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 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

MIdweek Musing: on costly blessings

When others preach that God heals our brokenness, Rev Dr Richard Frazer preaches that God disables us, makes the journey costly.

This Sunday, I was struck by, and grateful for this courageous and honest reflection on the story of Jacob's wrestling with God.

From the story, Richard invited us to hear that faith is not blind allegiance or smug certainty: it is wrestling.

To acknowledge that we might get hurt when we wrestle with God. And when we have struggled, we hold on to that blessing - we hold on to it. For it is the only thing that counts. The blessing, the love, the being seen and known by the Divine counts more than any cost.

For a moment, with these words, I held my breath. For in that reading of the story I heard my own. I had struggled, and in the struggle I, like Jacob, refused to let God go. I walked away from the tussle, well, more like limping, as with Jacob. I had been injured by the struggle. Broken, in a way. In time I came to learn my name, not quite so instantly heard and known in the moment. In time I came to know the blessing, and I have not let go of that, either.

Sometimes we need the hope of healing, the comfort of a still voice and calm presence. If that is all we hear, we deny God's presence in the fulness of our lived experience. We ignore the blessing that comes through struggle.

On this side of the struggle and the not letting go and the blessing and learning by what name God calls me, hearing this reading of the story of Jacob was a gift of affirmation. To receive such affirmation now, in this season of transition and seeking the next way in which I will live into my name, my calling, was pretty good timing, too.

Why do we proclaim the Story of God whenever we gather, in reading the scripture aloud and preaching? So that we will hear our own story within the Story of God, and know that we are named, are heard, are blessed, in the struggle and all it costs us. That blessing is all that counts, and it is worth the cost.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Midweek Musing: flares of grace

Sun on your back, you stretch
in grateful receipt of its flare.
Blue sky, smile at the reprieve
from the grey. Inhale, long
and deep, graced with life.
It's Friday afternoon in the Meadows,
and the mood is as light as the breeze.

Such afternoons in the Meadows have an atmosphere. People are there in ones and twos and groups. Musicians play and sing; the sporty throw frisbees, kick footballs (soccer balls for the non-British); the contemplative meditate in stillness or gentle movement. Dogs delight; children run across that vast green; cyclists and joggers circle the green on the criss-crossing paths; readers stretch on the green or sit beside it on benches. Today only a few fast walking people with work-like purpose, and in the corner playground laughter and tennis court action.

And me, walking some of those criss-crossing paths at a steady pace, slow enough to take it all in and be present, faster than a stroll. I covet the turreted ancient apartment blocks, pass a couple of families several times on their wanderings, watch a woman in white stop and capture the moment, clearly enjoying the day. Perhaps I could have brought a book, or a job application to write, sat in the sun on the grass for a while. No, I am here to move, I have been sitting all day.

Perhaps it would be nice, thought, to have someone to share the moment with, laze with in the sun. For a moment, I lament this singleness. I do, occasionally, get lonely, wish I wasn't solitary. Particularly it seems in seasons of challenge or uncertainty. Am I reaching for someone to hang onto as I feel as though I am drifting? It is hard to know which friend to call, when you're not even sure you want company. I realise again that it is hard to be a PhD student in summer, when the rhythm of semester and teaching and seminars is missing, and the study room empties into holidays and language courses in France and Germany, conferences and visitors and festivals. It is hard to be a PhD student finishing, preparing to let go and submit yourself, your work, to the vulnerability of examination; trying door after door for a place somewhere for when your place as a post-grad comes to an end. It is hard to be planning for home but not able to buy a ticket yet, with still so much uncertainty, not knowing how long you'll be staying or how long you might need to rely on the generosity of family before standing on your own feet again, because I will go home broke.

All this as I walked in the dappled sunlight on paths through the Meadows, amongst the people gathered there creating the atmosphere of a pleasant, lazy, Friday afternoon. Although the current challenges were thus present with me, the walk did still manage to open my lungs, release tension from muscles, and warm my literal and figurative heart. Here's to walks, then, and to sunshine and blue skies and the collective sigh of people enjoying the moment.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Thoughts in response to the #Doctor13 announcement

It's a woman. The backlash in part indicates why a regeneration in female form, or perhaps more to the point why stories with female leads, need to happen on our screens. The dominant narrative we have been telling ourselves in the west is that, as in Ancient Rome, the young white educated man is the pinnacle of human being, and anyone else of different age, race, colour, creed, gender, is somewhat sub-human. That is not acceptable.

It's not a man. Someone commented that The Doctor is a male lead who challenges some dominant narratives about what it is to be a man. I agree. The Doctor prefers non-violence. The Doctor finds beauty in difference; his response whenever he encounters a species he's not seen before is 'Oh, you are beautiful!' The Doctor may appear - and appear to think he is - a lone figure, solitary, alone, but he is not. The Doctor collaborates, with people (and others) different to him, and the women in the story are very often cleverer, stronger, even kinder, than The Doctor. So we lose something with a regeneration into a female Doctor, something worth naming and celebrating from Doctors 1 to 12.

It's a woman. It is worth noting The Doctor's consistent affirmation of women and not only in recent storylines anticipating this regeneration. This regeneration is not inconsistent with The Doctor's character. It is, however, a story the show could not tell before now.

It's not a person of colour. Fair point. Another part of that dominant narrative is the whiteness of it. Here I may risk negating any argument in favour of a female Doctor. Can - and should - this story, this character, be all things to and for all viewers? As many have pointed out in comments, Doctor Who has been, especially in the current era, remarkable in its presentation of characters of diversity. I could cite only 10's adventure on the Titanic and the prejudices of the rich and pretty towards the poorer, larger couple; the prejudice Banakafalata feels as a cyborg; and the inherent prejudices about education represented in the guide's story. Companions have expressed all kinds of sexualities, and included the wonderfully platonic relationship between Donna and The Doctor, for me a welcome antidote to the Doctor-Rose dynamic I thought was a bit over the top. The companions are not 'support' roles as subordinate characters; they drive the story along with The Doctor, and gain the interest and love of viewers just as much. The diversity that has already been present in that wonder-filled blue box cannot be underestimated, and must be acknowledged and celebrated. I don't think The Doctor can be all the things; but Doctor Who has presented the glorious diversity of humanity in a way that makes diversity seem natural, the norm, the opposite of the posturing and denigration of 'other' we see in some responses to #Doctor13.

It's a woman. And Jodie Whittaker is a human being of dignity and worth and to be anything other than kind to her is to go against the very ethos of The Doctor you claim to love.

It's a woman. So is Missy, and a fabulous, obvious, regeneration of The Master she was.

It's a woman. What an opportunity, artistically, to explore unexplored areas of The Doctor's character and story. Yes, it is an opportunity politically as well: we are clearly much further from equality, from the respect and affirmation of humans because they are humans than The Doctor is.

It's a woman. Get over it. No one is forcing you to watch. I am looking forward to it, more than I thought I would. The reveal got me, convinced me in 60 seconds. She is The Doctor, and I can't wait to watch her stories.