Jazzing (and Baking) in the New Year with Pixar’s Soul

On Amounting to Something, Regular Old Living, and Peace

Since entering my thirties, around every turn of the year I can always count on the same lingering question nagging at my subconscious like a hungry and overtired toddler: What if I never amount to anything?

Something about the annual ritual of taking stock, or the barrage of “New Year, New Me” social media posts, leaves me feeling dry and exhausted, over-extended and yet remarkably under-accomplished. I look back at my own year and think, “What did I even do this year?” The essays I didn’t write, the speaking invitations that never came, the dinner parties I never threw, the pants size I neglected to achieve — these failures begin to haunt me the very second things start to get quiet after Christmas morning.

You are not enough,” the whispers hiss in disgust. “What if you never amount to anything more than this?”

Lately, that last line has felt less like a rhetorical jeer and more like a question to answer. What if I really never amount to anything more than I am right now: soft around the edges, a semi-occasional writer, and a glutton for chips and queso? What if? What if? Can I be okay with that? Or will I be crushed like a slug under the weight of Ideal Me, who is engaged and energized, driven by purpose and achievement.

These questions came into even sharper focus after watching Pixar’s latest release, Soul. I won’t leave you hanging, reader: it is my recommendation that, despite some criticism, you watch this one as soon as possible. Soul follows aspiring jazz pianist, Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who dies right on the cusp of his big break. The narrative lurches forward with Joe as a disembodied soul, fighting to get back to Earth so he can play his big gig.

As he insists, “Once I get on the stage tonight, all my troubles are going to be fixed. You’re going to see a brand new Joe Gardner.” Joe, like so many of us, has fallen for the notion that life is all about passion, purpose, identity, and a flourishing career to show for it. Nobody has bought into this more than me [see the book I published that did not, that could not, satisfy that abyss]. For Joe Gardner, his purpose is music: “I was born to play … It’s my reason for living.” The film dances around this deeply vexing yet personally familiar theme – “I’m just afraid that if I died today, that my life would’ve amounted to nothing.”

Soul couldn’t be more timely in a year when our collective mortality is sharp-nailed tapping on our shoulders by the minute. In lieu of wobbly career trajectories for many of us, productivity has been the name of the game since the world went into lockdown. How will we make the most of our fragile lives? I don’t know about you, but as a mother to young children I spent most of 2020 not living at all, just surviving. I have neither a spin warrior’s bod nor a pair of award-winning albums to show for that borrowed time. What I have is this: children who are almost a year older and, as far as I can tell, not completely traumatized. That’s what purpose and victory have looked like for me in 2020, and you’d think it would be enough.

Joe says, “All the times I’ve been so close to getting to my dreams, something always gets in the way.” On a particularly bad day, I might tell you this is the major thread of my adult life. I was made to write, to create, to be somebody. Oh, the partially written memoirs and screenplays that bedevil my computer’s hard drive! I almost finished. But then I had two accidental [ever-beloved] babies. But then we moved across the country. But then I got sick. But then my husband’s job swallowed our family whole. But then 2020 and COVID hit.

But then … but then … but then …

My most monstrous inner dialogue sounds an awful lot like Joe Gardner’s skittish soul side-kick, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), condemning herself after she’s lost her way: “Oh, the world needs remarkable people, and you are the least remarkable soul I’ve ever met. You’ll never find your spark. Imbecile.”

Joe believed that his life would only really mean something once he’d had his big break as a musician. And in this year of stagnation, I can’t help but wonder — antithetical as it is to the typical New Year’s attitude — what it would look like to take hold of life without a dream or a gold star in sight.

Soul points us to an answer: jazz.

After 22 visits earth for the first time, she begins to discern that life isn’t really about finding your spark, that thing that makes you special. It isn’t necessarily even about finding your purpose.

I just let out the me. Hey, like you said about jazz. I was jazzing … Just look at what I found. Your mom sewed your suit from this cute spool. When I was nervous, Dez gave me this [lollipop]. A guy on the subway yelled at me. It was scary. But I kind of liked that too.

Later on she says, “Maybe sky-watching can be my spark. Or walking. I’m really good at walking.” Joe — still bought in to the throne of his career — responds, “Those really aren’t purposes, 22. That’s just regular old living.”

In Joe’s defense, none of these things adds up to anything particularly remarkable by the world’s standards. It’s just jazzing. Regular old living. And I’ve fought against it for as long as I can remember, aspiring instead for somebody else’s version of greatness.

Over Thanksgiving this year, I started to get a glimpse of another, jazzier way. I started baking. That’s right, reader, baking. If you know me well at all, this may likely perplex you — I am not what you would call a “domestic” woman.

For weeks prior I had considered trying my hand. But where would I even start? Did I need to purchase a bunch of new tools? Would venturing into baking irrevocably make me a hobby person? Eventually, I followed my curiosity, found a reliable recipe, purchased the necessary ingredients, and mentally committed to a weekend bake: soft pretzels. As I laid everything out, my heart quickened the same way it would on adventure. The yeasty dough was tacky and strange between my fingers. After making a goofy and uneducated attempt at kneading, I covered the bowl with plastic wrap, set it beneath the sunny warmth of my west-facing window, and watched it rise. The whole thing was embarrassingly thrilling: I’m telling you, pure jazz.

The chemistry, the measuring, the timing of things just right, the watching and waiting and voilà: the final results! In baking, I feel markedly connected to my body, my life, and the created world — the visual and social poetry one witnesses on a program like The Great British Baking Show is real. I have lived it. Baking, different from most cooking, is utterly and beautifully superfluous. Unlike so many of my “passions” and “purposes,” nobody needs me to bake. Neither the faith nor the reading community need my chocolate roulage. My children will survive just fine without soft pretzels or anything else I have baked up since then.

It’s one of the first things in my life that is really, truly, and purely for the joy of it. And since that first bake, I have stumbled upon such a strange and messy grace in working with my hands on a baking project, all for nary a noteworthy reason.

Like walking, like looking at the sky, like many other things I’ve never thought of before, baking for me is jazzing. And jazzing is really just grace — a shooting star in an already navy sky — whipped cream on top of an ice cream Sunday. When I’m putting together a cake, making something out of nothing, I feel acutely aware that I am an embodied soul, an image-bearer of a creator God, who said, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” Knead, fold, rest, repeat. And he saw that it was good.

Like Joe Gardner, I have spent so many of my minutes reaching, wanting. And after Joe finally gets to play the big gig — when his dreams have been reached — surprisingly dejected, he looks over to the star singer who brought him on: “It’s just, I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.”

She responds:

I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish, and says, ‘I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.’ ‘The ocean?’ says the older fish. ‘That’s what you’re in right now.’ ‘This?’ says the young fish. ‘This is water. What I want is the ocean.’

At the start of 2021, I have no big ambitions or grand resolutions. I am, however, entering into this year with a more robust awareness that this water I’m swimming in is the actual ocean and, more poignantly, that even just surviving is still living. My real life is what’s happening right now, in all its ordinary sorrows and joys. If you read Genesis 1 carefully, there is a remarkableness — a shalom, a divine peace and wholeness — to just regular old living. And it is abundant with small yet superfluous goodness. My life is more than my appearance or my accolades. I am a mother living in a world filled with child-like magic; I am an amateur baker; I am a wife to a novice drummer and Lego-master; I live in a city abundant with hydrangeas and fried chicken and old friends who will gladly eat my baked goods. John 1:16 says, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Because I am both surrounded and inhabited by a dead-then-living God, I can jazz just about anywhere, even in this harsh and unforgiving winter. I can be full because I have been filled.

So what if I really never amount to anything?

Soul blessedly reminds us in all our aspirational hoo-ha, “Your spark isn’t your purpose. That last box fills in when you’re ready to come live. And, the thing is, you’re pretty great at jazzing.”


One response to “Jazzing (and Baking) in the New Year with Pixar’s Soul

  1. Pierre says:

    This is excellent, thanks. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year.

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