Finding Dory: A Reminder to Just Stop Swimming

Dory and Hank

Turns out it’s not really the most air-tight plan to take half a day off work to see the opening of the summer’s hottest animated movie at 1:00 on an afternoon. Our effort to avoid a crowd backfired as the sea of children filled the theater. But soon there I sat with an arm wrapped around a tub of popcorn, taking in Pixar’s newest film, the long awaited Finding Dory.

Something happened about five minutes into the movie—I realized that we weren’t watching just a funny sequel about the forgetful blue tang that we’ve loved for years. We were watching a movie about disability. And it made me feel like a jerk for laughing at Dory’s “natural blue” tendencies all this time.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Dory has a long history of memory issues—a sort of mental handicap. “I have short-term remembery loss,” she tells people when introducing herself—a warning, an apology, a label, a plea for patience and help, her identity.

After becoming separated from her parents, Dory searches for a new friend—someone she can depend on. But her search turns up one creature after another unwilling to be her dorsal fin to lean on—that is, until she collides with a frantic Marlin, chasing a boat and looking for his son. Of course this is where Finding Nemo picks up; Finding Dory really begins after Nemo has been found and Dory is living where Nemo and Marlin can look after her.

When an accident almost costs Nemo his life, up-tight Marlin snaps back into his over-protective, over-reactive ways and tells Dory that all she’s good for is forgetting things. Like most good titles, Finding Dory probes deeper, past a mere search for a fish lost in the ocean. Marlin’s accusation sets in motion the details that will launch Dory’s journey toward remembering the past she can’t recall and thereby finding herself.

The theme of overcoming disabilities isn’t entirely original, of course. Finding Nemo broached this topic through Nemo’s “lucky” fin and Gil’s mangled one.

We learn, even in the first movie, that Dory has found ways to cope with her disability; for instance, she chants what she’s supposed to remember: “42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney” or “Two lefts and a right; two lefts and a right” (a method I use for my own bouts of short term memory loss).

But Dory thrives especially when she’s surrounded by helpful creatures: parents who never gave up on her and worked patiently to help strengthen her memory (in some ways the opposite of Marlin who shielded Nemo rather than enabled him), and Nemo who watches out for Dory and believes in her. When Dory is captured by workers at an aquarium, she meets new friends—Bailey, a Beluga whale with echolocation anxiety, and Destiny the whale shark with near sightedness who both offer their unique skills to aid in Dory’s quest.

Then there’s Hank, the septopus with a sketchy backstory (that I’m hoping will be fleshed out in his own movie or at least a short.) We don’t know why he’s missing a tentacle, but he’s not happy about it. All this misanthropic mollusk wants is to board a truck bound for Cleveland, to live out his days in the solitude of an aquarium (probably tucked under a rock like every octopus I’ve ever encountered). Hank is quite the contrast to Dory who just wants to find her family and get back to the sea.

Seeing an ideal opportunity, Hank strikes a deal with Dory—he’ll take her to the Open Ocean exhibit, where she believes her parents are, in exchange for the tag that the aquarium placed on Dory’s fin, which Hank recognizes as his ticket to Cleveland. Together, with Hank’s angst and Dory’s chatty optimism, they maneuver through the aquarium and into a friendship.

Like Gil’s tough love attitude helped Nemo overcome his self-doubt, Hank’s (albeit begrudging) assistance gives Dory the boost she needs to finish her journey. Even his somewhat disparaging comments seem to bolster Dory’s tenacity.

No doubt Dory is the titular character, but she’s not the only one who learns and grows. Through her shortcomings and perseverance, her friends slowly discover their own role in helping Dory and letting Dory help herself. In return, Dory encourages others to take risks and believe in themselves. And in the end, she even challenges the selfish cephalopod Hank to embrace the world (presumably with all remaining seven arms).

Finding Dory is a good reminder for us to be patient and willing to support others who might have limitations or even those who just need a little guidance and care. But maybe more importantly, Dory’s tale reveals the influence we all have on one another, even, or maybe especially, those with disabilities.

At the end of the story, Marlin apologizes for his short temper and misgivings of Dory—he apologizes for not being a better friend. After seeing what Dory is capable of, he’s ashamed of himself for ever doubting her. Maybe he’s ashamed of how much stronger Dory is than he is. But the nice thing is that no one bashed Marlin, no one guilted him into apologizing or started picketing for Dory’s rights as a disabled person or quibbled with him about terminology and equality. Dory was, herself, the impetus that made Marlin realize his error. Her courage and tenacity humbled him, her actions speaking louder than angry, entitled words.  (This was also a good reminder, by the way, that we don’t always overcome our flaws overnight. Like Marlin apologizing for his short temper with Dory, a trait carried over from Finding Nemo, becoming a better person is a constant practice of making good choices, apologizing when we don’t, and trying again.)

There’s a lot to take away from Finding Dory,* new lessons and challenging themes along with some familiar mantras such as “just keep swimming.” But the larger message isn’t so much to just keep swimming, but to stop swimming and help or cheer on someone who needs what we have to offer—and to be open to what they have to offer us in return.

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*There’s a lot to take away and people certainly have. Check out the many articles that are circulating on this topic of Dory and disabilities. Here are just three that I found compelling.

Author’s Note: Remember, Dory and Marlin are beautiful creatures, but they belong in their natural habitats. Encourage others to view clown fish and blue tangs in the ocean or in a professional aquarium.  For more info, read this article on the topic.

An Elephant Never Forgets

 

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A photo of Joy, taken on one of my childhood visits to the zoo.

If an elephant never forgets,* I wonder if, when I went back to visit her two summers ago, Joy the elephant remembered me as the little girl wearing bushy pigtails, a striped t-shirt, and scuffed Velcro sneakers years ago?

Though other animal exhibits came and went, Joy served as the Greenville (SC) Zoo icon since 1977—twelve years before I was born. She stood, decades on end, flapping leathery ears, dusting herself with red dirt, and blinking her long lashes at visitors as if searching for recognition.

In June of 2014, I stood with my niece and nephew in front of the familiar enclosure. “She’s packing up her trunk,” three-year-old Ava echoed my mom who had just read the sign announcing Joy’s move to the Colorado Cheyenne Zoo. Joy’s move complied with the revised Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) guidelines for housing elephants, which required the zoo to have three elephants and to devote more land to their exhibit than the Greenville Zoo could provide.

“Say goodbye to Joy,” I told Ava who ignored me and ran ahead to look at the howling primates.

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My nephew and niece with Joy in 2014, days before her death.

A few days later, June 14, 2014, Joy’s transport was somewhere between Amarillo, Texas, and Colorado Springs when her caretakers checked on her as they had done intermittently along the way. But this time, they found Joy on the floor of the trailer, dead.

Though the necropsy offered no real cause of death, online speculations abounded about negligence. I too had my questions. If the zoo hadn’t moved Joy, would she have lived longer? Had they really taken every precaution to keep her safe? But at the bottom was the question I face with each visit to a zoo: should Joy have been in a zoo in the first place?

As much as I enjoy zoos, something about them makes me queasy—seeing huge birds of prey confined to a perch, polar bears panting in southern heat, and elephants swaying on concrete slabs. (According to Jeff Kinzley, elephant manager at California Oakland Zoo, leg trouble is the leading cause of death in captive elephants.)

Recently, I watched a Capuchin monkey swinging from vine to vine in a zoo cage smaller than my bedroom. After listening to my zoo concerns, Laura said, “Just think of it this way: his freedom is a small price to pay for safety from predators. He doesn’t even have to find his own food. He’s comfortable here.”

She was right—while the monkey didn’t have as much room to roam, he was well cared for. Still, for a while, I resented her rationale. Freedom is never a small price, I thought, not for people, not for primates, not for any sentient thing. No matter how comfortable or convenient captivity may be, surely it’s no substitute for unfettered freedom. Surely nothing could be better than that.

Empathy fueled my frustration for the caged creatures because I understood the feeling of comfortable captivity—I understood it well. As a teacher at a conservative Christian college, I was paid adequately, enjoyed affordable housing, appreciated generous healthcare benefits. But I also put up with the limited freedom of rigid lifestyle guidelines, a strict dress code even outside of work, and a ridiculous workload. Even with the conveniences and comfort, sometimes my position seemed like a tiny cage compared to the life I would have rather been living outside those expectations. I wanted to be free to see a movie on Friday night, to wear jeans in the winter, to spend my weekends how I liked.

Many people daily deny the chance to take to the wind

Still, I stayed for seven years because I worried who would teach my students if I left, because my department chair was relying on me to fulfill my duties, because I didn’t want to snub a stable job. I stayed out of duty because I knew that someone else was depending on my performance.

Thousands of people the world over also stay, from the single mother of three who works all hours to keep her family fed, to the caregivers of disabled loved ones, to the president of the United States who submits his freedom to the austere duties of his office. Many people daily deny the chance to take to the wind because they acknowledge that a greater cause than themselves exists—a chance to affect someone else’s life.

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After Joy died, I began researching her life and her death. The zoo website called Joy an “animal ambassador—” not just an exhibit but an ambassador to us. Joy was working as a representative for all other elephants on the African plains. She died a dignitary being transported from one platform to another on which to represent every endangered African elephant.

Of course humans imposed that title of ambassador on Joy. She didn’t make the choice to stay in captivity. But during her time at the zoo, who knows how many middle school reports she inspired, how many questions parents and teachers answered about her and her home in Africa. After seeing Joy, who knows how many people became aware of monstrous poaching practices or of carcasses swelling in the sun, their bones picked clean by predators and their faces hacked off by poachers greedy for profits from the ivory tusks.**

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It’s been a year since I resigned from teaching at the college. For a while right after I left, I wasn’t sure how to feel: guilty, relieved, angry, afraid. Rather than the explosive freedom I imagine a dog feels when he’s broken off his chain, it left me looking back at the gates, remembering all the people who came to watch me teach them for seven years. There I sat in the wide open yonder, missing the purpose the cage gave me, the ironic freedom of others relying on me.

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Not all elephants live as ambassadors in zoos, of course. Most live in the wild. But it doesn’t mean they’re carefree. Caring for the herd, performing day-in-and-out rituals for survival, risking their lives to poachers—these are cages too.

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I’m free to do what I want now, and I’ve found purpose in new things. But there are still worries about the future, bills to be paid, school loans looming over me, frustrations at my new workplace.

There are dangers, duties, and destinies for us all. But I’ve come to believe that freedom, at least for humans, is determined largely upon our attitude, the purpose we discover, and the good we can do wherever we may be. There are prices to pay in both freedom and captivity.

Sometimes freedom is negotiable

Though she didn’t choose to, Joy sacrificed her freedom to teach us what, without her, we only could have learned second hand on Animal Planet and in National Geographic. Her captivity and death prompted some of us to rethink the issue of animal rights. In this ways, her captivity, though maybe not right, was certainly not in vain.

It makes me think about my own life and the things that make me feel trapped, the responsibilities and duties that tie me down. I wonder if sometimes a measure of freedom is negotiable if it means someone else might enjoy the freedom of knowledge, direction, stability. I wonder if through submitting myself to these restraints, I too can find purpose.

Animal captivity is not simplistic (and this post certainly isn’t meant to address all the implications of that issue or arrive at a conclusion), but it’s true that Joy’s life was no less purposeful because she was in captivity.***

It’s been two years since Joy died. And I want to say that, whether her life in the enclosure was right or wrong, I’m thankful that, through her service at the Greenville Zoo, she taught us about her species—and maybe even a little bit about ourselves.

An elephant never forgets—and neither should we.

 

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*Elephant memory is aphoristic for the strongest possible recall. And for good reason: an elephant can remember the way back to a particular watering hole year after year and can identify familiar elephants and people even after decades of separation.

**On May 1, Ringling Brothers performed their last elephant show, ending a 146 year tradition. Who can say if the elephants were truly mistreated, and it’s hard to find a moral conclusion to the question of keeping an animal in captivity purely for entertainment purposes. But I’m thankful the elephants will receive good care in a Florida conservation center and will be able to lead lives similar to the lives they would lead in their natural habitat.  Also, in other news, it’s nice to see Kenya supposedly taking measures against the horrific practice of poaching, by burning 105 million dollars worth of ivory!

***After the recent tragic death of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, I have been appalled by the pendulum responses—and quite torn in my own thoughts about the situation. Though I’m continually discouraged by the lack of knowledge or concern, especially in Christendom, about animal rights, how thankful I was to find an article and podcast in Christianity Today addressing this issue. It doesn’t give answers, necessarily—but it offers a lot to think about. I can live with that.

9 Ways to Tell Your Heart to Beat Again

“Tell your heart to beat again. Close your eyes and breathe it in. Let the shadows fall away. Step into the light of grace.”–Randy Phillips

The world is full of dark things—things that make you wake up in the middle of the night just to make sure morning has come yet. As Tracy Letts said, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”

Terrorism, political scandal, wars and rumors of wars, social tensions—and that’s just on a national level. Who knows what variety of personal burdens wears us down. Ailing parents, errant children, dwindling finances, shriveled dreams.

Some of us feel as if we’re just one phone call away from shattering, imploding, jumping the merry-go-round—we want off. Well, at least some days are like that, maybe more or fewer for some of us.

I’m a realist-melancholy myself. My life motto fluctuates between “What a world! What a world!” and “It is what it is” and “Life is good.” It’s a conscious effort to keep myself from rocking in a corner after a bad day at work or after daring to glance at a newspaper (and I’m almost inconsolable after watching the evening news).

Since our move to Goose Hill, I’ve noticed myself taking more deliberate steps toward happiness.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely, miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

—Agatha Christie

For all the darkness, God gave us abundant light. I’m grateful for the words He left us, their promises and comfort. He takes our burdens and cares about our needs.* But even beyond the pages of scripture, He’s poured out goodness to help us overcome the gloom. I’m talking about those things which remind you to “tell your heart to beat again.”**

Though it’s nothing earth shattering (thank goodness), here’s a list of things that help me to stay grounded. Maybe they’ll also help you to remember that life will keep going even after your bad day or week or season or year.

  • Tend a garden. It’s Laura’s dream to have a vegetable garden (and my dream to throw watermelon rinds and tomato slices out my back door into the compost pile). But for now, we settle for a patio herb garden. It’s comforting to look out and see the cilantro and lavender, chives and rosemary inching their way toward the sun. Sure, it’s been a learning experience—we lost a crop of basil to a late frost and a batch of green onions to root worms (yet haunting Laura’s nightmares). But to watch something grow, to nurture it, and then enjoy the harvest is rewarding beyond measure. It helps me remember that to everything there’s a season.
  • Keep plants in every room of your house. Last week, Laura and I made a table arrangement of succulents—hearty IMG_3811little plants that will be hard to kill. But plants like ivy, bamboo, lilies, and philodendron not only cleanse the air of toxins, but also increase oxygen levels (which helps with a great many endeavors). In the dining room corner, we keep a peace lily, one of the many potted plants that my family received when my niece Paislee passed away in February. It provides the perfect reminder that life goes on, even beyond our grief.
  • Give nature a visit. We slam the door on restoration when we isolate ourselves from the great outdoors. Get outside at least once a week. A few months ago, Laura sent me an article about the health benefits of walking in the grass in your bare feet. Of course if I tried it here, I’d end up with toes full of goose poop and E. coli. If you live in a goose-free area, go ahead and sink in your toes. We weren’t created in a laboratory or an indoor habitat: God plopped us right in the middle of nature and gave us the command to get our hands dirty. If nature for you means taking a walk down an asphalt path among the dogwoods and erratic squirrels—well, take it.
  • Keep wildlife close by. For sure, the animal kingdom has a lot to teach us about ourselves—and it’s scads of fun to observe. Buy a bird feeder and watch the show. Don’t step on the ant for once in your life. Make your peace with spiders and other insects—you need them, and besides you’re out numbered.*** If you want an extreme encounter, buy a microscope and go check out a drop of pond water. Watching wildlife do its thing can be absolutely horrifying but equally as gratifying. In some strange and wonderful way it makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and helps put our problems in perspective.
  • Find a quiet place. This is the hardest tip for me to take.IMG_3852 I’m a busy person—with my hands and my mind. I’m a bit afraid of stillness. But I’m blessed to work close to beautiful botanical gardens. During my lunch breaks, I frequently walk through the paths to add a little silence to my life, to listen for what I don’t usually hear—the birds, my own heart, the rhythm of my body, warning messages my spirit has been sending. For you, a quiet place might mean sitting in the stairwell for a few minutes at your office or turning the car radio off on the way home. Demand quiet time and guard it. The world is a noisy distraction that largely doesn’t want you to think for yourself. But corner your thoughts and figure them out. Put a name to your frustration, a face to your worries, and then deal with them accordingly rather than stuffing them farther down.****
  • Surround yourself with light and color. My bedroom looks a bit as if it is sponsored by a cotton candy company—all pink, blue, and white. And I love it because the colors reflect the light. I’m also blessed to have our apartment facing west, so we get all the light from the day—all those last, warm drops at sunset. But even if you live in a windowless apartment, make sure you buy an extra lamp or two to keep it bright, and find at least one picture that makes you happy and brightens your space. (Like the eight-dollar, long and winding country road picture I bought at Hobby Lobby. It’s my favorite wall hanging to gaze at when I need to think about getting away.)
  • Enjoy beautiful things. Read poetry (sign up for The Writer’s Almanac emails to receive a poem each day). Read literature (the hard stuff—you know, the books that you have to think about while you read them. Stretch your mind beyond its comfort zone). Listen to instrumental music. Take up a hobby even if it’s just smearing paint on paper or stringing beads to make a necklace. Keep a journal and see what you have to say. Think. Learn. Create. Imagine. Share. Force out the darkness by replacing it with lovely things.
  • Find work to do. At the Oscars a year ago, Marianne Moore said, “A happy person is a person with work and love.” Whether she ripped that from someone else or made it up herself, it’s pretty good philosophy (though not air tight). My pastor once said, “We should be living for Monday instead of living for Friday, because Monday is where we find our purpose” And it’s true. Work isn’t a curse; it allows us to be fully committed to something greater than ourselves (even if it’s only delivering pizza to make someone’s Friday night a whole lot better) and to discover our potential and purpose. And at the very least, work gives us permission to think about something other than the things we can’t control.
  • Ambush yourself with things to laugh about. I believe Far sidein keeping Far Side comic books on the toilet. I believe in searching out comical animal memes. I believe in keeping a comedy in the Netflix queue (currently Last Man Standing). I believe in turning to the funny pages first in the newspaper. And most of all, I believe in hanging around people who appreciate my snarky brand of humor—and who will laugh with me and make me laugh in return. (That’s why I have Laura.) Laughing decreases stress, raises endorphins, and promotes healing and a healthy immune system. It’s one of the most enjoyable things you can do for yourself—and the quickest way out of a dark place.

It doesn’t mean I never have down days. Doesn’t mean that all burdens are an easy fix. It just means that these are my ways of coping with the bad news. Find your own practices and activities to keep yourself in the land of the living.

In fact, I ended on the uneven, very-perturbing-to-my-OCD-heart number 9. So maybe you could give me a good number 10! I’d love to hear about what keeps you happy in the comment below.

 

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* George Herbert discusses the theme of rest in his poem “The Pulley.” He said, “Yet let him keep the rest,/But keep them with repining restlessness;/Let him be rich and weary, that at least,/If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/May toss him to my breast.” God uses stress, weariness, or even despair to send us seeking the rest only found in a relationship with Him. But He also bestows good gifts (like those in my list) to remind us of the rest we have in Him.

**Lyrics from one of my favorite songs. The author (Randy Phillips, from the Christian music group Phillips, Craig, and Dean) tells the supposed story behind the song: “Finally the surgeon knelt down beside his patient and he took off his surgeon mask and said ‘Mrs. Johnson, this is your surgeon. The operation went perfectly, your heart has been repaired now tell your heart to beat again.’ When he said that the heart began to beat. When I heard this story I thought I’ve got to write this song because there’s so many people who have experienced so much brokenness to their heart. And even though God the great surgeon has saved us and repaired us, covered us with his grace, sometimes it takes you and me to tell our own heart ‘beat again, love again, hope again.’”

***Smithsonian states that there are 900 thousand kinds of known insects—they make up 80% of the world’s species. “At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.” Yeah, you’re surrounded.

****There’s a reason scripture tells us to take every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), to meditate (Psalm 119:15-16), and to think on positive things (Philippians 4:8). The Psalmist promotes early morning rising, and Jesus promotes restful getaways. Quiet time is probably a good idea, you think?