The Cruelest Month
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, April 8th and looks at the poetry of T.S. Eliot as it speaks to times of change in our lives.
We just heard a few words from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland. The great poet, was one of ours before he wasn’t. He was raised Unitarian Christian, before he would begin to explore the world’s religions in depth, only to find his way back to Christianity in his later years. There’s a tension in his poetry that seems to return us again and again to that central reverence in life – the moment between the moments, when all else stops, and we are present to the eternal. There’s a way that in all his questing through world religions, he was striving for that eternal spirit at its core.
I first came to Eliot through religion. It was taught in religious studies, rather than English literature, at my undergrad. Going line by line through his dense allegories, required far more knowledge of folk, religion, and the classics than the common poem. And in an age before google, translating his non-english pieces took far more work than it does today. But like language and word choice, poetry sometimes takes the long way round, in order to help the hero in the story get back to the heart of their meaning. “The moment between the moments,” may reveal more meaning than telling someone to “simply pay attention.” It’s evocative, and that evocation brings us somewhere new.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” There’s so much to his epic narrative poem, but this line is the core spiritual message we’ll reflect on today. Eliot is traveling through the Wasteland. He’s feeling tired, feeling aged, and April is reminding him of the possibility all around him, that he feels cut off from. The world has possibility; he does not. Lilacs from what has died, brings back memories of yesteryear, and fresh spring rains taunt his dull roots that ultimately won’t respond. It’s an act of cruelty from his vantage of spiritual decline. Aging becomes a condition, rather than a perspective; banality rather than wisdom. And spring’s hope feels like a thing flaunted, rather than the road forward. It’s an extreme case of being cut off from the moment between the moments; the fullness of time causes us to forget the fullness of life.
The first few stanzas become a walk through memory lane. It shouldn’t surprise me that the poet that can write these sentiments into words, would be the same poet who would pen the silly verses about cats, that would lead to the same named Broadway play. If you instantly want to evoke a sense of nostalgia, begin playing in your head the song Memory, from the musical Cats, and it might get you to where Eliot is taking us in this poem at the beginning.
I want to point out two more ideas from this poem, before I go through my own sort of memory lane, and how we can spiritually use memory, or be used by memory. The point of this poetic message isn’t in staying in the Wasteland, but in finding the key through, in the image of the Hyacinth Girl. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl. – Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.” (empty and desolate is the sea). [The earlier german quote and this one together, are a reference to Tristan und Isolde, an 1865 opera by Richard Wagner about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde. The opera is based on a medieval romance that was absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with Tristan escorting the captured Isolde by ship to Cornwall.] Talk about pressing into a few words the fullness of another story. We know Eliot’s connection to the Hyacinth Girl is likened to an ill-fated romance. But what does she signify?
The flower and the girl are the counterpoint to lilacs out of dead land; the other side of dull roots with spring rain. She’s the force that doesn’t allow winter’s snows to keep us forgetful, but warm. If April reminds us of the fullness and the sting of time, the Hyacinth girl reminds us of the fullness of life – and that fullness, can leave us speechless – our eyes can not contain all of it, and it reminds us that all the things we think we know, amount to nothing in the face of that fullness.
How do you story your days? In the fullness of time, reflecting the cruelty of April’s seasonal time-clock of the spirit, or do you story it in the fullness of life, being stunned over and over in our not-knowing before it’s face?
Over the years here, I’ve told most, or probably all of these stories in one way or another. Today, I’m going to try to story them (this time) by reflecting on the tension of time and life.
When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.
I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 65 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat (and today, I laugh and laugh and laugh at all I did not know.) It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advice to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.
But not to knock the teens years too strongly, many of us keep coming back to that hard lesson in every stage of life. I learned in human development, that we areevery age we have ever been.Wanting what we already have doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we age.
I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves, or loving others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves – in the fullness of life – seeing the hair dripping wet as the poet tells us, and being stunned by encountering worth.
Moving forward in time – Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose. Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.
Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives (and I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.) Why do we tell that story? Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”
And for those that work hard, and succeed, or do well enough to just get by – believing in that roadmap – sometimes think it’s mostly about their effort, and not about the grace of being in the right place at the right time too. Or living into a world that privileges some, and makes it even harder for others. A recent study in the news this week indicated that “40% of white Americans think African Americans just have to work harder.” It’s painfulto hear that – 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. That so many white folk can forget the parts of history, the parts they need to forget, so that they can still pretend that silly map, that silly, dangerous map.
I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. (That combo is probably the main reason why I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot as I do.) I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected; That all hard work, in the fullness of time, is neatly sequential and ordered. When you hear me say that aloud, you’re probably thinking, no, of course it doesn’t work that way. But then we go about and live our lives as if that story was in fact the way it worked.
Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live.The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.
Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” All the rest are details. All the rest,will likely drive us mad if we let it. Human connection, attentiveness, being fully present to the fullness of life, rather than tracking the achievements in the fullness of time.
That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” (avoid making the joke about The Tick here.) Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace.
For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do. Lilacs do rise out of the dead land – and we don’t need to see them as April’s cruel reminder of possibility for other people – we can rise out of our own dead places, suddenly, through no fault or cause of our own – Grace.
But we still age – and the Wasteland will not allow us to avoid this truth.
For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.
Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t quite fit anywhere – but they were in the room, they kept making sure they were in the room.
That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends,who also loved you, around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.
That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed. Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?
For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing of her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, if I am so lucky as to make it to my elder years, that I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirit – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm. It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.
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