This week, I unwittingly waded into my emotions by seeing a sprawling movie all about feelings. It’s called “The Tree of Life”, by director Terrence Malick. I don’t want to give away the plot, and probably, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t anyway. That’s just how expansive the movie is. The upshot is it’s about love, loss, imperfection of the members of one family, and the question of faith in God or a force greater than ourselves. It’s a visual masterpiece. It’s pretty sad at times. And sometimes I hate that. I hate going back into my feelings or worse yet, when my feelings go back into me. It feels safest when I’ve expunged them…when I’ve neatly categorized them like a stack of clothes, waiting to be given to good will, put away in a long lost drawer.
Tonight someone reminded me that I’m being too tough. That my shell and protection is up and my heart hurts. It happened to be a friend in a 12-step program. One of the traditions of 12-step programs is that it is like “Fight Club”. The first rule of “Fight Club” is you don’t talk about “Fight Club”. The eleventh tradition of AA and OA are you don’t break your anonymity in press, radio, or film. But it’s nearly impossible for me to talk about my life without mentioning I struggle with food addiction and am a recovering alcoholic. The person I spoke with has been in one of the programs for a very long time, which can make him a royal pain in the ass. I can’t mince words here. It’s incredibly annoying when someone can practically look right through you to see your heart beating, then skipping beats. Frankly, it’s much worse than the latest TSA scan at the airport I had last month, where they had me put my hands behind my head, and I knew they got a look at my naked body on their screen.
16 years ago I lost a baby when I was nine months pregnant. About five years ago I came to some kind of erroneous conclusion I should be over it. But you know, my friend reminded me, you don’t really order your feelings around when it comes to that kind of loss. Watching “The Tree of Life” I was awed by the reminder of how vast the physical universe is and how temporary some of the people and items in our own lives are. The movie keeps it real. There are no perfect people or situations. The only most perfect thing seems to be nature in its majesty. But we know from recent news events, even nature has a tail that stings when it strikes you.
The upshot is this. I can’t order my grieving process into a bottom drawer in my dresser or bury it in a grave. It lives with me. But it is also what breathes life into my soul. Nothing has ever made my as horrifically saddened as the day I held the body of my baby in my arms. Conversely, 15 months after that, nothing has ever made me as ecstatically grateful as holding my lively newborn baby girl in my arms. It was the majesty and mystery of death and rebirth in less than a two year span.
The beauty of my conversation with a friend in the program is his ability to sit there, stone cold sober, and remind me my feelings matter and they need a voice. The exquisite wonder of the movie “The Tree of Life” is the way it evokes feelings about so much that has come or may come to pass in our own lives. Beyond that, it beautifully captures the breadth and scope of all things real and true in life and the universe.
There is someone I worked with briefly in a Los Angeles newsroom who would have really enjoyed “The Tree of Life”. I’m certain he would have given it rave reviews on Facebook. He died the week it opened, in a parking garage outside the newsroom. He was 42. I liked him. He wasn’t my best friend, but he was a vibrant light in the newsroom and a friend on Facebook. I know his co-workers, friends, and family miss him terribly and were shocked by his sudden death.
I certainly know I don’t have the why’s and the what’s of people passing so unexpectedly. But I do have the privilege of seeing art that is film and having someone to talk to…both which reminded me having feelings is part of the human experience. I’ve cried a lot this week and for that I am grateful. Feelings matter. Sharing them with others builds intimacy, and sharing them with myself builds character and opens some kind of relief valve.
I felt embarrassed crying in the movie and again crying on the phone with my friend. But that’s the way of it. And now I feel ready to climb back out onto a branch on the tree of life and stay awhile.