A friend of mine used to share an orange every day with a co-worker, and they did not each eat half of the flesh. No, my friend ate the flesh and the co-worker ate the pith–the white spongy stuff between the flesh and the rind. This started a conversation about the word “pith.”
My friend remembered it from his high school biology class, when they had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Let me repeat, there was a time when American high school students had to kill the frog they were about to dissect. Now, I’ve enjoyed all the dissections I’ve done, in both high school and college, but I don’t know that I could’ve done that. Anyway, they were told to pith their frogs: to push a spike through the back of the amphibian neck and down the spinal column. I’d never heard that use of the word, but, indeed: pith is an archaic noun for spinal marrow, and a verb for severing or piercing said spinal column to kill or immobilize an animal.
So as a noun, pith is the spongy tissue inside the rind of citrus plants and spinal marrow. But that’s not all.
It also refers to the spongy cellular tissue inside the stems of vascular plants: the stuff that draws up and stores water and nutrients from the soil.
It is also used in the writing world. It can refer to the essence, the most important point of an argument, as well as a concise way of of writing, “a pithy saying.”
As a verb, it’s a term for removing pith from citrus fruits and for severing the spinal column to kill an animal.
And let us not forget the pith helmet. I saw an elderly man paying for his groceries last week who was wearing a pith helmet, and it made me happy. They are made of the pith of the sola plant.
What on earth do all these uses have in common? Cores; things that bring life/liveliness.
In the plant world it distributes and stores what is needed for that plant to live (citrus pith apparently contains many nutrients). An alternative name for the pith in vascular plants: the medulla. Which makes me think of the pithing my friend had to do to the poor frog–the medulla oblongata being located at the base of the skull, right where he was directed to stick the spike.
In the animal world (in its archaic use) it was probably believed to be the core of the spine that transmitted important stuff (nutrients? information?) to and from the brain. I have since learned that we no longer talk of spinal marrow at all; that the soft tissue inside our bones is mainly found in the hip bones, breast bone, and skull.
In the writing world it is the core, the center of an argument, or a way of making the argument lively and memorable.
So that’s the little rabbit hole I went down after a brief conversation this weekend. Aren’t words fun? Do you know any other words with a variety of entertaining meanings?
No whales will be harmed in this post, and there will be no photos of the insides of actual whales. I’m talking about about the Samuel D. Hunter play, The Whale, that I saw at Actor’s Theatre last night–“dissecting” the story by analyzing it like a writer, as we do in an online book club I’m part of.
The performance I saw last night gave me that rare experience of being in an audience that is completely silent: no coughing, no rustling of playbills or crinkling of candy wrappers, no shifting in their seats. Silent isn’t even the right word. It was a heavy stillness, a quiet that we couldn’t release ourselves from. The only other time I’d experienced that was when I watched a Holocaust survivor tell his story to middle schoolers.
The Whale is about Charlie, a 600-pound man who is about to die and reaches out to Ellie, the angry daughter he hasn’t seen in 17 years. Charlie’s friend and nurse, Liz, tries in vain to keep him alive. Mormon missionary Elder Thomas keeps showing up to talk about God, and Charlie’s ex-wife Mary comes in as an avenging truth-teller. It is funny, until about half-way through, and then it’s compelling and devastating, can’t-turn-away theater.
Hunter does something incredibly well that writers are told to do, but is tough to commit to: every character is the center and star of their own story. Yes, the play revolves around Charlie’s decision to eat himself to death in his crappy apartment, but each character is enacting his or her own drama within this. Their actions are so well motivated by their own pasts. It’s impressive storytelling.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to detail each character’s story below, so if you want to see this play and have it be a surprise, then you should stop reading right now. Also, this post is crazy long. I’m mostly writing it for my own learning, but you may share in that if you like.
The center of the play does not want to be the center of his own life. His most common line is, “I’m sorry.” He’s constantly apologizing for being who he is. The entire play takes place in his lousy apartment: walls are mildewed, food garbage spills out of the kitchen, covering the table, and onto the floor. His couch is a gold plush couch that looks like it came from the curb. Charlie is in his last week of life due to congestive heart failure, but he refuses all attempts to get him to go to the hospital, or to even call a doctor. He works as an online writing teacher, but because of his surroundings, we assume he has little money (but just enough money that he doesn’t qualify for county services).
As the play goes on, we see him interact with Liz, his nurse-friend, and Elder Thomas, the Mormon missionary who comes to the door when Charlie is in a medical crisis. We see him recording lessons to his students. We see him with his cruel, foul-mouthed daughter who keeps a hate blog and calls him “disgusting” to his face. And he is kind to everyone. He’s clearly not doing well, but he doesn’t reject connection with people. I held out some small amount of hope that this was the kind of story where human connection draws somebody out of their destructive behavior, but no.
He tells his story to Elder Thomas, and it is sad. He had been married with a child, but then met Alan, one of his students. They became lovers, his marriage ended, and he and Alan become partners. Alan had been Mormon, but was rejected by the church and his family. At one point, Alan’s father invites him to church one last time and he goes. Whatever happens there so devastates him that he gives up on life, refusing to eat or drink or sleep. He is dead within months. Charlie wants Elder Thomas to find out what happened to Alan at that church.
Ellie doesn’t hold still long enough to hear anything of her father’s past. She’s angry. So angry. When she was younger, she was able to admit to feeling sadness, but now all her emotions have ossified into rage. She lashes out at literally everyone, whether in the story or not. This isn’t some charmingly mouthy teenager: she drugs her father–a man who is clearly having breathing troubles–with crushed-up Ambien (that she’d stolen from her mother) in his sandwich just so he’d be quiet. She finds out Elder Thomas’s real name and posts photos of him smoking pot, making sure his family finds out. But Charlie thinks she’s amazing and wonderful, mostly based on her essay from 8th grade about Moby Dick that is honest and had vibrant writing. His ex-wife Mary calls him out, saying something like, “There you go with the positivity thing. It’s so annoying,” and detailing the cruelty she sees in their daughter. But he never admits to it, even insisting that she was only trying to help Elder Thomas by making sure he went back home.
And then we find out that he has plenty of money–over $100,000 in the bank. All for Ellie. He could have bought himself health insurance and avoided the situation we find him in. Which meant that he had decided to die. Just as his boyfriend Alan decided to erase himself, Charlie decided to blow himself up. With the excuse that he was providing for his daughter. Besides “sorry,” one of his other repeated words is “devastating,” and that’s just what his story is.
Charlie is so cruel to Liz, even while we see him being kind and apologetic: Liz is Alan’s sister. She assumes Charlie has no money and that’s how he got himself into this trouble. She argues with every single character who comes into contact with Charlie, telling them to leave, or challenging their desire to be with him, because she wants to be the one to save him. Eventually, she admits this in an argument with Elder Thomas, “You’re not going to be the one who saves him. I’m going to save him.”
It’s hard to watch her constantly trying to get him to go to the doctor; she brings him monitors and wheelchairs to help him manage his stress and be more mobile, because we know long before she does that Charlie has no intention of being saved. And when his ex-wife tells her how much money Charlie has…so heavy.
Liz has one of the most heartbreaking lines in the play: “Don’t you put me through this again.” She had to watch her brother die by degrees, and is so hurt that he’s been doing the same thing, but by the opposite method. In every interaction with him, she’s acting as the center of her own drama of trying to keep him alive; her status as his only friend is a key part of her self-image.
At first, he’s in the story as a foil to Liz, and as a bit of comic relief. But he keeps showing up, clearly wanting to help Charlie. That his chosen method is to talk about how amazing the Mormon church is when both Charlie and Liz have been crushed by it, is misguided, but earnest. Oh so very earnest. But then he gets into Ellie’s clutches, and she worms his story out of him: he isn’t on an official mission to Idaho, and Thomas isn’t his last name. His official mission had been the year before, to Oregon, but when he figured out that his mission partner didn’t care whether they helped anyone or connected with anyone in any way, he exploded one night, and beat the kid up. After that, he’d run away and wound up there in Idaho, determined to help at least one person.
“Elder Thomas” is as positive-thinking as Charlie, always looking for the best in the stories in the Book of Mormon, and the history of the church. And he’s always nonplussed when nobody else shares that positive outlook. But he keeps at it, because he’s the center of his story.
She arrives in every scene as a tornado, not caring about any consequences. She assumes she knows everything there is to know, whether about a person, or a situation, and doesn’t waver from it, even when given evidence to the contrary. Even the fact that she keeps coming to see her father doesn’t redeem her because he offered her all his money to do so, and told her how much it was–she mentions the money a lot. Her words are hurtful, her attitude is dismissive, and she manipulates everyone to suit herself. Yes, her father left when she was 2, and her mother is an alcoholic who never talked about her father and never let her see Charlie, so she’s understandably hurt and angry, but her armor is so thick, there isn’t a glimmer of a hairline crack until the very last minute of the play. She is so much the star of her own story that she barely admits that any other person has any value at all.
We don’t see much of Mary, but we see how Ellie’s absence from Charlie’s life after their divorce is pretty much her doing: at first, she was probably hurt and angry from being with someone who was living a lie and also possibly a wash of disgust and shame because of the homosexuality issue. She’d fought hard for full custody and gotten it. But then she kept Ellie from her father (despite the fact that not only was Charlie paying child support, but also supporting her financially, since she was an unemployed alcoholic) because she didn’t want him to think she was a bad mother, because Ellie was such a shit.
It was so sad to watch her interactions with Charlie, because he was so gentle with her; it was clear that he was the only person in her life who had ever been gentle with her, and she’d been without that for 15 years. No matter how much she needed that kindness (at one point she puts her head on his chest to listen to his breathing, and she turns it into an embrace, the expression on her face a mix of longing and grief), she lashed out at him, too, destroying his relationship with Liz by telling her the truth about the money. Mary piled shame upon shame on herself and interacted with everyone from within that spiral.
If you’ve stuck with me this long, thanks! This was brilliant storytelling, and I’m not even talking about the repeated symbolism of the whale, and all the God stuff that was debated, and the theme of whether people are disgusting or beautiful. If you ever get a chance to see the play, do it!
Last year, I had a lengthy email back and forth with a friend at my church: she was pro youth service; I was anti youth service. I advocated for the kids to be more involved in worship leading in general and not just in one special service–especially in our church, with its demographic dip in teenagers (barely more than a handful of them).
But her arguments were convincing. After our exchange, I watched the teens; I saw that they did have an identity as Grace kids, and had an ease with each other despite the fact that we don’t have a youth group. Kids and young people became regular singers and musicians in the praise team. I opened a children’s worship room for upper-elementary kids that had them leading liturgy with each other.
I went from wrinkling my nose at the idea of a youth service to saying an enthusiastic YES, BUT.
Yes, but the kids have to plan the service.
The worship planning team changed their meeting time to accommodate three of our teenagers, opened their resource books, and guided the young people through the planning process. The kids chose all the songs, all the spoken parts except for the sermon and the call to worship (which I chose so it would be exactly what the 4th-5th graders had been doing for the last two months in their worship, to make their part familiar to them). They put together a song for the offertory.
That Sunday, the director of worship arts sat while four of them led the congregational singing.
The 3-year-old-through-first-grade choir sung with great enthusiasm and charm.
The three upper-elementary/middle schoolers read their parts confidently. All the kids of congregation took part in our preparing activity of choosing something from the nature bin and putting it on the communion table to celebrate God’s creativity.
One boy who doesn’t go up to children’s worship got to work with the deacons to collect the offering. And a bunch of us did ribbon waving at the final song.
It was glorious. Everything about it felt right and joyful. I’m so proud of all of them.
Frankly, I’m also proud of my church. We didn’t just create a service to congratulate ourselves for involving kids where we told them which parts to play: we trusted them to lead us. We showed them that they aren’t just the future of the church, they are the church now.
I have never been so happy to lose an argument, and I can’t wait for next youth-led service in April.
When I’m presented with an analogy or example in the Bible that is culture-bound, I have three approaches:
Dig deeply into that culture so I can unearth everything it would’ve meant to the people at that time.
Think of contemporary versions of the analogy or example.
Try to tease out the ways people are the same, then and now.
I did each of those things while working with the kids at church a few Sundays ago.
Dig deeply into the culture
The Sunday school kids heard the story of the judge Deborah; specifically, Deborah giving Barak the what-for (in Judges 4) when he didn’t hop to it when God called him to battle, which set up Jael (a woman!) to kill the enemy general Sisera. We talked about views of gender in that culture, but in the passage there was also a mention of iron chariots, or chariots fitted with iron. Normally, this reference would pass right by, but because of the research I did for my David and Saul stories, I knew that it was meaningful: the Israelites at this time could not make iron, and since iron was the hardest metal available, much harder and able to hold an edge better than anything the Israelites had, the Israelites were at a technological disadvantage in every battle. The other side always had better weapons and better gear, tougher and sharper and longer lasting.
But Israel had the Lord, who could throw armies into confusion so the better weaponry made no difference.
It wasn’t until King David’s time that they conquered the Philistine towns with a monopoly on iron production and they could finally pull even, technologically, with their remaining enemies.
I love knowing and being able to pass on details like that, and some of the kids seemed interested by that nugget. I even got an, “Oh, yeah,” when I said that Israel had the Lord 🙂
Come up with our own analogies
Then the 4th-grade-and-up Children’s Worship room read this in our liturgy from Psalm 130:5-7:
With all my heart I wait for the Lord to help me.
I put my hope in his word.
I wait for the Lord to help me.
I want his help more than night watchmen want the morning to come.
I’ll say it again, I want his help more than night watchmen want the morning to come.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
because the Lord’s love never fails.
He sets his people completely free.
Since none of the kids had ever been night watchmen, I asked them to think of things from their lives that they couldn’t wait to be over. Here are their offerings, incorporated into the Psalm:
With all my heart I wait for the Lord to help me.
I put my hope in his word.
I wait for the Lord to help me.
I want his help more than I want the school day to be done,
even more than I want math class to be done.
I want his help more than I want to get going when my parents are talking foreeeeever.
I want his help more than I want to leave when parents are getting their hair done.
I want his help more than I want to get better when I’m sick.
I want his help more than I want to stop the pain when the comb catches a tangle in my hair.
I want his help more than I’m impatient to eat when people pray for a loooong time before a meal.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
because the Lord’s love never fails.
He sets his people completely free.
Tease out similarities
I take every opportunity to show kids (and remind myself) that the people in Bible times were people like us, with frustrations and anxieties and joys and worries. It’s so easy to blow through the familiar poems and stories without thinking of the Israelites as people we can relate to.
Sometimes it can take perseverance on my part, like when my Sunday schoolers insisted that they never whined. I fixed them with a skeptical look and said,
Really? None of you have ever said to your grown-up, “Please can I have that thing. I really want it. Can I have it? I promise I’ll clean up my Legos. I’ll never ask you for anything ever again, please, please, please, please….”
They laughed and had to admit they whined–and instantly had more understanding of how the Israelites wore down Aaron until he made them that golden calf while Moses was up the mountain communing with God.
The perseverance is always worth it, though.
I’ve heard from a couple of people who have also been doing the “write your own Psalms” thing with groups at their church — if you do, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it!
[This flash fiction piece won first place in the 3rd round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition and got me into the finals. I had to write a romance that took place in a junkyard and involved a saddle.]
This was the 37th day in a row that Delia and I had accidentally-on-purpose ridden out together. She was the accidentally and I was the on purpose, but I was working on that.
Since the first day of summer break, I’d fixed her bike twice and shared my granola bars and CheezIts every day. By now we had an “our place”: the dump. Well, not the official dump two townships away. This was more a scrap yard where people took stuff they couldn’t throw in their burn piles.
On day fifteen she was trying to break into the trunk of one of the cars and I’d brought her the crowbar that’s always attached to my bike, handing it to her so she could do the job.
I’d fed her, fixed her transportation, and given her the tool she needed and respected her enough to let her use it. If we were grownups in a movie, she’d be mine. But this was real life and we were only thirteen.
It might have something to do with what she did with my crowbar: she beat the living shit out of that car. I mean, she totally lost it. It was beautiful to watch for a while, but then I noticed it was one of her old family cars. Her family was like mine, people and stuff always breaking down and getting tossed out, so I let her be ‘til she was tired out. But it wasn’t until four days later that she met my eyes. Not that I’m counting looks or times our fingers touched or anything. For the record, the fingers touching number was nine.
Today was going to be a big day. Maybe it would be The Big Day.
Four days ago, we’d found an old saddle. It was so dirty even I thought it was gross. The leather was cracked and peeling and pulling up from the stitching, but you could still see the embossing, still see that it had been a beauty once. Delia might not be like any other girl I knew, but she was as into horses as every other girl in eighth grade. This was my big break.
I got my older brother to drive me and two buckets of water out to the dump that night and I got to work right away, moving the saddle out of the weather, cleaning it, stealing as much meat grease as I dared from the can on the stove to get the leather as soft as I could. For three days I stole out there by myself, hoping I wouldn’t run into her, and acted like I didn’t know what happened when we couldn’t find it again.
Now everything was ready. So, of course, she didn’t want to hit the dump.
“You can do what you want.” She pumped harder and pulled ahead of me. “I’m going to the stream.”
Her dark blonde hair whipped in the breeze she created by riding so fast and I just watched her for a few seconds before pulling up next to her. “We can do the stream.”
“There is no ‘we.’”
I stared up the road without saying anything. Was that her talking? Or had someone seen us and teased her? I know I was hearing it at home.
We were on 86th, a long, straight stretch with trees thick on either side, so it was like riding into a tunnel that looked like it got narrower and narrower. Like my chances with her, at least today. So I bailed. “See you later,” was my brilliant line. She probably thought I was super-hurt because I sprayed her with gravel when I spun my bike around, but what could I do, turn back around and say, “I know there’s no ‘us’ but I’m not mad or anything and the whole gravel thing was a total accident”?
Not even I’m that dumb about girls.
But I’m still an idiot: I went to the dump in case she went there after the stream. A double idiot because it was too hot to sit in any of the cars, and they were the only source of shade.
Hours later, I was throwing rocks against the side of an old pickup, making as much noise as I could, when Delia gave me a heart attack, sneaking up on me and yelling, “Did you do that?”
I crossed my arms and shrugged and tried not to study her face to see whether she liked it.
She walked around the barrel I’d put the saddle on, her fingertips trailing along the restored leather, not saying anything.
“You can get on it. Whatever.” My heart was beating like it wanted to escape out of my throat. I went back to my very important rock throwing. When I risked a peek, she was on the saddle with her eyes closed. She liked it. In my head, I whooped and ran around and then slid behind her and put my arms around her. In reality, I said, “I gotta go,” and took my perma-grin back home.
The next day, she smiled at me. She. Smiled. At. Me. We took turns sitting on the saddle, pretending we were in a Western, acting like we were six again.
The day after that, she smiled at me and bumped my shoulder with hers. On purpose.
The fourth day, we raced each other to the dump, laughing the whole way.
But the saddle was gone. We searched for it, in case someone had hidden it, but it was gone-gone. I was so hopeless, I didn’t even get a thrill when she stood really close to me.
It wasn’t until I felt her lips on my cheek, and heard her whisper, “Thank you,” that I came back to life.
I turned my head and kissed her. She tasted like road dust, which I discovered was the best thing ever.
What kind of girl liked a gift better when it was gone?
For our Sunday school kick-off, I lead the kids, age 3 – 2nd grade, in writing their own back-to-school psalms. I told them that God’s story didn’t end with the last book of the Bible–we are part of God’s story today. So we can write psalms about what we’re experiencing, what we’re feeling, and what we know about God–just like David and the other psalmists did.
My pattern for writing psalms with kids is:
This is what’s happening in my life… This is how I feel about it… This is what I want help with… (oops, forgot this one with the first group) This is what I know about God… This is what I’m going to do…
So here are the two psalms we wrote on September 10, 2017:
Back to School Psalm 1
God, this week we saw the Nina and the Pinta with our friends.
It is our sister’s birthday, and she thinks she’ll be 4 forever.
We did homeschool.
We are feeling happy and glad,
angry and sad,
God, we know that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
We know that he’s our savior.
We know that he loves us.
In fact, if we say we love others and we don’t,
then we don’t love you,
because you are love.
Because of who you are and what you’ve done,
I’m going to be kind,
I’m going to share,
I’m going to be happy,
I’m going to put others before myself.
Back to School Psalm 2
God, this week some kids went to school for the very first time,
and some kids had their second week of school.
To be more precise, some kids had their 8th day of 1st grade.
We played with dinosaurs,
and we got tattoos.
Some of us are excited to have some days off school,
and others are sad to have days off school.
Some of us are happy about school,
and others are nervous and sad.
We need your help with singing when it’s superfast.
We need your help with school,
and especially with sharing.
We know that you made all natural things, and you provided materials and made people who can make things who made things like this table.
We know that you are here, here, here, here, and everywhere!
We know that you love us.
You love us so much that you know all our prayers–
there are no prayers where you say, “Nah, I don’t want to look at them.”
Because of that, I’m going to give hugs,
I’m going to say “I love you” to people.
I will always say, “DONUT forget that God loves me!”
So when I’m in the weeds of recruiting volunteers and making schedules and hardcore crafting and organizing (as I am right now), it’s important for me to read these psalms, and the previous psalm we wrote together, to connect to the pleasures of doing faith formation with kids. And seriously, DONUT forget that God loves you!
Lord God, for everything good or bad, happy or sad, exciting or scary that happened for us, personally, the last few days, this is a hard weekend. This is a hard weekend because we saw a geyser of hate shoot high and proud in Charlottesville. We saw the result of the sin of racism, of white supremacy, being allowed to flourish.
Lord God, this is not the flourishing you call your children to.
We lament at the state of our country, where racists and white supremacists feel so empowered. We lament the state of the church, because it hasn’t done enough to call out racism as sin, and it has even provided support.
I pray, Lord, for you to plow up the hard ground of the hearts of those who espouse white supremacy–give them such a full and unmistakable experience of your love that it drives out fear. Drive out their fear.
Drive out the fear of speaking out, for those who want to root out this poison.
Raise up prophetic voices. May we live prophetic lives, Lord God, fueled by you and by your word. May this be a turning point in our country, in the church, and in our church, here at Grace–where there is racism, heal it, Lord. Root it out of our hearts, root it out of our ministries, root it out of our organization. May your love flourish here.
I pray for myself and for all who lead the children here. May we speak and may we live in such a way that every single child who comes through our doors leaves with a secure foundation in your love. May they be so filled with the knowledge that you love them, that no matter what the world says about them, they are your beloved children, that there is no ground for the seeds of fear and hatred and violence to find purchase in.
We pray for those who marched against the white supremacist rally. Bring your healing to those who were injured and your comfort to the loved ones of those who were killed. Be with all who march and attend vigils today, Lord, whether in Charlottesville or in cities across the country. Keep them safe, Lord. Give them courage.
We pray for those who feel terrorized by this resurgence of public racism. Be with them, Lord.
Lord God, we need you. We need you now more than ever, even as we say with the Psalmist: How long, oh Lord, how long?
We look forward to that time when nothing evil will be allowed to enter the city, when the nations will walk in the light of the glory of God. Bring the light of your glory right now to us in Charlottesville, to us in Grand Rapids. May we bring your light to our city, to our schools and workplaces and playgrounds and parks and homes and everywhere we go.
You have sent us out to live in the light of your glory right now–may we do it.
It’s the dream of many a historical fiction writer to send their readers back to the source material, and that’s what the series known in the States as Anne with an E (out on 5/12 on Netflix) did for me: it sent me right to the original Anne of Green Gables* to dig out the hints and suggestions that the TV writers ran with.
You see, my friend Lorilee Craker, author of the moving and marvellous Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me, has friends nearby with access to Canadian television and sent me into raptures (to put it in an Anne-like way) when she invited me to watch the new Anne series with her as they aired on the CBC. So I’ve seen them all. And I have some reactions.
My first reaction was pure love.
This CBC version was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who was a writer and producer on Breaking Bad, so it isn’t surprising that her Anne is darker than the one we were used to seeing in the 1985 miniseries, and who we may have seen in high school musicals. This Anne has flashbacks about life as an overworked child taking care of children in poor households with drunken husbands creating havoc. This version of Anne is definitely informed by our contemporary understanding of what it means for a child to live for 11 years being unwanted, unloved, treated like a servant, and probably physically abused–but it is at the same time the true Anne.
Great historical fiction sucks us into the story so intensely that we forget we already know how the story ends, and that’s what Anne With an E does. I forgot that things work out for Anne and she soon will get all the love she’d ever missed from Matthew and that Marilla would soften and grow because of her and she’d have wonderful friends and a town that embraced her. I couldn’t take my eyes off the skinny intense little girl with the big eyes that showed the entire stormy spectrum of her emotions.
When I went back to L.M. Montgomery’s work, I saw that all the pain and isolation the new series highlights was in the source. In the book, it’s easy to skim over the reality of Anne’s life before Green Gables because the painful information comes in an avalanche of Anne’s words about a dozen different things in one speech. But the new series pauses and lets us see the effects of her life on her, and it’s so good and right. Our Anne is a survivor of a traumatic childhood. She gets flashbacks. She disassociates from her reality through her agile imagination. She doesn’t understand the expectations of regular society because she’s never been part of it.
Here are some quotes from the book that could not be plainer about the darkness Anne lived with, and I’m going to present them without the chatter about the Lake of Shining Waters and kindred spirits so we are not distracted by her charm.
Oh, it seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody–not really. (p.12)
“You don’t want me!” she cried…”I might have expected it. Nobody ever did want me.” (p.24)
And upstairs in the east gable, a lonely, heart-hungry, friendless child cried herself to sleep. (p.29)
[On being orphaned at 3 months] “You see, nobody wanted me even then. It seems to be my fate.” (p.39)
[On the 2nd place she lived, at age 8, taking care of 8 children] “It was a very lonesome place. I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.” (p.40)
[When Marilla asks whether the women were good to her] “O-o-o-h,” faltered Anne. Her sensitive little face flushed scarlet and embarrassment set on her brown. “Oh, they meant to be–I know they meant to be just as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite–always. They had a good deal to worry them, you know. It’s very trying to have a drunken husband, you see; and it must be very trying to have twins three times in succession, don’t you think?” (p.41)
Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had–a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. (p.41)
It feels like that’s what Walley-Beckett, and AmyBeth McNulty, who inhabits Anne, have done: read between the lines of Anne’s history and divined the truth.
Like in real life, the truth often makes us uncomfortable.
On the trip from the train station to Green Gables, Anne tells Matthew, “Do you know, my arm must be black and blue from the elbow up, for I’ve pinched myself so many times today. Every little while a horrible sickening feeling would come over me and I’d be so afraid it was all a dream, then I’d pinch myself to see it if was real” (p.21). She presents as a charming anecdote, but the CBC series shows us the pinching and the giant deep bruise it causes–and it looks like what we now call self-harm.
In one episode, Anne has intense conversations with herself in her reflection that felt odd and disquieting to me as I watched, but then I went back to the book and there it is, from the first place she lived:
I used to pretend that my reflection in it was another little girl who lived in it. I called her Katie Maurice, and we were very intimate. I used to talk to her by the hour, especially on Sundays, and tell her everything. Katie was the comfort and consolation of my life. (p.58)
The comfort and consolation of her life was a wavy reflection in a bookcase with only one pane of glass because the other had been smashed by a drunken husband; this felt more like a dissociation response than a developmentally appropriate imaginary friend.
There is a scene in the CBC series that doesn’t appear in the book, and it got a lot of press and outrage in Canada, and it probably will here, too. Anne is at school, and is gossiping with the girls about the romantic feelings their teacher has for one of the students (this was also openly discussed by the girls in the book). She winds up spinning this tale about a mouse in the male teacher’s pocket that she knows all about from the place she lived in where they had 8 kids. The girls eventually figure out that mouse refers to his penis and to sex and they go from being impressed to horrified. As does Avonlea.
While this doesn’t appear in the book, it is entirely consistent with it. Anne is constantly saying things she doesn’t know are considered wicked. She tell us this from the beginning:
[About the asylum] “It’s worse than anything you could imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn’t mean to be wicked. It’s so easy to be wicked without knowing it.” (p.12)
And Marilla admits more than once that she has to make allowances for Anne because she’d never been properly taught. So it is entirely plausible that Anne would talk openly about things that were normal for her life experience, but were not the sort of thing nice girls talked about. This scene also gives us a satisfying mama-bear moment and speech from Marilla, so that takes some of the off-book sting out of it.
Because the off-book portions sting. They are substantial, with three or four episodes being mostly pure invention.
Yes, I know it’s funny to be complaining about the creators inventing things about a character who is a pure invention, but Anne is such an icon, such a well-known and loved fixture, that this treatment feels like historical fiction, or even speculative fiction. It feels like the show is playing with reality and experimenting with facts, even though both the original reality and facts are, themselves, fictional.
Many of those off-book portions had character revealing moments that were gorgeous, and worth my vague discomfort. Others puzzled me, although I could see what the show was going for. But there were also moments when the series got the characters wrong, and had them do things that were so out of line for who I know they are that I got upset. I might even have gotten a little rage-y. Even so, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling all the feels, much like Anne does.
All the actors are stellar, with the new family of McNulty’s Anne, R.H. Thomson’s Matthew, and Geraldine James’s Marilla being absolute stand-outs. Each of these actors is able to deeply move me with just their faces, without dialogue. The new Gilbert, Lucas Jade Zumann, is adorable and honorable (although not as playful as the book version) and I would have found him dreamy back when I was a girl.
I haven’t re-read Anne since I became a mother, and I was astonished to see how much the book is the story of Marilla adjusting to parenthood and coming to love Anne, and to laugh–and that’s something Anne With an E highlights really well. The new series is very much the story of this emerging family, and how keeping Anne changes Matthew and Marilla. We also get to see snippets of how they may have wound up unmarried siblings: they have pasts in this series, pasts that affect their present. Just like Anne.
My love of the series is not as pure as it was after the first show, but it’s still there. The show a polarizing experience, but, I believe, worth it. Please watch it so I have more people to talk about it with. Because there must be talking!
Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr (two L.M. Montgomery heroines who dominated my childhood reading) never met a bedroom window they didn’t want to open.
Anne’s first morning in Green Gables:
With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash–it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning, her eyes glistening with delight. (Anne of Green Gables, p.30)
And after the last conversation she’ll have with Matthew, right after he tells her, “Well, now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys”:
He smiled his shy smile at her as he went into the yard. Anne took the memory of it with her when she went to her room that night and sat for a long while at her open window, thinking of the past and dreaming of the future. (p.293)
Emily (of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest) is a young orphan whose future is decided when relatives she hadn’t heard of until just before her father died make her draw lots for who will be forced to take her. She and her father had always slept with an open window–even during Prince Edward Island winters. But at New Moon she must share a bed with her austere Aunt Elizabeth, who believes that night air is poison.
When she’s finally given her mother’s old room, high in the house:
Emily, very glad that there was an Emily, opened her lookout window as high as it would go, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, feeling a happiness that was so deep as to be almost pain as she listened to the sonorous sweep of the night wind among the great trees in Lofty John’s bush. (Emily of New Moon, p.286)
Even when she’s an old lady of 24:
This afternoon I sat at my window and alternately wrote at my new serial and watched a couple of dear, amusing, youngish maple-trees at the foot of the garden. They whispered secrete to each other all the afternoon. They would bend together and talk earnestly for a few moments, then spring back and look at each other, throwing up their hands comically in horror and amazement over their mutual revelations. I wonder what new scandal is afoot in Treeland. (Emily’s Quest, p.151)
I, too, have a room all my own with a window that opens; my bed nestles right next to it. It thrills my romantic girl-soul to sit or lie on my bed and read while the evening air drifts over me. Breezes come from the West, and my new window is one of only two Western windows in the entire house that open. Those evening breezes feel like a benediction.
A few months ago, my daughter and I switched rooms. It was mostly for her, so she’d have more space for her growing collection of musical instruments, and her growing group of friends. But it also meant that I could escape the marital bedroom and its painful reminders. I am not exaggerating when I say that my bed takes up between 1/3 and 1/2 of my new room: it is tiny. But I’ve got that Western window that opens. And south-facing light, so I can grow some plants. And a little porch off the closet that overlooks the back yard and is so cozy in the late afternoon and early evening, with just the right amount of dappled shade.
For Anne and Emily, these are their very first own-rooms, the first places they’d ever had where they could go to be alone and exercise their imaginations and express the full range of their emotions however they wanted without commentary or disdain. Although I’ve had several own-rooms, this is the first in 25 years, and it’s helping me feel like I’m both coming back to who I was and forging forward into who I truly am.
Of course, it isn’t perfect. The carpet is old and dotted in my daughter’s make-up and nail polish stains; the walls need to be painted; and to address either of those would mean taking everything out of the room when I’d only just moved everything in a couple of months ago.
But there’s scope for imagination. Which in Anne’s eyes, and mine, makes it a very great place, indeed.
What do you love about a space you’ve carved out for yourself? Where do you like to read? Are you doing anything that thrills your child-soul?
10/1/1977: That afternoon there was a bazzar to raise money for my school. There were cartoons pie’s cookie’s & juice. I bought a couple of plants. That night after supper my father gave me my punishment. It was to stay in my room after our talk. I think now it was a good one, because while I was reading Higher Than the Arrow, when Francie thought about her bad feelings, I thought about mine. Showery all day miserable and dull.
One memory per country The Dominican Republic Sanity, sweet sanity We went to a resort during Christmas of my freshman year of college. Nothing can beat the Sanity Bag I found in a dresser drawer. As the mother of teenagers, I might need it now more than ever.
The nails in this board have been hammered in by the 3rd – 5th graders of my church during their children’s worship time — the worship group that, even though I have other leaders lined up, I’m having to force myself to make the schedule, because I love being with them so much.
Before this past January, my church was like a lot of others: we ended the children’s worship program at 2nd grade. I’d been wanting to expand it for a couple of years, partially because many kids that age don’t want to be in the big service and I was the one who’d see their crestfallen faces at being told they have to go back downstairs. Partially because kids that age are not necessarily developmentally ready to listen and take in a sermon; I say “not necessarily” because I was one of those kids who listened to sermons from a ridiculously young age, but I know that makes me unusual. And partially because of a unique demographic we started seeing more of: kids coming with their grandparents.
A number of these kids don’t attend church with their parents, and might not have any Christian practices in their home, so Sunday morning with their grandparent is the only time we have them. I felt like I was failing them by not offering them faith formation aimed at their developmental level. For a few years, we only had one or two of these kids at a time, which makes it difficult to have a program for them. But we’ve grown, and now there are over a dozen regularly-attending kids between 3rd and 5th grade. And then I got hired as Children’s Ministries Coordinator, and things that were overwhelming to me as a volunteer, became possible. #HolySpiritTiming
So in January we started the group even though we didn’t have a program. I lead every Sunday and searched for a curriculum. I found one, but it was too extensive to put into effect quickly, so I found an interim that I love so much that I’m going to combine it with the other curriculum in the fall.
I won’t give it up because the kids lead almost the whole thing.
We use a book on family worship, Teach Us To Pray, by Lora A. Copley and Elizabeth Vander Haagen. It has a Scripture-based liturgy for every day of the year, but we mostly use the Sunday ones. The liturgy is broken down into 7 or 8 moments, most of which the kids lead. When we first sit down together, we decide who’s going to do what, and then we go through it.
The first thing is a physical act that brings us into a worship mindset and is a representation of something about the liturgical season.This is an important moment, not only because they are good reminders, but also because it gives kids who aren’t as confident reading aloud a way to lead.
Before Lent, one child lit a candle and led us on a stroll around the room to remind us that Christ is the light and we are to follow him. And some of those kids led us around and around and around until Miss Natalie had to whisper, “I’m getting dizzy. Are we going to sit down soon?” During Lent, one (or sometimes more) kid hammered a nail into a piece of wood to remind us that Jesus died for our sins.
I’ll be honest, the first session was a nightmare of questions and interruptions and interjections and we didn’t even make it past the Bible reading. And I usually had to whack the nail one more time so it wouldn’t be wobbly enough to tempt twitchy little fingers. And we wind up on some crazy tangents during the discussion portion. But when I recently ended the prayer without transitioning to the kid-led portion, they let me know, and I corrected my error. There’s something very right about this program if kids are objecting when we don’t go through the whole thing properly. It makes me glad.
It also makes me sneaky. You see, we’re also training kids to be involved in leading worship from a young age, so that when the time comes to lead the wider church, they’ll already have practice. Which is good, because the worship committee wants to have 5th Sundays as youth emphasis services, and I think those work better when there’s regular leadership development.
This past Sunday, I got to see all that in action in a minor way. I wound up being double-scheduled with my preschool and 3rd-5th grade worship rooms; there weren’t a lot of kids on that last Sunday of Spring Break, so I combined them. The two older kids hammered the nails into the board and did a reading in the middle of my felt board story, and it felt really good. I got to watch the little kids looking up to the big kids, and I got to watch the big kids showing the little ones how it’s done.