Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pentimento and Palimpsest

We watched the film Julia this past weekend. Vanessa Redgrave as Julia is at her most beautiful, I think, in this film. It’s a film about writers and lovers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, and Hellman’s adventure, after her play The Children’s Hour opened  on Broadway, smuggling Julia’s money into Berlin to save Jews during the Nazi madness. The authenticity of the story has been questioned, but it’s a high-minded tale worthy of truth or fiction, much like scripture.

Released in 1977, it brought back a flood of memories of my own past. “The longest sentence in the world,” Hellman once wrote, “begins with ‘I remember…’” I graduated from Yale Divinity School that year, was midway through serving on the two-year Presbyterian Task Force on Homosexuality, and began as founding director of The Lazarus Project, a first-of-its-kind ministry of reconciliation between the church and the LGBT community at the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. I was also one of a handful of openly gay candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian church. Both the support of colleagues and the interest of the media seemed to assure me of a promising outcome of my activism and ministry.

Monday was my day off, which of course was virtually nobody else’s day off, so I “recreated” alone, running on the beach, reading in a park, and sometimes going to the movies. That is how I came to be sitting in an almost empty Westwood movie theatre to see Julia by myself. But before the movie started, someone behind me leaned over a row of seats and tentatively called, “Chris?”  It was Troy Perry, founder of MCC, seated next to a friend and sometime bodyguard, and he invited me to join them, which I did. At the end of the movie, just like my mother, I was crying. Troy turned to me supportively but chided with a smile, “Oh Chris, you’re so sentimental!”

I recalled this as I cried once again at the end of Julia. Wade is used to me by now, so was unsurprised. But I was crying not just for the lost innocence depicted in the film, but for that moment that Troy and I shared in a Westwood movie theatre, just as our dreams were taking off—his founding an LGBT-affirming denomination and me hoping to help change the Presbyterian church.  So much seemed possible then!

This week I took Hellman’s paperback Pentimento from my bookshelves, the memoir of which “Julia” is one chapter. By the bookstore receipt that I obviously used as a bookmark, I purchased it on Halloween (Oct 31), 1974, for $1.95. The other book on the receipt, I imagine, was her memoir An Unfinished Woman, which has gone missing. I know I didn’t read these for any class, and I’m not sure what prompted my purchase. But I remember how much I enjoyed these memoirs.

“Pentimento” is the term for a painting that fades, revealing another painting behind, of which the artist is said to have “repented.” Hellman uses it as a metaphor for memory and memoir, explaining, “Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

Another favorite writer, Gore Vidal, entitled a memoir Palimpsest, which he thought of as an architectural term, but discovered its original use had to do with paper or parchment “which has been written upon twice; the original writing having been rubbed out.” Vidal observes, “This is pretty much what my kind of writer does anyway. Starts with life; makes a text; then a re-vision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought, erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text.”

That’s what I find myself doing these days, remembering and re-membering. And that, to me, is what scripture (and scriptural interpretation) is. It’s a remembering and a re-membering. In Hellman’s words, “an old conception, replaced by a later choice…a way of seeing and then seeing again.” And in Vidal’s words, “Starts with life; makes a text; then a re-vision—literally, a second seeing, an afterthought.”

That’s also the process of the spiritual life.

Related posts:

Mark your calendars, L.A!  I will be offering a lot of “I remember’s” speaking during the 11 a.m. Sunday service October 13, 2013 of the West Hollywood United Church of Christ, formerly known as West Hollywood Presbyterian, as part of its year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary! This is where I served a decade as founding director of the Lazarus Project.

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