Six Months Later: Lessons from La La Land

“I’m always gonna love you.”

“I’m always gonna love you, too.”

This was the moment that broke me. It wasn’t right. Nobody should ever- ever– tell you they love you and then leave you anyway. That’s not love.

Word ArtLike all great art, La La Land reflected my life and infused it as well, and it’s impossible to share my thoughts about the movie without including the parallel story of what was happening in my life at each time I viewed the film. Three viewings, three totally different positions in life, and three unique lessons- who’d have thought I’d get so much from a modern-day musical? (Just kidding, nobody is surprised at all. But check it out anyway.)


The First Time

The first time I saw La La Land I was new to New York, pretty uncomfortable with my job, and trying to recover from the ends of some life-defining relationships. Things in real life were a bit tough and I was excited to see a good old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending.

Unfortunately, everything falls apart and Emma and Ryan don’t end up together. But not only do they not end up together- no, that would have been too easy. Instead we have to watch through their eyes every moment that might have gone differently and maybe could have saved it. It tore my heart out, because I can do that too. We all can tick off every single twitch that we believe caused somebody to leave when we think we might have had the power to get them to stay. Now I wanted the movie to end in the midst of this fantasy; I had no qualms suspending reality to ease the pain of loss.

But the movie doesn’t end a moment earlier to preserve our delicate emotions. It says, “Yep. That sucked and they know exactly why, but it doesn’t matter how much you can know or deduce or problem solve. Sometimes you just can’t fix it.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

La La Land dances back and forth between surreal romance and moments that are so real that they hurt. I’ve had that flashback. I’ve had that breakup. I want a movie to tell me I can go back and fix it, or to tell me that it didn’t matter because it wasn’t “the one” and when it is I will know and I will never let it go.

 

La La Land refuses to give me that peace. La La Land gave us romance and music and dance and art and what can only be described as the experience of falling in love through city and sound. And then it shows that love’s end. Not only does the love end, but we see very clearly that those who were once in it have a desire to somehow travel back and change the past in order to get their fairy tale ending.

 

Theirs isn’t the typical dramatic breakup, and yet it hurts so much more. It’s okay to be sad and angry when somebody does you wrong, but what about when somebody does you absolutely right? What about when somebody drives four hours and spends the night alone in a place he’s never been in order to force you to confront your dreams, and then afterward tells you that you should follow your dreams and not him, but that he’s still always going to love you? What are you supposed to be hurt about then?

In Ryan Gosling’s character I saw myself. I operated better in dreams than in reality and I would do anything for a person I cared about- especially pushing them toward their purpose. How could a person this passionate and giving deserve a love that doesn’t work out?

My bewildered lesson: just because something ends doesn’t mean that it wasn’t amazing.


The Second Time

The second time I watched La La Land I had just met somebody very special, somebody who made me not so bummed that my first love hadn’t worked out, somebody who got really really sad when I shared that I had wanted the fantasy ending to be real. This person was honest, supportive, kind- all the right things. Being with him made me realize what I’d been missing in the past.

This time around, I realized that Emma Stone’s character is kind of selfish. We spend most of the time centered on her, and when they break up it’s only after her play doesn’t go well. Having identified much more with Ryan to begin with, I started to feel a sense of vindication. Yes, she loves him, but she doesn’t always give him the treatment he deserves. Now I wasn’t so sad that the relationship didn’t work out. Instead, I saw it as a necessity for these two people to each follow their own path.

My liberated lesson: Emma Stone is selfish and Ryan Gosling is too good for her anyway.


The Third Time

The third time I saw La La Land, the somebody from before had become enormously important in my life. He had helped me to heal from past relationships and past losses. Also, we disagreed sometimes; we accidentally hurt each other by virtue of being two separate people meshing into one life together, and that’s how I learned that love doesn’t mean that everything goes perfectly. Love means that I will always forgive you.

That’s what Emma and Ryan mean when they say, “I’m always gonna love you.” They mean that, yeah, it hadn’t worked out. (The movie had been giving us clues the entire time: their relationship is best at night and in surreal places, and the first time they were together in daylight is when they break up.) But that doesn’t mean that their relationship wasn’t worth it.

If things had gone perfectly with all of our first loves we would have been spared from pain (that’s what I had at one point wanted). But being spared from that pain means that we wouldn’t be ready for life. As we learn in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain.

My final lesson: Maybe the best thing our first love can do for us is push us to our dreams and then kiss us goodbye.


So, what did I learn from La La Land? First: ending is not a failure. Ending is a sign that something happened, and then we grew. At the end of the movie, something even bigger is happening for each of our beloved characters (yeah, I’m not so mad at Emma Stone anymore). That’s the second lesson: not fitting into a relationship doesn’t mean that either partner is a bad person. There’s still an opportunity for learning and growth, and that is never a waste.

The final lesson is about the strength it takes to recognize that a person belongs in the past tense and that this doesn’t mean we can’t have love for them in the present. This movie demonstrates all of the different roles love can play for us: Love pushes, love excites, love challenges. Most poignantly, love hurts. But, the most important lesson of all: love heals.

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Pretty Woman is Not About Hookers

Things are not always what they seem to be.

Land is flat, but the world is round. Stoplights are way bigger than they appear from the driver’s seat. Time travels at the same pace whether you’re sitting in a boring meeting or watching Netflix all day, and Pretty Woman is not about hookers.

(If you haven’t seen the film, check out the trailer so you know what it’s all about.)

In fact, I would argue that Pretty Woman is one of the most realistic stories out there. It’s like, remember when you read Animal Farm and at some point realized that the story was not about an animal farm but instead an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 (thanks, 9th grade English)? Pretty Woman is that. Except it’s not using hookers and businessmen to tell the story of a war or a revolution. It’s using them to tell us the story of the fight that every single human goes through, which is the fight we all have with ourselves about whether or not we deserve a good life.

For starters, let’s talk about what makes our two main characters so realistic.

Whenever Vivian (Julia Roberts) got punished as a kid, she was locked in the attic, where she dreamed of a knight in shining armor whisking her away. So when a less-than-knightly guy came along during her teens and offered to whisk her away from Georgia, of course she accepted. But “away” was LA, and the guy peaced out, leaving Vivian to fend for herself. Vivian needed a way to make ends meet and she hadn’t graduated high school, so she became a hooker. But part of her still waits for that fairytale, not believing that this could be all she was meant for in life. She protects herself from getting stuck by not falling in love, by never kissing anybody on the mouth.

Edward (Richard Gere) also tries to protect himself by keeping the rest of the world at a distance. His father left his mother and screwed her over, so Edward has learned that love is a dangerous risk. Edward controls his life by planning and working and screwing other people over the way his father did. He has relationships because that’s what one does, but like Vivian, he keeps from ever emotionally connecting; he rarely spends time with his girlfriends, and  he never kisses them on the mouth.

Edward and Vivian meet when Edward gets lost on Hollywood Boulevard and needs directions. He’s obsessed with utility and she can offer him a service; she needs to make ends meet and knows that she has nothing to lose because this cannot possibly be her endgame. That’s what gets them both into a car. Of course this doesn’t happen every day. But I don’t think it’s so hard to believe in a girl who is searching for something more and a guy who’s been burned and is just staying frozen so it doesn’t happen again.

pretty woman quote 1

Once Vivian and Edward get together, we have a little fun at casual places like Rodeo Drive and the opera. But things stay real; he has trouble connecting, admitting what he wants. She has trouble trusting him when he does offer her a “fairytale.” Here is my paraphrasing of Edward’s and Vivian’s thoughts throughout the movie, if they were in touch with their emotions enough to identify them:

“I want my life to be amazing, but so far the people in it have made me believe I don’t deserve that. I care about other people, so I believe them. That’s why it’s so hard for me to let go of what I know to take a risk and do anything that could make me really happy. I’ve spent so long thinking I don’t deserve it that, now it’s in front of me, I’m not even sure I know what it is. I want my dreams to come true, but life has taught me to stop dreaming.

The point of this movie is not that ladies should expect a man to come along and save us, or that men should solve their problems with money and sex. The point of this movie is two people who feel alone and worthless, who for all the world appear as though they do not have hearts. They protect themselves by toughening up, but that toughening up necessarily means giving in to the harshness of the world and believing that maybe they are heartless after all.

But that’s not so. Edward is kind, Vivian is honest. They both have goals and fears and things that make them angry. They both have hearts. They both try to protect those hearts, because they’ve been broken, but they both also take little steps toward finding what they want once they feel comfortable and brave enough to take that risk.

pretty woman quote 2

We all try to protect ourselves. We put up a tough front. We have dreams that we are too tough or terrified to realize. But sometimes if we open ourselves up to something a little crazy, we can find the bravery to accept our dreams- and ourselves. The romance in Pretty Woman is wonderful, but it’s not what has made this film a classic. Pretty Woman is a powerful movie because it portrays fear and insecurity and the exorbitant amount of courage it takes to dream.

So, things are not as they seem. Pretty Woman isn’t about hookers, and I’ll give you a few others too: Legally Blonde isn’t about law school. Top Gun isn’t about planes. Grease isn’t about grease (okay, that one was a gimme). The point is that if you look closely you can find a way to connect any story to the things we all go through in real life; movies are just a way for our fears to take the form of dreams.

After all, “This is Hollywood. What’s your dream?”

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011), is a Woody Allen film that, at its core, is about choosing between fantasy and reality. Super short synopsis: American writer Gil Pender has always fantasized about 1920s Paris. He dreams of living the way his writing idols did, rather than living his own life- that of a sold out Hollywood screenwriter engaged to a woman (Inez) who totally doesn’t share his values. On a trip with Inez to Paris, Gil stumbles into a time slip that allows him to visit the 1920s, where he meets his idols, comes alive as a writer, and even falls in love.

When Gil first meets Adriana, the woman with whom he falls in love, she mentions that her favorite time period is La Belle Epoch, in Paris at the turn of the century. Gil is astounded; how could anyone who lives in Paris in the ‘20s long for anything else? At the end of the movie, the two of them stumble into another time slip that brings them to Adriana’s golden age. Here we get the movie’s lesson: people are never satisfied. We fantasize and romanticize about other times because we don’t know their reality and, in Gil’s words, “the present is… a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.” Gil learns that it would be nice to escape into a world whose representation has been shaped into something magical by the passage of time, but that even that world has its flaws.

I, however, am with Adriana: “That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words.” Honestly, Gil’s epiphany is probably the one that I would have, because it’s the one that affirms imperfection and embracing real life as it is. But let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a movie in which characters legitimately have the option to time travel. They don’t have to live with real life as it is, which is why Adriana has every right to “stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.” Gil, on the other hand, believes that he needs to be rid of his illusions in order to be a good writer. But which illusion is he really giving up?

Gil wants to live in Paris in the ‘20s. He gets the chance. Then he decides that this chance isn’t real, that he needs to muddle his way through real life instead, and I think that that’s cowardly. Think about Gil’s and Adriana’s first exchange: Adriana tells him that he should stay in Paris to finish his book. Gil replies, “I would like to, but it’s not that easy.”

How many times have we said this sentence about things that would make us so happy? What if everyone- gasp- actually did what they wanted? We’d overthrow this stupid system of burning out your best years on unfulfilling jobs, and instead the world would be so much more healthy, more connected, more artful, more fascinating. I truly believe this. But, according to Gil, it’s not that easy. What a shame that even those of us who have slaved away for 16 or more years to get an “education” are willing to dismiss something just because it’s not easy.

I propose a different perspective, one which meddles with fantasy and reality, which Woody Allen so loves to do. I believe that Gil, instead of honorably learning how to deal with his life (although I do support his breaking up with Inez), should subscribe to the versions of reality posed by his new friends, Hemingway and Dali.

“Love that’s true and real creates a respite from death. All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing, and when the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face… it is because they love with sufficient passion to push death out of their minds until it returns as it does to all men.”

That’s how Hemingway responds when he learns that Gil fears death. Death is real, Hemingway tells us, but if you live your truth and your dreams strongly enough- completely letting go of the realities and the “shoulds” and the “it’s not that easies”- then you can achieve this feeling of immortality, this feeling that reality does not apply to your life because your life has surpassed meaningless categories such as “real” and “unreal” and has instead reached a realm in which what matters is not what is real, but what is true. And what is true can only be defined by you.

As Gertrude Stein (casual) puts it after reading Gil’s manuscript, “we all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Gil is so afraid for life to end because he has no idea what to do with it while he has it. Stein and Hemingway aim to show him that people who are secure with what they’re doing in their lives are not afraid of death because they know that, when the time comes, they will have no regrets.

Take Gil’s brief meeting with Salvador Dali (again, casual). Gil laments the struggle of his engagement to Inez in 2010 and how it conflicts with his love for Adriana in the ‘20s. The artists surrounding him see no problems, just inspiration for works of art- in Dali’s case, something having to do with a rhinoceros. These artists do what they want to do, say exactly what’s on their minds without fear of judgment, think about rhinoceroses when they want to think about rhinoceroses. This is why, to them, petty realistic problems such as time-traveling love triangles are simply fodder for a film or painting. These people are so committed to being true to themselves and to following their passions that they don’t have to worry about realities.

In fact, these artists show us that real life and fantasy are not even the right distinctions. The real distinction is between people who live their truth and people who don’t. If your truth is traveling back into the 20s every night, okay. If your truth is thinking about a rhinoceros, okay. There is no wrong truth. But if your truth is writing novels in Paris and instead you’re writing screenplays in Hollywood, that’s when life no longer matters. You have wasted a precious life, and that’s why you’re afraid of death.

Gil could have been legitimately happy staying in the ’20s. It would have been one thing if he was disappointed by the era after fantasizing about it for so long, but that’s not the case. He loves it. Of course, not everyone living in the ’20s feels the way that he does because, for them, it’s the present. But for Gil, the rough edges of the past have become blurrier over time.

Adriana loves La Belle Epoch because she knows what the ‘20s are like. Gil loves the ‘20s because he knows what the 2000s are like. What if the real lesson, here, is this: in order to be truly happy with life, you have to blur its edges. You have to see things with imagination in order for them to be worth seeing at all. Whether that means viewing life through the lens of a different era, a paintbrush, or a camera, it’s all the same idea. The real world is rough, and life is meaningless, so we have to mold it and give it meaning through stories and art and fantasies. That’s the only way to make life worth living.

To finish, a few quotes from awesome people. In the words of J.K. Rowling, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “Of course it is happening inside your head… but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

And, finally, Ernest Hemingway (by way of Woody Allen): “Think about it.”

Happiness

Right now I am so happy that I don’t know what to do.

Every day it is true that I have a loving family, that I went to a great school, that I have had all sorts of experiences and learned all sorts of things in this world. But every day I am not happy about these things. Often, our emotions are based solely on what’s happening at this very moment, and it is true that this very moment isn’t always the most exciting moment we’ve had.

Here’s a psychology tidbit: humans feel negative emotions seven times more strongly than we feel positive ones. It’s how we made it this far. In terms of survival, it’s a lot more important to be able to experience fear of dangerous things, and sadness in response to losing important things, than it is to feel any sort of positive emotion such as happiness.

In other words, evolutionarily speaking, feeling happy doesn’t get us anywhere. So how do I reconcile that fact with this feeling of gratitude and love that I have at this moment? I am so completely happy to have had wonderful relationships in my life full of self discovery, sleepovers, long walks, long talks, trips all over the world, trips to the grocery store, tears, hugs, hands held, running and jumping into someone’s arms because I know that they’ll catch me. I always know that they’ll catch me, even if we’re not together.

happiness collage

Some of the people who make me happy

I recently watched this movie called Like Sunday, Like Rain (2014), which follows an au pair and her 7th-grade charge, chronicling the development of their strong and uncanny friendship and making me miss my own 8th graders desperately. By the end, my emotions were so strong that I felt uncomfortable simply watching the movie without turning my feelings into some kind of revelation. But what could I do: call one of my kids? Become an au pair myself? I didn’t know how to deal with this feeling, because I treat feelings like potential energy that require some sort of action in order to count. How I feel doesn’t matter, because my emotions are insignificant unless they turn into a career path or a relationship or even a blog.

It’s like the episode of Full House when Uncle Jesse first proposes to Becky. The conversation starts as a breakup, but instead the two realize that they’re actually ready to say “I love you” for the first time. Of course, Jesse takes the most logical next step:

Jesse: Have mercy! We gotta get married right now.
Becky: Wait a minute. Right now?
Jesse: Yes, we declared our love. You said you’d marry me. We’re in Nevada. Let’s do it!

Jesse is so excited to realize that he and Becky are in love that he has to do something about it. Standing around and just being in love doesn’t feel possible. Instead, he has to follow this strong emotion with a concrete action so that it’s easier to understand. But, of course, Jesse isn’t thinking straight. A wedding is just a ceremony that represents love. It doesn’t guarantee love, it doesn’t solidify love, and it doesn’t have to go hand in hand with love either. What Jesse really needs to do, rather than booking a slot at the illustrious Ali Baba Hotel and Casino Wedding Chapel, is pause, look at Becky, and sit with the realization of how he’s feeling and how lucky he is.

Uncle Jesse and I have the same lesson to learn: feelings are allowed to matter because they are a part of us. I have so much to be thankful for, and today the world is sending me all the right vibes and messages and songs to make me think about the incredible relationships that I have had. I can’t act on those feelings by moving so that I live closer to all of my cross-country best friends. I can’t reach out to every single person I’ve known. All I can do is sit with this feeling of joy and gratefulness and remind myself that I have the right to be happy. Even if I can’t use my happiness for anything, that doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to have it.

Right now I am so happy, and that’s all I have to do.

 

What I Learned From The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years is a difficult movie to watch, and yet somehow I’ve still seen it several times. Quick synopsis: Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick) take turns singing songs about their five-year relationship from beginning to end, but while Cathy starts from the end and goes backwards, Jamie starts from the beginning and goes forward. They meet at the middle and then switch after Jamie’s proposal. For sure, part of the reason I’ve seen the movie so many times is the interesting chronology, and the fact that I love Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan and I could listen to them singing literally anything. But there’s also something about this story that stumps me.

This time watching, I tried to figure out what the stumper was. I was surprised to realize how egotistical Jamie is from the very beginning: “Jamie” is the first word of the movie, even though it’s Cathy’s song. In contrast, Jamie’s first several songs are essentially about himself, although he does mention how lucky he is to find his “muse.” So I thought maybe the message I could get from this movie was something about how our flaws don’t seem to matter when we’re in love. In fact, Jamie’s egotism remains somewhat well-hidden until he withdraws from being one half of a whole with Cathy. Before that, his flaws are acceptable, or even unnoticed, because he has found someone who doesn’t seem to mind them.

the last five years couch

Isn’t that the message that we so often glean from romantic comedies? Everybody has problems, but eventually you’ll find someone and when you do your problems won’t matter. The other person will accept them or fix them or make it easy for you to forget about them, and if you’re lucky they’ll bring out the best in you. That’s why we’ve all got this crazy idea that “I’ll never be complete… I’ll never be alive… I’ll never change the world… until ‘I do.'” It’s like we’re each a work in progress, and we’re not finished until we can find somebody else who fits.

But I don’t like that lesson so much. For one thing, it puts our own self-improvement in the hands of another person. But, more importantly, what really gets me about The Last Five Years is the last scene. Anyone who has been through a relationship and a breakup has felt the vast array of emotions present in this scene; we watch Jamie write a note about how it simply doesn’t work between them anymore and then walk away at the same time as we see five-years-ago Cathy, giddy and thankful to say goodbye to her newfound love. In one camera pan, we have the magical beginning and the ending that’s so unremarkable that it hurts. Nothing huge happened to make Cathy and Jamie grow apart- nothing that we can chalk up to dramatics and Hollywood, anyway. Jamie and Cathy grew apart because jobs and lives and personalities became too difficult to make working on it worth it, and that’s something that can happen to anyone.

The Last Five Years hurts to watch, in other words, because the story it tells is so remarkably unremarkable. It’s a love that begins in a way that makes us hopeful and ends in a way that makes us feel like hope is lost. What can make these characters happy now? They’ve already said that they’ll never be happy without each other. And then they weren’t happy with each other, and now they’re not together at all. Are we to assume that they’ll each find someone else? That they’ll be alone? Will they ever be as happy again as they were with each other? These questions are painful to ask and impossible to answer, and that makes this movie tough.

But I still watch it. I do it for those couple of moments at the end, the moments in which there is nothing but pure hope. The morning after their first date, Jamie’s and Cathy’s hearts are so full and they feel an infectious sense of promise. Seeing that right next to their utterly deflated ending is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t mean that their time spent together was wasted. Instead, I think the lesson here is that there is nothing stronger than hope. With it, Jamie and Cathy can hold out through disappointing jobs and temptations and all the things that make life difficult. Without it, the same challenges become impossible.

Jamie and Cathy teach us that even things that are wonderful can come to an end; although some parts of life do go the way we want them to, sometimes there’s no reason why others just don’t. Sometimes something simply awful happens and suddenly life is no longer the same. But that doesn’t mean that life is ruined or that we have to just wait through the sad song montage until everything gets better. The Last Five Years tells us to sit through that awful moment and let it wash over us in the same way that we embrace hopeful beginnings, because we have no more power over these things than we do over falling in love.

the last five years last scene

Just because something ends does not mean that it was worthless. It does not mean that it was doomed from the beginning. It does not mean that we should give up control or hope. When a part of our life ends, we can look back on the happy times without tainting them- because they were happy, and that’s still allowed. And we can have hope for whatever comes next without believing that it has to “complete” us. That’s allowed too.

So, I love the music. I love the raw and eloquently expressed feelings. I love the creative take on moving through a story. But most of all I love that The Last Five Years reminds us to give equal weight to the happy parts and the sad parts, because together they make up our lives. They both make us feel something, even though we like some of those feelings better than others.

Every ending, no matter how painful, came from a beginning that’s worth remembering. This movie can teach us to look at life as a series of beginnings, to tinge all views with the brightness of hope, and to appreciate the bad alongside the good. In real life there are no finished products, no flawless people. The only way to make sure that every story has a happy ending is to make it end with hope. That way those bad parts, which hurt but which are still important, can become a part of the story too. Because, no matter the ending, The Last Five Years teaches us that every story deserves to be told.

 

To Write Love On Her Arms

This may come as a shocker, but I don’t think fairytale endings exist. In fact, I think that, most of the time, people don’t even know what we’re doing. Today I watched a movie called To Write Love On Her Arms (2012), and it made me even more sure of these things. Here’s why.

To Write Love On Her Arms is a movie based on the true story of a girl named Renee who grew up with what is referred to both as bipolar disorder and as an active imagination. In high school she becomes a victim of rape, and that event in addition to her previous condition snowballs into what becomes a serious cutting habit along with a drug and alcohol addiction. The majority of the movie takes place in and around the time she decides to get clean.

What I loved about this movie was how all of its characters balanced between fighting their own demons and each other’s, and the character of David McKenna illustrates this idea more than anyone. We’re introduced to him as a recovered addict and as Renee’s best friend Dylan’s boss. He comes into the movie as a mentor figure who knows what Renee is going through and where to take her. That’s typical in a movie, or any story for that matter- to have a character who has advice and knows what to do.

But McKenna is different. As the movie goes on, we realize that he isn’t as put together as he seems to be. In fact, although he attempts to put forth this narrative that he has gone through the dark side and seen the light, he is in fact just as vulnerable as Renee, maybe even more. Eventually, he admits his belief that he himself is the problem central to his addiction, that no matter who he meets or where he goes, his problem won’t go away because the problem is him. These are not the words of a man who has come to terms with his past or who has everything figured out. These are the words of a man who goes through an invisible battle every day, a man who believes that his life is a problem to be solved. How can he possibly be helping someone else?

Renee feels the same way when her story begins to touch people who then reach out to her for support. They do this because we are so often taught that stories work a certain way, that people go through problems and come out on the other side newly enlightened and with the ability to help others in the same position. But, right out of rehab, Renee is “still messed up.” She doesn’t believe that she has any right to offer advice to others, because she hasn’t even figured out herself.

This movie illuminates so many oft-unspoken things, but one of them is the invaluable lesson that even the people who help us also need help themselves. That sometimes those of us who need help the most are the ones who won’t ask for it. That the stories we tell arc much more gracefully than the sketched and smudged lines of real life. Jamie, the man who brings Renee’s story to the world, says that he wrote her story because he wanted to believe in happy endings. But happy endings are not that simple: the truth is that sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes things are over before we can find the good side. Sometimes sober people relapse.

In fact, at the end of the movie, Renee realizes that it’s her turn to help McKenna through his own relapse. At first she can’t understand how the man who mentored her let himself fall back into his addictions. But then he admits what Renee, and all of us, have felt at some point: “I don’t have anybody, okay?” Renee simply replies, “I don’t either.” It’s not a conventional story: the student has not become the teacher and the teacher has not become the student. Instead, the story has become much more real because Renee and McKenna both feel alone, and that’s what brings them together.

At one point in the movie, Renee asks God, “Why did you make me like this?” In this powerful moment, it’s easy to understand how Renee- or anyone else- could wonder what the point is in even being alive. One might think, why does the world need someone like me? To that I answer, because we all suffer. And the fact that you suffer- not whether or not you turn out “okay”- is what gives you the ability to connect with others. I’ve said before that things fit better together when they’re roughed up a little bit. Maybe it’s our bumps, our bruises, our cracks, and our scars that help us to find our place with each other.

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Learn about To Write Love On Her Arms here.

Music is my Religion

PSA: This post is inspired by Alive Inside, a documentary about the power of music in reuniting people suffering from dementia with their memories.


For the whole movie I watched people come alive as headphones were placed onto their ears and the sounds of their past came rushing in, touching the places that had not been affected by dementia. I heard big band, gospel, Louis Armstrong, and I cried along with the people whose lives had been momentarily regifted to them. I felt so moved and inspired and lucky to bear witness to what I think can be considered a miracle: memories that were gone now came back.

But the beauty of these moments is not just in remembering the past. The fact that music can help us to recover memories is certainly something, but it also serves as an indicator that music is far more essential to humanity than we may realize. Pick whatever pop bubblegum artist you hate and marvel at how what they do could be considered essential to humanity, but then think about it this way: music is so essential to humanity that we will accept it in just about any form coming from just about any person. Our hearts beat. Our voices have tones. Even people as rhythmically challenged as my dear mother still feel the urge to tap or dance along to the beat of a song.

Music is a part of every culture. It is a part of every religion. It easily accompanies any physical, artistic, academic, or emotional endeavor. I have met people who generally dislike television, movies, and all kinds of additions to life that can range from undiscovered to life-consuming depending on the person. But I have never met somebody who, on the whole, dislikes music. Just like I’ve never met somebody who dislikes food, water, or breathing.

So I watched the film, touched to see these people touched by music, fascinated to see how universal and yet how personal music can be. But I wasn’t prepared for a moment that came at the very end.

In a montage of people hearing the music that touched them- a feeling that I had thought I was feeling with them- a new song came on: Blackbird. Reliving the memory, I don’t even know that I had a visual; the instant that I heard the first two notes, my body took in an involuntary gasp and I was sobbing, wailing, before the next note came out. I had thought that I understood before, but when I heard Blackbird I truly knew how music affects us so much more deeply and viscerally than we can comprehend.

I turn my iPod to shuffle when I’m lost and I want another power to decide for me what I need to hear. Often, the right song can touch me much more strongly than parts of my own religion. Could music, in fact, be like a religion to me? The thing in life that gives me hope and peace and connection and the belief that there is something more? I think so.

I got an angel to teach me Beatles and beat, to drive me to dance and to make the car move with the songs. I wrote him the music for You Are My Sunshine; he wrote me music for We Are The World. And when my angel knew that I understood, not long after I made “and in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me” a part of body, and very shortly after we recorded our own memories of and feelings about The Beatles into an archive (at which I said that I trusted that a person’s opinions about The Beatles would tell me all I needed to know about their character), he left me on my own.

But not really. Because my heart still has a beat, my voice still has sound, my iPod still sends me his music, my tattoo reminds me that he is always right in front of me. And when I hear Blackbird he is there to block out everything else and give me a moment alone with my heart. He is my angel, and music is my religion.

“The lord came to me, made me holy. I’m a holy man. So, he gave me these sounds.”
-Henry

 

Serendipity

I just watched Serendipity.

What a movie. John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale, the dad from American Pie and the best friend from Never Been Kissed. 2001. New York City. And, let me say it again, John Cusack. What a guy.

This movie can be seen either as a light in the dark, a supreme giver of hope no matter what, or as a really great way to stretch our expectations so far that reality simply can never catch up. It’s about Jonathan and Sara, who meet one fateful winter night and connect instantly. Sara is the ultimate believer in fate and destiny, and she decides that if the two of them are meant to be together, they shouldn’t force it; it will happen. She writes her info inside a book, he writes his onto a $5 bill, and both items go out into the world. Jonathan and Sara part, and they don’t see each other for seven years. At that point, because it’s a movie, they’re both about to be married, they both end up taking cross-country flights to find one another, and they both come so close to seeing each other only to have just near misses. Of course, they eventually find each other. Thank goodness.

This movie seems to be about trusting fate, believing in destiny, and these two star-crossed lovers. But, really, Jonathan and Sara only spend about ten minutes of screen time actually together. In truth, I don’t think Serendipity is really about Jonathan and Sara. It’s about the power of believing in some greater order enough to simply trust yourself.

It’s almost backwards, really. Seven years after meeting, both Jonathan and Sara haven’t let go of the thought of each other. Despite that fact, they each continue with life as it is, because life as it is is “right” and acceptable. Life as it has happened to them makes their partners and their families happy, it makes their work lives make sense, and it’s rooted in reality. Both Jonathan and Sara continue along their less-than-fulfilling paths because they don’t trust fate; fate is intangible and unproven, and, frankly, it has let them down, unlike their perfectly adequate lives. Truthfully, if they both were to go after what they wanted, that would mean admitting that they want something kind of crazy. And, even worse, it would mean that they might get hurt.

And yet, when it comes down to it and Jonathan is about to marry Halley and Sara is about to marry Lars, they both freak out. They both take one last chance to do something about that brush with destiny that’s been gnawing at them for seven years. Jonathan and Sara show us that, in other words, believing in destiny simply means trusting what you want rather than accepting the way that the world is “supposed” to work. Believing in destiny is about going for what you truly want, even if it’s scary, because otherwise there’s no point to life.

Jonathan’s best friend Dean sums it up best after he and Jonathan fly to San Francisco hours before the wedding to finally track down Sara. They see Sara’s sister and another man through her house’s window, and it’s been a few years and Sara and her sister look very much alike from afar, so Jonathan and Dean believe that it’s her and that they’ve finally failed. They lay on the ground in misery outside Sara’s house, pondering what they’re doing here. After all, if fate had wanted Jonathan and Sara to be together, would Sara really be with another man? “Maybe,” Dean says, “We’re laying here because you don’t want to be standing somewhere else.”

And that’s the whole point. Jonathan is not calling off his wedding because he believes so strongly in fate that he’ll do anything to find Sara rather than marrying Halley. He’s calling off his wedding because he doesn’t want to be married. It took an extreme shaking up of his world to make him take a look at what he truly wants and, fate or no fate, he doesn’t want to marry Halley. It takes a great deal of courage to admit that sort of thing, to admit that what you thought you wanted was wrong, even after it’s all set in motion and admitting it does mean maybe hurting someone. But, as Dean also reminds Jonathan, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

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And so Jonathan calls off the wedding- not because he believes fate might finally deliver Sara to him, but because he has finally learned to listen to his own heart. He wanders to the ice skating rink where he first spent time with Sara and he lays there. He has just called off a wedding, broken someone’s heart, spent a great deal of money flying across the country in what ended up to be a devastating pursuit, and now he’s sitting alone in the cold remembering someone he only knew for a few hours seven years ago.

But there is absolutely nothing he would rather be doing.

He is miserable and cold and he has no idea what’s next for him, but for the first time, he is answering to himself. Trusting that he doesn’t have all the answers has freed him, because now he doesn’t need a life in which everything is spoken for. Instead, he can lay on the ice contentedly, reveling in the freedom that life isn’t about doing everything “right,” but instead about simply being the person you exist as, because there’s a reason you exist to be that person. Your purpose is to be you, to be the most sincere you that you can be, and to have faith that life will figure out the rest. There’s no way that we mere humans can understand the whole big picture, so we have to do the next best thing: understand the very, very small picture, the one inside ourselves. Once Jonathan finally attunes to himself, he is, probably for the first time since he met Sara, at peace.

Jonathan and Sara’s story is not meant to teach us to live blindly because the universe will figure out the rest. Instead it teaches us not to fight against our hearts and what they’re saying; if you live life without embracing your heart, what is the point? It’s the only heart you get. Trust that the world knows how to be, and that it will survive if you don’t live the perfectly acceptable cut-and-dry life. Instead, be content to be thought a little bit foolish. Follow your heart- even if that means laying in the cold and feeling miserable. You might find that that’s when you feel truly alive.

Serendipity is one of many movies about a couple of strangers finding each other in New York City. When Harry Met Sally, A Lot Like Love, An Affair to Remember, You’ve Got Mail… why do we love the idea of two people coming against all odds to find each other in a city so packed that faces can easily disappear? Because they remind us that each one of us is important. That each of us deserves to find ourselves, even in a world that moves so quickly that the faces blur and we can’t always see. These movies show us that sometimes the best thing we can find, even in a city as full as New York, is ourself.

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High Fidelity: What is Love?

When did humans start to wonder about love? Pre-wheel? Post-fire? We’ll probably never know, so, new question. When did humans start to understand love? The answer to this one is very clear: not yet.

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Which is not to say that we haven’t tried. People have been writing books, creating movies, and singing songs about every conceivable component of love for ages. And we, the consumers, take it in. We survey our worlds for definitions that apply to our morals, our senses, our current situations. Name a predicament, and there’s a musing about love that will fit right in. Which is great, because the human brain craves categories and organization and definitions for things; otherwise there would be no way to process the endless information that life gives us. But, admittedly, this compulsion to define everything leaves us a little bit wanting. Or at least that’s where it leaves me. Which of the world’s many definitions of love is “the one?”

When I read books or watch movies I write down the quotations that resonate with me. Often, they have to do with love. I’ll size up the story’s version of love and compare it to someone in my life, and if the two fit, it’s a miracle! Suddenly I understand my feelings toward this person; the author told me it was love, and I’m relieved that finally I know what this confusing, undefinable feeling is. That’s not to say that I don’t have my own definitions, of course. But, in truth, most of them haven’t come from my own life.

I recently watched High Fidelity (2000) for the first time. This film stars John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a record store owner who loves to categorize everything in life, from music to love. The movie begins with Rob breaking up with his serious girlfriend, Laura, and immediately listing the five worst breakups he’s ever had. We relive each of these breakups while experiencing the aftermath of his split with Laura as well as the ups and downs of his life as a record store owner/wannabe producer. Eventually, Rob and Laura get back together- not because of some romantic realization, and not because they missed each other so much they couldn’t handle it. Legitimately, Laura’s reason for getting back together with Rob: “I’m too tired not to be with you.”

What about all of the problems that caused them to fall apart in the first place? Not addressed. What about the cute, intriguing music reporter who catches Rob’s eye at his record store? Rob responds to this with the obvious move (not) of proposing to Laura. “Other women… they always seem really great because there’s never any problems… and then I come home, and you and I have real problems. I’m tired of the fantasy because it doesn’t really exist… But I don’t ever seem to get tired of you.”

To translate: “I do fantasize about other women. We do have problems. But I still want to be with you.”

Now, that’s unconventional.

high fidelityWhen I watch this movie, I want Laura to be the perfect girl (confession: I really don’t like her much). I want Rob to be genuinely sorry and to feel like she’s the only one. I want the two of them to have a passionate conversation about how they did have problems but that having each other is worth all of those things. I want them to embrace as the perfectly chosen, intensely meaningful song plays in the background. But why do I want that? Because it’s real life? Of course not. In real life people stay real, and problems as deeply engrained as Rob’s and Laura’s usually don’t go away just because they care or because they miss each other.

We all just want to make sense out of life, and Rob wants that too. That’s why he and his friends find ways to make lists for every situation: favorite music for a Monday, favorite songs about death. I do it too. I have lists of my favorite movie kisses and my favorite actors’ voices, because at the end of the day there is just so much to process in this world that we can’t handle it all. We try to understand all of this incoming information in order to make some kind of pattern out of it that we can apply to our lives, so that our lives can have some sense in them as well. But this movie shows us that as much as we try to organize, categorize, and define, we are not going to understand everything. And even if we do become an expert in some area (for Rob, it’s music) that doesn’t mean that the peace and harmony of that area will have anything to do with other parts of our lives.

When it comes to love, an area of life in which Rob admits that his “gut has shit for brains,” this notion of uncertainty is particularly apparent. Let’s remind ourselves again, Rob proposes to Laura because he doesn’t want to have to think about the possibility of other girls anymore. This is ridiculous, we might say. This isn’t real. These two are with each other out of convenience and nothing more. They are together because they don’t want to have to think about being with someone else. How can they stand this? Where is the purity of love?

And yet, they do seem happy. Who are we to impose upon them our definition of love? Which, by the way, is (at least for me) hugely influenced by movies, and unrealistic ones at that; this idea that love only counts when it’s 100% pure and chosen above all other things isn’t reality. It hurts to see this couple together simply because they didn’t much like being broken up and they didn’t want to have to deal with anyone else but each other. But what’s wrong with that, really, if it makes them happy? Is that definition of love- “I’m tired of everything else… but I don’t ever seem to get tired of you” any better than “to love is to suffer” or “love means never having to say you’re sorry?” Both of those definitions sound a bit disastrous to me as well. So, High Fidelity didn’t go along with the cinematically acceptable definitions of love. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Whether we like it or not, that probably makes it more right.

In high school, a highly philosophical friend lamented that there was no possible way to define love. I immediately wrote him off, believing that he just didn’t know how. Now, I may have to admit that he was right- with a qualifier. The issue is not that we can’t define love; it’s that there are so, so many ways to do it that they can’t all be right at the same time. High Fidelity serves as a totally glaring, completely necessary blemish on the face of romantic lessons learned from most movies by showing a love story that is dysfunctional, unreasonable, and possibly a bad idea in the most unromantic way. But it also gives the rest of us permission to have confusing and messed up relationships that don’t have fairytale endings. It gives us permission to not always understand our feelings or make the right choices. It gives us permission to be real.

John Cusack's iconic boombox scene in Say AnythingIt’s ironic that a film called High Fidelity features a relationship in which both partners sleep with other people through the course of the story, and in which the characters constantly discuss how much their number one passion- music- is full of both creators and consumers whom the characters see as total frauds. Where is the promised fidelity? I think I’ve solved the mystery. The fidelity in this movie is the fact that it refuses to be just another music-and-love movie (as much as we loved John Cusack’s iconic stereo on the shoulders moment in Say Anything). Its fidelity is not to love or to music or to film, although it teaches us a ton about all of these things. What we can learn most from this movie is that its Highest Fidelity is to nothing other than real life. Life is undefinable, unconventional, and imperfect- but it’s all we have, and High Fidelity celebrates that. To quote our good friend Rob Gordon, that’s “just good. Really good.”

The Switch: The Human Race

“Look at us. Running around, always rushed, always late… I guess that’s why they call it the human race. What we crave most in this world is connection. For some people it happens at first sight; it’s, “when you know, you know.” It’s fate working its magic. And that’s great for them. They get to live in a pop saw, ride the express train. But that’s not the way it really works. For the rest of us it’s a bit less romantic. It’s complicated and it’s messy. It’s about horrible timing and fumbled opportunities and not being able to say what you need to say when you need to say it. At least that’s the way it was for me.”

This is the opening narration of The Switch (2010), a movie that explores what it means to take control of your life. When things aren’t going the way you want them to, is it better to take charge? Or should you be still and at peace with the idea that something will happen for you eventually? The main characters of the story, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) and Wally (Jason Bateman), are two best friends who couldn’t disagree more in this matter. While neurotic, pessimistic Wally tends to run when life makes big moves, Kassie is obsessed with making them herself. The story centers around her decision, as a woman in her thirties, to have a baby via artificial insemination. She has no partner, but is sick of waiting for life to give her one.

Wally tries to convince Kassie that people should only have so much control over their own lives, that humans can’t be trusted to take our lives into our own hands. But headstrong and stubborn Kassie has her mind set. She finds a great guy named Roland to serve as a sperm donor, and throws a party to celebrate the whole thing. Kassie has followed through with her decision, but at a certain point even she begins to doubt herself. At this moment, though, Wally recognizes her need and gives her his blessing. For the first time in the movie we see Kassie truly calm. “You get it,” she says, and we feel what Wally was saying in the beginning monologue- that all we really need is that human connection.

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Let me pause for a moment and put something right out in the open: I understand that this is a romantic comedy. I understand that it’s a guy and a girl who are best friends, who clearly mean a lot to each other, and who are probably going to end up together. If you’ve figured it out by now, congratulations, you’re brilliant. But bear with me, because that’s not the point.

Soon Kassie is pregnant, and she leaves NYC and moves home to have the baby. Seven years go by and nothing changes for Wally; essentially his life goes on pause. Here we see two sides of the same coin: Kassie taking complete control over her life, and Wally sitting back and letting life simply happen at him, doing nothing to change it whatsoever. Neither one has found a relationship. Neither one has gotten that human connection. However, they do both use the time to grow; Kassie grows into motherhood, and Wally grows into a realization that this way of living isn’t working.

Finally, Kassie comes back with her son, Sebastian. The little guy is a weirdo: at six he’s a neurotic hypochondriac, tiny for his age. In fact, he has quite a bit in common with Wally- which is weird for Wally, who has no memory of the fact that seven years ago he blacked out and ended up switching his sperm for Roland’s, making Sebastian his child. Maybe weirdest of all, the kid has this fetish for picture frames. He collects them, but he keeps the stock photos, never replacing them with his own.

Let’s take a minute to look at this awesome metaphor. Picture frames symbolize the things that are important to us, the things we choose to remember in life. Sebastian, the combination of Wally and Kassie, collects these objects, representing the truth that- in their own ways- Wally and Kassie both want to make the most out of life. But Sebastian doesn’t fill the frames with his own memories. Instead, he keeps the stock photos. He’s remembering the memories of others. This symbolizes both Kassie’s and Wally’s inabilities to accept their own life; instead, they both attempt to move their lives in accordance with what other people deem right, either because they don’t know what they want or they can’t figure out how to get it. However, there’s also something beautiful about Sebastian’s keeping the stock photos; he appreciates them, even if it’s weird and different and, frankly, fake. Sebastian has this ability to notice the weird in life and take advantage of it, realizing that life isn’t what other people say it is. It’s what you say it is. Sebastian gets that, but Wally and Kassie have yet to understand.

When Kassie returns to New York she also reconnects with Roland, the official sperm donor, and the two end up dating, much to both Wally’s and Sebastian’s dislike. Roland symbolizes what life “should” be. Other than the fact that he should be the real sperm donor, he’s got blond hair and blue eyes, the perfect muscles, nothing but a smile all the time. He calls everything beautiful- Sebastian, Michigan, even Wally’s neuroticism. He always does the right thing. But there’s a reason I’ve seen this movie several times and can never remember his name, and it’s the same reason that Kassie can’t be with him in the end. He’s what life should be, but he’s not what it is. He’s too perfect; as much as he tries to get to know Sebastian, the two can’t mesh, and Roland cites the cause as Sebastian’s “rough edges.” Roland has no rough edges.

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Fun fact: artists scratch up pieces of clay before putting them together, because that way they stick better. They do this for the same reason athletes wear cleats, horses have shoes, and tires have traction. It seems a little backwards, but rough edges make things- and people- stick together. When one side isn’t a little roughed up, the other just slides away. And people are the same. Our imperfections make us imperfect, but without them we wouldn’t be real people. Roland is perfect but he’s not real. And Wally, with all of his rough edges, is. That’s why, for Kassie, he sticks. Roland constantly repeats that everything is beautiful. The repeated line for Wally? “You get it.” He’s rough, but he gets her, and that’s more important.

Unfortunately, soon Roland proposes. He says lots of nice, vague things about how Kassie has the voice of an angel and how she’s made his life whole again. At this point, Wally has had enough.

“I’m not like you. You’re not afraid of anything, I’m afraid of everything. I can’t even take risks, you know, you said it. But nothing scares you, Kassie, and I love that about you.” He tells her the truth about Sebastian, and he tells her he loves her. She slaps him in the face and tells him to get out of her life, but we see in that moment that his messed up, guilt-ridden confession means so much more than Roland’s platitudes, because Wally pinpoints exactly the relationship between himself and Kassie in an honest and vulnerable and perfect way. Simply, she takes risks. He doesn’t. Kassie is always well-loved and always doing what she should, and Wally frankly isn’t understood by a lot of the world. But they get each other, and he loves her for it.

And so. Montage of Kassie, Wally, and Sebastian all going about life in the way that they should but gleaning no pleasure from it, until one unimportant day, when Kassie shows up at Wally’s work. “I couldn’t go through with it,” she says when Wally asks about Roland. Why?

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He’s not you.

The premise of accidentally switching the sperm is clever, as is the fact that Kassie recognizes Wally’s quirks helps in the realization that really she loves him too. But what this movie is about more than anything else is the fact that life isn’t perfect, people aren’t perfect, and neither is love. Love may be infuriatingly invisible for years. People may have weird habits that drive us nuts. But what this movie shows us is that love isn’t about finding the perfect person, and life isn’t about having the perfect trajectory. It’s what Wally said- it’s all about finding that human connection. When you have that connection, all of a person’s stupid or annoying habits, and the broken road you took to finding them, become worth it. The bad stuff isn’t as important as the feeling that when you’re with that person, things are as they should be. So, yes, it’s funny that they actually get together only after six years of friendship and seven years of having a kid together who they didn’t know was their kid. But the most important part is when Kassie realizes that she doesn’t need the perfect life or the perfect man. “He’s not you.” Like all of us, she just needs somebody who understands her.

This isn’t a story in which the main characters change or “find” true love. This is a story in which people realize that life doesn’t have to look the same way for everyone, and we can only be happy when we’ve found our peace with that fact. In the beginning of the movie, Wally calls life a “human race.” Throughout the story we see characters who try to race toward life’s finish line, only to find out that they’re running in the wrong lane. It’s only right when it’s right for you, and at the end, Wally sums that up perfectly.

“Look at us. Running around, always rushed, always late… I guess that’s why they call it the human race. But sometimes it slows down just enough for all of the pieces to fall into place. Fate works its magic, and you’re connected. Every once in a while amid all the randomness something unexpected happens and it pushes us all forward. And the truth is, what I’m starting to think- what I’m starting to feel- is that maybe the human race isn’t a race at all.”