Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John Lennon (1940-1980): A Legacy of Vulnerability

There was a moment while watching After the Ice Melts, the final episode of CBC's Battle of the Blades when I marveled at the openness and vulnerability expressed by a number of the participating hockey-players. Tough guys like Kelly Chase, Patrice Brisebois, Theo Fleury and Russ Courtnall, all openly wept on national television. It was remarkable, not just because it challenged our preconceptions of "macho" hockey players, but also because it was obvious that this experience was a transformative one for these men. Fleury and Courtnall were particularly open, talking about their experiences with sexual abuse and mental illness, respectively.

Notably, none of the women wept, but almost all of the men did. I don't think the episode was manipulated or edited to get the men to cry on camera while the women sat dry-eyed. It was clear that these hockey players were profoundly changed by their Battle of the Blades experience, and the tears expressed this transformation. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, these men were allowed to express themselves in a non-prescribed manner that wasn't ultra-masculine, like hockey, a sport that is as much about convention as it is competition. For NHL hockey players to put on figure skates and, for an intensive period, collaborate as equal partners with women in the creative sport of pairs skating, surely is a game-changer --for life-- and I have little doubt that they are better men and human beings for the experience. They all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the program, which includes working with and donating prize money to charities.

As corny as it sounds, there's much to be said about getting in touch with one's emotional self and living life more openly and honestly. It sounds very Robert Bly, I know, but if everyone, not just men, were more in tune with their higher emotional selves, the world would be a better place. It's as simple as that.

One man who advocated strongly for love in the world is John Lennon, who was murdered thirty years ago today. On the anniversary of his death, I always profoundly feel the loss his death represents to humanity, because I believe the world would be a different place if he was still alive. John was brave, outspoken and passionate about peace and activism. He cared deeply for the world and humanity --and, perhaps more significantly-- people universally loved and respected him. He was in a uniquely powerful and influential position to transform hearts and minds.

 In the new biopic about John's early years, Nowhere Boy (ending tomorrow at the Twin) we see John's life with his Aunt Mimi, his middle-class upbringing and intriguingly, we're shown a portrayal of the mother who was not "fit" to raise him, Julia. Most of us who are familiar with Lennon's music know her by his heart-rending tributes to her (who, along with Yoko, he called his "muse'): Julia and Mother. We're also familiar with the rather static photo of her, but in Nowhere Boy, she's brought to life as a vivacious and care-free red-head who loved to dance and sing, quite the opposite of the stern Aunt Mimi. While Mimi was protective of John and determined that he would have a "proper" upbringing, Julia was the one who encouraged John to explore his creativity through music and thus, she played a major role in changing the world.

What sets John apart from the other Beatles --each remarkable in their own way-- was his brazen honesty: to him, the personal was the political. John also was a pioneer into explorations of the self: when the Beatles went to India to study transcendental meditation, many followed (and when they smoked pot and dropped acid, for better or for worse, multitudes followed, as well.) His explorations into primal therapy with Arthur Janov in 1970 resulted in Mother, possibly the most sincere, harrowing and vulnerable evocations of the hurt inner-child ever recorded: "Mama don't go! Daddy come home!" Lennon's openness and vulnerability made it acceptable for other men to follow suit. As Yoko Ono sang of John in Beautiful Boys: "your mind has changed the world." She also believed that John legitimized stay-at-home fatherhood. He wanted to be the father to his son, Sean, that he couldn't be to his older son, Julian. He also wanted to be the father he never had.

In one scene of Nowhere Boy, we see a struggle between Alfred, John's birth father, and Julia. One of the reasons Mimi took guardianship of John was because Alfred, a merchant seaman, was never home and she believed Julia couldn't cope. When John was five years-old, Alfred wanted to move the family to New Zealand, but Julia refused. Imagine if she had conceded, and little John Lennon had been raised in New Zealand: there would have been no Beatles. Imagine the world without the Beatles. Now, imagine the world today with John Lennon. Would the world be different if John was still alive? I think so.

Lennon brought magic and colour to the world through his music, and he spoke a powerful and simple message of love that people universally understood. People listened to him when he sang -- very truthfully -- "every now and then I feel so insecure... Won't you please help me?" Lennon, through his openness and honesty, challenged the conventions of the day. "Why shouldn't we cry?" he said in a radio interview. "They tell us to stop crying at about twelve, or whatever it is. You know, 'Be a man.' What the hell is that? Men hurt."

Lennon's willingness to express love and show vulnerability made it okay for a generation of men to do the same, and that includes, many years later, a group of ex-NHL hockey players who felt safe enough to cry and speak of trauma and healing on national television last week.

So where would John's pioneering spirit have led the world, if he was alive today? That's for you to imagine.