really have a response.

Looking back, I’m kind of amazed that I never even questioned the SAHM ideal. But at my house, getting a university degree was for personal enrichment and a backup financial plan, just in case the unthinkable (divorce, death, extended singleness, etc.) deprived me of a husband who could support me. Actually planning to have a career (and taking steps toward that goal) was verboten.

So about a year after Tony and I got married, I got pregnant with Axa. And a month or so before I was due, I quit my job, as I had always planned I would.

Nine years later, I have a somewhat different take on things. For one thing, I’ve experienced the economic reality of having only one spouse with career options during an economic downturn. It was hard, for us and for so many other people I know.

A few months after we moved to Florida, I had a conversation with a woman who had been a SAHM for the past sixteen or seventeen years. She was desperately trying to find employment to supplement her husband’s income, but couldn’t even get a job at the movie theater sweeping popcorn off the floor, because she didn’t have a college degree. We both agreed that we wished we hadn’t been taught to turn our backs on professional life when we got married and had children.

Fortunately, I’ve developed some valuable skills along the way in marketing, writing, editing, and web development. I feel incredibly lucky that in a still-difficult economy I was able to find a well-paying job that not only utilizes my skills but is a good fit for my personality and work style. Even though I never planned to have a career.

My parents were great parents, and they came out of a different time, both culturally and economically. Their choices worked well for their family, and I had a wonderful childhood, so I am not trying to denigrate how they set up their life or what they taught me. But from my experience and the experience of many other women I have met and compared stories with, here are a few things I’ve decided I will teach my daughter (and my son!)

  1. A Bachelor’s degree is NOT a backup financial plan. No matter what your degree is in, trying to get a job years later when you’ve acquired no experience in the meantime is difficult at best. In my case, I’ve developed some great skills and even put them to work on an entrepreneurial, freelance and hobby basis. It just kind of happened, even though I always planned to be and thought of myself as a SAHM. But if I had it to do over again, I would consciously and deliberately develop a career, even if it was part-time.
  2. The more you get paid per hour, the fewer hours you have to work. After Tony and I got married, I looked around for work in Provo, Utah, where Tony was going to school. It’s a town full of degreed women putting their husbands through school on secretarial jobs, and I was no exception. I had a great boss, and I enjoyed working at a firm specializing in immigration law where I could get to know people from all over the world, but I made $9.00 an hour. I’m sure I could have gotten a higher-paying job if I had done some career planning rather than just getting a BA with no plan whatsoever for a career. And maybe if I had been making more I would have felt it was worth it to continue part-time or from home after I had my baby. I am encouraging both my son and my daughter to plan and educate themselves for a reasonably lucrative career  so that whether they work part-time or full-time they can maximize time with their family.
  3. Balancing work and family is important for women AND men. Women are often encouraged to go into nursing, teaching, or other “flexible” careers that are viewed as compatible with having children. However, flex-time and working at least partially from home are commonplace now in many career fields. There’s a very important caveat, though: the more educated, experienced, and senior you are, the more likely you are to be able to negotiate a flexible arrangement. This goes for men too. Both mothers and fathers are important in the lives of their children, and there is no reason a man needs to settle for a demanding job that barely lets him see his family just because he’s a man. I encourage both my daughter and my son to plan for a future life where they and their spouses work together to find the best way to schedule their work, family time, and other responsibilities. When both spouses have at least the potential to get good jobs, there are so many more options.
  4. PLAN for a fulfilling career. Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe your spouse will be able to single-handedly support your family for the duration of your life, maybe s/he won’t.  Maybe you’ll find full-time stay-at-home-parenthood the most fulfilling way of spending your time ever, maybe you won’t. Whatever happens in your personal life (and whenever it happens), you cannot lose if you plan ahead for a good education and an enjoyable career that will give you the money to support yourself and your potential family. You can always quit your job if it makes sense, scale back, or find a better fit in your field. It is so much harder to wait until you really need the money and have to take whatever job is available for someone with little experience and an outdated education. And so sad to realize that if only you had planned better, you could have a well-paying job in a field that interests you rather than minimum wage at two jobs you hate but were the only thing you could find.

Nobody can predict the future, and although I hope my children will have happy, productive, fulfilling lives, no amount of advice I give them will guarantee that. Still, I feel like what I can do for them is to teach them to prepare and plan carefully, keeping open as many options as possible. And tell them that for both girls and boys,  a fulfilling professional life is a worthy, attainable, and incredibly important goal.

Rated R

Mormons (at least in the U.S., where the MPAA holds sway) have a soft norm against watching R-rated movies. There are still lots of Mormons who watch them (just like there are plenty of Mormons who drink Coke or watch the Superbowl on Sunday or let their little girls wear tank tops), but for some,  not watching can be something of a symbol of their faith. I remember as a kid hearing several stories of young people who “lived their religion” by suggesting a different movie or just going home when their friends were pressuring them to watch one that was rated with the big bad “R”.

Apparently I came from an especially strict family, because we didn’t watch PG-13 movies either. Or even PG movies sometimes. In fact, my entire family (parents + five kids) walked out of a movie theater once because my parents considered the content inappropriate. The movie? Home Alone.

I did watch the odd PG-13 movie as a teenager. In fact, I remember going out on a first date with someone to see City of Angels. Watching the sex scene at the end of that movie with a boy I barely knew had to have been one of the most embarrassing moments of my sheltered sixteen year old life.

At BYU,  I went to the International Cinema every week, so I saw dozens of artsy foreign films. Some of them had originally been rated “R”, but had been edited by the university (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so, and sometimes to the point of leaving ragged plot holes).

So my first real “R” movie was Braveheart. I watched it shortly after I got married, because Tony thought it was amazing (and that I should lighten up about the movies). Besides, even my grandma had seen it. It was kind of a bad choice for my first “R” film, since it turns out that “brutal medieval warfare” is not really my thing. Which may have something to do with the fact that I didn’t watch another R-rated movie until a couple of months ago, when I finally decided that I was quite a bit more capable than the MPAA of deciding which movies I would enjoy.

Lately I’ve been catching up on the past several decades of great movies. I’ve had some fits and starts (e.g. I only made it about 30 seconds into The Libertine, even though I love Johnny Depp), but by and large, it’s been great. And because you’re surely dying to know, here are my favorite three R-rated movies so far:

One of my first choices was The Matrix. Judging by the number of times I’ve heard this movie referenced in BYU classes and even Sacrament Meeting, I am not the first Mormon to make an exception to the “R” rule for this movie. So mainly I am happy to finally have a reference point for when people ask me if I want the blue pill or the red pill. I found the movie both fascinating and entertaining, and a very illuminating antecedent for much of the sci fi that has gone on since. (And hey, I guess Keanu Reeves is not such a bad actor as I had thought from seeing him slaughter his every line in Much Ado About Nothing.)

All the scattered philosophical allusions are good fun, although I would characterize it more as a movie with some deep bits and pieces than a really profound work of art. There were some kind of gory parts, but I didn’t really find it any worse than some PG-13 movies I could name (Dark Knight, I’m looking at you).

I first fell in love with the Guy Fawkes masks during the Arab Spring, when Anonymous was so prominent in its support of the young protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. And Natalie Portman is one of my favorite actors. So I was intrigued to finally see this movie, and went into it with very high expectations. They were fulfilled and surpassed. Visually, this film is absolutely gorgeous. The dramatic colors and the sweeping panoramas give it a larger-than-life feel.

The dialogue is sophisticated and wonderful, from V’s very first gloriously alliterative introduction. It is a film with more than its share of memorable moments, perfectly orchestrated for maximum impact. There were some parts where there was just too much blood for me to look, but I wouldn’t call any of the violence gratuitous. All in all, I highly recommend it for anyone who likes a good dystopia-meets-civil disobedience story. (O.K., any adult. I still don’t let my little kids watch R-rated movies.)

This may be my favorite movie ever. It definitely makes the top five. It’s directed by Michael Radford, who also did the wonderful Italian film Il Postino. I’ve always felt vaguely guilty for loving The Merchant of Venice because it’s so blatantly anti-Semitic. But Michael Radford humanizes and elevates the problematic Shylock to the status of tragic hero, masterfully played by Al Pacino. We empathize with Shylock even as he descends into revenge and bitterness, and the terrible effects of bigotry on both offenders and offended are graphically illustrated.

The rest of the cast also performs beautifully.  I especially enjoyed watching Lynn Collins’ portrayal of the brilliant, desired, but unmistakably human Portia. And the implied homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio renders Portia’s ultimate victory in the end all the more complete. I had never read The Merchant of Venice as Radford reads it, but I found myself utterly convinced by the end that even if Shakespeare hadn’t intended all these nuances, he ought to have.

On top of everything else, this movie is visually stunning. The costumes and scenery are lush and opulent, and the dramatically shadowy canals of Venice made me feel like I had gone back in time. In fact, bizarrely, it was Radford’s insistence on absolute historical accuracy (including the fact that prostitutes in 16th century Venice were obliged by law to go bare-breasted) that garnered the film its American “R” rating. Go figure.

So what else have I been missing? Any movies to recommend?

Wearing Pants

About a month ago, I wore pants to church for the first time (trousers, that is, for my readers who speak British-inspired forms of English). In case you didn’t know, there’s a soft norm in the Mormon church for women to wear skirts or dresses to Sunday meetings. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s been quite a social media tempest during the past couple of weeks after a group of Mormon feminists asked LDS women to wear pants to church on Sunday, December 16 as a show of solidarity.

Having already recently conducted my own private (and unrelated) “wear pants to church” event, I thought it would be an opportune time to share my thoughts here. I had been contemplating wearing pants to church for awhile and had several reasons for doing it, although when it actually came down to it, the choice to wear pants on that particular Sunday had mostly to do with the fact that I was exhausted from taking care of sick family members and my dress pants were clean and pressed, while my skirt was not.

Turns out, though, I liked wearing pants. They worked a lot better for playing the organ than my knee-length skirts (which tend to ride up as I move my feet around on the pedals) or my long skirts (which I never wear on Sundays when it’s my turn to play because they trip me up on the pedals). I was comfortably warm in the chapel for the first time in many months. I got a chance to wear the nice slacks my mother-in-law bought me last year, and which I don’t really have much occasion to don in my stay-at-home Mormon mom life. Wearing pants also made me more aware of how members or visitors might feel who stand out as different at church, whether it’s because of their clothing, marital status, race, tobacco odor, or whatever other reason.

My biggest reason for wearing pants, though, is that I myself am one of “those” Mormon feminists. I know that on the outside I look like a pretty good Molly Mormon (i.e. stay-at-home-mom with temple marriage and cute kids who pays tithing, wears knee-length skirts and shoulder-covering shirts, doesn’t drink or smoke, makes casseroles for funerals, etc.). But inside I see things a little differently from the majority of conservative Mormons in my ward, and any other ward I’ve ever lived in, for that matter. I love to talk about Heavenly Mother. I voted for Obama. I buy both my daughter and my son baby dolls and building toys. And yes, I would be more than happy to see some changes in my  church with regard to greater gender equality.

No, that doesn’t mean I’m writing letters to the prophet or picketing the church office building to demand that he immediately start ordaining women to the priesthood. What I am doing is listening to other women’s stories about how they feel at church, and telling my own. It means that I’m participating in discussions and thought experiments that analyze cultural and institutional problems and explore possibilities to change things for the better.

Anyway, that’s what I do online. On Sundays I dress up in my modest skirt, roll up my sleeves, and do what I’ve been asked to help my congregation run smoothly. In Sunday School,  I try to modulate my comments to make sure that I don’t say anything offensive to my more conservative brothers and sisters. But I am not accorded the same courtesy, and hear offensive statements from members of my ward all the time at church.

I think it’s mostly out of ignorance, because they’re all nice people. So in some ways, that’s part of what wearing pants meant to me. I wanted them to know I exist, not just as the Molly Mormon who knows all the Sunday School answers and signs up to make meals whenever there’s a need, but as myself, with all my issues and doubts and yes, my feminism. I want them to know who I really am, and that no matter what they’ve heard about stereotypical Mormon feminists, I love my church, and want it to be a place where I can belong even if I think or feel or look a little different from everyone else. I want that for me, and I want it for all the other women (and men) who have felt alienated or judged in a place that should be full of the love of Christ and safe for all of us.

And you know what, the members of my ward really made my day. There were no comments about my clothing choice, and I didn’t even see any stares. As far as I could tell, nobody even noticed I was wearing pants. They smiled at me, and talked to me, and loved me just the same as they always do. That might seem like a small thing, but it meant a lot to me. Because really, wearing pants to church was more about who I am and how I feel than it was about trying to impact anyone else. I needed to stand before my God and my faith community and be honest about who I was. After so many times of going to church and hearing things that make me wonder if there’s even a place there for me, wearing pants felt like a way to ask my question out loud and know from the response if I was really welcome. And what I heard loud and clear from my brothers and sisters at church that day is that they, like the Master they worship, love me for who I am and welcome me with all my doubts and inadequacies and idiosyncrasies. And feminism. And pants.

Tomorrow, Mormon women around the world will be wearing pants to church for many different reasons. Some would like to see small changes in culture and policy. Others hope for more substantive restructuring. Some differ from the traditional Mormon mold in their marital status, professional choices, background, lack of children, etc. Others have experienced abuse at the hands of Priesthood leaders. Some have been absent from church for months or years because they felt alienated or unwelcome, and are coming back out of hope that maybe this time will be different. Others because they are new converts, wear what is traditional to their cultures, can’t afford new clothes,  or just prefer pants. Still others because they want to make sure that the people who dress differently feel welcome too.

Some women will wear pants to church tomorrow because that’s what they always wear. Others have been so dumbfounded by the negative and in some cases violent language used to intimidate and demean those who plan to wear pants, that they have elected to wear pants in solidarity.

I hope, for all these women, that their wards are as kind as mine. I hope they have bishops and relief society presidents and fellow members who can look beyond the pants and see the loving, faithful, conflicted daughter of God. And I hope that they will open their hearts and make her feel welcome in a way she’s never felt welcome before.

I’ll be wearing my pants again tomorrow. And if by some amazing chance there’s another Mormon feminist in my ward, I really hope she wears pants too. If you’re out there, I’d love to meet you, my long-lost sister!

P.S. If you’ve never felt hurt by a perceived inequality in the church and would like to understand where people like me are coming from, I recommend this article from Neylan McBaine, who is the associate creative director for the Church-owned Bonneville Communications, the agency partnered with the Church on Mormon.org and the “I’m A Mormon” campaign.

How I Made Friends With Facebook

I have not always been a friend to Facebook. I am way too old to have grown up using it in high school. Actually, I’ll admit it, I’m even too old to have used it in college. I found out about Facebook from my kid brother long after all the cool people were already on it. I finally broke down and joined on 12 November 2008. According to Facebook, that important date (which appears prominently in my snazzy new Timeline) ranks right up there with being born and graduating from college.

Like most users, I experienced the initial infatuation with Facebook, as it put me back in touch with various long lost friends. And although I never took photos of myself kissing Zuckerberg’s photo, I do have warm fuzzies over Facebook’s important role in the Arab Spring. Since then, however, my feelings about Facebook have deteriorated from sarcastic ambivalence to downright hostility.

However, Facebook has recently undergone a rehabilitation in my affections. Here’s why:

I never experienced small town life until we moved to Italy, and lived in a beautiful little village on a mountainside, with a river running through it. If that sounds just unbelievably romantic, it was.

There was a church bell tower that chimed the hour, a tiny, cobblestone village square, and a picturesque castle up on the hill, within whose ruined walls we once held a very memorable family home evening.

But what was really a change for us Southern Californians was the fact that everybody seemed to know each other. And not only did they know each other, but they seemed to actually have time to talk. They would have lengthy conversations with anyone they met while out and about in the narrow, cobblestone streets. Which generally happened several times a day.

The result of all this, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows, was that everyone also knew everything about everyone else. Especially about the bizarre Americans who had dropped in from nowhere claiming that their great-great grandfather was Italian. We even got written up with embarrassingly complimentary exaggeration by the local newspaper.

At first, it was startling to realize that my everyday doings were common knowledge, and I should consider pretty much the whole town friends (or at least acquaintances). But after a while, I got to kind of like it. It was something feeling like you belonged somewhere and would leave a real hole if you went away. And sure enough, eventually, we did go away. In fact, we’ve moved several times since then.

From my peripatetic perspective, it’s near impossible to picture living my whole life in the village where I was born. But I have to admit that the idea fascinates me. What if all my favorite people did live in the same little village? What if I had the chance of bumping into them every day on my way to buy bread before dinner? What if I casually knew what was going on in their lives, whether I’d talked to them lately or not, because word just gets around in our little town? What if?

Here’s the problem: my favorite people are scattered all over the world. Everywhere we go, I meet new people  that I’d love to have as friends forever. By now it’s far too late for all, a majority, or even a reasonable plurality of my friends to live in the same geographical area.

And here’s where Facebook comes in. In a kind of a virtual sense, Facebook allows me to have that sense of community I crave with people who, in Goethe’s words, “though distant, are close to [me] in spirit.” Because I want to know more than just the “important” things that turn up in a yearly Christmas letter. I want to hear the little, mundane things that make up the majority of our lives. I want to know the funny thing your kid said, what your new hairdo looks like, and that mortifying mix-up that happened at work today. You know, the instagrams of life.

Really, what I’ve noticed lately is that a few minutes spent on Facebook is a bit like that walk to the bread shop in Italy. I can climb a volcano in the Philippines with Jerry. I can peek in on Erin’s lovely picnic in England. I know what Shelly got in her CSA basket in Washington this week and what Kelly in Utah thought about Spiderman. Jo Ann keeps me posted on how much garbage has been thrown lately on our beloved Tunisian beach. If I’m lucky, sometimes Carla even gives me a glimpse into the life of that lovely little Italian village.

So while I may never transplant my life permanently to a tiny village where everyone knows my name, maybe I don’t need to. Facebook is my global village.

My inner artist

Like most other children, I really liked to draw when I was young.

At the age of nine, my mom enrolled me in a YMCA art class, where I learned about various artistic styles and did the requisite imitations. For example, here’s my Mondrian,

The Seurat,

and the Kandinsky.

Later, as a teenager, I traded piano lessons for art lessons from a friend, and along with drawing and painting, I tried my hand at such varied artistic activities as Ukranian Easter eggs (several of which still hang on our tree each Christmas), wood-burning, and printing.

In fact, ten years or so later, when Tony discovered several versions of this print as we were packing my stuff before getting married, he finally relented and agreed to get married in the San Diego Temple, rather than the Salt Lake Temple (his preference) or the Oakland Temple (the most convenient).

Sometime later, I decided that I was actually not an artist. I’m not sure why; I guess it was one of those things we mistakenly leave behind with childhood, like St. Exupery’s boa eating an elephant. It’s funny, but I would get really embarrassed when at the age of two or three, Axa went through a stage where she would ask me to draw her things. I felt like a deficient parent because I couldn’t draw. She eventually stopped asking.

Then I learned about Charlotte Mason, and started implementing her ideas in our homeschool. One of her foundational precepts is nature study. This is accomplished through plenty of time outdoors, close observation of flora and fauna, and then documentation in a “nature journal.”

The epitome of wonderful nature journals is The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, a beautiful nature journal kept for the year of 1906 by a young woman named Edith Holden. Exquisitely detailed watercolor illustrations decorate each page, accompanied by observations of wildlife or vegetation, and poems.

When she recommended that mothers keep their own nature journal to inspire their children, I’m sure that a book like Holden’s must have been what Charlotte Mason had in mind. Unfortunately, I’m no Edith Holden. So while Axa has two nature journals (an online one and a paper one), I have yet to start one of my own.

I’ve been teaching the lessons in Drawing With Children to Axa and Raj, and generally feeling like a hypocrite for not trying out the techniques myself. I just didn’t think I could bring myself to draw anything.

I have had a little box of nice, unused watercolor pencils sitting in my roll-top desk since we moved here. Every so often I look over at it and think about going outside to draw. But then I decide that I’m far to busy, and not quite pysched up enough to do it.

Until today. Today, for some reason, I picked up my pencils and a pad and wandered outside to the front yard. I sat down in my beach chair and looked around, considering what I could draw. I figured it would be too difficult to essay a close-up of anything, even blades of grass, so I settled on the house across the street. Here’s the view:

And here’s my picture. (Yes, I noticed that the house is actually not fuchsia and orange in real life, but I wanted to use more of my colors.)

This is my deconstruction of the experience:

* After I’d been drawing for about five minutes, I started feeling insecure, and deciding again that I couldn’t draw. But I decided to tough it out, and finish the picture.

*I used several of the ideas I’d learned in Drawing With Children, like choosing a starting point and then planning the rest of the drawing around it, drawing things in front first, and turning mistakes into something else (yep, that was my favorite).

*About halfway through, I actually started enjoying the process, even though I was still afraid that I would do something irreparable and my drawing would be destroyed.

*By the time I was nearly done, I looked at my picture and felt a little thrill of excitement that the scene had somehow magically transferred itself onto my paper. I’m still no Picasso, but I think maybe I could make friends with this art thing again.