A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

A Review of “Black Panther”

Movie poster for Black Panther. Image used under Creative Commons.I knew before entering the cinema this weekend that Black Panther would be a very different movie for Marvel, but hadn’t predicted how different. Until now, every character in the cinematic universe has been seen through the lens of a hero, albeit, at times, reluctant or unintentional heroes. This isn’t the story of a hero, but rather the story of a king.

T’Challa rises to power, as you’ll remember from Captain America: Civil War, through tragedy. Thrust into wearing the mantle of king, he is now trying to do what is right for his country, struggling against a history of violence and revenge. His sudden rise to power is marked by living in the tension between honoring their way of life and doing what is right with the power that his country holds.

What immediately struck me about Black Panther was the quality of the world-building. Wakanda here finally fulfills its potential in the Marvel Universe. We see a fully developed nation, honoring and maintaining its ancient traditions all while embracing a technological superiority surpassing any other nation on the globe. The balance that the Wakandans maintain between these two extremes is completely believable and profoundly thought-provoking. The visuals are stunning, especially the dream and hallucination sequences. Both the sweeping shots of the African landscape and the digitally constructed sequences of the high-tech bunkers beneath the city are equally impressive. I also particularly liked the Bond/Q sort of relationship between T’Challa and his sister.

Speaking of Shuri, we should not pass over the fact that T’Challa’s closest advisors and confidants in this film are women, strong female characters that make up the backbone of his government. This is a subtle triumph for the writers that does a great deal to contribute to the strength of the film as a whole.

Interestingly, Everett Ross’ character  truly comes into his own here as we continue to see hints of the as-yet-unrealized fallout from Civil War. Their paths cross as T’Challa’s adventures in the beginning of the film are more like an espionage adventure than a super-hero one. This initially felt slightly out of place, but the director ultimately made it work.

The film offers a powerful social commentary, as well, perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen in a Marvel film since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The fear of having one’s country legally taken over by an unstable dictator is very real (and oh-so-relevant today). The recognition that violence doesn’t solve this problem, but rather does working to strengthen the system, is equally apropos, and needs to be said to as wide an audience as possible.

The Black Panther is not a costumed hero, at least not yet. He is a warrior attempting to protect those he loves, a leader attempting to make atonement for the past sins of his country.  He sees the wisdom of using violence only as a last resort, and sees the humanity that connects us all. This is possibly T’Challa’s most heroic trait.

In the end, the Black Panther extends Wakanda’s hand, recognizing the folly of not helping others in need when one has the power to do so.  Wakanda coming out of isolation will have a profound impact on the Marvel Universe, and I’m fascinated to see exactly what that impact will be.

Black Panther is a celebration of African culture, and an exploration of what that means. I can’t pretend to understand that, but I think that I am closer to understanding it after seeing this film. Every actor gives a stunning performance here, building on top of a strong screenplay. This is quite possibly the best movie that Marvel has made so far, certainly a relief after the disaster that was Ragnarok. Here is a Silver Age hero brought to the screen as a new type of character for the cinematic universe, taking us in a very different direction. T’Challa will play an important role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I can’t wait to see what that role will be. This film is not to be missed.

Image attribution: junaidrao under Creative Commons.

That Little Tree

Small ceramic Christmas treeThat little tree.

I remember it in my childhood bedroom. It carried the soft glow of Christmas from the rest of the house into where I slept. My mother had crafted it carefully and lovingly, intending it to be a gift to me, in a ceramics class that was her creative release. Though not inherently worth any money, it’s a fragile little tree, and I’ve always handled it with the utmost care. The memories that it carries with it, the intention with which it was created, endow it with a value far beyond any monetary appraisal.

I have carried that little tree with me everywhere I have lived since. I pack it away with special care at the end of each season, and I unpack it again when the temperature begins to fall. Perhaps because it always had a special place in my bedroom all of those decades ago when I lived in my parents’ home, it has always lived in my bedroom since.

I remember every detail of the Christmas decorations in our home. There were flickering lights, music almost constantly, and gold garland hung with artificial apples that framed our living room. I particularly remember one circular, flickering Santa that somehow gave the softest presence to a room when it hung in the window, overlooking a snow-covered lawn. The decorations mattered less than the feeling of a solid foundation to which they contributed. My family always loved Christmas, because of the central part that it represents in the history of our faith, as well as the generosity to which it gives occasion. Of all the holidays of the year, this was the one to which we gave the most energy, and so the close of each year was a special, peaceful, even holy time. I’ve carried that into my adulthood, not only as a nostalgic recollection, but as a practice.

Or, at least I have tried.

I wonder how these same sorts of memories are being formed for our daughters, what will stand in the fronts of their minds about Christmas when they are my age. At least during the Christmases of my youth, the opportunities, it seems, for the formation of important memories were carefully crafted. I’m not sure that we accomplish that. With the number of times that we have moved over the past few years, the pace of life that is at times unmanageable despite or best efforts, I fear that this intentionality slips from our grasp, however good our intentions.

Perhaps, though, I’m mistaken. Perhaps those opportunities for memories as I grew up were not crafted at all, but are the sorts of experiences that create wonderful memories on their own, however unplanned, facilitated only by the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a stable nuclear family. Should that be the case, then the opportunities for these foundational memories are simply present for our children, and I can only hope to make them as positive as I can.

When our oldest daughter, now six, was three years old, she gazed with fascination and a certain degree of longing at that little tree. I promised her that, when she was grown, she would inherit the tree. She spoke often of that promise for a while, though she doesn’t really mention it of late. I wonder what that tree will mean when I pass it on to her?

I wonder if I can influence that meaning at all.

I’m the Guy who Ruined Christmas

Christmas tree standing in my favorite apartment from years agoYes, it was me. Through a series of unfortunate events, it was ultimately my fault that Christmas occurred only as a cobbled-together quasi-event this year instead of that magical time with family for which we all hope.

Why, yes, it does sound like there’s a story behind that, doesn’t it? And it goes a little something like this.

While I managed to stay mostly involved in traditional Christmas activities such as tree-trimming and…well, mostly tree-trimming…I found myself so busy with work and the demands of a myriad of health concerns this year that I missed most of the gift-buying. Karen sort of filled me in on what we were getting the children and family members this year, and I managed to squeak out enough time to find what I wanted to buy her on Amazon and keep an Advent-reading plan. When I realized that Christmas was only a week away, and that we had, as always, plans to travel for the week to see my side of the family, I hadn’t even booked our travel yet. My to-do list exploded. I was every stereotypical over-worked American. My head was spinning with this really cool post that I had wanted to write here on the first Sunday of Advent (obviously that never materialized), and somehow time had become stagnant around that moment that never happened. I still thought I had three weeks when I had only days.

While I haven’t written about it here, this is has been far from a banner year for my health. I fought through pneumonia in April, an event which left me with two other medical conditions that are possibly long-lasting and took most of the year to diagnose at a considerable expense. Add to that the random cold, and not one but two broken bones (I’m not even making this up), and I was hoping that, as I victoriously crossed off my final item of prep to take our trip three days before leaving, that the misfortunes were at an end and I would be healthy to keep our plans.

I really should have known that wouldn’t be the case.

The cold that the girls carried home turned into bronchitis for me. Still, I thought, we can push through. Then we had to move our travel plans one day due to unpredictable New England weather. I made the calls, changed reservations, took some medicine and kept going. The morning that we were scheduled to leave, the rental car was in the driveway and bags were (mostly) packed.

And I could barely move.

Instead of traveling to see family, I spent Christmas Eve at an urgent care. By Christmas day, we were placed under house arrest by another storm. Even though we had opened our Christmas gifts early in anticipation of leaving, we awoke (me fever-stricken) on Christmas morning right here, in our apartment, having kept only the stockings that “Father Christmas” packed for our daughters as the only surprise. Instead of spending Christmas with their grandparents in person, the girls spent Christmas with them over video. At this point, we considered leaving the next day. Surely I would have been well enough by then (I wasn’t, incidentally), but that plan, too, had to be abandoned as a shifting forecast on the other end of the week would have placed us in the likely scenario of being at our destination for only one day before needing to turn homeward.

We returned the rental car, cancelled the hotel reservations, and called it a loss.

Now, obviously none of this could have been helped. Even if I had managed to somehow have kept myself healthy (given the year I’ve had, I would say that my best efforts would have fallen flat), any modality of travel that we had chosen would have been halted by the weather we experienced. Still, my parents haven’t seen their grandchildren in person in over a year now, and the level of guilt that I’m carrying for being the cause of that this year is a weighty burden. This says nothing of the fact that I really wanted to have some conversations about specific things with my father in person, and to just enjoy spending holiday time with family. While my condition (or at least the one that prevented us from traveling) has mostly resolved as I write this, I have spent every day this week (whenever I wasn’t running the snow-blower, that is) thinking wistfully of the laughter and warmth that we would have had with family had things gone according to plan.

In doing so, I’m reminded of exactly how blessed I am that there was family waiting, even though that waiting went unrequited this year. Many cannot say that. The loneliness that many face in this season I cannot fathom, and I attempt to assuage my conscience for having no time to confront this by giving to charities and church outreaches.

Still, after our power came back on from the first storm, I spontaneously ran around the room with my soon-to-be two-year-old on my back, as she bounced and giggled in my ear, and I realized that, despite the inevitable outcome of our best-laid plans, the most important things were here, easily within reach, if just a bit messier than I would have liked. The Incarnation that we celebrate over these next days has breathed life into our moments in the most common, and most miraculous, of ways.

I hope that your Christmas was peaceful.

Frenetic Pace

I’m writing this at the end of a long weekend, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. We’ve returned from a dinner marking the first Sunday of Advent. It was the first social event that I’ve gone out for since Thanksgiving day.

I’ve worked really hard to avoid busyness (yes, I know that’s only sort-of a word) since I finished grad school. Were I to go back through my posts from that time in my life, I’m sure that I complained about it way too often (if you were reading then and find yourself in vigorous agreement, I beg your forgiveness for putting up with that). I always thought that my time would be better spent writing than going back out after I was in for the evening. I felt that the hectic social calendars of many of my friends were a sort of sound and fury signifying nothing.

For the last few weeks, though, my evenings and weekends were filled. Having friends over for dinner, with all of the associated hustle and bustle involved, activities at our faith community, getting ready for Thanksgiving…all of these things made me feel alive in a way, as though I was getting to experience something that I normally avoided with such determination that the avoidance had become a habit of sorts.

Which was actually exactly what I had been doing.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, one evening I was getting our youngest ready for bed and was digging in her closet for pajamas, when I saw a backpack hanging there. Not just any backpack, mind you. This was what Karen and I affectionately referred to as “the essentials bag.” I remembered the Saturday afternoon in Raleigh when Karen and I picked it out.

You see, with both girls, we had one of these bags. It’s a specially outfitted backpack for outings with a baby. It’s neatly compartmentalized to carry changing gear, bottles, changes of clothes, etc. All of the essentials of which you will find yourself in need during any given excursion. The bag we had for our oldest fell apart from use, and we purchased a new one for the second baby years later. In retrospect, this was really more for me than for Karen. Somehow, having the requisite equipment helped me feel that I might be able to do the job of parenting, a job for which I have always found myself lacking in aptitude.

I remember each detail about that period in our oldest’s life. I remember the feeding and diaper routines, the morning rituals, the favorite toys. I remember as she progressed through the levels of her Pack N’ Play until she was too big for it altogether, when we had to buy her “big girl bed.” I remember reading the bed-time stories, checking out favorite books from the library over and over again until we eventually purchased copies because they were so beloved.

I don’t remember these details about our youngest. They’ve gone by so quickly. I was too busy to notice.

I’ll never be able to get that back.

So, as alive as this busy season has made me feel, or as thrilling as it was to be self-employed and successful in a new vocation, I need to find some sort of balance.

Then it occurs to me, however, that there are different types of busyness.

Because, as Karen and I were discussing the night that I write this about how much cooking and fun has been had over the last few days, I have felt it to be a slowing down. I found a rhythm outside of checking emails and consulting calendars. Cleaning up from holiday cooking, taking out the recycling…there’s something healing in the simplicity of these activities. Something relaxing. Something holy. Somehow, with all of those activities, the time multiplied, and I was still able to give piggy-back rides through the living room, read bed-time stories, and make breakfast.

Somehow.

And, as the weekend draws to a close, I approach the screen again with wariness.