It’s that time again! I’ve made a video talking about ten of the books I liked best this year. Watch the video for a short description of each book, a little info about a new project I have coming up, and a chance to win a book from my favourites list. Check out my book blog for a more detailed discussion of what I read this year.
One weekend in the winter or spring of 1986, when I was a senior at Andrews University, my college boyfriend Rob spoke the words that college boyfriends have been saying to their girlfriends ever since:
“What? You’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies?”
I had not. I didn’t think of myself as liking science fiction, back then. I liked fantasy — Narnia and Lord of the Rings — but I wouldn’t have gone to see a movie with spaceships and blasters and explosions in the outer reaches of the galaxy. However, when he proposed watching the videos to remedy this gap in my education, I was up for it.
This was 1986, and catching up with movies you hadn’t seen (apart from just randomly catching them when they aired on TV years later) was only beginning to be possible. It wasn’t yet easy. We had to find a friend (my cousin Jennifer) with an apartment and a TV, lug a borrowed or rented VCR over from someplace (actually, it may have been Rob’s own Betamax, brought over from his dorm — yes, I think I originally watched Star Wars on a Betamax; how’s that for ancient?) We had to hook it all up and watch the movies, one casette at a time over three nights, if I recall correctly. And that was how I met Carrie Fisher, the iconic Princess Leia, who died today at age 60.
I loved her and I loved the movies. Yes, Luke Skywalker set off to “save the princess,” and along the way joined up with the roguish Han Solo (she loved him because he was a scoundrel) who became her love interest, but Princess Leia never passively sat around waiting for rescue. She was an active participant — in the Rebellion, in her own rescue, in every conflict that played out over those three movies. For many female movie-goers like me, unlike our boyfriends and brothers, the important thing was not that Return of the Jedi showed Leia in chains in a gold bikini; it was that while wearing that outfit, SHE FRICKIN’ STRANGLED JABBA THE HUTT.
As everybody has noticed by now, 2016 has been a bad year for celebrity deaths, and given that every year the stars of our youth get a year older, this trend may well continue into 2017. I was unpleasantly startled when I heard that Alan Rickman had died, having enjoyed many of his film roles. I wasn’t particularly moved by the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, or George Michael, as I wasn’t a fan of any of their music, though I recognized the impact they had on the culture and on the people who did love them. I loved Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, but at 82 I felt he had had a good long life and career. The 2016 celebrity death that actually hit me, that brought tears to my eyes, was the death of Carrie Fisher, just as the year is drawing to a close.
In the summer of 1977 — the same year the first Star Wars movie came out and I didn’t see it — I remember coming in from playing out on the street on a summer day and my mother saying, “Elvis Presley is dead.” I was only vaguely aware of who Elvis was, and I wouldn’t have considered my mother a fan of his — I’d never heard an Elvis record played in our house, and she didn’t really like pop music generally. But she was knocked back by Elvis’s untimely death, because they were the same age — forty-two that summer, which seems so young to me now. The celebrities of your own generation, especially those exactly your age (for me it’s Brooke Shields, a child star when I was just an ordinary child), hold up a weird mirror to your own life, and their deaths are a shock — I guess that’s why my mother grieved for Elvis.
The things is, celebrities, like ordinary people, are always dying. In 2016 and in every other year. Why do some celebrity deaths grab our attention, interrupt our own lives, so far distant from their star-studded sphere? Because something in them echoes our own lives, or shines a light on those lives. Poets and spiritual seekers recognized a kindred spirit in Leonard Cohen. People who refused to be crammed into the narrow boxes of gender norms celebrated the same refusal in Prince and Bowie. If a musician’s songs were playing, or an actor’s movie dominated the screen, at the crucial moments of your own life, you feel you’ve lost a piece of yourself, of your own history, when they go. We still have the music, the movies, the books, though there’s the loss of knowing they won’t make any more. But what makes us grieve is that kinship, that sense that their lives were somehow being lived parallel to, commenting on and illuminating, our own.
Young Carrie Fisher was Leia, the princess who didn’t need the guys to come rescue her, who wielded a blaster and weird hair-buns instead of a tiara and a sparkly dress. Post-Star-Wars Carrie was kind of a mess, with the drinking and drug use and failed relationships, along with real and good work — Postcards from the Edge, all the script doctoring we never knew about. And then middle-aged Carrie was mouthy and honest and real, talking about addiction and mental illness and the impossible, crazy demands that the entertainment industry makes on women. She was on stage and page playing her pain for laughs in Wishful Drinking, and then there she was doing the talk show circuit for The Force Awakens with her dog tucked under her arm and her hilarious willingness to say anything, especially the unvarnished truth. Then there she was as General Leia Organa on screen again, older and graying and luminous and beautiful, grieving in Han Solo’s arms for all they’d lost, and still a tough, no-nonsense, revolutionary leader.
There are a lot of things wrong with our culture’s obsession with entertainers-as-celebrities, but at their best we relate to them because they tell us something about our own lives. Women, particularly geeky women, I think, of my generation — we loved young Leia for her strength, and we loved aging Carrie for her vulnerability. Both touched and changed us; both are gone now.
May the Force be with her, and may she rest in peace. And may we all have a little of Leia’s courage and Carrie’s relentless honesty as we journey through this galaxy not so long ago, and not so far away.
Hi friends, family, and … foes? I hope I don’t have any foes reading my blog. Maybe a few fans (of my books, not of me). But mostly friends and family.
Almost every December, this season brings on some reflection, some deep thoughts about the meaning of Christmas, the culture wars at this time of year, or just what it means to be living in a family, raising kids, being a person at this time of year. Some years there’s no new brilliant thoughts so I just recycle the old ones. I’ve been blogging for ten years now, so here are some of the things I’ve reflected on in past Christmases, for your reading (or re-reading) pleasure:
From 2004, before I even started this blog, a piece I wrote (reprinted here in 2011), called “Flesh.” Something I’ve been thinking about for many, many years, about how Christmas is about Incarnation, and how God-in-Jesus meets us in the frailty of human flesh.
In 2007, I was a little less serious. “Eight Songs A-Sucking” was my most popular blog post ever in terms of number of comments, because everybody likes to rant about the Christmas songs they hate.
Christmas 2009 I was back to reflecting on the meaning of the Incarnation, with “Light.” Again, these are thoughts I’ve been turning over for years — I wrote an article similar to this back in the late 80s — about how we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, even though Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born then, and the symbolic significance of light-in-darkness at this time of year.
In 2010, Santa met Jesus for a showdown! No, not really. I just used my Christmas blog space that year to explore the idea of Santa and how he fits (or doesn’t fit) into the Christian story of Jesus’ birth, and the celebration of Christmas for Christians today.
Tragically, in 2012, one of the worst mass shootings in US history occurred just a couple of weeks before Christmas. Getting ready for a season of joy and celebration as we were confronted by news of the Sandy Hook massacre left me with some thoughts on “Advent Tragedies.” The season of light can be a dark time.
2013 was the year my mom passed away, and I reflected on how hard it is to be merry and bright when you’re still mourning a loss. My Christmas post that year was titled “Merry-ish.” It’s about my approach to handling grief and celebration at the same time.
I think I was watching a lot of Doctor Who in 2014, because when I had another try at grappling with the mystery of the Incarnation, the post was titled “Time Lord of Gallifrey, Now in Flesh Appearing.” How is Jesus like, and not like, the Doctor?
Finally, last year in 2015, a lot of people could relate to my post “Broken,” in which I had an argument with my almost-grown son about the Christmas service at church, then went to church and reflected on how broken we all are.
I can’t remember when I first heard the story of Desmond Doss, the Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War Two, but like a lot of Adventist kids, I heard it pretty early. Now his story is the subject of a big-budget Hollywood movie, directed by Mel Gibson. Other people besides Adventists are seeing the story of this man who showed amazing courage in saving dozens of his fellow soldiers under enemy fire — without ever firing or even carrying a weapon himself.
This story has been told many times and many ways, and there is an excellent documentary (“The Conscientious Objector”) about Doss already. But a feature film, complete with special effects that bring the battlefield to all-too-vivid life, does add something that a documentary or book can’t do. It’s one thing to know that Doss brought 75 wounded men to safety by lowering them by ropes, one by one, over the cliff at Hacksaw Ridge while he and they were under enemy fire. It’s another thing to see it re-enacted, to feel the visceral terror and sheer effort that must have taken. Reading or hearing about what Desmond Doss accomplished told me that the man had tremendous courage; watching it made me feel what that must have cost him, and left me in awe. But what I loved most about this movie was how it subverted our expectations of what heroism in a movie (and, by extension, in real life) should look like.
I started baking a lemon blueberry cake at about 10:30 last night. I was going to bake while watching the U.S. election returns. Then in the morning I planned to throw on my Hillary Clinton T-shirt, take my cake to work, and celebrate the election of the first woman president of the most powerful country on earth.
Obviously, things did not go as planned.
The cake was baked anyway. I brought it in to work as a consolation cake. And I couldn’t put on the Hillary T-shirt (which I’d ordered online and arrived yesterday, just in time to wear triumphantly the day after the election. Sigh). Going through my extensive collection of graphic tees, only one seemed to have the message I needed today: my rainbow-hued shirt with the Jack Layton quote about love, hope, and optimism.
This is a conversation (reconstructed, I can’t remember the actual words except for the three key words in the title of this blog post) that I heard reported to me years ago. It took place between two people of my parents’ generation, both of whom had grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. One had stayed in it; the other had left:
Person Who Left: I’m quite happy with my decision to leave the church; we find a great blessing from attending our local Anglican church.
Person Who Stayed: You’re just happy belonging to the Anglican church because it doesn’t demand anything of you — it’s a comfortable pew.
How those words have stayed with me … the phrase “a comfortable pew,” spoken with a mixture of censure and envy by someone who was a lifelong member of the Adventist church but often found its demands burdensome. Coded into that phrase was the tension — so prevalent in my extended family growing up, and in my circle of friends and acquaintances even now — among those of us who grew up in our tight-knit community: the tension between those who left and those of us who stayed.
The implication in that phrase was that if you left the church, it was because you found it too hard and you were looking for something easier, more convenient. A comfortable pew on Sunday morning in a less demanding church, or maybe no pew at all … maybe your own sofa on a Sabbath morning, drinking coffee and doing the crossword instead of subjecting yourself to the hard discipline of going to church.
After 51 years attending church (and I mean that quite literally; I was born on a Saturday and I think my parents took me to church pretty much the next Sabbath), I finally got tired of sitting for over an hour on hard pews, and made myself (and Emma, who reached this decision much earlier in life) a couple of comfy pew cushions, pictured above. They’re great. They have increased my enjoyment of church and my sermon tolerance about 100%.
I am still sitting in the same pew I have been sitting in virtually all my life, more or less. It is now, at least literally, a more comfortable pew. In some ways it’s a more comfortable one metaphorically, too; in other ways, less so.
I started teaching in September 1986, three weeks before my twenty-first birthday. I taught high school English and History at Kingsway College, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school in Oshawa, Ontario. I was young and naive and did everything wrong, but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey as a teacher.
When I walked into my classroom at The Murphy Centre this September, it marked the thirty-year anniversary of the first time I stood in front of the classroom as a teacher.
For a teacher here in Newfoundland, that anniversary has some weight. For a long time the set-up for teachers with the public school board here in the province has been “thirty and out,” meaning that after 30 years of teaching, you can retire and draw your full pension.
So, this would be it. I’d be done, finished, retired with a full pension while I’m still young and healthy enough to do lots of writing and travel, or even take up a second career. I’d be livin’ the dream.
Except I’m not. Not living that particular dream, the one where I retire at age 50.
In order to get “thirty and out,” you’d have to have been teaching in the public school system here in the province for all those years, consecutively. I think if you take maternity leave, that time counts towards your years of service, but other than that you have to have been working all that time. And that’s not what my career path has looked like.