Monday, April 25, 2016

AT THE MOVIES...

Ellie and I were at the Newport Beach Film Festival last night, to see a selection of short films. Here's Ellie with Philip Battley, husband of Jessica Boyd, whose film I write about below; and Fabio Tassone, a new friend...


FAITH

In the opening scene in Jessica Elisa Boyd's profoundly moving new short movie, Art in Heaven, we find her protagonist, William, an Anglican priest, in a life-or-death crisis at the edge of a large body
of water.  At the end of the scene, in which we are invited to share his inner conflict in the vast and inscrutable context of nature itself, he reluctantly chooses life, flinging into the water instead his purple chasuble--the stole that is the symbol of his priestly office and his relationship with God.

We shortly discover the cause of his distress: the death of a child and the alienation from his wife. William's worldly-wise bishop re-assigns him from his city post to a parish deep in the Suffolk countryside, offering him a period of respite in which to find redemption. His tentative welcome there includes--in one of the movie's delightful, chuckle-inducing asides--a table in the rectory laden with a plethora of home-baked cakes; but he is left with a feeling of deep disconnection, from his own family--his sister and their mother--his wife, his congregation, and his God. And not least from himself. It is astonishing that Boyd manages to weave so complex a web of emotional connections in so brief a time.

In a crisis of faith, William, is now given to struggle with the religious beliefs that led him to the priesthood. How to believe in a supposedly merciful God who condones such tragedy in the life of one who has devoted his life to His service?  This is, of course, the perennial and ever insoluble dilemma of Christianity. But Boyd's film transcends the purely religious question and asks us to consider the necessity of faith to the work of simply being a human being, in a world that is often unkind, and sometimes outright cruel.

William finds his redemption in part in mystery, in part in music. A young woman appears at the piano in his church, rehearsing a beautiful sonata by Edward Elgar. He soon takes to listening to the music, rapt, and learns from this "angel" to listen to his own deeply wounded heart. Inspired by her, he begins to reconnect with his congregation, with his faith, with nature, and with life, and finds himself able to commit himself to his pastoral work, and to this new parish which had seemed to him at first an exile. It is only in the last scenes that we learn that the young pianist was nothing but an apparition: she had died some years before, the victim of a family tragedy not unlike William's own...

Boyd excels at exploring the inner life of her protagonist with both insight and compassion. As myself the son of an Anglican priest who struggled with his faith, I found in William--played with quiet authority and conviction by Daniel Weyman--a persuasive portrait of a thoughtful, sympathetic man confronted with tormenting doubts about his life's choice to serve God. In the broader context, Boyd uses her cinematographic medium to paint the glorious, marshy landscape of that part of England, evoking the mysterious, profound relationship between man and nature in the same way as, say, Thomas Hardy managed to do in a different corner of my own home country. She has created a film that invites us to contemplate the human need for faith in, and commitment to something greater than our own small lives, even as it moves us with its compassion and reminds us of the amazing beauty that surrounds us everywhere.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

AND THEN THIS...

I'm not a fanciful person, generally, but there's this...

Here I am, sitting out in the sunshine on the back patio of our Laguna Beach cottage where Georgie loved to stretch out and relax, and quite suddenly a little bird flies down out of nowhere and perches on my shoulder. Then drops down to the patio tiles and stands there for a moment looking up at me.

And my first instinctive, irresistible thought is: this is George, come back to tell me that he's doing fine. As I say, I'm not generally a fanciful person, but the thought just came to mind. Like that. Like the bird, unprompted. And settled there in my mind for a moment, and flew off.

I mean, wild birds don't just fly down and settle on your shoulder. Ever. Do they? It certainly never happened to me in my life before. I don't expect to happen again. Not ever.

So... a messeanger? A reincarnation? A fluke of nature? You tell me.

Friday, April 22, 2016

AN ACT OF LOVE

Well, Georgie has left us. He has made that journey we all must take into the Great Mystery--or what my late sister called the Next Great Adventure. I myself choose not to speculate about the nature of that mystery, but I do know that this morning's act of love released him from any further suffering.

We had been hoping to help him last out until we could take him to his own vet in Laguna Beach when we go down there tomorrow. Yesterday, though, there was a steep decline, and by evening time it was clear he would need help sooner; we even made some effort to find someone to come to our home before bedtime.

That didn't work.  So we went to bed and made him as comfortable as possible. For some time, he lay quietly on the bed without moving, but around 2AM he stirred and gave his usual signals about needing to go out for a pee. I was up in a flash, but even that was too late. He had managed to slip out of the diaper he has been wearing at night, and had wet himself, the bed, and me...

I took him out to the garden and dried us off as best I could, then brought him back to bed with an empty bladder. He was soon asleep again, and snoring. I was not so lucky. As is his habit, he took more than his share of my side of the bed, leaving me uncovered, shivering, and tormented by thoughts about the morning. At 5:30, I picked him up from the bed and brought him to meditate with me for a half hour. He was remarkably peaceful, but remained quite limp and listless in my arms.

It seemed like an interminable wait until 7AM, when I could call the local vet. Since George's regular vet is in Laguna, we're not known to a clinic up here in LA--and the one I called said they couldn't take him until the afternoon. They did, however, give me a list of people to call, and a few calls later I found someone who would come around right away.

Well, as you can imagine, there was a lot of weeping as we waited; and a lot more as we welcomed the kindly vet who sat and chatted for a while before giving George the two injections needed, first to relax him, then to stop the heart. He died very peacefully in my arms, out on the deck, overlooking the garden where he loved to play.

There's more weeping to be done. We will miss our George sorely in the days to come. But it was clear that the time had come for him to leave us and along with the pain and sadness, there are the beginnings of a sense of healing and release.

Our thanks to those of you who have followed this saga and sent kind messages. It has meant a lot to us, to know that there is so much human compassion out there in a world where we sometimes doubt its continuing presence. We send our love and thanks to all our good friends. And George's great spirit surely will live on, if only in our hearts.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A BAD NIGHT FOR GEORGE...


George and I had a bad night last night. His restlessness at 3AM woke me, but I thought he might get back to sleep. Instead, I heard a thud that told me he had fallen off the bed. Thinking he might urgently need a pee, I picked him off the floor, took off the diaper that he has to wear these days, and carried him out into the side patio that we call the Buddha garden. He seemed to want to head further down the steps into the garden so I picked him up again and took him down to the concrete patio, where he had a small pee and promptly fell over and collapsed in a furry heap.

I sat with him for a few minutes, then decided we should get back inside. Fearing the kind of urinary accident he'd had a couple of weeks ago, I found a plastic sheet and towel and laid them out on the bed with George on top of them. By this time, he'd fallen into a kind of catatonic state and I thought he might actually be dying, so I cradled his head and sat with him for a while, whispering sweet nothings in his ear. Aware that dogs can cling to life out of a sense of responsibility for their clan, I assured him that it was okay for him to leave if he needed to--but he kept breathing, so eventually I lay down beside him and tried to doze off again myself.

By this time it was 4AM. The moon--I think it was a full moon--was big and yellow and hanging in the sky above the Santa Monica mountains, and I began to think that this would be a propitious time for George to leave. But no. For the next hour, he slept restlessly, occasionally raising his head as though to reassure himself of his surroundings. Once or twice, he attempted to get to his feet, but apparently did not have the strength. And once or twice--since this is usually a signal that he needs to pee--I picked him up and took him out again.

Finally, around 5:30, I decided I was not going to be able to sleep any more and got up to do my meditation in the chair beside the bed. Mid-way through, aware that George was restless again, I got up and brought him over to sit with me, on my lap, as I meditated. He cupped his head in the crux of my elbow, and seemed happy enough to relax in my lap. At 6AM, we both got up and returned to bed. He has been sleeping fitfully ever since, and now lies beside me on the bed. He summons the strength to stand, once in a while; but when I take him out and stand him, gently, on all fours, he seems to need all his strength and concentration just to keep standing. At most, he can manage a few faltering steps.

He does not appear to be suffering, but we can now no longer overlook the weakness and the lethargy. We must think further, today, about kind home euthanasia...