January 5, 2014
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words from The Book of Life, Upton Sinclair
There are several ways for a book (such as this) to begin. It might begin with the child, because we all begin that way; it might begin with love, because that precedes the child; it might begin with the care of the body, because sound physical health is the basis of all right living, and even of right thinking; it might begin, as most philosophies do, by defining life, discussing its origin and fundamental nature.
The trouble with this last plan is that there are a lot of people who have their ideas of life made up in tabloid forms. They have creeds and catechisms which they know by heart and if you suggest to them anything different, they give you a startled look and get out of your way. And then there is another, and in our modern world, still larger class, who say, “Oh, I don’t go in for religion and that sort of thing.” You offer them something that looks like a sermon, and they turn to the baseball page.
Who will read this Book of Life?
Reading The Page Turner William Caverlee
She is a music student; slender, youthful, with the concentrated face of an alto, or a back row violinist, frowning at her strings. Tonight, wearing black (de rigueur in her profession), she sits in a chair to the left of and slightly behind the pianist. She is invisible. Hands in lap, she is so quiet that she seems to be underwater, submerged beneath the pianist’s all-too-perfect reality – after all, he is the reason that the tickets were sold, that the audience has filled the auditorium, this guest pianist performing with the university’s own chamber group. Every eye is on him. He has erased her without even intending to, for she has no self. That is, until her moment arrives. She has excellent eyesight. Without glasses, she can read the score at a distance of, what, three feet? And such precise choreography: First she must stand up and take a half step. Her modest calf-length skirt, black to match her blouse and hair, seems not even to rustle as her left leg glides silently forward, the right kept stationary for balance, even though it surely must rustle, tremble, shift, if only for an instant, if she is to complete her navigation. If I think now, I risk losing all of it: audience, pianist, page turner, her silent essential unmoving pirouette. Now she leans forward and makes a small fold at the top of the page.
This is a preamble, getting a solid grip; then quickly, deftly, at an exact moment (she reads music, after all), she turns the page and smoothes it down flat. This last bit only takes a second, but it is critical, so that the freshly turned leaf doesn’t rebound, doesn’t unfurl itself or stand up disastrously. Then a quick step backward, another imperceptible flutter of skirt and legs. Seated once more, hands in lap. At the end of the concert, after her twenty or so repetitions, she remains seated, in the shadow of the piano’s black sail, while the pianist and the chamber group take their bows. Then she follows them off the stage (without bowing of course, or returning for the curtain calls) to slip out a side door, another object, replaceable, anonymous, who will gather her overcoat and books from an empty classroom and walk to the bus stop for the twenty minute ride to the apartment she shares with another student; one who will become a nurse.
Sermon Turning Pages
When I was little, there was no such thing as an audio book. Yet we did have some picture books that came accompanied by little 45 rpm recordings; the story read aloud. Oddly, even though I loved these and listened to many of them over and over, I do not remember any of the stories; just the directions that came with the book and record set. Each record began with a voice explaining that there would be a sound periodically, which was the signal to turn the page. Until we heard that sound (chime) we could absorb the pictures or study the words while we listened, knowing that we were on the same page as the disembodied adult who was reading to us. When we heard the sound (chime), we should move on. However, every time the chime sounded, instead of trusting us to follow the directions, a smooth, professional voice interrupted, and said, “Turn the page.” Those are the only words I remember. Turn the page. The other words – the ones read with expression and meaning; the ones full of adventure and drama and fantasy, the ones illustrated on the pages – those are all lost back in the twentieth century somewhere.
The recorded voice came back to me when I read “The Page Turner”; that portrait of the woman in black and so silent that she seemed to be underwater, changing the score so the pianist could continue playing without moving his hands away from the keyboard. For some reason, it made me think of the Martha and Mary story in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no real correlation. I think it is just that simple, deft outline that sums up how life feels sometimes – one person working alone in the background, unseen, and another in the limelight – but who really couldn’t be there without the silent efforts of others. I found it moving, the way William Caverlee recognized her – saw her even though so much effort went into making her invisible. And because he saw her, he is able to remind us that nothing, not even a solo performance, happens by one person’s efforts alone.
At this time of year, the turning pages I am most likely to be thinking about have to do with the calendar – the numbered pages fluttering up and being torn off as if by the wind; day after day flying by until we get to the appointed moment; the day of action; the right time. There is no voice telling us to turn the page, and no silent woman carefully doing it for us. The days just disappear. Turning pages is, of course, a metaphor for time; a way of making concrete something that we can’t see but that quite literally gives us dimension. We can’t move through space without the time to do it in. Time can free us, or it can trap us. The day before Christmas, I helped my mother move her partner to a hospice unit, and one moment I see my mother’s eyes well up and she lists all the things they didn’t have time to do; and a minute later she is hoping out loud that this will end soon; that this chapter will be done. Russ tells me he should have stayed in the Navy, that he could have kept on moving right up to the end. His eyes are a clear and vibrant Nordic blue, and I can see the ocean in him. Everybody wants to turn the page, but backwards; further back and away from the end.
In western religions, a book ends up symbolizing life itself – our own lives, and eternal life. There are references to the Book of Life throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, and many of them are vaguely threatening. They talk about being blotted out; sinners being removed from God’s scroll; things like that. The whole concept of a Big Book is never introduced; it is just there. When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and finds that his people have been worshipping a golden calf, he pulverizes the statue and kills off all the idolaters, and then addresses God, saying if Israel can’t be forgiven for this transgression, then “erase me, I pray, from the book you have written.” It is the first time we have heard anything about a book, and it isn’t quite clear what Moses is saying. Is he asking to die? Or is he saying he wants to give up being the leader of this tribe of chosen people? We don’t know, and the purpose of the book never really gets addressed. Yet the Jewish New Year begins by opening the book in which God records the names of the people destined for heaven, and a prayer that our names be inscribed in the Book of Life. It is also a traditional time to start a fundraiser. The walls or the brick patios become the Book of Life, and if you give enough, your name will be inscribed in a way that can never be blotted out. Christians transformed the annual ritual of opening the book into a final Day of Judgment, in which God opens the ledger, and sends the righteous one way, and others in a different direction. Muslims, too, have a judgment day, but instead of portraying Allah with a book, it is each individual who carries a Book of Deeds, like your own personal ledger.
Well, this is something I am happy to turn the page on. I do not find this Book of Life very appealing. It seems to be about fate – about destiny in the long run, rather than our regular old lives, which is what we generally want some help with. I need a guide today more than a sentinel at the gates of heaven, checking to see if I should be allowed in or not. This all sounds very much like the naughty and nice lists that Santa Claus uses when deciding who will get gifts and who will get a lump of coal. Rewards, punishments, bribes… but not really much of a story.
The opening words this morning came from an old book by Upton Sinclair, the socialist novelist most famous for The Jungle, his book about the meatpacking industry. Sinclair was an interesting man, deeply religious and extremely interested in health and nutrition, and definitely not a believer in gated communities, in either this life or the next. His Book of Life was meant to be a serious, comprehensive guide to living well, and reading the index offers a weird kind of poetry: rice, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, rugs, rupture; Sophocles, sore throat, sugar, surgery, survival. The combinations are moving, somehow. In his introduction, Sinclair mentions that all the great moral imperatives in life originated not in books or libraries, but among lonely shepherds, and carpenters or shoemakers bent over their work. Then he recounts sitting by the train tracks with an old man who lives on the rails. His companion is bent over some flames, heating a can of beans, when he suddenly looks up at the night sky, and observes, “By God, it’s a queer thing, ain’t it, mate.” This is what makes the Book of Life readable, and soothing. We turn the pages not for the advice, however good it may be, but for the companionship.
In the index, I read “Hair, hallucinations, Hamlet;” and in the text I learn that Jack London eschewed hats, because he believed that they contributed to hair loss. Hmm. I think. So what. But I keep reading and discover that if and when his bare head caused elevator operators or train porters to mistake London for anything less than middle class man, he solved the problem by flattening the offender. He just decked people who he perceived to be disrespectful. Sinclair perhaps wanted me to understand that my head and hair needed freedom to grow, but I like learning that Jack London was so threatened by the opinions of others; that he was afraid of going bald; that he couldn’t contain himself. I am more curious now about Jack London than I ever was before I learned about his problems with hair, and hats, and humans. Maybe The Call of the Wild isn’t really about the Yukon, but a different kind of wilderness. Joseph Campbell once wrote that a lot of what we want from religion is mystery, — a feeling that things can change; that our lives are not all mapped out — but that is not something that comes through expecting it. Instead, we have to yield everything we have been programmed to do. We have to think for ourselves, open our eyes, drop our expectations, not be afraid. Then, radiance comes. Then, we can feel something with being controlled by it. We can feel full with life.
So, let us turn back to the Book of Life in the Bible. Some of the psalms that mention this Book are beautifully human, and don’t sound at all like judgment. Instead, David complains a bit about what gets recorded. “You tell of my wanderings, and you have collected my tears and put them in a bottle; should not they also be recorded in your book?” Later, David seems to stop depicting the Lord as a kind of celestial fact checker, and instead finds understanding; a comforting presence that makes him feel fully known. The image of holiness created in Psalm 139 reminds me of the page turner, with her intimate familiarity of the score, and of the pianist’s needs:
“thou has searched me and known me
aware of when I will sit down, and when I will rise
You understand my far-off thoughts
And are acquainted with all my ways….
You have possessed my reigns…
Your eyes have seen my substance, which is imperfect, but I have been written in your book.”
Suddenly, instead of seeing either the pianist, in the spot light, with his name on the concert ticket; or the silent woman dressed in black, sitting in the shadows, and existing only to make someone else look good, we have a wider frame. They are not in competition; they are not striving for approval or anything. They are joined by the music, and in the music, and together they can bring everyone else in to hear it. They make what is written come alive, fill the space, and the people. There is nothing under the sun that legitimately belongs to only one person.
So it’s kind of funny that so many social reformers were such loners. In the chapter of Walden called “Where I Lived, and What I lived For,” Henry David Thoreau explains his decision to live alone at the pond by asking a lot of questions about time, and how we spend ours. Almost all the quotes we know come from this chapter – I wished to live deliberately; time is the river I go fishing in, why do we live in such a hurry and waste of life? But if you read more, you notice how often Thoreau uses the church to make his point — He says if he pulled on the rope to make the church bells ring, and it wasn’t a Sunday morning, the people would rush in to see what was burning, to be dazzled by the flames and the way everything can suddenly change; and that if the minister really valued the farmers time, he wouldn’t make them sit through a sermon after they have labored all week. He believed, as did Upton Sinclair, that all people needed to look at the world with open eyes; to see for themselves, and not just do what was routine, expected, or viewed as right by others. Thoreau called the church a kind of hospital for our souls, but he did not mean it in a healing way. He was saying that it was ridiculous to go to a place that defined you as depraved, and it was especially bad to go there by habit, or duty. It would not make you better. I thought of this Thursday night, when I turned on the tv, because I was done shoveling until the morning. I planned to relax, or watch the news. But every channel just kept telling me it was snowing, and that the high tide was coming, and that the sea was surging, and guess what, it’s snowing. In Walden, Thoreau has this very funny section on sleepers who set their alarms to wake them every half hour so they can ask what the news is before they go back to sleep. Does anyone here ritually check email upon waking, or before bed; at our going out and coming in?
Thoreau’s frustration with church was not lack of interest. He cared a great deal, and wanted to feel connected, and accepted. He wanted that for others, too. What he objected to was the artifice; the schedule; the belief in progress that assumed the future would be better and more worthy than this moment. He could not keep pace, and wanted to linger with the music he heard in the distance, and find others who could hear as he did. He wanted to be joined in wholeness, not sit alone, broken and praying to be healed. He would cultivate a habit of wonder. Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is going to happen? We don’t know. Things don’t always happen the way we thought they would, and we can’t go back – nor can we move too far ahead. We are on this page together.
Rabbis who have written about the book of life say there are actually three books opened at the new year. One is for the totally righteous. The names written there are permanent; sealed for life. A second is for the totally wicked , and the names inscribed there are also sealed, but for death. The fates of the people written in these books can never change. And they are very thin books; practically invisible, because have you ever known anyone who was titally righteous, or totally evil? But the third book, the big fat one, in which things come and go and the names change, get erased, added back in – that is the book for everyone; all of us who live in between, who are left, happily, in suspense for all our days, which never end, because they are shared. Although I am imperfect, I have been written in your book.
Closing Words from Taciturn, by Diana Royal
…the rooster crows that the day has begun
but we were already there as members
of the clouds, yesterday’s apparitions.
It lives not in the syllables of my
Mother’s lullaby, not in the breathing
current as it drank our fishing poles….
Or the dinner bell calling from daddy’s
porch, rusted. And old. And broken. Timeless.
The best sounds are the quiet, private ones,
the sounds buried so deep in my soul
that they may not ever have existed,
The sounds that make you nod, close your eyes and
whisper, “Yeah, I’ve been there. I heard it too.”