I have regarded Darren Aronofsky as my favorite director for 20 years. He competes in a space that he shares with provocateur directors such as Lars Von Trier and David Lynch but I have an affinity with his films, unlike the others. The first of his films I saw was Pi when I was about 17 years old. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Subliminal glory between the lines of brutalizing flesh. And every film of his after wrestles with threadbare flesh trying to make contact with glory.
His most recent incarnation The Whale grapples with this same universal and persistent question that is the substance of all his films; what is the meaning of all this?
It’s no coincidence that I have such an affinity with an Atheist Jew who can’t resist existential questions that have spiritual overtones. He and I, or at least his art and I, have the same curiosities, wrestle with the same nagging life pangs, both wish for truth to break through the veneer. The caged bird does indeed sing. We’re all caged inside our flesh, our vices, our peccadilloes. The spirit is caged inside the body.
There is a scene when the missionary, Thomas, discovers Charlie’s lover’s Bible and the passage under Roman’s 8:13 is highlighted.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
The Whale is the most acute examination of the body as a cage that Aronofsky has explored to this point. The film is a slow burn. It is quite a passive film compared to Aronofsky’s last film mother! that was frantic chaos. The passivity is purposeful. Charlie puts up no resistance to the fate of each day. He is Superman at weathering blows. The few loved ones in his life, at first sight, are uncomfortably abusive. We, the audience, can’t believe the cruelty.
There is a scene where his estranged daughter manipulates morbidly obese Charlie into getting to his feet and walking to her that reminded me of a perversion of Christ’s walking on water. He ends up crushing the end table under his weight and flopping down into a devastating heap that is utterly heartbreaking. His daughter storms out the door in disgust.
There is another scene where we can infer that his daughter smashed a plate that had food remnants on it that Charlie was using to feed a bird on his window sill, the one creature who gave him comfort. Again, how evil of her. But there is more than first sight with Aronofsky films. We learn through its slow crescendo that the finale to this story is about freeing the caged bird. When that bird feeds at Charlie’s plate each day it grows dependent, it has no desire to explore, it becomes imprisoned in its domestication. The missionary, too, is caged in his assumption that his past is irredeemable. His daughter is caged inside her abandonment. Charlie’s lover is caged inside his religious hypocrisy. Charlie is caged inside his grief.
It was quite a poetic, quite biblical, ending. During the entirety of the story it is downpouring outside. The following is borrowed from Alissa Wilkinson writing for Vox:
“The real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. [The GOP primaries of 2016 are playing on tv in which Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump in Idaho where the film is set]. We know — everyone knows — that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining continually outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s about to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s going on beyond its walls.”
But in the final scenes the clouds break to sunlight. Weight becomes weightless, flesh walks on water and the spirit is freed from the body.
Charlie exclaims near the end that he thinks it’s impossible for people to be completely careless. Implying that our inherent nature, our instincts, care. In a world that so obviously perpetuates bad, is this sentiment true? I’m perplexed by this existential supposition. There is also Charlie’s obsession with honesty. He implores his students and his daughter to write honestly. Despite his own refusal to confront his flesh. It’s another perplexing theme.
But Aronofsky once again succeeds in creating a picture like that of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in which man is reaching out for the spark of life from God.
It’s July 20th, 2020 and I’m trying to think of a word that encompasses what the last 4 months have been like for me, what it’s been like for everyone in their own way. I haven’t met a person yet that hasn’t had to ride the pandemic wave (or is it a burn?) without some other personal deprivation taking passenger seat in this wreck. Whether it’s not being able to gather for worship or participate in the sacrament of Eucharist, having to postpone your scheduled wedding, having the unmediated care removed from your prenatal care and birth, not being able to have the support of family after suffering a heart attack.
Demon. Maybe that’s the word.
On March 16th I had been back to work for 9 months since giving birth to my son Wyatt and taking maternity leave. 2019 saw a financial setback since I don’t get paid leave but we planned for it so we would be ok with one lagging year. By the beginning of March the US had been growing worried about the coronavirus Covid-19. It had swept China, Italy, more of Europe and was starting to become a tenable fear. March 11th WHO declared Covid a pandemic. March 16th Governor Walz (and Governors of all the other states) announced the closure of 11% of the labor force in Minnesota. In two weeks a record one-third of a million workers filed for unemployment insurance. When I went to work that Monday the language was unclear and I still didn’t know whether my industry was supposed to be furloughed. At 8 pm that night I received word that I am not allowed to go to work anymore. The furlough was in effect until March 27th. I had to scramble to get my personal belongings from my workplace. How was I going to pay for daycare? How could I take my kids out and maintain their spot? It was a two week increment that left things unsteady and unknown, not enough time to make any big decisions because potentially I was back to work March 30th. Little did I know these small increments would expand to just less than 3 months. I immediately applied for UI. I had worked since I was 15 and had never been on UI before. I was a novice. Turns out I ticked a wrong box and was sent into an administrative Bermuda triangle. I was told my employers HR could not help me. I called the UI phone number relentlessly. At this point I have my kids home with me, I took them out of daycare as we all got our bearings. I’ll never forget those phone calls to UI. I would be on hold for 3 hours everyday only to have my call disconnected. My 3 and 1 year olds would be tearing into something or getting hurt or screaming or crying while I’m waiting to have word about the money that will pay our bills which is less than half of ones income if you didn’t know. For 17 days my UI was stalled. I didn’t know if it would ever come. I was hurtling, sanity first, into despair. I could not believe what was yanked out from under me and was still learning what the potency of this virus is. I was a puddle of mixed emotions. Disbelief, despair, fear, anger and I was forced to depend on an institution that was unreachable, that doesn’t know me, for whom I am an abstraction, a number, a case. I’m not even the worst of it though. In Washington State my sister was denied UI for 8 weeks. You see, out there they paid out $650 million in fraud to hackers armed with people’s data from previous breaches. In order to rein in the deficit they halted all eligible claims, income that people desperately needed NOW. It was starting to feel like we’re a cat’s plaything. To their credit, I can’t imagine being the “one in charge” of all of this. Obviously no choices were easy and that’s simply what they were, choices. Choices based on the expert’s best predictions and guesses. I studied the experts findings too. After all, these guys were informing the policy makers. I subscribed to podcasts, I would spend 6 hours a day watching the news, I logged into CIDRAP to study the studies. This is what led to the country boiling over, the experts didn’t agree. Dr. Osterholm disagreed with his colleagues at WHO and the CDC had a different opinion than Osterholm and…Fauci…well, the opinion was evolving and the evolution was impacting peoples lives in substantive ways. Osterholm admits that there is still so much they don’t know about Covid-19. He also admits that the policy makers have to consider the culture with which they’re imposing restrictions. What type of mores and expectations do Americans have? He also admits he saw his grandkids for Fathers Day.
This last point makes me feel really slighted. The last time I saw my dad was Christmas and I regret never getting a picture of him with 9 month old Wyatt. In fact I never got a picture of him with Wyatt at all. I thought I had time.
I didn’t get to see my dad in March for Wyatt’s first birthday because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad for Fathers Day because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at the hospital in May after a heart attack because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at home while he was, as I was told, recovering because of Covid. Then in June my mom is hospitalized and I don’t get to support her at the hospital because of Covid. Both my parents NEED advocates. The telephone game is not enough.
I thought my dad was recovering and he was actually dying.
I desperately wanted to see him but was told it is too risky because of Covid. I wish I would have trusted my gut and saw him anyway. My sister from Washington State had come in town to help care for our mom and she made a date to see my dad on Saturday July 11th. I have to admit I was jealous. I had wanted so badly to visit him during this Covid-demon. During their lunch he was in a real bad way. He struggled to catch his breath, he was literally freezing to death. On the drive home he died in the car. The day I was told the news of his passing, I had been running through the sprinkler with my kids and we were just putting kabobs on the grill. At least during the pandemic-demon there was summer and outside. While I was running through a sprinkler my dad was in the throes of losing his life. I got the phone call and was in disbelief again. Four months ago it was the loss of my livelihood. Now it’s the loss of my dad. I picked up my sister and drove an hour up to Cambridge, MN to view him one last time, to view him for the first time since Christmas. He was lying on a hospital bed with his feet relaxed to the side, shoes still on. I scooted a chair across the floor to his bedside and told myself “shh”, he’s only sleeping right? Overwhelming disbelief. I took my mask off and looked down on his face. The Covid-demon didn’t matter anymore. It had infected my life without infecting me and now he’s gone. Not from Covid but from regular sicknesses that have been taking people’s lives since the beginning of time. Death is a sure thing that no amount of safety will prevent. Safety may flatten the curve but what it did for me was keep me from the things I call life. It kept me from doing what I know in my heart is best. We’re all trying to do what is best for each of us and that is an individual thing. Someone else’s Covid story involves losing their dad to the devastating effects of Covid itself. Ironically my dad didn’t die of Covid but he died gasping for breath nonetheless.
Covid didn’t take time off even after my dads death. We were told by the funeral director that we could not publish the date and time of his memorial service for fear of attracting a large number of loved ones which would make impossible social distancing. We had seen a very large, public, indoor funeral for a person that lost his life on May 25th, hundreds, thousands in attendance, and I wondered doesn’t my dad who is also a valuable child of God deserve a memorial with ALL his loved ones who wish to be there? In our grief we pressed our foot down and the funeral home relented. His memorial took place in the Rice St. neighborhood he had carved a life in and at the church he went to school. During the Lords Prayer, with the doors open in the back on a hot sunny day, his biker buddy cranked the throttle on his Harley Davidson and I literally imagined my dad’s soul joining his Maker on the highway to heaven. The day moved me. You always imagine how losing someone will affect you, at least I do, but it’s out of your control. My body just wept and I couldn’t stop it. I think it was the mounting pressures and mixed emotions these last four months had burdened me with. This force, like a herd of bison, trampled over me. It had tarnished friendships, it had deflated my spirit, it had made me question how courageous would I be if everything was taken from me? Would my gaze be toward the Lord? This Covid-demon had shone me for who I really am.
By weak I mean I have the same nature affliction that John Piper describes going to battle with here. Selfishness, self-pity, blame, anger and sullenness. The Covid deprivation made me realize how dependent I am on the things of this world. Niceties, comforts, property, ownership, self-sovereignty, freedom, the company of other people. And how much I failed to lean into the cross. For too long, deprivation ruined me, reduced me, and laid bare my faults. And this was just the deprivation of American freedoms. What if it wasn’t just a deprivation but a brutality? What if I was a number in a concentration camp? Oh how weak I’d be! My mind knows that the things of this world are temporal but my desires cling to them as if life itself is only the things of this world. But life is full of the glories of God. Glory that is attainable even in earthly deprivation. With the loss of my dad under the banner of Covid I am going to battle with my faults again, may my soul prevail over my flesh.
When I think of everything my dad had lived through in his life from 1939-2020 I imagine all the major challenges and frights and losses he had and yet he never despaired. He seized the day as the old trope says. He really did.
May God equip me with courage, resilience and hope when everything is taken from us except our life and even when that last vestige of property is taken from us as well may we find peace in knowing we have our eternal Father who breathed into us the breath of life, found value in our existence and welcomes us back home.
One last immortal post script for my father:
My dad, Dale, was 42 when I was born, the last chance for a boy out of a handful of girls. God gave him one more girl- Teresa Dale. For the formative part of my life he was an excellent provider. Oil changes, boot-strap perseverance, livelihood for the family, a strong blue collar work ethic. I love him for that. But for the last decade he let us glimpse his vulnerability, hugs and “I love you’s” became important, timely. He’s always been so strong but this was a new strength- tenderness, graciousness, calm. The kind of resolve a man gets when he’s focusing his life on what matters. What it made clear to me is that I was just getting to know him. All his life his animated stories had outsized him and now I was meeting the man the legends are about. A man of nine lives. A man who should have written a book. A person, a soul. A father who always loved his daughters, even that one four decades younger than him. A man who dedicated himself to the honor of those he loved. A man who loved life.
He was proud of us four strong women, all girls, which is just what he needed. And even though I was just getting to know him I am assured that he lived a full life and that he loved us.
These are the must-haves and the didn’t-need essentials when you’re expecting your first baby. Of course it’s my opinion within the context of my own experience. Every baby is an individual person with different needs and wants. But I still think it’s a pretty universal starter kit from someone who had thoroughly researched baby items and scoured other blog lists on the internet only to find items I never needed 6 months into my first baby’s life. Now I’m on my second baby- a 3 month old- and, though they’re very different babies, the items that were useful still are and luckily I can reuse what I had. What a savings! Here’s the list:
Rock and Play (I needed this with Isla, my first, but not with Wyatt, my second. With him we put him in the crib for sleeping but for her she spent a good deal of time sleeping in this next to our bed. I think she needed the rocking feature more than he.)
Diaper pail and refill bags
Formula (start with a small sample to see which brands and kinds they like. My daughter liked Enfamil Gentle Ease and my son likes Similac Pro Advance. With both my kids I never produced enough milk so I had to supplement with formula.)
Baby swing (We bought the 4moms swing and have hated it from day one. It starts knocking and bucking when the baby moves so I would do something like the link this time.)
Newborn antiscratch mittens and the size up in case your baby is big. By 2 months you don’t need those anymore.
Bottles with various nipple sizes and ounces (nipple: NB, 1, 2, 3)
Baby carrier (I didn’t care for the Boba fabric ones. I felt like the baby was falling down.)
exersaucer (they love these when their core strength appears around 5 or 6 months)
Things that were useless:
Nursing pads (but I didn’t produce much milk)
Baby powder (Advised not to use by pediatrics now.)
Hoodies and t-shirts (Hoods get in the way and t-shirts ride up.)
Boppy (Although this did come in handy for my broken tailbone so maybe get one just in case.)
Rubber duck that reads bath temp. Just use your wrist.
A bunch of bath toys. Isla plays with 3 things.
I barely used our porta crib. Don’t get a fancy one. Just a container for sleeping is all that’s necessary not the mobiles and changing stations and infant convertible stuff.
A pacifier (neither of my kids used them)
Stuffed animals. Isla just started carrying those around at 2 years old.
Also, things you’ll want for yourself:
Lavender Epsom salts (a few bags because you put a whole cup of them in the bath for sitz baths that your OB will want you to take 3 times a day. How on earth will you find time? I have no idea! I was lucky to do once a day. Another tip: no more than 15 minutes in a sitz bath each time. You do not want your stitches to fail like I experienced.)
Maternity lounge pants (black) and maternity tank tops, a sweater, flip flops, maternity underwear (Black. Those mesh panties they give you are a joke. You can use your own underwear.) for the hospital.
Miralax (Colace did nothing for me and you do not want hard stool.)
I hope this was helpful and just remember that these items just make parenthood more convenient but they shouldn’t be intimidating or overwhelming. And also, babies are just the best!