Monday, 9 April 2012

april 7, 2012

last night, i watched the tree of life by terrence malick. i spent a good part of the movie rolling my eyes at all the exploding plasma and volcanoes and steaming geysers and images of the cosmos, which were (indulgently) paired with the voices of various characters whispering their questions to god in desperate tones. it was a bit much. i remember turning to n at one point and saying, "wake me up when the humans come back." all the abstract imagery was over-the-top, but i found the family's story really compelling - if heartbreaking and a bit hard to follow.

the dad, played by brad pitt, is a talented, passionate musician who decided not to follow his dreams so he could better provide for his family. he spends most of his time disciplining his boys and yelling at his wife - totally miserable and full of grief and regret. at one point, his sensitive and artistically-inclined son dies - i think he took his own life? and it breaks the father character open in some ways. he questions his choices and, though he doesn't come to many transformative conclusions, he is shaken irreversibly by his son's death.

brad pitt's character reminded me a lot of my dad, who was a radio dj before he decided to be practical and get into computers. it's not that he dislikes programming; he's interested enough by it. it's more that he LOVED dj-ing. he loves music, and loves talking about it. it's a passion, just like his motorcycle. but, before my sister was born, he also gave that up. my mom demanded it - she said she didn't want to be a single mom because of something totally preventable. turns out, she was a single mom anyway - before either of her daughters reached the double digits.

i'm not sure where we get this sticky notion that it's a better service to your kids to only do things that are widely considered stable and responsible rather than doing things that make you happy. because, i'll tell you something: we were totally broke despite his sacrifice. the change in career didn't wipe out our poverty. also, after the marriage didn't work out, what was he left with? a career he's lukewarm about and two kids with whom he has no relationship because he resented parenthood. the initial gestures were in service to us. it's just that it wasn't the right kind of gesture to make; it didn't have any integrity. not in the sense of him continuing to be a whole person while being a parent.

at the end of each workday, i remember him needing a lot of space. i remember feeling like it would be a bother to him if i were to approach. i don't mean this in a self-pitying way...more that my analysis of the situation led me to that conclusion - and i think i was right on the money. i remember a level of tension, exhaustion, irritability and alienation in him most of the time - one that could not be explained by the demands of the day's work or our home life. i think he was carrying around a shit-ton of grief at what his life had become.

late in my teens, he once confessed to me that he felt like a gerbil running around on a wheel. at that point, he was in his second (and current) marriage, and he was having trouble sleeping. he said it was because he felt like the money he made would never be enough for her. he worried that he would never be enough to fulfill her dreams for their life. see how that's the same trap? doing the sacrificial thing without thinking about whether you're making the kinds of sacrifices that will allow you to remain connected to your individuality and personhood in the long-term. after all, being responsible includes responsibility to self - it's what makes long-term commitments possible. period. what's the point of a commitment if there's no person at the core of it?

i'm telling you about what my dad said to me that day because there were these sober moments of confession in the movie that reminded me of moments like that...moments when my dad caught up with himself and reflected on his life. they gave me hope about his ability to change. in the end, he wasn't able to gather the courage to take his dreams seriously and act on them. he wasn't able to become a happier person and change some of his worst habits and traits - which i maintain are primarily rooted in his unhappiness. instead, he indulged his chameleon nature and did what he needed to fit into the life he was living. he gave up atheism and became a catholic, gave up baseball and became a curler and - most bizarrely - started wearing a lot of turtlenecks. i don't think there's much left of him, really. if i knocked, would he even be there to answer?

mostly when i speak of my dad, i speak of his shortcomings - if he comes up at all. but this movie made me think about how much he gave up, and how much he shouldn't have given up. watching brad pitt's character struggle with shame and disappointment and feelings of inadequacy and disconnection gave me somewhat of a new perspective on my dad. it's good. lots to think about.

on the flip side, all of this is making me think about how many enjoyable things i've given up in recent years because the money or the time it requires is "impractical": learning to knit, making homemade massage oils and body scrubs, making my own toothpaste, taking singing lessons, farming with eleanor, playing music, camping, doing ritual, taking yoga and dance classes. the list is long.

i'm going to take this movie as a cautionary tale for the wrong kinds of sacrifice - the misguided kinds. i've already started inviting ritual and music back into my life, and i'm deciding, here and now, that the others will have to follow. in the spirit of side-stepping my father's biggest mistakes, i vow not to leave passion and fun behind.


  1. Beautiful. Thank you for this reminder. Much needed.

  2. I think my dad is a lot like yours. In the past few years, I've come to have some heartbreaking realizations about my dad. He was always a workaholic when I lived at home, and in the past year he's admitted to me that he now realizes he's spent his whole life working and not much else. That's why he's started travelling again, travelling that has nothing to do with work. He went to Nepal for about 3 months last year, before that he went on an ecotour to Costa Rica. This August he's going to the Yukon, next winter back to Nepal and to Africa. My dad also used to be atheist, but now he's exploring pragmatic buddhism, I think.