I’ve lost track of how many of these I’ve written late at night, when I’m tired or otherwise preoccupied with some abstraction, unable to sleep until I put digital pen to digital paper. Like one of my other clichés, I am also on an airplane, writing into the dark night, currently off the coast of Nova Scotia flying to Paris.
My first visit to the city that Melly loved so much. A city that wish I was seeing for the first time with her. In so many ways she is here with me, everyday. A city that I will one day mythologize within the context of my own memories.
My mind wanders as I sit here. I go through my film phase, watching movies to kill the time. Tonight I was Call Me By Your Name. A film that put me in a mood to write about loss and love, a film I think should be getting more acclaim than it already is. I watch American Made, a film so pedestrian I realize that the draw of a big star like Tom Cruise is often all that is needed for people to spend money ahead of content.
I think about other films I’ve watched when I should have been doing other things. Somehow I land on Cast Away. The movie with Tom Hanks lost on a deserted island, where he is both dead to the outside world, but still very much alive and in suffering. A film where his closest onscreen costar is a gimmicky volleyball named Wilson.
This different direction has me thinking about the turns that Hanks’ character, Chuck, takes in the movie, followed by the wonderfully (if not saccharine) upturn as Chuck literally stands at the intersection of the paths presented to him.
Back that way is your old life, with comforts and memories but also pain and regret.
Keep this way and there is potentially a really good, engaging, and fulfilling life. But also fear. Fear of loving another. Fear of enduring loss again. Fear of what others will say and think. Fear of living.
If my memory is to be relied upon, the move covers five phases of Chuck’s life, with the potential for a sixth, just off screen. You may have to bear with me here. I don’t think I’ve seen Cast Away in 10 years, and it’s currently 5:51am in the timezone I’m traveling to. I’m lost over Greenland and I’ve had a couple of glasses of wine. So with that in mind, let’s recap Cast Away and metaphorically apply to life.
The first phase in the move is Chuck’s pre-crash life. His lives in Memphis and works at FedEx. He has a good at his career. He’s competent and proud. He has Helen Hunt, they are in love, to be married someday soon. They are together, and they will be forever. Chuck’s career gets in the way sometimes, but he loves it, maybe more than it loves him. He’s challenged, and he’s able to triumph because he’s responsible and intelligent. This is the life he thinks he wants. A life that he is very happy in. That he cannot imagine not having living.
And then his plane crashes somewhere over the Pacific.
Chuck has taken his first turn. He is now in a world of shit. He’s suddenly no longer smart, confident, and capable. He’s now a man who’s trying to apply the skills of logic to the illogical nature of tragedy. He’s soft and weak. Not unconfident but definitely challenged, and potentially not able to meet that challenge.
Chuck does what a lot of us do, he reaches out to the totems he knows. He discovers the intoxicating wonders of magical thinking. He sees Helen Hunt’s hand in everything he looks at. He sees her in the butterfly that leads him to the packages washed ashore. He iconizes a butterfly. He makes illustrations of the things he loves, of the things that are missing. He struggles, and in his frustrations the magical thinking helps him cope. He befriends a volleyball, because more than anything else, he needs the comfort of a closeness with someone, or something. He tries, and he fails, and he tries and he fails. Often.
Overtime those failures become the third phase of Chucks survival.
He is now two years on in the journey, and he is leaner and wiser, but emotionally desiccated. Chuck still sees his world as a challenge, and he succeeds for lack of any other reason than stubborn survival. There is no longer the joy of meeting the task, just the grim reality that the tasks are keeping him alive.
Chuck finds kind of enlightenment in this. A chop wood and carry water existence. His volleyball, Wilson, is still there. Wilson has also gone through changes that mirror Chucks. They both look feral, however there is nothing wild about them. They are now the least wild, the most realistic, and the most philosophical they have ever been. This is not life. This is a scraped existence. Chuck is a grinder.
The butterfly returns, and it brings with it a half of a portable toilet.
A disposable outhouse, yes, but also a potential sail for a raft. An opportunity to be alive again. Another turn, and now phase four, the shedding of magical thinking and coping and the fear of a future, with some fear to go with it. Time to jump into action, no more passive reactions. We learn that Chuck has tried to kill himself, off screen, but no matter, we have a new challenge ahead.
Chuck makes it through to the other side. He is rescued as he lays dying. He’s shed the iconography of his survival. Wilson has left him, as a child must let go of a beloved blanket, in heartbreaking fashion his volleyball floats away and he is too weak to retrieve it. The butterfly has also left, literally flapping away on the wings of a highly symbolic torrential wind.
Cut to Memphis, and Chuck is welcomed back from the dead, in an off-screen ceremony. He attempts to fit into the corners of his old life. He finds Helen Hunt, only to find that she has been on her own journey and has let him go. They try to rekindle their love, but they are both now different people. They are each now the most optimistic pessimists they will ever be. They have had to let go, and have in response evolved in their realism.
They understand that a life together again cannot work. With their parting there is still love, but also too much respect for what each other have endured, for there to ever be a future together. Overcoming the fear of a new future is one step too many in this phase.
So Chuck wanders. He experiences the abundance and desolation of the world with fresh eyes. He lays awake in a hotel marveling at how easy it is to start a fire with a lighter, an undercurrent of appreciation for convenience and a disbelief that modern conveniences are not appreciated is palpable.
In this fifth phase Chuck is comfortable once again in his clothes. He is no longer in the nadar of his realism, but he still sees the shadow of the minor keys in everything he does. He still feels the questions, without having the answers, but he is now accepting that he doesn’t need the answers.
Unknowns do not scare him. A touch of the magical thinking is there, but in a healthier way. He has brought Wilson back, but as a homage. He still sees the hands of fate in coincidence. Chuck now has a sense of empathy and gratitude in his life. He possesses a returning of joy and an openness towards the adventures of the future.
In this moment Chuck finds a new hope, and possibly a new love. In this instant Chuck opens the door to his sixth phase of his movie life, an optimistic phase used to close the film. As Chuck stands at the crossroads of the future, the quest now is to embrace this potential path towards love and happiness.
Embrace fear as adventure. The memories, real and imagined, as memories to be cherished. Above all else he has to embrace the realisms and understand that while it may not work out, that there will be both love and friendship no matter what happens.
Finally, and most importantly, Chuck must understand that this could be the second adventure of a lifetime. That he is luckiest enough for having lived one good life already; that he won the lottery already, and he now holds the ability to appreciate the possibilities ahead of him. That he may have someone that once again is worth placing a winning bet on.
I think Chuck buys that lottery ticket; and I think I should too.