The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
The First Parish of Watertown
February 14, 2016
Opening Words from A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
Even travelling at the speed of light it would take us years and years to get there,” Charles Wallace worried, (when he heard where his father was stranded.)
“Oh, we don´t travel at the speed of anything,” Mrs Whatsit explained earnestly. “We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle. A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.
Reading Paul Grant in the Vancouver Observer, June 22, 2011
It goes back to Air Cadets. My brother and I were in Air Cadets because our father had been in the Royal Canadian Air Force – it was that simple. Sir. And we were responsible for our uniforms. Spit and polish on the heavy round black boots. Bit of Brasso on the insignia on the cap. Iron the shirt, then a sharp crease down the pants. You had to put a towel over the blue serge pants or they’d get shiny. It was one small teenage drudgery among many but, for some reason that even years of therapy may not unlock, it stuck. The smell of crisp clean cotton under steam. The challenges of placquets, darts, tucks and pleats. The satisfaction of an empty ironing basket and a closet full of clothes cleaned, pressed and ready to go.
Ironing is like any kind of cleaning job – it’s mindless, and you have a tangible, satisfying, positive result at the end. It’s a kind of meditation – ironing zen.
I use a rickety ironing board that’s more than 30 years old. Its brown tubular metal legs shriek against each other as they scissor open, frightening the dog. The iron itself is a thing of beauty — form perfectly matching function. A few years ago I discovered the cordless iron, which sits on its base at a 45-degree angle, steaming quietly like some rocketship ready to launch.
I used to iron in front of the TV, watching baseball, but now I iron to music — broad and expansive. Lyrical, like Finnish harpist and pianist Iro Haarla, who paints huge jazzy pictures in the style of Sibelius or Grieg. Chopin Piano music is always good, especially the Nocturnes. Miles Davis or Campbell Ryga. Sometimes a little Jack Teagarden or Paolo Nutini is fun to sing along with.
Some people take ironing to extremes. They pack their boards up mountains, dive to the ocean floor or attempt to iron clothes in a fast-moving boat or while bungee-jumping. Some attribute the idea to a 1995 song called Negasonic Teenage Warhead by American stoner band Monster Magnet. Others claim it was British factory worker Phil Shaw looking to combine a little ironing with a night out in 1997. At any rate, now the movement is international.
Compared to them, my ironing jones is quite manageable. My family has accepted my passion (although our son did move out). My wife has even embraced it, smiling when I hand her another batch of freshly ironed socks. At least I think she’s smiling.
Sermon – “Smooth Sailing”
One day, in the locker room of the Oak Square Y, a young woman went into the sauna with her clothes on a hanger. She was dressed in a towel, carrying a white shirt and a maroon suit, and said she was bringing them in to steam, so she could get dressed for work. “I hate to iron,” she said, and “so this is how I do it.”
This turned into a brief polling and discussion among those of us getting ready for class. Some folks thought the young woman’s solution ingenious and creative; other’s thought it a bit slovenly and inappropriate, and then people started talking about their own personal relationships to ironing. The group seemed evenly split among those who love the task; find it soothing; a perfect activity for alleviating stress and creating a sense of accomplishment; and those who despise it; find ironing tedious; one more thing that proves inadequacy.
I have a slightly different take on the subject. You know how we all have parents — and maybe are parents ourselves – who occasionally say something rather unnecessary, and do it in a way that flummoxes the target? You know you are being attacked, disapproved of, but you don’t quite know where it is coming from, or why. Generally, my mother and I get along quite well, but one day, years ago now, there was a karate uniform on my dining room table, and my mother offered to help by putting it away. “No,” I said, “that’s out so I can press it before the belt ceremony, when Asher moves up a rank.” And my mother said, “I didn’t think your kids would even know what an iron was.” I remember this moment with great pride, because I responded cheerfully, “Oh, no; they do! From arts and crafts projects, like leaves or crayons in waxed paper and stuff.”
It was such a powerful moment, because even though I was fully aware that I was being criticized I also had this understanding of how to get past it without being hurt or angry. It is exceedingly rare for me to have the right response in the moment. So the word “iron,” in addition to evoking mother, as it seemed to for so many in the locker room, for me also signifies triumph; a time when I was comfortable with myself and not needing approval or anything else. It is something I think about with satisfaction – -the time I got it right — and also with caution: I try to catch myself as I begin to say similar things to my children. I have heard my son imitate me complaining about how he fails to pick up his clothes, shoes, and dishes, so I know I haven’t succeeded. I am still trying.
After this little locker room conclave, I was talking to a woman I often swim with, and I told her a story I read in a magazine long ago, about a woman who always felt badly about herself. One of her failings, in her mind, was that she was often late; pulling things together at the last minute instead of getting ready ahead of time. She was afraid it was rubbing off on her children, or that they would resent her because their mornings didn’t unfold smoothly enough. She was always ironing her son’s shirt so late that it ended up that he couldn’t get dressed until the moment he needed to run out the door, and this was a part of her life that she just hated; kind of a “why can’t I get this right?” thing. Then one day, as her little boy was doing up the buttons, he mentioned how much he loved putting on a still-warm shirt; it was like wearing a hug; and all of a sudden, this personal failing became a gift.
I wasn’t aware that I had continued to think about this, but the other morning, I found myself ruminating about a Tillie Olsen story called I stand here ironing, which I read for a course my first year of college. Suddenly I asked Mark, “Were you assigned any books by women in high school?” I couldn’t think of any; just one poem by Amy Lowell, which was discussed in relation to World War I. Mark said his English teacher assigned George Eliot, but that was it. I was wondering if the reason Tillie Olsen was planted so firmly in my memory, despite the fact that I never pursued her again, was that it was the first time I had been assigned a book that felt like it could reflect a life close to my own; a domestic scene, worrying about doing the right thing for the people you love. It was an experience that opened up enormous possibilities.
Emily, despite being the subject of the story, is absent in a way that communicates so much of the truth of her life. Her mother narrates, answering a question from a teacher reporting that Emily needs help. She responds, although not out loud, by saying, “What you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron…. You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that you could use me as a key.” Yet the mother does know her daughter; understands precisely how she has suffered; and she feels responsible for it even though she was always doing her best; doing what had to be done after her husband abandoned them. Emily has had to move repeatedly, was left in the care of relatives while her mother worked; she grew sickly. Born during the depression, she never had enough; she had to grow up on her own, and too soon, and she is stiff and flat and colorless because of it.
It is the world that is a cruel place; even though we feel that pain at home. “She is a child of anxious love,” the mother concludes. “All that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by.” Which sounds resigned. Somehow it made me think of a sculpture exhibit at the Forest Hills cemetery a few years back; dresses made of twisted wire and mesh hovered about, empty, in a stand of trees, like the memories of little girls playing among the shadows. Eerie but gentle, they were a kind invitation to visit all the might-have-beens; all the lives we don’t quite inhabit.
At the beginning of this month, the historian Jill Lepore wrote a great essay about Baby Doe, the little girl whose body washed up on Deer Isle last June. Subtitled “A political history of tragedy,” Lepore untangles the strands of child abuse and reform movements from our national attitude towards poverty. How can we protect and nurture children if we have a culture in which the parents cannot afford to live? She cites the British Unitarian Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, with its indictment of the British Poor Laws, as initiating the movement on behalf of children; and also notes that we arrived where we are today because of, depending upon how you look at it, either Walter Mondale or Richard Nixon. Mondale, the son of a liberal Methodist minister and brother of a long-serving Unitarian Universalist minister, worked tirelessly on behalf of women, and programs such as universal preschool, but Nixon was able to defeat such legislation by calling it communist. Lepore says Mondale made a crucial error in an effort to get around Nixon – he separated children and money; made his programs only be about helping kids rather than the impoverished. “Not even Richard Nixon can be against children,” Lepore quotes Mondale. This is why we only have after the fact intervention; why we have action in times of crisis but nothing to address the underlying problems; why we can have hundreds of people leaving stuffed animals for a dead child but no bridge to the shelter, no money for food.
Tillie Olsen’s story, I stand here ironing, ends with a prayer: “Only help her to know–help make it so there is cause for her to know–that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.” The events of a life may be bleak, but we are more than that. How do we learn this? How do we make sure that our children do know that they are worth everything, when so often the world tells them otherwise? There is something in this image of the dress, of working so hard to get all the wrinkles out, to make it presentable – that is both an act of love and also the exact opposite of what we want; it is erasing all the points of contact; the furrows where life is planted. We grow in complex and dimensional environments, not flat ones. In a world that does judge by appearances, and that does withhold, we both want to find acceptance, and yet also know that there is something in us that will not lay down, helpless before the iron. It makes me think of Carl Sandburg’s poem, Prayers of Steel, using the skyscrapers of Chicago to talk about reaching up into the sky and the stars while being hammered by life. The prayer is that we take on a shape greater than the forms around us; that we inhabit our own days; that we feel love in addition to everything else that comes our way.
It’s Valentine’s Day, which perhaps is about romance – the man the day is named for supposedly performed weddings for soldiers who were not allowed to marry, and was martyred for his efforts – but isn’t the basic issue with love more fundamental than this? I think what plagues so many people is not whether they are in love, or if someone is in love with them – it is whether or not they love themselves; whether we feel loveable despite our inevitable failings. One of the gifts of a day dedicated to love – if we can skip the ads for diamond pendants and boxes of chocolates — is that it is an opportunity to articulate sentiments that we may avoid otherwise; to remind ourselves that there is love in this world. There are hardships to endure, and it can be rough going. Sometimes who we are seems incomprehensible to others, and it hurts. You may be lonely or grieving or struggling in silence. You may not like yourself, and you may not have got what you wished for. But there is still love. It does not cure all. It doesn’t end poverty or illness or the meanness in life. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
In her recent book, M Train, which is in many ways a memoir about learning to live again after her husband died, Patti Smith is plagued by visions of a man dressed as a cowboy, who pops up and speaks cryptically to her now and then. One day, he said:“If you don’t have one, then everyone’s your valentine.” She writes:
“This morning’s Hallmark greeting, courtesy of that darned cowpoke. I felt around for my spectacles. They were wrapped in the sheets along with a beat up paperback and a chain with an Ethiopian cross. How does he keep reappearing and how does he know its valentines day? I slipped into my moccasins, shuffled into the bathroom, somewhat surly. Salt clung to my lashes and the lenses of my specs were cloudy with fingerprints. I pressed a hot washcloth against my eyes and glanced down…. There was a small pile of …Fred’s old flannel shirts washed into weightlessness…. I chose one with red and black buffalo checks, and picked my dungarees off the floor, and shook out the socks.
“Yeah, I had no valentine , so the cowpoke was probably right. When you don’t have one, everyone is potentially your valentine. A notion I decided to keep to myself lest I be obliged to spend the day pasting hearts of lace on red construction paper to send out into the whole of the world.”
Perhaps this is the role of church – slipping little hearts into the pockets of the passers-by; making deposits in the universe’s emotional bank account; giving us all something to finger and hang on to when we need resiliency and inner strength; some reason to manage better; to believe in more than we feel at our lowest moments. When I was a kid, we each decorated a shoebox with hearts and cupids and made cards for every one. Years ago, here at church, we had secret friends. Over a three week period, participating adults would observe their assigned child, to learn interests and passions, and then send cards or drawings without revealing identity, until the Sunday closest to Valentine’s Day. One year I drew castles and fancy crowns for Maddie, who dreamed of being a princess; another time I cut and painted cardboard and twisted pipe cleaners into a pair of flip flops for a child who hated shoes and longed for spring. Meanwhile, a different child was observing me, leaving me little treasures. I still have the potholder Marina wove from fabric loops for me. It does something for us when people take the time to see us; to let us know we are visible to the outside world. It helps us see ourselves more clearly. Maybe, if we are lucky, it is a parent that holds us in the light like that; or a partner. But sometimes we have to learn to do it ourselves. We find the right coach, or team, or we read books, and find a way to see ourselves true.
On Valentine’s Day, after hearing from the cowboy she is trying to ignore, Patti Smith finds herself doodling, and thinking about her father, and how she used to study a book he had, full of amoebas and paramecium. It is comforting, and takes her back in time, and suddenly she remembers how she spent all of second grade trying to figure out how much a hill of beans was worth. She read that Davy Crockett’s dad said he wasn’t worth a hill of beans, and, cherishing the frontierman – the boy who had confronted the school bully – 7 year old Smith could not imagine that this wasn’t a compliment. So in the dried goods aisle of the A & P, she checked the price of beans. But what kind? Black, kidney, fava, green, lima, navy; to say nothing of baked beans, magic beans, and coffee beans. “In the end,” she writes, “I figured Davy Crockett was far beyond measuring, even by his pa.… I followed him down paths that set my mind in unanticipated directions.”
So may it be for us all – the sure knowledge that our worth cannot be measured, and that there is a world full of possibilities, waiting.
Closing Words Salvador Dali
“Let the labyrinth of wrinkles be furrowed in my brow with the red-hot iron of my own life,
let my hair whiten and my step become vacillating,
on condition that I can save the intelligence of my soul
let my unformed childhood soul, as it ages, assume the rational and esthetic forms of an architecture,
let me learn just everything that others cannot teach me – –
what only life would be capable of marking deeply in my skin!”