“Second to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning” by Lauren Strauss, December 20, 2015 – homily at Holiday Pageant
The way to the Neverland, says J.M. Barrie in his 1911 book Peter and Wendy, is “Second to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning.” Peter, telling Wendy these directions, never says the word star. Stars in the Neverland—sentient beings inhabiting neither the Mainland nor the Neverland, but rather the firmament between them—watch over the creatures of both worlds. Barrie describes their existence as strange and sad, because “they may not participate actively in anything” but “must look on forever.” A quintessential child’s world, the Neverland is full of wonder and marvel, but never deepens or grows. Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael may indeed follow stars to the Neverland, but, as Barrie notes, it is more likely that Peter made those directions up to impress Wendy, and that they only found the island because it was ‘out looking for them.’ In 1953, Walt Disney added the word “star” to the phrase in his cartoon adaptation of Peter Pan. Because so many of us are used to the idea of following stars, this addition seems natural.
I was nine years old when Star Wars came out in May, 1977. By my tenth birthday in December, I’m sure I had seen the movie at least five times, read the novelization, and dramatically recreated it with the help of The Story of Star Wars record album, which my neighbor Stacy owned, at least a million times. My brother got to play Luke Skywalker uncontested, but there was always a fight over who got to be Princess Leia. She was my hero. She was strong, and so beautiful, in her flowing white gown and unlikely hair buns. She could handle a blaster as well as any man, and she spoke fearlessly and with authority to everyone she met. When I think “Princess,” I’m not thinking about any Disney princess. I’m seeing Leia.
Now, I swear by all I hold dear that this will be a spoiler-free zone. But as the clock chimed midnight on my birthday morning this past Friday, I was sitting in a movie theater watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there she was, a general now, with a telltale sadness around her eyes that no one who has lived more than a couple of decades can escape. She’s a mom now, this former princess, and like all moms, she has made mistakes—big ones. She has lost much, and struggled, but she has not given up hope. Her edges, once so hard, have softened: she no longer has to pretend to be tough in every situation. At the same time, she is tough. Tough enough that when things go very badly wrong, she takes a deep breath and keeps going. Tough enough to comfort another, even when she herself is grieving.
Leia grew up. Like Peter Pan, Disney princesses almost never grow up. They are suspended forever at a young but indefinite age that is old enough for marriage but young enough to fit into those absurd dresses and still eat cake. We don’t get to see their marriages go sour, or their children having trouble in school or getting teased or… well, having to learn to control the Force. You know that’s gotta be hard no matter how good a mom you are. But through it all, Leia and Luke and Han are guided, as many of us hope to be, by metaphorical stars like freedom and kindness and love. Those things keep them on the Light Side, wielding the blue light saber, standing up for what’s right, against all the people who seem to think that the Dark Side is the place to be. “Come to the Dark Side,” the saying goes, “we’ve got cookies.” The Dark Side is all about cookies, you know. It’s not about sharing cookies. It’s about having cookies. Would you rather follow a star, or spend your time hoarding cookies? Cookies have an immediate pay-off. They taste great; they’re sweet; they’re covered in frosting, or filled with chocolate chips. But if your whole life is about collecting all the cookies, you’ll lose sight of that star, and stay stuck in one place, in Neverland, where you can maintain the illusion that you can actually eat all the cookies.
Stars are great tools for navigation. They follow a mostly-orderly path through the skies, and organize themselves in recognizable patterns we can easily see. The Wise Men weren’t the first to follow a star to something wonderful, nor the last. Following a star is not meant to be easy, though. There are obstacles on the ground to throw you off course, and people who’ll tempt you with shiny things… and cookies. The path to the Light Side is the harder course. If the Neverland is out looking for you, you might never find the deeper, more satisfying things in life. You’ll never grow up. Choose the light; like General Leia Organa, choose the harder but more satisfying course. Grow up.
May the Force be with you.
Lauren Strauss is the Director of Religious Education at First Parish of Watertown. She is credentialed at the Credentialed level in Religious Education by the UUA. She has served this congregation since 2011.