Because of “Joan of Arcadia” III

You know how God used to speak to a teenage girl on the TV show “Joan of Arcadia,” like a modern-day Joan of Arc? True story: Sometimes “Joan of Arcadia” speaks to me. Which amounts to a kind of Apostolic transmission, from God’s mouth to my ear through Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn).

As Adam Rove (Chris Marquette) would say, Cha.

Latest example: I had just finished a post about St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her calling (love) and my singing (bass). This had left questions rolling around in my brain about talents, as in mine, and how Christ, in a parable, asks us to use them. But what exactly are talents—in my case, in anyone’s case—and how should they be used? I hopped on a JetBlue flight for RDU with Katie to see our younger daughter, MRB, at UNC; fired up the DVD player to watch more tales of “Joan”; and what was the next CBS episode in prospect for this series of posts about a long-cancelled show that no one asked me to write? None other than “The Boat,” in which Joan discovers she has a talent she never knew she had and she’s not sure she needs and would like to trade in. Double cha. Did I heard God saying “Cha-cha-cha”?

Season 1, episode 4: Walking the corridors of Arcadia High one day, Joan runs into God, who is looking very spiffy indeed as a naval officer. In previous episodes, detailed in this post and in this one, the Almighty asked our heroine to get a job at a bookstore, to take AP chemistry, and to learn chess—each of which was a stretch for the typical teen with good heart and underutilized mind. Now God asks Joan to build a boat. When Joan expresses annoyance, God has a good comeback: Last time He asked someone to build a boat, it saved the world.

Girardi family subplots swirl. Chief of police Will Girardi, a/k/a Dad (Joe Mantegna), is tracking what may be a serial cop killer, while trying to persuade Joan’s older brother, Kevin (Jason Ritter), newly paralyzed following a car accident, to take up wheelchair basketball. Meanwhile, Joan relents, finds a set of plans, and begins fulfilling God’s commandment in her basement. Miraculously, she seems to have a talent for boatbuilding—cutting pieces without measuring and finding that they fit perfectly.

Later that night, God calls—as the host of a call-in show on the radio Joan is listening to in her bedroom. Joan is sad because she just overheard Dad and Kevin arguing. Kevin is wallowing in self-pity and has refused to take up wheelchair basketball. Dad is a good dad and just doesn’t know how to communicate with his son anymore. The crisis between father and son will continue to escalate.

Voice on the radio: Our next caller is . . . Joan from Arcadia!
Joan (looking up from bed, puzzled): Who, me?
God on radio: Thanks for joining us on Chat Lines. What’s your question?
Joan: You’ll answer questions? (God doesn’t usually, not here)
God: Go ahead, Joan.
Joan (pulling herself together for this rare opportunity): I found I had this incredible talent I never had before. I love it, but it’s the wrong talent.
God: What would be the right talent?
Joan: Making things better between people I love?
God: What’s your question?
Joan: Can I trade?

Here my inner ear started to open, listening to God’s voice as transmitted by “Joan”:

God: Sometimes one talent is all talents. Everything that rises must converge. You’re doing great work, Joan. Important work. Be thankful for what you can do. Don’t trade it away. And don’t let anyone talk you out of it, no matter how reasonable they sound.
Joan: No tradesies?
God: Moving on to . . . Corrina, who has love problems!

“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is the title of a story by Flannery O’Connor, but I say, let’s forgive God for this teeny bit of plagiarism; after all, he absolves us of so much. And God’s point is cool. Whatever the talent you’re given, follow it, use it, nurture it. Because “sometimes one talent is all talents”? What does that mean exactly? I think it means that whatever talent God gives us is ultimately important because it is God’s gift and therefore “more than all,” to borrow a phrase from e. e. cummings highlighted in a recent post. Above all: “Don’t trade it away.” Don’t think that you’d be better off with another talent and go off trying to be something you’re not, when all along God is telling you to be this. “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord,” the Invitatory Psalm 95 tells us each morning. So no matter who tries to convince you otherwise, stick with your talent, however humble. Thérèse of Lisieux knew she wasn’t cut out for prophecy or miracles; she understood that God had given her a “simple” gift, just love. It made her a saint and a Doctor of the Church.

Joan doesn’t listen, not yet anyway, and when Mr. Price (Patrick Fabian as the increasingly diabolic principal), calls her into his office and cruelly makes fun of her boatbuilding, she loses her mojo. This is Adam’s diagnosis when he walks into her basement that night and finds her in despair over not being able to continue the project. He then tells her how, first day of school, he tried to impress Price with his piano playing, which in Adam’s unconventional fashion included banging the keys with his elbow and playing a final glissando on the piano strings with his shoe. Price said, “You gotta be kidding.” Says Adam, “Since that day I can’t even whistle. Somewhere Price has got this coffin full of miraculous things kids could do before he stole them.”

Chief Girardi faces a similar crisis of confidence when his men think he’s not using the right approach to finding the “serial cop killer.” But he proves to be right in sticking to the book: Turns out the killings were not serial at all, and there was no cop killer involved. Or rather there was: the killer, in the second case, was a cop!

A final visit from God clears things up for Joan. She’s working late in the bookstore and talking with Adam, who has just asked her if she has a secret she’s not sharing. She is about to tell him about her talks with God when she hears a voice from the back of the store. It’s a little old lady. Joan never saw her come in.

Lady: You were about to tell Adam.
Joan: Did you give me a boat-making mojo and then take it away?
Lady=God: What did I tell you on the radio?
Joan: Not to let anyone talk me out of pursuing my project. You mean Price? Is what Adam said true? Is Price, like, evil?
God: The thing about fear is, it doesn’t leave room for anything else like beauty, purpose.
Joan: So did you just pop up to stop me from telling Adam?
God: I don’t pop. I abide. I’m eternal. Remember free will. It’s a burden asking someone to believe you. You don’t know how many burdens the boy is already bearing. Maybe you should take on some of his burdens.

In a final silent coda, Kevin wheels alone into Joan’s basement workshop, sees the boat skeleton for the first time, and smiles quizzically. Then he puts the cigarette he was about to light behind his ear, picks up Joan’s plans, and studies them. Then he sets to work fixing the boat. Dad walks in. He picks up the plans and the two agree that a couple of changes need making. It’s obvious that the two have something in common again, a boat they will build together. And as the exit music comes up, the camera pans to find Joan’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and then Joan looking into the workshop from a window . . . and . . . smiling.

I smile a lot watching this show. “The Boat” left me thinking of this blog again, perhaps a tiny talent that God has given me to use well. Which, if I do, could have untold positive consequences for others (you, gentle reader?) just as Joan’s boat venture helped reconcile Dad and Kevin. And above all not to make it into something it isn’t—not catechism (I don’t know enough to teach you), not prophecy (I don’t know what’s going to happen today, much less tomorrow), and certainly not politics (not my bag, man). Just a story here and there from a guy who found Catholicism through God’s grace and in 58 years has never been happier. Cha.

  • http://www.soundmindandspirit.blogspot.com Shelly@SoundMindandSpirit

    I just popped over to see your blog after Sarah Reinhard mentioned it (and I don't normally follow her's either….but popped there from somewhere else…. was I being led?) I love Joan of Arcadia. It's one of the few shows I bought on DVD. I love how you used it to talk about Talents, especially now when our church is challenging us to use our Talents and I've been wondering what my "calling" is to serve our church. Thanks. I'm off to read a few of your other posts before I settle into work today.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07097943417915271719 GS

    After reading about Joan of Arcadia on your blog, I remembered having seen a preview for it long ago. At the time the premise sounded good but I couldn't imagine anything on a network making something worthwhile out of the idea.In any event, I started and couldn't stop–watching them all in less than two weeks. I've been most struck, in addition to rather orthodox takes on free will, etc., by the emphasis on God as humorous but never cruel (though Joan can't always tell the difference) and on the mystery of it all while boldly proclaiming the plan (somehow) is perfect. The humor reminds me a great deal of Chesterton's take on religion, and he is one of my favorite authors.By the end, thinking of the cancellation, I wanted to join Joan in asking why…

  • Anonymous

    Don't give it up, Webster. You're in the right boat.

  • Anonymous

    Webster – not only Kate, but Joan too? Where will this end?

  • Anonymous

    O'Connor cribbed "Everything rises" from Teilhard de Chardin (who I believe was a priest) and his concept of convergence. He believed that the spirit of a person could evolve to a state where by knowing and loving God better, that person would consequently converge in knowing and loving other people better (and they that person).~O'Connor Fan


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