Nostalgia: A Soundtrack to Your Life

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in my experience with music therapy in addiction recovery. What is nostalgia? Is it healthy or harmful? What role does it play for recovering alcoholics and addicts?

I am 12 years old, in seventh grade. I am sitting next to my bus buddy who is absorbed in her game of Crash Bandicoot on Nintendo whilst religiously looping Good Charlotte’s 2002 album. I can hear the loud rock music pulsating through her headphones and eventually I ask her to let me cop a listen. It is my first uncensored exposure to music that is not religious or classical and perhaps my first crack at “rebellion” (my teenaged angst was rather lame). It was a ritual I looked forward to every day on the way to school and represented a time when life was hopeful.

I am 13 years old, in eighth grade. I am sprawled across my bed listening to a contemporary Christian singer Erin O’Donnell, my first CD obtained from a roller rink raffle, on the portable red Walkman that I am finally allowed to have in my possession. My over-protective parents are starting to loosen up, but I am a little apprehensive about this newly granted privilege that feels almost too good to be true. The album represented a time when life was exciting, and in retrospect, the calm before the storm.

I am 14 years old, in ninth grade. I am the only female in a van loaded with teenaged boys on a class fieldtrip somewhere in Pennsylvania. “Amish Paradise” by Weird Al Yankovic blasts from the car speakers accompanied by waves of riotous laughing, especially during the verse about “getting medieval” on somebody’s “heinie”. Despite the pervasive discomfort I felt at the time owing to my puerile peers, the chaos of my parents’ divorce, and my own adolescent skin, I couldn’t help but crack a genuine smile. To this day, it’s one of the few songs that has come to represent my youth as a whole – the good, the bad, and the ugly in all its glory.

Music has the power to evoke nostalgia (via a particular song, artist, or genre), striking reminiscent chords that are often independent of its “objective” meaning. Since I tend to select familiar, client-preferred music, most of my clients do have a pre-existing relationship with the songs they encounter in our music therapy sessions. For a middle-aged client, “In My Life” by The Beatles reminds him of how much he enjoyed listening to music before his addiction took over. For a veteran client, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel may stir up memories of staying hopeful in crisis. For a younger client, an EDM artist or contemporary rapper may remind her of the excitement of partying during active addiction.

I am an extremely nostalgic person. When I feel nostalgic, I feel a bittersweet longing that is equally pleasant and melancholic. Typically, I feel nostalgic for a particular time in my life, such as high school or when I was a resident of Philadelphia. I find myself yearning to return to that time, sometimes if only for the very reason that it is now gone. I resonate with the Portuguese term saudade, which is like nostalgia with a stronger emphasis on the melancholy. It is similar to grieving the loss or absence of something that will never return or never existed. For me, early 2000s pop punk does the trick.

People feel nostalgic for many different reasons. Some are even nostalgic for things they’ve never experienced directly (i.e. Colonial Era, Roaring Twenties, Woodstock, etc.). Like a child who dreams of adulthood, nostalgia for the imagined future has yielded phenomena like Steampunk (Victorian Sci-Fi) and PVC clothing (retro-futuristic fashion from the sixties). However, the most common themes among clients in addiction recovery appear to be nostalgia for a particular era such as childhood or young adulthood (when problems seemed fewer), nostalgia for particular memories or people (a family vacation or significant other), and nostalgia for “the fun times” during active addiction.

So is nostalgia a good thing? I would argue yes. Nostalgia seems healthy when it is a hunger for “home” or belonging, a time or place when things were right, the way they were supposed to be. Naturally, we all want to belong. Even if we never had the opportunity to experience authentic belonging, nostalgia for the way we feel things ought to be can drive us to make that our reality. If nostalgia leads a person to reconnect with her true identity, true beliefs, or true feelings that were lost in active addition, then maybe it is essential to recovery.

Nostalgia can be unhealthy when it becomes an obsession or craving for the elusive. Nostalgia, if unchecked, can morph into a toxic fixation on the past which we are powerless to change and could be disadvantageous, especially to people in recovery from addiction. Nostalgia that romanticizes history (South Park’s “member berries”) is a form of denial. Both nostalgia and addiction are temporary escapes from the present into a fantasy realm that is neither present nor past. Nostalgia, like addiction, can keep the addict disconnected from reality and ultimately trapped inside an alternate temporal dimension.

Music, while an effective time machine, also has the power to connect and move the listener through real time, liberating him from that foggy twilight zone between now and then. Since addiction distorts the addict’s perception of time, music therapy as an experiential medium structured in time seems like the perfect antidote. If we accept today, then we are free to progress, evolve, and create new experiences and memories as well as pay homage to the old ones. If we accept today, then we are gifted with the opportunity to heal from the past, find gratitude in the present, and hope for the future.

For those who wonder: How do I make peace with nostalgia? Try not to worry too much. Try not to overthink. Value the moment because everything will pass away. In the words of Green Day, “So take the photographs and still frames in your mind / Hang them on a shelf in good health and good time”. And if you choose to take them off the shelf when you are feeling homesick for the good old days, try not to ask why the old days seemed so good. Just remember that they were.

First published at pbmti.com

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Ali’s Ten Tried & True

Looking for session ideas? Check out this list of tried and true music therapy activities for clients in addiction recovery. Some ideas are original. Most are adapted from various sources that eventually wound up inside my music therapy toolbox. Enjoy!

Let It Be by The Beatles
Theme: Acceptance
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients identify people, places, things, and beliefs they feel attached to as well as which ones they want to let go of
4. Clients share answers with the group and discuss their own strategies for finding acceptance

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel
Theme: Stressors
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients sketch a “bridge” and “water” and label with stressors and healthy coping strategies
4. Clients share pictures with the group

Thank You by Dido
Theme: Gratitude
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients create “ABCs of gratitude” lists
4. Clients share lists

Soundtrack To My Life by Kid Cudi
7 Years by Lukas Graham
In My Life by The Beatles
Theme: Life story
1. Choose two songs
2. Distribute copy of lyrics and ask clients to underline or highlight significant words as they listen to the songs
3. Compare and contrast musical narratives
4. Clients create “soundtracks” identifying songs that represent childhood, parents, love, happiness, sadness, anger, and theme song
5. Clients share soundtracks and share recorded songs as time allows
6. Optional: provide art supplies to design album cover

Hero by Mariah Carey
Theme: Strength
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Clients sketch a scenario depicting themselves utilizing personal strengths
4. Clients share pictures with the group

Drift Away by Dobie Gray
Theme: Coping strategies
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute fill-in-the-blank lyric substitution
4. Clients work together to replace song lyrics with their own words
5. Group sings completed song

Times Like These by Foo Fighters
Theme: Living in the present
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute fill-in-the-blank lyric substitution
4. Each client individually replaces song lyrics with his/her own words
5. Read or sing completed songs

Behind Blue Eyes by The Who
Theme: Authenticity
1. Distribute copy of lyrics
2. Sing/play song and facilitate discussion
3. Distribute “mask” outlines and clients write/draw their exterior/interior personas
4. Clients share masks with the group

Mandalas
Theme: Addiction & recovery
1. Clients create two playlists. First playlist contains songs that remind them of active addiction and second playlist contains songs that remind them of recovery.
2. Clients listen to first playlist while writing/drawing “active addiction” inside a mandala
3. Clients listen to second playlist while writing/drawing “recovery” inside a mandala
4. Clients share about their mandalas
5. Optional for individual or group collaboration

Drumming
Theme: Interpersonal coping strategies
1. Clients brainstorm a list of ten positive and ten negative interpersonal coping strategies
2. Clients select percussive instruments
3. MT facilitates a series of group drumming experiences progressing in difficulty. Each “level” is passed by meeting goals tailored to the group’s needs (listening, patience, awareness, communication)
4. The group processes which coping strategies they utilized in order to “pass” the level

First published at pbmti.com

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Reflections on Music Therapy and Recovery

As I approach my two-year anniversary of practicing music therapy with PBMTI this week, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my experiences as a music therapist working in addiction recovery. What an incredible journey! The last two years have stretched me clinically and personally in ways I can’t even explain (although maybe I could through music). Having navigated the unique challenges that go along with working in the addiction setting, felt burdened, jaded, and helpless at various points in my career, and gone through ups and downs in my personal life, I’ve also learned and grown so much along the way as a music therapist and as a person.

This short reflection piece is the result of my experience as a professional in the field, experience as a person on her own journey to healing, and education on music therapy and addiction. It is a blend of clinical sharing and candid journaling. Some of my ruminations are lifted from a very insightful book Music Therapy and Addictions edited by David Aldridge and Joerg Fachner. Mostly, I hope that my openness about what I’ve learned from practicing music therapy in the context of addiction recovery will help others better understand the needs of this population and what music therapy has to offer.

I facilitate music therapy groups in various drug and alcohol rehabs in south Florida. The most important thing I’ve learned about addiction is that it is a dead end attempt at self-medicating emotional pain. Rather than effectively using other coping skills, addicts apply their drug like a “one size fits all” Band-Aid to avoid dealing with painful emotions. Eventually, the Band-Aid itself becomes the obsession and is reused again and again to cover up any and all uncomfortable feelings. Addiction is an inflexible coping strategy that eventually becomes a vicious cycle.

Since most addicts go to great lengths to avoid emotional pain, they also develop complicated defense mechanisms. Underneath, people battling active addiction seem to be emotionally fragile, mistrustful, and have low self-esteem at the root of it all. On the outside, however, they may portray false confidence and denial. The exterior and interior personas of a person in active addiction are at odds with each other and lack harmony. Therefore, clinical treatment can be difficult because authenticity and intimacy are the solution to healing.

Enter the power of music. Music therapy helps break through those complicated defense mechanisms in ways that traditional therapies by themselves might not. Music’s personalized, motivational, and holistic nature creates a safe space for therapeutic confrontation because clients tend to feel most comfortable being real when they are in touch with their preferred music. For example, I have found that a defensive nineteen-year-old in treatment for abusing psychedelics can feel far more comfortable exploring heavy issues in “Soundtrack to my Life” (Kid Cudi) than through traditional talk therapy without the aid of his favorite songs. People open up in the presence of their music.

Music therapy is especially effective in substance abuse settings because it is action-based. Music necessitates human response. In a recovery-based drum circle, a group of addicts are presented with a live music-making experience that depends on their responses to the music and to each other. In the “here and now”, they can make choices that will help them connect with others, build healthy relationships, and practice coping strategies via the music experiences. Here is a real opportunity for authenticity and intimacy: when music calls us, we must answer it. A professor in college once said something that I’ve never forgotten: How we are in music is how we are in life. Since musical behaviors can be compared directly with non-musical behaviors, the clinical goals that clients accomplish in music therapy are tangible to their wellbeing. Music therapy is a call to action.

That’s great, but what about when music triggers cravings? As a music therapist, I’ve struggled with this issue off and on. It’s no secret that music and drugs go well together and for many addicts they are powerfully connected. Electronic dance music (EDM), reggae, and rap are some of the major genres linked to the culture of substance abuse. I believe this is largely due to the associations formed than with the music itself, but the associations are still strong and unable to be ignored. So what’s a music therapist to do?

Recently, I picked up the book Music Therapy and Addictions (2010) edited by David Aldridge and Joerg Fachner. Unfortunately I haven’t found very many publications by music therapists on our work in addiction recovery, but this particular gem did offer some helpful perspectives. Ultimately, to listen or not to listen to “trigger” music seems like an individual decision. Some recovering addicts find that they need to give it up temporarily, some need to give it up entirely, and some become indifferent over time or discover that their musical palates have transformed while in recovery. It is a case-by-case situation.

I’ve concluded that while music can be triggering for people in treatment for active addiction, the fact that it is indispensible to many addicts presents the perfect occasion to reach them. If addiction is fixation on the Band-Aid, music can be a gentler, safer Band-Aid that replaces drugs as an alternative reward system. Additionally, when a client’s preferred music does not appear to be harmonious with his road to recovery, we may be able to highlight this discrepancy in order to attain insight. Whether it is a cause or reflection on a person’s recovery state, music in particular is an essential tool for addiction recovery when used carefully by a competent music therapist.

The last two years of practicing music therapy in the context of addiction have taught me quite a few things about the role of music in recovery, but I’ve also grown tremendously as a person. I’ve learned how to look past my own stigmas of addiction. I’ve learned that my clients are people with unique stories and challenges. If I am completely honest, I’ve learned that I am no different. I may not choose to cope with my emotional pain by abusing substances, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of self-medicating in other ways. I’ve become more familiar with the Twelve Step Program on a personal level and that has helped me better understand how to tailor music therapy interventions to support my clients’ specific recovery goals. I’ve also been challenged to improve my counseling skills because verbal processing is especially important in the addiction setting even when music is the primary vehicle for change.

Most of all, I’ve learned that the most important thing I can do as a music therapist working in addiction recovery is building rapport. Addicts can be cautious to trust others and believe that no one can possibly understand their emotional pain. This is especially important for music therapists who are not personally in recovery from substance abuse. Rapport building is the first goal for any therapist, of course, but in addiction recovery it is an especially vital goal since developing trust and healthy relationships are part of the solution to healing. Although several years ago I didn’t necessarily envision myself practicing music therapy in addiction recovery, it has truly become my passion. I am grateful for the journey I’ve had so far and look forward to what is ahead.

First published at pbmti.com

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Holy Fire

During the last week in April 2016, I had the incredible opportunity to make the long journey to the heart of Jerusalem for Holy Week and Pascha along with thousands of Christian pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and various other Slavic and Arab countries. While there, I was able to experience truly beautiful events that I felt are my responsibility to share with those who are curious, enamored, or maybe a little skeptical but open to hearing a firsthand account of Orthodox Easter in the Holy Land.

As many of you may know, the date of Orthodox Easter often follows the date of western Easter celebrated by Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians due to differences in the ecclesial calendars. When I arrived in Jerusalem, it had been four weeks since western Easter had taken place but Orthodox Holy Week had only just begun (and concurrently, Jewish Passover). In addition to ordinary tourists and locals, the streets of the old city were animated by Christian pilgrims getting ready for Pascha and Jewish pilgrims getting ready for Passover. This multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious epicenter invoked a truly surreal sensation of being caught up in a bustling spiritual intersection yet feeling like a spectating shadow.

What brought me to Jerusalem in the first place was a blend of intentions. For one, Jerusalem has always been on my travel list, even before I was an Orthodox Christian. More recently, however, I’ve been itching to do as much traveling as I can for adventure therapy and personal growth and so I simply decided to make it happen. I also decided that I would go during Easter because I wanted to see and experience the Paschal celebrations in the city where it all began. I wanted a personal encounter with the birthplace of the Christian faith, the ancient and rich traditions that grew out of it, and most importantly, I wanted to experience the same continuity with the resurrection that Orthodox Christians have been experiencing for the last two thousand years. Ad fontes in the fullest possible sense! As a bonus, my dad came with me.

I had also heard about something called the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Although not as well known in the west, this renowned miracle has been occurring every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem for the last nineteen hundred years. On Holy Saturday, the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the Holy Sepulcher where Christ was entombed, kneels down to pray, and then receives a miraculous light from God. He then spreads the holy flame to everyone present in the church. Like the fire that did not consume the burning bush or the three young men inside the fiery furnace, pilgrims who journey there to witness the miracle claim that the holy fire does not burn them. Intrigued by this ceremony, I had to investigate.

The first couple days in Jerusalem were amazing. Our visit was action-packed and we utilized every spare minute visiting the holy sites, exploring the corridors and bazaars inside the old city, and soaking up as much history as we could. I even stopped to get inked by Wassim, a Coptic Christian tattoo artist whose family has been tattooing pilgrims for over seven hundred years. One of the most memorable segments of our stay was the trek out to Bethlehem and into Palestinian territory where we beheld the infamous wall dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Truly unreal, but that is another story for another time. All in all, the first few days in Jerusalem were a tiring but gratifying prelude to what was to come.

On Holy Saturday morning, I awoke at 6:30 a.m. to make a phone call to my internet acquaintance Khader, a Jerusalem native and parishioner/subdeacon at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher who was also our avenue into the holy fire ceremony. The ceremony wasn’t supposed to begin until the early afternoon but pilgrims line up by the thousands long before the miracle occurs and sometimes camp out as early as Holy Friday. We discovered that the old city had already secured the main gates and blocked off most of the roads near and around the church in preparation for the crowds. Khader told us to meet him outside of the New Gate at 7:00 a.m. where those with special permits were waiting to enter (the masses at Jaffa Gate were already swelling). I quickly dressed and, dragging my sore feet and still jet lagged body, we hurried over to the New Gate.

By the time we arrived at the New Gate two minutes before 7:00 a.m., Khader had already entered through security and had to maneuver his way back to us because we could not enter through the gate by ourselves. Since we didn’t have special permits, it took us multiple attempts at convincing the Israeli police that we were here by Khader’s invitation. I was doubtful at first and began to worry that they wouldn’t let us through, but I guess if you argue with Israeli police long enough they eventually change their minds (and I think it helped that Khader was a local). This happened at multiple checkpoints along the route to the Holy Sepulcher, but each time we were somehow allowed to continue.

The streets were mostly empty except for the police, a few other VIP pilgrims, and loitering clergy. Other than the intermittent checkpoints, it was a relatively easy and quick walk over to the Holy Sepulcher. Khader led us into the Greek chapel and told us to wait inside a small doorway facing the outside courtyard. In a few more hours, the police would unblock the main entrance and we would be allowed to enter. We thanked him for his help and before parting ways he exhorted us: “God brought you this far. He will see you the rest of the way.”

Time passed quickly and before long the police announced the opening of the gates. Immediately, a herd of pilgrims descended on us like starving prisoners scrambling for their rations and so we found ourselves in the middle of the first mob rush. The next six hours were purgatory. Between waves of anticipation, excitement, shock, boredom, restlessness, fatigue, lightheadedness, irritation, claustrophobia, and many prodding elbows, I tried my best to preserve my sanity with lots of water and granola bars. At times we moved only inches at a time. At times we stood in the same position for hours unable to stretch an arm. I loathed the pushy pilgrims and the obnoxious old lady with frizzy blonde hair and bad breath in front of me. I started to doubt that the miracle was even real. I wanted the suffering to end and to return to the comfortable guesthouse to catch up on lost sleep, but at this point even that was impossible.

It was almost 3:00 p.m. when it finally happened. The pilgrims had been chanting hymns and shouting “Christ is risen!” in all possible languages for over an hour. I shouted with them until my voice cracked. Our exhilaration mellowed a bit after the lights dimmed but the air was thick with anticipation and I began to feel connected again with my Orthodox brothers and sisters. I made friendly conversation with a Greek and a Copt next to me. I don’t know at what point the authorities searched the tomb for hidden sources of fire or when the Patriarch of Jerusalem entered to pray. I couldn’t see when the light emerged from the tomb, but suddenly the long wait was over, everyone forgot about their exhaustion, and the pilgrims’ bellows resounded as the holy light made its way over from one person to the next. I grabbed my lump of compacted beeswax candles and turned on my iPhone camera, trembling with joy and astonishment as the light crept closer and closer. Within a few minutes, the holy fire ignited my wicks. I was afraid at first and hesitated to wave my hand through the flame. I remember gathering the courage to test the flame and then feeling stunned that I felt no heat. I looked back at the woman behind me who washed her face with the fire and she let me wave my hands through her flame. Everything else was a blur and seemed like a dream.

Within half a minute, the holy fire grew hot again and pilgrims frantically snuffed out their candles. Many of them had brought oversized bundles and torches that rapidly dripped hot wax as soon as the fire returned to its natural state. We exited the Sepulcher quickly after receiving the holy fire and I returned to the guesthouse to get some rest before the midnight Pascha service.

I’d like to think I’m a fairly levelheaded and objective person. Having grown up in an evangelical Protestant tradition with very little room for divine miracles inside our theological boxes, by default I’ve always approached such claims with caution. Since embracing Eastern Orthodoxy six years ago, however, I have become more receptive to the possibility of tangible miracles, especially since witnessing a myrrh-streaming icon several years ago. Long before our expedition to the Holy Sepulcher began, I told myself that I was going to be at peace no matter what I discovered. If the holy fire was a true miracle, then glory to God. If the holy fire was merely an exciting but counterfeit ritual, then I would still be okay with that. My faith would not depend on the outcome of this investigation, but I sure hoped it was true.

I didn’t even plan on writing anything until someone suggested that I should because many of you know that I was there and have asked to hear more about my experience. Am I a transformed person? Is my faith stronger? Would I make the long pilgrimage again to Jerusalem? It’s hard to say what I will ultimately take away from an experience I am still processing and will probably continue to process for a while, but I believe so. I believe that the holy fire was a vehicle for God’s grace and did something for me and the pilgrims who were there, even if I can’t quite put it into words. What I do know is that I am an Orthodox Christian who traveled to Jerusalem during Pascha in April 2016 to see this phenomenon and this is my firsthand account of the “Miracle of the Holy Fire”. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! 

Holy Fire

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A Hard Lesson

Dear family and friends,

I regret to tell you that my marriage has ended mutually and peacefully. Although we are very sad and remorseful about the outcome, Jamey and I are on good terms with each other and have made the difficult decision to pursue different paths. We recognize how much we have learned and grown from this shared experience and ultimately are concluding that we will continue to learn and grow even more separately than we can together.

I admit that I have been procrastinating on writing this for a while because I was embarrassed and afraid. Although my close family members and friends already know this, many people do not and I feel that I owe it to you. If you have ever taken the time to read the things I write or interact with me in a meaningful way (many of you have), if you are a real presence in my life, if you were once a real presence in my life, even if you are just a distant onlooker, I want to publicly own up to my choices because it is the right and adult thing to do. If you have questions, feel free to contact me privately. In the meantime, I humbly ask for your prayers.

Ali

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Wholeness

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Red Hook Summer

Red Hook Summer“We live in a world of should-not-be.”

Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer (2012) is the story of Silas “Flik” Royale, a thirteen-year-old African-American boy from Atlanta who is sent to live with his “old school” preacher grandfather Bishop Enoch in the Brooklyn projects for the summer. Although we don’t really know the reasoning behind this living arrangement, the juxtaposition between a vegan, atheist, private-school teenager from the south and his zealous, Bible-thumping, bishop grandpa from the north creates instant intrigue. Flik grudgingly commences his summer vacation by working at Bishop Enoch’s church “Little Piece of Heaven” and slowly adapts to his conventional lifestyle before meeting Chazz, a cute and religiously devout girl his own age, who starts to draw him out of his sullenness. Despite his grandfather’s persistent attempts at converting Flik’s soul (and getting him to put away his iPad “box”), the summer is going pretty well until Flik and the entire community discover something crooked about Bishop Enoch’s past (spoilers ahead).

At times, Red Hook Summer flaunts an “indie” texture in the stylist sense of the term. The spontaneous-feeling storyline, focus on human complexities, endearing soundtrack, nostalgic vibes, and overall quirkiness of the film come across as Spike Lee’s own experimentation with indie-ness. In the end, however, the film turns out to be more of an aimless drama that culminates in a sudden plot twist than any sort of real attempt at making Spike Lee’s own version of Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Lee’s films never shy away from the controversial, and Red Hook Summer is no exception. Race, religion, and hypocrisy emerge as the biggest themes in this messy story. Almost without missing a beat, the film makes references to pictures of “white Jesus” on the wall and Flik’s “talking like a white boy” within the first few scenes. The most explicit racial snapshots involve an angry white woman yelling at Flik and Chazz to “go back to your home and stay there!” after catching them leaving doodles on her wet cement in the wealthier section of the city. Not to mention the clash between Flik’s middle class upbringing and his introduction to the rougher side of Brooklyn.

Religion is another big theme as represented by Bishop Enoch in the context of black Baptist Christianity. Right away we see the bishop’s religious fervor, which is at the forefront of his character, although not devoid of genuine love for his congregation or grandson. Even a brief, friendly exchange between Bishop Enoch and the local Jehovah’s Witness preacher reveals something about a theological awareness. We also get a glimpse at two contrasting eschatologies represented by Bishop Enoch and Deacon Zee. While Bishop Enoch truly sees his church as a “Little Piece of Heaven” and Red Hook as a “window to God’s inspiration”, Deacon Zee, who also happens to be a blundering alcoholic, can only see it as a hotbed of death, debt, and decay. If there’s a battle waging between the good and ugly, Bishop Enoch has placed his bets on the good and Deacon Zee has placed his on the ugly. Either way, Spike Lee wants us to see that both good and ugly exist side by side in Red Hook.

Finally, the biggest theme of all is the problem of hypocrisy. Bishop Enoch’s secret is uncovered when we find out that he molested a child from his old church and then transferred to “Little Piece of Heaven” in Red Hook in order to escape his past, a sort of Roman Catholic Church scandal of the Baptist church variety (although the flashback scene to his pedophilic relationship seemed unnecessary). If Flik hid behind his iPad at the beginning of the film, Bishop Enoch hid behind his church. Even though Bishop Enoch claims to have repented long ago, the now grown-up Blessing Rowe returns partly to call him out publicly and partly in hopes that he will finally make amends to the little boy he harmed. Rather than using this moment as an opportunity to humble himself and beg forgiveness, however, Bishop Enoch runs from his mistakes again. The film ends disappointingly for Bishop Enoch. For Flik and Chazz, a selfless trade between Flik’s iPad and Chazz’s cross necklace seals their innocent courtship as Flik rides away to the airport.

Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer is a wannabe-endearing film about the complexities of a grandson-grandfather relationship that also addresses sensitive issues such as race, religion, and hypocrisy. While the film does lack cinematic cohesion at times especially regarding the unresolved plot twist, perhaps Spike Lee’s movie itself is consistent with his argument that goodness coexists with ugliness. Perhaps this film is more clear-sighted than we realize and more true than we understand.

Also featured at FilmFisher.com: Red Hook Summer

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