Tuesday, January 20, 2015

To Follow A Star, or alternatively, Where this Blog Gets its Title

Ellie Piercy (Helena) in the Globe's 2011 All's Well that Ends Well.


"When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy."
Matthew 2:10



It's not an unusual image, a little girl looking up at the night sky. I probably picked it up from a book somewhere, although it's more likely that the idea originated with Disney's Pinocchio. Either way, it was a fixed and secret part of my bedtime ritual, particularly in the summertime.

Starlight, star bright,
First star I see tonight
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight.

Being a somewhat peculiar child, it only took a few iterations of this rhyme before I had to ask myself if it was all right, you know, morally sound, to wish on stars. Perhaps I should confine the expression of my dreams to prayer? Although, I reasoned, wishing was kind of like praying anyways, except for that it didn't begin with "Dear Heavenly Father" and end with "in the name of Jesus Christ, amen." I liked wishing an awful lot, so I didn't think I should just throw it away. God wouldn't want me to abandon something so lovely. So maybe what was important, then, was that God was in on my wishing. I wondered if there was a way He could be. And then, a lightbulb went off in my seven year old mind.

The star must be a mailbox. My wish being like a prayer, but not quite, wouldn't get first priority, express shipping if you will, so rather than being sent directly to God it would go into this mailbox, where Jesus, the obvious candidate for a celestial mailman, would pick it up and deliver it to God. And that's why there were so many stars. A mailbox for everyone.

And I knew that sometimes it could take an awful long time for a wish to come true, and if that's happened to you, it's just because your wish is still sitting in your mailbox-star. But Jesus would get to it eventually. Because Jesus always comes through for people.

Gold.

So I continued wishing. For the typical things. I made wishes for my brother and for my sisters. I made wishes for my parents, and for my cousins, the Winstons and Kayla. I might have thrown a few wishes into my Heavenly mailbox for a trip to Disneyland, because that's what you do. But, the thing I wished for the most was true love. The most romantic of seven year olds.

I felt pretty unabashed about it at the time. And actually feel only a little warm spot in my chest while recalling it to myself. But the potential reader out there makes me feel the need to apologize. Sorry that you just read that, that pinnacle of clichés.

At the time, it wasn't so cliché to me.

Which seems to be true of most of these kinds of things.

The stars I've followed since my early night-time wishing have only led me into increasingly trivial territory. And at first I wasn't okay with it. Some combination of artistic snobbery and an inner deep-rooted lack of faith had led me to feeling very disconnected from many of the things that make me who I essentially am.

What's my point? Is it that I'm dissatisfied with my life? Or is that I'm upset that the apparent clichés of my experiences isolate me, and keep others from accessing them? That people cannot or will not believe that a life can be full of God's hand and seem at times, almost magical?

That I cannot or will not believe that a life can be full of God's hand and seem at times, almost magical?

Likely.

I've seen magic a few times. And almost always, it happens on the stage. That's what I believe as a theatre person. And I don't just believe it. To lean on the oft used distinction of believers, I know it.

Perhaps you're not convinced. If that's the case, read these words:

I think not on my father 
And these great tears grace his remembrance more 
than those I shed for him. What was he like? 
I have forgot him. My imagination 
carries no favor in't but Bertram's.
I am undone: there is no living, none, 
if Bertram be away. It were all one 
that I should love a bright particular star
and think to wed it, he is so above me;
in his bright radiance and collateral light 
must I be comforted, not in his sphere.

The first time I read that monologue was on a tube in London in the Spring of 2011. I was involved in a study abroad of both the BYU and the theatre varieties, wherein our study of Shakespeare required us to read All's Well that Ends Well, one of several Shakespearean problem plays.

Helen, the protagonist, loves Bertram, who is effectively the antagonist, a proud wealthy man who spurns Helen and her love at every turn of the plot. In the end of the play they unite in marriage. Helen wins her quest, but the words themselves leave the reader doubting Bertram's conversion to the union. All's Well has been raked over by feminist critics. And deservedly so. For all of the apparent traditional misogyny of the piece there is a strong undercurrent of gender-bending motives and choices. It is an interesting and confusing piece of theatre.

But, as much as I love the way feminism makes my neurons fire, I had one of the most basic, non-intellectual responses to All's Well that Ends Well. I wept. I wept on the tube. And I bit back tears in class. And I went to the Globe Theatre with my stomach in knots because I just knew that the two hours that followed would be like a hot iron running up and down my soul.

And here's why. Helen was me. In her I saw my own naïveté, my own sincerity, and my hurts, my rejection, my loss.  It was as though "It were all one that I should love a bright particular star, and think to wed it" was a metaphor just for me. Have you ever felt like someone is so above you, so out of reach, but nevertheless the feeling, the longing pervades you? It's embarrassing frankly. You want to smack yourself.

And then, the way the story ended made it all the worse. After three acts of Helen pursuing Bertram, she wins the man, who very unconvincingly concludes:

If she my liege, may prove this clearly, 
I'll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

He doesn't even say it to her! Outrageous.

And so I sat in the Globe Theatre, my jacket (the one I had purchased for him) pulled up around my chin. The sky was clear, and gradually darkening. There was a pigeon that couldn't make up his mind. He flew from one side of the circular opening at the top of the Globe to the other.

The audience was alive. There was a pulse of energy that traveled in whispers from seat to seat. And then, as the actors came onstage, that pulse suspended, like an inhale. And in the first moments of the play it became clear. No one disbelieved Helena. Not the director, not the actors, not the audience. People cared about her and her experiences. They allowed her to feel both the love and the confusion that were implied in the words Shakespeare had written for her.

And there was more. John Dove, the director, redeemed the story with the addition of a prop. A little green handkerchief that Helen gave to Bertram in the first scene, that he would look at mournfully throughout his acts of rebellion.

Dove's Bertram was no two-dimensional jerk. He was a confused boy coming into his manhood. And the reunion of the two at the end of the play erased all the fears the ambiguous text has awakened in me.

I was completely spell-bound by this performance. It felt like a gift, a miracle. It renewed my hope and my trust and my little seedling belief that in fact good things could happen to the sincere, to the pure in heart.

I brought this feeling back with me to Provo, Utah. And it was needed to sustain me through the hurt that followed. Things did not improve. My sense of loss was magnified. My grief realized. But I kept believing, as Helen did, that while:

All's well that ends well
Still the fine's the crown.
Whate'er the course
The end is the renown.

And the loss, it changed those words for me. It changed stars and wishes. And I began to see that I felt the same way (perhaps even more so) about God that I did about my Bertram-figure-man. That same sense of longing. Of needing upward ascension, but feeling cut short by my own imperfections, my inherent weakness. This feeling was very much at the heart of my relationship with God.

And so I've decided to apply the words, all of Helen's words, and the longing and the hope in happy endings in her words, to that journey. The one that involves me and God.

And I still spend a lot of time under the stars. I like to look at them when I'm in the mountains. They seem closer to me than they were before. And while sometimes I recognize that it is still in their collateral light that I bathe, I cannot help but acknowledge that these days the night sky feels like a blanket, or a veil, and that perhaps instead of mailboxes, stars are actually pin-pricks, places where the fabric of the sky is threadbare, where the light shines through.

And perhaps someday, the day my wishes come true, the veil that is the sky will tear, will split in two, and all the light of God will come streaming through, and I will be in God's sphere again.

God's sphere. The end; the renown.