Pattiann Rogers’ poem that I read earlier came to mind a little over a week ago when I got some good one-on-one time with Lucille, newly born daughter of our daughter and son-in-law, Anna and Langdon, and our second grandchild. Langdon was off to work, and Anna was getting ready to drive their older daughter, Eliza, to day care. So, I stopped by as one of a rotating corps of volunteers to watch the baby for about a half hour so that Anna could take Eliza without having to pack up the baby for the trip.
As a father of three and grandfather, now, of two, I’ve come to take real delight in having some time with an infant, but it had been a while, and there was much that I had forgotten. I had forgotten how at first when you hold them they’re inclined to hunch their backs and pull their knees up close to their bodies – still not quite fully unfolded from the womb, how much of their time in those early days is spent in a sort of semi-consciousness between sleep and waking with the first hints of a smile playing across their lips.
But most of all, I had forgotten the almost visceral way that they seem to drink you in. As she cuddled against me, I felt her reaching, trying me out in some elemental way, before sound or speech or visual perception, a kind of bodily communication that I seemed to have forgotten I was capable of, but that I suddenly found myself slipping into.
Her: I’m here. Who are you? Me: I’m here. I love you.
One of those old, enduring connections found in all flesh, the finding of family. None of us can know for sure how, where or from whom we will get it – life is complicated out there – but we can’t do without it. Family: something deeper than the channeling wires and threads, the veins, ligaments, filaments and fibers that are our biological heritage to each other.
Rabindranath Tagore captured it with the verse in his poem that we sang earlier. Looking out on “insects, birds, and beasts and common weeds, the grass and clouds have fullest wealth of awe,” but it is family that “gives meaning to the stars.” It is establishes our roots; it centers our identity. It is what makes possible what Pattiann Rogers calls “the grip of voice on presence, the grasp of self on place.”
And so we were introduced to each other, Lucille and I, the first of our interactions and one of many connections she will be making in the world. But, of course, we all know that it’s not long before the reality of family changes and becomes more like the picture my sister, Lisa, paints: scrambling to keep get going in the morning, beating ourselves up for the chaos we find in our lives and hardly present to each other at all, scattered to our various obligations – school, work, and so on – and reconnecting only in passing.
It’s part of a natural drift that seems to have become the norm in the frenetic pace of this busy world. “Things to do, places to be” usually translates as anything but family. At its best family seems to act as a kind of charging station that we return to after our energy winds down, a place of shelter and renewal.
But too often it is the place where we play out the frustrations and unhappiness that build up over the course of our daily lives, a place quickly taken for granted or resented, whose its imperfect denizens, we feel, never quite appreciate what it is that WE need. And for some it can be a depository for shame or a sense of inadequacy, leaving us feeling harried and alone.
But, as my wise sister, Lisa, remarked in her Mother’s Day sermon of several years ago, it doesn’t have to be that way. “We can honor our responsibilities, nurture others and include ourselves in the midst of it,” she said.
For her, the key was offered by a couple of encounters she had with spiritual advisors she had sought out over the course of a year or so. She was looking for help in reflecting on how in her busy life where at times she felt whipsawed by the responsibilities of parenting she might cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality. Unbeknownst to what the other had said, each offered similar advice: your children are your practice.
What she heard them to say was that attention to the daily rituals of family life was a discipline in itself. In raising her children she was not simply providing care that they needed, she was, in her words, “dwelling deep in interdependence.” She was learning what a spiritual practice gives you, which is to see from a larger perspective, to find in the giving to another an avenue to maintaining a centered sense of self.
This doesn’t mean somehow using own children for our own ends. It means seeing in that role a path for growth for parent and child. The discipline entails accepting the role of parent without judgment and acknowledging its power and the duties it entails as lessons for one’s life.
As Lisa observed, “the chaos that children bring invites us to steady our sense of self and find our footing. We are echoed, challenged, mimicked, defied, sought after and sent packing. We are put on pedestals and used as furniture, we are intensely visible and not even there. This is all the stuff we need to practice acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, creativity and trust. This is all the stuff we need to enter life fully.”
And it occurs to me that the same observation applies to our larger family roles, too, though with a little less intensity. Grandfather, sister, nephew, aunt: we are given these roles, and most of us are not really sure what to do with them. For some, they are mantles we don grudgingly at dreaded family gatherings, but it need not be that way.
These relationships, too, can and do have power in our lives and consequences for each of us. In that way they are also reminders of a deeper way of living available to us. They are reminders that the life of wholeness and integrity that we each seek doesn’t just happen. It is built brick by brick by each encounter we have, and we don’t get it right from the get-go. We are awkward and uncertain at first, and so it takes rehearsing. It takes practice.
And, it’s important to remember that the fact of family is not limited to those of blood relations, nor does blood relationship necessarily result in these kinds of family ties. Again, life is complicated and circumstances can set people against and apart from each other. Some rifts can be repaired, but others yawn too wide to be bridged. And so we are left sometimes to find family where we can.
I know of people in this congregation who have set about creating family ties with others where no blood relation exists but where they have found or made a connection of caring. In the end, we find family where we make family, where we can give ourselves to others with love and intention and are received with reciprocal care.
This Mother’s Day brings to mind how such a connection happened a generation earlier in my family. My mother, Cynthia, a member of this congregation living in Brooks Howell Home, was only four years old when her mother, Alice, died.
It was, you can imagine, a hard time, and the family struggled for some years – my grandfather a newspaper editor trying to raise three girls on his own with the help of some family. Then, came the day several years later when a new woman entered his life, a phys ed teacher with an unquenchable spirit whose name happened to be Lucille. When she and my grandfather married, the kids weren’t sure what to make of her, but she swept into their lives in those Depression Era days and made a home for them.
Truth be told, when I was growing up Lucille was probably my favorite grandparent. She was a “pahk the cah in the Hahvad Yahd” Yankee who saw to it on our trips to visit her that we saw all the sights of her home town of Boston. I remember that she always took intent interest in us and sent faithful birthday cards with cheery notes.
Unlike Billy Collins, I can’t remember having sent her anything even as unimpressive as a lanyard as a gift, but I will always remember her as a loving soul who helped weave strength into our family. As I take my place in the grandparent generation I would say it is Lucille’s example, Lucille’s practice that stands before me. For she was one who chose to give her heart to those she chose to name as family: something I never had cause to doubt as long as I knew her.
Family, after all, is made in many ways: whether the result of blood ties or circumstances, its central components are the same: love and intention – love, that elemental gift of our very essence, the hope that we live when we are guided by the best that is in us; and intention, the practice of directing our thoughts, our actions, our will to something or someone that we deem worthy.
It isn’t easy work. As Pattiann Rogers notes, there is “seminal to all kin” the open mouth seeking to take and take – You mothers know, right? – and the “pervasive clasping common to the clan” clinging tight like limpets, like the hard nails of lichen, fingers around fingers and the grasp of self on place, and then the snorts, the whinnies, the shimmers of self declaration.
Oh, we weavers, reachers, winders and connivers, pumpers, runners, air and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave gliders, wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators –
Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and nieces and third cousins twice removed, stepmoms and foster dads, peace parents and godparents and every stripe of relation there is or can be.
All part of the crazy jumble that is family, blessed family, the great, old, enduring connections that are ours to find and ours to make, a practice that warms us and fills us and that in time and with intention might overflow to a hurting world.
I have spoken in the past about the ways we are called to challenge one another to spiritual growth, and this is one marker of our status as a religious community. So, too, it is our work to support one another in times of tribulation and to celebrate with one another in times of joy. This kind of support is particularly useful in a religious context—It makes a difference when we receive support from our faith community.
For example, in the Dancing on the Edge of the Abyss class, we have been able to talk about ways that Unitarian Universalists faced with death might find comfort and meaning that are different from the more traditional religious perspectives. Secular support groups are deeply meaningful and essential for processing grief and finding connection, but they do not provide the opportunity for this kind of faith-focused support and reflection.
It is our work to support one another. A lovely sentiment, surely, but what does it mean in practice? A few weeks ago at a Pastoral Visitor training session, I overheard a snippet of conversation from one of the role-play groups:
The person playing a sad, upset congregant had been approached by the Pastoral Visitor, and said, “but why did you come up to talk to me?” and the PV said, “because that is what we do here, we care about each other.” Again, I was struck by the simplicity of the sentiment.
Because that is what we do.
This is a great example of the way what we do can become who we are. We’ve all heard the old adage, “actions speak louder than words,” but I tend to prefer the more ancient words of Lao-tze, because they are more nuanced, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
It is much easier to care for one another on a regular run-of-the-mill Sunday morning than it is in a crisis or long-term difficulty. I know that many times we don’t say anything at all to a person we know and love, because we are just not sure what would be the “right thing.” I know I have been guilty of this more than once, and I’m a professional!
I spent the day yesterday at a conference called the Sacred Journey of Dementia, which brought together caregivers, professionals and people with memory-related diagnoses. One of the most poignant sharings I heard was part of the Early Memory Loss Collective’s panel discussion. The person said the most difficult thing is when you see someone quickly turn and cross the street to avoid talking to you. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they are afraid to say the wrong thing.
The LA Times recently published a wonderful article called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.” It outlines a simple and practical way to think about how we respond to a crisis in our community. They call it “the Ring Theory” and I think of it like the rings on a tree stump – a model of caring based on concentric circles. Imagine that the person with the crisis – whether it is emotional, financial, medical or legal – is in the center, the smallest ring. In the next ring is the person’s spouse, then children, closest friends, and so on, counting as many rings as you need to include everyone affected by the crisis.
After you’ve imagined this diagram, the rule is simple: dump out, comfort in. If you are speaking to anyone who is in a ring smaller than yours, your simple task is to offer support and comfort. If you need to express frustration, anger, sadness, fear or anything other than empathy and support, choose someone who is in a ring larger than yours. Dump out, comfort in. It is easy to get confused and worried, and this model gives us a simple reminder.
When something terrible happens to someone I care about, I feel sad, I feel upset, and I experience grief. But my grief is my own, and it isn’t the responsibility of the person in crisis to manage or alleviate my grief. That’s why I need to take it to some one in a larger circle than mine.
So, that is “how.” But we still haven’t talked about what is the “right” thing to say. I have been at hundreds of bedsides, sat with hundreds of individuals and families in medical crisis or experiencing trauma, and I’m here to tell you that this is one of those good news/bad news situations.
The bad news is that there is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.
But here’s the good news: There is NOT a right thing to say when someone you love is in crisis.
We want to be a comfort. We want to fix it. Ultimately, it is our greatest wish to end the suffering of a person we love. We want to stop the pain, cure the disease or fix the situation that is causing stress and pain. But since this is not possible, we try to say something calming or comforting – usually to make ourselves feel better. And remember, if I am trying to make myself feel better, I need to turn to an outer circle, not an inner one.
In the darkest moments, when people we know face the death of a child or loved one, the end of a relationship or any substantive loss, there is simply not a right thing to say.
When people tell you that your presence is enough, they are not lying or trying to make you feel better. They are telling you the truth. It is the only thing we have to offer. We apply our love to suffering.
Metta, or the application of love to suffering, is the sentiment expressed in the lovingkindness meditation that we sang earlier in the service. It is one of my most favorite things to sing – in fact, it was the closing meditation at the conference yesterday, because it is so simple and beautiful and effective. The words are not complicated, and the tune is easy to pick up. But the real power is in the slight difference between the three verses—we begin with “I,” then sing “you,” and finally “we.” This is a beautiful model to use in our everyday lives, as we internalize the practice of self-love, then love of those to whom we are close, and finally love to all beings.
Metta recognizes that all sentient beings are capable of feeling good or feeling bad, and given the opportunity will choose good. It can be described as caring for others, without judgment, and with no expectation of receiving anything in return. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional, self-sacrificing love.
For me, though, the closest comparison is empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize emotions in another being—to share an emotional experience. When we practice metta, we are intentionally participating in active love – for self, for other, and for the unknown.
Each time I sing the meditation in a group, I am deeply touched by its simplicity and power – the universality of the language and practice. Beginning with yourself has almost become counter-intuitive in our culture, as we fight against the super-individualist social model that pits the good of the one against the good of many. But metta turns this model on its head and asks us to begin with “me” with the express intention of ending with “all.” I begin the meditation with myself not because I am selfish, but because I am responsible for my own well-being. Then my well-being is able to focus outward and impact the whole. It isn’t me for the sake of me, but me for the sake of us. “We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”
(step out of pulpit onto floor)
Blessing of Prayer Shawls
As strands of yarn, we come together from all directions to bless these shawls & lap robes, to expand our circle of caring beyond these walls.
From the East, the quiet breath of habit, sense memory and love
From the South the fire of inspiration, energy and passion
From the West, tears shed together in joy and in sorrow, tea grown cold as fingers flying warm
From the North, Earth nurturing, giving space together and a reason for wooly socks.
Wrap around us the tapestry of this, our beloved community, the variegated strands, the complicated patterns and the carefully knotted fringe… a garment woven, we rest in the circle created by our own hands, nurtured by each other and warming us all… the caring of men and women who know the beauty of the handmade gift, the heartfelt prayer and the gathered circle… as the loops of knit and purl are nothing without each other, two sides of a soft and fuzzy coin, so too, we gather
In this circle we gather.
In this circle we sing.
In this circle we care for one another.
And our caring extends outward to encircle those who cannot be with us in person, the warmth of this community wrapped around shoulders, warming knees grown cold with age or trouble.
We offer our blessings upon these symbols of our circle of caring.
This congregation is a “whole” – a community of memory and hope, pledged to care for and support one another – and we, in turn, impact the world around us. Beginning with the one, the individual who walks through the door, we form radiating circles of love that expand outward.
When we begin with compassion for ourselves, we allow ourselves to be human, which means that we acknowledge that we may not know the “right thing” to say, and that we know that our presence is sufficient. This community, I hope, is a place where we work to trust one another and share on a deeper level, which allows us to stick together when the going gets tough.
This is who we are:
We are a community that cares for one another.
We are a community that throws the door wide to welcome each other – and the stranger.