Life is a dream-like poem; the trick is in learning to simultaneously live it and interpret it as it’s happening—and in learning to trust the dream’s architect rather than in making constant changes to the plans.
On Memorial Day I was turning my tumbling composter as a squadron of WW II planes flew directly over my head in formation. I have come to expect this Memorial Day sight, and yet I found myself, heart pounding, imagining what it might have been like to have nowhere to run as they dropped bombs on you—to be their enemy rather than their appreciators.
Will is supposed to inhabit a character from any book or film his humanities class read or watched this semester. Cool assignment. He decided to be the cameraman from Hotel Rwanda. I had missed that film when it came out (more like dodged it because I just wasn’t up for more bleakness at that particular time).
But now Will was an actor who needed to prepare, and I was a parent who needed to drive him to Blockbuster; now I was being schooled by Will in the background of the conflict between the Hutus and the Tootsies; now I was watching the film with him (in contrast to Saving Private Ryan Will was now warning me about Hotel Rwanda. “This scene is pretty intense,” he would compassionately cue me).
Hotel Rwanda is set in 1994, the year Nate was born, and he decided to watch with us. It is about a genocide, a concept Will also eloquently explained, that was horribly unfolding as Nate was howling in sleeplessness and colic (who knows, perhaps disturbed by the horrors of the planet on which he’d so recently arrived?).
The film’s star, Don Cheadle, also had a daughter born that year. I know this because she picked out Nate to be her dear friend when they went to preschool together. Don wasn’t yet “big,” but he was getting there. So I would see Don on the big screen in Boogie Nights and then in “real life.” I was still getting used to the surreal aspects of life in LA.
I said, “Nate, you used to go to his house to have playdates with his daughter.” Of course there is zero memory of this for Nate. “Cool,” he says.
And I find myself thinking about Nate’s 4th birthday party—the dinosaur party. Nate’s singular interest at that time was dinosaurus, and so we bought a bunch of them and lined them along the crumbling drive of the crumbling duplex, leading to the dinosaur bouncer as feature attraction in which four-year-olds could jump ‘til they napped.
I felt a little self-conscious when Don and family came to our rather modest place, but he was always a very chill, truly nice and an excellent dad. We stood chatting and I learned that his dad was a psychologist, and Don took a sincere interest in my work with troubled kids. I felt that we were on the same page about really caring about the world and about parenting.
As I sat watching his tour-de-force performance in Hotel Rwanda I felt nostalgic for that innocent afternoon which culminated in Nate, Will and I having one of the best naps ever in the bouncer that wasn’t being picked up until evening.
We napped as the genocide raged. Don drove home and, if he was lucky, also napped that afternoon.
Now as I watched the horror unfold on screen, feeling both nauseous and tearful, there is relative peace again in that region.
I thought about how brilliant the film was in provoking us to think, to look at racial attitudes of the world, at the lingering effects of European colonization that first set the Hutus against the Tootsies (Will was very helpful in teaching me how the Dutch favored the Tootsies, who the Hutus then resented after the Dutch left). But it was deeper than that, it was also about love and horror and parenting and the human heart and betrayal and courage and compassion and humanity at the most and least transcendent levels.
I also watched Will watch his character. The cameraman was brave, he had good politics, and he was a bit of a ladies’ man (which Will swore he had not recalled)—he plays a small but important role in helping the world not just turn away. I found Will’s choice of character a reflection of his beautiful character and an inspiring affirmation of things that stir in my own heart. We all want a more just world, but we can be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the world’s problems. We do not all have to be Gandhi or Mother Theresa; putting vast love into small things, as Mama Theresa suggests, is also good.
The actual hotel manager in Hotel Rwanda saved around a thousand people; but almost one million people were killed in the genocide. Knowing Don, however slightly, I can imagine that while he knows that he put heart and soul into that character, he would also be well aware of the vastness of need in our world in the face of what even he can do as a movie star—of what any single one of us can do.
So, let’s dedicate today to vast love into small things—in the service of our world and all its collective children.