Be open to change, as difficult as it may be

November 24, 2008

Let me tell you a story. On the surface, it's about love and loss and a film I saw. In reality, it's about more than that.

A few weeks ago, my wife Cheri went away on a business trip. In my head, I understand that other couples' jobs keep them apart from time to time. I know military people can be separated from their families for years. And I know single people who've lived alone all their lives and are quite content to do so.

But I struggle when Cheri is away. I miss her. I worry that something will happen to her. And in all candor (and complete unfairness to Cheri), her absence rekindles the grief I felt (and still do) when I lost my wife Pam to cancer.

And so, when Cheri is gone, I try to distract myself. I work. And pace. And do the laundry. And buy groceries. And solve crossword puzzles. And watch football. And eat lousy meals. And read. And hope the phone will ring.

But it doesn't.

On this particular weekend, I watched a movie. It's called "The Visitor." A friend of mine, who's also a widower, told me he'd seen it. He said it was good, though given the subject matter, seeing it wasn't the best idea. Ever the masochist, I decided to watch it. "The Visitor" is about a 60-something college professor named Walter Vale. He's not a very happy guy. He's not a very emotional guy, period. He's just kind of "there." Walter's taking beginning piano lessons. But he's not very good, and he "fires" the teacher, as he has several others. At work, Walter merely goes through the motions. He finds no joy in it. When his boss asks him to fill in for a colleague by presenting a paper at a New York conference, he offers up excuses and otherwise resists. Reading through the lines, we discover that Walter's ennui derives from the death of his wife, a renowned classical pianist. The piano lessons are an attempt to stay connected. The blase feeling about work is a product of mourning. And Walter avoids New York because he's reluctant to spend time in the apartment where he and his late wife lived. But the boss insists. When Walter enters his rarely used apartment, he's shocked to discover that it's occupied by a young immigrant couple, who've been conned into renting it. Tarek is a drummer from Syria. Zainab, his girlfriend, is from Senegal.

Walter kicks them out, of course, but a short while later, he finds them homeless on the street and invites them to return until they can find another place to stay.

Co-habitation leads to an unlikely friendship between the staid professor and the young immigrants. When Walter shows an interest in Tarek's drumming, Tarek insists on teaching him.

To play the drums, Walter must loosen up. Mostly, he must learn a rhythm completely foreign to his late wife's classical pieces. As he gets the hang of it, Walter shows his first signs of happiness.

I won't spoil the rest of the film, but suffice it to say a crisis ensues. And while the ending is more realistic than happy, we do close on Walter, sitting in a park with a group of drummers, bopping to his new beat.

There is hope.

It's not easy after many years, much joy and considerable comfort, to learn, adapt and truly feel a different rhythm. Even when you realize the new sound is exceptional and rich with promise, the undertow tugs strong for some nostalgic, impossible, unreachable re-creation of an often-idealized past.

And so we cling, often to our detriment.

On the micro-level, Walter clings to his wife's piano and avoids the places that bring him pain.

On the personal level, I cling to love and memory.

At the economic level, I hear auto executives and union leaders, coal miners and manufacturers clinging to the economic ways that were; crying out: "Save us. Make it like it used to be. We can go back, really, to the good old days."

At the political level, I watch TV and see white candidates, from a nearly all-white party, standing before nearly all-white crowds, clinging to what they call "the real America."

But it isn't, and never was.

I suppose that inevitable, often-painful change could breed fear that, as Yeats put it, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

On the other hand, we could embrace change and — as Walter learned from Tarek, as I'm learning from Cheri, as our nation and the world will soon learn from a Midwestern/African/ Polynesian/Indonesian-influenced leader — move to the rhythm of a different drummer.

In that opportunity, on this Thanksgiving 2008, let us, like Walter, find gratitude and hope.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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