Ghibli Month Guest Post: When Hannah Was There

As we continue our month-long celebration of Studio Ghibli, we’re proud to present guest piece by Tonie, a close friend of the blog and frequent contributor through Facebook.

“In this world, there’s an invisible magic circle. There’s an inside and an outside. Those people are inside of the circle. And I am outside.”

These are the protagonist Anna’s opening words in “When Marnie Was There,” and boy, how they resonated with me the first time I heard them! It’s always been a challenge for me to make close friends. Naturally, the moment I learned in 2015 that the great Studio Ghibli’s latest movie focused on a lonely girl forming a special connection with the titular Marnie, I knew I was in for a treat! When Marnie Was There enchanted me with its powerful and eloquent portrayal of true friendship, so much so that I began asking God to send me my own “Marnie.” As is often the case with God, His plans were a bit different than the dream I envisioned for myself. But as is always the case with God, what He had in store for me was much better!

Fast forward to April 13th, 2017.  Funny how one day can completely change your life! I remember feeling particularly lonely that day. I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I had been seriously considering giving up on my petitions to God for a friend and resigning myself to being a “lone wolf.” A book I was reading at the time provided a daily “Act of Kindness” suggestion. I’m paraphrasing, but this day’s prompt was, “Reach out to a stranger today and give them a compliment.” I kept that thought in mind while reading a fanfiction story I happened across. It was such a cute story, and the author seemed like a very sweet person. An excellent target for my act of kindness! I sent her a PM telling them how much I had enjoyed what she wrote. The response was quick. She was flattered by the compliment, and the PM became a warm, pleasant conversation. A friendship was born!

Upon meeting Anna in the film, Marnie decides that their relationship should remain a “precious secret” from everyone else. “There’s all sorts of things I want to know about you. But, I don’t wish to find out too fast. Let’s take it slow as we go along,” she suggests. And so it was with me and my new online pen pal, a young college student named Hannah! We learned about each other gradually through fascinating discussions. Though we lived on opposite sides of the country, we bonded immediately and deeply. We discovered that we had a great deal in common, such as a love of writing and psychology, and similarly introverted dispositions. Best of all, we were both devout Christians! Hannah let me know how wonderful it was to talk to a kindred spirit. Befriending her classmates was hard, in part because many of them were somewhat hostile toward Christianity and faith in general. And she said that she hadn’t mentioned me to anyone in her life, for it was so fun having a “secret friend.”

It soon struck me that Hannah did indeed resemble my “dream friend” in the vein of When Marnie Was There, but not in the way I’d presumed she would. Anna was Hannah’s “fictional twin” far more than she had ever been mine.  Both girls were artists, for one thing, and fine ones at that. There was a bit of a physical resemblance, too, as their eyes were a pretty, unique shade of blue. Mainly, Hannah was deeply shy and had been struggling with bouts of depression since she was 12-years-old, but had been happier and more outgoing in her younger years. These lingering issues often crippled her ability to reach out to people. We learn early on in the film that 12-year-old Anna was once more expressive and had only recently grown moody and withdrawn.

Like I said, our God is full of surprises! It became clear that Hannah needed me more than I needed Hannah. She mentioned again and again how much she appreciated my unwavering faith in Jesus, which was stronger than her own. I spoke candidly about my experiences with anxiety and isolation throughout my life, and she said that my commitment to optimism was so inspiring.  Hannah considered me a mentor, so she told me, and she would ask for my perspective on various issues. She was like a sister to me, my little Anna, and I was her Marnie. Our anime counterparts even had oddly similar names, Tonie and Marnie, Hannah and Anna! In the film, Anna admires Marnie’s deftness at rowing the boat when the girls are on the lake together. “You are much better at rowing than I am,” she remarks. “Anybody can do it,” Marnie smiles, proceeding to teach Anna how to row by herself. Likewise, I was helping Hannah to (g)row in her faith and step outside of her comfort zone.

Of course, friendship is a two-way street, and Hannah was one of the most understanding, empathetic, and sincere people I’ve ever met. I felt so comfortable confiding in her.  In October of 2017, my mom and I were preparing a trip to Oregon by airplane. I had what I’m convinced was a precognitive dream before we left, wherein God told me to get on board without taking the mild sedative I used for plane rides. Traveling had triggered panic attacks in the past, I told Hannah, and the thought of riding a plane unassisted by something like that was a scary one. My friend was so encouraging! She urged me to take the leap of faith. She even drew a picture of me as a superhero to calm my nerves. I was so touched. I’d never been drawn before! My faith, combined with support from my precious friend, gave me the courage to do something I’m certain I couldn’t have accomplished alone. The plane rides to and from Oregon went perfectly well! I told Hannah as much when I came home. I’d conquered my anxiety, and she was so proud of me. During one tender scene in When Marnie Was There, Anna helps Marnie overcome her fear of the spooky, allegedly haunted local silo. “I don’t want anybody making fun of me, but I haven’t the courage,” Marnie whimpers. “You have courage! Look, you came up here,” Anna assures her. “You did well, Marnie. Real well.”

Time passed, and by late 2018, Hannah and I had only been talking about once a month for the past few months. She’d been increasingly engrossed in her hectic college life.  It seemed as though we were beginning to grow apart, and I kindly asked if she felt the same way. She did, and I admitted that I had sensed God telling me when we met that our friendship would be wonderful but temporary.  “I can’t promise anymore that I’ll be around to talk whenever you need me,” Hannah said. “My life is most likely only going to get busier. And you deserve so much better than that. You deserve a friend who will always be there.” Thus, we lovingly bid one another farewell in April of this year. I managed to send my final message to Hannah on the 13th, exactly two years since the day we met. That felt so poetic! We agreed that we couldn’t wait to meet face-to-face in Heaven someday. We thanked each other profusely for our friendship. She insisted that I never worry about her again, for I had changed her life. Her depression was gone, her faith in Jesus was stronger than ever, and she had recently made a new, younger friend whom she’d begun to mentor, just like I had mentored Hannah. She had even gotten a role in her high school’s production of “Newsies” and was learning to tap dance. Dancing was great fun!! In yet another beautiful scene, Anna joins Marnie at a party disguised as a flower girl. Marnie helps her bashful friend come out of her shell by dancing with her.

Near the end of the movie, Marnie tells Anna that she cannot stay with her any longer, and the two girls share a tearful, poignant goodbye. During the climax, Marnie’s true identity is revealed. She was the ghost of Anna’s grandmother as a little girl! “I have overcome many frightening things in life,” the elderly Marnie coos to baby Anna in a flashback sequence. “And Anna, so will you. After all, you’re my only grandchild. And you have my love now and forever.” Anna weeps openly, but she’s found perfect peace.

Strange as it may sound, this, too, has meaning for me! Hannah had told me that her battle with depression began when her beloved grandmother died. I believe that, by God’s grace and in a tiny, humble way, I was able to bring Hannah’s grandmother back to her in wisdom and love. To reunite her with her genuine self. If she were here with me now, I think she’d agree that she found her own “precious secret” in me. I know I found my own “flower girl” who needed a little help blossoming. Eerily enough, the Japanese word for “flower” is, in fact, “hana.” And, just perhaps, I also inspired mine to dance.

I will carry the lessons from this relationship with me wherever I go! First and foremost, that if you wish to avoid misunderstandings, it’s crucial for one’s hopes and dreams to be aligned with God’s will, not the other way around (Thankfully, the surprises in this case were all pleasant!). That no matter how isolated one feels, nobody should resign themselves to being a “lone wolf.”  It’s not Biblical, and God is constantly working behind the scenes. Valuable things often take time, but they’re well worth the wait. After all, if I met Hannah at a different point, I don’t think that my friendship would have made as deep an impact on her life. That the best of friends bring out the best in oneself!  I had anticipated finding the Marnie to my Anna when I was destined to be someone else’s Marnie. I know now that my faith is stronger than most and that my naturally cheerful disposition is a real miracle. A childhood friend of Marnie’s tells Anna that Marnie “had a lonely life, but she always lived it to the fullest. She lived life with a smile, determined to be happy.” I never required any help in that area. God had been providing me with everything all along.  And I know that I can be a great mentor to a friend in need. Would I have ever discovered these truths on my own? I highly doubt it. Hannah provided me with the objectivity I needed to gain a more nuanced, well-rounded view of myself, as I believe only she could have done.

Finally, the memories of our friendship are a reminder of the importance of never underestimating one’s contribution to this world! Every single decision we make affects something or someone, whether we see it or not. Hannah and I were both firm believers in the Butterfly Effect! I will eternally be in awe of the fact that my journey with her began with a random act of kindness, with a fanfiction story and a few sweet words.

I know we won’t understand everything until we get to Heaven. We need to wait a lifetime to see all the differences we’ve made here on Earth. But for however short a time, I did see the change I was making in one remarkable young lady’s life. Over the course of two incredible years and many conversations, I watched my friend evolve from a shy, anxious, depressed girl into a strong, cheerful Christian involved in her church and community and feeling very excited about the plans God had for her life! I told Hannah I would have rather had two years talking with her than fifty years with my old friends who hadn’t been half as good to me.  She was confident that God would continue to fulfill every purpose He had for me so long as I continued to trust Him, and unlike poor Marnie, my story has a happier ending! I view my life as a blank canvas waiting to be filled with glorious possibilities. At a period when I’d nearly given up on my dreams, meeting Hannah made me positive that there are other best friends to be found if you never stop searching and always keep your heart receptive to whatever and whomever God brings your way. I will be forever beholden to her for that alone. And Hannah knows that she has my love now and forever.

My final request to Hannah as a friend was that she would please watch When Marnie Was There, the last, perfect platonic love letter I could send to her. She promised me that she would. Thank you, God and Studio Ghibli, for creating such a life-altering movie!

Your friendly neighborhood Asper-girl, Tonie is an amateur writer, daydream believer, part-time cloud cuckoo lander and all-around Jesus freak! Be sure to follow her on Facebook.

When Marnie Was There is available for purchase on Amazon.


2 thoughts on “Ghibli Month Guest Post: When Hannah Was There

    1. I apologize for not seeing this sooner!! Thank you very much for saying that; you totally made my day!! It makes me happier than you could possibly know that my friendship story had a positive impact on you!! ^_^

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