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What I owe Alan Rickman


When my radio alarm woke me this morning with the news that actor Alan Rickman had died, I found my thoughts turning to his most memorable role.  It wasn’t the maniacal villain in Die Hard, or the inky-haired Severus Snape, though those are surely the first images that came to mind for many.  I immediately thought of Colonel Brandon in the film Sense and Sensibility.

It’s one of my favorite films.   Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, did so beautifully, turning Austen’s first novel into a movie that (in my blasphemous opinion) is even more engaging than the novel itself.  And when I saw it the first year after I graduated from college, I liked it so much I saw it three times in the theatre (and countless times on VHS – boy, that really dates me, doesn’t it?).

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Rickman in action.  I’d seen Die Hard, and I’d enjoyed him immensely in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where he stole every scene he was in (it was one of the first movies I could cite where the villain was way more appealing than the hero).  And I knew that he’d starred in the stage production of the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses; his role in the movie version was played by John Malkovich, who wasn’t bad, but nothing to what I imagine Rickman could have done in that part.

But in Sense and Sensibility, he played a role that opened my twenty-something eyes to a truth about dating that every woman has to learn: Don’t overlook the quiet guys who fly below the radar.  Still waters run deep.  (I should add here that if you haven’t seen S&S, don’t read any further, as I’ll be indulging freely in spoilers.)

In the movie, his character Colonel Brandon loves Marianne (Kate Winslet) instantly.  Remember the first time he sees her, playing the piano and singing?  It’s such a beautifully-filmed scene, catnip for a romantic like me.


But Marianne – like many young women, honestly – doesn’t give him the time of day.  She wants the dashing  hero who sweeps her off her feet.  She finds it, quite literally, in Willoughby, the guy who carries her home when she sprains her ankle and woos her with poetry and knows exactly what to say at all times.  He drives a fast carriage; he’s thrilling and a little dangerous.  She’s nuts about him.  But the romance ends in heartbreak, passionate tears, and an awful social snub at a ball that shows the guy’s true colors once and for all.  (There’s also that bit about him seducing another woman and leaving her alone and pregnant.  He’s just a bad boy all the way.)

But Colonel Brandon is the opposite: he is steady, devoted, ethical.  He cleans up Willoughby’s messes, stands by the woman he jilts (women, I guess), and is at all times courteous and kind.  There’s a great scene where one of the busybodies tries to throw Marianne and Brandon together by suggesting that they play a piano duet.  Marianne immediately says rudely that she doesn’t know any duets, a pointed response mean to show her lack of interest in Brandon.  Rickman’s face falls; he’s felt the snub.  All the same, a second later he pulls out a chair for Marianne as she sits at the table.  A gentleman to the end.

And Rickman’s performance – which is amazingly subtle – makes this good-guy-ness extraordinarily compelling.  (By contrast, when I later read the novel,  I found the character of Brandon very stodgy and dull – a testament to what an actor can do to bring a character to life.)  Even at the age of twenty-two, I felt that Rickman’s Brandon was infinitely more appealing than Willoughby, and far more engaging than Hugh Grant’s genial and adorably tentative Edward.  In the character of Brandon,  Rickman made decency extremely attractive.  With his inimitable voice and his perfectly-modulated expressions, he showed the virtue of a dependable man who does not up-play himself, who can weather disappointments without losing his innate decency, who is willing to ride all night to help the woman he loves, even if she hasn’t yet given him any shred of hope that she returns his interest.  He showed us that those traits – not, God forbid, a smooth-talking insouciance — is what’s really sexy in a man.

Marianne takes a while to figure it out, but by the end, she does.  And maybe what makes the finale of that movie so extra-wonderful, even among Austen movie finales, is that we’re just as thrilled that the guy ends up happy as we are that the heroine ends up happy.  We care about him just as much as we do about her.

So while I, like everyone else on Facebook, mourn the passing of a truly great actor, I’m grateful in a way that goes beyond my appreciation of his talent.  I can’t say this about too many actors, but I think that perhaps he gets some of the credit for the current happiness of my personal life, for helping to sharpen my antennae about what really matters in a man.   As Colonel Brandon, he showed countless young women that the guys who fly below the radar are worth another look. And thanks to the eternal magic of film, he’ll keep on doing so for generations to come.

Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?

Adoration of the Magi by Velazquez

Adoration of the Magi by Velazquez

A rerun of a post from — wow — 2011.  I guess I’ve been blogging for a while, haven’t I?

January 6th is the feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the three Magi who journeyed to find Jesus.    This marks the last of the twelve days of Christmas, though frankly, Christmas has felt like a  distant memory to me ever since I started back to school earlier this week.  Setting the alarm and getting up at dark o’clock is a real holiday buzzkill.

But enough complaining.  Since it’s the Epiphany, I’m going to get all spiritual here and talk about one of my favorite poems, “Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.  I’ve read lots of his writings over the years, notably his very long poem “The Waste Land,” which we studied for a few weeks (it’s that kind of poem) in  a college seminar class.   Eliot is not someone I read often, though a lot of his imagery makes me swoon with delight.  But “Journey of the Magi” — well, that’s one I read and re-read every holiday season.

It’s narrated by one of the Magi, reflecting on his trip to find the infant Jesus.  It wasn’t an easy trip; there was lots of sacrifice, and discomfort, and “times we regretted/The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,/And the silken girls bringing sherbet.”  And then, finally, he and his fellow travelers find the place where Jesus lives, and they see him, and he describes it as being “satisfactory.”

But then … in the last stanza, there’s a question, which goes right to the heart of the poem: “Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”  And when you read the poem, you see so clearly how this journey has changed the narrator.  Things that were once comfortable are not so comfortable anymore.  His old life doesn’t feel quite right.  After the sacrifice and hardship of the journey, a journey which has  changed him without him even realizing it, he no longer feels at home in the life he used to lead.

That’s pretty much the Gospel message right there, isn’t it?  If we let ourselves be changed by the Incarnation and by the presence of  Jesus, it’s bound to feel a little uncomfortable.  The Gospel message challenges us to color outside the boundaries of our lives, to journey further into love and sacrifice than we’d go on our own.   Maybe this means letting go of grudges that we would love to nurse forever.  Maybe it means giving time or talent to serve people who can’t help themselves.  Maybe it means giving those of a different political or theological stripe the benefit of the doubt instead of shunting them into the category of Other. Overall, it means having a generosity of spirit, which is something that I often fail at doing.

But I try; I really do.   And though I haven’t encountered Christ in his infant form, as the Magi did, I encounter him every week at Mass.  I meet him over and over in the people who cross my paths — at work, at home, in the mall, everywhere.   And in every encounter, I’m challenged to let the old, petty me die so that a new, more generous me can be born.  This is a lifelong process, honestly.  It is a lesson that I learn and re-learn and re-re-learn.  And this poem is one of the ways — an especially beautiful one, at this time of year — that I am reminded to keep on trying.

(Note to poetry geeks: on this website you can listen to a recording of Eliot reading his own poem.)

When it’s good to be a packrat

My grandparents with my sister and me, 1975

My grandparents with my sister and me, 1975

Last fall I read the bestselling book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo.  It came recommended to me by a good friend, and I read it with a growing feeling of what can best be described as relief.  My small house is perpetually cluttered; nothing ever seems to change that.  But Kondo’s unique strategy of assessing and discarding actually made me think that perhaps, just perhaps, I would be able to get rid of things I thought I’d keep forever.  She is what some might call ruthless in her approach, but there are times when I think I need that.

But this Christmas, I realized anew that there is something to be said for being a packrat.

On Christmas morning I opened a large square package from my parents, only to find this box.


When I opened it, I was surprised and delighted to discover that it was full of cards and drawings that I had given my Grandma and Grandpa Kubitz over the years.  My grandmother had saved them all, in a huge envelope with my name on it, and I had no idea this collection even existed.


Inside the box were cards I’d made for my grandparents, for birthdays and Mother’s Day and anniversaries.  There were pictures I’d drawn — some nothing more than crayon squiggles, with my grandmother’s careful date (“Ginny — 1975″)  in the corner.  There were all sorts of photographs with white borders, the kind you don’t see anymore, of different occasions involving me, at a variety of ages: newborn to kid with bangs to awkward teenager.  Many of them are snapshots I’d never seen before, photos my grandparents took and are thus different from the ones in my mom’s albums.

They were all there, in the treasure trove, saved by my grandmother.  She died in 1989; my grandfather a few years later.  According to my parents, the bulging envelope of Ginny memorabilia, compiled carefully over time by Grandma (there was one for my sister as well), ended up in my aunt’s house in a box of things she’d packed up after we sold my grandparents’ house twenty years ago.  She recently rediscovered the envelope, gave it to my parents, and they passed it on to me.


It’s hard to put into words what this gift means to me.  I still haven’t gone through everything, but the things I have seen have made me smile, get teary-eyed, and even laugh.  (Take, for example, the “potholder” I made of two pieces of fabric.  Just to make sure my grandma would be safe, I included a warning note.)


There was also this darling little picture of a May basket, with a verse on the back.  (I think it’s obvious why poetry is not my genre of choice.)



The homemade cards are precious in the way that kids’ cards always are; no wonder my grandmother tucked each one away to keep forever.  My pictures are awkward, my handwriting messy, but I remember the way Grandma and Grandpa would exclaim over each one; an original Monet could not have pleased them more.  I always felt so loved by my grandparents, knowing that I was cherished by them.  And now, as a forty-two year-old woman and mom, who last saw her grandmother at the age of sixteen and her grandfather at the age of nineteen, I am so humbly grateful for the childhood memories.   It is an amazing thing to be able to open a box of your past, to see before you the witness of two people whose love for you rendered everything you gave them precious and worthy of keeping.

Did Grandma intend to give these all back to me, someday?  Did she keep them for herself, or for me?  I’m not sure.  But either way, this collection of crayon and Pentel drawings and homemade cards and 1970s photos is a witness to the power of keeping things, even at the risk of being a packrat.  It’s a testament to the fact that even though you last saw them a quarter-century ago, the people we loved as children never really leave us.

And it’s also a reminder that the gifts we create for others can sometimes come back to us, in ways we never expected.


Carols you aren’t sick of hearing

I have a mad love for Christmas carols. Even so, I find that some are egregiously overplayed.  By December 3rd, I have already heard “Sleigh Ride” often enough to last me comfortably through the rest of the month.  So I have a fondness for the slightly more obscure Christmas carols, the ones that you don’t hear piped into malls and on the radiowaves.

Such as the Wexford Carol, an Irish carol of extraordinary beauty.  Here it is, sung by Alison Krauss with accompaniment by Yo-Yo Ma.

Another lovely carol is the Basque carol called “Gabriel’s Message,” about the angel’s visit to Mary.  It’s been covered memorably by Sting, but I like this particular group’s rendition for its simplicity.

For a more secular change of pace, there’s the catchy “The Christmas Waltz.”  Bing Crosby sings it here, in a production number that is the height of 60s retro awesomeness.

“Mary’s Little Boy Child” is also a moving song that I’d love to hear far more often.  Here it is, sung by Harry Belafonte. (Andy Williams also did a beautiful rendition.)


“The Sussex Carol” is lighthearted and lovely, and it’s sung here by The Priests (three guys who really are priests).  It always makes me feel like I should be wandering around in the snow with holly and ivy and wassail.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the English composer John Rutter, who has penned some astonishingly beautiful carols.  Here’s my favorite of them,  Angel’s Carol.  It’s not the Christmas season for me until I’ve heard this song.

What are your favorite underplayed Christmas songs?

Our Lady of the vulnerable times

Our Lady of Guadalupe shine in Healdsburg, California

Our Lady of Guadalupe shine in Healdsburg, California

I think many of us are feeling vulnerable these days.  Tragic world events shake us; political fighting unsettles us; wild winter weather keeps us on edge.  On a personal note, recent changes in my own workplace have left me and many of my colleagues feeling disempowered.  Being vulnerable takes a lot out of you.

But tomorrow is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that makes me happy.  Just like her son, she’s a champion of the vulnerable.  She singled out the little guy, Juan Diego, and encouraged him.  She appeared not to the wealthy and powerful but to a representative of the disenfranchised and vulnerable, reminding him of his own innate dignity.

I love that about her.

Here in California, you see many images of Our Lady of Guadalupe: on truck decals, T-shirts, sides of buildings.  The fact that she is so ubiquitous just underscores her availability.  You don’t need a ticket or a background check or a sponsor to approach her.  She’s always there and ready to listen, any time life is roughing you up a bit and you need a little comfort.

Years ago, walking with my husband after dinner at a restaurant in a nearby city, I remember passing a Catholic church.  There was a shrine to Our Lady of G. in the parking lot, and in the dusk a young man was standing there.  He was alone, and silent, just pausing in front of her shrine.  It was clear that he was praying.  I was touched by it, this moment where vulnerable human need sought strong  maternal love.  If my own experiences are anything to go by, I suspect he left that shrine feeling heard.

I think this is why Our  Lady of Guadalupe is so special.  I think it’s why her image is fixed in our memories, just as surely it is on Juan Diego’s tilma.  She keeps on bringing us roses in winter, affirmation in the bleakest times.   And that’s worth celebrating, tomorrow and always.