Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Film 'Boyhood': Reflections on Holding On and Letting Go

A date night with my husband Jim doesn't happen often.  We have fallen into our habits of cooking dinner together, followed by reading or watching a British television drama.  Sometimes, though, a movie or play catches my eye and I peek out of my turtleshell long enough to organize an escape from my comfy chair at home.

This week, we saw Richard Linklater's new film, 'Boyhood'.  I'd seen the word 'masterpiece' attached to the project, but it was the idea of a film being made about a boy growing up over twelve years that captivated me.  At first, Mason (Ellar Coltrane who plays the boy) is aged five and after 2 and half hours in a darkened theatre, he has matured to age 18.  Mason's compacted boyhood shows us ourselves and presents to us the richness of 'normal' family life.  For me, it was a powerful reminder that the entire moral universe is contained within the ordinary.

I am 59 years old.  Jim has retired from his demanding diplomatic career.  Over the past couple of years, we have learned hard lessons of trust as we tentatively put our son Nick's care into the hands of others.  Our daughter Natalie has moved to Delaware in order to pursue her studies.  Today, we are contemplating selling our family home in Ottawa in favour of a country lifestyle on the water about 20 minutes away.  As I look at our basement full of children's sleds, baby clothes and disorganized boxes of old photos, I reflect on the themes in 'Boyhood' and what they mean to me.  (Caution - there might be a few spoilers here.  You may wish to see the movie before you read this.)

Loving Relationships: Joy or Incarceration?

A young and beautiful Patricia Arquette (the single mother) explains to her impatient date that the babysitter has cancelled.  "Don't you think I WANT to go out sometimes?!" she wails.  "I have responsibilities!  I lived at home with my parents' rules and then I had babies... I have NEVER been able to just go out!!" Next, we see this young mother with her children snuggled into bed together (her date has given up and left) as she reads a storybook infused with an intimate, secret code of affection.

My book is called "The Four Walls of My Freedom" - the title comes from a quote by the American philosopher and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  In his diary, The Seven Story Mountain, Merton describes the moment that he entered a monastery to find spiritual enlightenment this way: "Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom."

Being 'responsible' for vulnerable loved ones certainly felt like a prison sometimes to me.  There were days that I felt furious and impotent with my inability to make personal choices or to act spontaneously... ever.  But I was always seduced again into laughter and optimism by the smell of my children's hair, the touch of their fingers on my arm or the whispers of their secrets in my ear.  These are ordinary ideas and experiences that mothers talk about all the time.  They are rarely examined in film, probably because we don't count them as important.  But, they are.

Holding On and Letting Go

Childhood. Adolescence. Adulthood.  Parenthood.  These life stages contain roles we constantly struggle to hold tight or to release.  The complicated transitions of growing up are closely examined in this film and made plain by symbols and metaphors.  As Patricia Arquette packs up her young children and drives away to a new (better) life in another city, the boy muses about their lonely collection of toys abandoned on the front lawn.  "They were not worth bringing with us, but they were too good to throw away."  The poignancy of the toddler's plastic basketball hoop left behind wasn't lost on me.  Boyhood is fleeting.

What are the meanings in our normal life transitions?  What objects can we keep to remind us of those meanings?  When we let go of our childhood mementos or our dependent relationships, what is left?  In her last scene as the mother, Patricia Arquette has broken free of her 'responsibilities' and her 'four walls'.  Her children have grown and gone.  But, what remains for her except old age and death, she wonders.

Normal is Noble

There was a scene in 'Boyhood' when Ethan Hawke (the actor who plays the birth father of the boy and his sister) lectures his teen daughter about contraception.  "Oh", I nodded, "here's the foreshadowing of an unwanted pregnancy drama."  But the girl didn't get pregnant.  Near the end of the film, the boy (now 18 years old) is driving down a highway on his way to a new life, apart from his family home.  "Right.  Get ready for the car crash." But it never came.  No, these are good (not great) kids living a normal life.  But here's the thing - normal isn't boring.  It's fascinating... riveting, even.  This film compels us to find the meaning in everyday life, specifically family life.

Recently, I had a conversation with a wise colleague in the social change movement, Vickie Cammack.  Vickie was telling me about an interview she gave for radio.  The host asked her what was required for people to survive and be happy now and into the future.  "Being intentional.  Intentional about our relationships and the way we live our lives," was Vickie's response.

I felt wistful at the end of 'Boyhood'.  I felt that perhaps this boy and his family had not be intentional and that their way of moving through life was like a leaf being blown by the wind.  Perhaps that expectation that fate will take care of us is at the root of our collective contemporary discontent.  I'm convinced that Vickie is right - we need to be more intentional.  What would 'Boyhood' look like with that overlay?  I'm not sure, but the characters in this film are a testament to the old adage that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.

After the film, Jim and I went to a local diner for tacos and beer.  Brown paper was the tablecloth and a couple of crayons invited us to leave our mark.  Jim scribbled his name on the table as we waited for our order to arrive.  I wrote 'Donna' beside his name and drew a heart around us.  Between our names, I crayoned the number 37.  That's how long we've been married.

Have we let our lives waft along unnoticed?  Have we spent time wishing to be apart, free and somewhere else?  Yes, I think we have sometimes.  But we have sought meaning in our daily lives too, and we've found it there.  Like in a movie date with my husband and father of my children.  People like us who spend a great deal of time caring for the needs of others are natural miners for meaning in life.  We exist in 'the spaces in between'.

My Mom used to stand in my bedroom doorway, hands on hips and scan the jumble of clothes and books on the floor.  "What is the meaning of all this, young lady?" she would demand.  "I don't know", I would tell her now.  "But I'll watch Boyhood again and maybe I'll have the beginning of an answer."
Pregnant with Natalie in 1991.

London, 2010

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