“All Our Losses” by Mark W. Harris, March 25, 2007

All Our Losses” by Mark W. Harris

March 25, 2007 – First Parish of Watertown

Opening Words – Yes, it hurts when buds burst” by Karin Boye

Yes, it hurts when buds burst.
Why otherwise would spring hesitate?
Why otherwise was all warmth and longing
locked under pale and bitter ice?
The blind bud covered and numb all winter
what fever for the new compels it to burst?
Yes, it hurts when buds burst,
there is pain when something grows and when
something must close.
Yes, it hurts when the ice drop melts.
Shivering, anxious, swollen it hangs,
gripping the twig, but beginning to slip —
its weight tugs it downward, though it resists.
It hurts to be uncertain, cowardly, dissolving,
to feel the pull and call of the depth,
yet to hang and only shiver —
to want to remain, keep firm — yet want to fall.
Then, when it is worst and nothing helps,
they burst, as if in ecstasy, the first buds of the
tree,
When fear itself is compelled to let go,
they fall in a glistening veil, all the drops from
the twigs,
blinking away their fears of the new,
shutting out their doubts about the journey,
feeling for an instant how this is their greatest
safety,
to trust in that daring that shapes the world.

Sermon

It is a maple syrup time of year. The cold nights and warm days make the sap run down the veins of all the maple trees. It is a kind of liquid gold. I always insist on real syrup rather than those sugar syrups, which cost so much less. It takes me back. It was probably late in March, like this, and perhaps there was a brisk cool breeze blowing off the miles of endless trees near my family home. The old sugar maples were lined up along the road that once bordered farmers fields as soldiers of German stock, hired by the British to win their fight, tromped by. They picked apples in the falling leaves, strolled the fields, but they didn’t stay through till spring. In our time, we hammered the bark to make a hole, stuck in the hollow, wooden tube that became an open spigot, and hung the old gray, metal buckets with their creased hats to keep out the rain, ready to catch the pure, special liquid. Every day we watched, as slowly it dripped in. They filled almost by magic, for it seemed that nothing was flowing, and then suddenly they were full. Perhaps it was when I wasn’t looking, asleep or at school. It was a wound, a cut in the tree really that caused its sap to flow. It was late afternoon, as light faded from a dipping sun, when we collected our haul.
It is a maple syrup time of year. I had helped my Dad ready all these trees. I think we used an old hand drill, boring away into the tree’s bark and body. Soon we would reap the rich reward on pancakes or French toast. Bucket after bucket my small arms lifted and carried to add to an ever increasing pot that boiled and boiled away on our stove. My Mom kept those home fires burning, reducing that sap to syrup, down , down , down – passed on to us. It takes forty to make one. I tried some sap once, and it tasted terrible, like eating a tree I suppose. Much cooking time is needed to boil it down, just as we need time. The wounds in us, the losses need time to simmer, and the feelings released, so that eventually we can give thanks for the sweet moments we had, tasted and now gone.
Maple syrup time is a snapshot out of my past that crosses my thoughts this time of year. It is not as vivid as it was 20 years ago, or even ten. It becomes hard to remember specifics. We cannot make the clock runs backwards, but sometimes we try. Soon it may become a series of word associations rather than a clear memory – syrup, taste, try it on snow, a special kind of cone, Mom and Dad, home, spring. It was such a brief moment in time. Things can and do change so quickly. Last Sunday after church, a few of us were in the church office, and Alan our sexton came back to tidy up for the afternoon. He told us how shook up he had been by an incident that had occurred on Friday, the day of the big storm. He was suppose to go out that night, but never did. Instead he told us how he had been out in his driveway at home in Waltham. He, like so many of us, was shoveling away, when for some reason, he looked up. Was it fate or a premonition or just good luck? A car was bearing down on him, having lost control on the icy snow swept hill, it careened down the banking, engulfed his wall, and bore right down on him ready to flatten him all over. He jumped into the street, just as the lumbering dinosaur of a vehicle soon to be extinct ran by, ricocheted off the back of Alan’s car, and then hit the wall on the other side, lurching upward and coming to rest on the embankment. Alan was safe and unharmed in the street. How often do we come within an inch of a disaster? And so we may hug our loved ones that much harder that night, and give thanks that all is well. Just another near miss.
We all witness the losses that which we must accept, cope with, and ultimately find meaning in. Most of us understand as adults that losses will come our way sooner or later. Eventually the car careening out of control will hit us, but we try to jump out of the way as much as we can. We also want to be prepared and have some control over these painful events rather than be shocked or surprised. Still losses come to us in daily doses. A child leaves home, a job does not work out, the love fades from a relationship — all are experiences we have that mark an end to a time in our lives that may have been meaningful or even trying, but nevertheless it signified the life we knew, the life we lived every day, and now we have to figure out, what’s next. Enduring a loss means the first thing we have to realize is that it really did happen, but now it’s over. Falling hair or failing eyes are signs that age is catching up to us. Age and illness comes to those we love as well, and many of us as adults have experienced the death of someone we are close to. If the loss comes unexpectedly or sooner than seems fair then the pain may seem even more intense.
In her recent bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion describes the wrenching experience of having her daughter nearly succumb to a fatal illness, and then while she is still hospitalized with her fate unknown, Didion’s husband has a massive heart attack and dies. They were sitting at the dinner table in their New York Apartment, as they had countless times before. It was routine. She begins writing by saying: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.” Do we ask what have I lost? This is before we even realize a loss has occurred. Life has changed in the ordinary instant, but it takes time even to accept the change has really happened. Our normal reaction may be this isn’t really happening. It is a dream or something. I will go home, and she will appear through that door because she is always there or I’ll just call her because I always call her, or I will see her waving in the window because that is where I always see her. There is a disorientation to loss because things are not as they should be; all order in your universe is lost and chaos seems to have ensued.
First, we must accept that there is a hole bored in the tree. There is this hole, and all the sap is beginning to run down. Loss changes us, and we don’t even realize it. And perhaps we cannot express it. Years ago I had a parishioner who suffered through the loss of her sister in a tragic car accident, and what struck me at the time was how her voice changed completely. It was suddenly more vulnerable, more open, more exposed. The emotion may be tears of sorrow or anger or regret. No, we don’t want might have beens or memories of what was lost. We want do overs. We want things to be different. The hole isn’t really there. We may be angry that we have lost all that we hoped for or planned for, and now must face the reality that our lives will be so different. Or we may be grief stricken with pain that the person we have lived with for forty years is gone. And the guest book is not enough. We want to cry. Or, as Joan Didion says, I wanted him back.
This is what struck me most about Didion’s book. The loss of the everyday sameness of what we always do was striking. The person who suffers the loss asks, how do I live now? This helped me understand the feelings of grief that those who suffer the loss of a pet must feel. I think I have often silently said, oh it’s only a dog or cat, get over it. But it is the loss of the everyday companionship and friendship we feel. This is who I talk to every day, or who I take a walk with. While we have them yet with us, we think this is what life is. Or we don’t even have to think at all. It is what we do. It is hard to throw out their shoes, or change the phone message. They might come back for those shoes, or whoever calls will want to know it is us, as we always have been. They are links to the person who was once among us. But if we don’t change these things eventually, we think others will say we are denying the truth of this loss. Grief is suppose to be healing, but as Didion points out, the problem is the earliest days that are projected to be the hardest are filled with people and activity, and even an air of unreality that the person will be back. It is the later days, the months and years ahead that are filled with unending absences and the opposite of meaning. They are empty. That life is not coming back. So the memory of the everyday activity with the person begins to fade. We forget times and places, and the phone message may be the one link we have with their voice. In the children’s book Grandpa Abe, a little girl suffers the loss of her step grandfather with whom she had developed a wonderful relationship. After he is gone and her grandmother is packaging up his things, the girl asks to keep a sweater of his that she can wear. He once wore it. It still smells like him. For years I kept a green wool shirt that belonged to my father hanging in my closet. It was something from him, even though as the years went on, I never wore it. Finally, I was able to give it away.
With each loss we realize that our life will not be exempt from pain. What we really want is to find some meaning for this pain. Grieving over the loss of a pet helps address an important question. How much of this feeling of loss is self-pity? Do we feel sorry for the person who died, or for ourselves? Didion says people in grief worry too much about this question. We who conduct memorial services realize that the service is not really for the person who died, but for the people who remain behind. This is especially true for Unitarian Universalists, who like Didion have a religious perspective that acknowledges that for the dead no sovereign eye is on the sparrow, and no benevolent deity is watching me, to paraphrase the old Christian hymn. She says it is not being selfish to think about your pain in the context of the loss. She contrasts creatures in nature who other writers have claimed never feel sorry for themselves with dolphins who refuse to eat after a mate dies, or geese who go in search of the lost mate, and become disoriented and die. There is a need to feel sorry for yourself in your loss, especially when it is a lifelong partner , because virtually every single connection was shared, and then suddenly those were severed. Every thought, feeling, action had the loved one as the object of its intent. Who has not thought of something to share with a loved one, went to pick up the phone, and then suddenly realized they are not there.
What about meaning in the context of loss for Unitarian Universalists? Our memorials do not guarantee heaven for the deceased as a consolation to the living. The feelings that come over us when we suffer a loss are usually not theological. No God made this terrible event occur, and no God is going to make it all better, even if we do believe in an afterlife. Our losses make us aware that life contains both joy and sorrow, but when sorrow comes, when we are feeling the self-pity of our whole world being turned upside down, then we must use these feelings to rebuild our world. The sap runs, and you boil and boil it down, you experience the pain. What is self-evident about our ability to heal from losses is that we can show our emotions to someone else who has also suffered such a loss. We feel part of a greater company of grievers when we are with those who have lost a parent, a partner, a child, because we share a common feeling, a common pain. Loneliness begins to be healed if there is someone to share it with. Churches provide meaning in the context of loss because we are a community of fellow sufferers, who have known loss in our lives, and can teach others to share these feelings with each other.
Joan Didion speaks of feelings of loneliness, because the person she shared her life with was gone. We know that these feelings are assuaged by being with others. She speaks of losing all sense of how to spend her days, and who to speak to because her life was oriented around her partner – their plans, their days, and what they shared. And so healing from loss begins with new activities which have purpose and meaning for us. With loss we may have to adjust or alter our goals in life or discover an entirely new purpose for ourselves. That same woman I knew years ago who suffered the loss of her sister, eventually took her grief and sorrow and transformed it into work for Mothers against drunk drivers. We try to learn everything we can about the affliction that has caused such a sense of loss in our lives. We may ask , what can I do so that others will not have to suffer as I did? How can I help others who have had a similar kind of loss? From a child with a disability to hospice care for the dying, we may want to find ways to support the overwhelming sense of loss a fellow traveler may feel when they confront a difficult trial in life. We may come to see that we each have personal resources to help another find peace and understanding from their loss – we were there , too. It is good to express your loss, and not allow the pressure to be strong to keep you from your grief.
Finally, the spring will soon remind us that it is healing to get outside and feel the renewal of the earth from its season of cold and grief. We notice the flowers bursting into color. There is pain when buds burst – there is pain when something grows and when something must close, our opening words reminded us. Spring is maple syrup season. There is a long time of gathering and boiling it down. So much to sort out. The immediate patterns of life change with our loss. We need to give ourselves time. The sharing with others means we find solace in community, and can begin to build a new life. We all have fears that a loss will strike us in the night like a careening car, or a husband who succumbs to a heart attack. We cannot escape those fears if we are to extend ourselves in loving relationship to others. No one wants losses, but they are an inevitable part of living. We know from our pain and that of others that we can live through our losses, and even though we have a difficult time accepting them, or even admitting they are occurring, they end up teaching us that we can go on, feeling the pain from that loss, but nevertheless knowing that there are others who support us and sustain us, a community that affirms us, and opportunities for new relationships to share , knowledge to gain and wisdom to impart.
This morning I was going to choose hymn #23, “Bring Many Names.” I decided not to because I felt it did not go with our opening words as well as “Morning Has Broken.” Every time I sing “Bring Many Names” I cry during the verse about Father God, hugging us. This is not so much my grief over the loss of the patriarchal God, but rather about a relationship with the patriarch I knew best. It has been some years since my father died. Joan Didion describes her sense of her husband becoming more and more remote as the days pass. We lose the sense of what it was like having them with us, as our lives change, grow and adapt. She writes, “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. The little girl in the story tried to keep the smell of Grandpa Abe’s sweater, the one he wore. I kept my father’s shirt. The time comes when we are ready to give up the every day, even as it fades from our immediate memory. After the hole is cut in the tree, and the sap runs and gets boiled, we are ready to taste this wonderful elixir. Despite our loss there comes a time when we are grateful for what we shared. Not long ago my brother gave me a photograph of my Dad, and I had it framed and put on my bureau. Once losses are healed over we are able to remember the presence in our lives that helped make us who we are. As Thorton Wilder says in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, there is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the only bridge between them is love. He has faded some from memory, but there is a picture to remember the love he gave. There comes a time when we must make memorials or shrines. It is a way to remember.
The reading today from The Namesake reminds us that so much of life is built upon unintended incidents. Perhaps these are the little cars that careen into our lives. We plan on a life, and it is never the life we get. Perhaps we create a life out of what happens to us, we create a life out of our losses. No one wants to suffer from losses, but they often teach us what we come to know of love, how we come to adapt to change, and how deep we are able to grow in knowledge and spirit. It could be said that our losses shape us. They may make us alone and fearful and angry at times. But out of these feelings there can rise a courageous determination to go on, build a new life, and ultimately be grateful for the chances we are given to grow from our losses. We might say that our larger shared truth is the strength we all have to grow from the losses we suffer in our lives. Sorrow often shows us the way of compassion. Love for others sustains us in our losses. We become not sad or angry for the life we lost, but grateful for the new life we have built from our losses. We can taste the golden syrup. The experience in the end may even feel like a blessing for we the living are the ones who have survived all our losses, and today we are part of the living community that is built on the memory of those who have gone before, as we bear the responsibility to be the carriers of hope for those who will follow.

Closing Words – “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is, salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.