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Tree of Life

I've never blogged about a movie - but then no movie has evoked so much thought, imagination and discussion for me. Through a mesmerizing array of dazzling images and a captivating story line, the ultimate question arises: why, with all the chaos and pain and cruelty we face, do we continue to believe in God?

The cinematography of

Tree of Life

is beyond stunning. I could have watched the movie just for its image. But the real purpose behind the imagery is its juxtaposition of beauty and destruction, of good and evil. And each image is a larger portrayal of the struggle of a young boy - and I believe of many of us.

The movie presents us with images of the chaotic and random beginnings of the universe and of life. One cataclysmic implosion begins the evolutionary process. One sperm survives and brings with it a particular life. An abandoned pet, ravaged by a horrible disease appears in this film, followed by a long, flowing image of a vividly blooming magnolia bush. A school of jelly fish float by and we're captivated by their beauty while remaining aware that their poison can paralyze. The ocean is serene... until it isn't. An animal lies helpless and we're certain it's about to be another animal's next meal, but the healthy one trots away without reason, possibly making room for the evolution of a new species.

This is the bigger picture of a particular child's life. Jack is born and knows only his parents' love and the simple desire to be good. "God, help me not to lie and help me not to be mean," he prays beside his bed. But new siblings arrive and Jack discovers jealousy. His daddy loves him, then becomes violent and distant, then tells him that he's all that matters, then ignores his little successes, back and forth, on and on.

"Father, you will always struggle inside me," whispers Jack.

On a particularly fun day swimming a child dies in front of him.

"Why should I be good when you aren't?" he asks God (for me, the most poignant line in the entire movie).

He watches an old man cross the street, and sees an emaciated man taken away by the police. Did his mother really give the man a drink of water or was that in Jack's imagination? How is it that one grows up an angry criminal and another grows up in order to take angry criminals out of society? And did that drink of water - if it was real - affect that man's life? We don't know. Do we ever know?

Jack sneaks into a home and does no harm but he's wracked with terror and guilt over his petty theft of an inexpensive item he finds beautiful and fascinating. The beautiful object swirls away in a torrential river.

He wishes his father dead then folds without resistance into his arms.

He "tortures" his brother as older brothers often do, but cradles him when he cries over leaving their home.

He "loves" the little girl at the desk next to him, follows her home.... does she slow down to let him catch up to her? The image vanishes and doesn't reappear.

Did this childhood moment affect him? Do all moments of our childhood affect us in some way?

What happens in the attic - a bare and scary and


room - and what does the image of the boy on the bicycle riding there in circles mean? I'm utterly fascinated by the constant juxtapositions.

"God, why can't I be go back to where they are?" Jack asks, looking at the trusting innocence of his two brothers. In the diary I kept at age nine, I wrote, "God, why can't I be good?"

The opening narrative of the movie draws us in: "My brother died when he was 19". Why this brother?

Of course we don't know that answer. And for me, that's the point of the movie and why it so resonated with me. Because while I don't believe in a traditional view of God and I don't believe everything happens for a reason, I have to ask myself the ultimate question:

I see both youth and death. I've known children who are disabled, children who have been raped, children who have died - and I've also known children who have been given the very best in life. I see the cruelty inflicted on animals and the pet who's smothered with affection. I've lain by the serene ocean and I've watched images of its horrific destruction. I carry the conflicts within me of those I love, lost the innocent connection with a God whom I once imagined destroying my demons, been stung by something that appeared beautiful, and survived foolish decisions alongside those who have not.

And yet in spite of all this randomness, I believe.


Hoping to discuss this movie with some of you....




Gift of Senility

Original post: June 7, 2009

This past Friday I learned that my mom, who resides in an assisted living facility, had been caught heading towards a busy and dangerous highway in her wheelchair. Within a few minutes of the incident, the facility where Mom lives called and said we had 24 hours to move her. When I heard the news, I sat on the couch and sobbed. Then I got up and packed my suitcases, as did my oldest sister, so we could head to Illinois the following morning to join our middle sisters to figure out what to do. With all of us in complete shock, we weren't certain if we'd even be capable of making a rational decision.

For my entire life, I'd had a tumultuous relationship with my mom - as had all three of my sisters. Often, Mom had been emotionally and physically abusive. My journals, kept from the time I could write, reveal that I'd continually struggled with confusion about whether I even loved my mom.

One particularly agonizing memory was the day my mom confided in me, when I was barely an adolescent, that she was in love with another man. I remember coming into the kitchen to get a sandwich and she, on the phone with "him", would lower her voice and ask me to go back to the living room. She taped their conversations and locked them in a small safe in her closet. At the time, I was certain that I hated her, mostly because I worshipped my dad. He exemplified love and kindness, and he adored my mother. How could she possibly be in love with someone else - and how in God's name could she confide in me, her young daughter?

The affair eventually ended, and my parents remained married for 62 years, until my dad passed away. And although Mom's relationship with another man left all of us scarred for a long time, it left her in a permanent state of agony. Mom had always been religious but after the affair, she became fanatically so, deciding that the ailments that frequently come with aging were a "loving" punishment from God. Thirty years (!) after her affair ended, with my mom in her 80s, she believed that her heart problems, osteoporosis and frailties came from a God who punished her to keep her moral.

Yet my mom, now 91, seems to have finally found peace and happiness through senility. How strange, I think. Some people forgive but may never forget. My mom, though, had to forget in order to forgive.

It has been the most bizarre gift my sisters and I have received. Although we've always been close, when my dad passed away eight years ago, my sisters and I disagreed and argued and fought. These past few days, though, as we've faced the agonizing decision to put Mom in a nursing facility, we felt a deep sense of connection, agreeing with each other during our largest and smallest decisions, and joking and enjoying each other as we worked. When I ran across old writings of Mom's and read them aloud, or when one sister would feel herself breaking down from the pain of having to move our mom to a nursing home, we'd step outside and cry together. No animosity or anger, not even a single disagreement.

When we returned to work, Mom sat watching us from her chair, smiling, peaceful, lovely. When we took her to visit the home where we're moving her to, the only decent option available in our small coal-mining community, Mom pushed her wheelchair through the sparse but pretty lobby, declaring she wanted a "clipping" of every plant (they're all artificial), stopping to watch the exotic caged birds build nests, and assuring us she was truly going to like this new home. In her own calm senility, my mom calmed us as a family, enabling us to do the unthinkable.

Most important, though, is that my mom's new demeanor has brought to my sisters and me a sudden adoring astonishment of her. Our family has always been extraordinarily affectionate, but today, we found ourselves taking breaks every few minutes to kiss and pamper and hold onto our mom. She watches us as we work, telling us how much she loves us, and how happy she is that we're here. I've never seen her so content, so uncomplaining, so peaceful. Her eyes glisten with mischievousness and delight. If we stoop over to pick up a napkin she's dropped, she looks at us like we've told her Publishers Clearinghouse has finally shown up. "Thank you. thank you," she says, looking deeply into our eyes. Her gratitude for everything we do for her, for all that we are, overwhelms us. Maybe my sisters and I have simply always wanted her love and acceptance and somehow, in forgetting so much of her past, my mom has finally become capable of giving it to us, fully and without condition. We're absorbing each other like sunburn lapping at a cool cloth, at medicinal relief.

This evening as I read through a few of her old writings, I came across a prayer list where she expressed her love for my dad, and a prayer that they might always be together. It was dated nearly two decades after she'd ended her affair. I found another in which she wrote of how proud she was of her daughters, and how she felt God had blessed her in a unique way with each of us. I clung to the letters for a long while as my sisters continued to work.

Tonight a friend emailed me that senility, she's been told, does away with everything that's extraneous in life, leaving only an authentic heart and core-soul of that human being. I blinked back tears because, since the onset of Mom's senility, it seemed that her deepest and kindest self had emerged and that she'd simply forgotten all of her pain and shortcomings.

As I read those musings from my mom, I knew without a doubt that she loved all of us deeply. And I know with the same certainty how much I've always loved her, too.