On the 16-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the audio apparatus on my five-year-old son’s seat was broken, so he climbed onto my lap to use mine, and together we watched Frozen for the first time.
And the second time.
And the third time.
If you are tempted to pity me, don’t bother. I may be the last parent of youngsters in America to welcome yet another hearty rendition of “Let it Go,” having willingly purchased not only the movie soundtrack but also the karaoke CD.
The context in which we first encounter a given work almost certainly shapes how we receive it, don’t you think? Isn’t there at least one terrible movie that you love because of how it evokes the circumstances in which you first saw it?
Even in the less-than-ideal viewing conditions — crummy screen, scratchy audio, trapped in a metal tube in the sky with a kid on my lap for hours on end — or perhaps owing to those conditions, and, even more so, the ones I was leaving behind, I was instantly and deeply moved.
We were returning from 18 months in one of the poorest countries in the world. For the entire (almost unrelentingly difficult) time, I felt myself to be under more or less of a gag order: conceal, don’t feel, and put on a show.
No one donates money to whiny missionaries, after all. And American Christians are supposed to come back from Africa “changed” and “humbled” and all the rest of it. I, frankly, wanted to get a haircut, go to Macy’s, and eat New York bagels with lox and cream cheese.
So when Elsa ascended the snowy mountain and let it go so beautifully, her pent-up talents — her very soul — spiraling in frozen fractals all around, I sobbed. That’s exactly what I want to do: stop hiding everything that feels true, and make something beautiful from all this cloistered, silenced frustration.
To be told, even implicitly, that your sense of a situation — your intuition, your perception — is all wrong, or, if not wrong, then too shameful to be spoken of openly, does damage to a spirit. In concealing, in trying not to feel, I was successful — too successful. I could feel nothing.
Not hunger. Not joy. Not even, without effort, love. I found that in not telling the truth I had very little to say about anything else. Isn’t that what happens when we numb out? In numbing pain, do we not also numb joy? In marking some truths as unspeakable, we may find that we lose our voices entirely.
This therapeutic language, this unabashed love for a Disney princess movie– these things do not come naturally to me. If pressed I identify as more or less Episcopalian, meaning that I’ve been lurking in Episcopal churches most of my adult life. I like speaking my faith through the responses in The Book of Common Prayer. I’m uneasy with anything that sounds too therapeutic.
I guess you might say I’m religious but not spiritual.
Or I wasn’t, until the love of Frozen melted my Snow Queen heart. Or something like that.
Less than a week after that plane touched down in New York, I found myself at one of the larger gatherings of writers of faith, where I met several people who kept me from climbing into the balcony of the Muppet theater to join the curmudgeonly old hecklers who take nothing in earnest. And before I knew it, I was reading Brené Brown and doing a 12-step program aimed at “healing the artist within.”
Being, as I said, religious but not necessarily spiritual, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but the program has been wonderful. As is almost always the case, my graduate education tags along behind me, telling me to interpret it (and Frozen, and Brené Brown) through various critical lenses that all but preclude the possibility of a heartfelt encounter that may actually change me.
But the 12-step program — The Artist’s Way, for the curious — has done more to melt my frozen heart and helped me trust my own mind and sense of things than I expected. The backbone of the program is the morning pages. First thing in the morning (for me, that’s first thing after the coffee) you sit down and scrawl out three pages, utterly unedited and unfiltered, by hand, making an effort to tell the whole truth. Sometimes you write three pages of drivel, but more often, there’s some kind of embarrassingly honest confession in there, and you realize you have written the unvarnished truth as you see it.
(And then you look for a good hiding place for the notebook.)
What this program helps you do — through (admittedly corny) motivational quotes and probing questions about your childhood — is regain confidence in your own mind to trust your own voice and your own feelings. Much of it aims at advice that no less of an intellect than Marilynne Robinson has noted is one of the great impediments to writing. Trust your minds, trust your intuition, she urges her students. She herself has written and spoken eloquently of her attempts to free her mind from the constraints imposed from without and within.
Is it easier to hear and accept these words from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose intellectually rigorous novels sit on our erudite president’s bedside table than to take them, albeit in a popularized form, from an originally self-published, self-help book? If you’re a snob like me, of course it is, just as it’s easier (for me, at least) to use my graduate school education to dismantle Frozen with a variety of critical tools instead of letting it melt my chilly heart.
Frozen, The Artist’s Way, and Brené Brown — not exactly the conversational partners, much less the gurus, that this religious but not spiritual pseudo-Episcopalian skeptic would choose. But they found me, and I suppose I’m enough of a believer to regard that as providential.
If they should find you at a point when there’s a chink in your armor, I hope (and heck, I’ll even pray) that they’ll help you “let it go’ (whatever ‘it’ is), too.
Image via Shutterstock.