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1918 v. 1984 v. 2021

“The monkey’s paw takes as much as it gives.” – Diana Prince

There’s a short story you might have had to read in high school, maybe freshman year of college. The Monkey’s Paw was first published in 1902, and is, on the one hand, a supernatural sort of thing kinda ahead of its time, and, at the same time, a cautionary horror story about what happens when we ask for, and then receive, exactly what we want. Anyone else’s desires be damned, the course of our lives or of history, too.

If you’ve seen Wonder Woman 1984, this might sound oddly familiar. Diana even refers to it, in that moment when she’s come to the awful, gut-wrenching realization of just how much evil the Dreamstone has let loose via people’s frantic, desperate, and often very scared and angry wishing on it…”The monkey’s paw takes as much as it gives,” she whispers, as she watches Maxwell Lord attempt his endgame.

I watched this movie on Christmas Day, right at its release, having signed up for HBOMax just two days prior in preparation. Because, well, I love Wonder Woman–as portrayed by Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot both. And I loved this movie, even as I realized early on it would be way different that the 2017 blockbuster.

Set circa 1918, in the last gasps of World War I, Gadot’s first turn as Diana Prince was absolute cinema magic. I paid to see it on the big screen three times. And I can’t tell you how many times I have watched it since. And yes, I cry Every. Time. she crosses No Man’s Land. (Gah! Was there ever a better moment for women in a movie?!?) It was the most beautiful and heartaching depiction of Love v. Hate, Good v. Evil, and the most gorgeous reminder that again and again, over and over throughout history, Love has won. Not without pain. Not without horror. Not without bloodshed and deep loss. But eventually and always, almost in spite of our attempts otherwise, Love wins.

December 26 media erupted with All. The. Feelings. about WW84. Much of it negative. At first I taken aback–like, did they see what I saw? I mean, sure, it was different…but a bad movie?

And then I wondered something…and y’all, full confession, I could be totally wrong, but I have this teeny suspicion that we didn’t love 1984 like we loved 1918 because in 1918, the enemy was not only clearly defined–damn Ottoman Empire!–but was clearly evil and clearly “other.”

In 1984, the enemy? Well, it was … ourselves. Our own agendas and hidden desires, some of them seemingly innocent, except for the havoc they wreak in the lives of others. Some of them straight up selfish and awful, and yet often born out of deep heartache and pain. Like dear Barbara, so brilliantly portrayed by Kristen Wiig — I can assure you, that every woman in the workplace, no matter her smarts or creds or experience, has felt looked over or dismissed, at least (and only if she’s very lucky) once. For her it had happened over and over. Can we blame her for wanting something so different for herself? Even with all the hurt it caused?

It’s easy to know where we stand when the evil is obvious and real and outside ourselves. But when it’s our own hearts creating it? Y’all…that’s a different thing in entirely. What I saw in WW84 was an exploration of what happens when all that has threatened us, both personally and communally, makes us turn in on ourselves and our neighbors, creating the perfect sort of space for pure evil to pure riot.

Fast forward to present day. 2021.

Shew….

There’s a whole mess of things we could talk about, no?

So…let’s take COVID.

We could have fought COVID united. Instead we’ve let it tear us apart, sorting ourselves into masked and unmasked, believers and unbelievers, when, way back in 2020, a little bit of shared sacrifice would have left us all better off and having spent Christmas with all our loved ones and in our favorite bars and at our favorite holiday events.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “rights.” I wrote an essay on freedom once, for a local writing competition, about whether it was a right or a privilege. I’d have to read it to be sure, but I’m pretty sure I landed on the side of a precious privilege (that everyone should have access to) that we must protect at all costs. For all of us. Far too many men and women–brave souls like Diana’s Steve Trevor, but in real life–died, so that you and I could have it. And yet every day we tout that freedom like a badge of selfishness. “I’m free, I can do whatever I want!”

No. That’s playing so small with something so sacred, something another person literally gave their life for. Something men and women and children all over the world are still fighting and begging for, scraping out existence in places we wouldn’t let our dogs live.

You’re free. To live and move and have being as you choose. And the ONLY right response to that is live your life so that everyone else can live theirs, too. That isn’t treading on your own freedom, not by a long shot, and I’m not suggesting we all have to be the same or believe the same or live the same or have the same amount of money or any of that. It’s bigger–it’s about making room for all of us to have the sort of life where there’s plenty of laughter and no empty bellies and no seething hatred. Where we are all finally and wholly loved and safejust as we are.

My favorite thing about the first Wonder Woman was her motley crew: Steve Trevor, the epitome of a selfless soldier if there ever was one; the Arab, Sameer, who really just wants to be an actor; The Chief, a Native American — maybe a hat-tip to code talkers, but either way, a fabulous character; and Charlie, the broken and often drunken sharpshooter who just breaks my damn heart when he plays the piano as the snow softly falls in a now-liberated French village. I feel like, in the United States these days, this group of people would have a hard time having lunch together, much less fighting a common enemy together. And yet–there they are. Saving us all.

I don’t have answers, y’all, but I do believe that our desire for change in this country begins with ourselves. And that means a whole lot less finger-pointing and whole lot more self-reflection. Michael Jackson wasn’t wrong about that person in the mirror. Your experience is not everyone else’s. In fact, it’s not anyone else’s. And we can only begin to understand one another when we admit this very real truth and set about honoring the experiences that are different than ours.

A million little kindnesses, thousands of small sacrifices, myriad efforts at real relationship, listening with open hearts to those who believe differently than we do, to those who are terrified at a world that has changed so quickly, to those who have waited far too long for a seat at the table…this is how we might begin the very slow work of healing the gaping wounds of our nation.

No Monkey’s Paw. No Dreamstone.

But…maybe a little bit of Steve Trevor, who only ever wanted to give his life in service to others.

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