A rainbow has pierced the clouds in front of my study window. The disintegration of light reveals a magnificence that neither sun nor rain can produce on its own.
Grief enters our lives as a force of disintegration. I was particularly struck by this after watching The Hermit of Treig and Queen of Glory, back to back at The Sea Change Film Festival held on Tiree over the weekend. These two films follow two very different characters. In the first, the life Ken Smith is utterly disrupted when he is ambushed and left so badly injured that he's not expected to walk or talk again. However, he does both and he walks across the Canadian wilderness teaching himself to survive alone. After two years of walking, he returns to his native UK only to discover that both his parents have died during his Canadian sojourn. Utterly devastated, he sets off walking around the UK in search of the remotest spot in the British Isles. He finds it on the banks of Loch Treig where he has been settled for the last forty years. His appreciation of the natural environment in which he has made his home has turned the wilderness of grief into a beautiful garden where his life has unfolded modestly and quietly - a rare jewel in these days of gross consumerism, twenty-four hour media coverage and environmental damage.
Sarah, by contrast, is a young American scientist of Ghanaian heritage, who is thrown into disarray after her mother's death. The film follows her as she grapples with the funeral arrangements - both western and Ghanaian, the relationship with her father who arrives from Ghana with the condescension of a patriarch who considers his accomplished daughter little more than a child, and the inheritance of her mother's Christian bookshop. Her affair with a married professor comes to an end when he decides, after years of promising, that he's not going to leave his wife after all. Sarah's life is in a state of disintegration. Reintegration is suggested in the film by Sarah's natural tresses, cut free from the constraints of hair extensions.
Hair is a potent symbol of a woman's freedom and sexuality, expressed most vividly in our culture through the folk tale Rapunzel. Rapunzel has gone through numerous iterations before becoming the well known version that the Grimm brothers published. In older tellings, Rapunzel is imprisoned in a tower by a fairy when she starts menstruating. Rapunzel's hair is the means by which her lover climbs to their trysts in the lonely tower; it is also emblematic of her captivity because she cannot use it to escape herself. The fairy notices her growing belly, cuts her hair in rage and banishes her to the wilderness. The angry fairy hangs the severed tresses from the windowsill and, when the lover climbs to the window, she pushes him off. He survives the fall but is blinded by thorns.
The years of wandering in the wilderness that follow expulsion from the tower is a time of grief and suffering for both Rapunzel and her lover. Rapunzel gives birth to twins while her lover wanders blindly, begging to survive. Two years pass before he hears Rapunzel's song and follows it to her. Rapunzel's tears of joy cure his blindness but even new life and new vision doesn't end the suffering - the fairy's fury is not spent, and she turns their food to stone so there is nothing for them to do but wait on their deaths. Their happiness at being reunited, however, exceeds their sorrow and melts the fairy's heart. She relents and helps them make their way to the lover's kingdom where they live happily ever after.
Reintegration comes in stages. Suffering is not separate from the emerging wisdom and purpose that arises from loss. They are woven together. I take heart from this as I try to make sense of the wilderness years that have come to me in the form of a broken marriage, the loss of a home, devastating news, financial hardship, flashbacks and panic attacks. Healing is a two steps forward, one back, kind of lilting motion. Sometimes a three steps back do-si-do can make it feel as if this crazy dance will never come to an end. For Rapunzell, love brings joy but not liberty. It is punishment that liberates her; in the wilderness she gives birth to new life alone, in her own power and vulnerability. Union comes later when her blinded lover stumbles on her, drawn by her song. Rapunzel's voice ringing out across the wasteland is a powerful symbol of self-determination in the midst of loss. And her lover's restored sight signifies the insight and wisdom that arises when grief is brought to completion. The twins recognise their father immediately.
We all have aspects of Rapunzel, bringing new life to bear out of the ruins of hopes and dreams, and the lover, who's temporarily blinded by suffering but drawn by the call of love to healing and restoration and deeper insights into life's meaning. And, we can all be the infants running into their father's arms, when we recognise something important in our lives and it suddenly all makes sense. Only for disaster to strike again and for everything to come tumbling down. This is when we question our purpose, so bitterly garnered as it already has been, from the thorny brambles of suffering.
For our lovers in the story, this second wave of misfortune brings them to surrender. Surrender is close kin to giving up, but has the tang of love, peace and acceptance about it - and that makes all the difference. So much so, that the same force that turned their bread to stone, removes them to the land of their inheritance where they abide in love and bounty. As I walk that tightrope between surrender and giving up, I often find myself trying to articulate the difference between the two states. It's subtle.
Disintegration / reintegration / disintegration / reintegration / disintegration / reintegration. The rainbow comes to us stimulating our sense of awe and beauty in the midst of the storm. The colours of the rainbow briefly on display, re-merge in the unified light of the sun that warms and illuminates, making us feel whole, holy, healed.