Elizabeth Schell, Guest Speaker
What my professor was trying to get across, besides obviously really having enjoyed the opening scene to Jaws, was how the poet’s use of a caesura intensified the focus within the poem. A lovely little poetic device, the “caesura.” It’s basically a complete pause in a line of poetry. Sometimes it just adds a breath to the poem, but it can also signal a significant shift in the feeling or narrative. Caesuras are most dramatic when they fall in the middle of a line and break the rhythm.


READING 1: A Story Heard on NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/05/30/317019212/anatomy-of-a-dance-hit-why-we-love-to-boogie-with-pharrell

READING 2: A Recorded Memory

Intro: Our second reading is recorded in my memory.  If I were Albus Dumbledore, I’d use my wand to thread out the wisps of memory from my mind, and place it in a pensieve for all of us to see.  But I’m not, so I’ll just have to share it with you in my own way.

We’re in a basement, windowless classroom at Boston University on a Wednesday afternoon in 1992. The course: Intro to English Poetry.  A man who seems too big for the room and his smallish tweed coat is pacing back and forth at the lectern, getting worked up over Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem, “The Rape of the Lock.” With a shock of white leaping hair and sparkly blue eyes, Mark Patrick Hederman, visiting professor, is trying to explain Pope’s perfect use of the poetic caesura. Sonorous!

Professor: Now what Pope does in this stanza is brilliant! And everything in the poetic narrative has built up to this moment, see—even the meter has sped up, all the syllables crowding onto the line and then BAM!  a caesura, a big breath, a  break in the momentum. All right before the cutting of the hair. It’s brilliant! It’s….. well it’s just like the beginning of the film Jaws…. Have you seen it!? Most fantastic opening sequence in cinema! First there’s the young people partying on the beach.
Then the young man and woman run off from the group. There’s expectation and inhibition. The woman is stripping off her clothes. Will the man catch up with her?
He’s drunk and falls on the beach. The woman leaps into the water, naked. The sun is setting. We see her gracefully swimming through the clear water. Then we are her and we are seeing the water on our body, seeing the light in the sky, the shore, the young man. Then, we are down below, in the deep. Looking up at her, at her danglingly tasty legs. Then we are her, swimming again. Then down below, getting closer to those legs. Then we are her and YANK! the first bite and she is pulled under for the first time. And the sound in the audience is truly audible. A GASP. An intake of breath. Not just because we are shocked by what has just happened. But because we were the woman. And then we were the shark. And then the woman. Then the shark. And now CHOMP! We have eaten ourselves. It is cinematic brilliance, I tell you! And it is just what Pope is trying to do here in this stanza!


What my professor was trying to get across, besides obviously really having enjoyed the opening scene to Jaws, was how the poet’s use of a caesura intensified the focus within the poem. A lovely little poetic device, the  “caesura.” It’s basically a complete pause in a line of poetry. Sometimes it just adds a breath to the poem, but it can also signal a significant shift in the feeling or narrative. Caesuras are most dramatic when they fall in the middle of a line and break the rhythm.

In The Rape of the Lock, the poem my professor was lecturing about, the poet’s use of rhythm—and especially the interruption of predictable rhythm – gets across a moment of crisis and transformation. In that space of interrupted rhythm, in that in-between space, something intense happens. A lock of Belinda’s hair is cut off and stolen. It is later humorously put on par with the abduction of Helen of Troy and the horror that follows. A ridiculous exaggeration. But, like all parody, there’s a root of bare truth. In Pope’s time, the early 18th century, women were judged on their “honor” without being given the rights to defend themselves.  A woman defending a lock of her hair—; a woman drunk and naked on the beach—women whose agency is in question—is this tragedy or comedy? It’s supposed to be both, and what does that say about us? The caesura is a marker, drawing our attention to a pause, telling us to take the time to think.

In the space of the caesura, this silent in-between space of interrupted rhythm, interrupted predictability, a lot can happen. I like to think of this caesura beyond the realm of poetry and music, but instead within our lives. What is the caesura to us? It’s kind of like an ellipsis, a pause, a break in the flow of thought. A space to soak in, to be awed, to empathize, to be moved. It is in these moments that we may be inspired to reconnect with what is meaningful, with our best intention. In these moments we might be challenged to question ourselves, our passive acceptance of something we know to be wrong or our lack of engagement with others. We might even see glimpses of what some of us might call divine, a space of unknown, a space of communion where we truly observe our 7th principle in action. Within the space of caesura, all things are connected.

Sometimes, it’s a personal moment. Have we knelt down and looked underfoot lately? Have we gone for a walk in the park or the woods with no particular purpose, but to just BE there? Have we unplugged lately? That distraction can be the biggest barrier to all forms of caesura space—keeping us from paying attention to who and what is directly before and around us.

Other times, the caesura space moves beyond ME to WE. This collective caesura is what happens… when the power goes out on a hot summer night and all the neighbors you may or may not know come out on their porches and the conversations and laughter and soft candlelight of each porch creates this kind of gorgeous hush of sound that is usually lost under the electrical hum and the daily routine. A moment of communion instigated by a disruption. Other kinds of collective caesuras might be during a snowstorm or on a stopped elevator and usually bring us closer to the people we are with. Even if they are strangers.

Part of what makes these collective caesuras meaningful is how they break into our ordinary lives and shake us up a bit. We creative humans often design our very own collective caesuras specifically for the purpose of breaking through the familiar to make space for deeper connections. These times include holidays, retreats, weddings, funerals, and family reunions. Many of these events include special rituals, but often it’s the time leading up to and after these highly charged events where there is the most potential for a meaningful caesura between people.

Of course we’re in one of the most traditional forms of scheduled caesuras right now. All of us. Here in this human invention: worship. People all over the world in all kinds of religious traditions do this. It really doesn’t matter the tradition, the speaker, or the topic. The point is the space given for connecting. To each other. To our inner selves. To the outer unknown. And we do that through making Sabbath. At root, we humans created Sabbath in order to build in Caesura, spiritually transformative space, within the routine of our lives. Think of it, this Sunday “thing” we do here, it’s definitely a break in our weekly routine. Because in this place we DO things we don’t do in our everyday lives: We SING! Sometimes we even dance a little. We hold hands. We say words together… out loud… that affirm what we believe, what we intend. We celebrate rites of passage. We warmly—and unconditionally—welcome strangers. And sometimes we just sit in our pews & cry.

But sometimes nothing happens. The service is over & we feel unmoved, unchanged. You can’t force the sacred. You can’t force “aha’s” and sighs. And even though we may crave the caesura space, we’re kind of built to resist it. We keep people at arm’s length emotionally. We rarely go out into nature. Our world and our hearts can become pretty calcified by concrete routine. But we are hungry. We are hungry for that moment when all that is expected goes out the window. The moment when words and expectations are consumed. What is left? The possibility for something new to enter. The possibility of finding the strength to not fill the silence with the thrust of our own arguments, of our certainties, but to instead let the unknown settle and hear what might be within it.

And we need to listen for that possibility. Because sometimes we really need to draw upon some strong communal energy to get thru stuff. Because there are communal caesuras that aren’t just little “happenings” in our everyday or intentional experiences we humans craft. No, there are also these capital “C” caesuras that come to us, whether we want them or not. These are events like September 11th, 2001 and they make a pause that’s very hard to fill—even together. Whether you were in NY on that day or in a neighborhood far far away, regular time stopped for hours, even days on end, as we all watched and waited and mourned. Caesuras can be caused by natural disasters or human enacted violence: Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, a building fire, a bombing, a school shooting. These are not really the kind of caesuras  any of us want, but disaster can certainly bring about all kinds of transformation—as people are forced to move beyond themselves as they are ripped from their everyday to reach out to cling to their fellow humans. We are challenged to rethink how we view the world and this “rethinking” may bring us more in line with our values, or it may push us more towards behaviors based on fear. We want these events to be turning points;
we say “Never again,” but our differing reactions to these tragedies can actually make it harder for us to work together or even talk to each other.

Supposedly one of the motivations of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Santa Barbara last month, was the young man’s feeling of rejection by women. In the aftermath of this disturbing revelation, there’s been a groundswell of commentary shared under the Twitter hashtag “Yes All Women.” Women of all ages  breaking silences to share their experiences. Though a great deal has changed since the 18th century, women’s experiences reveal that patriarchy and misogyny are alive and well. And that’s pretty loud and clear when you read some of the horrific responses of many men to the “yes all women” tweets. And not just the overtly misogynistic. But just the flat denials of the women’s truth: “You’re just being paranoid.” “Men aren’t after you.” “Men aren’t going to rape you.” “You don’t have to fear every guy you see.” And women know that they don’t have to fear EVERY guy they see. The point is, we are talking past each other and not taking the deep pause for listening. Tweets and talking points aren’t a conversation. Each group entrenches itself against the other and just continues to solidify its position, instead of stopping. Pausing. Breathing. Listening. Making a caesura space. A space where different opposing voices can actually stop and pay attention to each other.

And it’s not just gender issues and gun violence where we need to make space for listening and thinking; it’s every issue that divides people into an “us” and a “them.” Equal marriage, health care, income inequality, race, religion, privilege. Moral Monday versus the North Carolina legislature in a nutshell.

Our congregation’s covenant declares that, “Our life together declares that the future of each depends on the good of all and the future of all depends on the good of each.” That “all,” that “each,” that “everyone” —they include the people we disagree with, the people we can’t stand, the people who hate us.

Personally I think we need to enact our own big fat caesura in our culture right now.  A big pressing of the PAUSE button where we LISTEN; where we hear different interpretations and opinions of what true liberty means. That doesn’t mean we have to accept discrimination, gun violence, or anything that is harmful to another. But it does mean that for any progress to really happen, we have to be willing to talk to each other and not vilify each other. Do what the Campaign for Southern Equality has been doing. By performing acts of loving civil disobedience in every town in the south, they are enabling, emboldening really, people to come OUT and talk with each other about what they’ve never talked about; talk about what it means to be IN relationship, to be neighbors, to be fellow citizens in the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Big awesome people-enacted Caesura Activism that is.

The NPR story talked about breaks in the rhythm. Musical gaps that seem to be these open spaces that our bodies want to jump into. And that’s fantastic. That’s something we gotta do more of. Boogieing is definitely something that needs to be a part of our day to day. How often do we let our bodies move to the beat the way they desire to? But it’s interesting that what gets our bodies moving is not the rhythm, it’s the gaps in the rhythm. And too much of our daily lives, even our weekly Sabbath, can become too scheduled, predictable. And we need moments that aren’t predictable—by chance or by planning. We need breaks in our rhythm. We need to mix it up, stretch ourselves. We can’t let this precious time with each other be rote. There’s too much at stake.

But even when we hear that gap in the rhythm, that gap that entices our bodies to break out of our cocoons of complacency, it can be really hard. Because our bodies are holding on to so much. All this tension up through our spine. We stay so tightly wound within our bodies because we’re holding on to all this hatred. Of self. Of other. All this internalized violence. And all this feeling of failure. We’ve learned to tune Violence out because that’s what we have to do to survive. We think, “we can’t make a difference.” We think “it is impossible to overcome.” If the horrific caesura of Sandy Hook couldn’t make an impact, what can? Has this become our new normal?  We move on because we feel powerless to do anything. But our bodies hold onto it. Obviously the hurting people who enter schools and college campuses, places of worship,  malls, and movie theaters…these people who feel the need to arm themselves and go out and destroy life and then themselves—something is causing that. And it’s not just mental illness. Not just the availability of guns. Not just misogyny. Not just racism. All of them, to me, seem interconnected: Hatred of Other. Hatred of Self. 

So what can we do about it?    Well, we can and should do the things many of us have already been doing—vote our conscience; sign letters and petitions; get out there in the streets and protest. We may not see the change we wish to see in our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean our actions aren’t meaningful, aren’t part of the longterm pressure needed to move things along.

But there is something else we can do. It’s radical, but it’s simple.

We need to be the shark. And we need to be the woman. We need to try to have these different camera angles. We need to try to see through the eyes of the person without privilege and the person with privilege, both sides. And in different situations we are one and in others we are the other. But in every situation we need to try to see from both places, without hatred of self or hatred of other. This can be done silently, in our own heads, trying to think out different point of views. But we also need to really do this work outside of our heads, person to person, and not just on Facebook or Twitter, but actually face to face. Take time for a caesura, a breath, a break in the ongoing me versus you, and find a way to be A “WE.”

We have to be the shark and the woman. The terrorist and the hostage.
The rapist and the victim. The shooter and the child.
Or, less dramatic, but no less problematic: the Republican and the Democrat;
the Christian and the Atheist; the Religious Conservative and the Religious Liberal; the Pro Lifer and the Women’s Lifer advocate; the Politician and the Constituent; the Parent and the Teen.  

But we must come towards each other, not seeing each other as ferocious predator or vulnerable prey, but as two equal beings, each seeking sustenance, meaning, acceptance. When we, the shark and the woman, come together, the giant GASP need not be because we’ve eaten one another, one or both of us slaughtered in the altercation. Because instead that gasp is when the two of us sit down together and commune. Break the rhythm of the planned and the expected interaction. Break the rhythm. Break bread. Exchange questions and answers.  And listen…. 

When we allow this kind of caesura space, it is certainly not an easy place to be in. It is a true gap in the rhythm. And it is physically torturous to be in that gap. But if we make it a communal caesura, instead of a poetic-in-our-head caesura, then we can endure it. Then our bodies will want to move together, and we can slowly work towards making things better. 

To me, this worship space, this community, is where these gasps and gaps really happen; where we can be energized to go out and make these caesura spaces become reality. Can you feel the entry point? The break in the rhythm that invites us to move? The space where we can experience a kind of happy where we feel like we are a “room without a roof” ?  Nothing can hold us back. Not when we are in it together. 

May we seek and find and make space for all these caesuras…..
and may we boogie our hearts out in the process.

VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM#t=11