Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 1 October 2017
The other day I heard this wonderful interview with Guillermo del Toro. (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/popup/audio/listen.html?autoPlay=true&mediaIds=1056055875898)
Del Toro is a Mexican-American film director, screenwriter, a producer and a novelist who has been fascinated by monsters since he was very young. He made one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, set in post-Civil War Spain during the early fascist era of Franco’s regime — the story of a young girl’s fantastical encounters with the netherworld. An excellent exhibit of Del Toro’s monster collection just opened in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Del Toro explained that he finds monsters to be very moving. Unlike heroes, they are creatures who are suffering. Monsters, like humans, are imperfect, fallible, in pain. We are closer to monsters than we are to the angels, he says. He saw his own difficulties as an awkward child in monster stories. Then he said this, which really struck me: Most every artist spends their entire life solving their first ten years of life. “That’s the forge in which we are created,” he said. “And then we spend the rest of our lives deciphering, disassembling and correcting the things that were done wrong when we were kids.”
I wonder if there isn’t something that might be universal in the way he describes the artist’s obsession with childhood. I’d say for me, it’s the first 13 years of my life that I’ve been trying to make sense of, over and over again.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve carried this chip on my shoulder that got chiseled there when I was an early teen. My family moved to a house that was literally a block away from Chicago when I was 9 years old. There I went to a small elementary school that went from kindergarten through eighth grade. Junior high, as we called it, was the seventh and eighth grade. For our last two years, we, the older children, took over the top floor of the school building.
Those two years were a nightmare for me. Maybe you know how it goes. Maybe you still remember. There was all the angst that comes with puberty and trying to make sense of your budding sexuality. In seventh grade the girls and boys played romantic musical chairs. One week you were boyfriend and girlfriend. The next week you hated each other. I cannot even imagine what it was like for the children who were questioning their sexual orientation or their gender identity. That was something so taboo at the time.
It was the height of the Vietnam War. Our community was very conservative. The majority of kids I knew grew up in families that were big supporters of Mayor Richard Daley and President Richard Nixon— except for my family. We were crazy, radicals who supported the peace movement. I dressed and acted the part with long granny skirts and flowing waist length frizzy hair. My teachers were liberal and they loved me. Which, of course, made the other kids hate me.
In the middle of all this, I wrote a poem about my brother. Nearly six years my senior, he was trying to figure out how to evade being drafted into the army. To my surprise, the poem got published in a town literary journal.
One morning at school, as I was walking down the main staircase, a boy (I’ll call him TJ) who was also in my grade, came up to me and punched me as hard as he could in the stomach — and he was a jock. It was the only time in my life I’ve been hit like that. I remember gasping for breath, terrified. “That’s for my brother,” he said and he ran off.
TJ had also written a poem about his brother. But unlike my brother who had managed to evade the draft, TJ’s brother had been recently deployed to Vietnam. Still, it was my poem and not TJ’s that got published. All his anger, all his emotions and fears were bundled into that punch. I never told anyone what happened.
TJ was the most popular boy in school that year. He and his buddies made sure I became an outcast. Most of the girls, including some of my friends, stood back and watched me be bullied. It was a miserable, lonely time and I shrank into a quiet shell. All I wanted to do was to flee that town and never go back. There were 80 students in our junior high. We graduated and moved on to a high school of 3000 students. It was easy to avoid my junior high classmates, and I did everything I could to graduate early. I was 17 when I left that town behind.
You could say I left and never looked back, yet I carried all those feelings of anger and inadequacy with me. I wrote reams of poetry and journal entries trying to make sense of those first thirteen years of my life. I reworked them over and over, remembering each of those fellow students as if they had never grown or changed even after decades had passed. The grown-up person in me knew better, but the young teen in me was still so angry at them.
Then, this past Christmas, I got a message via Facebook from one of my junior high classmates. “We’ve been trying to track everyone down,” she said. “It’s been two years now, and we’ve just found you.” She sent me a Facebook link to our eighth-grade graduation photo with a long exchange of comments that had been shared over the past two years. We’d all grown old — or older — with children who are now much older than our junior high selves (some of whom look eerily like our junior high selves). Memories were shared of our favourite Spanish and Chemistry teachers and the time we sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, terribly.
TJ was one of the first to welcome me personally. It seems we had all gotten lost in that huge high school, and for many that small, intimate junior high held more significance in their childhood nostalgia. For days over the holiday break, I found myself lost in junior high again, reliving all the old feelings. It was a huge adjustment to recalibrate my impressions of people I hadn’t seen or heard from for more than 40 years.
I don’t know what possessed me, but I sent a message to TJ. “You know,” I said, “You were the first and only guy who ever punched me.”
To my surprise, he wrote back with a sincere apology. “I was a jerk as a kid,” he wrote. “I hated school.” He went on to tell me that he had offered apologies to others. I wasn’t the only one. He told me of his becoming a police chief, and then having to retire early because of cancer, a cancer he still fights. He says he feels blessed to still be around.
All those years, all those memories that I have carried with me, that I have nursed like a precious scar that I didn’t want to heal, they all evaporated in that exchange.
Not long after, I got a call from another boy (I’ll call him Frank) — now a man — that I only vaguely remembered from junior high. “I always admired you,” he said. “You were outspoken. I came from a liberal family too, but I didn’t speak up.” I had no idea I wasn’t alone. We talked for an hour as he asked me about the process of moving to Canada to seek a better life for his children.
TJ, Frank and I are keeping in sporadic touch now. To look at TJ’s Facebook page, I’d say his politics have not changed much since we were kids. We’ve skated around the topic of the US presidential election. It definitely doesn’t feel like safe territory. But then he’ll surprise me by posting something like the speech from the mayor of New Orleans making a case for why Confederate monuments need to be taken down. “I found it uplifting,” he writes. “Everyone should read it.”
In another Facebook exchange about Charlottesville between Frank, TJ and me, TJ wrote: “Whenever I see the movie Flatliners, I so wish to be able to go back and change history or at minimum apologize for my wrongdoings to others. But it's life and the best I could do was move forward in adulthood as a better person.”
So, here’s my question for you. What are the unfinished relationships in your life? Who do you need to connect with to change your own views on the past?
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
Tout le monde c’est un pont très étroit, et la chose la plus important, c’est de ne pas avoir de la peur.
The words of the music you just heard come from the Rebbe Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement in the Ukraine in the late 18th Century. The world can be a scary place and it can be easy to lose faith, so all we can do is support each other as we cross the narrow bridge of our existence.
There’s a lot of unfinished business in our lives. There are the relationships that we leave unattended, the people we leave behind, or only interact with in very limited ways. We play it safe by staying away from taboo topics, or we excuse ourselves quickly when the conversation moves into territory that makes us angry or uncomfortable. We’re afraid to go further. We write letters in our minds that we never commit to paper and never send. Or we dash off emails that we regret.
When I’ve talked with people about the theme of connection, so often the stories that emerge are about the painful disconnections that happen between family members and friends. Sometimes we know why. Sometimes we don’t. I hear such longing for reconnection.
The bridge we travel is narrow. It can be frightening to reach out to our fellow travelers. There are those who want to build walls to lock us in and separate us from each other. But we live with too much hyper connection now. I don’t think that isolation is really possible anymore. It’s fear that drives us to disconnect, but we won’t be able to stay there for long. We have no choice. We’re going to have to walk this narrow bridge together.
I find hope in the connections we do make, however it happens, whether it’s face-to-face or through the tentative distance of social media. Hope is in this desire to reach out beyond our insular lives. Hope is in the desire to know the stranger. It’s opening our doors in the middle of a refugee crisis. It’s watching the families we’ve supported, Muslim and Christian, become friends with each other and with us.
It’s hard to believe, but at the end of November we will mark the full year that we have sponsored the Al Mohammad family. We have much confidence that they are successfully integrating into their new life here. Living across the street from them is one of the families that Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom sponsored. When the Temple’s sponsorship committee couldn’t find anyone who would rent to a family of seven, we recommended the housing complex that we have found for the Al Mohammads. Now the two families are friends. These are the everlasting connections that have rippled out, that connect us to these families and to our interfaith neighbours. So thank you to our musical guests from the Temple this morning. This connection we have is so important to us.
When you start to lose faith in humanity, remember these connections.
This morning, we end with a song. I’m afraid I’m probably going to embarrass the singers, but the story of how they came to sing this song together is all about the amazing connections that can happen when two strangers meet over music in a religious community like ours.
Almost exactly a year ago, Anamarija arrived here looking for a choir to sing with. She’d courageously come to Montreal to build a new life. She quickly found herself getting engaged with the church, despite the fact that the idea of going to church was so foreign to her. She ended up helping with the setup of the apartment for the Al Mohammad family and she shifted from alto to soprano in our choir because, well, we needed her to shift. In a short period of time, she became a beloved member of our community.
A few years ago, Maider found her way from the Basque Country in France to study in Quebec. By luck, she answered an ad to be our song leader and choir director. In the process, she has brought us an amazing and unexpected connection to Basque culture and music as well as a whole network of musicians she counts as friends.
A while ago, Maider and Anamarija made a deal. They would exchange favourite songs from their native lands with each other. Maider taught Anamarija a Basque duet that the two sang for us last spring. In exchange, Anamarija taught Maider a Croatian song. It meant each had to learn how to pronounce the language of the other and how to appreciate the musical sensibilities of each other’s traditions.
Today, we get to enjoy the fruits of this exchange. But the exchange is bittersweet. Anamarija's visa is up and she'll be flying back to Croatia in two weeks. She'd hoped to find an employer to sponsor her to stay, but time ran out. We can only hope that she will return.
Here’s the translation of the words of the Croatian song that Anamarija and Maider have chosen to sing:
God, give me eyes of a hawk
and feathers of a swan
so I can fly over the wide sea
and kiss my darling one.
The heart in my chest trembled
when you walked away.
You are in the middle of my heart,
just as a pit in a red apple.
Anamarija, you are in the middle of our heart, just as a pit in a red apple. May you always remain connected to this community and the many friends you’ve made here.
On this narrow bridge, we walk together.