Late So Soon
November 15, 2015
Tbe First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words: from Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, Chapter 15, Hook or Me This Time
“Pan, who and what art thou?” Hook cried huskily.
“I’m youth, I’m joy,” Peter answered at a venture, “I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.” ….This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.
Reading from Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris pp 11-12, 40-41
St. Hilary, a fourth century bishop, once wrote that “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” The magnificent sky above the plains sometimes seems to sing this truth; Angels seems possible in the wind-filled expanse. A few years ago a small boy who had recently moved to the Plains from Pennsylvania told me he knew an angel named Andy LeBeau. He spelled out the name for me, and then I asked him if the angel had visited him here. “Don’t you know?” he said in the incredulous tone children adopt when adults seem stupefyingly ignorant. “Don’t you know?” he said, his voice rising. “THIS is where angels drown.”
What makes the western plains seem most like the ocean to me is not great sweeps of land cut into swells and hollows, or the grass rippling like waves, or the sheets of rain that one sees moving in the distance like storms at sea. It is the sound.
Many mornings, when the wind has come up during the night, the trees around my house thunder like high surf that swells and ebbs without cease.
In open country, far from any trees, the wind beats against you, as insistent as an ocean current. You tire walking against it, just as you would swimming against an undertow…. The wind is so loud you have to shout at the person next to you, and you can’t hear yourself think at all. You begin to wonder if you have a self….
Wind yanks the moisture out of the ground, turning the wet fields to dust in a matter of hours; it robs farmers of valuable crops at harvest, blowing them away with the dust of the combine. It encircles us, much as water encircles an island, increasing our sense of isolation. The wind is what drove many homesteaders off the land. It is what drove some of them mad.
Walking in the hard wind can be like staring at the ocean. Humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean. Maybe that child was right when he told me the world is upside down here, and this is where angels drown.
Listening to the voice of the sky, I wonder: how do we tell our tales, and how can we hope to record them? I’d like to believe that deep in our bones the country people of Dakota, like monks, are, as Jean Cocteau once said of poetry, “useless, but indispensable.”
Sermon Late So Soon
An artist I first knew as a weaver was very interested in trees – in trunks, and leaf canopies, and branches and bark, and the way light looks at different elevations, bouncing off the variety of surfaces. She spun yarn in different textures, and experimented with pigments to get all this in her weavings. Her day job was as a Spanish teacher, and she saw the trees as related to the structure of language and in the process of translation, — those old grammar exercises in which diagrammed sentences could look like felled trees. Lately her projects remind me a little bit of the way collectors display butterflies. There are rows of pins marching across lines of beautiful, teacherly Palmer script, and from some pins hang small hand dyed tags in vibrant colors. The interest in trees remains, but now it is ancestral, and almost hidden – yet also literally what holds everything together. Reviving her lace-maker grandfather, she loops and knots the cotton strings hanging from the pins into tiny bits of lace, and the tags have soaked up brilliant yellows and oranges and magentas, with a wavery irregularity that makes them interesting. Different colors mark out the vowel sounds of the words beneath — softer shades for short vowels and more saturated hues for long ones.
The pattern of the fluttering tags is really beautiful, and drew me in. There were four different pieces on the walls of the studio, and although they varied greatly, two looked somewhat symmetrical. One was almost like a cross, and one appeared as a rhythm moving across and down, a banner waving in the wind. It turned out that all four were representing the same text, which was this:
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
In my mind, the colors of the tags became rose petals, in all their colored variety, and some clustered in tight buds and others opened up or even drooped, and fell. The line from Romeo and Juliet was translated into Spanish, and it was also translated into Gertrude Stein: “A rose is a rose is a rose,” and each bloomed on the wall in different colors and shapes. I thought about lines from Emerson, who wrote in Self Reliance: “these roses under my window make no reference to former roses, or better ones; they exist with God today. There is no time to them.”
Religion is weird about time. We seem to talk simultaneously of timelessness and end times; of eternity — time that is infinite and changeless; and of escaping from time — from mortality, from dailyness. We use children as a form of nostalgia, so that we can talk about innocence and reclaim that for ourselves in some small way, yet we tend to see children as potential; interesting not for who and what they are today, but for what they might become. They measure time for us, helping us to imagine the future while giving us back our own childhoods.
Shakespeare’s line, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” is uttered by a 13 year old, the classic age of rebellion rooted in an effort to define the self. Juliet is trying to convince Romeo that his identity does not have to be determined by his father; that he can refuse to obey his family’s wishes and instead choose her. “What’s in a name?” she asks, and argues that a person is not what is inherited and is not physical either – not hand or foot or arm or face. A person, she says, is comprised of the choices made. And Romeo agrees. He says, “I will take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I will be new baptized.”
On the one hand we are hearing that the person is the same no matter what – that Romeo has an immutable self that is not dependent upon his body or his name and his family, yet we are also being told that radical change is possible. So what is it about the person that is abiding and stable, existing independently, if such transformation is possible? Where do we find continuity of self?
My first year of college, I had a course called “Truth, Time, and Necessity,” which was a cleverly packaged math class. We read Aristotle and wrote equations full of symbols, trying to figure out what was logically possible, taking time into account. There is no way I could reproduce the calculus involved, but I do remember the main point, which was that there are many conceivable worlds, and something necessary is true in all of them; but something possible only has to be true in one of them. Things can be possible without being true; and something can have been true in the past without also being true in the future. There was more to it, of course, but it boiled down to saying that things change. This is true for everybody. Change is a necessity; true in every world.
Children can seem wise simply because they don’t rebel against transience, and often understand it as transformation. They consider it fun to play at being far older than they are, not to mention extinct creatures, or alien beings. Some of you may know that I have children who are exceptionally tall, but I come from a family in which almost everyone is short. My grandmother was only 4’8”, and one day years ago I realized that my boys had this construct in which height was not a personal trait, but a completely age-related one. Young people grow up, literally, until they start to grow down. They lived in a world where Grammie had once been as tall as an Amazon, and where each of them would end their days as a two foot bundle. They did not find it terrifying or depressing to think of shrinking in this way. It was just a part of life. A process. The rose is a rose is a rose, with no time to it; and yet existing in time.
In the reading this morning, I was intrigued by the idea of angels – who I think of as existing outside of time – drowning. The image Kathleen Norris sketched fascinated me. I wished that she had asked this child more questions; listened to him harder. A boy, new to the country, tells her he knows an angel – an angel with a name! Andy LeBeau translates to “beautiful man.” But the angel can’t live here, the boy says. None of them can – and he expected her to know this. He thought it was completely obvious — this is where angels drown. But how would that work? Angels fly. They have nothing to do with water. Also, they have already died. That’s how they became angels. Wouldn’t drowning mean they died again? It makes no sense, and yet I can see it – the dry ice blue sky swept bare, everything whisked away, the immersion into nothingness and the knowledge that we must all start over again. Do you remember the three days after 9/11, when all flights were grounded, and how disorienting the quiet was? Everything that seems empty is full. Including us. The world turned upside down.
The child’s story of the angels drowning is also an image of baptism, which is a word that comes to us from first century Greek weavers. Garments were dipped into bleach and then dye, cleaning the cloth before giving it a new color. Religiously, baptism now means being saturated by a new substance that both washes you clean, — giving you back your original self – and makes you fundamentally different. You have been immersed in something transformative, but you are still made of the same cloth. “Call me but love, and I will be new baptized,” says Romeo. This little boy, alone on the Dakota prairie, is awash in his memories of the life that could not come with him. He will become someone new, and his old angel will trail away.
Jolie read to us a brief exchange between Captain Hook and Peter Pan this morning. We who know the Disney movies as opposed to the original play might think that Peter Pan is the hero in a simple children’s story, but in fact, Pan is a menace. Neverland is a place where no one can grow up. The inhabitants are lost to life, remaining children forever because they did not survive, and Pan only accompanies them for a while to make sure that they are not afraid. It is a story in which Pan is the villain, but he is a NECESSARY one. He is useful, reminding us that there is no world in which we can remain completely innocent.
It is Hook who has been trying to get the Darling children out of Neverland. Like the children’s father, Hook follows all the conventions about what is supposed to matter – money, status, efficiency, power – the whole rigid English boarding school structure — and it makes the children despise him. They know that they are being seen as a prize, as a shield against mortality; while Pan seems to understand their need to play, to try new things, to venture out into a world of possibilities. Pan never wonders who he is or where he fits in. He adapts to circumstances and forgets problems, like unfairness, or pain. He has no memories, while Hook is tortured by his. Enraged by his failure to get the children; to force them to submit, Hook gives up. He plans to drown them, simply obliterate all of them, which will at least get them out of Neverland. Instead, it is Hook that goes overboard – where, in shades of a different story, he is swallowed by a large crocodile, and calm returns – and the children are able to regain their place in the world. They go home, where all has changed for the better. Their father has been transformed.
It is a story that travels deep into the meaning of inheritance. What do we owe our children, and what do they owe us? Who or what has to die in order to provide us with gifts that sustain us materially, and spiritually? What makes us who we are?
In the book of Genesis there is a story about Jacob and all of his family – his two wives and his servants and his many sons and daughters – crossing a river, into a new land. Though unseen, more of his family is present on this journey through the water, because years earlier, Jacob had stolen his brother’s birthright by getting their father’s blessing, and now is trying to make amends – sending riches to Esau, and preparing to meet him the next day. But no one is expecting that to go well. Esau wants to kill Jacob; to somehow get back the life he believes should have been his. And so, after ferrying everyone over, Jacob goes back across the river — to retrieve something he left behind, or to say goodbye to the place by himself, to prepare himself for seeing his brother, or for some reason known only to him. Alone there in the dark, Jacob wrestled until dawn with some unseen being that could have been God, or a man, or an angel, depending upon your Bible.
Whatever it was, the wrestling continued through the night, and although he was injured in the hip, Jacob did not quit until he heard, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, echoing his childhood self, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered. This time he is telling the truth. When his father had asked that question, Jacob lied, and claimed his brother’s name.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. And then the sun rose, and Jacob limped onward.
Our strongest memories, the most rich and vivid ones replaying in our minds, generally come from a specific decade of our lives – the years between 15 and 25; the years when we push against authority and begin to make our own decisions, and suffer the consequences; trying things for ourselves, thinking about our role for future generations. What will we contribute? What do we stand for? Those years become a backbone for a narrative that will define us, and that is why time seems to speed up as we age – we are growing more and more distant from all that clarified who we were meant to be. Childhood memories fade and adult experiences fray, get reshaped to fit the story, until we find ourselves trying to line up the days, to make them construct this world, to figure out how we ended up here.
And here is where we always end up, isn’t it? – limping onward; stumbling towards ourselves, grappling with things in the dark. We wrestle our stories out of the landscape of our days – the choices we’ve made and the things that have happened to us, and we keep lurching forward, pausing by the riverbed at times to look backward, to gather strength. If we are lucky, we get washed clean now and again, and are able to start anew, leaving behind the pain and regrets and mistakes, but still carrying our pasts somehow. They are what make us familiar to ourselves. We can get dipped in the river, make our transgressions fade, but we have to remain recognizable to ourselves. Because what really qualifies to keep living is not innocence, but experience. Even when it seems to be killing us, and fundamentally changing who we seemed to be or who we wanted to be, we are being baptized into a new life – one which demands that we learn how to love ourselves; how to love even that which has a shadow side; which is to say, everything. That is what keeps us alive, weaving new adventures into our old, old stories, and passing them on.
Closing Words from Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”