Backseat

Although a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine features “The Greats” in music, theater, art, and fashion, Nancy Haught’s Sacred Strangers prompted me to consider the vital role played by secondary characters.

peterandthewolf2When Prokofiev composed Peter and the Wolf, he chose the prestigious violin to represent Peter and the powerful horn for the wolf. It is the oboe that the composer uses for the supporting role of the duck. As the story progresses, Peter remains a primary character, the wolf captures the duck and swallows it whole. The humble oboe might disappear from view, but the narrator tells us that “If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf’s belly.” And so it goes. That clear, unassuming sound will oboe its way into the ear of the listener.

cover_emma2The pampered main character in Jane Austen’s Emma did not capture my sympathy, but Miss Bates, Emma’s unequal, did. Miss Bates spills words without punctuation until one day Emma annihilates her publically with one sentence. Emma, regal heroine, shrinks into a petty doll. Miss Bates expands into a forgiving friend. Austen must have loved placing her talkative creation in the back seat where she could glow and chatter to her heart’s delight.

beartown2In Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, the main characters fascinate me as they struggle with hockey and love.  However, the scene that caught me by complete surprise came, not from the conflicts of star athletes, but from Zacharias, supportive friend and outsider, who carried a bucket. I will not give away any more (no one likes a spoiler), but he is just one of Beartown’s citizens, just one of Backman’s marvelous cast of supporting players.

So what about these secondary characters? They fill essential, small spaces of a best seller, like the duck in the lower right hand side of the painting, the figure in blue that stays close to Emma’s elbow, and the invisible character who lives in a house not drawn on the cover. They play lesser roles. Since they take first bows, the applause has not gained momentum, but is saved for “The Greats.” Yet principal roles have no meaning unless linked with secondary ones. A front seat is defined by the seats behind. That’s why the world needs supporting players or even a cameo appearance of the versatile oboe, tender chatterer, and empathetic loner.

Compass

Once upon a time before iPhones and iPads, computers and even television, my parents and the four of us children sit in silence. The living room is dark except for the fireplace aglow with burning logs. My father holds the maroon Decca record in his beautiful hands and sets it on the turntable. Static blends in with stringed music, so soft it cannot interfere with Orson Welles as the narrator and Bing Crosby as the “Happy Prince.”

happy-princeAs children we heard the story—over and over—of the statue of the “Happy Prince” which stood high above the city. On his way to Egypt, a swallow rests at the statue’s feet. The Prince asks, “Little Swallow, will you not stay with me one night and be my messenger?” The bird stays one night and another. Through warmth and frost, the bird does as the Prince asks. From the statue he plucks first the sword’s ruby, then the sapphire eyes, and finally every gold leaf. He flies over the city and drops these as gifts among the poor and hungry. The city thrives, but the Prince is now stripped bare and the bird cold and weak. When God tells his angel to bring the city’s two most precious items, the angel returns with the Prince’s lead heart and the dead bird. God’s promise?  The Happy Prince and the swallow will love and sing in Paradise forever.

wilde

What early tales helped provide a moral compass for me? Certainly Bible stories contributed, but fairy tales, especially those of Oscar Wilde, are the first ones that captured my imagination. In a darkened room with my family, I listened to recordings—funny, sad, and wise—of love stronger than death. These tales described how to walk in a troubled world. The path was a clear one, just as Oscar Wilde believed: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line.”

If each of us had to choose one story from childhood, a story that drew a line toward goodness, which one would it be? Where did we first hear the words? How does the story act as compass in our hearts today?

Earthen Vessel

Francis(1)Those who work for peace, animals, and the environment love Francis of Assisi. Even the crickets claim him. What draws me, though, is his humility. Not meekness or lowliness, but humus: the quality of being grounded, to arise from the dirt. Italian in his roots and in his bones, Francis remained in Assisi. He entered into conversion in the plain sight of suspicious family and friends. In the same city where he dressed regally, he stripped himself naked. Along the narrow streets where he partied, he begged for alms. A native son, through and through.

When I grapple with a written scene, I wonder which should come first, the character or the setting. I have only visited Assisi once, but in the Francis story, a simple answer emerges. Out of Italy, out of Assisi, St. Francis was born, Umbria’s earthen vessel.

enter-assisiOn my bookshelf is the three volume set of Francis of Assisi, edited by Franciscan scholars Regis Armstrong, Wayne Hellmann, and William Short. Next to these books is Enter Assisi, by Murray Bodo. The book is a visual and spiritual tour through stone streets and gates, into basilicas and the tiny Portiuncula, up through the hills, and into the caves. Wherever we travel, Bodo reminds us that Francis lived, loved, and died here, in his hometown. No wonder his Spirit is alive and well.

Earth brings forth the beautiful but also the flawed. Francis, like his native land, was imperfect. Superlatives, in reality, diminish him. Embracing his limitations, he gained humus. Below is a prayer written by Francis that, to me, summarizes his life: human, grounded, and of the earth:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.
Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor disturbance.
Where there is poverty with joy, there is neither greed nor avarice.
Where there is rest and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor restlessness.
Where there is fear of the Lord to guard an entrance, there the enemy cannot have a place to enter.
Where there is a heart full of mercy and discernment, there is neither excess nor hardness of heart.