Saturday, December 17, 2016

"THE LADY IN THE VAN": Review and Reflections

The Lady in the Van” is for Maggie Smith fans who love her onDownton Abbeybut wish for a little more than aristocratic attitude.  It’s not the attitude part, which seems part of what Smith “sells” as an actress, but rather the pretension.  England still grips our imaginations because of our curiosity about royalty and big houses, etc., but also because of the ground level survivors who find ingenious ways to evade imposed order.

This film is based on a book which is based on real life.  (Steve Pressfield is running a long intermittent set of posts on how to do this, but they don’t necessarily apply to this story.)  “The Lady in the Van tells the true story of Alan Bennett's strained friendship with Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her temporarily to park her Bedford van in the driveway of his Camden home. She stayed there for 15 years. As the story develops Bennett learns that Miss Shepherd is really Margaret Fairchild, a former gifted pupil of the pianist Alfred Cortot. She had played Chopin in a promenade concert, tried to become a nun, was committed to an institution by her brother, escaped, had an accident when her van was hit by a motorcyclist for which she believed herself to blame, and thereafter lived in fear of arrest.”

This phenomenon could not happen in most places today.  In the Seventies in Portland a little trio of kids lived in their broken down pickup (no canopy) at the curb in front of my apartment, eating shoplifted food from the Safeway at the Lloyd Center, and pooping in the bushes.  The little white blossoms of paper were what finally gave them away and got their pickup towed.

But this story works for Maggie Smith because it is a LADY in the van with all the arrogance and disregard for reality that being a lady entails.  Ladylike behavior is a performance.

The other element of the story is art, the high-skill passion of Chopin and the ambivalence it contains in herself and her listeners.  It may be that her skill derives from a brain that works at the edge of emotion, the limbic brain that operates unconsciously, rather than the pre-frontal cortex with its mathematical access to music.  Smith is able to convince us of both her direct way of providing for elemental needs and her access to a kind of exaltation, which is never respected enough by institutions to be religious, though she tried to be a nun.

Today Pressfield recommended introducing a dead body to a story as a surefire “hook,” and this tale does exactly that.

We’ve all mistakenly believed we were in big trouble over something that turned out to be nothing.  We’ve all tried to rise above ourselves but been snaffled and thwarted by people who think they’re doing the right thing.  I was usually okay in the Seventies when operating in the street as an animal control officer trying to bring order, but I ran across a LOT of old women who insisted on their version of the world.  Hoarders, squatters, evaders of social workers and family, they verged on the feral.

But when I moved to the ministry as context, my street skills didn’t translate very well.  At a conference in Boston at the denominational headquarters in a lovely panelled room with windows that began at ground level, one of the street people came into the bushes along the windows to relieve himself.  The most dignified and compassionate of our leaders went to the window and let loose the most volcanic stream of shit-themed invective that I’d ever heard.  I was more shocked by that bellowing than by the man’s rear end.  

Forever after I pondered why the institution didn’t work to make sure there were public toilets nearby or even give access to their own rather nice lavatories.  In fact, when working with congregations who had buildings, I saw that people legitimately working on the streets (letter carriers, meter readers) depended on church and school facilities.  You couldn’t do that now for fear of stalking and vandalism.  

But when I was working for the City of Portland, there was an old woman who moved into the ground floor women’s facility and lived there around the clock.  She was known, called the “bride” because she swathed herself in white plastic.  I talked to her sometimes until she began to instruct me how to do my imagined job.  (Answering questions on the phone.)  

At the end of seminary the UUA and M/L people despaired over how to make me an attractive candidate to some small congregation.  They didn’t like my wardrobe (jeans and flannel shirts) and the interviewing committees didn’t like my ideas because UU’s for all their pretence at inclusion are actually educated upper-middle-class mainstream.  But two denominational field men, Russ Lockwood and Emil Gustafson, who both worked in “flyover country” thought they saw an opportunity that matched with mine: serving the high prairie fellowships.  The only way we could afford it was for me to live in a van.  I was up for it.

For three years I did that while circuit-riding in Montana, and I loved it.  The result was chronic bronchitis and terrible snoring because the van was not heated, but also an abiding love of the nomadic life.  I never thought much about the consequences to the way I was “seen” and understood.  It made the job of getting a congregation to call me even more difficult.  At that time a lot of late-life women were losing their husbands and homes (heart attacks, no working history) and “shopping bag women” sat despairing on park benches.  Now they have to sit on sidewalks in bad areas of town because the parks drive them out.  

One of the male ministers at a district meeting heard my loud snoring and thought I should get a CPAP, which he had done.  It’s a machine that drives an airstream through a mask to prevent the breathing passage collapsing.  I don’t know where he thought I could get money to buy the thing or where I would plug it in.

Meanwhile, back in Portland, the old man next door to my mother died and the next owner of the house financed the purchase by parking small camp trailers in the driveway and renting them to addicts.  No one did anything until a series of overdoses required the repeated services of the coroner.  Death does get attention.

But on the surface, without all this reflection, “The Lady in the Van” is great fun and a stimulating challenge to conformity.  The tolerant writer who let her stay is also worth thinking about.  

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