I did something last night that I love and rarely do anymore. I went to the movies. I drove about 15 minutes from here to the PJ Cinema at Port Jefferson, New York. Hey, for $9 tickets you all should be coming here from wherever you are. I’ve got room if you need to bunk out afterwards.
After hearing a lot of good things about Lady Bird, I set out to see it. Two things. It was as good as anyone had told me, and maybe better. And secondly, I was the only person in the theater. [Our attention spans as individuals (and as a people) we are told now is shorter than that of goldfish. What did I say? Oh yeah, the movie . . .]
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story about 17-year-old Lady Bird McPherson. It’s all about relationships: with her parents, her brother and his significant other, her first boyfriends, her hometown, her school, religion – all the good stuff. And why shouldn’t it be? It reminded me of something I know, but need to be reminded of about 10,000 times a day: human stories are stories about relationships, beginning, middle and end. Every one of them is unique, and every one of them will remind you of millions of others. (Not to exaggerate).
This story is a reflection on the importance (or not) of name. What you call yourself, what other people call you; what has this to do with who you are? With who you are becoming? With who you want to become and to be? Lady Bird gets the usual scrapes and bruises on the way to her 18th birthday. Thanks to the genuineness and the light touch of Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and to the performances of those around her, you feel every bump and bruise (and perhaps are reminded of some of your own, whenever 17 was for you). People who love each other genuinely still get it wrong, all wrong, all the time, And somehow, through it all, right there in the mixed-up, pained, confused, non-stage production that every life is, there is a sense of what some folk would call a ‘plan’, and other folk would get nauseous in just hearing the word there. So to put it another way then, for the nauseous friends: within the web of relationships that we all are, as evident and as complex as each of those webs are, all is not, after all, the chaos that might easily and reasonably be expected. There is a kind of order. There is a kind of identity coming together. All in an ungainly, uneasy way that for me at least, points toward the ungainly, uneasy, and completely faithful commitment of what some of us call God to what some of us call the miracle of being human. That miracle by the way, is readily described by simply surviving to age 17, simply daring to love, bravely trying to figure who am I and why. At any and all stages of living.
Two tidbits of the brilliant writing of director Greta Gerwig will stay with me (and likely end up in a homily – what a fate!). At a college party our hero, while drinking herself sick, asks a guy she meets as an opening query (!), whether he believes in God. As was likely, he replies in the negative. Pressed as to why by Ms. McPherson, he says something like that ‘to start with, it’s just stupid.’ Lady Bird, in reply muses almost to herself, “We call ourselves what our parents name us, but we think it’s stupid to believe in God.” Something like that. Massive acceptance on the one hand before we know if it’s deserved; and equally significant rejection on the other, also before we know whether it is deserved.
Earlier, still at her Catholic high school, Lady Bird was called to the Principal’s office. There the wise old nun appreciated the love for her hometown of Sacramento evidenced in the young woman’s college admission essay. Lady Bird understood herself to disdain Sacramento. The Principal persists, remarking on the way Lady Bird describes the town as she writes about it. “I pay attention,” or similar words, are Lady Bird’s response. The nun offers in return that paying attention and love might just be the same thing. Here was a beautiful use and rendering of the words of 20th century philosopher Simone Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” And love at its truest might just be the deepest generosity of which the human heart is capable.
It’s all a ‘sacramento,’ a sacramentum, a sacrament: an effective sign that brings about that which it signifies. However she is named, Lady Bird’s life signifies the worthwhileness of it all. There’s a big story being played out in all our little stories.
– John McGinty