A Week in the South

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Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

Spring break is, sadly, coming to an end. And after a week’s worth of fifteen-hour bus rides, intense reading, workout-equipment painting, and learning, I figured it’d be best to end the week with a blog post summarizing what I learned in the last seven days. I received two lessons overall, both of which were about people, our nation, and God.

But before I get into the morals, I’ll give you a little background. At my college, we have the opportunity to go on service-learning trips, which are like mission’s trips for college students. So I and about forty other students packed our bags and boarded a bus for Mississippi. About thirty of us stayed in Jackson, while the rest—including me—rented a van and drove over to Mendenhall to spend a week with the Mendenhall Ministries, founded by John Perkins. For four days of the week, we walked over to the Genesis One elementary school to start fixing up the school’s gym, painting the walls and the workout equipment to make it look presentable. While we were there, we talked with the locals in the neighborhood and learned more about the town (as well as the rest of America) than we anticipated.

Which brings me to the first thing I learned: America is still culturally segregated. In the part of Mendenhall where we stayed, it sat on a part of a hill. The black neighborhood surrounding us was separated from the downtown area by a railroad track. There was only one white family living in this neighborhood—right next to the volunteer center where we stayed—and the house had two layers of fences surrounding it, cutting it off from the neighborhood. Some of the churches in Mendenhall are still segregated. But what really caught our attention was the attitude of a white local we ran into in the middle of the week.

I mentioned earlier that we spent four days working at the school’s gym. On Wednesday, we met up with the larger group in Jackson and talked more about people in Mississippi who were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, including John Perkins.  A little while later, we went to Mendenhall and talked about Perkins’ work there. The biggest topic of interest in Perkins’ life was his time in the Brandon Jail in the early 70s. He had been arrested when he came to the jail to visit someone, and upon his arrest the police brutally tortured him in ways that still physically affect him even today. While he was there, some of the townspeople boycotted the surrounding shops and marched through downtown Mendenhall until his release. We did a commemorative walk through town in silence…well, mostly. At one point in the walk, a man came out of his shop and asked us what we were doing. When someone told him that we were doing a commemorative march, he rolled his eyes and scoffed at us. I didn’t catch what he said, but when we talked about it later, the meaning was crystal clear.

We talked about it more on Thursday night during reflection time. In that conversation, we thought about cultural segregation being just as prevalent in the Northern States as it was in Mississippi. We’d have groups of Asians hanging out together on campus, and in our minds we’d wonder why they don’t reach out to others without questioning why we wouldn’t reach out to them. We found that the railroad track splitting the town in half was very symbolic of America as a whole. Reality bared its teeth at us that day and taught us that, as far as racial equality goes, we still have a very long way to go.

The second moral that I think we all realized was that, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, God was still at work. Last week, I summarized my struggle with the idea of trusting an invisible deity and I wondered if there was any possibility that Christians could be wrong, despite how sure they are in their faith. During my time in Mendenhall, I saw faith at work—not in our group, but in the people we interacted with. One of the locals mentioned that, growing up, the only time he ever saw white people in the neighborhood was when volunteers came from around the nation. We also met a truly incredible woman who moved her equally incredible family down from Tennessee because she felt that this was the place where she was being called. Despite the struggles she’s faced thus far and despite what this meant for her three kids, she believed with all her heart that this is where she’s meant to be. Hearing her talk about her life, family, and faith inspired all of us in the times where we got to sit down and talk to her.

On the Thursday night after we talked, I mentally compared Mendenhall with the people of the Universalist Unitarian church I visited during the New England Saints trip. The service we attended was one meant to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. At one point in the service, a man stepped up to the podium and talked about his experiences in growing up biracial and how hard that was for him in a racially insensitive time for America. This was something I’d meant to hear about for a very long time, so naturally I was grateful to him for opening up and sharing his life with us. But as I look back on that morning, I remember having the opportunity to speak to him briefly as we left. I thanked him for sharing his story and told him that I really needed to hear it. When he responded, I remember that he seemed…very worn out. Why this was is up for debate, but looking back on it, my guess is that he was (and maybe still is) at a point in his life where he didn’t have any hope left. In contrast, the people in Mendenhall are still hopeful in spite of the circumstances that surrounded them. They always looked positive when we talked to them, even about the racism in their hometown.

While comparing the two experiences, I saw that faith is a very clear indicator of how much hope a person has. The people of Mendenhall Ministries put their hope in God every day, and it allowed them to create a welcoming, cheerful community that cared about everyone involved. On the flipside, the people of the Unitarian Universalist church didn’t know what to hope for, and for that we can’t even say what these people can stay agreed on. I saw that, even if we hope in vain, it’s still hope in something bigger than life. It keeps us moving forward in times of darkness, no matter what.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Photo source: https://sites.google.com/a/psgsd.k12.ak.us/river-horse/home/the-missi/facts-about-the-mississippi-river

Fact vs Faith

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Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

There are songs that will never leave, songs we forget about, and songs that will never leave. One such song is “A Puzzlement” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The song popped up on my iPod the other day, and as I listened to it I started to consider the lyrics. I listened to the song a few more times, and that led me to seriously thinking about what we believe as kids growing up in Christian families.

To illustrate my point, I’ll share some of the lyrics here:

“When I was a boy, world was better spot

What was so was so. What was not was not.

Now I am a man…world has changed a lot

Some things nearly so, others nearly not”

“When my father was a king, he was a king who knew exactly what he knew

And his brain was not a thing forever swinging to and fro and fro and to

Shall I then be like my father and be willfully unmovable and strong?

Or is it better to be right—or am I right when I believe I may be wrong?”

“There are times I almost think nobody sure of what he absolutely know

Everybody find confusion in conclusion he concluded long ago

And it puzzle me to learn that though a man may be in doubt of what he know,

Very quickly he will fight…he’ll fight to prove that what he does not know is so”

Whether you like the musical or not, you have to admit that this song is pretty deep…well, in comparison to the rest of the songs. I mean, those lyrics talk about a man who recognizes that the world is more complex than it used to be. When we were kids, life seemed pretty simple, didn’t it? What was so was so, what was not was not. Once we grew up, all of that changed. Considering all of the ideas that surround us, we’re faced with the age old question of whether we ought to stay true to our beliefs or adopt new ones.

And…this song pretty much summarizes a problem I had with Christianity for a long time—and in many ways, still do. I found that people born and raised in Christian families didn’t explain their faith in God in any way other than “that’s what I grew up believing.” When I started college, I realized that most of what I believed I got from my family and teachers, but not because I believed it for myself. I could only name a handful of people that, after watching them, made me think “oh yeah, they know what they’re talking about.” With everyone else, it seemed more like they were going through the motions. Whenever I went to church, I felt like I was just going through the motions, and it really bothered me.

An example I could name to illustrate how I felt about Christianity was one day on the New England Saints trip, when we attended a Unitarian Universalist church. When we discussed the experience later that night, everyone talked about how they felt uncomfortable being in a church that didn’t have all the answers. I felt myself growing frustrated with everything they said. How could they be sure that what they believed was right and what everyone else believed was wrong? How could they be positive that they had all the answers? Even though I didn’t doubt God’s existence, there were often times where I found myself wondering “What makes us right and everyone else wrong? What if we’re wrong?”

Then a couple things happened. The first was in the last week, when I watched The Perfect Stranger and Another Perfect Stranger. They were somewhat mediocre, but they discussed other religions, the difference between faith and religion, and other issues related to Christianity. I still had a lot of questions, but I felt relieved in feeling like so many others were answered.

And then today, I stumbled on a couple of verses. The first was Hebrews 11:6, which says “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” The second was in John 20:29, when Jesus tells Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

What I gather from those experiences is this: Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, we have nothing to lose by believing in something bigger than ourselves. Being a person of faith doesn’t mean having the ability to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he exists. It means having a relationship with God, getting to know him through his word, and trusting him even if we don’t completely understand him. Faith is defined as a “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” In truth, I doubt anyone will ever have all the answers—if we could, we’d probably have it all figured out by now. But if we had everything figured out, how would that strengthen our faith in God? I still have a lot of questions, but if I want to be able to exercise trust, then maybe there’s no better time to start than now.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Photo Source: http://lifehopeandtruth.com/change/faith/

What’s With Wonka’s Tunnel of Hell?

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Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

A lot of us remember the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Based on Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it starred Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket. The film was one of whimsy and chocolate, introducing household tunes such as “Cheer up Charlie,” “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket,” and “Pure Imagination.”

But there was one particular scene that nobody seemed to know what to make of, famously known as Wonka’s Tunnel of Hell. Wonka takes his guests on a boat tour of his factory, and they go through a dark tunnel of flashing lights, freaky images, and Gene Wilder’s psychotic outbursts. This scene has also been dubbed as a Big Lipped Alligator Moment, a bizarre moment in cinema that pops out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. It brings the movie to a complete halt and—in many cases—scars viewers for life.

Now, why in the world would they add this scene? Some might say that it’s a demonstration of Wonka’s psychotic side. I might agree with that, but to be honest, this scene never scared me that much as a child. I thought it was a little creepy, but the most it got out of me was “…I’m not screaming in fear…but why?” And, when you get down to it, the images they showed weren’t that frightening. Okay, there was a chicken’s head getting chopped off and a worm/snake crawling over someone’s face, so I understand that. But when you get down to it, what were the other images that appeared on the wall of the tunnel? A wide-angle shot of someone’s eye, a close-up of a reptile, Slugworth, maybe a spider, and…I think the underside of a snail with legs, but I’m still trying to figure out what the last one was. Everything else is just a dark tunnel with flashing lights and Gene Wilder screaming like a kid on a roller coaster.

Others have said that it showcases the darker side of Dahl’s eccentric imagination, and honestly, I wouldn’t doubt it. If you think about what happens in this story (as well as Dahl’s other works), it’s pretty dark for kids’ stories. Four of the five kids in the factory almost die—in fact, in the 1971 movie, we never see them again. Even the lyrics of the Oompa Loompa songs, when you get down to it, sound a lot creepier in the movie than they do in the book.

There’s something else to consider, though. Take a look at the scene again and observe everyone’s reactions. Everyone’s freaking out as soon as the boat goes into the tunnel—that is, except for Charlie and Grandpa Joe. Charlie comments that it’s strange, while Grandpa Joe’s having the time of his life. They don’t really start to freak out until Slugworth pops up, and Charlie’s the only one to panic when he sees the old man staring at him. But even then, the two don’t really scream in fear like everyone else. Charlie just turns to his Grandpa, who says “it couldn’t be.” You don’t really see them being afraid until Wonka starts having a mental breakdown. Now, I’d say that’s more of an actor point than a character point. Rumor has it that the other actors on the boat didn’t know that Wilder was going to go ballistic at the end of the scene, so the fear at that point was genuine. In the book, Grandpa Joe actually defends Wonka when everyone else is saying he’s off his rocker.

Which leads me to believe that, considering the illusions in the tunnel, the scene could’ve been used as Wonka’s test of the mind. The song “Pure Imagination” is played a couple of times throughout the entire movie, more than any other song. You hear it in the opening credits, Wonka sings it in the Chocolate Room, you hear it on the boat ride before they enter the tunnel, and you hear it again in the ending credits. Just before they go into the Chocolate Room, Wonka said that all of his dreams become reality, and some of his realities become dreams.

With that in mind, I always thought that the tunnel was a foil to the Chocolate Room. Some nightmares become realities, and some realities become nightmares. The tourists, who’ve all had pretty easy lives up to this point, have commonly shared fears like spiders, snakes, bugs, etc. Charlie, who’s been poor for his entire life, doesn’t react until he sees Slugworth. If you remember, earlier in the movie, Slugworth tempted Charlie with enough money to provide for his family for the rest of his life—at the cost of betraying Willy Wonka, the Magician/Chocolatier that everyone loves and whose Golden Ticket is the first good thing that Charlie’s ever gotten in his life.

Maybe Wonka was fishing for something from the kids when he led them into the tunnel. He doesn’t really say much until his psychotic breakdown when they go through. Heck, he doesn’t flinch when the chicken loses its head (I’m not kidding; he seriously doesn’t even blink when the ax hits the stump!) Fans of the book and both movies will remember that Wonka was looking for someone to take over his factory. And considering the fact that he was testing Charlie at the end of the 1971 movie, I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t watching the kids throughout the whole tour, getting to know them, figuring out who they were, and measuring them up as possible Chocolatiers. The entire tour was a job interview, and they didn’t even realize it. I’m not sure if Wonka expected to see Slugworth appear on the tunnel wall, but learning what his potential candidates were afraid of allowed him to learn more about them based on what they saw and how they reacted to it.

Or maybe it was just a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment that should never be mentioned again. Cinema seems to be full of those, so that explanation works too. But for me, this is the Tunnel Scene I always saw. It sheds light on Wonka’s psychotic side, it sheds light on the other characters, and it sheds light on the darker side of Pure Imagination.

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Photo source: http://www.theultimateplaylist.com/music/willy-wonka-you-get-nothing-remix-by-srslysirius-memories-relived

Torvald Helmer: Who Was He, Really?

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Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.

If you have a soft spot for drama (theatrical, not high school), then you’re probably familiar with Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll House. Written in the 1800s, this masterpiece was praised by audiences and critics alike. After studying it for my drama class in the last week, I noticed some points about Torvald Helmer—one of the characters—that I never really thought about before.

WARNING: Editorial of character contains major spoilers.

The story of A Doll House takes place in the Helmer household and centers on Torvald’s wife, Nora. When you watch the two in the beginning of the play, they appear very happy and playful on the surface. Their marriage works a lot like a system; she’s the little lark that patters around, entertains him, and boosts his ego, while he’s a vending machine who gives her whatever she wants as long as she hits his buttons just right. One day, Nils Krogstad—an employee of Torvald—drops by to visit and pleads for Nora to help him keep his job. He reminds her that she forged her father’s signature so that she could borrow money to save her husband’s life. Krogstad uses this information to blackmail her, saying that if he can’t keep his job, then he’ll tell Torvald that she’s guilty of forgery.

So naturally, Nora tries to convince Torvald not to fire Krogstad, which he ends up doing anyway. Krogstad leaves a letter for Torvald in response, explaining Nora’s deed. Nora tries to prevent Torvald from finding the letter, but eventually caves at the end of the play. Despite the fact that she only did it to save his life, Torvald criticizes her for having no morals and ruining his life and happiness. Torvald’s outburst following the truth coming out makes Nora realize how fractured her marriage is. And—even after Krogstad sends another letter promising to keep her secret, and even after Torvald is no longer angry at her—she leaves her husband for good. Since Torvald spent the entire play calling her a squirrel and implying that her supposed stupidity makes her attractive, naturally, audiences cheer when the slamming of the door signals the end of the play.

According to my professor, this play is a satire of a melodrama. A melodrama is essentially a damsel-in-distress story, complete with the everyday stereotypical characters that I’ve decided to nickname Count Rodolpho (the villain), Bella Swan (the woe-is-me leading lady), and Hercules (the boneheaded hero). Krogstad is the Count Rodolpho, Nora is the much more sympathetic—not to mention likeable—version of Bella Swan, and Torvald is supposed to be Hercules. I say ‘supposed to be’ because, as fans of the play know, Torvald is more of a jerk than Krogstad. He spends the entire play belittling Krogstad and Nora, while at the same time boosting his own ego. So his outburst at the end reveals that he’s nothing more than a one-dimensional sexist pig who deserved to be deserted.

Or…is he really? Is there more to Torvald’s character than what meets the eye?

To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look at the climax—more specifically, what happens right before the climax. Torvald takes his mail out from the mailbox (including the letter from Krogstad) and among the other letters he finds one from his best friend, Dr. Rank, informing him that his sickness is going to kill him. Torvald turns to Nora for comfort, and then he says this: “You know what, Nora—time and again I’ve wished you were in some terrible danger, just so I could stake my life and soul and everything, for your sake.”

Wait a minute. If he’s mourning the coming death of his best friend, why in the world would he say that? It seems like such a line would be out of place under those circumstances, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, these are the last words out of his mouth before Nora tells him to read the rest of his mail—including Krogstad’s letter. And then we have Torvald’s outburst, where he accuses Nora of being a liar and a ‘featherbrained woman’ who ruined his happiness. Following his angry words is Krogstad’s second letter. When Torvald’s fright is over, he goes right back to treating Nora like a damsel-in-distress, telling her he would care for her “like a hunted dove he saved from a hawk’s claw” and a lot of other BS that—let’s face it, people—no self-respecting woman would hear from her significant other without rolling her eyes.

Now, maybe I’ve watched too much Dr. Phil, but I just find this really fascinating. He talks the talk of a hero, but never once has he walked the walk. I mean, here is a chance for him to be Nora’s knight in shining armor and support her, and he blows it faster than you can say “Bob’s your HMO, not your uncle.” Nora even tells Torvald when breaking up with him that she hoped he would’ve been willing to give up his honor for her. And in response to hearing what Nora had hoped for, Torvald says that no man would give up honor. But sometimes, being a hero involves sacrificing something dear to you for the sake of salvaging what’s important. I mean, think about it. The people we call heroes have been doing that in fiction and in real life since the dawn of time. Katniss Everdeen gave up her freedom for her sister. Fantine gave up her dignity to support her child. Martin Luther King Jr. gave up his life for the Civil Rights Movement. And God gave up his own son for us. Torvald gave up nothing. So if Torvald can’t be a hero for Nora, why does he constantly talk about it, like he would do it if he could?

Let’s take a look at the story again. Almost everything he says either brings himself up or tears someone else down. He vocally dehumanizes Nora—to her face, mind you—by calling her things like “my little lark” and “my little squirrel.” In fact, the only time I’ve seen him regard Nora as a human being before the climax is when he calls her “my darling wife,” and even then, the word ‘my’ is still attached. He criticizes Krogstad for having no morals—even though Torvald himself is “moralistic rather than moral.” Torvald even takes a jab at Nora’s childhood friend Mrs. Linde, saying “she’s a deadly bore, that creature.”

Now, you might be asking why I’m taking an interest in someone who seems like a one-dimensional bully. Well, here’s a crazy idea that more authors should think about: Maybe Torvald isn’t just a one-dimensional bully. Maybe there’s a psychological explanation to his behavior. In Samantha Anderson’s blog post “The Relationship Between Insecurity and Self-Righteousness,” the author brings this up:

“What often happens when we’re not okay with being ourselves is we try to make ourselves appear better than we feel. Either through our acts or our words or our physical appearance. Or all of those things. And sometimes we even couple that with making others look or feel worse than us. Or sometimes, we just do it in our minds. We judge people. We see ourselves as better than others.”

I think that’s what’s going on with Torvald. He’s only as confident as he is pathetic. He’s only as heroic as he is insecure. No one else—aside for Nora, as part of the system—is telling him that he’s worth anything, so he compensates for it by continually deflating other peoples’ ego balloons and inflating his own. Things don’t always go his way, so he has to control whatever he can, including his own family. Why doesn’t he divorce Nora when he’s so angry with her? He has no control over Krogstad, who can dangle the secret crime over his head, so he has to control Nora. He can’t save his best friend from dying, so he openly wishes that he had an opportunity to save Nora somehow. He can’t think positively of himself, so he has Nora doing that for him—until, as we know, she leaves him in the end. This doesn’t excuse anything he’s done; it just makes the character more sympathetic and more of a person.

The cause behind Torvald’s insecurities is a whole other argument. And if you see his character differently, who am I to stop you? For me, it makes Nora’s final words to him all the more significant: “you and I would both have to transform ourselves to the point where our coming together would be a true marriage.” They both have to change and grow in their own ways. Nora has a lot to figure out, and she knows that she has to do it on her own. For Torvald, I don’t think it’s enough to just stop treating Nora like a child and start treating her like an adult. He needs to learn for himself that it’s better to be concerned about others rather than himself. Because, as Mrs. Linde puts it perfectly in the third act, “to work only for yourself—there’s no joy in that.”

Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”

Sources used:

A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen

http://thoughtsfrommynotebook.com/2013/04/04/the-relationship-between-insecurity-and-self-righteousness/

Photo source: http://megarapid.net/forums/t/814954.aspx