BECAUSE MOANA CHANGED MY LIFE
One night, our family was watching the quirky, teen sit-com, iCarly, when my oldest daughter snapped her head toward me, eyes wide, smile flirting with laughter, and exclaimed, “Mom, are you crying?!” Yes. Yes, I was. I cried while watching iCarly. And not because of the juvenile writing and mediocre acting. Nope. I cried because of some cheesy dialogue about the importance of family or friendship or belonging or whatever.
I can find tear-worthy meaning in a shoebox. OK, well, what woman can’t find tear-worthy meaning in a shoebox? Bad analogy. Basically, I can find tear-worthy meaning just about anywhere – rock music, picture books, presidential speeches, Facebook posts, and of course, kids television. So it shouldn’t surprise you that I could dedicate an entire blog post to a two-minute scene from the Walt Disney Studios’ movie, Moana.
WAIT!!! Even if Disney movies aren’t your thing, stick with me. I think you’ll be glad you did. It’s not every day that an animated Disney movie surprises me and while I’ve also cried at Toy Story and Brother Bear, the plot twist at the end of Moana did more than make me cry. It kind of changed my life.
Quick Moana Recap: Moana is teenage girl, chosen by the ocean, to rescue her people and their land from a curse by returning the goddess* Te Fiti’s heart (a blue-green, swirly, translucent stone) which was stolen by the misguided demi-God, Maui whose thievery of said heart caused the curse. Moana and Maui team up to restore the heart of Te Fiti, but they must first defeat the lava-breathing demon of destruction, Te Ka, who blocks the way to the goddess. (Phew! Glad I didn’t have to say that out loud.)
I saw Moana in the theater in December of 2016, about 18 months after the unexpected death of my brother and at a time when our family was still reeling from a painful, life-altering conflict at our church.
To say that my heart was wounded and raw, and my soul bitter from the cup God made us drink, would be an understatement. I know people find Naomi (from the biblical book Ruth) a little dramatic when she’s all “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara because my life is bitter now,” (Mara = bitter), but I feel her. Pain – especially feeling as though one has been abandoned or harmed by God – changes a person.
So there I was, heartbroken, raw, angry, empty, and exhausted, watching Moana face off against the maniacal Te Ka while she frantically searches for where to place the heart of Te Fiti. As the lava monster roars, Moana looks all around her for something that matches the signature swirl on the front of Te Fiti’s heart.
Then, just as she’s about to lose hope, Moana sees it. A fiery, red-hot, swirl. Burning across the chest of Te Ka.
The burning, raging monster Te Ka is the life-giving goddess Te Fiti. Te Ka is Te Fiti…without her heart.
When Moana realizes this truth, she raises the heart toward Te Ka like a beacon. This scene and the restoration of Te Fiti’s heart that follows is all the more powerful thanks to the masterful artistry that defines Disney Studios. While I can lay down my best attempt at a description, nothing beats watching the scene for yourself: https://youtu.be/A4QuKwfv6Wk
RESTORING THE HEART OF NICHOLE
For me, the tears began the moment Te Ka/Te Fiti sees her heart in Moana’s hand. Like the audience, the goddess-turned-demon seems to have been fooled, too. Living so long without her heart, she forgot who she is. Her heart stolen by a misguided half-man, Te Feti is wounded, broken, betrayed, hot with anger, dry and desperate. Te Fiti became Te Ka. And Te Ka forgot Te Fiti.
Moana understands this and commands the ocean, “Let her come to me”. As the sea parts (in dramatic slo-mo), Moana and Te Ka move toward one another across a dry seabed (the biblical allusion cannot be missed) and Moana sings these words to Te Ka/Te Fiti:
I have crossed the horizon to find you
I know your name
They have stolen the heart from inside you
But this does not define you
This is not who you are
You know who you are
Who you truly are
(Songwriters: Lin-Manuel Miranda / Mark A. Mancina / Opetaia Tavita Foa’i; Know Who You Are lyrics ©Walt Disney Music Company)
How can you NOT cry when you watch this scene? Maybe if you don’t make everything about yourself and your relationship to God, like I do, maybe then you wouldn’t cry. But I do. And I did. And I’m sharing it with you because while there’s a lot of me in this story, there’s a little of all of us in here, too.
As I watched this scene in a dark movie theater in Blue Back Square, Moana wasn’t just restoring the heart of Te Fiti. God was restoring the heart of Nichole:
Let her come to me, He said.
I’ve crossed the universe to find you, He said.
I know your name, He said. I’ve engraved you on the palms of My hands.
They have stolen the heart from inside you. This broken world and all its broken people will do that to a person, He said.
But this does not define you, He said.
Nichole, this is not who you are, He said. You are wounded but you are not a monster.
You know who you are, He said.
Who you truly are, He said. You are mine. I have your heart right here, safe in my hands.
God can meet us anywhere, can’t He? So much healing happened inside those few moments.
WHILE WE WERE YET MONSTERS
Don’t miss this: As Moana sings and walks toward Te Ka, she shows no fear. She stands face-to-face with the lava monster, places her hand on Te Ka’s terrifying face, leans her forehead against Te Ka’s forehead, and whispers “who you truly are”.
What’s so important about this moment, from my perspective as one-who-hears-God-speak-in-all-sorts-of-crazy-places-even-Disney-movies, is that Moana acknowledges the true identity of Te Ka before she restores her heart.
Moana doesn’t fear Te Ka, she embraces her. Moana doesn’t rush to fix Te Ka, she accepts her. Moana meets Te Ka right where she is, and loves Te Ka in her wounded, broken, monster-ness. Because Moana believes in the heart of Te Fiti. Moana believes that once Te Fiti’s heart is returned to her, Te Ka will be restored to her true self. Moana knows that Te Ka will be Te Fiti again because Te Ka has always been Te Fiti.
I see two things in this:
First, the obvious: This is exactly what God does with us. While we are yet monsters, He makes a way for us to come to Him. He knows who we truly are. He has called us by name. We are His. This fallen world has stolen the heart from inside us. But God has rescued our hearts and holds them in His hands. And if we let Him, He will restore our hearts. He will restore us to our true, good, life-giving, made-in-the-image-of-God, selves.
Second, we all go through Te Ka seasons, some of us a little more lava-monster-ish than others (she says as a straggling tendril of smoke wisps out of her right nostril). And in those seasons, we need people like Moana. (Yes, a paragraph ago Moana was a Jesus-figure and now I’m using her to represent humanity, but we’re called to be Christ-like, so just go with it.)
In our Te Ka seasons, we need people like Moana – friends, family, mentors, leaders – who don’t fear us or shame us or rush us. But who sit with us in the Real, in the Ugly, in the Crazy, who meet us face-to-face, forehead-to-forehead, who look us in the eye and say “I know your name. I know who you truly are.”
And in our Te Fiti seasons, we can be Moana to the lava-monsters. (Yep, now Te Fiti is Moana is you. Keep up.) We can be the one who remembers the true hearts of our brothers and sisters. We can meet them face-to-face, forehead-to-forehead – no shame, no fear, no need to rush. We may not even need to say a word. Our peaceful, faithful, loving presence will tell them “I know your name. I know who you truly are.”
In the movie, Moana eventually restores the heart of Te Fiti. Each time I watch, I can feel the brittle, black, lava-rock exterior as it cracks and falls away, exposing the lush, green, flowering beauty of the life-giving goddess beneath. I feel it because I experienced it – remembering my true self, seeing God holding my heart, the hard shell of the monster falling away.
Te Fiti then heals the land, thanks Moana, forgives Maui and promptly takes a nap. Being Te Ka is exhausting. I was exhausted, too. But in God, who created and knows and holds our true selves, in Him is perfect rest.
In Moana, a human teenage girl restores the heart of the goddess Te Fiti.
In the greatest story ever told – my story, your story, His-story – the God of the universe restores the heart of Nichole. He restores the heart of You. He restores the hearts of All Who Come to Him. He has crossed the universe to find us. He has parted the sea and made a way. Love. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Restored hearts. Restored creation. A new heaven. A new earth. Life everlasting. And lots of naps.
© Nichole Q. Perreault
*No goddesses were worshipped during the writing of this blog.
Smithsonianmag.com published an article exploring how the film, Moana, represented the history and culture of the Polynesian people. You can read more about that here.