Thoughts on The Florida Project

Thoughts on The Florida Project.jpg

A couple weeks ago my husband and I went to see the new film, The Florida Project. When I first saw the film’s poster in our local theater months ago, I had made a quick mental note to see it. Being as I grew up in coastal Florida, I imagined that because it was a story of Florida, it would no doubt feature the white sand and beauty of the ocean, which I miss. By the time we went to see the film, though, I knew that it was about something else entirely.

The story follows the lives of small children and their mothers or, in one case, a grandmother, who live in motels along Route 192 near Disney World, all caught in poverty, bad decisions, some form of abandonment, and hopelessness. There's not a single beach scene. But the story line also follows that of Bobby, played by Willem DaFoe, the manager of The Magic Castle, the budget motel where the film’s primary child and mother live on a weekly basis. For all the reasons to see the film based on the story line and the outstanding performance of the 7-year-old Floridian, Brooklynn Prince, whom we will no doubt be seeing more of in years to come, it’s the story of Bobby that most captured my attention.

The film’s director, Sean Baker, had been on Charlie Rose in mid-October talking about his film. He described how he had researched for the film by talking with people in the area where it was shot. In particular, he spoke of a motel manager he met:

"We would go and see who was interested in telling their stories or giving us information about the Route 192, which is where this was shot. And this was—this involved us speaking to residents at the motels, the small business owners, some the motel managers, and some the agencies that actually provided social services to people in need in the area. And there was one—there was actually one man in particular, a motel manager, who really opened up his world to us. In a way, he was our passport in. He wanted—he felt that this was a story that should be told, … and he was actually managing one of these budget motels directly across the street from the Magic Castle Motel where we shot. And he was in a very tough position when he was actually working there. It has since closed. But he had compassion for the families and the kids who were there. He understood the struggles they were going through. And, yet, he, you know, had a job. He had to hold onto. And he knew that perhaps any night he might have to evict one of these families and put them out on the street if they couldn't come up with the nightly rate. So, it was a tough position for him. I could see this obvious—this compassion, but I also saw a distance that he would keep from them. And it was like a reluctant parental figure in many ways. I saw it not only with him but a few of the other motel managers we met. And I think it very much inspired our Bobby character."

DaFoe’s character captures an aspect of work that I tried to describe in Finding Livelihood: that of doing one thing, for which you’re paid, but that may be far from what you most want to do or feel “called” to do, while at the same time also doing something far bigger on another plane, maybe all the time and all along or maybe only for a moment, participating in a for-such-a-time-as-this sort of thing. Parallel realities. Bobby kept the books, he kept the rules, he kept the place clean. Job description met! But he also kept his people safe, he guided and cared, he gave hope, he loved. If you missed the movie trailer, hyperlinked in the first sentence, take a look now and you'll get a hint of what I'm talking about.

Excerpts from King's Strength to Love

Sanctuary Arches.jpg

Many years ago I read Strength to Love, a book of sermons, by Martin Luther King Jr. It was published in 1963 just after the campaign in Birmingham and a couple years before the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. In honor of King on this day, here are some of the passages I copied out.

“The length of life is the inward drive to achieve one’s personal ends and ambitions, an inward concern for one’s own welfare and achievements. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God.”


“After one has discovered what he is made for, he should surrender all of the power in his being to the achievement of this. He should seek to do it so well that nobody could do it better. He should do it as though God Almighty called him at this particular moment of history for this reason. No one ever makes a great contribution to humanity without this majestic sense of purpose and this dogged determination. No one ever brings his potentiality into actuality without this powerful inner drive.”


“Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. to have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses.”


“I am thankful that we worship God who is both toughminded and tenderhearted. If God were only toughminded, he would be a cold, passionless despot sitting in some far-off heaven “contemplating all” as Tennyson puts it in "The Palace of Art." He would be Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” self-knowing, but not other-loving. But if God were only tenderhearted, he would be too soft and sentimental to function when things go wrong and incapable of controlling what he has made. He would be like H. G. Well’s lovable God in “God, the Invisible King” who is strongly desirous of making a good world, but finds himself helpless before the surging powers of evil. God is neither hardhearted or softminded. He is toughminded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it.”

Brian Volck on Attending Others

Brian Volck on Attending Others.jpg

My friend Brian Volck has a new book out, his third: Attending Others: A Doctor's Education in Bodies and Words (Cascade Books). I finished it early this week and the last few days I’ve been pondering what I want to say about it, trying to boil down one main impression to send you. That’s not an easy task given what a rich and beautiful memoir this is.

Brian is a pediatrician, which means you could read this book for a view into how physicians think and learn. Of course, that wouldn’t be an incorrect approach. Read Attending Others and you’ll discover much about how clinicians make diagnoses and treatment decisions as well as the things they think about before opening the door to meet a new patient – or more interestingly, what they think about after they leave the room. If you’re a physician yourself or an aspiring physician, you will be in the presence of a fine tutor. But read it for that alone and you’ll miss much of what this book offers.

No one is left out of the activity suggested by the book’s main title, regardless of what kind of diploma or post-nominal initials you do or don't have. Attending others is the education written of on these pages. It is the education that develops across 15 chapters, across decades, across a continent and a hemisphere. This book is a journey of the practice of attending others and the hope that emerges from such practice. Even though such attending would look different for each of us depending on who we are and what we do, few of this book's readers will be able to close the book without feeling drawn to look at those around us in a new way.

I copied out six pages of passages from this book and, after looking through them just now, choose these to pass along to you:

"I use my body and senses to diagnose, treat, and reassure. Placing the diaphragm of my stethoscope on the chest of the febrile child, I listen for the rustle of breath, the murmur of a heart. I touch the pads of my fingers to a frightened adolescent’s wrist, taking her pulse. I watch amazed at the ferocity with which a hungry infant nurses at his mother’s breast. I stir with passions that, despite Dr. Osler’s warning, ground my compassion. I am an embodied creature working among other such creatures. It took years to learn that only by nurturing affection for these others can I rightly serve them, much less understand what it means to be healthy."


"They bless me with fierce hope."

IRS Form 1040

IRS Form 1040 cropped.jpg

I've been thinking about the lines of the IRS Form 1040. The line for wages earned. The line for unemployment compensation. The lines for gains and losses, the line for deductions of multiple varieties (say, medical expenses or charitable giving). Check here for spouse. Check here for dependents. Has there been alimony? Social security distributions? A pension or loans or education?

How succinctly these numbers capture a year in a life. Three hundred and sixty-five days knotted into odd and even numbers of variable digit lengths, with or without cents.

Handle with care, I want to write across the top of the form before it is stamped and sealed.

Taking Viktor Frankl to work: Man's Search for Meaning

Taking Viktor Frankl to work cropped.jpg

Last weekend I was at a friend’s new apartment. She has been downsizing for awhile and each phase brings a more precise distillation of what matters to her. On her two shelves of “keeper” books, I saw a copy of Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. This book is on our shelf here too, and it has been for decades - except of course when it’s being read. The copy we have is one my father gave to my husband when we were young, before we even had children if I remember right.

As a prisoner in a World War II German prison camp, Frankl realized that his survival and that of his co-prisoners depended on their ability to claim meaning exactly where they were. Frankl found this “will to meaning” was something each prisoner needed to muster as if his life depended on it. No alternative place of passion or bliss or even minimal satisfaction awaited their transfer. What’s more, he found that the meaning claimed needed to be anchored in the future. Prisoners lost their spiritual hold on the present when they lost sight of the future.

My point of view in Finding Livelihood resonates with Frankl’s. Losing sight of what lies beyond the work-a-day world, in terms of unseen reality, boundless and timeless, means losing your daily spiritual hold, means finding that only the is-this-all-there-is question remains. Without drawing a line too darkly between life in a prison camp and life on the job or life at any other daily post, I think the modern worker or modern person at any stage of life can learn much from Frankl.


[Photo: taken of the cover of our copy of a 1962? edition of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Isn’t it great that the sky is framed?]