Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tales of the Purpose-Driven

Hugo Cabret and his father. Photo from Paramount Pictures.
I usually carry a notebook in my purse. When I feel inspired by a quote or a random thought, I quickly open the bag, pull out a pen and the book and scribble down in some illegible script what it is I hope I'll remember and refer back to in the future. But today I didn't have my handy dandy notebook.

Fumbling through my purse, I found a little slip of paper that was advertising our campus presidential elections. Since the campaigning was over, I felt it would be fine to scribble on that sheet without offending anyone.

So I wrote down an idea I'd had from earlier in the day for a blog post. "Tales of the Purpose-Driven," I wrote. I was sitting in a theater with friends waiting for a free showing of the movie Hugo. I've wanted to see this movie for a while, and though I knew I would be up quite late (it's currently nearing 2 am), I decided to go to the 10 pm showing anyway.

The movie had me immediately intrigued. Set a film in Paris, throw in some adorable children, have a rustic and warm color scheme and give it an added feeling of whimsy, and I'm all set. But sitting in my seat with my back aching and the rest of me freezing cold in the room that had the AC running slightly too strong, instead of focusing on just the superficial aspects of the film, I started growing immersed in the story and forgetting completely that there was anything else going on in or around me.

When I originally wrote the title of my blog, I was thinking about the fact that I've just returned to my work study job this quarter with the express purpose of having enough money by the end of the year to pay for a Disneyland annual pass. But while I watched Hugo (a movie based on the children's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick), I discovered one of the great coincidences in life - when something you've been thinking about internally shows up in a text you decide to watch, read or hear at random. It's the kind of experience that makes you truly believe in your own worth as a human being and that there's some interconnectedness that draws us all toward a similar purpose.

In Hugo, the protagonist who gives the book (and movie) its namesake has been orphaned at a young age. Though he was close to his father, learning from him the ways of clockworking and mechanical maintenance, when Hugo's father died he was forced to work alongside his uncle at la Gare Montparnasse, a train station in Paris. Hugo keeps in his possession an "automaton" that his father had been repairing, and discovers that the mechanical figure has some significance to a ex-filmmaker and toy salesman at la Gare Montparnasse named Georges Méliès.

Hugo then befriends a girl named Isabelle who, like Hugo, is an orphan, and with whom he shares a lot of his innermost thoughts, philosophies and insecurities. At one point, Hugo says, "Maybe that's why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn't able to do what it was meant to do. Maybe it's the same with people - if you lose your purpose it's like you're broken."

If you lose your purpose it's like you're broken. I started writing down the words as quickly as I could on my little piece of scrap paper. What I had felt earlier today, about needing a goal to keep me moving forward, was reiterated as plainly as day in this wonderful children's text.

I started thinking about how many other children's media texts have the theme of drive and purpose - specifically awarded to child protagonists in search of meaning in life after losing a parent or being orphaned.

At 10 I started really avidly reading The Series of Unfortunate Events books. When I picked up The Bad Beginning (the first book in the series), I couldn't put it down. My mom called me for dinner and for the first time in my life I refused to eat because I was preoccupied with a book. "Let me just finish this chapter!"

The Series of Unfortunate Events follows a trio of siblings - Violet, Sunny and Klaus - who lost their parents in some inexplicable, but devastating, fire leaving them in the possession of their "Beloved Count Olaf." Throughout the 13 books in the series, the three siblings go through a series of - as the title would imply - unfortunate events. But they also go on a journey on which they acquire knowledge about their parents' clandestine past and what could have possibly been the cause of their untimely death.

Part of my experience in becoming self-sufficient and goal-oriented began when my mom passed away. I was 15 and already on the way to knowing who I wanted to be, but the fact that I no longer had her around made me all the more anxious to please her.

I have a memory of my mom driving me past Cal State Fullerton in southern California one night. We weren't talking much, but out of the blue she told me, "I would be very proud of you if you went to UCLA. I'd be fine with it if you went to Cal State Fullerton." Those words really hit hard. I was always a talented student, but the idea that my mother might be disappointed about me not going to a top notch school struck fear in me. I wanted to please her, and the desire to go to a good university ended up coloring my own desires in favor of the same goal.

After she died, I wanted all the more to make a life for myself that would make her proud. I went to a good school, studied hard and made an overall effort to become a better person. All awhile, I spent as much time as I could trying to maintain whatever knowledge I had of my mother and learn as much new information as I could so that I might feel like I was still getting to know her even though I couldn't.

Hugo spends much of his time trying to repair his father's (technically Georges Méliès') automaton assuming that once he does, it will give him some grand insight into his father's life - that maybe his father had left him a message with the automaton. That theme guides his decisions throughout the story, even when - at the very end - he knows that the automaton itself won't give him answers, but that the people who made it might.

My journey of self-discovery came in a lot of smaller steps than Hugo's. Over the four years following my mom's death, I asked my grandmother, my father and even consulted diaries and clippings my mom had left behind to get some idea of what it was we shared as people.

I learned we were both interested in history. I learned we both had a weird fascination with the supernatural. I learned that we both learned the languages French and Japanese. Even though my mom was gone, I was establishing my own relationship with her through secondhand sources.

This kind of thing happens a lot for individuals who've lost a loved one - or perhaps never met a relative. I still frequently ask my dad to tell me about his Grandma Bertha, whom he held in high esteem, because I mourn the time I never got to spend with her and want to get to know her despite never meeting her personally.

There's a book called Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that I cite as my favorite novel of all time. The book, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is about a little boy named Oskar Schell who finds a key in an envelope with the label "Black" on it in a vase in his deceased father's room. Oskar's father died in the World Trade Center attack. After finding the key in the envelope reading "Black," Oskar goes all around New York to talk with every person with the last name Black to try and make sense of the key.

Along the way he learns about his grandmother and grandfather and their own troubles of immigration, romance and psychological issues. As I watched Hugo, I was constantly reminded of the Foer book (I haven't seen the movie yet). Hugo, like Oskar, is very advanced for his age in intellect and in skills. Hugo is a mechanical engineer of sorts, working with screws and bolts and nobs and other pieces. Oskar can play the tambourine and likes to invent. Both of them made comical, intellectual and emotional arguments that were stirring and at times very beautiful.

I felt a kinship with both of these protagonists. They both exercised wisdom beyond their years, and despite being fictional they made for very human characters. As a child I always felt that I was accumulating wisdom that shouldn't be given to anyone until quite a few years. Losing a parent can initiate that kind of early development. Part of my fast-growing maturity was characterized by creating a purpose in life.

Some of the best children's literature (and grown-up's literature in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close's case) teaches us how in the face of tragedy, finding a goal in life can set you on the right track to self-discovery. For someone who lost a parent at a young age, it's a strengthening message about the ability to conquer pain and adversity and exchange it for success and personal betterment.

Until watching Hugo, all of this was a theoretical argument. I'd never really had any concrete way of expressing my feelings about being driven toward a purpose. But watching the movie tonight, I was very perfectly given the standard by which to measure wisdom in a lot of other children's media and general media.

When I was scribbling down quotes from Hugo, I kept thinking about how much happiness I felt at being where I am and having a connection with such a strong and ambitious character as Hugo Cabret. Finding satisfaction is a evasive experience in life, but as a lot of our most favorite literature will tell us, it's the purpose we possess that guides us toward success. Even if that purpose is just finding clarity in our own loss.

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