Another holiday season, another Disney Pixar release. Of course, given the pandemic, this is not just another holiday season and the film release was launched in our homes through Disney+. Bizarre as everything is these days, for me, the timing of this film and its meaning were perfect and significant.
The past few months have taken an emotional toll on me for various reasons. I did not write my annual birthday post, Thanksgiving post or Christmas/Chanukah post. I just didn’t have it in me. Isolated in my tiny NYC apartment, I have all too often found myself wondering about the future, where I want to be, and if I am now where I should be, or where I thought I would be in my life. With plenty of time for reflection, at least I can say that I have gained some new perspective. Soul helped me and offered an opportunity to clarify some of my thoughts.
In Soul, I met Joe Garner, who, in some ways, felt like a sort of literal soulmate. He is a music teacher in a middle school but it’s not where he sees himself (having taught middle school, I can’t help but relate to that and feel his pain!) Joe is surrounded by people he loves and who love him but whom he feels do not support his goals. Joe’s dreams and daily realities are in conflict. He sees his goal and purpose as being a musician in a club, playing with famous jazz musicians. He doesn’t see the impact he makes on students and the spark that he feels when they are inspired by music.
After an unfortunate accident, Joe is facing the possibility of death. In this kind of limbo, Joe becomes a mentor to 22, a spirit who has defiantly resisted becoming human. Essentially, 22 questions if she is good enough to take a leap of faith, go to Earth and really live. Once immersed in Joe’s life as their spirits intertwine, she experiences the beauty – memories, people, places- in Joe’s life. She feels a range of emotions that she’s never let herself feel. She responds to the passion that Joe feels when he plays music. She wants that passion but does not quite have her spark. Of course, some people go their whole lives without a spark, but 22 actually feels how invigorating and fulfilling it is to have one. She is scared but she wants to live. On the other hand, Joe is looking so far beyond his life that he can’t feel and enjoy the spark or see how in many ways he is living his purpose.
I can relate strongly to Joe’s frustration as a teacher. I’ve written a great deal about how caregiving is essential to who I am. When I was in that role, I did not always embrace it, though I did feel a great joy when I made my dad and Ben feel happy, safe and loved. I have sought that fulfillment since I lost them. I don’t often feel a spark in the day to day work of being in the classroom. I feel confined there, and always feel that there’s something more out there for me in the field of caregiving. I feel that I am meant to work with caregivers, particularly children. In my free time, I write, create and dig into other pursuits related to caregiving, with the hope that things will come together and I will move beyond the classroom. I criticize myself for what I am not doing, and for tiptoeing around my goals in the same way I tiptoed around life as I grieved. It took me a long time to realize that what I love about teaching is connecting with students in a way that helps them to feel happy, safe and inspired. When I noticed that there were many students who were also caregivers- whether for ill family members or to help raise their siblings- I felt so strongly that I should be somehow supporting them.
Last winter, not long before the pandemic hit, with my principal’s encouragement, I began a club with the premise of helping caregivers care for themselves, and I also invited all students who felt stressed and wanted to take some time to care for themselves. I let guidance counselors know about the club and encouraged them to talk about the club to any students whom they felt would benefit. Another aspect of the club was to care for others through volunteer work, within the school and the local community. I had a small group of dedicated and creative students but there were no caregivers. I lamented that I was not serving the original audience of caregiving kids. Not being terribly confident, I felt disappointed in myself for not making happen what I had envisioned.
My club was comprised of a small core of young women who enjoyed our remote meetings, particularly when the schools closed and they felt isolated. I was happy to oblige when they asked to continue our virtual club meetings throughout the summer. We conducted some virtual workshops for our school community and were able to do a remote volunteer project for a community organization. I am pleased that the club has provided a platform to nurture this lovely group’s creativity and talents as they design and deliver virtual workshops. It gives me great joy to work with these clever and compassionate young people and I am thrilled to see their confidence and public speaking skills grow, as well as their understanding of ways to care for and work with various populations.
Compassion and caring have shown themselves to be what many young people in the school want and need in their lives. This fall, more than 200 students signed up for our remote club. They are eager to reach out to and support other students. Club members were bursting with ideas of what we can do to care for the school and outside community, even with the challenges of being remote. They’ve expressed that they love the positive vibe of our club meetings. Before the holiday break, club members suggested doing “secret greetings” so that students would get to know each other and would receive holiday greetings. It touched my heart to hear all the thoughtful and inspired ideas. To carry out this idea, one of the students led a brief tutorial on a card-making program and the students had fun making digital cards and knowing that they were doing something kind for another student. The students are embracing the club as a way to learn to take care of themselves and others.
I have weekly meetings with my original core group of students to plan for our club meetings. This is not an obligation, but it is something that they want to do, something that they feel committed to and good about. They are proud of themselves and that gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction and joy. In the course of our virtual meetings, I have been happy to listen to the kids discussing their plans for the club and also to hear them support and cheer on each other through their school and life issues. I have realized that this a group of young people who are caring. They want to show caring and compassion to others. This feeling is spreading throughout our school in a different way than I envisioned but also an incredibly meaningful way.
There is a scene in Soul when Joe, who is actually 22 in Joe’s body, has a chat with Dez, a barber he’s known forever. The barber revealed that he had wanted to be a veterinarian, but his daughter became ill and life circumstances occurred, and he followed the path that led him to be a barber. Joe seemed shocked that Dez was doing something that didn’t make him happy. Dez disagrees, pointing out the ways in which he is happy, saying, “I may not be giving blood transfusions, but I’m definitely saving lives.” Perspective is so important. Joe needed it. I’ve needed it.
Sometimes life doesn’t unfold as we expect or envision. Of course, I’m not only referring to illness and loss. Things happen, and what we plan may have to shift, but we can also discover unexpected and joyful surprises that are still aligned with what we feel we are meant to do. Joe’s experience as a teacher prompted me to examine my own experience. Sometimes we have to look deeply at what is right in front of us. Within my teaching experience and now, with the expansion into my club, I am, in fact, modeling compassion and caregiving qualities that can support any student who is a caregiver and increase awareness among many students of the need to care for ourselves and others. I see that the club will help young people to develop and appreciate a sensitivity and sensibility that will inform their awareness of and abilities as caregivers. That’s a beautiful thing and it is the foundation of what I believe my purpose to be. It was hard to see the accomplishment when I blocked the view with frustration and a limited perspective.
I do tend to get caught up in worrying where I should be, what is going to happen to me and if I am enough to get myself to my goals. I put myself down about what I think I should have achieved and if I am good enough. I am still very connected to the past and I can get lost in wondering and dreaming but not necessarily stepping forward and living those ideas. I still find myself talking aloud to my dad and Ben and even asking for signs of their approval. Ben died at a young age, as did my mom- in their fifties- cheated of so much life, and that leaves me keenly aware of how important it is to value and take advantage of life, even when I feel guilty for having more time in this world. However, like 22, I am sometimes afraid to take a leap of faith and have the confidence to pursue some of my dreams. It is also hard for me to acknowledge my success when it occurs. I am not sure what I am going to do with the rest of my life, but, with the New Year upon us, I think it’s a good time to commit to really living every minute and having a perspective that allows me to keep striving and growing, but also to see and appreciate what I have achieved and how I am meeting my purpose, even if I still believe that ultimately, my purpose lies beyond the classroom. The crucial thing that tugged at my heartstrings as I watched Soul is that like Joe, I do not want to look back at my life and think that it was meaningless.
I love that music is integral to Soul because Ben’s spark was also music. He often said that music saved his life when he was a teenager. When Joe explains jazz in the film by saying, “the tune is the excuse to bring out the you,” I thought about how that statement would resonate so clearly with Ben. I will forever be moved by musical references that conjure such a deep association to Ben. His profound love of music led me to frame some of the sheet music he wrote for his arrangements. I feel very connected to him when music and/or lyrics make a strong emotional statement to me. Though it will not be apparent to children, the film’s use of jazz to convey the expression of who we are will be felt deeply by adults and music lovers. For me, the ability to capture in different ways the minds and imaginations of children of all ages is pure Disney magic!
Soul is an important and, indeed, a soulful film with the powerful message that can never be overstated- we should appreciate life and take advantage of every moment.
I wish everyone a New Year filled with good health, happiness and a sense of fulfillment!