The newest Pixar wonder is almost a perfect piece of storytelling, combined with a real commitment to accurately portray the mythic world-view of the Mexican culture. It deals with a boy named Miguel who longs to be a musician while his family wants him to join their shoemaking business. He rebels, and that’s as much as I want to say about it, or as much as you should let anyone tell you, other than to say that it rocks.
We’ve spoken at length about the power of storytelliing on a personal or cultural level. They create perspective on the infinite complexity of life, and if you allow your heart to guide you, you will be able to glimpse the overall pattern of existence if you absorb enough gems from bards and griots from around the world.
I wanted to look at a tiny sliver of an idea in the movie, and that in response to sentiments I’ve heard that Miguel’s family was “abusive.” Similar comments I’ve heard over the years is that parents, or society, or school are “dream killers”, “creativity crushers” and so forth. That is certainly Miguel’s position at the beginning of the movie. It probably isn’t giving anything away to say that both Miguel and his family change over the course of the film.
But let’s examine that core thought, shall we? It is a common cry of the child, or the artist: “You aren’t supporting my DREAM!” WAHHH!
Remember that there are two ways to mature, to grow and evolve as a human being. One is “from the bottom up”. The other is “from the heart out.” Never, ever, ever from the head down.
My mother burned my stories. I was horrified, heartbroken, furious. How dare she. How could she do such a thing?
She was just trying to do her job. Poorly, yes. But attempting to do what parents do, regardless of how it felt to me. Of how painful it was to me. Of how I cried myself to sleep. No one understood me. No one supported me. There were no paths to success for me, and I was clear on the notion that if I couldn’t succeed, life would crush me.
“No matter what you do in life, you’ll have to work very hard” she had told me. “So be sure that you choose something that you love, and put everything you have behind it.”
I’d found something that I loved. And the person I trusted most in all the world told me it was wrong. OR impossible. I’m not sure which was worse.
“When I was ten years old, she told me “If you let white people see how smart you are, Stevie…they will kill you.”
There it was. I couldn’t follow a path that called to my heart. I couldn’t shine to the limits of my capacity without being killed–she had grown up in rural Georgia in a time of Klan lynchings, and was just tying to give me the lessons I needed to survive. Instead, she had boxed me in. There was, according to her, according to the lessons she had learned, NO WAY FOR ME TO BE HAPPY. Couldn’t follow my heart, couldn’t even shine and succeed. And if I did neither, I’d be crushed anyway.
Heads you lose, tails they win. THAT is what happens if you are cut off from the stories of your ancestors. They went through anything you can imagine, and in the stories told around the campfires, in the manhood ceremonies and in the communcal songs, are all the seeds of all the answers you could possibly want or need. And damn, did I need it.
I had no tribe to protect me, no path to success, no role-models to guide me. Anyone who wants to know why someone like me would spend almost half a century studying how to kill people, or that same period studying how to love himself and forgive others…the answer is in my attempt to solve that puzzle.
My father was a back-up singer for Nat “King” Cole. He had artistic dreams, and artistic talent, and ultimately his career failed. That failure led to the destruction of my parent’s marriage. Heartbroken, she put everything she had into helping me and my sister Joyce prepare for life, although she screamed at night from the nightmares of Universal monsters chasing her across graveyard landscapes of her dreams. The fact that these nightmares usually came after staying up late trying to make $100 cover $250 of bills is a coincidence, I’m sure.
Was she cruel to burn my stories? Hell, no. SHE WAS TRYING TO KEEP ME ALIVE.
It isn’t a parent’s primary job to help you find your dreams. It is their job to get you safely to your maturity, and in terms of genetics, to help you become a parent. Genetically, you don’t succeed when you become a parent. You succeed when you become a GRANDPARENT. A parent’s job is to become superfluous as rapidly as possible.
That means that you have to be sure that your children can survive without you. So they teach you the attitudes, values, perspectives that helped them survive. They give you their connections, pass you their connections, give you opportunities that they understand will help you minimize pain and gain pleasure. But mostly avoid pain.
That’s living from the bottom up.Survive, reproduce, control your environment to minimize pain…and THEN begin to ask what makes you happy.
First generation, sharecroppers. Second generation, storekeepers. Then teachers. Then doctors and lawyers. THEN artists. You have built a foundation, so that if those artists fail, they have siblings and cousins to help them with a safety net. This is a reason why it is critical that artists remember where they came from: their right to make a living singing or dancing or storytelling is dependent upon providing something of value to those doctors and lawyers and teachers and storekeepers and sharecroppers. Otherwise, they are just playing with themselves.
IT WAS NOT HER JOB TO ENCOURAGE ME TO BE AN ARTIST. It was my job to gain my survival skills FIRST. And then, if I had the heart, or the mind to focus my energies sufficiently to survive the countless bumps and disappointments and learn, and master my art AFTER I mastered the basics of life…if I could accelerate despite the barriers and chains and survive the sniping that MAYBE I could achieve escape velocity, escape the “gravitational well” of the multi-generational wisdom of SURVIVE, DAMMIT then I could BOTH raise my family AND create dreams that whispered “this is the way to meld your heart with your survival drives. Do this, and you have something precious to teach.”
So the martial arts for focus and fear
Yoga for energy and removing emotional blockage
Meditation for focus
Shamanic training for alignment with nature.
I refused to fail. Driven by BOTH fear and love, I took another step, and another and another. Did I make mistakes? Hell, yes, because I had no role models for the complete process. What was the biggest? Not saving 10% of everything I earned. That would have handled a vast swath of issues that were hiding in the shadow of the very success I won. Another story.
Mom wasn’t being abusive. She was coming from a broken heart, a world of fear, a desperate hope to give the son she loved the tools he needed to survive and be strong enough that, one day, I COULD show myself to the world without fear.
Christ, its been a long road. But I made it, Mom. I know what you were trying to do, the dreams you had for me and the nightmares that tore you apart.
If SHE had had a “Coco”…one that touched on her cultural experience, connected her to a wisdom stretching back a hundred generations…if we had been able to watch that movie together when I was ten…maybe, just maybe, we would have understood each other better. But we damned sure understand each other now.
I have very few pictures of you. But I have your ashes in my office in a green-tinged copper urn. And every day I look at it, and ask: “am I doing all right, Mom?”
And I swear I can see her smile.