“Restlessness and Wanderlust”
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
March 9, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
Opening Words — Pirate Dreams Shel Silverstein
Needles and pins, Needles and pins,
Sew me a sail to catch me the wind.
Sew me a sail strong as the gale,
Carpenter, bring out your hammers and nails.
Hammers and nails, hammers and nails,
Build me a boat to go chasing the whales.
Chasing the whales, sailing the blue
Find me a captain and sign me a crew.
Captain and crew, captain and crew,
Take me, oh take me to anywhere new.
Reading from The Boy Detective, by Roger Rosenblatt
A walk is a way of entering the body, and also leaving it. I walk within me, and without. But how do you walk in the world? One foot in front of the other say the pragmatists. Yet in this life of ours, merely to become vertical requires two years, so any child can see this walking business is not easy. Even when you get the hang of it, you still stumble and take headers….
If you ask me, each one of us has two souls, not one, and we take these two souls on our walks. One soul is for the senses, one for the intellect. So our minds have a soul, which is our point of deepest thinking. And our hearts have a soul, which is our point of deepest feeling. They lead parallel lives, these two souls, never meeting yet connected, and side by side they move into infinity,
like legs on a walk.
Reading from Ash Wednesday, by T.S. Eliot
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Sermon – Restlessness and wanderlust Andrea Greenwood
Do you ever find yourself walking down the street on a sunny early spring day – a day like yesterday, perhaps, when the mercury climbs up just enough to make you believe this interminable winter might end, — and there you are, perfectly content, thinking happy thoughts, or thinking nothing at all, just enjoying the new warmth and the crisp air, when suddenly a curtain of water descends, behind which you can hear a muffled car passing and the long shush of tires sounding like the hiss after breaking waves? You emerge bedraggled and mudsoaked and thinking how dumb you were to have ever thought that all was well. It’s worse than winter because it felt so promising; so hopeful. And it turned to muck. Welcome to March.
Fresh air blows in, clean and alive, new, carrying us somewhere – but there is nowhere to go. The streets are still edged with dirt-crusted snowbanks, and the landscape is barren. Sometimes the image from Ezekiel – the valley of the dry bones – appears before me, because of the way the roads in winter become etched in white that seems to leach up from under the pavement, like it is too cold for even the bodies to rest; like even the dead itch to get up and go. The partial thaw seems a possible escape from the underworld, and a haunting of this one.
Not even Google can save me. I KNOW I once had a reading that perfectly expressed my dissatisfaction, and it included the lines “we long to be somewhere else and we don’t know where; we long to be someone else, but we don’t know who” – but my search results give me, at best, Yogi Berra quotes. Mostly I find sad blogs full of relationship advice; how to make your partner new and improved; the same, yet better. Well, that is kind of what I want, but from the UNIVERSE – I don’t want it to change beyond recognition. I just want everything to be happier, more comfortable, and less messy. And anyway, it feels like the problem lies within me – it isn’t really out there. I feel like running, but I don’t really mean that. In two, three steps, we’d have conjured up that giant who grinds bones into the flour to make his bread. I want to dance, but I am way too uptight for that. I could play jazz piano – or better yet, saxophone – but I don’t know how. Nothing matches up. I want to be a different person, but me.
It is a struggle to live in this grey and sorry world; these pre-Spring days in which we are aware of a beautiful, blooming life, but we can’t quite get there. We can’t think our way in, and we can’t feel it yet either. What does Eliot say? I cannot drink there, where trees flower and springs flow, because there is nothing again. We long to get out of this place; past this time. But that is not really what we mean. It isn’t that we want to escape; it’s that we can’t quite figure out how to prevent life from escaping us. We feel radically incomplete. We are missing something, and want to capture some vital essence. There is something natural, graceful, spirited – just there, slipping past. We are shadowed with hope that we might grasp it before it goes.
In children’s books, life itself can wear a veil, so that we can’t quite understand how things work, or what it is all about; how to take action that resonates, and makes the world keep spinning. But there are some magical places where the fabric has worn so thin that it becomes possible to pass through, and see clearly for a moment. Well, it isn’t so much see clearly as it is see more. We climb into a wardrobe, and the doors open to a new place; or we find the spot where time folds on itself so we can travel back and forth, and get some perspective. One night a boy who can fly carries us to Never Never Land, and back, and the view from the bedroom window never quite looks the same. The stars are not so distant any more. We can be let in on the mystery. Usually the discovery of this place — the weak spot in the curtain between the unvarnished apparent world and the real and lovely one — happens at the end of the first chapter; at the beginning, but after a problem has been laid out. That glimpse into the other side hints at a resolution. We know we will get to a better place. But how? And when? And what will happen along the way?
Did you know that the word Lent has absolutely nothing to do with giving up things or suffering? It is just a derivative of the Old English word for Spring, and what it really means is lengthening; more light. It’s all good. And once upon a time, this month was the beginning of the year. Chapter One. Most of the world changed how they measured time over four centuries ago, but for us – a colony of Great Britain, and not inclined to use Pope Gregory’s calendar – March 25 was the first day of the New Year until 1753. Everyone got a clean slate. Old debts were settled, and the fields were made ready for planting. The month was named for Mars, the ancient god of spring, and farming, the protector of cattle, who eventually became known as the God of War.
How did that happen? They seem like such different roles – farming, and war. Why is he god of both? Some historians suggest that it was because of the dead. Mars was responsible for the earth, and those who died in battle were planted in his ground. As jarring as this is, there is something perfect about it. This is the reality of March; of the hunger and restlessness that drives us and makes us race ahead. We are alive in spite of death. And we are determined to be more alive BECAUSE of death. And maybe everything that we plow into the earth does come back to us somehow, some way. Maybe even the things we bury deep in our hearts and minds will find a way out.
One of the things that happens as the sun shines down on us is that we begin to wake up to the belief that we were made for MORE; whatever “more” might mean. There is more light, and more shadow, too, and a restless yearning. Hibernation is ending, and it is painful. We are opening our eyes, shuffling out into the world, and all the boundaries are blurred. Are we frozen, or in bud? What in us is dead, anyway? What do we will into being, and what will simply happen on its own, in due time? Are we rational, or full of faith? Do we have to choose? We climb and climb, and get to the top, and see the whole range of peaks beyond – and in between those crests, there are valleys. How can you feel so alone at the exact same time you know you are witnessing a kind of completeness? Realizing our limits is exactly what expands them.
It is never answers that pull us to into the religious life. It is the questions. They annoy us and prick at us and make us feel disconnected and desperate for calm, and peace – but they haunt us with hope. We are unlocking a bridge between the world we can see and the world we sense is out there, on the other side of this invisible curtain; the one we might begin to participate in; the one we might begin to build for ourselves. It can be tempting to live in a series of interiors; in warm and safe places; in our homes and cars; attached to screens that offer visions of a controlled and controllable world; digital universes that transform ordinary, unsatisfying life into a world of beauty and amazement and perfect understanding and instant connection. And there is a lot to want to escape from. We all have our own personal little hells we’d like to leave behind – habits, illnesses, worries and fears that govern us. And then there are the problems of the world that kill our spirits. There is racism and injustice and political gridlock that really is not fathomable. It makes no sense. Yet it is very real. Why do we have to live this way?
Two weeks ago, my family went to see Witness Uganda, a musical that tells the true story of American volunteers in Uganda to build schools. Because of AIDS, there are more orphaned children than there are children with parents, and these orphans are doubly lost: In Uganda, education requires tuition. Building a school solves nothing for them. Grifffin, the main character, becomes frustrated with the goal of raising schools, and screams, “We’re not trying to resurrect buildings, we are trying to resurrect PEOPLE.” It becomes a chant, a prayer, a mission, a dance, and a rebuke, too.
It is not a happy story. It is painful and complicated and very realistic about what we can and can’t achieve, and even about some of our own motivations. It leaves us dissatisfied, disjointed – we begin to know that there may not really be fair judgment in our lifetimes; that we will not live to see the justice we long for. And we really do long for it. The story lets us span the distance between reality and hope, and we begin to occupy the spaces in between things. We become part of the growing world instead of layering ourselves up against it. Roger Rosenblatt, near the end of book I used in our first reading, writes simply: “I love. Therefore I walk.” It is a concrete world, with no language other than the old cobblestones under his feet and the briny smells in the air. Maybe there is a lamppost to twirl around once or twice. There are people, too – all kinds of shapes and colors; and the air is full of different tongues. It is life. “I love these streets,” he says. “They love me back.”
One evening, not so long ago, in the aftermath of one of last year’s blizzards that was melting in the streets around me, a gentleman whose face is imprinted in my memory, but whose name I do not know took hold of my elbow. I was startled by the touch, but compliant as he steered me away from the edge of the sidewalk, and closer in to one of the buildings. He had a solid yet unobtrusive appearance, and a receptive face; ready to listen, but he was not passive; he was leading. He murmured, you will be most unhappy if you stay where you are. The words were clear, and unhurried, and seemed to travel directly from his hand into my bones. Seconds later, I grasped the meaning in the behavior that had momentarily mystified me. You will be most unhappy if you stay where you are. A car approached, fast; a wall of water rose, and fell; and though I escaped that particular baptism, I was immersed in the clear air of salvation. Even on this side of the wide water, we can taste milk, and honey. Welcome to March.
Closing Words — adapted from Rabindrinath Tagore
I am restless. I thirst for far-away things.
My soul goes out from me, longing to touch the skirt of the dim distance….
I am listless, I am a wanderer in my heart.
In the sunny haze of the languid hours, what vast vision takes shape in the blue of the sky!
Let us go, and meet there!