Shadow Play

Feb. 1, 2015

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood


Call to Worship – Maori proverb

Turn your face to the sun, and the shadow follows behind you.

Reading             from an entry for June 25, 2012 by a blogger called Dr. Benco
On 28th May 2012 my ice-cream obsessed, musical, mischievous, expressive, curious and undeniably quizzical three year old son was assessed by a trio of clip-board wielding psychosomethings. After one hour of observation and a short break for deliberation they reconvened and pronounced the sentence. “Autism”.

On the 29th May I visited Bletchley Park with a small group including my  85 year old father ,who had trained as a radio operator there during the second world war, when it was the centre of British code-breaking operations. He was keen to visit the hut where he had worked, and was excited to discover that the adjacent  building had held the spartan office of an athletic, playful, romantic, thoughtful, witty, humane, driven and undeniably eccentric mathematician and cryptanalyst named Alan Turing.

During and shortly after the war, Turing’s name was almost unknown outside the worlds of mathematics, cryptanalysis and long-distance running….

Exactly 100 years after his birth, Turing is now (of course) recognised to have made some of the most original and far-reaching contributions to mathematics, computing,  theoretical biology, logic and cryptanalysis. In his own time the mind that made these contributions was thought by the psychiatric profession to be diseased. Turing loved men, and homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder …   And so there might be one or two  reasons for not taking the DSM too seriously.

We live in enlightened times. Turing, following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1952, was given a choice between prison and forced injections of female hormones. My “autistic” son can, theoretically, choose from a smorgasbord of non-pharamaceutical  “early intervention” programs and  (on the paediatrician’s recommendations) between a gluten-free diet and strawberry deprivation therapy. One or two of these interventions might even be supported by evidence of their effectiveness. But how enlightened will 2012 look in 60 years time?  I would be surprised if we will be able to look back without being slightly appalled both by the crudity of our classifications of different types of mind, and at the inhumanity we  still tolerate towards those whose minds work differently.

For many classed has having mental disorders, the only suffering the “disorder” has caused is due to the bullying or thoughtlessness of others.  But what kind of disorder is that? If it’s the bullies who are causing the suffering why don’t we decide that they are they are the group with the mental disorder and treat them appropriately?


Sermon   “Shadow Play”

Let us call this the sermon of a thousand beginnings.  Tomorrow is February Second.  It is Groundhog’s Day.  Also Candlemas, The Day of the Presentation, and Bridget’s Day.  It is called The Festival of Lights, and Imbolc, and probably some other names, too.  Most of the celebrations date back to a time when nature really did rule our days, and that seems like a good thing to remember this week.  Some of the traditions that accompany this day sound lovely – gathering a year’s worth of candles, and blessing them, and handing them out to the people.  We could also collect all the Christmas greenery that remains; that has turned dry and brittle, and create a huge and crackling bonfire.  We sweep out the old and start anew.  We might go out quietly into the fields, silently observing to see if what has been below ground will come up, into the air. There are resonant numbers, like forty, at play and there are references to Hebraic purity laws, Vedic hymns, Vestal Virgins and sacred fires.  Some of the associations are more prosaic – it is the end of a season of hibernation, the time of pregnant sheep, and the day to measure our supply of hay.  Up until this day, we had to have at least half of what we would need in reserve.  Now we are on the downward slope.  Spring is close enough that we can count on it.  It isn’t here, obviously, but it will come.

Depending on the climate and the culture, the day has many incarnations, but all of the stories end up returning to the same theme:  shadow, and light.  February second is the precise midpoint between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox.  We don’t have to coax the light to return, because we can see that it is on it’s way, a golden chariot appearing higher and higher in the sky.  Even as it snows,  and snows some more, the days are longer.

Long ago, living for a few months in London, our family went to a tiny playhouse on a street so small that cars were not allowed.  Little Angel Theatre was tucked in a passageway behind St. Mary’s Church, just behind a major thoroughfare full of buses and fast food restaurants.  It felt like a beautiful secret, a white building with a vibrant blue arched doorway, on a quiet cobbled path that made the city drop away.   The performance we saw was a rod and puppet shadow play telling the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris.  It was miraculous and yet completely simple – there was a fabric screen across the space, and the figures were far away, but then they would move up and loom over us, and fly from the screen, on to the ceiling.  Unbelievable complexity was communicated, all by moving shadows.  Osiris was tricked into a beautiful box by his evil brother Set, who then nailed the lid shut and threw him into the river.  When the coffin washed ashore, it hit a tamarind tree, and the beauty and power of Osiris made the tree bloom and grow, until the bark embraced the coffin and it disappeared.  But the tree with Osiris inside became so majestic that the Pharaoh couldn’t help but notice it, and he asked that it become a pillar of his home.              Meanwhile, Isis has been hunting for her husband.  She followed the river downstream, searched high and low, until by chance, standing in the Pharoah’s home, she knows.  Osiris is in the pillar.  She can see him in there, a shadow within the shadow.

Do you remember playing shadow tag?  One minute your shadow self was long and stretched out like a dark carpet behind you, but if you turned the right way, it was suddenly compressed and tiny.  Or your shadow could be flat on the ground, and then, if a wall appeared alongside the sidewalk, suddenly your shadow would jump up, and begin walking upright alongside you.  This object that would not go away; that was tied to your feet, could be swallowed up if someone came along from the wrong direction, or if you stood next to a big rock.  It is all very mysterious.

We may try to catch a shadow as if it is a cat, running and slipping through out fingers.  We can’t grab hold, and eventually we grasp that a shadow is not a solid object.  But we still have to figure out what kind a thing it is.  When we move a solid object, suddenly its shadow changes.  Why?  The object itself doesn’t change, but its shadow does. Does a ball rolling in front of a light cause the shadow to move, or is that moving shadow what sets the ball rolling?  It is a tricky business, learning the rules of cause and effect.  We are playing with a field of light, which is everywhere, all at once.  Instead of looking for a solid, specific object, we are looking at a spectrum, from a source to an endpoint.  The objects in that field may contract, expand, or disappear from view, but they are still shaping the field of light.  Osiris was still in the trunk of the tree, and the pillar of the home.

We acquire concepts by the way we perceive physical objects.  What kind of thing is light?  What kind of thing is shadow?  The idea that there can be a reality behind the shadow – that there are details we can’t see – is the beginning of abstract thought.  We are starting to understand ideas without physically experiencing anything concrete; and after a while we begin to understand perspective, too.  A shadow can occur at any point between the sun and the ground, or the fire and the wall of the cave, or the flashlight and the ceiling.  What you see – how big, and how defined —  depends upon where you are; how close you are to the surface that is reflecting the light.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

What you see also depends upon whether or not you have autism.  There have been a number of studies demonstrating that children with autism and those without see shadows differently. Images that are somewhat iconic and with a well-defined geometry, like a tennis racket, or a fork, or an apple, were presented to children in three different ways:  with no shadow, with the correct shadow, and with a shadow that didn’t match the object.   Typical children recognized the object fastest when it had the right shadow. If you think about this, it makes sense.  In general, shadows help us recognize things.  If you are watching a scary movie, a shadow will creep up and announce a villain’s presence before anything happens.  Shadows from the trees can orient us towards east and west, or give us a hint about whether evening is approaching.  A certain slant of light can tell us where we are in the wheel of the year.  We use shadows without thinking about their presence.

But children with autism were better able to recognize the object when it had no shadow at all.  The presence of the shadow made it harder for them to see what the object was – and this was true whether the shadow was the right one or was mismatched.  Having any shadow at all interfered.  I find this intriguing. The shape-shifting, relative, and ephemeral thing that generally orients us in time and space is precisely what disorients others.

In the reading I used this morning, it is clear that this parent is angry about his child being labeled.  His is a voice for neuro-diversity; a culture of radical hospitality, to put it in church terms.  I am all for that, and it is in fact why I wanted to speak on this topic.  We have children and adults in this congregation who see the world in lots of different ways; who cope and manage relationships and space and sound in many different ways.  It can be really hard to navigate.  Some of us communicate caring and acceptance through touch, but others experience being touched as an assault.  Some people feel they aren’t being listened to or respected if no one meets their eyes, but some of us can’t concentrate unless we look down and try to block out everything but the voice.  And if we don’t know that about each other, we will all be frustrated.

But I also believe this parent is wrong.  Even though it is true that the world is a better place when everyone is welcomed, it is not true that the only suffering comes from a lack of acceptance.  There are disorders that exist like shadows, along a spectrum, and autism is one of them.   So is ADHD, and dyslexia, and so are depression and anxiety.  You can’t just take a blood test or an x-ray and say, definitively, exactly what’s happening, or what will remedy the situation.  There are indications, but they exist in varying degrees of intensity and respond to interventions in myriad ways.  And so there is room for lots of feeling about what is right, or fair.  But that doesn’t mean that there is no real disorder. When you think of a person like Alan Turing, or others with extraordinary talents, it is easier to ignore the fact that most people with autism are not cracking code or getting book contracts.  Most people are not held back by society, but by the condition itself.  Anyone who has suffered from depression, or panic attacks knows that it isn’t other people holding them back.   There are things we carry; issues in us.  On the one hand we can have a kind of porousness that makes the world too much to bear – too loud, too full, too present – but at the same time we can feel cut off, apart.  It can be highly unsettling to try to understand differences that run deep into the mind – conditions that loom large or shrink back; that appear at times with certain gifts, but which mostly require tremendous interventions.  There are parents who are emotionally, physically, and financially drained by the work of helping, and who would never consider doing anything less.  It is a very lonely thing, but it is not a loneliness that can be cured with an attitude.  We need knowledge and skills and flexibility an infinite amount of patience, and even then, we will only succeed in making things better some times.

Church can be a funny place.  We are here to both make things better, to change the world — and to acknowledge our powerlessness over so much of what happens; so much of what shapes us.  We are made up of such incredibly different individuals, but we are always serving the whole.   What is the whole?  Who are we as a group that is not just our own little concerns projected out?  Yesterday’s Globe had an article about a new residential program for young adults with autism, and I read what I have read repeatedly:  we have an explosion of people with these disabling conditions, and no structures in place.  Wealthy, connected parents are purchasing houses and endowing them, to provide live-in care for their adult children.  But what about the rest of the world?

Originally I thought to address this topic because I felt like I had some practical understanding that I should share; that might make social hour less frustrating for some people, or might help in some way.  But it all quickly grew too big; too much to manage; too many themes; and it touches too much of my own life.  I think the number one thing that helps is to create an environment in which it is fine to be unique; a place that is hospitable to individuals; that doesn’t demand conformity.  This is something we excel at, and should be proud of.  People are comfortably themselves here, without much pretense.   Also, we should remember that nobody wants to be pitied or ennobled because of their suffering.  That is just another way of defining a person by a disability or a neurological trait.  We are more than that. Every life has joy and pain, trials and accomplishments – and they are not distributed evenly.  This is only partly because of biology.  It is also just life.  Things happen and it isn’t fair.  That is why we come to church, isn’t it?

One of the most common features of autism has to do with repetitive behavior, which in the context of church would be called “ritual.”  Instead of using language in the kind of give-and-take, metaphorical and abstract way that comes naturally to others, people with autism tend to memorize a passage from a book, or a scene in a movie, and then repeat it, seemingly at random.  It is one of the habits that can isolate those with autism, and it is used as proof that they are “locked in their own world.”  But I do not see it this way.  I think it is the opposite –  the phrases represent an attempt to participate, and that there is huge emotional content.  It is a kind of shorthand, in which a script – the words someone else used when he or she felt the way we do – can allow intense feelings like sadness or anger to be shared, without demanding that we find words on our own.  It is a very smart tactic, but it only works if the listeners know what to listen for, and if they have a shared set of references.  Which again, brings us back to church.  Week after week , we communicate, peace, or hope in ways that makes the abstract accessible.  It might be lighting a candle, or the sound of the chime fading, or the repeating of the affirmation, or simply gathering in this room.   It speaks of connection without using language.

The tradition of shadow puppets comes from Java, an island nation that practiced ancestor worship, until merchants from India and China arrived, bringing their gods with them.   Soon Buddha and Krishna joined the spirits that spoke in the winds, and through the trees. The Ramayana – the epic story of Rama – also came to Java.  In India, the sacred poem was memorized, and repeated, but here the stories were acted out.  Flat leather was cut into pieces that depicted the Javanese mountains as piles of Buddhist good deeds, and the erupting volcano showed the lines of Shiva’s beard as rivers of fire, transforming everything.  There was Hanuman, the monkey king, and Prince Rama, and his bride Sita as well.  At night, around a fire, the stories would unfold in shadow on a fabric screen.  But the sacred poem was no longer fixed.  A character got added that does not appear in Hindu traditions.  The jester, Semar, shows up in the middle of the night, and interrupts the stories.  Semar is male and female, wise and silly, and provides both support for the hero, and comic relief for the listeners.   It is commonly understood to be the voice of the ancestors, making the story come alive, connecting what is ancient and permanent to what is happening right now, to us, in this place.  So the true meaning comes when we stop, and really look at what is underneath the script, or layered on top of it  — which is our lives; stories being played out in shadows.

Closing Words   from Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

 “To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For …when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.”