What Disney's Coco Taught Me About Heavenly Mother

Monday, June 11, 2018

My family has been enjoying watching Coco (1) since it made its appearance on Netflix in early May. The movie is a beautiful story of family and forgiveness. If you haven't seen it yet and don't want any spoilers, don't keep reading! Watch it and come back. It will be worth it!

I loved so much about this movie. The music and messages are beautifully interwoven to create a two-hour experience of color, culture, and adventure. I could go through and name everything that touched me about the show, but I'm not in the business of movie reviews. So I'll just tell you about when Coco collided with my experiences in church on Sunday.

In my Relief Society meeting we had a lesson about being a child of God (2). One of the questions that was asked during the lesson was "How do we become familiar with God?". I was surprised by the weight of the question. As I considered my answer, my heart began pounding. My body became really warm and my fingers got tingly. That is usually a signal from my soul that I need to share my thoughts. So I stood, and though my voice shook a little, I spoke.

"I'm really nervous to share this," I said, "but I used to think that the word "God" meant only Heavenly Father. As I grew and desired to know my divine nature more deeply, I studied and searched and found that I do not just have a Heavenly Father, but a Heavenly Mother too. In my studies, I learned that each of my heavenly parents have scriptural symbols that correlate to the mortal world, such as birds and trees (3). As I became familiar with these symbols, their characteristics, and what they had to teach me, I became familiar with my heavenly parents also. One of the most important lessons I learned from that experience was that if a tree or a bird could be sacred and precious to God, so can I."

I was too nervous to notice how my comment was received. One of my friends whispered her words of support and it comforted me. It took at least five minutes after I shared my comment for my heart to stop pumping so hard that I could feel the blood rush through my fingers. Why was I so scared to share my heart in a community of women I love and who love me? I think its due largely to the fact that the topic of Heavenly Mother, the divine feminine, is still kind of a hushed topic in LDS communities. Even though there is no doctrinal or prophetic ban on learning and speaking about her, she is viewed culturally as "secretly sacred". I worried well into Sunday afternoon if in breaking this unfounded and unspoken rule, I was willfully rebellious. I worried I had done something wrong. For whatever reason, every time I thought about my comment I felt shame.

I reached out to a friend who reminded me to focus on the most amazing part of the experience - the spiritual confirmation I received, accompanied by the unmistakable prompting to share, and that I listened and obeyed. Her gentle support was exactly what I needed.

My kids were watching Coco as I made dinner. As I listened and watched from the kitchen, I held my experience from church and the messages from Coco together and watched them weave beautiful music into my mind and heart.

The movie begins with young Miguel who feels called to music. His family has banned music thanks to his great-great grandpa, who was a musician and seems to have abandoned his wife and young daughter. The setting is in Mexico on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the one time a year when those who have passed on to the next life can cross over to this life and share time with their families. If their family has the deceased's picture on the ofrenda, or family altar dedicated to ancestors, they can cross over. If not, they cannot. Early in the movie, Miguel innocently takes the photo of his great-great grandmother Imelda off the ofrenda. The plot really gains traction when it is discovered that Imelda cannot cross over to the living world because her picture is gone.

Watching that scene on Sunday night made me wonder, is anyone missing from my divine ofrenda? I am not of Hispanic descent, so I don't have a physical ofrenda. But the ofrenda's purpose is to remind the living of the stories and influence of those who came before them. That is not so very different than the LDS focus on family history. Members of the LDS church are enthusiastically encouraged to seek out their ancestors, learn their stories, find their pictures, and perform salvific ordinances on their behalf. It is believed that doing so not only is an essential part of missionary work but also gives a person a deep sense of belonging, purpose, and legacy.

I humbly submit that additionally, if someone is missing from the picture of our divine heritage, we cannot have a full understanding of our belonging, our purpose, and our legacy. I guess a good question we could ask ourselves, both personally and as an LDS community, is this: is anyone missing from my divine ofrenda? Is my divine family tree complete with photos and stories? Do I have personal visceral experiences with my divine parents?

When She is left off the table
She cannot return to us
for our thoughts
and memories
and hearts
are turned from her (4).

Later in the story of Coco, Miguel finds his great-great grandfather Hector and explains that "My whole life, there's been something that made me different and I never knew where it came from. But now I know. It comes from you." Miguel is talking about his love and talent for music. Because Hector was forgotten from the family - photos, stories, and all - Miguel does not have a complete understanding of the working parts of his life. Family legacy is passed down in stories and in DNA - we do not pick and choose our talents, affinities, and passions just as we cannot personally select our father's bright eyes, our mother's smooth hair, and our great aunt's nose for our physical features. Our mortal or our divine heritage cannot be nullified by simple erasure from memory. It is an eternal truth residing in our cells and spirits.

When we forget who we came from
our talents and gifts and callings seem a mystery.
We fear we do not belong.

and yet

She finds ways to reach us
through art and music and poetry.

Coco is full of song, which is poetry set to music. It is full of culture, showing that family reaches across all lines and divisions to unite people and give them a place to belong. Coco is full of art, thanks to many nods to the well-loved Frida Khalo. Art and music have power that words spoken or written on some random girl's blog do not - they reach through the senses straight to the feeling center. Straight to the heart, straight to the soul they travel, bypassing our prejudiced and hardened minds. They teach and soften us to truths and to Truths.

Coco ends with Miguel's grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's, remembering her father and restoring a photo of him she had saved for decades. Hector's photo is placed on the ofrenda and the Rivera family story, which savored strongly of curses and hate and abandonment, is restored to one of love and forgiveness. The legacy is repaired. A family is healed.

Wholeness heals. Balance heals. We cannot claim to be children of a singular God. Eliza R. Snow says "the thought makes reason stare" (5). You can find it plainly stated right there in our prophetically-dedicated hymnbook.

I have mentioned before that I do not believe Heavenly Mother is "secretly sacred". In fact, just the opposite. I often find her pleading, "O remember, remember" (6).

I hear her call
in the gentle music of birdsong:
Remember me.

1. Coco, Walt Disney Pictures, 2017
1. Am I a Child of God? Elder Brian K. Taylor, April 2018 General Conference
2. A Thoughtful Faith Podcast with Rachel Hunt Steenblik
3. Malachi 4:6. Inspiration attributed to Mother's Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother by Rachel Hunt Steenblik
4. O My Father - Eliza R Snow, LDS Hymnal
5. Helaman 5:12


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I had difficulty sleeping last night. I laid in bed looking around the room. I could see by the dim light coming through the window the books on my dresser and the clean, unfolded clothes piled up on the chair in the corner. My husband breathed deeply next to me, our fingers laced over one another's like they always are as we fall asleep. After squeezing his hand one last time before letting go, I turned over and faced toward my bathroom. It was then that I noticed again a dim glow but this time it was not coming from the moon outside. A nightlight gently lit the room.

I remember the first few months after my daughter was born when I was up in the middle of the night feeding her. I bought my first nightlights then, plugging them into various outlets around the apartment so the darkness seemed less scary, less lonely. Those nightlights still light pathways from my kids room to mine, in case they need to find me in the night. The nightlights still light the kitchen for midnight drinks of water. They still keep me company on sleepless nights as witness to my restless mind and silent prayers.

As I looked out my bedroom door to my dimly light living spaces, I felt an overwhelming sense of comfort. Here was my home, my safe place wrapped in peace. Everyone was asleep, breathing deeply. I was alone in my wakefulness and yet surrounded by moonlight and night lights, my friends in the darkness.

My friend asked me earlier in the day how I was doing. I explained that truthfully, I currently am having difficulty engaging with any of my "feeling" capacities, which greatly stunts my creativity, my ability to interact spiritually, and many human capacities I normally pride myself on such as compassion, empathy, receptiveness, vulnerability, and desire to connect. As I thought further on it that night, I realized part of this may be due to a recent change in my OCD medication and part of it to my natural cycle. Usually in late spring and early summer my writing slows down as my mind shifts to other creative outlets. I also tend to lose interest in spiritual subjects for a while, focusing my efforts on temporal topics and physical acts like exercise, creation, and cleaning.

Instead of freaking out and worrying that I'm losing my spirituality or all my talents, I feel relaxed and accepting of the process. A huge part of this attitude can be attributed to my understanding of my cyclical nature. Moods like this have happened at this time of year before and it will probably happen next summer too. So instead of pushing my way through and beating myself up with my stick of perfection, I put down my keyboard and my pen and let myself rest. 

I tend to think of a spiritual person as always alight, basically on fire. Their testimony burns inside them. The flame of truth licks their tongues as they speak. Their hearts are warmed by the heat of a burning bush. Being a beacon, a pillar of flame is great for spreading light and searing in the savor of truth, but these last few months have taught me that being on fire is unsustainable for long periods of time. 

For all the love and talk of burning bosoms, I like to think God likes nightlights. 

His signature is inked in the things that provide a little light here and there. A prayer. A sacrament. A verse. A friend. 

The lower lights are outshone in daytime, when warm fuzzies and light are plentiful. But in the darkness where is comfort found?

In the gentle glitter of the night sky. 

When I wake in the night surrounded by a chill and fear of the great Alone,
the stars,
like nightlights,
paint my world in soft reminders.

Here are your friends:
the trees
the lizards
the earth.

Here is your family:
sleeping peacefully in a bed
which was nested promise by promise,
feathered with forgiveness.

Here is your life:
a pen resting on an open page beside
your very first marked book
with a gifted Chinese bookmark between its pages.

Here is your pain:
a bottle of Luvox on your counter and
you, still awake on the couch,
busy remembering.

Here is your hope:
Mrs. Annie, the old lady stranger
you met at the thrift store last July.
There is still time to invite her to Sunday dinner.

Here is your healing:
late nights, laughter and tears shared with friends,
Early morning snuggles with your babies in soft blankets,
freshly baked bread and your husband's kiss on your bare shoulder.
© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.