“Mother’s Day” by Andrea Greenwood – May 8, 2016
Opening Words from Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
(This woman) told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you are one of those chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.”
Reading from Someone, by Alice McDermott. Pages 161-162
This section, narrated by the wife, is a conversation with her husband, Tom, and her brother, Gabe – an ex-priest – and their mother.
”I was doing exactly that, spitting into some clay to make a little cache of art supplies when I thought of something from the Gospels, actually something that I think you said, Gabe, in a sermon way back when.” The man’s poor face gave everything away. He was embarrassed by where his own talk had led him, but driven to go on.
“Anyway, here’s the thing. I’m mixing some paint and a little bit of clay, diluting it, and I spit into my palm, and I suddenly remember something you said, about the blind man, in a sermon. Back when.” He glanced at my brother somewhat warily.
I said, “Bill Corrigan. The guy across the street. His mother dressed him a in a suit every day. He was blinded in the first world war. The kids used to have him call their games.”
“A blind umpire,” Gabe added
“Yes,” said Tom, “but I’m referring to something else. A story from the gospels. Jesus picking up some clay and spitting into it. Putting it on the blind man’s eyes. He looked over at Gabe. Do you remember what you said? We had a conversation about it.”
Gabe’s shirt collar was opened, and a deep flush had risen up from under it, over his throat. The tips of his ears, too, had turned red. “Nothing very original, I’m afraid,” Gabe said softly.
But Tom was shaking his head again. “No no no,” he said so earnestly that my mother and I were silenced. “You were profound.”
He seemed disappointed that he could not call forth the recollection. “I’ll butcher it if I try to say it myself.” He screwed up his mouth, drew back in his chair. “You don’t remember?”
I looked to Gabe, hoping. “I probably mentioned the whole profession of faith idea, he finally said. “There’s really no one else in the New Testament who Jesus cures without being asked. Without a profession of faith. I always found that interesting.”
“The guy was just sitting there,” Tom said happily. “Am I right?”
Gabe nodded, generous. “That’s right. John, chapter 9; Jesus and his disciples were having a discussion about human suffering being a punishment for sin. The disciples pointed to the blind man begging. This man was born blind; was that because his parents sinned? …no one was asking Jesus to cure the man, they were just using him to illustrate their question. And yet Jesus, out of compassion alone, approaches the man, picks up some dirt… and, well, we all know the story.”
“Right,” Tom cried. He sat forward. “That’s just what I was doing, fooling around with some paint, a little dirt, a little spit, sitting in that prison camp, and I thought of what you said, how the guy’s just sitting there, not wearing himself out with asking, and Bingo, Jesus cures him. Just because he feels sorry for the guy. I don’t know. It was a good thing to remember, over there. That you didn’t necessarily have to ask. Or even believe. It gave me hope.”
The other day, the minister at First Church in Boston made an off-hand remark about elephants. Well, technically he was commenting on sermons, but he used the elephant as his model. He said the traditional Unitarian sermon has an attractive enough, engaging beginning to hook people, a gigantic overstuffed middle, and then just a tiny whisp of a tail, to send you on your way. The sermon as elephant – implying that the cool, interesting trunk is a bit of a trick; a teaser; also we would be better off with a bit more attention paid to the ending; with what we leave people holding to get through the day, or the week with; instead of focusing so much on being a solid, immovable block of grey matter; of piled up evidence. While I am sure this was intended as criticism of traditional preaching, it seemed a little unfair to the elephant, too.
I had already been thinking about the elephant. The story of six blind men, each touching a different part of the animal, and coming to radically different conclusions about what they were encountering was on my mind. Thirty years ago, I had the best time with this story. I blindfolded all the kids in the Sunday School class I was teaching. I had brought with me an old wooden snow shoe, strung with gut webbing. Attached to it with leather straps was a boot, and in the boot was a wool sock, stuffed with an old towel. The kids were at different places, touching things that were either soft and squishy; or hard and smooth, solid or full of holes; curved, straight, thick, thin. The information each had conflicted with what others were reporting. They could not figure out what it was, which was the point. Also, it was a lot of fun. I thought of this last month, when the Coming of Age class – our group of 9th graders — was at the parsonage, and James Sours mentioned that this story illustrated the fact that we can’t know the truth without community.
Interestingly enough, this is not exactly the same lesson I learned from that story. For me, it was an illustration of everybody being right; that we all had our own truths. What James said is the obvious next step – put all the pieces together. Back in my day, we were satisfied with individual truths. My elephant may be soft and warm, and yours may be rough, and we are both right. We were not asked to put the information together, to better understand the nature of the beast. In some way, the implication was that we couldn’t do that; we could only know what we know, in our own limited way. The best we could hope for was to understand that other people had different perspectives. Another of the Coming of Age students, Roane Morton, asked a lot of questions about conflict that night at the parsonage, and they, too, seemed like explorations of this story: How do we claim our truths respectfully? How do we cope with big differences of opinion and interpretation without letting ourselves be silenced by people who are louder, more persistent, more absolute than we are?
The story is ancient, from India at least ten centuries ago, and so it has many incarnations. In the Jain religion, it is used as a morality tale, like the way it was taught to me. It does not tell us anything about the whole elephant; it is a story to show us why we should never argue: Everyone is right and has valid reasons for thinking as he does; therefore do not tell others that they are wrong. In a Hindu version, the emphasis is more on the elephant, a creature that the men are curious about long before their encounter – they know that the royal princess rides an elephant, and so they think the animal must be graceful and gentle; but they also know that the elephant is used to clear the jungle to make roads, so he must be fierce and frighteningly strong. Because of that, one of the men is convinced that there is no such thing as an elephant – they are just being tricked; and when he touches the elephant, he is given the tail. See, he exclaims; it is just a bit of rope! But another of the blind men is sure that an elephant must be a live version of a flying carpet – magical, able to carry you safely away, no matter what is happening around you. When he touches the real thing, he is, naturally, stationed at the ear, and all his beliefs are confirmed. I love this image, of the old man nestled up to an elephant, patting those big flaps and knowing he could be magically transported….
Westerners did not get a version of this story until the middle of the 19th century, when a lawyer from Vermont wrote it as a poem, which concluded with these lines: “each was partly in the right and all were in the wrong,“ which implies exactly what James said –“You can’t have the truth on your own.” We need each other’s perspective to get to the truth. And, as Roane’s concerns suggested, we can’t give up our own views in the process.
This may seem like an odd topic for Mother’s Day, but I was thinking of the parents of these youth; and all of us, as the adult community responsible for them. These are the children we are raising – mothering. My husband has been known to define Mothers Day as the hardest sermon of the year (actually, I think he used the word “worst”) – and you notice who he assigned to cover today. Thank you, Mark, for the lovely gift! … Carole Berney suggested the other morning that the title this morning should be “Mothers: The elephant in the room.” How absolutely perfect. Apparently there are intense and large emotions in multiple directions on days dedicated to mothers – sadness, loss, nostalgia, duty, anxiety, anger, love, and everything in between. There are those who long for children who never arrived, and those who feel that they were unwanted, or a bad fit. Some of us miss our mothers; and there are some who miss their children, taken cruelly, and to where? If you address maternal love, the people who show up will be the ones needing to hear about conflict; if you address difficulties, you will have a room full of expectant parents and people with new babies. Etc. Did I say thank you, Mark?
The elephant is not a bad symbol for Mother’s Day, actually – they stand for strength and wisdom; are known for their loyalty, stamina and the ability to cooperate, and in Hinduism elephants represent the idea that forward motion can be made to look effortless: They are not stopped by obstacles, and they do not go around them, either. They just move through them. I like this both personally and as a nice image of both creation and evolution; like we are getting somewhere. So, all well and good, except that the part of the story that I really wanted to address was the blindness. I learned last year that the novelist Kent Haruf used to write blind – that he literally pulled a dark cap down over his eyes, and typed in the dark, because he felt he could see the truth more clearly and picture everything more accurately if he was cut off from every day life. Sometimes we need inner vision to see the world as it is.
In the reading this morning, Tom is trying to get Gabe to retell a Bible story in which Jesus says it is not fate or punishment for a man to be born blind; it is an opportunity to display the abilities of God. Jesus says he is the light of the world, spits to make mud, puts it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in a nearby pond. The man does, and he can see. But not everyone believes this. Some Pharisees think the man was lying – that he was never blind in the first place. Others think Jesus was some kind of sinful trickster. They go about arguing and investigating, until Jesus pronounces that he has come as a judge, and the blind will see, while those who claim to see will become blind.
But this isn’t the story that Gabe’s sister thinks of. She remembers instead the blind man who lived on their street; a man who was born with sight, but lost his vision during the first world war. For some reason, it took me a moment to grasp that something is not quite right about the idea of a blind umpire. In my head, I think I leaped to the blind justice ideal, — lady liberty with her eyes covered, and holding the scales — lumped an umpire in with fairness, and only then did the image of the poor man, being suited up by his mother and placed outside to call the children’s ball games really hit me. It is incredible. The man, who has sacrificed himself in service to his country and the ideals of democracy, is treated as a child; unable to dress himself, set out among the playing children to call fair or foul. Tom is looking for an image of healing, and his listeners picture a man wounded in war, the blind umpire led out to the street by his mother. It is a great juxtaposition with the healing story –after his service, Bill Corrigan was left docile, sitting by the roadside like the blind man in the Gospel story. But not abandoned. His mother took care of him.
For many years my grandmother was a teacher at Perkins, and this is exactly why – she came of age at a time when her peers went off to fight, with a vision of doing justice and creating a fair world. If they came home at all, it was as Bill Corrigan did – broken in ways both literal and figurative. As a child, I didn’t understand why my grandmother had been a teacher to adults; why there were so many grown ups in school, and she explained that her students were returned soldiers, men who had been blinded by mustard gas during the war, and they had to be taught how to read with their fingertips, because they couldn’t see words with their eyes any more. Staff at Perkins also started recording poems and books, so that the newly blind people would have access to stories. It was a challenge – the technology to make recordings had existed for a long time, but only in small bits, like nursery rhymes. Perkins had started as a place to develop the potential in those who had lost sight in childhood illness, or been born blind, like the man in the Bible story. Teaching grown men who had once seen the world, and shaped it, changed everything.
Perkins Institute is also where Mother’s Day got its start. Perkin’s founder, Samuel Gridley Howe, was an ardent abolitionist, and so was his wife, Julia Ward Howe. In the early years of the Civil War, she wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and believed completely in the war. But by the time it was over, the fighting and the horrendous numbers of dead disgusted Howe. She had heard about a woman who was a kind of community organizer in the hills of Appalachia. Ann Jarvis had watched helplessly as several of her young children died, and afterwards went and asked different doctors how to prevent illness in children. She ended up learning how to sanitize kitchen equipment, and organized Mothers Work Days and Work Clubs to teach other women. Then, because she was living in a county that served as a major battlefield between Union and Confederate Armies, Jarvis spent four years surrounded by death. She declared Women’s Friendship Days, in which local women went to the camps of both sides, to treat the wounded and show the soldiers how to disinfect and sanitize. Jarvis wanted to live in peace, and in health, and she wanted others to as well.
Julia Ward Howe was inspired. Everything in her life had been about creating more chances; expanding and developing opportunities for all, — and really all, not just society’s version of who counted. But instead of creating equality and freedom, the war killed. More men died of disease in the camps than in battle. So she wrote the declaration we heard this morning, and although she was talking about the Civil War; the blindness that allowed us to be a nation that practiced slavery, she was also decrying the blindness of the Pharisees; the faithful men who completely missed the point. Instead of questioning HOW a blind man could see, they should have been celebrating the fact that he could; that he was healed. And Howe was indicting herself, too; her sure belief in her version of the truth while marching others to war. So, after seeing more of the world, she changed her mind – not about freedom, or equality, but about the way to handle conflict. She came to believe that we could develop a culture that guided us towards sympathy and patience, and a government that would do away with war as an acceptable way of solving conflict.
At least 50 people from Watertown are out this morning saying the same thing, in Boston at the Mother’s Day Walk for Peace. It is a protest against the carnage of war, organized by parents of children gunned down for no reason at all, except that this is how we live. Violently. It does not have to be like this. The walkers are raising money to pay for burials, and for counseling, and for programs to help us change, to build communities in which everybody’s children are valued and safe. Roane was asking about how to handle conflict without giving up your self. This is one way: to speak up for peace; to demand that people see what is happening. If we have a vision of the world that doesn’t include this terror and pain, then we don’t have the whole animal. It isn’t true. Being quiet about it won’t change that, and neither will fighting. We can only reach out our hands and learn to see more.
Wholeness and healing doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with right and wrong, or belief or the law. It comes from compassion; mercy and comfort that comes unbidden; help that is offered just because we can do that for one another. And it comes from living in community, learning to see in all sorts of ways. Let’s keep reaching out, and finding more of the truth we share. Let’s give each other hope.
Closing Words Myth, by Muriel Rukeyser
Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the roads.
He smelled a familiar smell. It was the Sphinx.
Oedipus said, ‘I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?’
‘You gave the wrong answer,’ said the Sphinx.
‘But my right answer was what made everything possible,’ said Oedipus.
‘No,’ she said. ‘When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening,
you answered, Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.’
‘When you say Man,’ said Oedipus, ‘you include women too. Everyone knows that.’
She said, ‘That’s what you think.’