Saturday, December 1, 2012

Exile and Redemption

What are the stories that move me? What common threads run through each book or film or real life story that makes me feel a different person at the end than I was at the beginning? What is the thing that stirs my blood and feeds my hope and helps me feel that there indeed is a purpose and meaning, if not to all of life, at least to a few?

I think it begins with a feeling of exile— from one’s parents, friends, lovers, culture, homeland, self. Then comes the adventure, the arduous journey with its missed directions, false paths, moving forward and then sinking back, dodging the arrows of misfortune or engaging the demons on one’s shoulders or opening the doors to the seen and unseen helpers. And finally, the moment or moments of redemption. The reconciliation with the estranged parent or child, the coming to peace with one’s self, the return to the homeland, be it psychological, mythological or literal. Sometimes the moments are like grand symphonic cadences, with trumpets blaring and tympani pounding. Other times, like a quiet consonant chord after much dissonance, a small gesture well timed or brief moment of genuine understanding. The weight of a lifetime lifted, the dark curtains momentarily parted, the crazed laughter of unbearable sorrow transforming into the joyful laughter of acceptance.

On Thanksgiving Day, I had an urge to see the movie Pieces of April again with my daughter’s family. Alas, it was not available on their Netflicks and we settled for Outside Providence, in deference to the place where she and her husband met and where her step-son lives. But today, we found it at the local public library and there it all was, my archetypal plot filmed with such humor, artistry, memorable characters and yes, a beautiful moment of hard-earned redemption. Along with classics like Black Orpheus, The Seven Samurai, It Happened One Night, Some Like It Hot, The Lady Vanishes, The Misfits and yes, why not? It’s a Wonderful Life, the film rose to my top 15 list. If you have never seen  Pieces of April or not seen it for a while, treat yourself. Don’t wait until next Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, the book I just finished, Little Bee, is yet another such tale. Much darker times ten, but exquisitely written and masterfully rendered by author Chris Cleave. And the exile, transformation, redemption theme runs throughout my other favored books as well. Just about all of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John Steinbeck and also in the living authors like Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Malone and beyond.

Of course, all this began in my childhood with the happy endings of the fairy tales and was also the pattern in musical works from Mozart’s Requiem to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. But alongside these classical archetypal patterns, new sensibilities emerged in literature and film that mirrored “real life.” Endings where no redemption can be found, where the homecoming never happens, where things go from bad to worse and stay there. And growing into the reality checks of aging, I indeed found it rare for the bitter man to suddenly turn to grace at the end, for a lifetime of abusive invective to suddenly—or gradually— change to sweet praise. In my experience, those who cause harm intentionally or unintentionally, who betrayed cruelly or ignorantly, rarely apologized or asked for forgiveness. Actually in my case, never. (But I’m not bitter and forgive them all. Well, sometimes.)

But none of that makes these stories one inch less inspiring or beautiful. And though rare, grace does happen. Sunshine lights up corners kept dark for years, a well-placed hug dissolves decades of anger, the ship comes to port with welcoming people on the dock.

May it happen for you.

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