“Finding Sacred Places” by Mark W. Harris
December 10, 2017 – First Parish of Watertown
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Reading – from Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks
Belonging: A Culture of Place by bell hooks
If one has chosen to live mindfully, then choosing a place to die is as vital as choosing where and how to live. Choosing to return to the land and landscape of my childhood, the world of my Kentucky upbringing, I am comforted by the knowledge that I could die here. This is the way I imagine “the end”: I close my eyes and see hands holding a Chinese red lacquer bowl, walking to the top of the Kentucky hill I call my own, scattering my remains as though they are seeds and not ash, a burnt offering on solid ground vulnerable to the wind and rain — all that is left of my body gone, my being shifted, passed away, moving forward on and into eternity. I imagine this farewell scene and it solaces me; Kentucky hills were where my life began. They represent the place of promise and possibility and the location of all my terrors, the monsters that follow me and haunt my dreams. . . both real and imaginary, I learned to be safe in the knowledge that facing what I fear and moving beyond it will keep me secure. . .
When we left the hills to settle in town where the schools were supposedly better, where we could attend the big important church . . .
I experienced my first devastating loss, my first deep grief. I wanted to stay in the solitude of those hills. I longed for freedom. That longing was imprinted on my consciousness in the hills that seemed to declare that all sweetness in life would come when we seek freedom. Folks living in the Kentucky hills prized independence and self-reliance above all traits.
Away from the country, in the city, rules were made by unknown others and were imposed and enforced. In the hills of my girlhood, white and black folks often lived in a racially integrated environment, with boundaries determined more by chosen territory than race.The notion of “private property” was an alien one; the hills belonged to everyone or so it seemed to me in my childhood. In those hills there was nowhere I felt I could not roam, nowhere I could not go.
Yet it was my flight from Kentucky, my traveling all the way to the west coast. . . that revealed to me the extent to which my sense and sensibility were deeply informed by the geography of place. . .
It was during this first year at Stanford that I realized the stereotypes about Kentucky that prevailed in the world beyond our region. Few folks there, at Stanford, knew anything about life in Kentucky. Usually, when asked where I heralded from, naming Kentucky as my home state would be greeted with laughter. Or with the question. “Kentucky — where is that?”
Every now and then in those undergraduate years I would meet a fellow student who was sincere in their desire to hear about life in Kentucky, and I would talk about the natural world there, the lushness of our landscape, the waterfall at Blue Lake where I played as a child. I would talk about the caves and the trails left by the displaced Cherokee Indians. I would talk about an Appalachia that was black and white, about the shadow of cold dust on the bodies of black men coming home from working in the mines. I would talk about fields of tobacco, about the horses that make the Kentucky bluegrass a field of enchantment. I would talk with pride about the black male jockeys who were at the center of the horse racing events before imperialist white supremacist capitalist [culture] imposed rigid rules of racial segregation . . .
My life away from Kentucky was full of contradictions. The issues of honesty and integrity that had made life clear and simple growing up were an uneasy fit with the academic and literary world I had chosen as my own. In time the split mind that had become my psychic landscape began to unravel.
. . . I was living in a world where the values and beliefs I wanted to make the foundation of my life had no meaning. Still and all, I did not feel that I could come home. . . but [living] in a state of mental exile, the condition of feeling split was damaging, caused a breaking down of the spirit. Healing that spirit meant . . . taking the bits and pieces of my life and putting them together again. In remembering my childhood and writing about my early life, I was mapping the territory, discovering myself, and finding homeplace — seeing clearly that Kentucky was my fate.
My decision to make my home in Kentucky did not emerge from any sentimental assumption that I would find an uncorrupted world in my native place. Rather, I knew I would find there living remnants of all that was wonderful in the world of my growing up. . .
“By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flags to April’s breeze unfurled, here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world.” You may have noticed that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of those words is somewhat of a guru to me. His poem is inscribed beneath a statue of a minute man farmer. The Concord monument was completed in 1836, and this poem of Emerson’s was sung at the dedication. Yet what his biographer Larry Buell finds striking about the poem is its lack of historic or local specificity. There are embattled farmers, and a rude bridge. There is no date or town, no revolution or British regulars. Emerson, in true Transcendental fashion, gives us only the universal spirit of freedom. This was a central truth about his teachings. Specific Bibles and traditions, places and names were eschewed in favor of universal revelations. So while the minuteman was largely trying to protect his towns and his rights against the British, Emerson only spoke of abstract values. Freedom was the only message. He neglected context, like the distinction Hemingway makes in the opening words between names and numbers and words like honor and courage. And here is where I come to differ from my guru.
Even though we UUs may believe that no place, no religion, no nation is any better than any other, and all that truly matters is love, life can be pretty empty without the specifics of time and place. This is true for each of us and for whole religions. Take Jesus, for instance, whose birth we are about to celebrate. Where did Jesus come from? The Gospels tell us he was born in Bethlehem, a real place, just outside of Jerusalem. But Matthew and Luke created birth stories about the supposed messiah in order to fulfill old Biblical prophecies. Bethlehem was King David’s family home, and also where he was anointed as king. So it became the perfect birthplace to establish Jesus’ pedigree as the king of kings, and it fulfills a prophecy of Micah. In fact, Jesus seems to have been born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.
Jesus was a human being who was born, lived and died in a particular time and place. And that time and place made him who he was. The Gospel of John records a conversation about who might join the new coterie following Jesus. Philip has just decided to be a follower along with Andrew and Peter, but Nathaniel knows that Jesus comes from a place called Nazareth, which is nowhere near cosmopolitan Jerusalem. It has a reputation as a lowly backwater, a little agricultural town. But more than that Nazareth was known as a place of rebellion against the Roman Empire, and perhaps immorality, too. So as a result of his impression of Nazareth and Nazarenes, Nathaniel is nervous, but wants to follow this guy. He asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?” How can these new Christians proclaim a person from a loser town as “Lord?”
How we feel about certain places in our lives is an appropriate starting place for the kinds of beliefs we develop. We often invent prejudices about places and the kinds of people they will produce. Take the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Most of the accusers were from the wealthier, more urbane city called Salem Town, and the accused were mostly poorer, roughhewn people, who lived in Salem Village, or what we know today as Danvers. The accusers were trying to find ways to get rid of the people they despised, and what better way than to call them witches, and get their daughters to absorb this prejudice and do the actual accusing.
Most of us could think of examples of our own prejudices towards certain places. In retirement, Andrea and I will move to Maine, at least initially. But what if we find it is too cold, or too boring, or too isolated from civilization, or not diverse enough.? We might decide to move to some place warmer or more cosmopolitan. When we have suggested this to people the reaction is always interesting. We have a good friend for instance, who retired in Knoxville. He served churches in Massachusetts, Indiana and Mississippi. He loves it in Knoxville. But say Knoxville to many folks, and they may say, that’s in Tennessee. That’s the South. They are uneducated, racist bigots there, and you would not be happy. The implication is that we would be better off here in this enlightened bastion of culture, the Athens of America. But sometimes after you experience a place like Knoxville, you want to make it your own. Places have details and features and meaning that we may not know when we make our grand pronouncements.
Andrea will tell you I am prejudice about certain places because I have never lived there. Many of us still think the same thing about the South and the Senatorial election in Alabama this week. Those stupid people will elect a pedophile. Sometimes our prejudices mean we fail to listen to people, which does not help candidacies like Doug Jones’. If we’ve labeled the whole state losers, what good can occur? We write them off as ignorant Southerners. I certainly had a similar experience with Pittsburgh a few years ago. I had always wanted to visit Pittsburgh for baseball, dinosaurs, architecture and food. Yet when I told a close relative that I wanted to go there, her response was, why would anyone want to go to an ugly, old, industrial steel city? Yet that’s not what Pittsburgh is. When I tell people I have spent extended periods of time living in Sheffield, England, the response is, “Oh I’m sorry. There are much nicer places in England.” Yet I experienced Sheffield as a great city surrounded by beautiful countryside, and not just the place where they filmed “The Full Monty,” proving that men could take it all off.
Watertown as a place to live has certainly been the butt of such prejudice. People still think of it as an urban, industrial wasteland with little greenspace, and lots of pollution. A colleague from a wealthy western suburb gave me a ride home once, and called Watertown a ghetto. I had another colleague who used to serve in Wellesley ridicule me, saying I must enjoy the bucolic sounds of sirens and fire alarms. When you have these kinds of prejudices thrown at you, then you realize that people will think nothing good comes out of Watertown, and you begin to feel bad about the place where you live. It was easy to experience this in the wake of the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber a few years ago. Watertown became known on the global media map not for its diversity found especially in its wonderful Armenian food and culture, or its beautiful Riverwalk along the Charles, but as the place where they captured a terrorist. People I met from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans would say, hey, isn’t that the place that . . . and the voice would trail off, and I would respond, yes, that’s us. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
Last weekend I saw the film “Lady Bird.” This is the tale of a high school senior who is trying to escape the culturally confining and stifling city of Sacramento, California. She engages in constant battles with her very judgmental mother, who is convinced that her daughter is only smart enough to go to city college. In the meantime Lady Bird applies to some eastern colleges in a clandestine manner through the aegis of her father. We witness one scene in the car where her mother is driving and Lady Bird says, “I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast. I want to go where culture is. . .” But her mother responds that she won’t get into any schools back East, and she should go to city college, then jail, and then back to city college, and then she might develop a work ethic. What happens when assumptions are made about what it means to be from a certain place. Maybe we strive to rise above a humble background. I for one remembered how much I wanted to get away from the cultural back water of my hometown, where there seemed to be prejudices towards anyone who was Black, Hispanic, Jewish, or even Italian, and no one went anywhere or did anything except drive around and drink themselves silly. I did get away, but I have noticed as I have aged my connections to the place of my nativity. This is not only how much I look like my father when he was my age, but how the life I first encountered in New Salem and Orange, Massachusetts still grounds me on the earth, even though I never intend to go back there to live.
The other night as I was talking to someone at a Hampshire College alumni event I could feel myself get excited as I spoke about the history of the Quabbin Reservoir, and the beauty he would encounter if he visited there. I spoke of memories of wild turkeys and bald eagles, and my father’s huge garden that at the time I viewed as a place of forced labor, but now see as a connection to him and the earth. It reminds me that my graduate school work in history was about New Salem, and how people there came to embrace Unitarianism as an affirming faith, just as I was also discovering its healing message in my own life, motivating me to enter the ministry. I think, too of my search in the Wayland cemetery just over a year ago for the gravestone of the second minister of that town, who had inspired me, and for whom I named my oldest son, Joel. The sweat poured down on that hot late summer day, as I dashed from one granite obelisk to another. Where is he? My desire to get away, was betrayed by how much I actually loved the place, and was grounded in those who had gone before.
In Gloucester, you can visit the Sargent-Murray house, home of the great Universalist preacher John Murray. This was not the home of his birth. He was an immigrant from England where he had been a preacher, who proclaimed the gospel of God’s love until his son and wife both died, and he was thrown into debtor’s prison because of all the costs of medical care. After his release, feeling adrift in the world and bereft of family he left England behind forever, and came here in 1770, vowing never to preach again. After he struck land in New Jersey, Murray lost a verbal bet about shifting tides. Being stuck in a particular location, he was persuaded to continue to stay and preach. Ultimately, he ended up in Gloucester, and if you go to his home, you may hear a story about a particular box of dirt that he kept in a closet. Whenever he was feeling depressed or alone in the world without meaning or mooring, he would open the closet door, and take out the box of dirt, which was soil he had brought from England. He would set the box on the floor and proceed to stand on British soil. He was grounded again on the home turf, that land that had nurtured him, and helped make him what he became in the world.
We invest our places with meaning. What happens when we think of Charleston or Ferguson, or now Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs, just a small town with a main street, a school and everybody’s Baptist Church? Will this be the place where we finally regain our sanity and end racism or gun violence? Or do we question whether anything good can ever come from Nazareth? We don’t just decide to stop having prejudice or stop killing each other. It is not some universal light that goes on inside our heads that tells us this is bad and we need to stop doing it. Destiny is connected with particular times and places, and we need to invest ourselves in that meaning. In Selma, Alabama in 1965 many of my future colleagues marched for justice, and one was beaten with clubs killed, and a UU lay person was gunned down by the Ku Klux Klan. They marched in a small relatively insignificant city that was a trade center back in 1820 when it was founded, and today it looks the same as it did 50 years ago. We would probably ask, “Does anything good come out of Selma?” And yet it was in Selma where many people’s views on race began to be transformed. We remember Selma not for the trade route, but for those who marched on Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, and invoked the name of the prophet from Nazareth, who in his time and place taught us anew about welcoming the stranger, and fighting against oppression because he knew the experiences first hand. He gave his life for the sins of the world, and the town he hailed from helped him see those sins, and speak out against them.
We move in slow, sometimes backward steps because we are human beings beset with prejudices and fears. What good comes out of Nazareth, or Selma, or Ferguson? I started by saying that Emerson avoided speaking about Concord and the details of the American revolution and went straight to the enduring value of freedom, but the problem with the universal is that it does not place freedom in the context of our lives or relationships. Oppressed farmers fought in Concord. Some died. Others were widowed or orphaned. And they won the right to govern themselves. They escaped the rule of the British who looked down on them. It had a time, place and context. Ministers sometimes joke that we love humanity in general, but not human beings in particular. Maybe that was Emerson’s problem. We invoke freedom, but we forget about the relationships we must create together in order to make it happen. We want to change the world with words like freedom and justice, but sometimes we don’t even relate to the people we are with. So, too, we can invoke the word racism, but until we examine it in the context of our relationships with others, it is empty liberal rhetoric. There is a theology of time and place, and we must remember it in our own lives, and in the lives of others in order to know the truth about feeling compassion and understanding for others, and knowing our own place in the world.
In the book Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks realizes what good comes out of Kentucky. It was among other things, a beautiful and natural place that nurtured promise and possibility in her. She remembered a land where people could live together and know freedom, not oppression. Ultimately she learned that the treasures she longed for, were already hers. While she literally goes back to her community, the key for each of us may not be going back in that literal way, but to embrace what possibilities and promises the land of our nativity brought to us. What good is going to come out of you? What relationships of compassion will you create? What suffering will you bear witness to? What connection are you forging to the earth? I come to know the community, these people, in this time and place. What good will come from you?
Closing Words – from Wendell Berry
It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered. There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places. My belief is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.