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What were the true circumstances of Miss Margaret Fairchild, an impoverished woman living in her disabled Bedford van parked in the courtyard of British author, Alan Bennett for fifteen years? Thanks to his compassionate restraint, he delayed publishing her story in The London Review of Books until after her death in 1989. For decades he had already studied the downtrodden and heralded their stories.

Throughout the movie, The Lady in the Van (2015), its screenplay written by the same author, we glean hints of her past: a concert pianist, who had studied Chopin with the Swiss-French virtuoso Alfred Cortot; a former nun whose superior ordered her to sacrifice her passion for music with prayer; a psychiatric patient committed by her brother for treatment of her shattered world; an escapee who lived the rest of her life within its pieces. After her van accidentally killed a motorcyclist on a country road, she changed her name from Margaret Fairchild to Mary Shepherd.

Through the artistry of Alan Bennet, we have the portrait of a damaged woman, bold-spirited, eking out her last years among neighbors on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, an inner city district of London. Many of them remembered Mary and shared stories with the film crew.

Kudos to Alan Bennett for perceiving Miss Mary Shepherd as a lady, despite her stench, her stubbornness, her vinegar speech, her raucous laughter. Her nobility shines through the shards of her existence. We were touched.

 

 

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Who were your first teachers about the dark? What impressions have you carried into adulthood: perhaps evil, danger, terror, the devil, death, bats, etc.? How do these color your perceptions and judgments today? Might there be a deeper way of considering the dark–one that enriches rather than diminishes?

Such questions find resonance in the nine essays, composed by the lunar spirit of Barbara Brown Taylor, a woman seasoned as wife, mother, grandmother, professor, theologian, and Episcopal priest. Fearlessly, she explores the underbelly of darkness from varied aspects: physical, psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual. Each chapter is introduced by a different phase of the moon.

Strewn among these essays are anecdotes from the author’s childhood experiences with the dark, from her present communing with the drama of the night sky in rural Georgia, from caving in West Virginia, and from her visit to the crypt beneath the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, France.

What eventually emerges is a spirituality of darkness: how to find God–or let God find you–in the dark. For this, she recommends the honing of certain skills: give up running the show; expect bumps along the way that will frighten you; and ask the darkness to teach you what you need to know. A “dazzling light” does hide out in the dark.

Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014) companioned me during December’s darkness.

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It is dusk. November winds skitter shriveled leaves into piles along the curb, against storefronts on Manchester Road, upon windshields of motorists. Leaning against a newsstand slouches a sightless shopper, his right hand poised on his red-white cane; his left, clutching a bag from Walgreen’s. He strains for the stoplight’s buzz to cue him forward. Long moments pass until its raspy sound squares his shoulders into action. Tentatively, he sweeps his cane in front of him and shuffles across the street. Motorists watch.

This man, like many others afflicted with blindness, shows us how to maneuver in darkness, even thrive.

We, the sighted, also experience darkness in our festering resentments, as well as in the fear-mongering media plunging our world into back alleys of compliance. So much is shrink-wrapped, truncated, and juiced to exhaustion. Ignoring what’s going on does not help. It is far better to know the forces draining our vitality.

So how maneuver in this darkness, without losing soul, certainly the challenge facing us today? Some suggestions: slow down; access the Light within; listen for cues, much like that blind man did, crossing Manchester Road; and obey them. It does work.

May we keep our spirits open to this Light and allow its warmth to enlarge our courage. We are special!

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