Les Miserables – an undeserved feast

Things I know: I’m just me. I’m no critic, I’m barely a professional musician; I’m just a mom and a Pastor’s wife with little more to do than chase my kids and listen to Pandora. Truly. So I’m not sure why I am taking this review so very seriously. But I am. And I have. So here goes.

When I found out that the film Les Miserables would be released in mid-December, I made a note in my calendar to ensure that I would see it on opening day. Several weeks later, the opening date was changed to December 25th, and as a pastor’s wife and mom to a Christmas baby, I knew full well that I would no longer be able to see it the day it opened. Undaunted, I decided to take the pressure off of my husband and family, and chose to see it once school was back in session.

Yesterday was the day. I woke up, ready to enjoy the first ‘alone’ time I would have in many weeks… and immediately happened upon a barfing 8-year-old. That’s ok, I thought. Not today. No movie today. No big deal. So I continued on, tucking my deep desire to see the film on the big screen away for another indeterminate time… when Scott came home and said, ‘I’ve got this. You go’.

For he knew that the delay of this pilgrimage for another day might be too much for me to bear.

You see, it is only as the film has been released that I have been able to articulate why it matters so much to me. There is not another piece of music, another film, another album, another set of songs, that is as much the soundtrack to my adult life as this soundtrack is. I have been singing the songs from Les Miserables since the fall of 1987, when Mr. Anderson handed out the medley [the grey one] to our choir at Southwest High School in Green Bay. This doesn’t make me remotely unique – I bet most high school choirs in the late 80’s did this medley. But most choir members weren’t me, or my friends, gathered around the piano at 2050 White Oak Terrace in Green Bay night after night, singing the remarkable songs from this show, amidst the clouds of smoke from my dearest friends and their Carol Martens-appointed ash trays. Most every gathering, every trip to Kroll’s, every night together included at least a few moments around the piano, and these songs always managed to be sung, and my mom always popped her head into the living room to tell us how much she loved to hear us sing. Always.

So it was that blessed baggage that kept rising to the top when I took time to consider why I was so eager to see this movie. I am not normal. I know that. But this experience, even before I had it, was as sacred to me as almost anything. And I would not be thwarted, not by Christmas releases or barfing children.

I should also say that I read every word I could get my hands on about the film before it came out – and every scathing word and review, including those from some of my oldest and dearest friends, also musicians – and they painted a pretty grim picture. I wrestled long and hard with my expectations on the way up. Had I set myself up for disappointment? Could any film live up to my high stakes? I had purposed in my heart to go to take in the entire experience – not to critique the singing, which I knew wouldn’t be vocally sound or in most ways impressive – but for the love of the story. I knew that I couldn’t go wrong if I kept my focus on the story. Neither Amanda nor Russell could take that away from me. As Scott said, ‘So, you’ve decided to like it, no matter what. You really don’t even need to see it, then, because that could make you love it less’.

But see it, I did, and I settled into my seat with a gallon or so of diet Coke, ready to take it all in at noon, with only a handful of us in the theater.

I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. I don’t know how I could have been. Though I could sing you every word of the score – Truly. Every word. – I could not adequately prepare for the feast that I was about to be served.

I have never been so moved by a film. If Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne aren’t nominated for Oscars, there is no justice. There might not be higher praise that I can give the film than this:

nothing bothered me.

 

Do you know me? Because if you do, you know that things bother me. I had expressed eyebrow raises about the casting of Russell Crowe, and loud words of protest regarding Amanda Seyfried, whose singing in Mamma Mia was sub-par [at best]. But when sitting in those seats and taking in the story and the saga, I was completely unbothered by either one of them. Crowe sang like a man wrestling with his soul. I loved everything he did. His pharisaical struggle was a marvel to watch – to see a man so unable to grasp the truth that ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ was powerful… and the one transparent moment when he displayed a heart full of love was more than I could take. I was glad I was alone – have never sobbed so hard in a theater. And Seyfried, who thankfully got some vocal help [like a substitute] on the two high Bs, rose to the occasion marvelously. The bar was set very high for the two of them, and they performed both admirably and appropriately.

But oh my word. Eddie Redmayne. It would not be possible for me to love a Marius more than I have loved Michael Ball, but since I missed my window to see him perform Marius live, I believe my affections may have shifted. This young man, freckles and all, brought love-sick Marius to life in the most beautiful, pleasing way. His physical youthfulness only added to the poignancy of the unwinnable war he and his ‘brothers’ waged. Redmayne was a revelation. Where have they been hiding this guy? Samantha Barks as Eponine was pretty much perfect, but we expected that, because we all heard her on the 25th anniversary concert and agreed that she was a rockstar. Her translations to screen were perfect. She’ll be one to watch in the years ahead – she’s only 22!

Hugh Jackman was born to play Jean Valjean on screen. He was perfect. His eyes… oh my. The moment when he meets Cosette in the woods… and of course, the ending – the range that he covers in the 17-year spread of the story is mind-boggling. So, so good. Just so good.

What can be said about Anne Hathaway? This is most certainly her moment. The single-camera single-take performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is one for the record books, the archives. Whenever I sing the ‘pretty version’ of it now, it feels inappropriate and incomplete. That’s just a song. She sang a story – a snapshot – a heartbeat – rock bottom. Most affecting thing I’ve ever seen on screen.

All of the other second tier and supporting characters were great. The Thenardiers were a little boring, but that was better than too obnoxious. The boys at the barricade – especially Enjolras – were as would be expected – strong, good singers, passionate, and great at dying on camera.

Special shout-out to the child actors who played young Cosette and Gavroche with absolute perfection. Cosette stole my heart with her first note, and Gavroche with his last breath. Great kids.

Now, in fairness, let me be clear: I would have NO interest in hearing most of these singers in concert, nor would I stand in line to hear them sing pretty much anything else. But the collective whole of the movie worked for me. So well, in fact, that I fell apart – twice – on the phone after I left, after crying buckets of tears throughout the film. I had to run a couple of errands while I was up in the Dells, and I called Scott when I got to the van, and simply couldn’t speak. But it was when I called my Dad to check in and let him know that I had seen the film that I completely fell apart – tears, snot, sobs, the whole deal – I’m sure he thought that someone I loved had died. I just could NOT get it together. And that’s, I think, the magic of the Les Mis story in Victor Hugo’s words, and on stage and in film – that redemption is possible. That there is always hope. That dreams are worth dreaming. That mercy triumphs over judgment. That an eternity worth waiting for does indeed await us. That forgiveness has power. That unexpected generosity can change the course of one life – many lives.

Les Miserables made me miss my mom, and it made me miss Misty, Jini, Kurt, Aaron, Thomas, Scott, Jeff, Chris, Mr. A., and so many more; but it reminded me that to love another person is to see the face of God; that I am blessed to have loved lots and lots of ‘another persons’ in my life, and that I am so incredibly thankful to have been marked and shaped by a soundtrack like this. Go see this movie. Lay aside your high expectations for vocal perfection; you won’t find it here. But you will find a marvelous story, so beautifully told that you just might be changed.

June has me flummoxed. Brief, random thoughts…

Monday. June 6th. Three more days of school. I have tried and tried to look forward to summer… at the moment, my confession is that I *don’t* look forward to summer. I’m working hard on my own personal attitude adjustment.

Today I’m remembering my mom’s cousin, George Wickler, killed on the beach at Normandy, June 6, 1944. He was 18. He was the son of Mom’s Aunt and Uncle, Roy and Anne Wickler. Their commitment to country, his sacrifice, a family’s tears and resolve still move me deeply. I remember. Mom is buried at the same stone, and George is a part of my childhood memories of cemetery visits.

Tuesday, June 7th now. Dad and I are heading to Platteville tomorrow to see Mom’s new headstone that was finally placed this spring. How dread and hope can coexist, I don’t know. But that’s how I feel today. I’ll have a longer post later this week when we get back. We are coming up on the final stretch of the first year without mom… and the closer we get to the last of the firsts, the more raw I am feeling. It is what it is. And God is good. But I don’t want to miss what He has for me on this journey. So I’m working hard to ‘feel’ it all. June 13th is the anniversary of the last time Scott and my kids saw her… and the last time I saw her up and around. So everything is a little…. vivid this week.

More later and thanks for following along… this journey is my own.

 

 

 

Mother’s Day 2011

Sunset

When Mom was beginning to weaken in very obvious ways last spring, I began to have an evening prayer time on our front porch after the kids tucked in. It faces north, and the sunsets to the west were reason enough to sit out front and take a moment to catch my breath. I remember so clearly the feeling of not being able to breathe in with enough depth to ‘get past’ the knot in my stomach… the only thing that could begin to assuage the feeling of helpless dread was time with the Lord – via The Divine Hours – on my front porch.

The Divine Hours is a book of prayers and readings for every day – it’s sort of an expanded Morning, Noon, and Evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, with some other things – hymn lyrics, early church fathers, etc – thrown in. I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially if you’re new to praying The Hours and don’t want to have to jump around between several books.

Last night was the first night that the weather was nice enough to enjoy the sunset here this spring now that the sun is heading back to the ‘right’ place in the sky to be able to enjoy it from the porch. I was surprised that the color of the sky was so evocative… but it was.

And so I sat. And thought. And prayed. And cried some. And watched the sun sink into the spring sky. And the reality of Mom’s absence continues to sink more deeply into the pores of my life and heart. I’m anticipating a sense of relief after the first anniversary passes by.. and it will be ten months tomorrow.

I think of all the Mother’s Days of my life – from my youngest days of making crafts and singing songs, to just last year when mom bought me several hanging baskets for our yard. How I would love to do the same for her again. Mom’s headstone will be placed this week. I’ll be heading down to Platteville in the days ahead to make it ready for spring, just as she did her for own mom last May.

I look forward to a summer of sunsets that bring memories that are both hard and good. God has been so faithful to me and to the ones I love the most. How could I ask for more?

There’s nothing like the warmth of a summer afternoon
Waking to the sunlight, and being cradled by the moon
Catching fireflies at night
Building castles in the sand
Kissing Mama’s face goodnight
Holding Daddy’s hand
Thank you Lord, how could I ask for more

Running barefoot through the grass
A little hide and go seek
Being so in love, that you can hardly eat
Dancing in the dark, when there’s no one else around
Being bundled ‘neath the covers, watching snow
Fall to the ground
Thank you Lord, how could I ask for more

So many things I thought would bring me happiness
Some dreams that are realities today
Such an irony the things that mean the most to me
Are the memories that I’ve made along the way

So if there’s anything I’ve learned
From this journey I am on
Simple truths will keep you going
Simple love will keep you strong
Cause there are questions without answers
Flames that never die
Heartaches we go through are often blessings in disguise
So thank you Lord, oh thank you Lord
How could I ask for more

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For Lent at church we’ve been reading NT Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Easter’ which is an excerpt from his ‘The Challenge of Jesus’. It resonates SO deeply in my soul – he challenges the ‘my own personal Jesus who died for my sins’ theology and talks about the historical implications of a resurrected Savior, and of the redemption of ALL of creation, not just my escape plan from the flames. Last night I shared with the group that for many years I had life divided into Christian Things and Non-Christian Things…. Christian Music. Non-Christian Music. Ministry. Secular employment. So many categories. I had moved far from that sort of thinking already, but when an opportunity to play music at the local upscale supper club came up, I couldn’t figure out why it was resonating SO deeply in my soul. I’ve played at Royal Albert Hall, with some of the best Bible teachers in the world. I kept hearing whispers of ‘you were made for this!’ and would think, ‘how is that possible? Made for THIS? Made for Henry Mancini, Cole Porter, REO Speedwagon and Barry Manilow?’

Resoundingly, I respond – YES! For this! Redemption comes in strange places. [thank you, Sara Groves]. My Mom didn’t like coming to church. But she loved hearing me play. She ALWAYS came when I sang at the karaoke bars. [paid for college. ;)]. She eventually tired of the church services. But she would have absolutely LOVED this place, this job, this thing, this beauty. Adding to the beauty – to God’s common grace, perfectly created order that is GOOD – is redemptive. So I’m going to be the best supper club pianist you’ve ever heard. AND, as relationships build, and trust grows, invitations will be extended to hear the reason for the music. I have to believe it.

;

We come with beautiful secrets
We come with purposes written on our hearts, written on our souls
We come to every new morning
With possibilities only we can hold, that only we can hold

Redemption comes in strange place, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

It comes in small inspirations
It brings redemption to life and work
To our lives and our work

It comes in loving community
It comes in helping a soul find it’s worth

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful
This is grace, an invitation

Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out our best

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

-Sara Groves

Really? Forty? Really. Forty.

Mom and Steph in Stevens Point, after Madrigal Dinner, December 1989

Not flesh of my flesh,

Not bone of my bone,

But still miraculously my own.

Never forget for a single minute

That you didn’t grow under my heart,

But in it.

Mom clipped this poem out of the newspaper when I was very young. She carried it in her purse for years, and then put it on her night stand, where it sat within my line of sight during the countless teenaged hours I spent on the bed while using her phone.  Hours. Days, most likely. What was it like to have that much free time? I no longer can recall. But in those hours, the poem was sealed into my psyche.

Adoption wasn’t a secret, or a stigma, or a whispered embarrassment in our home. It was a shouted-from-the-rooftops, blessed and beloved truth that made me special. Unique.  Chosen.  My parents wanted me so badly that they went and found me. How very cool is that? I don’t remember being ‘told’ that I had been adopted – it was just simply true. My story. A chosen child. All that I knew was that I was born in River Falls, WI,  and that my birth mom had green eyes and olive skin [which, by the way, totally blew my dreamy theory that I was Aretha Franklin’s secret love child]. Never once did I feel abandoned. Never once did I feel a sense of shame for being ‘given up’. I owe that completely to the culture that Mom and Dad created in our home. There was just no room for that kind of thinking. I was theirs. After the heartbreak of two miscarriages, they were ready to do whatever it took to become parents. They adopted Dave in 1967. After trying to conceive again, they endured the heartbreaking stillbirth of Timothy in 1970. Before Mom was even home from the hospital, she charged Dad to call Lutheran Social Services right away so that they could get back on ‘the list’ – they were both 38, and in those days, that was OLD to be adopting another infant.

Meanwhile, in River Falls, Elly was in the middle of her senior year of high school, bound and determined to finish school even though she was dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and a rather unsupportive birth father. [Jump ahead a couple of decades and he more than made up for it. He’s a wonderful man with a wonderful family.] Elly knew that the best thing for her to do was to carry her child to term and to give her up for adoption. She got to spend a few hours with me when I was born, and she snuck in her two best friends – David and Cheryl – and her mom. How does someone have that kind of courage? I will never, ever know. I’ve sat in that hospital bed with two home-grown babies of my own, and the thought – the excruciating thought – of that moment of surrender is one that I can’t fathom. But Elly was sure, and she stayed the course. Brave, brave Elly.

Elly with my daughter, 2004

Seven days later, Mom and Dad drove to Eau Claire, where the agency office was located, to pick me up from the foster care worker. Dave, who was 3 1/2, was charged with the enviable task of making the final choice as to whether I would be Susan or Stephanie. He decided that Stephanie was far more rife with possibility for torture in the years ahead. Stephanie it was, with Louise as a middle name for my Mom’s side of the family – Great Grandma Louisa, Grandma Emma Louise, Mom Carol Louise, and me. [Those of you in-the-know are aware that this name is not part of our daughter’s name. Scott said ‘Great tradition. AND, that’s the end of that.’ He was right.  ]

The next 18 years were spent in as traditional a family, really, as one could create in the 1970′s and 80′s. Adoption made us special – Dave and I looked NOTHING alike, though each of us favored one of our parents. Dave found his niche in science, model trains, and sports, and I found mine in music. On occasion, I wondered about my birth mom… ‘What is she like? Do I look like her? Does she sing?” but I really don’t remember ever wondering if she missed me or if she thought about me. Mom and I had our moments during my Junior High and High School years, but even then, I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. This was my family.

Mom wrestled with depression, I think, for most of her adult life. She was impatient, and she was a little OCD around the house, and with laundry. She wasn’t a great cook – she had 3 or 4 recipes that she could do well. Because Dad traveled a lot, I remember many suppers that consisted of a can of spaghetti-o’s, a slice of bologna, and a pudding cup. If she asked me to vacuum, she’d do it over again just to do it right. I’m sure that to this day my disdain of cleaning and picking up has to do with the fact that I never lived up to her standards in that department. And then, after we’d fight about that, she’d drive me to ShopKo and I’d get something new. So see? We had it all worked out even then.

She was also at my school almost every day because of her commitment to the parent groups and volunteer opportunities. She was a rock star in this department.

In my college years, she was an encouraging voice who shared her car and her checkbook. She – and certainly Dad – lived sacrificially during those years so that I could have what I thought I needed. I took her – and her money – for granted, and so desperately wish that I hadn’t. But she and Dad made it possible for me to get out of school without any debt. What an accomplishment!

Mom turned the other cheek when I started a job for which I had to raise my own funds. She didn’t like it, but she let me do it without giving me a hard time. I was a Gen X’er being raised as a Baby Boomer, so I was on my own with this one. I had a charmed childhood and, with a few small exceptions, a pretty charmed adolescence, too. And Mom was a big reason why.

Nothing in this life has ever made me feel as anchor-less, as adrift, as living my life without my Mom. What a strange, unchosen, holy road.  The hardest day for me since losing Mom was actually New Years Eve. I woke up that morning not expecting it to be that big of a deal – we had made it through Thanksgiving, her birthday, Christmas – and I have to confess that the New Years Meltdown took me by surprise. As the day went on, I felt more and more… unsettled. Upset. But it was different than any of the grief stuff I had felt before. [Mom died on July 9th.] I finally realized at 8.00 that night when it seemed that I was crawling out of my skin that I did not have the capacity to process a calendar year in my life that didn’t include my mom. My body knew before my head and heart did that turning the calendar to 2011 meant that Mom was left behind in 2010. It was excruciating, and I was in bed by 8.30, unable to face the dropping of the ball and the moment the year would end. The next morning, there was a sense of relief, but even now the thought of that night is hard to bear.

The confluence of events this year – first birthday without mom being my 40th, Dad selling the house and moving down here, etc, etc – has led me only to my knees, and to a place of stillness before the Lord, which seems to be the only place where my grief is assuaged by knowing that Lord knows grief and pain deeper than I ever will, and that he cries by my side, too. This broken, broken world… crying for redemption.. cancer, the result of the fall. I hate it. [Mom received her final diagnosis of Stage IV lung cancer – fully metastasized to her liver, lymph system, and bones – on a Wednesday. Moved to hospice on Thursday. Died on Friday. She was not strong, and not healthy. But the shock was still…. a shock. And it was still fast. And brutal.]

And for my 40th birthday today? Mom would have sent flowers and cards and would have laughed and celebrated with me like she did on my 39th. Just last year. How is it possible? I don’t know. But I’m learning to navigate these waters day by day, holiday by holiday. And my heart is full of the richest memories imaginable stemming from life with Mom. I’m grateful. And sad. And being refined. And learning to love more deeply. And to number my days.

Mom and my daughter, December 2002

Elly sent me flowers today. Big, gorgeous flowers. Because today I have turned 40. And that means that 40 years ago, she followed through and did the very hardest thing.

Mom hasn’t been off my mind and out of my heart today. I have wondered all day what she’d say and what she’d be thinking about my 40th. Dad and I talked several times, too, and he said all the right things and made me feel great.

Who gets the great blessing of having two real moms to love? Who gets that?? I do. What an unbelievable privilege to be in the lives of these two extraordinary women.

Love,

Your Forty Year Old Friend,

Steph

*** The song below, and the story behind it, also posted below, will help to shed light on the heart of an adopted child. I have been profoundly moved by Mark’s story below.***

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