Living in LA LA LAND?

la-la-land-2-17It’s already garnered a garrison of gongs and is hotly-tipped for the Oscars. It’s a film about dreams: their power — and their fragility.

Can a dream be powerful? We tend to think of them as frail, wispy things, prone to flit away or be extinguished by the first rough gust of reality. And yes, dreams are often fragile. In the film, love-struck pair Mia and Sebastian both fondly cradle one: Mia to be a film star, Sebastian to run a jazz club. And in a rough, tough, Hollywood world full of wannabes chasing that elusive chance, we see Mia at the sharp end of several blasé half-listening casting directors’ whims. Such a dream receives little nurture, is liable to be crushed, and will flower to fruition for only a dazzlingly lucky few.

As it happens, in this story their dreams DO come true (it’s Hollywood – funny that!). But it raises a question. What about all those not so star-kissed? Doomed merely to pine over shattered dreams? Or is there a more hopeful possibility? Might there just be, for each of us, a dream past all imagining that CAN come true?

Paradoxically, though film stardom in particular might strike most as ambitious, in a sense I think they actually both need a bigger dream.

There’s a magical scene in the film where our two lovers are whisked upward in a planetarium to dance among the stars. Beautiful, fantastical — pure escapism you might say. Yet it points to a great truth: however unrealistic it seems, we seek out wonder and transcendence. We can’t help ourselves. So where is the real deal found?

The world dangles various shimmering mirages before our eyes, and perfectly laudable opportunities too. But might there may be another dream, rooted elsewhere? A deeper purpose to our lives? I dare to believe there’s a ‘dream’ beyond money, fame or anything the world has to offer. One that beckons me on, as the child CS Lewis felt stirring in his spirit when he gazed at the pale distant hills in his native Ireland. None of the baubles we see now can shine a candle to it.

In this dream I’m not hanging on the whim of a crabby casting director (with a limited shelf life), but held in the grasp of infinite Love. And in the context of this larger dream, rooted in a security and worth from beyond, our smaller dreams — film star, jazz club owner, or indeed whatever — draw nourishment too.

Heaven knows we needs some good dreams right now. A dream’s a fragile thing — but rooted in and shaped for eternity, there are few things more powerful. Dream on, I say.

A good antidote to Valentine schmaltz

flamingo-600205_1920So, a post about Valentines. If you’re tempted to stop reading already, I’d have sympathy! For while a lucky few seem to relish it, it’s striking for how many people the ‘day of love’ seems to be a day of dread. It’s like the EU referendum split, or John Bercow: a Marmite day (not a traditional romantic delicacy I grant you).

While I naturally side with those who don’t want to feel boxed and pressured into making romantic gestures on THIS particular day of the year, and while I also dislike the sense of exclusion some feel….let me try and bring something positive to the table.

So… is there an antidote to the annual schmaltz around flowers, chocolates, exorbitant romantic dinners – and inveterate quantities of red hearts? If I suggested a lengthy mid-eastern poem composed around 965BC – even if it is about love – you might wonder what they’d put in my Valentine spritzer. Even more so if you heard it’s in the Bible, Old Testament no less; and even more so if you learned it was written by, or at least features, a chap (King Solomon) who had 700 wives and 300 concubines (there’s a guy who knew how to make a gal feel special!).

But bear with me, for this poem, Song of Songs, offers a pertinent riposte to the artifice of Valentine packaging that commercial western society persistently foists upon us.

For starters, there’s some exceedingly rich imagery surrounding this tale of a young man and woman in love – largely drawn from nature and rustic life. Her hair is described as being ‘like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead’; her teeth ‘like a flock of sheep just shorn’. If she were around today, she’d be in line for some shampoo and toothpaste ads. ‘Your breasts are like fawns, twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies’. It’s right there, I promise: chapter 4 verse 5. Hold the front page: there are breasts in the bible!

And there’s a choice pick of nice things said about the fella too: ‘his hair is wavy and black as a raven…his body is like polished ivory decorated with sapphires’. Move over Aidan Turner. There’s a veritable embarrassment of riches when it comes to sensuous language: ‘my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh…’ Language like luxurious chocolate. Pay attention, card writers.

The intensity of nature imagery reminds me of a modern media phenomenon that’s almost the polar opposite of Valentine schmaltz, and that we respond to very differently: spectacular natural history programmes like the recent ‘Planet Earth 2’. Nature has a unique power to break down our cynical defences and invite us to awe and wonder. It’s enthralling, embracing and inclusive. Love expressed in such terms has this power too.

We can’t put down ‘Song of Songs’ (you may not want to now anyway) without noting that in Christian tradition it has also been interpreted as illustrative of the love between Christ and the Church. For the sceptic, such an insight might just sound as excluding as Valentines can do for singles. But wait. Slow down. Allow the poetry to work on you. There’s just a chance this love, that’s described as better than wine (and presumably roses and chocolates too), might begin to work its magic on you too. Happy Valentines.

‘Lion’ film: a poignant parable of the spiritual search

xiamen-824233_1920At the end of ‘Lion’, the BAFTA nominated film about a young Indian man’s search for his lost roots, we finally learn the reason for the film’s title: his original name ‘Sheru’ in Hindi means ‘lion’. But even before discovering that, the title feels appropriate; this is a film of power, beauty and an emotional force that stalks and slays you.

Even the barest bones of the (true life) plot indicate it’s destined to deliver an emotional sucker punch. In a nutshell: young boy from poor family, accidentally separated from brother, finds himself on a decommissioned train bound for Kolkata, 1600 kilometres from home. No way of finding his way back or being found; is adopted, then two decades later is prompted by a memory to embark on a search for lost home and family.

But it’s a deeper resonance that captured my imagination. For behind this tale of childhood vulnerability and search for lost origins, I perceived a (likely unwitting) parable of humanity’s quest for meaning, spirituality, and dare I say it, God. And a corresponding enactment of the drama of God’s search for us.

Our heart strings are tugged from the get go. Watching five year old infant ‘Saroo’ wandering lost in vast Kolkata, we sense his life could be snuffed out or terribly damaged at any moment as, like so many lost children in the developing world’s cities, he innocently negotiates pitfalls and horrors. Mercifully adopted by a kind Australian couple, twenty-odd years later we feel with him as he wrestles with the painful sense of his mysterious past.

The sight and smell at a party of a distinctive Indian food he knew as a child, is the trigger that propels him on a quest to discover his first home.

I can’t recall at what point exactly this sense of a broader, deeper spiritual resonance dawned on me. There’s something very moving about the persistence and meticulousness of his search. After all, even with the huge help afforded by the recent emergence of Google Earth, there’s still a gaping paucity of clues and memories, and vast dimensions of time and distance involved. Very much the proverbial needle in a haystack. But the blurred memory of a station water tower provides the key he needs, and after many obsessive hours he finally succeeds in tracking down on a map what he recognises to be his home village.

Part of art’s power is its capacity to provoke different resonances for people. The parallel arising in my own mind was inescapable: between Sheru’s quest for lost home and family, and the universal human search for meaning, belonging and identity. Or to put it more pictorially and passionately: the search in the lost, orphaned child in each of us for spiritual home and belonging. Equally and conversely, in Christian language, our Father God’s longing, heart-felt search for each of us.

The reunion between mother and son, when it finally comes, surrounded by a crowd of excited villagers, is both a tear-jerker and a beautiful taste of heaven. Gospel story parallels spring unbidden to mind: the search for the lost coin and sheep, and the prodigal son: “he was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.

In contemporary western society, many people have in varying degrees and ways given up on the possibility of any real reward at the end of a spiritual search – which may have been falteringly embarked on in youth, then abandoned or buried as ordinary life took over, or doubts and questions overwhelmed. The search at this film’s heart speaks eloquently to this malaise. Insofar as it resonates for others, may it provoke a profound inner search, yielding rich rewards.