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Monday, August 07, 2006

The Ladies of Llangollen

It’s a rainy day here at Llangollen on Rehoboth Bay. A gentle, warm rain started about 6 AM, interrupting my Morning Prayer on the deck. The ‘laughing gulls’ gave warning just before the thunder rolled in from the Southwest, so I had time to spare my prayer book and deck chairs from the soaking rains which quickly followed.

It promises to be like this – ‘scattered showers and thunderstorms off and on throughout the day’ drones the local NPR announcer, in the measured, unexcitable, dispassionate tones seemingly required of this medium, which also announce the time and temperature, as well as the next deeply passionate piano concerto.

The discount malls on Route One (all five of them) will be jam packed with people who would otherwise be on the beach – which will still have more than a few diehard children and adults who figure that, well, water is water and the point of being at the beach is to get wet. And so, they do, one way or the other. Sometimes, both.

The movie theaters will also be packed with kids who will engage in the seemingly prerequisite summer ritual of a sugar-feeding frenzy with a deadly concoction of Junior Mints, Tootsie Rolls and JuJu Bees, unsupervised by their normally nutritionally conscious parental units. It would seem that all bets – and gloves – are off on vacation.

All of this is more than ample reason to stay close to home today. I may even watch a movie this afternoon – something on DVD from the comfort of my overstuffed chair, snacking on melon wedges, grapes and cheese – in our dear, wee cottage we call Llangollen.

Several of you have written, asking about the name of this place. We have called it Llangollen, in honor of "The Ladies of Llangollen."

The source is the enchanting story of The Rt. Hon. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby who, in the Spring of 1778, ran away from their Irish homes in Kilkenny and Inistiogue, respectively, and settled in Llangollen in Wales where, in an idyllic cottage, they created what some historians have called "a living legend" - in part, because of the intellectual and creative talent (Darwin, Wordsworth, etc.) they attracted there, in part because of the beautiful estate and gardens they created, but mainly because of the exact uncertainty of their relationship.

I “discovered” the Ladies years ago as a seminarian in Cambridge, MA. Another gray, rainy afternoon long ago led to a foray to the Houghton Library at Harvard where my curiosity was stirred by a line drawing I saw there of Plas Newydd, the newly christened name given for the “. . . .mean cottage . . . having only four rooms” as one of them wrote before extensive renovations began to transform “this awful scenery” into what remains this day as a place of beauty and grace, still visited by tourists from around the world.

Intrigued, I set out to discover more about The Ladies. On a dusty library shelf, I was delighted to find the book “The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship,” by Elizabeth Mavor. I spent the rest of that rainy afternoon reading and taking copious notes. Eventually, I was able to purchase a paperback copy which currently resides on the nightstand in one of the bedrooms here for the edification of a curious guest.

I remain intrigued by the author’s notion of “romantic friendship,” which she steadfastly maintains as the more appropriate way to describe the multilayered, multidimensional, more complex nature of the relationships women have with each other. Mavor wrote:

“ . . . I have nevertheless chosen to portray the relationship between the two women in other terms than Freud’s. I have preferred the terms of romantic friendship (a once flourishing but now lost relationship) as more liberal and inclusive and better suited to the diffuse feminine nature. Edenic it seems such friendships could be before they were biologically and thus prejudicially defined. Depending as they did upon time and leisure, they were aristocratic; they were idealistic, blissfully free, allowing for a dimension of sympathy between women that would not now be possible outside an avowedly lesbian connection. Indeed, much that we would not associate solely with a sexual attachment was contained in romantic friendship: tenderness, loyalty, sensibility, shared beds, shared tastes, coquetry, even passion. Eleanor Butler’s and Sarah Ponsonby’s friendship was of this kind, and it was to be celebrated for over half a century . . .”

Mavor wrote these words when the book was published in 1971. That was just as the wave of the so-called “Feminist Movement” was a few years into its crest. The American Psychiatric Association was on the brink of removing homosexuality from the official list of psychiatric disorders. Class issues, as an operational dynamic, were not widely discussed apart from race and gender – although the Abolitionist movement included many feminists and the Suffragist movement included notable Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the nature of the “conversations” we’ve been called into by Lambeth and General Convention Resolutions of the past thirty years, along with the latest call for dialogues from The Windsor Report. What might we say to each other that has not already been said? At this point, I think we might even be able to write each other’s scripts.

Personally, I don’t think having a conversation with people who frame the discussion in terms of theological “reappraisers and reasserters” will do any good. These folks walked away from the conversation – if there were ever in it – years ago. No, this conversation must be had with those who earnestly desire to stay in the same church even with differently held opinions, theologies and political positions. These are, in my opinion, not only the “classic” Anglicans – they are also “classy.”

The new DVD, “Voices of Witness,” from Claiming the Blessing is certainly a good start, but it is only a beginning. It’s always good to begin a journey in faith with the Incarnation. There’s biblical precedent for it.

I am convinced, however, that if we are to have any meaningful conversation we need to “dive deep and resurface” as the early feminist writers called us to do in order to regain our spirituality in this time of transition in our church and in the world.

Sex is easy to talk about.

Relationships are a much more difficult issue.

Intimacy, especially in this current neo-Puritan climate, is a socially taboo conversation.

Even so, intimacy is an especially difficult discussion for those whose spiritual DNA matter includes words like “meet and proper,” “miserable offenders,” and “stiff upper lip.”

Just the other day, I was playing a song from the Broadway Musical, WICKED for a visiting friend. WICKED, on the surface, is all fast paced music, amazing costuming, lighting and set design, but it is really a morality play about good and evil and how they become so, all within the context of nature of women and their relationships.

I played for my friend the song “For Good,” a duet sung by Glinda, the Good Witch of the East and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. The refrain is, “Who can say that I’ve changed for the better? But, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

At the end, wiping the tears from her eyes, my friend exclaimed, “That’s a love song!”

“No, no it’s not,” I said, “It’s the story of two women who are friends.”

My decidedly heterosexual friend (she was born that way, she can’t help it), not having seen the play but unconvinced by my argument, arched one eyebrow and said, “Elizabeth, it’s a love song between two women who are friends. But, it’s STILL a love song.”

She’s right. It’s about “romantic friendship.” Come to think of it, most of my friendships, male and female, are, in that sense, “romantic” and “quixotic.” (I can just see the badly behaved kids over at the conservative blogs drooling to quote that line out of context.)

As we try, once again, to begin these conversations as a church, I think we would do well to pick up again where Mavor left off and look seriously at the complex nature of intimate relationships.

Andrew Sullivan, in his own way, tried to do this in his book, “Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex and Survival.” Published in 1999, the book helps to establish that romantic friendships are not simply or solely in the psychic or emotional realm of women.

In the last chapter, entitled, “If Love Were Enough,” Sullivan relies heavily on the work of Renaissance scholar, Michel De Montaigne and his essay on the friendship he shared with Etienne de la Boetie, with whom he served in Parliament.

Both men were married with children and we are asked to assume that the nature of their relationship was not sexual – at least in the starkly medicinal terms of “genital expression” which is in such popular use these days.

Montaigne exalts friendship above familial and even romantic love, writing of Etienne, “ . . . at our first meeting . . . we found ourselves so taken with each other . . . that from that time on nothing was so close to us as each other.”

I wonder which it is, ultimately, that is more threatening to the status quo: This kind of intimacy shared by two people of the same gender or the “genital expression” of sex – between anyone “outside the bonds of marriage”?

Despite the genuinely respectful rhetoric of William F. Buckley who once said to Sullivan, “It’s not who you are, Andrew, it’s what you do,” which flows from the deeply flawed theology of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” I suspect it is more the former than the later.

Why else would granting the civil right of marriage to same sex couples inspire a constitutional amendment to prevent it?

Intimate relationships that “bless” anything but procreative sex is, for many people, beyond the pale and threaten everything they believe sacred about marriage – even if they, themselves, never intend to ‘procreate’.

Lady Eleanor and Miss Ponsonby, along with Montaigne and Etienne, call us from rainy days, long ago, to reconsider the depth and complexity of human relationships.

I think our church would be best served if we, like Mavor, placed Freud back on the shelf for a bit and give the poor man a well deserved rest. Let us properly acknowledge his brilliance and the enormity of his contribution in terms of giving us a language to discuss the complex mysteries of the human psyche.

That being done, we might then be able to boldly re-explore the landscape of same sex relationships, especially the depth of intimacy in the friendships experienced by people of the same gender.

Perhaps we could even come to reject the false dualism of ourselves as social and sexual beings and reclaim the whole/holiness of the mystery of our human being – the gift of a loving God in whose image we were created.

It would mean we’d have to resist the urge to snoop into the private bedrooms of others and stop judging people for what we think they do in bed with each other. This is not an impossible task. I believe mature adults can do this. Indeed, I know it to be so.

I know. That would take a direct challenge to the current fundamentalist movement which embraces Scripture as something “God said, man wrote, and I believe” – every word, comma and period.

That is, perhaps, the biggest stumbling block to intelligent conversation, much less dialogue which might lead to understanding, compassion or, even, God help us, the kind of change of heart which would call us into a deeper, more intimate sense of relationships in community.

For a powerful look at who benefits and who suffers from a strict interpretation and application of ‘holy writ’ to the law of the land, go see the movie WATER. If it’s not in a theater near you, rent or purchase it on DVD. It’s worth the investment. The feisty spirit of the little child Chuyia will warm your heart and challenge your thinking. And, lest you think “that was then and there, not now and here” . . . well, think again.

What the world - torn by the madness of war and senseless bloodshed, and this church – deeply wounded by constant gutter sniping and bottom feeding, are in desperate need of right now are friendships – call them whatever you will – which are marked by “tenderness, loyalty, sensibility, shared beds, shared tastes, coquetry, even passion.”

Are these not descriptive phrases of the relationships shared by the disciples and what we read of the relationships in the early church communities?

I believe such relationships are transformative. Indeed, I do believe that if we allow ourselves romantic friendships, we’ll be changed for the better. We may even be changed for good.


Willow said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. It's important to remember that all relationships transform us. I think the church is a unique place where we can model these deep relationships.

Mary Jane said...

I have now read the Llangollen piece at least four times. It is giving me so much to think about most especially my wonderful "romantic friendships" in which activity in bed does not play a part. The thought that this is a part of being in the image of God is ,of course, just right! I have just never thought of it this way before.My three dear women friends have ben somewhat leary of my journey into organized religion these last years....our friendship precedes that time....but we do know about spiritual connection..... we just don't often have the language with which to speak of it....romantic friendship...oh yes!!!

Lisa Fox said...

Has Elizabeth sailed away with the Ladies of Llangollen? She sure isn't giving us any blog posts -- no matter how eager we are to hear from her.

Elizabeth, I hope your very-long (and too-long [to me]) silence means you really are relaxing into your vacation.

But we who worry for you really would appreciate a note in the blogosphere. You created a blog-o-nation of addicts, my dear, [yelps like hungry sea-otter]and now you're obliged to feed us. LOLOL!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bless your heart, Lisa. I have had a house filled with wonderful visitors all week. We've stayed up late, watching movies, eating kettle corn and talking until the wee hours. It's been so wonderful.

My inner muse is taking all these things and pondering them in her heart.

You'll be hearing from her again soon. Meanwhile, thanks for the wonderful compliment.