“The Case of the Missing Car”

February 12, 2016

The First Parish of Watertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood


Opening Words –  from Coyote Wait, by Tony Hillerman


We have a legend about how First Man and First Woman had the stars in their blanket, and were placing them carefully in the sky.  Then Coyote grabbed the blanket and whirled it around and flung the stars into the darkness, and that is how the Milky Way was formed.  Order in the sky became chaos.  Random…  and yet, wasn’t there a pattern even in this evil deed; in the way Coyote behaved?  …From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.
Reading   “Nancy Drew:  Curious, Independent, and Usually Right”

NPR Morning Edition, June 23, 2008, Renee Montagne

She was born in 1930, but she’s perpetually 18 — and always one step ahead of the adults: the iconic American girl sleuth, Nancy Drew.

“I’m pretty sure I started at the beginning, The Secret of the Old Clock,” crime writer Laura Lippman says, referring to the first of dozens of Nancy Drew mysteries. Lippman’s love of the girl sleuth put her on the path to creating her own best-selling series…

“One of the nice things about Nancy Drew books is that they validate curiosity as a virtue, which was not always the message that little girls were told,” Lippman says.

She does things she’s not supposed to do. For instance, her father is very often saying, “Nancy, this has nothing to do with you.  Just stop.” In the old movies, she stands with her fingers crossed behind her back.

“But her father does encourage her to use her mind….  She’s really a free agent, and she’s very much an independent, autonomous person at the age of 16, and when you’re a little girl of 10 or 11, that’s really thrilling. ”

“I don’t think there is a casual reader of Nancy Drew,” says writer Fran Lebowitz. “There may be casual readers of Proust, but not of Nancy Drew.”

Lebowitz says she was obsessed with Nancy Drew and the entire cast of characters: Ned Nickerson, the sometimes useful kind-of boyfriend; Hannah the housekeeper; father Carson Drew; and Nancy’s adoring girlfriends, Bess and George.

“When I was 7- or 8-years-old, I had an operation on my eyes, and I was blindfolded for two weeks,” Lebowitz says. “[My mother was compelled] to sit by my bedside and read me Nancy Drew books all day long, because I couldn’t read myself. So even blindness didn’t stop me.”

Nancy’s appeal was her independence.

“Being a detective seemed to me like an excellent job,” she says. “It still seems like a pretty good job. And I still would like to have a roadster, a blue roadster. I still have not acquired one.”

Nancy drove her blue roadster everywhere, often recklessly, as she focused on the mystery at hand.

Over the years, Nancy Drew has evolved, but young readers appreciate the classic touches.

“In the newer books she wears more modern clothes but she always has a hint of vintage,” says fifth-grader Michaela Brown. “ It’s cool.”

Eleven-year-old Zoe Dutton says her mother handed her a childhood favorite of her own, The Bungalow Mystery, on a hot summer day before she started second grade.

“She’s constantly stumbling on smugglers and criminals and forgeries,” Zoe says. “It’s slightly unrealistic, but Nancy Drew can do this because she can sniff out a mystery like a bloodhound.”

Neither Michaela nor Zoe want to be Nancy Drew, partly because she’s a little too perfect.

“She’s always nice to everybody. She’s even polite to the criminal after she catches them and knocks them out … I mean slightly ridiculous, but it’s nice if you’re her friend.”

I loved Nancy Drew because of her curiosity, a fascination with assembling clues — or facts — into a story and her certain recklessness. For me those qualities add up what it takes to be … a reporter.

I didn’t know that then. I never imagined what I would become. I only knew that the moment I finished one Nancy Drew mystery, I couldn’t wait to plunge into another.


Sermon   ” The Case of the Missing Car”      Andrea Greenwood

A month ago, I left the grocery store and entered the parking lot with my impressive load of food and drinks.  My neighbor was entering as I was leaving; I said hello and thought how odd it was that he was eating a hot dog.  It was not quite ten in the morning.  In addition to that seeming like a strange time for hot dog consumption, I wondered where it came from.  He hadn’t gone into the store yet.  There was nothing but a sea of parking  — no street vendors, no food trucks.  So I was puzzling over this when a greater mystery began to develop.

My car was missing.

I started off fairly confident that I had parked near a light post, and close to a wagon return cage.  But the car was not there.  So I had to rethink.  Was I remembering a different shopping trip when I envisioned parking?  Feeling a bit foolish, and worried about the increasing evidence that I really am losing my mind, I wandered about the huge lot, as if my car were a stray puppy that might return to my side.  After a few minutes, I began to wonder, “Is this a joke?  Am I on Candid Camera?”  I was simultaneously counting my blessings – I had not bought ice cream — and wondering when I would stop feeling profoundly disoriented.

Then I spotted her.  My van was innocently at rest in a space I had no memory of whatsoever.  I kept pivoting around, waiting for something – who knows what?  -to reveal itself –  Then I started looking for damage – an impulse that was almost immediately followed by the desire to slink away before anyone saw me.  There were no cracks or dents or car parts lying about; no sign of anything wrong at all, except my humiliating inability to keep track of my vehicle.  So, I threw the food in the car, returned the wagon, and drove home, quickly, before anyone witnessed my confusion.

The car drove fine, although the driver was a bit rattled.  As I concluded that the van had either been remotely controlled by aliens, or that my memory had succumbed to the ravages of time, I applied the logic of Sherlock Holmes, who said “the grand thing is to reason backward…  In the everyday affairs of life it is more useful to reason forward, so the other comes to be neglected.”

I knew I had not really parked there.  My car was resting at a slight tilt, the front tires against the concrete barrier at the top of a large drainage canal.  The truth was that the car rolled across three full rows of the parking lot, seemingly without hitting anything, until it came into contact with the concrete.  I kept wondering what it must have been like to watch.  I picture a slow motion film, the sound track like the one from Jaws, my large van moving spontaneously and without a rudder, until it tipped into the drainage ditch.  My neighbor’s hot dog seemed like a concession stand treat, something to chew while he watched the unfolding.  But I couldn’t quite grasp the plot. Why did the car cross the road?

Last Sunday, while driving a friend in my new car, I told this story.  Mary Katherine was completely freaked out.  “But what happened?”  she wanted to know.  She said she was now going to live in fear of her car driving away on her.  I had not expected this at all, but I should have.  One hallmark of detectives – at least female ones – is that they love their cars.  Sometimes it is obvious why – Maisie Dobbs’ spectacular 1928 convertible touring car, or Nancy Drew’s blue roadster, which Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor tells us she coveted, until she purchased a red Toyota Celica sports car herself, in a kind of homage, as a sign of her arrival.  On the other end of the spectrum, Precious, the owner of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, drives a miniature white van that is a constant reminder of mortality.  It is very clear that the mechanic’s ability to continually resurrect the little white van is what causes Precious to fall in love with him.

When I was a junior in high school, a wonderful teacher invented a course called Decisions, basically a combination of values clarification and life skills.  We had careers and salaries and made budgets, and had to match up our desires with our dollars, and make choices.  In one of the exercises, Ms. Sellers enumerated what cars might mean, and it strikes me still that she communicated very clearly that a car meant “freedom.”  It was the 1970s and there was a gas shortage and people lined up by license plate number on odd and even days, and so mostly cars meant dependency –commuting; being locked in to this need and dependent on foreign oil.  She had one of those egg-shaped cars that looked like an aquarium hurtling down the road; glass outfitted with maroon and chrome trim.  And it represented freedom. Even then, I knew I was learning something about her, and life, not about actual vehicles.  They don’t represent freedom so much as our need to escape; to go someplace where we are independent and not subject to being unfairly silenced and judged.

My big white van was purchased on my 49th birthday.  It was something of an impulse buy – a doctor cancelled an appointment, I had a free hour and half that I wasn’t expecting, and the time management skill necessary to being a one car family with kids in three different schools was wearing on me.  Plus it seemed to me that every single time we went to Maine, with our luggage on the roof of the car, it rained.  The van was big enough for us, and our stuff.  It was leftover from the previous year, so deeply discounted, and in the ads for it, Brooke Shields appealed to my husband.  So it did give me a certain kind of freedom – though after a couple of years I realized that it had liberated me to say yes to many things that I would have previously said no to, and therefore I was spending my life driving around in circles.  But that is a different sermon.  This sermon is about the mystery in the parking lot.

Now, as mysteries go, this is not a very good one.  It lacks that genuine element of surprise required at the END of a mystery; where you go “oh, of course” even though you never saw it coming.  Arthur Conan Doyle announced that the ideal detective needed three qualities:  the power of observation, the power of deduction, and knowledge.  Even a little bit of information about cars lets us guess that in my case, the transmission was gone – even though the car drove fine, it would not stay in park, and the mechanic who looked at it was clear that it was only a matter of time before it refused to stay in Drive, too.  The repair was too costly for a car with 100,000 miles, even if was free of dings and scratches, so we set out to replace the irreplaceable.

Thirty years ago, during my internship, I wrote to ten ministers, asking for sermons.  I wanted to study how they were constructed; how they conveyed meaning.  Gary Smith, who was then the minister in Concord, sent me one called “Father, Do You Have Another Car?”  The mechanic evaluating his troubled vehicle knew Gary was a minister, which translated to “priest” in his mind. The mechanic did not know how to break the bad news to a man of the cloth.  Not everything can be made right in quite the way you are hoping for.  This car was not going to come back.  Father, do you have another car?  How do we help people ease into loss, or prepare themselves for the tasks ahead?  We sent our van to automobile heaven, and with it went our big family years.  The days of expansion, of never enough room or enough time, gave way to the time of growing independence.  I often remember a beautiful, wistful chat with a young father here.  We were watching his daughter in the moment she learned to ride a two wheeler, and it was so energizing and triumphant, and then he said, “she’s riding away from me.”

This year, it seems like every time it is my turn to preach, something devastating has just happened.  Fires, shootings, elections, executive orders….  It has been a challenging year, when these public tragedies are added to all the personal afflictions we all bear.  And since the first of the year I’ve been filling in a church with a very set order to everything, using lectionary readings planned approximately 1700 years ago.  Even though many of the stories about believing yourself to be chosen by God; about coping with being in exile; about the need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and greet life with an open hand instead of a clenched fist – even though so many of these ancient stories are incredibly and sadly painfully relevant today – this actually can feel depressing.  When will this story change?  Do we ever learn?  So today is a tiny respite; an observation of trifles that can reconnect us to a sense of mystery while also granting a degree of control.

There is no real escape from the world we inhabit, but we do not always have to approach it all head on; even when there is a sense of desperate urgency to halting what is unfolding before us.  Diversions — turning to small pleasures and permanent truths can give us strength, and peace. There is a kind of sanctuary in solving detective stories; knowing that we can make sense of things, that we are competent and powerful.  But the real power of these stories is not so much in the solving, but the process.  We are required to pay attention!  We have to notice every little thing.  We have to think.  And we have to become aware of all the strange and amazing things that are happening around us, all the time.  You can’t start solving mysteries without being embedded in sense of wonder.

As a kid, I read Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown; as an adult, Jane Langton and Rabbi Small and Tony Hillerman, and in doing so I learned about faith and religion, as well as how to think.  A 1976 People magazine article begins, “Charlie Chan relies on Oriental inscrutability, Miss Marple on feminine intuition and Shaft on street savvy. But when Rabbi David Small is faced with solving a crime, he tracks down the perpetrator with the help of a curious weapon: Talmudic reasoning.”  Later, Harry Kemelman, the creator of Rabbi Small, explains that he wanted to convey the Judaic experience in an entertaining way.  . … An avid fan of G. K. Chesterton’s crime-busting priest, Father Brown, Kemelman said, “I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion.” Like the rabbi, who solves crimes while embroiled in ethical disputes within his temple in a town suspiciously like Marblehead, Kemelman said that he spent most of his time pacing up and down, asking himself questions.

The Puritans were absolutely convinced that God uses the commonplace to accomplish his transformation of people, and this led to a belief in strict observation.  I am sure it had less pleasant social consequences, too, but it seems as though this practice would contribute to a strong sense of mystery.  The Rev. Richard Greenham, a 16th century Puritan in England, wrote, “Because we know not who is the man, what is the time, where is the place, which is the sermon that God hath appointed to work on us, let us in all obedience attend on the ministry of every man, watch at all times, be diligent in every place, and run to every sermon which we can conveniently, because though the Lord touch us not by this man, in this place, at this time, through such a sermon, yet he may touch us by another.” Leaving aside the part where he advises that you “run to every sermon”, isn’t that a plea to pay attention, to always be open to the idea that everything might suddenly change? Not knowing how or when keeps us interested; requires subtler, more numinous skills.  We cast ourselves out into mysterious waters; the unknown, where our senses are more alive and our instincts more alert, so that we might unlock a way to make this world as it should be.

When we look at the world around us right now, could there be a more important or empowering message?   Facts fail to persuade half so well as mysteries; as the idea of possibilities that WE have to unlock.  Everything is not known, destined to unfold in some certain way.  There is a moral story being played out, and we have a part in it:  there is good and evil; right and wrong; and we have the ability to make the truth prevail if we keep asserting justice.  In one of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, the detective stares at a rose, and then says, “There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,… Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

Mysteries and detective stories tell us that things can go right even after it looks like they have gone irrevocably wrong.  Tolkein once described mysteries as “Christian fairy tales, with detectives in that are “classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation.”  I suspect adding the word “Christian” before “fairy tales” makes some people feel differently about the value of such stories, which existed long before Western faith traditions.  Good and evil have been battling out around the globe for millennia, in no one religion’s name, and in stories we can learn new ways of seeing the world before our eyes.  So much of what things look like depends upon where you stand.  The quest to restore the world to goodness and justice… well, as Sherlock said, we have much to hope from the flowers.

About ten years ago, an artist named John Newling went to insurers Lloyd’s of London and asked them to underwrite him against ‘loss of mystery’ — to pay out if all mystery was lost from his life. It was a publicity stunt, prompted by Newling’s feeling that life had become too controlled, constantly surveyed and audited, and it advertised a  year of what he called “mystery prospecting.”  He set up a stall at a street market to collect people’s mysteries, and over three days was entrusted with 281 of them.  They ranged from out-of-body experiences to uncanny coincidences, from lost red staplers to mothers who wake from comas to whisper ‘It’s Aspen’ — which turns out to be the crossword solution the whole family is puzzling over a week after her death.

We dwell in a universe we can never fully comprehend; a world filled with hidden connections and mysteries.  They are the ultimate trail of breadcrumbs, and we may be plotting our safety even when we are being led into the treacherous forest.

Closing Words   — Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. …. the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.