“What a Friend” by Mark W. Harris
December 11, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist
Opening Words – from Beverly and David Bumbaugh
Our church exists to proclaim the gospel that each human being is infinitely precious, that the meaning of our lives lies hidden in our interactions with each other. We wish to be a church where we encounter each other with wonder, appreciation, and expectation, where we call out of each other strengths, wisdom, and compassion that we never knew we had.
Reading – from The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
Our reading this morning comes from a fictionalized account of the story of King David from the Hebrew Scriptures. The famous story of friendship in the Bible is that between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, but this reading depicts a conversation between Nathan, David’s servant and seer, who becomes his friend and confidant and helps him work through all the pain he has experienced because of his own actions and those of his children.
As I have mentioned in previous sermons, I am not someone who logs into Facebook very much, except when it comes to receiving birthday greetings. Every year when my birthday rolls around countless people seem to wish me a happy birthday. While I can say it is just some quick push of the button, it does make me feel like someone is thinking of me. This week I was motivated to post something and not only be a selfish recipient. I saw that our former First Parish member and student of mine, Morgan McLean had a birthday. I had not communicated with her in some time, and so not only wished her a happy birthday, but also mentioned how her new ministerial settlement in Davis, CA is the site of my old internship church. She wrote back, noting that she needed to learn more church history. I don’t know if this was a reference to reaping more from my well of knowledge, or that I had become so old that I was now part of church history. She concluded by saying Miss You!
I have hundreds of UU colleagues who are Facebook friends, and yet I do not communicate with them regularly, and in fact, barely know most of them. They are not close friends , but even for those who once were, our ability to communicate is impeded by distance.. Ministry is a lonely profession. You might say that is ridiculous because we ministers are around people all the time. Yet many of us have heeded a call that has landed us far away from those who we were once closet to. It also seems we all get tied up in the day to day living of our lives, and time spent with those who were once your dearest friends is limited to an occasional email or a lunch at the annual General Assembly. Those of us who serve a parish devote most of our lives to the parish, which means most time and energy is given over to our calling. The perennial question for ministers is can parishioners be your friends? Even if we spend some social time with parishioners it becomes a complicated question. A minister may really like and communicate well with certain parishioners and enjoy spending time together, but can a minister cross the line between minister and parishioner to reveal intimate details about our lives? At some point you have to become minister to this person, and the idea of a close friendship where you can say anything, and merely be yourself is limited. Moreover, parishioners must be treated equally in a minister’s purview, and thus befriending certain people means, you do not befriend others. Of all people, the minister has to be fair.
Finding friends in the parish, though, is not fair for anyone. This question of friendship arose because we were speaking at a meeting recently of why people may stop coming to our church. The general response seems to be that while most people find the church to be a warm, welcoming place at first, those who leave in a year or two do so because they did not make a personal connection. I have had many people tell me this after they had already left, and I tracked them down to ask why. While the preaching may be stimulating, the music awesome, and the RE supportive and helpful, these features will not seal the deal on a faith commitment unless something happens personally that is supportive, social, fun, enlightening, and maybe even life changing. Some may feel that they already have enough friends, or they come to be reassured by the presence and company of their old friends, or they may even say that this is not their community of friends, but that they only come here for services. I can’t demand that you change your patterns of why you come to church or why you stay, but I do want to suggest that making new friends will bring experiences, growth, support and maybe even challenge that you would not know otherwise. And a reminder that many of those people who walk through our doors are looking to find a friend.
Every personal encounter is not ripe soil for cultivating a friendship. Over Thanksgiving many of us were paranoid that there were going to be ugly conversations with family or friends who happened to be supporters of the political opposition. But here at First Parish the odds of you finding someone here who shares your political, social and religious values is quite high. Religiously, we begin with certain values. In the fundamentalist church of my childhood we used to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
“What a Friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry.
Everything to God in prayer!”
While no one is likely to take up that song in our UU church, the idea of modeling friendship is important. We may not have a religious deity to share our griefs with, or a source of solace to bring our reflections to for relief, but we are a source of connection in what we can offer to each other. The other day my son was saying you would think that in a church everyone would get along. Most of us know that is not the case. Some say their most difficult encounters occur in such a community. We know that personalities clash, that even if we don’t believe in that sin I sang about as a child, we understand people are flawed in their expressions and often judge others or react to personal challenges with anger. Friendships are broken, even as they are created. Friendships can also encourage us to reflect on our behavior, seek forgiveness, and become more compassionate towards others.
Friendship is one of the key examples that is made of Jesus’ ministry. The other night I had a dream where I was with a group of people, and we were arguing about whether or not we would follow the Didache. What is that, you might ask? Only a historian would dream about the Didache which was an early Christian manual that outlined the organization of the church, taking it from an itinerant ministry to an actual institution. How do we make a church for everybody? For us it may mean making space for people both metaphorically and literally. Jesus had defined what a true friend was. It is ultimately found in laying down your life for another. While that may seem extreme, the implication is what are we willing to risk or sacrifice to be part of a community. Many of our UU congregations are reflecting on this very question as we approach the next four years. If there is a Muslim registry, for instance, would you be willing to register as a Muslim? Would you be willing to stand up for the life of another? Jesus says he calls his disciples friends because everything he learned from God he shared with them. He didn’t hold anything back. This would be true if we stood up with an ally, and said I am not going to let you be hurt, or judged by others. Jesus does this when he touches and heals the unclean, or the leper.
For many of us this reminds us of a time not long ago when the AIDS epidemic was in our midst. Many people, including President Reagan, made jokes about the gay lifestyle and the onset of AIDS. A general perception in some of the culture was gay men were being punished for their sins – the wages of sin is death. A recent book portrays the courage of the gay community not to be destroyed by such rhetoric, but to find inner strength to carry on with perseverance and patience until better health care and medicines could be found, and, of course, more general acceptance. One of my most engaging students I have ever taught, a young man named Mark, who was a member here when he was a Tufts student in the 1970’s, eventually succumbed to AIDS. I tried to keep in touch with him over the years, and realize I could have made more allies as I tried to do then by raising money and sponsoring healing services and giving care.
This is the first sign of friendship in the church. Are we willing to show compassion for each other? The classic example of a person who is caught up in a series of afflictions in the scriptures is Job. In Chapter 2, Job’s three friends hear of all the “evil that had come upon him,” and so they respond by coming “to condole with him and comfort him.” Fourteen chapters later he refers to them as “miserable comforters are you all.” What happened? The pastoral care team showed up, but they certainly were not very well trained. Maimonides, a Medieval scholar, said that Job’s friends represent three different positions concerning divine providence that we may hear from our friends. The first position of Eliphaz is that Job must have done something wrong to deserve this kind of punishment. This is the classic affirmation that “it’s your fault.” I might say “my heart went crazy because I climbed Mt. Kathadin this summer. I overdid it. As a friend you might be the opposite of Eliphaz, and say, it’s not your fault.
The second position is expressed by his friend Bildad. This is the idea that you are being tested, and will receive a greater reward if you hang in there. We sometimes translate this to mean that this suffering is good for you, and you will be a better person for having endured this. Finally, there is Zophar, whose position is most like ours, not punishment, or great reward, but simply that these terrible things are arbitrary, and sometimes we are just darn unlucky. In those circumstances the friend might say I am here for you, let me listen, or maybe eventually you might come to the realization to enjoy what you have been given, even if much is taken away.
In my first church in Palmer, I knew George, an army veteran of Vietnam, who had trouble finding work, and felt his service was not recognized. He often said that he felt he was being tested, and that God would never give him more than he could handle. I worried that his anger would boil over, and the test he felt would come to an end. My happiest time with him was when we recognized his military service one Sunday. He did not feel so alone or shunned. His reward was not a great job, or even getting out of his trailer, but that someone heard him and honored his life. He stayed and found friends.
Muhammad Ali once said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” But making friends does not come naturally for many of us. Perhaps we are incorrigible introverts who fear new situations and new people, and so social hour feels like running the gauntlet. It is hard to make friends in a church because attendance does not mean automatic friendship. The person sitting next to you may be friendly, but it does not mean they are your friend. And it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with the church, if you don’t make a friend. You don’t make friends merely by showing up. It takes time to make friends. It also takes effort. Do you go to small group ministry, or potlucks or sing in the choir? Do you put yourself out there to be part of situations that will help you build friendships? I know I am an introvert, too. I don’t like people either, but if you want to be with wonderful, friendly people, then you have to be one of those wonderful people. Put yourself in a place where you can speak, or sing or be heard or give back in some way. Go to things. You are not going to find friends at church, but rather you must make friends at church. You have all those same values to share. You have that desire to grow. You have met these people. Now all it takes is the willingness to risk making friends.
I find I must keep at it. Making friends was not something I learned in school. My parents were not good models. They both worked all the time, and no one ever came to our house. As a boy I learned that to be a friend was to be part of a group or gang. We traveled in packs and played ball, or shot each other in war over and over again. Later we hung out, which is fun with friends, but friendship is more than hanging out, although not a bad idea to get a start at church. Friendships are people to be with and keep you company. But what of this issue of intimacy? Friendship progressed with me when I shared time with a colleague who was also a Dad, and lived nearby. And even though our situations and circumstances changed, we remained friends until he was removed from ministerial fellowship for conduct unbecoming, and perhaps because he was embarrassed by his actions, or didn’t trust our friendship, we mostly fell out of touch, and when I saw him again it was not the same. It is hard for men to share their intimate feelings perhaps because of upbringing or enculturation. Working on maintaining friendships is something I still struggle with. As I wrote this sermon I took time to send an email to a friend who I didn’t get a chance to connect with at a recent conference. I miss him. Just as Morgan said, she missed me. Taking time to call or email, I have learned after all these years that my friends are not just there to be found, but I must be making and remaking those friendships, or I lose my connections to others, and lose my connection to a greater, more meaningful life.
One of the great Biblical examples of friendship is found between King David and Saul’s son Jonathan, who stands by David even as Saul pursues David to kill him. David’s life is fictionalized in a recent novel by Geraldine Brooks. While the Bible depicts a deep friendship marked by a covenant which stated “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” This implication of a sexual relation between them is played out in Brooks’ novel, The Secret Chord, where she writes about “a love so strong that it flouted ancient rule.” In the book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, writes about the intimacy of friendship in nineteenth century America in the example of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin says that in the absence of parents and siblings, men turned to one another for support sharing thoughts and emotions so completely that these relationships had qualities of passionate romances. Lincoln became very depressed, and apparently said in addition to avoiding being idle that business and conversation of friends gave the mind a rest from that intensity of thought that makes it threadbare. Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, that “my desire to befriend you is everlasting.” We often say that passionate and affectionate male relationships were more accepted then, and perhaps that is true, but nevertheless this kind of intimacy provides an example for those of us who aspire to deeper friendships where intimate thoughts can be shared. For many of us, our ability to forge relationships with others is limited by our own efforts, but we can realize deeper and more lasting friendships.
We also see an evolution of friendship with the example of Nathan and David that we heard in today’s reading. Their friendship has evolved, with Nathan serving as his seer and friend from early days when Nathan was spared by the young warrior David. David is a flawed man who Nathan helps work through the deep pains of his life, and his successes and failures as parent, only to come see them to fruition in the advent of Solomon. Nathan is no longer his servant, but his close and intimate friend who allows him to find meaning in life by listening and affirming what is good, but not denying what is painful. Some years ago I worked on a book called Walking Together, which was a collection of articles on Congregational polity, which I still use in my teaching. That phrase is found in the book of Amos. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed? Friendships develop as people come to agree on reasons to be together, and it is only as good or as close as those individuals choose to make it. A friend is one whom you can be yourself with and never fear that he or she will judge you, but can still challenge you. A friend is someone that you can confide in with complete trust. A friend is someone you respect and that respects you, not based upon worthiness but based upon a likeness of mind.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling has Hermione say,
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
May we all find kindred souls who will be our friends, encouraging us to be brave, and reminding us to be careful. We need each other out there.
Closing Words – excerpt from “Where We Belong, A Duet by Maya Angelou
In every town and village,
In every city square,
In crowded places
I searched the faces
Hoping to find
Someone to care.
. . .
Then you rose into my life
Like a promised sunrise.
Brightening my days with the light in your eyes.
I’ve never been so strong,
Now I’m where I belong.
Kneeling in the Snow
The First Parish of Watertown
December 4, 2016
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from “Ma Rainey,” by Sterling Brown
They come to hear Ma Rainey from the little river settlements,
From blackbottom cornrows and from lumber camps;
They stumble in the hall, just a-laughin’ an’ a-cacklin’,
Cheerin’ like roarin’ water, like wind in river swamps.
And some jokers keeps their laughs a-goin’ in the crowded aisles,
And some folks sits there waiting with their aches and miseries,
Till Ma comes out….
O Ma Rainey,
Sing your song;
Now you’s back
Where you belong,
Get way inside us,
Keep us strong. . . .
O Ma Rainey,
Little and low
Sing us ’bout the hard luck
Round our door;
Sing us ’bout the lonesome road
We must go
Time for All Ages A Zen Koan
The Master summoned the Student one Autumn day as the winds began to chill the fields near the school.
The Master said, ‘I offer you the gift of patience. You may receive this gift at this moment or you may receive it later.’
The Student replied, ‘I would like this gift now, Master.’
The Master lowered his eyes and said, quietly, ‘You are dismissed.’
A week later, the Student encountered the Master and said, ‘Master, I am confused.’
The Master said, ‘You may choose again,’ and the Student said, ‘I will receive this gift, then, later.’
The Master, once more, lowered his eyes and said, ‘You are dismissed.’
Time passed, and the snow covered the fields and the streams near the school froze in their beds, and the dry air crackled when the Master summoned the Student.
The Master gazed upon the Student and the Student said, ‘Master, I would decline this gift.’
The Master smiled at the student, looking directly into his eyes, and said, ‘You are dismissed.’
Reading from Mary Rose O’Reilly, The Barn at the End of the World
One day last winter, on a date sacred on various religious calendars, “I went for a walk among bare oaks and birch. Nothing much was going on. Scarlet sumac had passed and the bees were dead. The pond had slicked overnight into that shiny and deceptive glaze of delusion, first ice. It made me conjure a vision of myself skimming backward on one bladed foot, the other extended; the arms become wings. Minnesota girls know that this is not a difficult maneuver if one is limber and practices even a little after school before the boys claim the rink for hockey. I think I can still do it – one thinks many foolish things when winter’s bright sun skips over the entrancing first freeze.
A flock of sparrows reels through the air looking more like a flying net than seventy conscious birds, a black veil thrown on the wind. When one sparrow dodges, the whole net swerves, dips: one mind. Am I part of anything like that?
Maybe not. The last few years of my life have been characterized by stripping away, and this solitude is one of the surprises of middle age, especially if one’s youth has been rich in love and friendship and children. … So the soul must stand in her own meager feathers and learn to fly – or simply take hopeful jumps into the wind.
It’s an ugly woods, I was saying to myself, padding along a trail where other walkers had broken ground before me. And then I found an extraordinary bouquet. Someone had bound an offering of dry seed pods, yew, lyme grass, red berries, and brown fern and laid it on the path: “nothing special,” as Buddhists say, meaning “everything.” Gathered to formality, each dry stalk proclaimed a slant, an attitude, infinite shades of neutral.
All contemplative acts, silences, poems, honor the world this way. Brought together by the eye of love, a milkweed pod, a twig, allow us to see how things have been all along. A feast of being.”
Sermon Kneeling in the Snow
When you go out into the world, what do you look at? Where do you turn your eye? To the streets – a current-day Whitman, perhaps, noting the people – the woman in her fleece pajamas with her tiny leashed dog, which could almost be mistaken for one of her slippers; the kind man whose glasses glint hello as he walks to the library each day; the woman with amazing calf muscles, who commutes on the type of bike I didn’t think they made any more; no gears, no special tires. She usually has a bag or two slung over the upright handlebars, and she never looks tired. Maybe you notice the physical environment – the house on the corner of Fayette and Church streets, half-torn down and with mattresses blocking the doorways; the old stones of a foundation tumbled about; the pink roses that, incredibly, were still in bloom last week in front of Mila Deluca-Pedersen’s house; the random spot where the workers stopped edging the curb with granite and switched over the asphalt; the banners hanging in Watertown Square, the historic figures who shaped our story gazing back at you, and permeating the landscape.
Or maybe you look down. You watch your step, literally. Careful of where your feet land, the places you wander into. Sometimes it is a way of tuning in to your own thoughts; just blocking out the world around you. And sometimes it is what the world demands of you; a way of being on alert; keeping safe.
It could be – and probably is, if I am realistic – that you look at your device. Texts. I can’t get over how many people walk and drive while staring at their screens. Although, I must say, I LOVED watching all the people hunting Pokemon this summer. It was fun, and hopeful – exciting. All these people who are so often hidden emerged, and were in turn searching for something I couldn’t see.
Perhaps you turn your eye heaven-wards – to the hills, for strength; the clouds, promising change; the sun and its warmth; the stars, for a glimmer of hope.
Last month I was sitting in a meeting room at a Minneapolis hotel stuck between an airport and a wildlife refuge that is part of the National Park Service, thinking about love. How can you measure it? What does it look like? I was at a talk about the survival of the Universalist side of our religious identity; which, for those of you who are not quite as passionate about history as the folks in my house, is the part of our religion that is associated with love. Our denomination is 55 years old, formed by a merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, and the stereotype is that we live in a perpetual tug of war between the bookish rational Unitarian types, a bit stiff and probably with the means to be comfortable if we believed in such a state; and the agrarian family centered Universalists who are plenty warm even though there is no hell fire burning below.
There is a zen like possibility here – head and heart; urban and rural; elite and just plain folk – but the fear has been that the merger was not equal; that the Universalist name was tacked on, their resources absorbed, but their message of inspiring love rather than dispensing truth was not taken seriously. The worry is that the love has been lost.
This presentation in the hotel, examining the centrality of love in our faith today, was a very 21st century affair. Thousands of pages of required reading for current ministerial student were scanned, in order to quantify how much love there was among the Unitarians, and the Universalists; and then, after merger, did the amount of love go up, or down?
But wait! I wanted to interrupt. What is love? How do you know? I for one have been fooled by it, and I know plenty of you have been, too. And what kind of love do you mean? Protective, nurturing, responsible; like a parent to a child; or something more like adoration, and blind faith? How do you reconcile counting words with embodying a feeling? And what about who or what the love is being ascribed to? The idea of a loving God can actually be less inclusive than simply caring for one another. Isn’t it more to the point to just get on with offering our hands and hearts to one another; to see the needs and hear the sighs, and know they are our own? What I really wanted to know was why one side has to win. Why can’t we be who we are, both/and, whole?
I found myself thinking back to an observation I made about ten years ago, wondering why I had never noticed earlier. The branches on evergreen trees point down. They start higher on the trunk, and then aim slightly towards the earth; that lovely tapered shape of our Christmas trees; but on deciduous trees – the ones that lose their leaves – the main branches reach up, like arms grasping for the sun. There are practical reasons for this, involving shedding snow so branches don’t break, and letting light in so leaves can grow – but I was thinking about love; and directionality. What flows down, to us from the heavens above; and what is sent aloft, soaring towards the light? And I was thinking about Jesus, born low in the stable among the animals, and reaching up to become part of the royal house; and Guatama, born a prince in the hills of India, seeking a way in to the valley of ordinary life, of suffering and loss.
Meanwhile, I was in such an odd landscape – perhaps for the simple reason that it was foreign to me. I had never been in Minnesota before, and I agreed to go for a silly reason. I wanted to see the Mississippi River. Years ago I learned in a song that the river started there, in the land of a thousand lakes, and that you could cross it in five steps, even though by the time it rolled south the water was impossibly wide; a separation so vast we are still unmoored by it. But in Minneapolis, the airport and all its ring roads didn’t really end before we were surrounded by what seemed like miles of military graves; a quarter million white stones lined up like so many squared shoulders behind black iron fencing; then, the broad boulevard and a cluster of long-term parking garages, and alongside them, hotels. Ours was in the back, one block off the main road, and if we had turned right instead of left, we would have been in the wildlife refuge instead. It didn’t look like much – a long, low visitor’s building was all you could see; but from the 8th floor of the hotel, that building became a gateway to small rolling hills in various shades of yellow and green, and then a winding blue ribbon of river. Nesting sites for herons, egrets and bald eagles lined up along the runways for the giant metal birds that carried us in and out of this place that had once been the western frontier. What does love look like? Where does it look to?
Mary Rose O’Reilly, in a book different from the one used in today’s reading, said that as a child she had “fallen into a geography of light;” looking to the sky for direction. She thought it was because her father had been a pilot; that her whole family was attuned to what was happening in the sky, and that it took her some time to look around her instead; to see the ground; or even to look inside herself as well as outside. In her words, I heard Thoreau: Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.
That line comes from a chapter of Walden called “The Pond in Winter.” Thoreau is kneeling in the snow, boring holes in the ice and calculating the volume of the pond, which is also a way of measuring himself. He writes of the impossibility of getting a level read; and he is talking about the uneven surface of the ice, but also of our ethical selves. “We are such poor navigators that our thoughts, for the most part,” avoid the depths, stand off “on a harborless coast, and converse only with themselves” he says. He wants to go wide and deep; to count every hidden cove and secret inlet, and to find the true bottom of the pond, to see if its lows correspond to the peaks of the hills nearby. The frozen pond, its surface mottled with shallow puddles, becomes a kind of looking glass. He writes, “I saw a double shadow of myself, one standing on the head of the other, one on the ice, the other on the trees or hillside.”
How are we to look at this world? I have had to practice this week. Originally my mind was partly on Standing Rock, the Lakota reservation where the water supply is threatened by an oil pipeline. The Army Corps or Engineers has said that as of tomorrow, the water protectors at Standing Rock must leave, or risk arrest. The state of North Dakota announced that taking supplies to the protestors can get you fined to the tune of $1000 for each infraction. Today is the Interfaith Day of Prayer at Standing Rock, and I believe it is helping. On Friday, over two thousand veterans decided to head to Standing Rock, arriving today and staying for at least three days.
All week, instead of writing, I have been watching the world around me, having trouble looking; having trouble turning away; waiting. Thinking of our story this morning, I wonder — Did I receive my gift of patience when I should have rejected it? I do not need to recount it all – the fires, the tornadoes; the fists, sticks, knives and guns from Columbus to Aleppo; the Merrimack River flowing by. Where do we turn our eyes, so that we see ourselves whole, and in context?
This is the time of year when nature grows quiet, uses less energy, sinks into dormancy. It is the season of unseen change; of life that looks like death, and we learn to submit to it; to trust the outcome. So often we represent winter as an old man, tilting against the wind and sleet, but the picture is not really one of age. This is about endurance – how long can we go on with how little. Maybe it is also about learning we do not need so much after all. So much of what we thought necessary was delusion. Now we relinquish our desires and our schedules and burrow down, reduce to the elemental, knowing that there is so much that is hidden – in the world, and in ourselves. The depths are not always visible; the ghosts of previous lives still inhabit our places and we do not always know where we are; what lies beyond the thin edges; what will emerge in a new season. Our capacity for reverence deepens as we linger on days that are far too short for any of us to believe we have time. At noon the shadows are already long and slanting; the sun gives way to the moon long before supper. But a single light is enough to call us home.
Years ago, when Toni Morrison wrote the novel Beloved, she was awarded the Melcher prize, which comes from the Unitarian Universalist Association. It goes each year to the book judged to make the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. In her speech accepting the award, at First Parish in Cambridge, Morrison asked herself why she had written this book, which tells the story of a ghost – the spirit of a baby murdered by her mother, an escaped slave facing recapture. Morrison said “ Well, it has become a little bit more clear to me, a year after Beloved, what perhaps, in very personal terms, the book has substituted for.
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to. But I didn’t know that before or while I wrote it. I can see now what I was doing on the last page. I was finishing the story, transfiguring and disseminating the haunting with which the book begins. Yes, I was doing that; but I was also doing something more. I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.
In response to that speech, the Bench by the Side of the Road project began. It took twenty years, but in 2008 the first of Morrison’s museum in the streets – a bench – was placed, at Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. This island – home to a National Park housing Fort Moultrie, with Fort Sumter hugging the shore nearby, in Charleston– was the entry point for approximately 40% of the West Africans enslaved in this country. The picture of the ceremony moves me – three hundred people, mostly dressed in white, walking out on the water. Of course it is not the exact pier that slave ships docked on, but it is the same place, the same ocean. The people are all under yellow umbrellas, like they are carrying their own suns.
At the time, the plan was for ten benches to be placed in spots significant in African American history, to help us acknowledge our past, and to remember more fully. But at least eleven benches have been placed by our road sides – and two of them are close by. One is at Walden Pond, and another at Caesar Robbins house, the home of a former slave that was moved to site near the Old North Bridge. Robbins home used to be on Brister’s Hill, overlooking Walden. There is a kind of poetic irony; a bench for those who were granted no rest; a small spot to stop and gaze out on a vast history. It is the nothing special that is everything, a feast of being. Toni Morrison liked the simplicity and accessibility. She said it was welcoming, open. “You can be illiterate and sit on the bench, you can be a wanderer or you can be on a search.”
Research shows that our eyes turn different directions, based upon whether we are imagining – constructing an image – or remembering. When we recall smells of pine and cinnamon; the experience of cold pinching our noses or the warm embrace that stops us from shivering, our eyes turn one way; and when we are imagining what it might feel like to be truly free, or to live in peace, they turn another. Maybe if we look straight ahead, we can find the balance between what we aspire to and what we feel ourselves to be; to knit the halves of ourselves together. Maybe we can sit together, and close our eyes; brought to our knees by the knowledge that we are here, together, part of this day; that every faint footstep leading up to this place matters and is honored in our shared silence. The horizon is as wide as the sky, and we are tethered to a world of meaning, even when darkness falls, because we are sitting here, together.
Closing Words– Andrew Wyeth
I do an awful lot of thinking and dreaming about things in the past and the future – the timelessness of the rocks and the hills – all the people who have existed there. I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”