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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

In 2022, Disney's 'Encanto' is teaching me to stop defining myself by my accomplishments

Luisa Madrigal talking to her younger sister Mirabel in the Disney film "Encanto."
Luisa Madrigal talking to her younger sister Mirabel in the Disney film "Encanto."

In the two years I've spent talking to Kansas Citians about how the pandemic has changed their lives and beliefs, I've heard a lot about the pressures that people want to let go. Even in 2022, that's proving easier said than done. Can a Disney song put us on the right path?

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Everyone in the Madrigal family has a magical gift.

That's the premise of Disney's holiday-season hit, "Encanto," with music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Except the people most obsessed with this animated movie, playing the songs on repeat, are grown adults.

I’m guilty, and I’m 44. I have a dad friend who confessed to listening to one of the songs alone in his car for a cathartic cry. The "Encanto" soundtrack dominates streaming services, and even hit the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart.

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have several theories about why that might be. But the one I want to talk about concerns a character named Luisa. (Don't worry: No major spoilers here.)

Of the Madrigal siblings, the very buff Luisa has been given the gift — or burden — of superhuman strength. When someone wants to play the piano, instead of walking over to it, they summon Luisa, who not only brings it to them, but stands, piano aloft, for the duration of the tune.

Not once does she question the absurdity of the request. Whatever anyone asks — and they ask a lot — Luisa obliges, making her feats of strength look effortless.

About halfway through the movie, Luisa's eye starts twitching, an unexpected development that launches her into a fast-paced dance song confessing her underlying exhaustion and fear. Throughout the musical number, titled "Surface Pressure," giant rocks fall out of the sky, piling up on her shoulders as the earth cracks beneath her.

"Under the surface," she sings, "I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus. Under the surface, was Hercules ever like, 'Yo, I don't wanna fight Cerberus?'"

As the song reaches a brief interlude, though, Luisa dares to imagine another way. The weight on her shoulders lifts and she floats up into the clouds. She wonders what it might be like to escape this crushing weight.

"Would that free some room up for joy, or relaxation, or simple pleasure?" she asks. For the first time in the movie, Luisa smiles.

Her reverie is interrupted by more rocks tumbling down. What can she do but catch them?

"Just pressure like a grip, grip, grip and it won't let go," she sings sadly from under the new accumulation of boulders. "Woah-oh."

From that moment on, nearly every time we see Luisa, she's sobbing. She's lost her magic, her super-strength. This forced reprieve is, in some ways, a fulfillment of her dream, the very break she'd wanted.

But it's also a profound loss — of identity and self-worth. Who is she, and what is her value, if she doesn't carry whatever other people want her to?

After more than two years interviewing numerous Kansas Citians about how the pandemic has disrupted their lives and work, I have come to an unfortunate conclusion:

We are all crying Luisas.

When our rushing around screeched to a halt in March 2020, we were frightened and disoriented. But we also looked around and saw what we'd painfully neglected, out of necessity, for so long: Our families. Ourselves.

Howard Hanna, chef at the now-closed Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange, talked to me in November 2020about imminent plans to shut the restaurant door behind him for good.

Back then, though, he wasn't grieving his restaurant. He bemoaned, instead, what he'd sacrificed for it.

Howard Hanna, left, chef and co-owner of The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange prepares, a delivery order Tuesday night.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Howard Hanna, left, prepared a carry-out order at the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange during his restaurant's final week of business in 2020.

"Seeing my kids more is cool. I'm reading more and I'm listening to music more. All of those things are really big reminders of how much it took to be Chef Howard Hanna instead of just Howard Hanna," he told me through tears. "All I did was work the first year the Rieger was open. My then-wife gave birth to twins and I only took two days off. Three weeks later, my mother died and I only took two days off. I don't want to do that again."

His restaurant's unofficial motto was "Beautiful Food For The People." Hanna etched the phrase onto the wall over the window that kitchen staff used to pass plates of food to servers in the dining room. From his home, over Zoom, Hanna acknowledged he hadn't been expansive enough in his thinking about "the people." He'd been focused on the customers.

"I should have been thinking more about us," he told me. "We are the people."

The sentiment is one I've heard a lot. Poi-O, a beloved local restaurant with a mom-n-pop feel and a cult following in the Crossroads, closed early in the pandemic.

"This one hurts," was a common refrain, one that I myself probably uttered. But chef Carlos Mortera had mixed feelings. He missed the food, but saying goodbye to the grueling workload had been a relief.

In 2021, as he prepared to reopen Poi-O as a slick drive-through in Kansas City, Kansas, he explained that he wanted to make something replicable: If this business was going to grow, he didn't want to have to grow it all by himself.

"I don't want to work 16, 18 hour days anymore," he told me in May. "I'm trying to see my daughter every day."

Carlos Mortera has nothing against fast food. He likes it. Putting his food in a box and serving it at a drive-through excites him.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Carlos Mortera has nothing against fast food. He likes it. Putting his food in a box and serving it at a drive-through excites him.

Well, that new location has since opened. Poi-O has been selected as a vendor at the new KCI airport. And Mortera's second baby just arrived this week. That's a lot to juggle without putting in the longer days he'd hoped to avoid.

So the question now, for Mortera and the rest of us, is: How do we make good on all those promises to ourselves, while fulfilling our obligations to the outside world?

Despite a lot of talk about rethinking and reimagining early in the pandemic, there's been disappointingly little change to the systems within which we operate. Meanwhile, the pressures we endure keep growing along with the costs of groceries and gas, with rising numbers of COVID cases and dwindling hospital beds.

Uncertainty and dread now hover, like cartoon rain clouds, over plans of all kinds. The pandemic isn't over. The only things that have ended are flexibility and accommodation.

Amanda Finley, a COVID long-hauler I interviewed in October, has been struggling with the practical ramifications of living life differently. Before the pandemic hit and she got sick, she'd made a living through gig work, delivering groceries.

As her illness dragged on, Finley — unable to work — lost her home. Although symptoms persist, she's recovered enough of her energy to work. But she doesn't think it makes real sense to return to the way she once operated.

"It wasn't working anyway," she confessed. "And I just, I felt like I wasn't living ... All I would do was I would come home, go straight to bed, wake up, go straight to work."

Finley describes the advocacy that she does now — often from a tent — as "screaming." She spends as much time as she can online, reminding people that long-haulers are still out there, needing support. Her friends are dying, often because they're unable to afford medicine.

Faced with this life-and-death reality, Finley says advocacy gives her a purpose that she's not willing to give up. The cost is homelessness.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

I can't help but find it strangely perverse that so many people end up duty-bound to busywork that distracts them, not only from the joy and relaxation Luisa sings about, but also from the real work, the jobs they feel called to do. With the seriousness of the challenges we now face — climate change, white supremacy, hunger, collapsing health care and education systems — it's crucial to define what we are and aren't giving our energy.

We can't take on everything.

Of course that makes us cry. I'm crying too, friends.

As normalcy returns — in the form of behavior if not case numbers — I struggle to give myself grace, because that's not the trait I've spent my life cultivating. For a long time, achievement and responsibility defined me. I always delivered, and even if I didn't like it, I took pride in it. I knew my worth.

The pandemic changed me. With only so much to give the outside world, I had to make choices. I had to say "no" more. And now that I technically could go back to how I did things before, I'm trying instead to keep choosing me.

Here's my warning: It's hard. I haven't stopped short of my absolute limit for at least 30 years. It feels wrong.

As Luisa sings: "Under the surface, I'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service."

In a culture that worships work ethic, that defines people by profession, letting go of misplaced ambition goes against everything we've been taught. The self-questioning is constant: Is this OK? (Yes.) What should I be doing with this newfound freedom? (Doesn't matter.) Will people be disappointed? (Maybe.) What happens to me then? (That's the million dollar question.)

So I think the Dalai Lama must be onto something with his advice: "Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it."

Now, where does that leave us? Encanto is open-ended on the matter — it is, after all, a children's movie and not a self-help guide. Ostensibly.

As for me, it's a new year. I rang in 2022 in an acupuncture session, where the practitioner told me that my stress points were bleeding and my hands were in fists. So let's just say I haven't figured it out yet, either.

I have a resolution for 2022, but it's not to do more. It's not to do better. It's not to try harder.

I could rattle off a long list of good intentions unfulfilled — some of them are quite basic and embarrassing, like regular hair-brushing, but shame is not on my resolution list, either.

My resolution is to find more ease. To relax into the quiet moments I'm lucky enough to get, instead of questioning whether I've earned them.

And I hereby resolve to stop trying so hard. Without measuring myself by the weight I take from others, who knows who I'll be?

I'm both scared and excited to meet her.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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