My young grandson has discovered the magic of film with his favorite movie Encanto. A wonderful story of family dynamics, beliefs, history and magic, its signature song We Don’t Talk About Bruno –music and lyrics by the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda–is a cautionary tale about ignoring a family member whose magic gift is telling prophecies, often with negative results.
The family of Encanto each possess a gift that manifests at a certain age. Unfortunately, Bruno’s gift has spooked them all as what he says comes true (you will lose your hair! your fish will die! It will rain on your wedding day!) Because of this, Bruno is ostracized by his family and banished from the family home. In doing so, the family believes they will dodge his prophecies by ignoring him completely.
A trip to the city last week had me thinking of all the things we don’t talk about, especially in the climate that has formed around an ongoing pandemic and a precarious political and social landscape. While riding a bus or out in a restaurant, we hesitate to talk about religion or politics or race or feelings or fears or a myriad of other subjects. No one wants to invite conflict and any comment can ignite unwanted aggression. It seems as though life has changed suddenly. But has it? Certainly it feels more vulnerable.
Which brings me to family dynamics. Like the family of Encanto, we all fit into the hierarchy of our familial units. In many ways, our identity is tied to who we are in relation to our siblings, how our parents communicated with us and the messages we got about ourselves through that communication. What we heard. What we talked about. What we didn’t talk about. The secrets we kept. (We don’t talk about those because of fear or shame or regret over how stupid we may have been and don’t care to share.) It is said we are born into the specific family we have so we can grow and learn about ourselves but that can come with a lot of pain, especially the pain of not being heard. Life is not for the faint-hearted but sometimes that is exactly how I feel. Can I hope and despair at the same time? Maybe I need to talk about it.
My grandson is learning language right now. He repeats everything we say. I watch him take a word and try to form its rhythms and pronunciations. Its meanings. He wants more than anything to talk and communicate with us. He is doing so well with inflections and when to properly use a phrase like thank you. Its a beautiful sound and I wonder at what point do we learn that not talking is a better option. Not to say we should be talking all the time. But there are moments we need to when we don’t.
So what should we talk about? Everything. Our joy, our pain, our day to day lives. We were born with a brain and a voice for a reason. It can be scary, yes, but also empowering. And yet the most important aspect of talking about anything is…listening. Talking is pointless if we don’t hear what is being said and sometimes hear what is not being said. We tell our children to put their listening ears on. We tell them about inside and outside voices. But we tend to forget some of those things when we are grown and impassioned about the subject we are speaking about. Why am I not being heard? What is it I am really saying?
At the end of Encanto, the matriarch, Alma, admits that is has been her expectations and fear of the past that has kept her son Bruno away and her granddaughter Mirabel’s gift from manifesting. She acknowledges the the real gift is the family itself and not their individual gifts. Once they all talk to each other and listen to each other, they are able to rebuild their magical home and be together again. Perhaps my grandson’s generation will find the ways to talk about the things we need to discuss to be healthy, strong, sane, happy human beings. Who will be able to talk about difficult and divisive things without resorting to violence or hate. Am I being naive dreaming about such a future? Or is it possible? Let’s talk about it.