The following is a companion piece to Part 3 of our Masculinity Series, “Becoming More Manly.”
The glory of God is man fully alive. – St Iranaeus
Jason Momoa’s short film Canvas of my Life is an extraordinarily powerful and beautiful depiction of manhood, despite its commercial commission by Carhartt as an ad for pants.
In an amazingly full eight and a half minutes, he weaves a lyrical and rhythmic narrative from boyhood to wild youth, from wandering nomad to anchored fatherhood, delightfully juxtaposed with scenes of him at play with his children. What the film brilliantly and unpretentiously displays is the instinctive, impulsive, generative drive resounding at the core of every man, urging him to find himself, to better himself and to prepare himself for those sublime moments when he unveils the gifts of life to his children. It is a joyous, compelling, inspiring narrative that succeeds with masterful brevity to illustrate the wonderful odyssey of manhood. The soul of a man is to be found in the soul of the family, in the soul of beauty, in the soul of nature and creation.
0:00 Fathers open doors. In the sweetly comical opening scene, Momoa, in full stride, busts open a heavy door with his foot. His Mini-Me son trotting behind him tries to pull off the same trick but nearly gets flattened as the door swings closed. Dad neither pauses nor looks back, expecting his son to keep up. His son recovers his balance, gives a roar of achievement and runs ahead of dad. Fatherhood shows us how it’s done, and expects us to do it too.
0: 30 Fatherhood is already deep within us. Ever since I was a little boy, I had always wanted to be a father. Not all of us will feel this so intuitively, but our capacity to be fathers is there, inside us, right from the day we are born.
0:43 I was raised in small-town America, surrounded by hard work, cornfields and pigs. My uncles and grandfather were the hunters and builders of the Midwest. A strong man is the product of a strong community and of other strong men.
0:56 Good childhood relationships with our mothers are essential to our humanity. My mom’s an artist in every way … always searching, always seeing. I guess you could say my mom gave me her eyes.
1:30 It wasn’t just the skating, it was the music, the crew, the underground. Men need constructive leisure time with other men, where they learn and improve skills, build lasting relationships, have a sense of belonging and purpose.
1:36 Architecture was forever changed. You wouldn’t believe how much fun you could have on a curb! Being with other men gives us new perspectives and pulls us away from introspection and depression. It’s not about amassing material wealth or craving novelty, but finding joy in the small things, in participation, in inventiveness.
1:46 And climbing! I can’t imagine a more poetic defense of the duty of every healthy male to take up a physical activity. It made me face my fears and my doubts; explore the impossibles; problem-solve through movement. I learned to trust my hands, find my feet. I found balance – and I found my passion. Isn’t this how we discover and revel in the sublime beauty of our physical capabilities? Where we forge our transition from boyhood to manhood? And where we understand why we were created and what we were created for? Without strength and discipline, how can we possibly be ready for the demands that lie ahead of us?
2:06 I craved the road, the wild. I wanted to get out … 2:31 I packed up my life and I put it on my back. Free to wander. Everywhere. This is the great metaphor of masculine transformation, the timeless story of the boy who leaves home to seek his fortune, returning as a man with far greater treasures than just a bag full of coins. Men are drawn out of the childhood home, not only to test their mettle but to be shaped, formed, rounded by the people and experiences they meet.
2:14 Camping, fires, playing music, telling stories. Momoa continuously returns to elemental themes – familiarity with the natural world, the symbolism of fire, the power of music and storytelling. These themes reach deep into our hearts and touch our souls; they compel us to wonder, to see the magic, to unite with antiquity and infinity, to ask profound questions of ourselves and of the world. It is a man’s task to kindle the ancient myths, to connect their children to the rhythms of the universe and to anchor them in tradition and lore. For when the roots go deep, the tree truly flourishes.
2:51 Somehow that path lead me to a crossroads … 3:10 Wanderlust gave way to direction and purpose … 3:33 I found my path. This, my fellow men, is what we are all aiming for! That point at which we forsake all other paths to pursue with single mindedness the path chosen for us. This is where we leave the sofa, quit bumming around, stop the excessive quest for momentary pleasures, commit to a vocation, a profession, a woman, a family. But notice how it’s the drive to get up and leave that eventually brings us back to where we should be. (7.03 Since the moment I left my mother’s house to the moment that I built a home with my wife …). If you don’t leave, you won’t get anywhere – and the cyclical, regenerative act of establishing a family and a household, for which men are responsible, cannot take place.
2:57 At the end of that road, acting cornered me. She seduced me. I love Momoa’s personification of acting and his choice of the feminine pronoun! When the moment of understanding comes, it comes with the tender, encompassing force of a passionate lover. His words find an appealing and elegant echo in Proverbs, Chapter 8, the Commendation of Wisdom (it’s worth reading the whole chapter):
Does not wisdom call,
And understanding lift up her voice?
On top of the heights beside the way,
Where the paths meet, she takes her stand…
“To you, O men, I call,
And my voice is to the sons of men…
“I love those who love me;
And those who diligently seek me will find me…
“My fruit is better than gold, even pure gold,
And my yield better than choicest silver.
“I walk in the way of righteousness,
In the midst of the paths of justice,
To endow those who love me with wealth,
That I may fill their treasuries”
Note too, that while Momoa was the one searching, it was acting that found him. Even though we must search, we often find with surprise that our vocation has been there waiting for us, all along.
3:36 I’m a craftsman. Gentlemen, this should also be our refrain! But it’s not, is it? This simple statement makes us reflect on so much of what has been lost from authentic manhood and from the society in which we live. Each one of us has the gift of a great craftsman within us, which we are obliged to hone to perfection and to use with prudence in our families and communities – and how much better our lives would be if that were so! Yet, we have been reduced to homogeneous drones in tight suits and shiny ties, believing that the daily grind is our only existence: commute through rush hour to arid, airless office blocks, to make money that we spend on ways to alleviate our depression. We’ve lost touch with the craftsman inside us. We’ve forgotten the joy of dedication to a manual task, the charm of purposeful leisure, the delight of creativity and invention. So, get out of the office and into the workshop, the garage, the studio, the countryside, the theatre or the backyard. Roll up your sleeves, commit to your craft and proudly pronounce what you are!
3:44 And then it happened – She came. That glorious culmination and point of fruition! She, of course, is his wife, but this could equally relate to any instance of deep recognition in our lives, to that epiphanic moment when we simultaneously ‘know’ and ‘are known’, and from which point our lives are irrefutably changed.
4:15 I’m a father! I found my place; my home. What a cry of awareness! And yet the film doesn’t rest here. This is just the pivot on which the narrative turns, from Momoa’s youthful introspection to his paternal mission. Home is not where we put our feet up as the wife vacuums underneath; home is where we faithfully put into practice our fatherly obligations.
4:38 And now we find we have a new set of cares: The nomadic lifestyle that once inspired me – it now takes me away from the things that I love the most … my family. I’m afraid of what I’m going to miss … being able to help them, teach them. There is an acute awareness here of the impact of a father’s absence, not just physically, but emotionally: 5:04 If I think about it, I only have five more years, five summers, and I’m not the centre of their universe. It’s an acknowledgement that we have a limited time to teach, inspire, support and guide before our children step out into the world themselves. Every day must count!
5:28 Everything we teach our children at a young age, even with an imperfect set of personal skills, will be multiplied as they grow. If I teach them to skate, then they can surf or snowboard … If I teach them to climb, they can push themselves to the limits. This is our role as fathers, to take our children beyond what they thought they were capable of, and beyond even that of which we are capable.
5:57 Encouraging our children to surpass themselves is not restricted to their physical capabilities; we must also make them aware of the things outside of their immediate perceptions. If they can admire nature’s truest colours, they can begin to see the beauty in all things, to be aware of those inconspicuous and overlooked details of life. We must apply this, too, to life’s inconspicuous and overlooked people, and teach our children to recognize and treat the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised with love and care.
6:12 If the film hasn’t yet moved our hearts and opened our eyes to the awe-inspiring, transcendent commission appointed to us as men, its central message is poignantly captured in the remaining narrative: They will know art. They’ll paint; they’ll sculpt. They’ll understand light and darkness and composition. Find their soul – and that’s where the music lies. Teach them to play. Because if they can play, they can sing; and if they can sing, then they can dance. And when you dance, you celebrate. It is all connected … And if I build it, I can teach them hard work, dedication, integrity, a moral code. Then every time my children play, they can feel that their Papa is always with them!
Men, is this not our calling to fatherhood? That, when our children reach up to us, they reach out and touch the face of God?
Explorer, pursuant, musician, artist, storyteller, builder, teacher, mentor, companion. Father. Whether the film is an accurate representation of Momoa’s life or not is neither here nor there. What’s most compelling is its purity of intention, directing our thoughts, words and actions not to ourselves but to a divine purpose or mission and, ultimately, to God.
What a shame it was made to simply advertise pants.
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