Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Queen:Movie review

"Uneasy the head that wears the crown" Henry IV, part 2

As the film opens with Helen Mirren posing as the Queen for an official portrait on election day in a flowing purple robe (the color of royalty) adorned with the medals of state, the viewer thinks this will be a remarkable film. When she turns and stares into the camera before it pans away from her face and, with an additional mere twitch and the slightest shift of her neck, imbues herself with the public's perception of Queen Elizabeth II's personality, the viewer knows it will be remarkable.


The film revolves around the events of the week following the Princess of Wales's death on August 31, 1997. Juxtaposed between actual footage of the arrival of Diana's coffin back to England by a jet in the Royal flight (a privilege the Queen did not wish to extend until Charles informs her they can arrange for her to be sent via a commercial flight with an hour stopover in Manchester), images of her life as a royal, and parts of the funeral procession, we see a Queen totally ignorant of the wishes of her subjects for the first time in her reign. Encouraged by her idiotic husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is portrayed with a hairsbreadth of hating Diana--not to be forgotten is the irony that he is an outsider, himself brought into the bosom of the English royal family as a spouse, yet renders the loudest, most unconscionable opinions about the Princess's life and personality, and many of us can relate to this kind of situation within our own families--the Queen decides to stay at her forty thousand acre estate called Balmoral and keeps both William and Harry in the dark about what's occurring in the country viz-a-viz their motehr's death by removing the radio, television and newspapers from their quarters.

The public begins to turn against the royal family, despising their indifference. We are shown scenes of them talking about deer hunting in the living room over gin-and-tonics while watching montages on television of Diana's life on the television, as well as a scene of Philip and his entourage stalking a magnificent 14 point stag on the moors--the scenes compiled partly as a result of discrete interviews with people 'in the know' and partly from 'informed imagination. It falls on Tony Blair as the newly elected priminister to advise the Queen she is in error and eventually, when the Queen's folly and intransigence becomes ludricous, he compiles a list of things she must do in order to save the monarchy that includes getting her family to London as soon as possible, accepting a state funeral when she wanted it to be private, and actually paying her respects at Diana's coffin in person and flying the royal standard at half mast at every royal residence including Buckingham Palace. The latter has never been done before, and it is all the more galling in that the Queen stripped Diana of her HRH title and thus regards her again as the commoner she once was. One can experience the Queen's abject horror in Mirren's face and by the stiff British upper lip turning slowly upward before our eyes. Moreover, the insult that it is the British Primeminster advising the Queen wounds her psyche deeply, especially when one understands that royal protocol dictates that the charade to be maintained at all times is that it is the Queen who appoints and advises her Primeinister on affairs of state.

A very moving moment occurs in the film when the audience relives emotions experienced on the day of the funeral while listening to a portion of the eulogy given by Diana's brother, though the tears do not remain in our eyes long because this time we can see the Queen's deadpan face as she sits listening in the front pew inside Westminster Abbey. Also, I had the sense that the director may haved inserted a bit of fun for the benefit of British audiences (and those foreigners in the know) by poking oblique fun at Blair's promise to change Britain radically when he came to power, yet ten years down the road there's been no major change at all, the monarchy still survives, and he's become America's poodle.


Like Cherie Blair, I am not disposed favorably toward the monarchy, but having grown up in Northern Ireland where one could not escape the public's appetite and adulation for all things royal, I have had to fight a natural inclination to watch them if they're on television. Mirren is seductive. But then the monarchy is a seductive institution, which is why it survives. The Queen has fought hard to maintain its air of mystery. A shrewd woman, she understood that the elixir of secrecy and mystery is what made their subjects rever both the family and instititution and thus ensured its unquestioned existence by the majority-- though now that the curtain has been pulled open on that world of privelege and familial shenanigans and we see they're not any better than we are and that they have a perverted vision of their 'upper class-ness', it will inevitably lead to their demise--the only question being when, exactly. All in all, a very good film and well worth seeing.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Scent of God and Author Interview

TNThe Scent of God

Being raised Roman Catholic and coming from an extended family with a long tradition of members dedicating their lives to the nun and priesthood, I was anxious to tuck into Beryl Singleton Bissel's memoir. Here was somebody similar yet very different to me: similar in that she was brought up Roman Catholic and educated in their schools, but different in that she came into Catholicism as a result of being the offspring of an English mother who converted; similar in that she never quite fitted four-square into her social milieu as a child and then adolescent, yet different in that, whereas I began to question my faith and the hypocricy of the organized church, she became infatuated to the extent she was convinced she was destined for sainthood and in an effort to secure that prize became a Poor Clare and left society to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a New Jersey monastery.

I was not disappointed, was in fact often riveted by the narrative. In a straight-forward, precise writing style (which I like in both fiction and nonfiction), the author takes us on a unique journey from her first home in New Jersey beside a pretty lake where she experienced the negative effects of a parent who drinks too much to lush and exotic Puerto Rico--she even mentions the blazing flamboyan trees, which held me spellbound on a trip there too--where she doesn't quite fit in at school initially and later experiences her first love affair with a Puerto Rican youth who dies before the book is finished. But Bissell decides her happiness lies in her being close to God and enters the aforementioned Poor Clares, much to the horror of her parents--as does her sister a few years later. Her descriptions of the time spent in the order is one of the book's strongest parts because it gives the reader an exceptionally intimate portrait of the noviate's life and the hardships, solace and humor behind those formidible walls.

But living as a nun was not to be and the author meets and befriends, on a trip home to Puerto Rico to assist with an ailing parent, an older priest. The friendship develops into a love affair. When Bissell decides to leave the Poor Clares--she is resolute and unafraid to show she's redblooded and has desires for this priest. Though not stated, there is a sense that the memoirist feels the clock is ticking and she wants to marry and this leads to an ultimatim being given to Vittorio (who is tormented about quitting his vocation) that he must make up his mind becaused she will not wait for him to make up his mind. A period of indecision on his part follows--there is a funny aside about her first trip with him to Italy where she packs condoms in with her luggage just in case--and they do eventually marry. However, the story does not end there because Vittorio sustains a life-threatening illness, an illness whose knowledge Bissell carries alone in the relationship because the family do not want him to know he is dying.

I am thrilled I discovered this inspiring memoir because it educated me in an aspect of Catholicism I had not known anything about and showed the choices one woman made in her path toward becoming happy and fulfilled.

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Author Interview

Thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog and answer my questions, Beryl.

DMN: Writing a memoir is an exceptionally personal process (as I'm discovering myself now that I'm embarking on the journey) and leads to much self analysis. What inspired you to write a memoir about growing up in the States, Puerto Rico and becoming a Poor Clare?

BSB: Overhearing my teenage children, in periods of special angst say that things were going wrong because their mother had been a nun and their father a priest and God had it in for them. I began writing to tell them the story of the love that brought them forth but as I wrote I realized that I, too, was grappling with the same questions. Did God punish us for the choices we make in life, what were the beliefs that led me into the monastery, what was my role in the events that contributed to the unravelling of that vocation. Basically, who is God and who am I.

DMN: Was it difficult to write at any time and, if so, can you give us an example of any difficulties you experienced. Going deeper, getting to the story beneath the story.

BSB: This required the most prolonged examination of conscience I've ever undergone. I thought I'd finished the story when an agent told me it was a great story and I wrote well but I hadn't told the story yet. "You touch on huge issues and then dance away from them into details."

DMN: You write that your parents were not initially pleased that you decided to enter a convent, which I found very interesting because I come from an Irish tradition where it is almost a mark of honor to have a child receive a call to the religious life. Your mother was an English Catholic. Do you think her Englishness and coming from a country which is not particularly interested in organized religion (as judged by low church attendance) made her suspicious of religion to the point she discouraged your vocation?

BSB: My mother was actually a convert who became a Catholic because she wanted a "church wedding." At that time mixed-marriage ceremonies took place in the rectory. She had little grounding in the faith; there had never been a priestly or religious vocation in either family and she wanted me to have the best this world had to offer, including marrying a rich man.

DMN: Why do you think your father was unenthusiastic?

BSB: No religious vocations in the family, even though he'd once considered becoming a priest, and wanting to support my mother. I think it was giving up the college scholarships that troubled him the most. He was proud of my brains and wanted me to excel and a monastery was not a place that would allow me to "shine."

DMN: Have you tried to trace your mother's former boyfriend, the one she went back to England in search of during your girlhood?

BSB: I've been thinking of writing a book based on her life (fiction because there is so much I don't know) but to do so will require going to England and searching out this sort of information.

DMN: What is your relationship toward Roman Catholicism today?

BSB: I am a practicing Catholic but not one the Church would call "devout" because I have serious issues with the Church today. I feel at home in Catholicism but not in the Church -- the liturgy, sacraments, and the legacy of the saints keep me anchored.

DMN: Have you experienced any negativity from people within the church's hierarchy since the book's publication about your decision to leave the church and your courtship (and eventual marriage) to an ex-priest?

BSB: I thought I would but I've had little negativity. My conservative pastor loved it -- bought six more copies and wrote a full page review in the parish newsletter, The National Catholic Reporter gave a glowing review. I have met a few people who told me they are deeply loyal Catholics and found the whole idea scandalous but while reading the book found our story deeply spiritual and moving. Where it has caused heartache has been in my monastery -- especially because I used real names and locations. Had I a chance to do it over again, I'd change those names and the location of the monastery.

DMN: You mention in the book that your brother became a Brother later in life. Do you think he was inspired by your earlier decision to enter the religious life and were you surprised by his decision?

BSB: Greg joined the Third Order Franciscans as a lay-person. He cooked for a friary and was very active in their ministries to the homeless and those dying from AIDS. He'd been an alcoholic and the process of living sober became deeply spiritual (though always remaining outrageous). His wife had divorced him years earlier because of his drinking. When he stopped drinking a few years before his death, his children felt they'd regained their father. I know that Greg asked me for the silver ring I'd been given at my final profession of vows.


DMN: What are you working on now?

BSB: Publicity, publicity, publicity. I've been doing lots of readings and the like
to keep the book before the public's eyes. And I am working on the sequel to the memoir. Right now I'm plowing through 20 or so journals rereading the painful years that followed Vittorio's death through the death of my daughter. Heavy, heavy reading and I want the book to have enough joy and humor to leaven the rest.

DMN: Tell us a bit about your approach to writing.


BSB: I write in order to discover what I think about things. Since joining Gather, my words flow with greater ease . . . I am a fine-tuner of phrases but writing short posts and commenting on other's works has alleviated that need to fix every word. I usually read some poetry, especially Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours, before starting and I say a prayer for the gift of tongues--that people will hear and find what they need in my words.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Frau Laux

When I was a freshman at law school--I was nineteen-years-old, I decided to spend my vacation in Germany learning German and ended up in Trier, the oldest city in Germany that has a huge Roman gate in its center called the Porta Nigra. I ended up staying with the Laux family in Pfalzel--a suburb--which was arranged by their son, Richard, who was teaching my brother Seamus at high school in Ireland at the time.

I arrived speaking little German and both Frau and Herr Laux spoke little English, which meant I had to learn fast which I did. Frau Laux was an attractive redhead, about mid-fifties, and she made it clear from the beginning that this Irishman was to be treated as one of her family. She became a surrogate mother in a way and took me into the city, helped me find a job at a restaurant called Zum Domstein, and spent her afternoons feeding and conversing with me in her garden. In the center of their garden, which swept down to the banks of the Mosel river, was a Mirabella tree that produced a sweet delicious fruit that looked like yellow plums. She baked the most exquisite pies--those German pies where the fruit is halved and put on the top of teh salty-sweet like a plum comforter.

Some days Frau and Herr Laux came to the restaurant to collect me after work and then they'd drive in their gray Ford Tauras to a hospital carpark where I'd wait while they went inside for a long time. I could never understand what was going on, nor did they offer an explanation, though the rides home where always very somber. Moreover, even if they had, my German was so poor I wouldn't have understood.

The summer passed quickly and I grew to love them deeply. On the final morning, they came outside with me and hugged me tightly before I left for the train staion. (They'd wanted to take me to the station, but I didn't want that as I knew it would be difficult to take leave there.) As I kissed her, Frau Laux's amber eyes sparkled with tears and she gripped me more tightly that my mother ever had. I looked to Herr Laux and saw his eyes were similarly full.

"I'll be back at Christmas time to visit," I said in perfect German. "I promise."
Frau Laux began to sob.
"Tschus," she said, and I can still see her beautifully tanned arm rise and wave sand then she went quickly inside leaving the others to watch me leave.

Three weeks passed and then I got a call from a friend Michael--a student from the same village that I'd befriended--to say Frau Laux was dead.

"What?" I said, shocked to the core, memories tumbling like kaleidoscope pieces in my brain.
"Damian," he said, "she didn't want you to know she was dying of cancer. That was her one condition to her family. When their son Richard told them that someone from Ireland wanted to come to Germany to learn German and asked if they were interested in having him stay, they held a family conference. Herr Laux didn't want you to stay because he said you'd be too much of an interruption because she was dying. But Frau Laux wouldn't hear of it. She wanted you. She said she wanted the Irishman to come and no one was to tell you that she was dying. She wanted her life to be full and normal. She didn't want pity. She wanted to show you the real Germany."

I was at once humbled and in awe. My love for her surged. There was so much to tell her, so much to say, and it was all too late. For the first time in my life I knew the true meaning of death, its silence and permanence. I hadn't even felt such loss when my grandfather died, but then I was a child and didn't understand.

I take comfort in knowing my presence and my ignorance helped her during those final days, helped her live a normal life till she could do it no longer, that being there stopped the family from becoming dark and breaking into endless bouts of tears and darkness. She was an amazing woman and the laughter we shared--often when I said crazy things in German like "Es regnet Katzen und Hunden" on rainy day (It's raining cats and dogs) when in German it should be "Es regnet in Strom"--is vivid in my memory, as is her chiselled, tanned smiling face as she stands beside her beloved Mirabella tree.

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