Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“An Open Palm” – October 1st, 2023

Oct 2, 2023


To have without holding, by Marge Piercy

Learning to love differently is hard,
love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm.

It hurts to love wide open
stretching the muscles that feel
as if they are made of wet plaster,
then of blunt knives, then
of sharp knives.

It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again. It pesters to remember
the lover who is not in the bed,
to hold back what is owed to the work
that gutters like a candle in a cave
without air, to love consciously,
conscientiously, concretely, constructively.

I can’t do it, you say it’s killing
me, but you thrive, you glow
on the street like a neon raspberry,
You float and sail, a helium balloon
bright bachelor’s button blue and bobbing
on the cold and hot winds of our breath,
as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold, to love
with minimized malice, hunger
and anger moment by moment balanced.


“An Empty Palm”

…love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm…

But love with them OPEN.

Before I begin, I am going to tell some of my heritage story and some of you might find it triggering or hard to hear. If you are in a tender place today, please do what you need to take care of yourself.

Six years ago, I took part in an anti-racist workshop for white-identified people that asked us all to, as our first homework assignment, begin building an altar for our ancestors. I put my grandmother’s wedding ring, and a beautiful lace handkerchief belonging to my great-grandmother; my great-great-great grandfather’s hand blown glass paperweight in the glass factory he worked at in St. Helen’s, England. I also added pictures of the places that my people lived and came from: England, Ireland, Italy.

Truthfully, when I was building that altar for my ancestors, I found myself feeling a wonderful pride and relief around my families’ immigration stories, for they were ones of strife and struggle. Let me expand. The story that has been passed down and told, with great pride, at nearly every major family reunion or gathering is this:

My English and Irish ancestors, for generations, lived in the poorest regions of England and Ireland toiling in factories, working on farms, or dying in the coal mines. Many were on the dole–British government aid for those who couldn’t find work or were utterly destitute; the ‘untouchables’ of English and Irish societies. Have any of you ever read the book Angela’s Ashes? These were many of my people–faces smudged with dirt and coal. They lived in slums or a cut or two above. They were hungry, oppressed, alcoholic, lived with war trauma among other traumas, and somehow, against all odds, were able to make their way across the ocean to a land that promised something they had lost, maybe never known: hope. My Italian ancestors were no different–poor, desperate mountain people longing for hope, but mainly longing to survive. When they arrived at these lands, they did so penniless. And as Irish and Italian-Americans, they were treated like trash. The refuse living in lowly tenement housing and the like.

Many of my people were Ellis Island people–names misspelled in the legers. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Surely those words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, whether my people could read them or not, meant everything to them.

Much of this heritage story is true–nothing mythic about it. I know this because I spent much of this past summer connecting with my relatives who still live in some of these places, and on where I got lucky because distant relatives of mine have been at genealogical work for a long time and have discovered pictures, church records and more.

This is the heritage story that my family has bequeathed to me. And I hold it dear in my heart. And I have passed it on to my daughters. As we do.

AND. Tolkien’s words from Lord of the Rings have been bouncing around my mind these past months: “…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth and even myth was long forgotten…”

You see, there is more to my family story then this. And this past summer, on good ole’, I discovered some of the forgotten ‘more.’

There were others who were already on these lands we call America. And many of my immigrant relatives married them. And their lots in life were greatly improved. I would say that their survival was made possible by these matches and I, and all the privilege I have, including being able to stand here and have my name etched into that wood with a “Rev.” in front of it is because of these socio-economic ascensions.

I discovered that those who were already here on these lands have lineages that go back to the 1600’s. They arrived here from England with educations, and the status and means to ‘acquire,’ land, and to cultivate it for profit. How they came to ‘acquire’ this land I don’t know…yet. But what I do know, is that my 3rd great grandfather, Williamson Moseby, in the year 1850 was living in Missouri and, according to the 1850 US Federal Slave Schedule, owned four slaves, ages 51, 18, 12 and 7, whose names and genders are unknown. And he’s not the only one. My 6th great grandfather, John Speed from Virginia, in his 1783 will, writes, “I give to my daughter Lucy one young negro man named Harry and my best feather bed and furniture to her and my heirs…Harry may be sold as soon as conveniently may be and the money arising by such sort equally divided amongst my children…”

These stories were not the ones told in my home. Or in my mother’s home. Or in my grandfather’s home. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. Leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten…

Maybe this is how it happened. The great and maybe shameful forgetting in my family.

This is a tough nut to crack, isn’t it? What happens when all that we think we know–and you know this is happening at a collective level, it’s happening here in our church!–about ourselves and our heritages, what happens when it all…tilts? “Doors become unhinged,” like our poet writes. A mighty wind whips through and blows everything that felt like it was in order…out of order? What do we do with that?

As heartsick as all of this made me feel, I also feel relieved. Relief at knowing more of the truth. But mainly, relief that I will never know the whole of it–that’s the wisdom that this work gifted me with. It’s okay to loosen my grips on knowing with lasting certainty. Or getting so locked in to one story. We know that history, like theology, like science, can never be ironclad. I know we want it to be, because it helps us feel ordered or battened down against those whipping winds, but this isn’t Truth. It is a false sense of security. And I think deep down we feel this false sense of security acutely.

Despite how seemingly comforting it is to think otherwise, we are all working with an incomplete, often distorted, and biased database. And as difficult a truth as this might be to swallow, as hard as it is to live with one’s palm open to the new, it also invites us all towards a lovely, and desperately needed humility. I think that’s the relief I am feeling today. Humility. There can be great comfort in not knowing everything, being uncertain about how things will turn out, or living a life of open-hearted curiosity. It’s one of the most rewarding spiritual practices out there. It is the spiritual life. Release, loosen, open, widen, wonder, let go…born and reborn again.

The great astrophysicist ,Neil deGrasse Tyson, calls this the “Cosmic Perspective,” which he says is–remember this is an astrophysicist talking!–“more than what you know.” He writes: “The cosmic perspective is humble…is spiritual–even redemptive…enables us to grasp, in the same thought, the large and the small…the cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas…opens our eyes to the universe…enables us to see beyond our circumstances…and embraces…our kinship with all life on Earth…” And he prescribes this: “At least once a week, if not once a day, we might each ponder what cosmic truths lie undiscovered before us, perhaps awaiting the arrival of a clever thinker, an ingenious experiment…that may one day transform [us]…”  He closes his sweet little book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” with these prophetic words: “During our brief stay on planet Earth, we owe ourselves and our descendants the opportunity to explore…embrace, [don’t] fear, the cosmic perspective.”

Beliefs that help us to make meaning of the world and cosmos, resilience stories told by those we loved, personal histories that cast our ancestors as heroes or survivors–we of course need these. They help us do hard things. They help us feel hopeful and connected. They have helped me feel strong–I can do hard things! And same for my daughters. Our people did hard things. Treasured beliefs that give shape to our personal value system, maybe even to our theologies–these are foundations that can help us weather the greatest of storms. But when we clutch so tightly to them…well, we become closed-fist people; unintentional fundamentalists about what we believe the one, TRUE, story is. And when the truth tilts or is challenged, our fear clouds our judgment. We risk being people who double down–barricading our doors, instead of opening them wider. We are seeing this play out in our wider world now.

Rev. Daniel Chesney Kanter says it beautifully: “We spend a lot of time defending our beliefs, like sentries trying to defend a castle…Instead of pinning our belief on the absolute truth of something, we might set our hearts upon the journey…we may be surprised by what we discover.”

I sense this is what our poet, Marge Piercy is asking of us in “To have without holding”:

“…love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm.

to love and let
go again and again…
conscientiously, concretely, constructively….balanced.”

This is what the cosmic perspective also promises us: balance.

Like you, I don’t want to pass on myths, or redacted, sanitized histories to my daughters because the complexity of my ancestors’ stories frighten me. I certainly don’t want to teach them to be close-fisted sentries defending their castles of belief, barricading doors against the new. Or women who must choose between either burying their histories or living a life of perpetual penance and shame over of them. Good God, surely there is a third option here–a more balanced place then this!

My hope, like you, is that our descendants, this next generation, might love and know and grow and live with hands just a bit more open than ours, or those who came before us. Maybe a lot more, but I would take ‘a bit.’

This building’s palm is empty and open now. Its blank walls offer this symbol and reminder to us. Lovely, right? There is much work ahead now. And each of us must commit to it in some way. Maybe your own ancestry work will be a good starting place. Maybe joining the welcoming building team speaks to you. Maybe linking arms with some of the historians in our midst and resurrecting some of this congregations’ forgotten history is where you are called. Or maybe you need to, as deGrasse Tyson prescribes, begin by at least once a week, if not once a day…”ponder[ing] what cosmic truths lie undiscovered before you.” You might begin with a simple prayer for humility and wonder and having without holding too tightly.

Commit to one of these. Not so that you are reduced to a caravan of shame and regret, but rather so that you can breathe free, keep on singing, and humbly hoping, set your hearts upon the surprising journey and find yourself in true kinship with all life on Earth. For you are and you always have been. We might have just forgotten.

May it be so and amen.

Let’s sing: My Life Flows on in Endless Song #108



Reverend Sophia Lyons
Website | + posts

Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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