This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn for Mothers’ Day on May 9th, 2010.
“I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother…” the poet Billy Collins reflects in the poem we heard earlier this morning. I’m not sure if I knew what a lanyard was as a kid, and to be quite honest, I’m still a little unclear. But I get the creeping sense it wouldn’t be in my mom’s top 10 things she could use. The ever practical child I was, (and continue to be guilty of to this day,) I would only craft something for my mother that she would rely on and … that I could easily explain what it was. One early notion of “rely on” happened at a local neighborhood summer day camp when I was about 8 years old. Armed with ice cream sticks, glue, and blue and white paint – I crafted the most necessary napkin holder – one that no mother could possibly be without – and gave it to my mother.
The sky blue lightweight but efficient piece of art was accented with an overabundance of puffy white clouds. I don’t recall the exact rationale for the clouds, but I do believe it being sunny out had something to do with it. It was kind of steepled with a vertical rise (going up and down) where one could place unused napkins – as appropriate to the intent of my creative genius. I was really, really proud of my work. My mom kept that holder out for years. From time to time it would disappear, particularly around major holidays – my mother had a knack for decorating – and the blue and white would otherwise clash with the red and green or the purple and yellow or the orange and black of certain months that happen like clockwork in the Geiger household to this day.
I was shocked though, one year when I came home from college and saw my sky-blue-with-clouds-napkin-holder sitting right out in the open on the kitchen table. Not only did it survive for at least a dozen years, but it also strategically migrated to the kitchen when it knew I might be around for a visit. I was torn between being really touched at my mother’s thoughtfulness and having a dawning realization that the napkin holder’s habits might be remarkably similar to the migratory practices of that beige tie my mom gave me a decade ago – that tie that goes with nothing. It might have been moments like those that I realized I was now an adult.
Our story this morning spoke about the toys we love that endure beyond breaking. Somehow that napkin-holder I made defies logic with its ability to survive the decades kept together with just glue and paint; … and I fear that beige tie will last even longer. But the Skin Horse in our story is ugly and worn from love. Its tail’s been pulled out to string beads, its hair and fur is in patches leaving smooth bald spots behind. Long lived, a bit tired for wear, and possibly one of the most precious and treasured things in our memory; the Skin Horse is a little like all of us.
“When a child loves you for a long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real” said the Skin Horse. I wonder if that’s how a lot of us feel. Those of us with children get to see first hand sporadic moments of love mixed in with a whole bunch of moments best described simply as “wearing.” They both come with the territory of family. We often rub the wrong way the things in our lives that we care so much about. Proximity, closeness causes friction – it causes conflict even as it brings out love. Some of us are fortunate to have more fond memories than rough ones and some of us are not.
Some of us without children might feel a sense of loss with this story. It speaks of the cultural draw toward parenthood. The classic tale reminds us that there’s something awesome about having children (and there usually is,) and that in some way we might feel like it makes parents into something more Real than those of us who never get to parent – even while pointing out how exhausting a job parenting can be. Being halfway through my 30’s with no easy path to parenthood in sight, I can relate to this drive. For me, I’ve decided to find my way into the role of our story’s Skin Horse through other forms of parenting. I find myself “mothering” or fathering in my case to our whole congregational religious education school. For me, it’s a really simple metaphor since I get the joy of supporting and collaborating with eighty or so children and youth every year (not to forget about 40 teachers); but it’s a connection that I feel fits really well. My instinct for parenting toward the future just gets to look a little different than most of yours.
As a Unitarian Universalist – I know that diversity has a real value to it. I know that difference adds to this world. Not having children of my own may not match with our traditional cultural values, but my religious values remind me that there’s a world to be learned from it. How we embrace our human need to parent, to nurture is important – but it doesn’t need to look the same for all of us.
For our mothers-yet-to-be who might be struggling with a sense of loss (and clearly this goes the same for our fathers,) struggling with a sense of lacking, or a sense of frustration at not fitting the norm of parenting – know that I’m not really sure there is any norm to parenting. Our families here at First UU come in so many varieties from single parent, to dual home, to mother/father, to mother/mother, to adopted, to multi-racial, to single home, to multi-generational to husband/husband. For some of us, the families are solely the ones we carefully weave together as adults. While others only know the joy of being a big brother or big sister. The norm here is that we barely have a norm. I think many of us know this in our heads, but the truth of it in the middle of the night may be hard to reach our hearts. Sometimes I believe our faith teaches us to embrace difference in others; sometimes I feel it’s more about embracing our own. It seeks to meet us where we are and help us figure out how to hold each other up when we need holding.
I’ve been amazed at the Skin Horse’s wisdom. When asked how does becoming real happen, he answers, “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” As some of you may know, I have been marrying quite a few couples of late. Occasionally, one couple will choose this story to be one of their readings at their wedding. When friends hear this, there’s usually a little exclamation of surprise. It’s this quote that I lift up to explain why. It’s not only a road map for how toys, parents and children get loved – but it’s solid advice for marriage. Love needs to wear away sharp edges. The snazzy, fine and sharp toys may look great, but they tend to be kinda hard to hug — and that’s sometimes true for people too.
It’s true for congregational life as well – not just blood relations – but this broader family we call First UU. Take a moment and consider how easily you might break as the story goes? Do you find yourself needing to be carefully kept ever? Because maybe your holding on to how things once were? That might be a way of protecting some really vital things – or it might be a way of trying to stay shiny and new when our kids are calling for something well worn and recklessly loved.
In New York City, so much of the world around us, so much of our work world, so much of our struggle to get the right grade or into the right school or the best Pre-K program out there depicts a world of seeming and hoped for perfections that are so frustrating even when they’re achieved. I wonder if many of us came here today to carve out a little home where we can store our toys, our treasures, our hopes and dreams by the nursery fender knowing that someday Nana will come by to pick us back up and return us to our resting place for the night – well worn and recklessly loved. To stop, to feel the joy of the everyday, to be Real for ourselves and with each other. For me, that’s the essence of religion and the hope of my faith. To be grateful for those who have helped us get here today, and to give ourselves the time to be a mother of our own to the love before us.