Finding Hope at Shawshank, the Swing Set in the Backyard, and the Transcendence of Story

There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has always moved me.  Granted, many scenes in this tour de force of a motion picture, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, leave an impact.  But one in particular stands out . . .

shawshankbeginning

 

Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, has just spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement.  His offense?  He played a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system.

mozartrecord

 

 

figaromusicandy

 

During the rendition, every prisoner at Shawshank stood, transfixed, listening to lyrics they couldn’t even understand.  As  Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy’s fellow inmate and friend, and the film’s voice-over narrator, describes:  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I’d like to think they were singing of something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

menlisteningtomozart

 

It didn’t matter.  The warden wasn’t amused.  And as Andy emerges from his solitary confinement and joins his friends in the prison cafeteria, he tells them his time in the hole was easy.  They scoff at this, but he tells them he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company.”

“So they let you tote that record player with you into the hole?” one of the men at the table asks.

lunchatshawshank

 

Andy shakes his head, points to his head and his heart, explaining those are the places where Mozart played.  In response, he is greeted with blank, uncomprehending expressions.

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”  He pauses, glances around the table, then continues, “Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica when I was a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

harmonica

 

Andy looks at him.  “In here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?” Red asks, not following.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that . . . there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch . . . that’s yours.”

prisonplacesmadeofstone

 

“What you talkin’ about?” Red says.

To which Andy Dufresne replies, simply, “Hope.”

*********************

When I went to college, as an English major, I was surrounded by fellow students who loved literature, and many were aspiring writers.  Some, like me, focused more on fiction, and others more on nonfiction.  I took creative workshops in both.

englishmajorslovingliterature

 

When I took the nonfiction workshop, a classmate named Kim approached me one day after class.

“I liked your essay,” she said, regarding a piece I had just shared with the class about a memorable and impactful childhood experience.  “Did you ever think about switching over to nonfiction exclusively?”

It was a question I had fielded before, from others.  I knew that Kim wanted to be a journalist.  She was passionate about social justice and hoped for a career crafting flaming editorials that hit her readers hard and forced them to tackle issues head-on.  Likewise, she knew my bent was to write fiction, to come up with stories “out of the ether,” as it were; or, to put it as she did, “to make things up.”

outoftheether

 

“Don’t you think you could have more impact if you wrote about relevant topics in the news?” she went on.  “I mean, don’t you just want to have someone read something you write and think, ‘Yeah!  That is so true!  We need to change that, we need to make this world a better place.'”

makeworldbetterplace

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had to think about it for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course.  I think we both want the same things, and we both have the same goals with the things we write.  We just go about them in different ways.”

I’m not sure she was satisfied with that answer, and I sensed she felt I was somehow on the wrong path.  But that’s the way we left it.  That was the only answer I could give her.

In the years since, especially in the wake of mass shootings and political upheavals and deep cultural divisions, I’ve thought about it more.  After all, didn’t Kim have a point?  Shouldn’t we strive to make a difference, in whatever areas we are called?  And if we write, if we feel the desire, the need, to express ourselves via the written word, shouldn’t we aim to tackle the big issues our world faces?  Shouldn’t we deal with the here and now rather than inventing characters and situations and, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, parallel dimensions that may not even exist?

paralleldimensionthatmaynotexist

 

But then I realize the answer I gave Kim that day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, perhaps wasn’t so off-base, after all.  It’s true, there are editorials, histories, social commentaries that move me and make me see things in new and different ways.  There are journalistic pieces that hit home with such force, it can feel you’ve been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.  But there are also novels and plays and short stories that do the same.

storiesthatmakeimpactthelottery

 

A key word, that–“story.”  Even in journalism, or in speeches or long social or historical treatises, the major points are often illustrated through story.  We can read about the statistics of homicide or homelessness or student debt and shake our heads.  The numbers are staggering.  But then we can read about one situation, one individual, one person’s experiences, and we can be moved to tears.  The numbers are brought to life through the power of story.

No doubt from the dawn of humankind, from the first instance an individual mesmerized an audience with flair and creativity, story has always been this way, fleshing out and giving emotional meaning to the bare, bald skeleton of fact,  An engaging story can reel you in with a paragraph.  A strong opening sentence or two, and we are already there, transported, as if by magic, to a different place, seeing the world through another person’s eyes, living and breathing and experiencing with them, their joys and hopes, their losses and defeats.  And yet, simultaneously, through the eyes of the characters, whether they are from our culture or the other side of the world (or the universe!), our time period or some distant past or faraway and undreamed-of future, we can also see ourselves in them, and experience our own world more fully and richly.

timemachinesothersideofworld

 

And, it is my earnest hope, that this ability, this transcendence of story even applies to ghost girls, hypnotic blue eyes, and journeys through the long and timeless void.

timlessvoidnearend

 

*****************

When I was six years old, my parents bought a swing set.  It allegedly was for the entire family, but seeing that my siblings were already teenagers and in high school at the time, it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who among us would use it the most.  My father put it together and positioned it at the northern edge of the backyard.  “Don’t worry,” I assured.  “I’ll use it a lot!”

swingset

 

And I did.  I’d spend entire afternoons on that swing.  I’d swing after school until suppertime.  I’d swing deep into the fall, sometimes all the way to Thanksgiving, before the snow and the ice shut things down.  And then I’d be forced to sit it out through the interminable western New York winter, waiting for the arrival of a shy and capricious spring.  When the snow finally retreated, stubbornly giving way to April sunshine, I’d scamper out into the muddy yard and reacquaint myself with the swing set.

swingingthrutheseasons

 

Perhaps the best times were on summer evenings, swinging in the warm dusk of July, the crickets chirping, the cicadas playing their synthetic instruments from their hidden, unseen perches in the trees.  I’d pump my legs and go higher, higher . . . and I’d look out beyond the yard, toward the distant horizon.  Sometimes, I was sure I could see a glimmering city in the clouds.  But I only saw it when I swung high.  The higher I swung, the clearer the sparkling buildings and shiny, golden streets came into view.  I remember wishing for a way I could reach that city, walk down those streets.  If I could only swing high enough, maybe, just maybe . . .

cityinsky

 

It’s easy now, of course, looking back through the rational, commonsense lens of adulthood, to disregard my imaginings on that old swing set as the whims of a little boy, the flights of fancy and nonsensical musings of a child.  But I like to think it was more meaningful than that. More relevant.  Perhaps, in its own way, that shimmering city in the sky represented a hope–not unlike that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption–a yearning for something more, a striving for something pure and real and unifying, venturing beyond the boundaries of self and circumstance.

andyhopeend

 

I don’t swing anymore.  I write.  And, with luck, the stories I write offer that same hope, and dare to reach somewhere just beyond the stars.

beyondstarsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

42 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael Kelly
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 15:06:05

    Beautiful story Mike!

    Reply

  2. thelonelyauthorblog
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 15:38:34

    Good post. Shawshank is one of the best movies ever filmed. Yes, that scene with all the prisoners listening to a song they failed to understand was very moving.

    Reply

  3. laurelwolfelives
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 16:20:39

    Great post. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favorite movies and I Redeemer that scene very well. The best part is the justice in the end. It took a while, but it was served.

    Reply

  4. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 18:11:15

    Another well threaded and tied up in a bow post, Mike. Kudos!

    Reply

  5. Daisy in the Willows
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 18:19:11

    A great film. Listening to the song now!

    Reply

  6. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Aug 04, 2016 @ 21:40:37

    Another fine story Mike. Thanks.

    Reply

  7. Lisa Orchard
    Aug 05, 2016 @ 00:46:13

    Great post, Mike! Thanks for sharing with all of us!

    Reply

  8. carolineturriff
    Aug 05, 2016 @ 12:45:24

    Beautiful story your writing style is lovely so lyrical. I too am torn between fiction and non-fiction as I have written both. Also since I was so heavily involved in the EU referendum campaign I now feel that I must be doing something to help the world other than just writing. I have thought of an idea that could help everyone who goes into a doctors surgery with a mental health or addiction problem here in the UK and once I have finished dealing with sending my blog to a publisher and agents I want to roll it out. News can have a major impact on reality but so can fiction. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my favourite films and is so powerful.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 07, 2016 @ 00:37:28

      Thanks so much for sharing–I always enjoy hearing from you. I love nonfiction, too, and when I’m finished with the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, my plan is to delve into a nonfiction project. I actually read more nonfiction than fiction, too–but have always loved both. Good luck with your project! I am sure it will make an impact.:)

      Reply

  9. Karina Pinella
    Aug 06, 2016 @ 18:37:28

    I agree that fact or fiction, if the story is well written, it can make some impact. Fiction after all reflects our nonfictional human nature. The story is made up, but the emotions are real. The message can be real for some too for there are some readers who seek for something when they read.

    Reply

  10. jjspina
    Aug 07, 2016 @ 02:41:50

    Great movie and a wonderful post, Mike! You are correct about everything is told through a story as you so eloquently do. Best wishes, my friend! 😘

    Reply

  11. Katie Marie
    Aug 08, 2016 @ 10:18:14

    A wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading this. Particularly your thoughts on fiction and non fiction.

    Reply

  12. penneyvanderbilt
    Aug 09, 2016 @ 17:24:03

    Reblogged this on PenneyVanderbilt.

    Reply

  13. Anna Waldherr
    Aug 14, 2016 @ 07:35:50

    Beautiful.

    Reply

  14. maguinolbay
    Aug 18, 2016 @ 01:37:28

    About the swing, ours still exist. The whole garden is incomplete without it. Very beautiful article.

    Reply

  15. Dragthepen
    Aug 19, 2016 @ 00:40:55

    one of the Greatest movies of all time. I put it in the same category as Coo Hand Luke. Thank you.

    Reply

  16. Christy B
    Aug 23, 2016 @ 18:21:11

    Hi Mike,
    I’m glad you stuck with your love of writing fiction. I agree that both fiction and non-fiction – and poetry too – can provide insights into current events and educate people. As for the movie –>> One of my faves!

    Reply

  17. denise421win
    Sep 12, 2016 @ 16:31:04

    Great story

    Reply

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