How do you solve a problem like Maria? Jefferson Navicky’s answer may surprise you.
I no longer remember when I first saw the camera soar down like a helicopter to find Fraulein Maria, twirling open-armed on the top of a grassy Austrian hill. I was a fairly young boy when I first saw “The Sound of Music”, young enough to be scared of the Nazi scenes and maybe even a little scared of the thunderstorm that drove all seven Von Trapp kids into Fraulein Maria’s bed. I’ve seen it now so many times I can’t count. But somehow I never manage to last more than a half hour or so. The beginning’s my favorite part.
I recently watched the film again on a family vacation. This time, before the actual movie started, Julie Andrews appeared, forty years older, to talk about the movie and ask, “Why is this movie so popular?”
I don’t really care why it became the #1 movie of all-time (or whatever record it broke). However, Ms. Andrew’s question made me think of my own connection to the movie. The answer to her question for me lies in the movie’s first real song and dance number, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”
Growing up in Southeast Ohio, amongst the hunters and the cows and the football players, I was nowhere near a problem like Maria. I still remember the vivid sting of shame when, in second grade, I forgot to do my spelling homework and the teacher wrote my name on the chalkboard. I burst into tears and never got into trouble again. Literally, as hard and even as sad as this may be to believe, that is true. So when I saw Fraulein Maria bust in late to the convent and even more satisfyingly, when she impertinently lips off to the imposing Captain VonTrapp upon first meeting him, I immediately loved her, just as the nuns secretly do and just as the Von Trapp children do.
Unpredictable as weather,
She’s as flighty as a feather,
She’s a darling! She’s a demon! She’s a lamb!
How do you solve a problem like Maria? The crux of the song is that paradox – how can one girl be so lovable and kind, yet such a screw-up at the same time? The abbey is split and their concern is genuine – what do we do with someone like Maria? The Head Nun, the wise one who skips the embellished judgments and simply calls Maria a “girl”, comes up with the answer: you set her free.
This is the part that gets me, even today as a thirty-seven year old man, and it certainly got me as a young boy, even if I didn’t know what it was that so affected me. Who isn’t a paradox? It’s one of a humanity’s central characteristics, these wild juxtapostions, and yet it’s also one of the our species’ most persecuted qualities. We aren’t consistent, and yet we demand consistency. It’s staggering to think of the amount of conflict, and the amount of suffering inflicted upon “inconsistent” persons. As a little kid, you must act this way and if you don’t you get sent to your room; as a woman, you’re supposed to act this way or men won’t find you attractive; as a nation, you’re supposed to do this and if you don’t, we go to war with you. There just isn’t much room for paradox in our culture.
And that’s why the Head Nun’s decision is so amazing. She doesn’t punish or reprimand or shame; she says, “Maria, this may not be the place for you, although you may think it is, but I’m going to set you free and see what happens.”
There was nothing I wanted more, when I was growing up, than to be set free. The problem was that no one would set me free because no one knew I how trapped I felt in Southeast Ohio. I was stuck in a farming and jock culture, a place I would never belong. Then, I didn’t know anything else. Maybe I was too young, lacked the courage or the confidence to act out, or maybe I was simply a plain ol’ mama’s boy. Whatever it was, I didn’t have the balls that Fraulein Maria had. I didn’t give myself permission to be late, talk out of turn, or lip off to coaches or captains.
Once I finally realized this, it’s been an entire lifetime of giving myself permission to be myself. Luckily, once you start a process like this, you can’t stop. Of course I don’t want it to, even now. I want to live out my essential paradox. As the Head Nun said of Maria, she’s just a “girl,” and I’m just a man. I learned how to be one from Fraulein Maria. Photo: “The Sound of Music”, Robert Wise Productions, 1965