I don’t know how far back memories can go to infancy, but I think that most of us can at least imagine a time before we became aware of time.
When we’re infants the world is a crib, our parents, and the people we rely on to keep us alive. We have no concept of time; we’re not even conscious of the fact that our bodies need food and sleep. As we grow, the world becomes a playground, an endless canvas for our imaginations to explore. Before long, we become aware of the physical limits imposed on us by the outside world through pain, or the guidance of the people who raised us. By then we’re aware of time, although that time is still largely our own. When we play, we get caught up in the joy of it and keeping track of time is the furthest thing from our minds. An afternoon of playing with friends can feel like minutes until you notice the sun is setting and you’re being called home.
When we move into our teens and adulthood, time seems to pull us in different directions. Our lives become a maze of work schedules, class times, romantic and family relationships. Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.
Whether shaped by culture or life experiences, we all have a rhythm. One person’s rhythm may lead them away from following schedules, toward following their dreams without regard to forethought or safety. Another’s may lead to them working eighteen-hour days and becoming the president of a company. Sometimes those dreams are dissimilar, but either lifestyle can burn a person out. The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them. How many brilliant artists never use their gift because the rhythm of their traditions told them they could only be a complete person by becoming a mother? How many entrepreneurs with amazing ideas are trapped in jobs they hate because the larger rhythm of their cultural background says they need to be the breadwinner of a family at all times and anything else is a pipe dream?
A lot of my own life has been about dancing to someone else’s rhythm. The pattern was set early, from getting up every Sunday morning to accompany my grandfather, a popular Baptist preacher, to church. Because I was a preacher’s kid, there were a lot of expectations on me to be successful, although I had no idea what that meant in general, and definitely not for myself. Regardless, I took the idea of being successful into my working life and my personal life. Looking back, I can recall relationships that I wasn’t really a part of because I was so focused on my next move that I refused to enjoy the moment I was in. I sabotaged a lot of potential relationships and friendships that way, and it’s something I still wrestle with.
We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going. Obligations happen soon enough, and it’s better to enter into them when you’re sure that they’re a responsibility you can handle. I don’t have kids, but everyone I know who does tells me that any selfishness in your character has to be let go of once you’re in control of the well-being of another life.
The same is true for romantic relationships. Whether it’s an emotional connection, dancing, or sex, it’s amazing when two people create a rhythm that builds on itself until you reach a place that satisfies you both. A relationship, a true relationship, is compromise. Anytime you attempt to merge separate personalities and life experiences in the same physical or psychological space, there will be compromise. But before you can compromise, you need to be a complete person, aware of the things you want and stand for. To do that, you need time for self-reflection, however long that takes. Otherwise, you have a situation where one partner feeds off the energy and time of the other partner, until there’s nothing else to give.
A few years ago, I fell in love with an Italian women who was living in the U.S. At times, she would get depressed and tell me she missed the culture she grew up in. She had spent several years in America. We decided it was fair that I experience her way of life, so we moved to Italy. The day after we arrived, I left our apartment to go to the corner store up the street. It was closed, along with most of the other businesses. People were out on the streets talking with friends and family, enjoying the day. A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.
It was my first experience with the riposo, the Italian version of the siesta, when work stops and people suspend their schedules to rest and center themselves before heading back to finish out the workday. I didn’t understand at first. Later, I realized what an amazing thing it is. I didn’t know anything about the concept of work-life balance, but I was in the middle of a culture built on that. People actually took the time to enjoy the things they worked for. I didn’t know how much I had internalized the American attitude of living to work. When the relationship ended and I returned home, my rhythm had synchronized to the Italian pace of life. I tried to keep a little of that close, but America is a hard place to make that happen if you’re not independently wealthy.
This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is. There’s twenty-four hours in a day, and they all need to be filled with some sort of activity that will get you to the “next level.” If you have a job, you gotta hustle to work. When you get there, you gotta be sure your superiors see you being active. Being productive is beside the point. It’s like American society runs on the fear of falling behind everyone else. Instead of doing something for the pleasure of the thing itself and for your own benefit, everything becomes a race where the only goal is to not be overtaken by your competition.
That’s a dangerous way to live. When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.
We need to give ourselves room to breathe. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do if you’re responsible for your own livelihood and the security of a family. But if we don’t do something as a culture to relieve some of the pressure we’re under, a physical or psychological collapse will happen eventually.
The elders in my family had a saying: children can’t wait to grow up, and when they do, they wish they could go back. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but I do now. Once you’re in, you’re in. But there has to be a way reclaim our rhythm before it’s gone forever.
I’m still trying to reclaim my own. You can’t discover your own pace if you’re following someone else. We need to learn how to make time to live for ourselves before we can give anything to the people we love and care for.
We’ve read about scheming politicians, afflicted refugees, innocents killed for the sake of “national security.” We’ve seen protests suppressed, military overkill, and, of course, an utter disregard for the truth supported by the dissemination of “alternative facts.”
I am, of course, talking about the biblical texts we’ve read in church.
For congregations that follow the Lectionary-assigned readings, it’s been a rough few months. Immediately after Christmas, before the baby’s umbilical cord stump had fallen off, we read a charming story we like to call “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” King Herod has heard rumors of a baby king—a rival for his throne. Since Herod can’t find the particular baby in question, he decides to kill all the babies.
So we have a paranoid, narcissistic ruler with poor impulse control. And we have plenty of people who should know better carrying out the cruel and insane orders of this ruler.
Jesus’ parents save him from the slaughter by becoming refugees. In an ironic reversal of a foundational Jewish story, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escape into Egypt and remain there, in a foreign land, until word comes to them of Herod’s death.
So, we have targeted innocents fleeing a brutal political regime, and, fortunately, no wall at the Egyptian border.
After this cheery episode, we arrive at Epiphany, which gives us the back story to Herod’s death orders. You may know this as the story of the three wise men. There weren’t necessarily three of them, and they were magi, or astrologers, who really weren’t very wise. But still, lots of people know the basic idea: men from the east follow a star to find the Christ child and offer the most inappropriate baby gifts ever. These gift-bearing foreigners show up anachronistically in nativity scene after nativity scene.
The character that doesn’t make the cut for the nativity scenes is King Herod, but he’s a central figure in this story. The magi come to him asking, “Where is the child who was born king of the Jews?” Herod’s advisers cite the prophets, who say the child will be born in Bethlehem. And Herod says to the Magi, “Hey guys, when you find that itty bitty little baby king, swing back by and let me know where he is. I’d love to go worship him.”
So we have a fearful politician desperate to maintain power who is not honest about his intentions.
The men from the East don’t seem wise enough to figure out that the last thing Herod would do is worship a rival king. Perhaps Herod was charming, a convincing liar. Perhaps the magi were the type of people who hear what they want to hear, who filter out disconcerting and inconvenient warning signs. Whatever the reason, they don’t seem to suspect Herod’s ulterior motive in wanting to find the child. (Fortunately for baby Jesus, though maybe not for all the other babies, God comes to the magi in a dream, sending them home by another way.)
So we have people who can’t—or won’t—recognize the true nature of the dishonest political leader.
And that’s all within a couple weeks of Christmas. Fast forward through Lent to Palm Sunday and we meet another insecure ruler. Okay, we don’t actually meet Pilate in the Palm Sunday story, but he’s there. The Bible tells the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Historians tell us that Pilate, too, would have ridden into Jerusalem—he needed to be there during the week of Passover to make sure the pilgrims didn’t get out of hand. As governor of the region, Pilate would not have been riding into town on a donkey. He would have been on a war horse accompanied by a military entourage.
So, we have a politician desperate to look powerful, eager to be adored by the people—people who, for the most part, despise him. And we have a joyful, peaceful parade that amounts to a protest against the current political establishment. I imagine Pilate insisted that his crowd was bigger than Jesus’ crowd.
As you might know, while things start off pretty well for Jesus on Sunday, by Friday it’s all gone to hell. Judas, a disciple, has agreed to betray him. His best friends keep falling asleep in the garden where Jesus is praying his heart out. And then the mob shows up—a group of men rounded up by the chief priests and elders, carrying clubs and swords. They are there to arrest Jesus. Jesus who, as far as we know, never carried a weapon. Jesus who, as he tells them, had been preaching in broad daylight all week and could easily have been arrested without this stealthy nighttime campaign.
So, we have a group in power using disproportionate violence, committing their violent acts in the dark so the broader public doesn’t know what they are doing.
Jesus’ ensuing trial is a master class in dysfunctional politicking. (Or, I suppose, functional politicking—depending on your perspective.) A conservative faction of a religious group convinces the powers that be to go along with their agenda, threatening dire political consequences if the political leaders refuse their request. The political leaders, Herod and Pilate, pass Jesus back and forth—neither wanting to be responsible for him. And Pilate asks a haunting question at Jesus’ trial: “What is the truth?”
So we have politicians who fail to carry out justice, instead engaging in political maneuvers designed to shift blame away from themselves and appease a wealthy and powerful special interest group.
Then we have Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. The men who had been guarding Jesus’ tomb tell the priests and elders what happened: there was an earthquake, and then an angel descended and said that Jesus had been raised. The religious leaders are worried about how the people will react when they hear this story, so they pay the guards to tell a different story: we all fell asleep, and the disciples came and stole the body.
So we have fake news.
I realize that these dark musings may not be in line with what I, as a pastor, am expected to preach in Easter season. I should be proclaiming the Good News. Shouting about new life from the rooftops. Exalting in God’s power to heal and transform. Pointing to God’s promise to bring justice in this world and eternal life in the next. And sure, as a Christian, I think that’s all true and grand.
But these days I’m actually gravitating to the human aspects of the biblical story. I’m somehow glad to know that politicians have always been corrupt, that the poor and otherwise vulnerable have always been oppressed, that violence has always been the go-to solution for those in power, that fake news was not invented by Breitbart. I suppose some might find it depressing to have these ancient stories of corruption and death as companions to the troubling daily news. But I find it oddly comforting.
If humanity can survive the likes of Pilate and the Herods, maybe we can survive our current president. When I consider the biblical story, I realize that, as awful as things are, maybe we are simply dealing with mundane, run-of-the-mill evil, and not a new breed of unconquerable super-evil.
In addition to the “misery loves company” comfort I find in scripture these days, I also find hope. Because the Bible doesn’t just show the long history of evil, but it also shows how people have fought against that evil. People cross borders they aren’t supposed to cross. They disobey orders from corrupt leaders. They join in protest marches, finding joy in communities of resistance. And people keep speaking the truth.
Here’s what amazes me about the Resurrection narrative. (I mean, besides the earthquake and lightning angel and dead guy alive again.) There were two basic stories circulating about the body of an executed Jewish rabbi. The logical stolen body story was being circulated by respectable male guards and the powerful religious establishment. The unbelievable Resurrection story was being circulated by a couple of women—at a time when the testimony of women was not even valid in a court of law. Yet somehow the women’s story is the one I preach every year.
Today, there are two basic stories circulating about the current presidential administration. Let’s call one the “inauguration story”—that America is first; that our military power makes us great; that this president has the biggest crowds. Let’s call the other one the “women’s (march) story”—that America is on open and inclusive country; that our commitment to care for the vulnerable makes us great; that this president is an incompetent sexual predator. (I mean, he’s a competent sexual predator and an incompetent president.)
Two stories. I find comfort in scripture these days because these ancient words suggest that, in the end, the story told by the women is the one that endures.
Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.
I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.
On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”
As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.
Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.
I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.
It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.
Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?
I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.
I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.
Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.
Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.
Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.
At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.
A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.
This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.
This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.
The last time I saw my nineteen-year-old son, he grumbled at me in the middle of the public library: “Just stop yelling at me all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m finally living my life how I want, and you can’t control me!”
For the record, I wasn’t yelling at him. I had told him that I left an Easter card from his grandma at his apartment. Also, “living my life how I want” involves not taking his medication and staying up all night playing Xbox, which means he obviously can’t be expected to go to work in the mornings.
But he’s right, of course. I can’t control him. I’m doing a whole lot of psychological and spiritual work right now to let that sink in and to create the boundaries I need in our relationship so that encounters like this don’t send me into brooding anxiety for days on end.
Being a mother is not the most delightful part of my life. And I’m not the delightful mother I wish I were. So I approach the upcoming Mother’s Day celebration with deeply mixed feelings.
Mother’s Day is often celebrated in church, but many people will come to worship on May 8 with ambivalent—if not downright hostile—feelings about the day.
There are plenty of women who are not mothers—some by choice, some who desperately want children but, for different reasons, didn’t have them.
There are people whose mothers have died, and those whose mothers might as well be dead. There are those whose mothers abused them or stood by and let others abuse them. There are adopted kids (my oldest son and daughter among them) who wonder about their “other” mothers. There are women who have given their children up for adoption. Women who have had miscarriages. Women who have had abortions. Women who aren’t biologically female and so cannot ever hope to experience the very physical and feminine reality of pregnancy and childbirth.
Mother’s Day is riddled with landmines. I was relieved to get through our last worship planning session without any mention of the dreaded date. I thought I might get away with just ignoring mothers this year. But alas, someone emailed after the meeting and said, “Oh. We forgot about Mother’s Day. We should do something.”
We should do something. Fine. Here’s what I’m going to do: take a page from my more conservative Baptist upbringing. Not a page from how they celebrated Mother’s Day—with cheap carnations and sappy bookmarks and rhyming poems about a mother’s love being from heaven above. I’m going to take a page from how we Baptists used to celebrate Father’s Day—talking about God as the great and ultimate Father.
Celebrating earthly motherhood in worship is problematic on many levels. But lifting up the maternal qualities of God is, it seems to me, a valuable way to observe the holiday. After all, the earliest roots of Mother’s Day can be found in Greek and Roman celebrations honoring the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. And the modern manifestation of the holiday in the United States is based on women’s efforts toward peace, justice, and equal rights.
And of course, since it’s church, we’ll read the Bible.
The foundational Biblical image of God as creator is strikingly feminine. The writer of Deuteronomy chastises the people, saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (32:18). And in Isaiah God says she “will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (42:14).
The Biblical images of God as a nurturing mother provide a necessary corrective to contemporary religious rhetoric about judgment and punishment, getting even and building walls. In Isaiah God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (66:13). Hosea writes these words from God’s mouth: “I led them with cords of human kindness, / with ties of love. / To them I was like one who lifts / a little child to the cheek, / and I bent down to feed them” (11:4).
And another Biblical image is a necessary corrective to our tendency to think of mothers only as gentle nurturers: God says, “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, / I will attack them and rip them open” (Hosea 13:8).
I love that some of these images are soft and comforting, while others are powerful and disturbing. Motherhood is as much about wailing in labor and viciously protecting our children as it is about kissing boo-boos and singing lullabies. In fact, some experiences of motherhood involve far more wailing than kissing.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we acknowledge the complicated identity of being a mother (or not) and the complex relationships that many people have with their mothers and other maternal figures.
It is important, not just on Mother’s Day, that we lift up the fullness of God and explore the rich and varied images for the Divine provided in the Bible and other religious texts. This broadened conversation matters not just because it allows us to understand God more fully, but also because it allows us to move beyond the strictly gendered ways we think about each other.
Many theologians will argue that God is neither male nor female. I prefer to consider God as female and male and non-gendered and multi-gendered. We could say that God is gender fluid, or gender queer: a fierce mother bear one moment and a generous father the next (Matthew 7:11); a father whispering secrets to children and a mother gasping and panting in childbirth (Matthew 11:25, Isaiah 42:14); an eagle spreading its wings to catch its young and a hen gathering her chicks to her warm body (Deuteronomy 32:11; Matthew 23:37).
Perhaps Mother’s Day can be a time to question rather than reinforce the gender binary and stereotypes so prevalent in our society. Rather than feeling shame around our own experiences with mothers and motherhood, it can be a day for us to acknowledge that none of us have perfect mothers; that none of us are or will be or would have been perfect mothers.
And if we must celebrate this secular holiday in the holy space of worship, perhaps it can be a time for us to recognize and celebrate the fullness of Divine identity; a time to praise the mothering God who gave us birth, to rest under the warmth of her wings, and to find power in her fierce love.
In fourth grade, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden. I owned a mint-green Dell Yearling paperback copy that I must have bought with my allowance money. It was a book that likely inspired my childish love of the idea of England, of the idea of gardens and nature.
In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Crawford is sent to England after her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India. She finds herself at the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald, a widower with a tragic past.
Mary is described as an unpleasant child: sallow, thin, spoiled, unsmiling. She is used to ordering people about and having no other children to play with. But once she’s in Yorkshire, the maid Martha begins telling her tales of her family, especially her mother and Martha’s animal-loving brother, Dickon. Mary soon finds herself shunted outside to play, where she befriends a robin and grumpy gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and learns about a secret enclosed flower garden on the estate. Being outdoors improves Mary’s physical stamina and mental outlook: she starts running around and jumping rope. And once she finds the key and the door to the secret garden, she begins poking around in the earth.
She also meets Dickon and, later, her ten-year-old cousin, Colin, an invalid whose cries echo through the manor. She soon gets Colin out of the house and into the garden. Being outdoors enacts a transformation of Colin’s health and gives him a channel for his autocratic tendencies. Soon the children are running around singing, chanting, and speaking odes to the healing magic—sorry, capital M Magic—of “plain” English food, English weather, and English gardens.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England in 1849 but spent a large portion of her adult life in the United States—moving first with her family to Knoxville, Tennessee, then Washington, DC, and ending her days in Plandome Manor on Long Island in 1924.
In addition to The Secret Garden, she was best known for her children’s novels Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. Burnett was also a prolific author of plays, serials, and novels for adults. Her work was successful enough that she was able to spend time in Paris, across Europe, and at a home in Bermuda where she wintered. She also became interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the effects of those beliefs can be seen especially in the last quarter of The Secret Garden.
As a kid, I remember skipping over those “spiritual” sections a lot, although I can’t say it affected my enjoyment of the book. Our Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had similar feelings when showed us what I think was probably the 1975 BBC miniseries adaptation. She said she liked it, although she mentioned the magical-spiritual garden stuff being very hokey.
Hokey is perhaps not the word I’d use today.
I’d love to say that tiny Mindy read The Secret Garden and was able to identify the shitty colonial ideology of the book.
But no, the opposite happened: the book helped make me an Anglophile in my stupid, stupid youth. I loved this idealized version of England with chatty robins and wild animals tamely following Dickon around the moors. I tried to speak with a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to like things described in the book, such as good thick porridge (even though in reality I didn’t like porridge, unless it was Taiwanese rice porridge), currant buns (I disliked currants), the chilly outdoor air (we were in Canada and it was often more than chilly), and running around in it (no). I even wanted to like gardening, though in my personal experience my parents’ and grandparents’ suburban Canadian vegetable patch was pretty terrible and certainly didn’t involve sweet-smelling flowers or fresh healthy air. Clearly I was willing and able to endure a lot of cognitive dissonance around the realities of what I liked and wanted in life versus the ideals described in The Secret Garden.
One thing I could not love even as a child, however, was Colin. And on re-reading the book, well … if anything, he’s worse.
It is very clear to me as an adult how much love and attention the narrator lavishes on Colin. He is often described as “beautiful.” He has a “beautiful smile.” He’s “quite beautiful in spite of his thinness.” His eyes are “beautiful” and strange, and he has long, thick lashes.
Despite not being introduced until the second half of the story, he takes over most of it; Mary—remember Mary? The girl we start off following and the one who finds the whole damn secret garden?—has no more than a few lines of dialogue in the last quarter of the story. Colin, by contrast, talks for pages and pages.
“The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man,” Colin says at one point.
After spouting off in kind for a few more paragraphs, he has Ben Weatherstaff, Mary, and Dickon sitting cross-legged in a circle with him:
“Now we will begin,” he said. “Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?”
“I canna’ do no swayin’ back’ard and for’ard,” said Ben Weatherstaff. “I’ve got the ’rheumatics.”
“The Magic will take them away,” said Colin in a High Priest tone, “but we won’t sway until it has done it. We will only chant.”
Colin becomes the expert on Magic—even though he’s not the one who came up with the idea. But Dickon and Mary and Ben Weatherstaff accept his leadership. He’s a budding cult leader, complete with questionable medical ideas, “beautiful”/hypnotic eyes, and an imperious manner.
In Colin the most annoying parts of Burnett’s spiritual-colonial enterprise are personified. The boy is often also described as a “the young Rajah.” Mary says:
Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn’t.
The “Rajah” epithet sticks because Colin is bossy as fuck. He is the master of the house while his father is away—and never stops reminding people of the fact. But what does it mean that Colin is continually compared to a young, spoiled non-Englishtyrant, when in fact, being cooped up in England on his own estate has made him the dictator that he is?
In the characterization of Colin, we run up against the fact that so much of the book depends on comparing India unfavorably with England, even as the book exploits Indian things that it finds convenient. The children cobble together a spiritual practice by referring to animal charmers, “fakirs,” transplanting Mary’s childish colonial cultural observations and bits from Colin’s books, mixing in the idea of the pastoral, and trying to mash all of these things into a kind of magical—sorry, capital M Magical—English-ness.
I live in Manhattan now, in an apartment.
My upstairs neighbors are renovating, so all morning I’ve been trying to write some sort of conclusion to this piece between the whines of drilling and the thump of a sledgehammer being taken to the walls. My life is the opposite of bucolic, and at times like these, I find myself wanting to agree with Frances Hodgson Burnett—an Anglo-American, city-loving socialite writer—that there is no location more magical and desirable than a great, green garden in England.
But that place is largely a myth—a nation-building tale from another time—and I don’t think the the rulers of that place would particularly welcome me.