The Thing I Like About …

… Baron the big black Labrador Retriever: the things he taught me while he was on this planet.

Baron started out on a brave road; his first owner’s mind was deeply troubled, and it was truly good fortune that led Baron from him to my friends. You might say that Baron was sort of born out of that difficult intersection between chaos and peace, and from that day forward demonstrated with every breath how to avoid the pitfalls of the dark side.

I remember my friends holding him when they first got him – swept up in their arms like a little baby (although even as a weeks-old puppy, he was already pretty big), and talking to him the way we talk to babies, as though they’ll understand. Of course, he did understand: You love me. Awesome! Unlike babies, Baron grew to his full size in a matter of months, becoming very quickly a hundred-and-twenty pound locomotive. He steered like a cow, but, like any freight train, once he was going he was going, and if you didn’t know him and he was running at you with his enormous mouth hanging open, you figured this was probably your last moment on earth because he was going to eat you. If you did know him, you figured this was probably your last moment on earth because he was not going to be able to stop or turn, and anyway you would be drowned in a sea of drool.

I do not believe that any scolding he received ever amounted to anything, because everything that happened before now was as lost to the mists of time as the names of the dinosaurs. Similarly, he remembered no hurt or transgression for more than a moment. Meals were likewise forgotten in an instant, so that it was always time for more food – including yours. You stopped looking directly at your plate of dinner? Yoink. You’re tossing out perfectly good Styrofoam? Yoink. Embarrassing things in your bathroom garbage? Yoink.

People would enter the house to be greeted by a tail wagging so hard that it could sweep them off their feet and possibly break a bone. He clearly felt that they had been dead since their previous departure, and he was ecstatic to discover they were still alive. “I’m so glad you’re here because I’ve never eaten in my life and you will feed me and if you don’t I’m so glad you’re here because YOU ARE HERE!”

He only retained the memories that really mattered: the whereabouts of his stuffed toy Duck-Duck, the whereabouts of nourishment, shaking hands and “going long” and other tricks, and love. And, really, the first ones are just a little division of the last one – everything that mattered was about love. And nothing wasn’t love.

If you were sad, he would sit next to you with this aura of “What is ‘sad’? Is it edible? Should I destroy it with the poison gas of my breath?” Ditto for anger, or irritation, or anxiety, or any sign that you did not want to be licked to death today – “I will eliminate these strange words with the poison gas.” The only sentiment was love. The only time was now. The only future was coming back for another potato chip.

But every freight train eventually stops, and this tail-whipping behemoth of joy was eventually called back home, and none of the complex things in our complicated world could prevent it.

Then another friend lost her grandmother, and, in my mental search for what words could possibly make my friend feel better, I imagined her grandmother walking into heaven, where Baron is sitting running at her with his giant tongue lolling out of his big ol’ head, waiting for her bowling her over in exuberance as he explains in his particular way how to put down all that crap she had been carrying all her life … all the crap each of us carries for all the years we’re here – the struggles and drama and accumulations and mind-games and acquisitions and failures and hurts and comparisons. For my friend’s grandmother, the days of carrying that stuff are over. For Baron, there never were any days like that.

But I don’t want to wait until I die, or wait until I come back to this world as a dog. I want to listen now, and really get it now, and put all that stuff down now. The only sentiment is love. The only time is now. The only sadness is when one of the pack has had to go home before we were all done playing the game.

Thanks, Bar-Bar. I won’t forget.

The Thing I Like About …

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: when Ragetti releases Calypso from her bonds.

Calypso is a sea-goddess imprisoned in the mortal realm; she has taken the form of Tia Dalma, a mystical sort of woman who helps the heroes on their journey. When the truth comes out about her imprisonment, Captain Barbossa tries to set her free – he stands impressively, his arms gesturing … well … impressively, and his voice booming with all the authority and power he can muster: “CALYPSO, I RELEASE YOU FROM YOUR BONDS!!”

Nothing happens.

Ragetti, on the other hand, approaches Calypso gently, and leans close to her, and whispers lovingly in her ear, “I release you from your bonds.”

This frees her from her bonds, and she is able to be a sea-goddess again.

Ragetti understands what we so often forget: love isn’t supposed to be a power struggle.

We aren’t made more powerful by trying to exercise power over our loved ones; we aren’t more useful to them because we are “impressive”. Our attempts to force are ultimately met by resistance, by contempt, and by failure. Ragetti knows that if we really want to show love, then we need to yield – not in a way that causes us harm (like “yielding” to people who want to hurt us), but in a way that allows other people to be who they are.

If we really want to show love, we need to be loving rather than forceful, because, at the end of the day, the one that was most helpful and most giving to Calypso was the man who accepted that she already had power over herself to begin with. By loving her instead of trying to be a commanding presence (with impressive arm gestures), Ragetti encourages something amazing and transformative to happen.

And we can do that too – if we’re willing to let go of the urge to control, to command, to impress; if we’re willing to release others from the bonds of expectation and power-struggle we’ve wrapped around them; if we’re willing to whisper instead of shouting.

If we’re not afraid to allow others their own power, then amazing and transformative things will happen, right before our eyes.

The Thing I Like About …

Matilda: she loves her parents.

Matilda is a very bright girl with a strong moral character, whose parents are … um … very different from her. They do not have moral characters. They are not concerned with their fellow man. They are more concerned that their children reflect their life choices than they are with providing a nurturing environment for said children. What intellect they have is spent in shallow pursuits and nefarious activities that, if they aren’t careful, are going to get them in trouble with the police.

Matilda does not like spending time with her parents. She doesn’t have anything in common with them. They’re threatened by her intelligence and by her scholarly interests. They are neglectful, and arbitrary, and have a tendency toward violent outbursts. Matilda works very hard through the whole film to find a way to be anywhere but home, because she doesn’t like “home” and she doesn’t like her parents.

But she doesn’t hate them either.

She tries to arrange things so that her father doesn’t get arrested for the stupid things he does. She tries to explain to him the difference between right and wrong, so that he can avoid the pitfalls of his own behaviour. When she finally makes a move to leave her parents behind, it’s with no rancour whatsoever.

It is her parents’ fault for creating such a wretched environment, and for being such wretched parents. But Matilda figures out – from a very early age – the thing that so many of us spend our whole lives trying to learn: you can dislike an environment, or an event, or a person, but you don’t have to hate people to separate from them. You don’t have to punish them for being less than you needed. You don’t have to dishonour the things they did that were good, or for which you are grateful (for giving you life, for instance). You don’t even have to be angry. You can just walk away to something new.

Depending on the situation and the people involved, you might try your darnedest to help them see a different path … but if they don’t get it, or don’t want it, or don’t hear you, that’s okay. You don’t have to feel discouraged, or like a failure. And you don’t have to stick around.

Matilda figures out that loving your parents doesn’t make them good for you. She figures out that “goodness” isn’t measured by how much bad stuff we put up with. And she figures out that, at the end of the day, no one is hurt by her moving toward a happier life.

In fact, everybody wins.

The Thing I Like About …

Mama: the kids don’t care what Mama looks like.

In Mama, a baby and her slightly older sister are left in a cabin in the woods to fend for themselves. Luckily, there’s a spirit in the house to help them get by – finding food, singing them to sleep, the usual spirit stuff.

Eventually, they’re found by an uncle and his wife, and taken in by this loving family … but they don’t want to let go of their spirit-mother, and she doesn’t want to let go of them. That’s when the spooky stuff starts happening for the family.

But in the end, it’s not really about ghosts or spooky stuff or any of that. It’s about love.

The kids – especially the one who was a baby when they were abandoned – have never really known any other mother, or even any other kind of caregiver. They received from this dire-looking spirit woman all the nurturing and love and comfort that they didn’t receive from their biological parents. They felt safe and cared for, and they love their spirit-mother. They don’t care what she looks like, or if she’s different.

Because it turns out that the best parent isn’t the one with the most money or the biggest house or the nicest clothes or the best toys – or even the one who can take corporeal form; it turns out that the best parent is the one who shows up, who cares, who does her/his best, and acts from love.

And it turns out that love really is in the heart – not the eyes, or the ears, or the pocket book. It turns out that, no matter what they might say as they’re bombarded by peer-pressures, advertising, and … shall we call them “interesting” … television “realities”, in the end children just want someone to take care of them, to accept them for who they are, to be there for them, and to sing them to sleep.

Maybe once you’re dead, you don’t have any of the fears or insecurities left – the ones that keep you from knowing what love looks like, or being your best self, or acting from the heart. Maybe that’s why a ghost turned out to be a pretty good parent.

But I’m hoping the living can figure it out too.

The Thing I Like About …

Noah: the fact that Noah is not perfect.

In the Bible, the story of Noah is a story of redemption. The world is purged of the iniquity of man, and only Noah and his family are chosen to continue the human race in the new, cleansed world. Noah and his family are chosen because they are not part of the iniquity – they are not “sinners.”

But, as we have seen for thousands of years, humanity is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Good and evil march hand-in-hand, because humans always have to balance their capacity to love with their capacity for fear. No purge, in the Bible at least, ever eradicated humans’ tendency to hurt one another, to feel anger, hatred, despair and other fear-related negative emotions, or to be tempted by greed, lust, and excess.

In Noah, he’s not perfect. He’s slow to anger; he’s not fearful of much. He’s a kind man, and a faithful one. He knows that he’s being asked to do something by a higher power that he’s not qualified to understand, and he’s happy to do it. But he’s not sure how to interpret the signs and dreams he’s been given, and he’s not sure of the purpose or the outcome. He has doubts and concerns; he hurts and grieves and struggles and makes mistakes. He can only do his best, from the best intentions that he can have, and he isn’t perfect or infallible at all.

It is he, an imperfect, ordinary man, who is found good enough to survive, to come forward and author a new chapter in humanity.

We spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves as a species – and we certainly have room for improvement in the way we treat one another – but, whether we follow a religion or not, it can be very frustrating to feel that only a total purge of our iniquity can solve the problem. Noah suggests that imperfect, ordinary humanity is exactly what we’re expected to be – that we are not inherently evil – and that the answer to our problems, to our struggles, to our doubts and fears, is not to run from them but simply to start over.

Noah is not perfect at all. Sometimes we’re even quite irritated with the way he’s interpreting his divine mission, and with his sense of hopelessness. But he and his family do have one thing (besides an ark) that the humans left behind don’t seem to have, and, when Noah realizes what that one thing is, he finds hope and peace and joy again.

He has love … and that and two months’ rations fix every problem in the world.

The Thing I Like About …

Moonstruck: the parts where her mother asks her if she’s in love.

Loretta has had “bad luck,” as she puts it – she’s a widow, and now, in her late 30’s, she’s decided to marry Johnny so that she can have that feeling of stability and purpose and partnership. Her mother asks her if she loves Johnny, and Loretta says, “No, but he’s a good man, and I like him.” Her mother says, “Good. When you love ‘em, they drive you crazy, because they can.”

Later, Loretta has fallen for Ronnie, and all of her plans and presuppositions have changed. Her mother asks her if she loves Ronnie, and Loretta says yes. Her mother says, “Well, that’s too bad.”

When we love someone, life can become complicated, as we try to intertwine ourselves with this other person; our happiness becomes connected to this person’s happiness, even though we can’t really make that person happy any more than we could anybody else. When we love someone, we give over something of ourselves, and it’s always scary, from the beginning to the end.

To settle for someone we “like” and who is a “good person” … well, it’s just easier, and simpler, and there really isn’t anything wrong with it. To settle is very peaceful and straightforward and fine.

But Loretta and Ronnie felt – or so they said – like they had been dead. And now they feel alive.

Does this mean being in love with someone will always be complicated and scary and crazy-making? Yes. Yes it does.

But you’ll be alive.

The Thing I Like About … [spoiler alert]

Maleficent: the part where she tries to take back the curse.

In Maleficent, the title character has plenty of reason to be upset with people. Her heart has been broken by someone she had trusted completely, and she blames his transformation into a jerk on the corrupting aspects of the human world (well, of course, so does the audience, since one of the movie’s themes was on how far humans can fall from their better selves in their search for security, wealth, and power). Maleficent turns her back to the world, and freezes her heart, and looks on creation with a bitter eye. We’ve all been there – and if we had had the magic ability to wrap ourselves in a bubble of thorns, so many of us would have done it. We’ve all been there – and even if we never acted on it, we imagined vengeances and retributions upon those who shattered our trust.

So Maleficent curses Aurora to get back at Aurora’s jerk father … and she says in this pompous, swirly-magical voice that she curses Aurora, and that no power can undo this spell.

But Maleficent watches Aurora grow up, and becomes attached to this girl. She realizes that not every human is corrupt, and that she has let her personal pain affect a loved one – she has herself become someone who hurts others, the crime about which she had been so angry in the first place. She regrets her anger. She decides to undo what she has done.

But the echo of the pompous, swirly-magical voice fills the room – no power can undo this spell – and Maleficent’s attempt to reverse the spell fails. In her bitterness and sorrow, she’s allowed herself to become as cruel and uncaring as the one she sought to punish – she’s become as evil as the jerk who betrayed her. The things she allowed herself to do while in the grip of this heartbreak had consequences that eclipsed anything the jerk had done, and which reached farther out than any emotion could justify. Her actions while in the depth of shock and despair had created a problem she could not fix.

We’ve all been there.

After failing to reverse the curse, Maleficent shifts quickly to making the best of the situation as it is. She commits herself to Aurora, to protecting her as she “sleeps” forever, to doing what she can to mitigate her actions and to show her love, however tardy, however useless. In the depth of new shock and new despair, Maleficent chooses love.

Let’s all try to get there.