The Farewell

L to R: "Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen." Courtesy of Big Beach.photo credit – https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/the-farewell-review-awkwafina-1203117966/

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..

Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.

Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.

Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.

Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.

I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.

Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.

I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s to the “Real”

 

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Merrill Farnsworth

As a young teenager, I began to realize that life was not always fair. That moment of realization is never easy for anyone, but my Mom offered the wise words of Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I have not been so eloquent in helping my children navigate the difficult days of life. I’ve normally told them that life really sucked sometimes. (Sorry Mom – I know you taught me better.)

A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend, Merrill, was in her last days of life due to breast cancer. I met Merrill one year ago, when she was assigned as my mentor with the Haden Institute, where I had enrolled for the two year Spiritual Directors Training. I specifically remember when I first laid eyes on her. I recall what she wore (she was a cool dresser), and the way she tilted her head. I knew during those first moments that she was the perfect mentor for me.

Merrill and I had a couple really great conversations during that first long weekend training. There were numerous points of connection with our lives, and she just really “got” where I was in my life. From the very beginning, I knew I could be 100% me with Merrill, warts and all. I could do that because Merrill was always 100% Merrill. She was one of the most authentic people I have ever known. And that authenticity empowered me to be the most me I could be. In thinking about her life and spirit in recent days, The Velveteen Rabbit came to mind. The children’s book tells of a stuffed animal who became “real” because it was loved. Merrill loved life – she loved creation – she loved to dance and art and poetry – she loved people – and she was as real as they come. And this vibrant person empowered others to be “real” because of who she was.

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Merrill died while our mentee group was assembled. We were together when we heard the news, and after tears and words, we chose to go to the stone labyrinth and journey its path. Merrill was a lover of the labyrinth, and especially encouraged others to dance along the walkway. As our group followed the path to our destination, a pileated woodpecker appeared on the ground just before us. After a few moments – just long enough for all of us to have a good look – it took flight, and then began making the cawing racket only this bird can make.

Merrill’s voice and presence were real, inspiring, and loud (symbolically!). She was far too young to leave us, but all of us who loved her know her presence will remain with us. She was the real thing, and I know many of us have been inspired and encouraged by her to be the realest we can be, too.

Here’s to the real – here’s to Merrill.