“The real and proper question is: why is it beautiful?” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
I’ve been remembering my childhood friend Tillie and wondering how she is.
I miss her.
I met Tillie, short for Matilda, Hunsdorfer when she was about twelve.
I was about twelve too.
Tillie became one of my favorite friends. She was quiet and thoughtful. She got teased a lot at school. I think one of her only other friends was her science teacher, Mr. Goodman. He gave Tillie a pet rabbit. She named him Peter. Peter was her friend too. An especially comforting one.
Tillie and I liked to hike to Cherry Creek where there were miles and miles of wildflowers. We gathered bouquets of our favorite, black-eyed-susans. With long pieces of reed grasses, we tried our best to tie them together in a way that would display their beauty without squishing them. Our final artistic flourish was to stick a cattail in the center. We carried them in wicker baskets and delivered them to doorsteps around town, hoping it would be a sweet surprise of joy to people.
Tillie and I went to the library and imagined together what the books might be that we would hold and call our own someday. Tillie’s favorite books were about science. My favorite books were biographies. We asked each other questions like “If you had to choose just one, which would you choose?” We always came to the same conclusion. “How can you choose just one?”
Tillie and I rode our monkey bikes, with the banana seats and plastic woven baskets strapped on the front of our handlebars, together in the rain. We raced through puddles splashing and laughing. When sufficiently soaked we shuddered hope and prayed the rain would sprout seeds of love, of beauty, of life, deep down inside each of us.
Tillie was good at sprouting seeds.
I had come to see “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” at the Park Theatre in our little town. The ticket lady was kind of grumpy. She had very black hair. Very red lipstick. And very large sad blue eyes. I hardly ever came to movies but I was intent on seeing this one. I waited quietly until she had taken my money and torn off the red ticket stub. Her husband wore a cowboy hat and waited quietly in the foyer with a cup of coffee until she had finished selling tickets and had closed the black iron gate that fell down across the counter. He smiled at me with friendly eyes. I smiled back.
I have never forgotten Tillie.
Who says imaginary friends are not real?
I became mesmerized by the story this movie told. It perforated my heart. It permeated my mind. It made a profound impact on my twelve-year-old-femine-soul regarding relationships.
Beatrice was Tillie’s mother. Her soul had been severely scarred and she was determined to make everyone around her feel her pain. She proclaimed to hate the whole world. Her dreams shattered and splintered, she was very lonely and very disappointed and very angry. Over all the disparaging years, lonely and disappointed and angry had corroded her heart; gnawed at her humanness.
There was not much that was inviting or loving or nurturing about Beatrice. In her caustic, scathing frame of mind, what came out of her was incredibly harsh. The battering and bruising that had been boiling in her burst right out of her. Erupted, like a fountain of lava. A screaming, a spilling of pain fragments. A flowing of hot molten death words.
Tillie felt the burning, the desolate discomfort. So did her sister Ruth.
Tillie’s father had left his family early on. Then he left for good. He died.
In the midst of all the disturbed relational upheaval, Tillie immerses herself in her Science Fair project. “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” She planted marigold seeds that had been exposed to cobalt-60. The seeds with the least amount of radiation grew into plants that seemed normal. The seeds with a moderate amount of radiation emerged with mutations such as double blooms, giant stems or variegated leaves. The seeds with the most radiation died or produced dwarf plants.
I can still hear her confident, quiet voice in my head explaining her science project to the full auditorium in her school as she won first place in the Science Fair. She described how dangerous radiation can be but that someday radiation would be better understood; that the strange and beautiful energy from exploding atoms would create wonderful kinds of mutations.
Throughout her project, she came to see that the radiation deformed the flowers in some ways, but they remained strong, and even beautiful, in some ways as well.
Kind of like Tillie.
Kind of like each of us.
Who of us has not known shattered dreams? The heartache and despair of broken relationships? Loneliness. Disappointment. Anger. The impact of another’s relational sin.
Tillie describes the mutations as being beautiful.
What makes them beautiful?
I think Tillie is beautiful.
Did Beatrice have any idea of the ways in which she was impacting the people in her life? Did she realize how relationally radioactive she was? The harmful ways she emitted rays of shame, humiliation, disgust?
Do I have any idea of the ways in which I am impacting the people in my life?
The impact of relational radiation has the potential to deform, damage, harm, mutate, even kill.
Without entirely dismissing the disappointment in her own life, Beatrice could have chosen to radiate life, and love, and hope, and kindness and encouragement and tenderness and joy in the wonder of it all.
So much pain. So much hope. I am so drawn to Tillie. Partly due to her love of science, she seemed to be aware that she was in a much bigger story than just her own and centered herself in that. She chose to radiate life, and love, and hope, and kindness and encouragement and tenderness and joy in the wonder of it all.
What happened to the Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds happened to Tillie in some ways. Yet she remained tender and strong. She was not intimidated by the process of changing, of growing. Permutation and transformation excited her; the whole wide wonderful world was alive and strikingly beautiful in its living and dying, changing and growing and rearranging, atom by atom.
And so was she.
“The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the- Moon Marigolds” is a play written by Paul Zindel, a playwright and science teacher, in 1964. It was adapted for the screen in 1972.
I first saw this movie more than forty years ago and still think about it all these years later. It made me think really hard about how we, I, relate with people; the ways in which we reach out to other people, embrace other people, dismiss or disregard people. How we see people. And how many times, we don’t really see them at all. We are each marked by our own stories yet we are part of a story much bigger than just our own. Grief and fear and other emotions can leave significant marks on people’s insides.
Who of us doesn’t have a scar to show and and a story to tell?
Scar stories are love stories.
Wear them and tell them, beautifully.
When we get stuck in the wearing and the telling, we can always run to the sticking place. The sticking place of courage. Of hope. Of a love story that is true and forever. We can run to the One whose sacrificial love never fails, whose scar-story of outpouring, passionate Trinitarian love eternally marks Him beautiful as the crucified, died and resurrected. Run, to the touchstone of the cross; to Him. The One who destroyed the power of sin to recapture the relationship God had always wanted with His beloved, and is redeeming the darkest moments of life with the wonder of His grace.