Monday, December 22, 2014

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Difficult Christmases

December 20, 2014

I Am, You Are (Blue Christmas 2014) by Kate Kenning Steer

I am; yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes:
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am, and live with shadows tost
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems …

From ‘I Am’
Written in The Asylum, Northampton
John Clare (1793-1864)

Blue Christmas is a feast for those for whom the longest night of the year might hold some particular emotional or physical significance; a feast for those for whom darkness is perpetually threatening to overwhelm the light; a feast for those for whom the phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’ holds a special resonance; it is a feast for all those who find themselves unable to celebrate.
It is a feast to welcome in the unwelcomed.
In the last six months the depression that permanently lies under my own skin has become acute again, so this is a feast of particular pertinence to me this year.  I am fortunate to be spending today with my parents.
But what of those whose families struggle to support them?  What of those whose families reject them, for whatever the reason?  What of the families who are missing a beloved part this Advent because support systems were not in place to help when they were most crucially needed?  What of those who have been ‘released’ to the ‘care of the community’?
‘Many translations of Luke’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) use the wonderful phrase “God has regarded me in my lowliness” (1:48). This French-based word regardez means to look at twice, or look at again, or look at deeply. Mary allows herself to be looked at with God’s deeper and more considered gaze. When we do that, God’s eyes always become more compassionate and merciful. And so do ours if we regard anything.’(Richard Rohr, online meditations)
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Blue Christmas is a feast then to be hospitable to myself, to bring all my own grief to the manger and expose myself to the searing Love of God’s gaze; and it is a feast to bring others to this place too, reaching out to those who feel love-less at this time.  As Godspace discussed at length in the summer, ‘Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place … It is … the liberation of fearful hearts.’ (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out)
Am I offering a space where those who meet me find themselves looked at compassionately, so that the Spirit’s work of loving liberation may begin or continue?  Further, is there honesty in my artistic work which reaches out on an emotional register, perhaps creating just even a small moment of emptiness which the Spirit may freely fill in?  As Amy Winehouse said so brilliantly ‘Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen': Creativity is God’s integrating response to all grief.
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As a photographer I am always considering the interplay of physical light and non-light, and all stages in between. Shade and shadow dance their way through my work, drawing my eye further into an exploration of what is called ‘darkness’, both inside and outside me.  (The abstracts that accompany today’s post are all details of IPhone photos that drew me in the further I looked.) I take spiritual comfort from the knowledge that God dwells in the dark.  Indeed God deliberately entered into darkness, being born in a stable hewn out of rock; and rose out of a cave, ensuring all may hope to be so transformed.  Further, the very name of God we can repeat so blithely at Christmas, Immanuel, is the specific promise that the Living God is with us in the darkness.

I have spent much of this year mulling over Barbara Brown Taylor’s brilliant book Learning to Walk in the Dark.  As part of her research she went to sit in the Organ Cave, Virginia, where she picked up a small stone that had gently sparkled next to her. Later it looked ordinary. It is only by turning off all the lights (deliberately deciding to enter a state of darkness) that she realises the paradox: ‘the stone is alive with light, but only in the dark':
While I am looking for something large, bright and unmissable holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket.  How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?
Those who ‘dwell in darkness’ have much shimmering beauty to share, even in, most particularly in, their, our, my, howls of pain.  If only there were ears to listen, and eyes to see, and hands to hold.  If only we had the courage to sit in the dark.  If only we welcomed the darkness. Then God might indeed be born in us again this day.
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Kate Kennington Steer (1)Kate Kennington Steer is a writer and photographer with a deep abiding passion for contemplative photography and spirituality. She writes about these things on her shot at ten paces blog (

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Give and Take

This weekend I watched two movies, The Giver and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. I found some common themes in them.

First, as always, the book version of The Giver is better than the movie. That being said, the movie is a fairly faithful adaptation. And if you are trying to quit smoking, do NOT watch Coco and Igor. Just. Don't.

I have a personal bias in favour of Lois Lowry's book, I must confess. I read it to my kids and I taught it for some years. I was particularly impressed that when I emailed the author with a question, she replied personally and in depth. ('Like!') I think the book is valuable on many levels and the notion of banning it in many jurisdictions is ludicrous. Okay, off that soap box.... [Sidebar: Meryl, my fave, was a little less creepy than I had been led to believe by the movie trailers; I wish the director had exploited her talent a little more there. Jeff Bridges was also less taciturn than his novel counterpart (again, a directorial issue?). Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis were perfect in their casting and their delivery, however. Suppporting cast in Coco was much stronger than in The Giver.]

So, where are the commonalities in the two films? In social norms and identity.
Both were about the dangers of excess. In The Community, excess is strongly discouraged, right down to ‘comfort objects’ for children (bedtime plush toys) and ‘precision of language’ (repressed emoting and verbal expression). But in 1920s Paris, excess is the norm and repressing one’s urges seems naïve. These views are represented, respectively, by the initial black and white cinematography in the homogenous Community and the party-happy society who love the (Nijinsky choreography of the) ballet for The Rite of Spring versus the oldsters scandalized by it. {Pina Bausch fans: you’re gonna go crazy for the first few minutes of the film!} So far, so obvious.
Both films dealt with the theme of conformity: the world of Jonas hinges on it, and Coco bucks it every step of the way: she has a f*** you attitude towards the status quo (which probably explains her success, though). In the Giver’s community, every word, every motion is being monitored by video with immediate feedback (read: admonition) through a public loudspeaker. Do you want to give conformity the middle finger, or do you want to just do it mentally?
The less obvious theme in common with both films, however, is that of not being in sync with the time and place you live in (being an outsider? an innovator? a loser? a genius?). Without raising spoiler hackles, Jonas bucks the system but both Coco and Igor do so less successfully in that it divides them eventually, although their professional successes have longevity. How to flip the bird at society without personal cost? Enter the concept of Sacrifice.
Artistically, The Giver is a little weak: it lacks the tension and tautness of writing that was in the book. Coco and Igor, however, is lush, sensual landscape. But they both have something to offer introspective souls. Life is unpredictable, but the twists and turns are what mould character and values. Or can, depending on the person involved.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Miracles and Being Saved

I saw two things of note this week. The movie Miraculum and a moment in Season 1, Episode 5 of the TV show The Killing (available on Netflix). I'm not making connections, just recos (which I use for the word 'recommendations' on this blog).

One of my favourite pastimes is watching foreign, especially French, movies, and although I was bilingual il y a longtemps, I confess to using subtitles now. Usually I go for the dramatic types of films. Miraculum certainly delivered. (Ignore the bad reviews on imdb BTW.)

You can call it a religious film or you can call it an anti-religious film, but ça ne fait rien. It is slow-building, but I got sucked into the beauty of its starkness, be it in the airport, the Kingdom Hall, or the lonely houses. Being a minimalist aesthetically, I liked the silences, the characters’ contemplations and the crap weather, which wove together to create a good ol’ depressing mood. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, happy ending diversion, keep on walking. The ending came with a mighty wallop that left me reeling with all its implications. Like all good downer stories, the story and its themes stuck with me for days. To avoid spoiler alerts, I’ll just say that Miraculum does and yet does not contain miracles, and it is about redemption, whether you believe in God or not. Highly recommend this. For a movie with a budget of less than $5 million, it’s impressive.

The other thing that has been sticking with me is the show The Killing, i.e., the 2011 English version of the Danish hit. Mireille Enos is such a breath of fresh air as a cop NOT flaunting a bod, blonde hair and perfect makeup (nice casting, people!) and the B.C. backdrop is as miserably grey as Montreal’s in Miraculum: good for mood reflection.

This has been a very hard series for me to watch. I don’t love the horror genre because of its gore, but I love thrillers and can handle violence to the level of 24 or Homeland. What is killing me about The Killing is that I am identifying too closely with the parents of the murdered teen. [Sidebar: do we have to name every cop show victim with cutesy names? Why aren’t the innocent slain called Constance or Helen, for pete’s sake? Sorry. Pet peeve.] I’ve seen a billion shows about dead children, but for some reason, this one is really getting to me, and after each episode, I keep thinking I don’t want to watch any more of them. Behold the power of good acting and direction.

The episode “Super 8” includes a scene in which the still largely in-shock mother drags herself to the grocery store and tries valiantly to connect in the produce section with an acquaintance who cannot return her wave, presumably because her child is not dead and what the hell is she supposed to say to the poor woman, anyway? She is drawn to her late daughter’s favourite cereal brand. The painful scene ends when the mum, Mitch Larsen, leaves the cereal aisle, slowly pushing her grocery cart, and in the background, part of the store’s signage is showing: “…& Save”. It left me breathless. Unintentional, I bet, but it made me want to see her saved from her trauma and grief. Perhaps it was intentional irony about the daughter not being saved. But I understand that walking through a half life in the wake of trauma, and it ain’t pretty. Mostly, though, I can’t stop personalizing the storyline and thinking of my children (even though they are adults) as victims of such a crime and of my grief if I were confronted with that scenario. I’m not sure yet if I will continue to watch the series, but if I do, I will watch for other similar moments that grace the storyline.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Hello, fellow artsies! I'm pleased to be starting up this blog again after a few years of radio silence. I'll continue to focus on the arts, and will also be doing some reviews of new books and other items of interest. I look forward to re-connecting! Meanwhile, I offer up my advent gift to you ...