“Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti

OPENING WORDS

“The World Has Need of You” by Ellen Bass

                                   everything here

                                         seems to need us

Rainer Maria Rilke

I can hardly imagine it

as I walk to the lighthouse, feeling the ancient

prayer of my arms swinging

in counterpoint to my feet.

Here I am, suspended

between the sidewalk and twilight,

the sky dimming so fast it seems alive.

What if you felt the invisible

tug between you and everything?

A boy on a bicycle rides by,

his white shirt open, flaring

behind him like wings.

It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much

and too little. Does the breeze need us?

The cliffs? The gulls?

If you’ve managed to do one good thing,

the ocean doesn’t care.

But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,

the earth, ever so slightly, fell

toward the apple.

 

READINGS

From “Whole Again” a chapter in Debby Irving’s Waking Up White

I think the moment my mother told me of the Indians’ alcohol-soaked demise was when my soul first cracked, letting in a slip of cognitive dissonance that would be added to over the years. For my entire life a part of me has been reaching toward lost truths, missing details between what I was told and what I felt, information that would still the rumblings in my consciousness. I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.

Racism’s ultimate grip on me came not just from my conditioning to ignore it but from the inverse story that I was told about it. As I picked up the notion that race and racism belonged to other people, my mind was trained 180 degrees away from the harsh reality that racism is a problem created by white people and blamed on people of color. The problem is not simply that racism wasn’t discussed. Messages supporting a contradictory story were pushed on me, a story that placed disproportionate value on individualism, intellect, and bravado.

By being taught to buck up and compete in a world of individual players, I learned to silence feelings of vulnerability, curiosity, and compassion. As those parts of me withered, the void filled with assumption and judgment. In the same way my white town presumably protected me from people who could undermine my safety or financial stability, my buck-up attitude presumably protected me from my own vulnerability. Allowing myself to feel anger, grief, or confusion was tantamount to saying I was weak. Admitting vulnerability felt like letting go of my ladder rung and plummeting, landing who knows where.

Ironically, only when I tapped into my own vulnerability did I rediscover my inner strength and start listening to my own voice, the one that for years had been trying to tell me something wasn’t right.

 

“Remember” by Joy Harjo

 

Remember the sky that you were born under,

know each of the star’s stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her

in a bar once in Iowa City.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time. Remember sundown

and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled

to give you form and breath. You are evidence of

her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life also.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their

tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,

listen to them. They are alive poems.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the

origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war

dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.

Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember that language comes from this.

Remember the dance that language is, that life is.

Remember.

 

SERMON “Parts of a Whole” by Jolie Olivetti

I have long been obsessed with cereal. Pretty much every day in middle and high school I would come home from school or sports or play rehearsal and eat an enormous bowl of cereal and watch TV, keeping a sharp lookout to see if my parents were pulling up to the house, at which point I needed to turn it off and pretend I was just about to walk the dog, or that I had been doing homework the whole time. And now, you better believe cereal is at the top of my list of hungry & pregnant snack foods.

Grape Nuts in particular is oddly significant in my family. Personally, I find them delicious. When my older niece was only two or three, she’d wake up my brother-in-law in the morning, grabbing his hand to drag him out of bed saying, “wake up Papa, time for Grape Nuts! Yum yum!” They ran out once and took an emergency trip to the grocery store and bought like ten boxes. The picture of my niece with the all the Grape Nuts piled on her lap in the car seat made it onto their Christmas card that year.

Anyway, I’m just saying, for the record, I have nothing against Grape Nuts.

But I was dismayed to notice a Grape Nuts box in the grocery store once, proudly proclaiming “100% of your whole grains in one serving!”

My initial reaction was to be up on my high horse: who wants to get 100% of anything from a box? Especially a culinary staple like whole grains? I felt suddenly indignant that modern society tries to package a sense of completion and satisfaction as if it’s something we can buy from the store. But really, what’s the big deal. Convenience is convenient, right?

Commercial agriculture and grocery stores have given us a complicated relationship to our food. We demand that our produce be blemish-free and that our nutrition be ready-made. For my part, I know I mutter under my breath any time I’m at Stop & Shop and the lettuce seems a bit wilted, and I skip right over any apples with little gouges or bruises. Why should I buy anything that doesn’t look perfect? And though I’m not shopping for meals for a little one yet, I’m sure in the near future I’ll be exhausted and pressed for time and will have no complaints about an easy, pre-packaged way to ensure I’m feeding my kid all the protein, whole grains, or whatever they need.

The trouble is the demands that grocery store-levels of convenience and perfection place on the earth and on the people who grow our food. It takes a lot of waste, a lot of transport, a lot of packaging, and a lot of back-breaking labor to keep a supermarket stocked with the sparkling array of a Whole Foods. There’s something unnatural about the pretty paradise of Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I shop there sometimes and feel pretty darn fancy while I’m doing it. It’s just more accurate to call it “whole paycheck.”

I may be biased but I think the real whole foods can be found at a place like the very messy and very beautiful community-based farm in Dorchester where I used to work.

The farm is based at a shelter – a place for homeless families with young children to land for a time and look for permanent housing. Working there showed me something I needed to learn, given my rather sheltered middle-class upbringing: even amidst the unbelievable inhumanity of poverty and homelessness, people sure do raise their kids with fierce and awesome love.

The farmland was formerly vacant lots – remnants of an era in Boston’s recent history when many buildings burned, particularly in the panic and disinvestment that accompanied white flight. With more than a decade of care and compost, the farm’s founders remediated the blighted soil, and by the time I worked there, the place was a vibrant and lush garden, buzzing with life. I was very blessed to witness how strength and beauty can grow from hardship, in the case of the people and the plants of ReVision. Even the name of the farm and the shelter – ReVision – is a statement about possibility and process rather than perfection.

One of the many lessons that ReVision Urban Farm taught me was the value of “good enough.” The perfectionist in me wanted my rows to be ledger-straight, my paths entirely weed-free, and my planting and harvesting activities to match the plan to the day. Not surprisingly, my rows were always wobbly, there were always weeds everywhere, and we were always two weeks behind or even more likely, we scrapped the plan mid-summer and just made it work. Empty planting beds? Let’s plant something! Are the beans ready? Let’s pick them! We grew plenty of delicious and healthy fruits and veggies. Very little of it was perfectly executed. I got a lot more comfortable with imperfection, I learned to appreciate the beautiful chaos of the organic garden, its little ecosystems of bugs and soil and roots and fruits, everyone eating each other, and the plants flourishing despite having some holes in their leaves.

Speaking of leaves with holes, just yesterday some members of the Youth Group and the Social Action Committee and I went to make bags of grocery store seconds at the UU Urban Ministry – perfectly edible produce that doesn’t meet the stores’ standards of marketability. The program is called Fair Foods and people come buy these bags for $2 at locations all over the city on different days of the week. I was blown away by all the food that would have been wasted. I deeply enjoyed the camaraderie and playfulness that sprung up among all of us who came together around those bags of food.

Forcing marketable perfection onto the fruits of the earth reminds me of the expectations we put on our bodies and our selves: our culture devalues bodies that have been marked “other” in color, size, gender expression, ability, or in other ways. Advertisements and TV and movies show us that certain bodies are good bodies – white, slender, young, with proper expressions of masculinity or femininity, and rich enough to buy any perfection we may secretly lack.

But of course we know that what the media shows about human beings is hardly a reflection of reality. We are creatures of this earth. We are sometimes disheveled and smelly and we are not uniform. Like the plants at the farm where I used to work, growing strong even with holes in their leaves, our wounds are not defects; rather, they are part of our wholeness, they are badges of our vulnerability and resilience. Our diversity is not due to deviance nor is it for gathering tokens in a collection, it is the truth and wonder of humankind.

I have to come clean about something. I chose two of our hymns today with an ulterior motive: to complain about them. Not to get super preachy or UU or anything, but we have to question many of our hymns, for various reasons. Amazing Grace and Standing on the Side of Love are both gorgeous and meaningful expressions of faith, and it’s also frustrating that they favor certain bodies with certain abilities. I’m talking about the line “I was was blind but now I see.” Do these hymns demand we have seeing bodies, and bodies that can stand? Of course it’s figurative: “Seeing” is a metaphor for understanding, “standing” is a metaphor for showing support. Of course we can sing these songs and still honor our own and one another’s inherent worth and dignity, with all our different sorts of bodies. But we get SO many messages in our daily lives about how there’s something wrong with our bodies: they’re too fat, too wrinkly, too vulnerable. People’s gender expressions are policed, people’s skin color marks them for a criminal. We are tricked into noticing someone’s disability first, and then that they are a person comes second. We get so many messages about which bodies are whole and perfect and which bodies are wrong, that it’d be a relief to get a break from these expectations in church. I’m with Rumi, whose poem we sing, “come, come, whoever you are.” We need all of us here, we need to honor all our different bodies and abilities.

One of our readings came from the last chapter of Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White: the chapter is called “Whole Again.” I participated in a discussion about this book here at church last year along with several others from the congregation. In the section I read today, Irving reflects on the impact of what her mom told her at a very young age about Native Americans and alcoholism – her mom had put it in such a way as to suggest that the disease was inevitable among Native people, the destruction complete, and that it was all their fault:

“I couldn’t have known at the age of five that by thinking a fellow human being less human, I made myself less human, or that by disconnecting from my human family I began the process of disconnecting from my natural intuition and ability to love, relying more and more on what I was told and less and less on what I felt.”

Irving is describing something that threatens our inherent wholeness: the damaging conceit that some of us are worthy and others are not. What’s at stake is our sacred interconnection with one another, our ability to respect the interdependent web of existence. Irving says her “soul cracked” when she was taught to believe that there is something inherently inferior about Native Americans. Stories like this, stories about hierarchies, about inferiority and superiority, separate us not only from one another but also from our own humanity.

You may have heard of Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term for humanity that has been translated to mean “I am because you are.” Here is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s explanation of this word:

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

Debby Irving also reflects that once she began to recognize her own vulnerability, she began to recover her sense of wholeness. Believing in superiority, whether consciously or subconsciously, means believing that some of us have got it all together, are always in control, can show no weakness. But that’s a lie. Part of being human is being vulnerable. Bikini ads are airbrushed. Immortality and omnipotence is for the gods. We can’t be whole if we pretend we are perfect.

Our wholeness lies not in some illusion of flawlessness and self-sufficiency, but rather in our interconnections and in our own bruised and healing selves. On the farm, I had to let go of the idea that I had everything under control and that everything would turn out just so. I put my face right up to the plants to try to understand what they needed, I worked hard to cultivate a healthy and vital landscape, but much of it was out of my hands. Every part of that farm was dependent on every other part of that farm. Shade, drainage, pests, compost, even the people that coaxed the plants from the soil… all of this was best understood as a network of interlocking pieces, stronger parts and struggling parts, that all somehow led to a cute kid biting into a carrot she had just pulled from the earth, and smiling wide to taste the sudden gritty sweetness, orange flecks decorating her teeth.

“The World Has Need of You” as the title of the poem from our opening words put it. The poem says, “It’s hard to be human. We know too much and too little.” Indeed, the world needs us just as we are – equal parts broken and strong, equal parts wise and foolish, always in process and wholly reliant on one another.

This is the wholeness that suits us best. Not something we can get from a box or that tantalizes us in a commercial, but just being comfortable with our regular, rumpled selves, our hands dirty from digging or from helping a friend.

I’ll end by returning to these lines from Joy Harjo’s poem:

Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.

Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.

Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.

 

CLOSING

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing

that is more than your own.

Let it brush your cheeks

as it divides and rejoins beside you.

 

Blessed ones, whole ones,

you where the heart begins:

You are the bow that shoots the arrows

and you are the target.

 

Fear not the pain.  Let its weight fall back

into the earth;

for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.