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The Advancement of Creative Maladjustment – 1/19/2014

Each year, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations holds its General Assembly in a different city of this nation. This is where representatives from our congregations do the business of the association, but a lot of other things happen there besides. There are worship services and workshops, meetings of various kinds – and several different lectures. The most prestigious of these is the Ware Lecture – one of the centerpieces of the conference. Over nearly a century, the address has been given by scholars, activists, and artists, generally on issues of pressing social concern. In 1966, the Ware Lecture was given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to begin my message this morning by quoting, at some length, from his lecture:

“I talk a great deal about the need for a kind of divine discontent. And I always mention that there are certain technical words within every science which become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that has become common—it is the word maladjusted. We read a great deal about it. It is a ringing cry of modern child psychology; and certainly we all want to live the well adjusted life and avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry .I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence…Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, cried in words lifted to cosmic proportions—”We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

This is a weekend that is purported to celebrate Dr. King’s life, but often seems to lose sight of his work and message, content to mythologize and pacify a complex critic of the status quo. So I want to focus on his words here: ‘creative maladjustment.’ To be out of alignment with the rest of the world in a way that demands that world acknowledge and adapt to your difference. Reading his words forty-two years later, there is a temptation to place Dr. King in that same pantheon that he outlined, along with Lincoln and Jefferson and Jesus of Nazareth: the cohort of the creatively maladjusted. But rather than drone on with accolades, the highest praise for any other person is always this: to ask, ‘how must I apply the example of their life to my own?’ Creative maladjustment was a theme that Dr. King returned to in several of his speeches – he chose to raise that theme when he spoke to our movement directly. So on this Sunday it seems not only appropriate but necessary, that we consider what it is in our world that we ought to be creatively maladjusted to.

This year, I am preaching once each month on the deep social concerns held by our movement, and their roots in our theology. Today the topic is the goal of racial justice. From time to time, through the mechanism of our General Assembly, our association takes a public position on issues in the larger world. In the fifty-two years since the consolidation between the Unitarians and the Universalists, we have made roughly sixty-five declarations specifically connected to discrimination, persecution, exploitation or other forms of injustice based on race. That’s an average of more than one per year – which would suggest it is something we feel the need to say something about.

It has been thus for a long time, now. There are versions of this sermon that have been preached by other preachers in other congregations at this season in years past, devoted to recounting the exploits of our noble ancestors. Unitarians and Universalists working for the abolition of slavery; Unitarians helping to create the first regiment of free black soldiers in the union army; our connection to the first person of African descent formally ordained to any ministry in the United States. Our opposition to segregation, our role in the founding of the NAACP, the two members of our faith who were murdered in Selma, Alabama for their participation in the Civil Rights movement. Our long collective history of campaigning for an open immigration policy free of racial quotas or xenophobic limitations. And our more recent history of struggling to find a way to justice and wholeness through the terrible truth of the genocide perpetrated from the beginning of white settlement on this continent to now, against the native inhabitants of the land where you and I are sitting and standing.

There is a version of this sermon that is about all that, but that is not the sermon I believe this day requires. You see, we have always been heretics – it is how we got our start. In 325, the Council of Nicaea established Christian orthodoxy for the first time; setting a certain creed and a few points of dogma that would now be

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compulsory within the Christian movement. Our theological ancestor, Arius, was on the losing side in that debate. We sometimes label him as the first Unitarian – he was the leader of some of the churches in Alexandria, in Egypt, and came originally from Libya. This was at a time when people moved relatively freely within the Roman empire, and while skin tone wasn’t invisible to most people, things like what language you spoke, or how much wealth you had, were considered far more important. Whiteness, as it exists today, had not been invented yet. So, to my knowledge, we can’t say for certain what someone from 2014 would guess about Arius’ racial background, based on his appearance. But I can say, in all honesty, that the ‘first Unitarian’ was from Africa.

Nicaea made Arius, in the eyes of the newly centralizing church, a heretic: someone who chooses a belief outside the accepted boundaries. Someone who is maladjusted to the expectations and requirements of their place and time. This is the moment we often point to as the beginning of our movement.

But every time we have found ourselves at the margins of prevailing doctrines, one of three things has happened: 1) the people who were violently obsessed with those doctrines successfully murdered us or coerced our conversions, OR 2) we made just enough accommodation to the powers that be to survive, quiet and even more marginal, OR 3) eventually, the popular consensus shifted far enough that we weren’t on the margins any more. Three-hundred years ago it was a serious criminal offense to declare that Hell does not exist. Two-hundred years ago it was socially stigmatizing to argue that reason is an essential tool of faith, and that anything other than the bible could be used as a source of truth and meaning. Today, those ideas may not be

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completely universal, but they have become largely mainstream. It’s not exactly that we won, but we did see a lot of other people start moving in a direction we were already heading. Our heresies have grown less heretical over time.

Now, as I alluded to early there are points worth taking pride in from our movement’s part in the racial history of this country. But there are also numerous points to be ashamed of: abolitionism was never a consensus in either branch of our faith prior to the Civil War. We know that we have slave owners in our spiritual family tree, and not only Thomas Jefferson, whom we go back and forth about one week to another as to whether he counts as a Unitarian or not. We also know that many of the folks who founded and built up our present congregations in New England did so with money made in the shipping trade. If you profited from that industry in the 1700s, you were profiting from the international slave trade, whether your ships carried kidnapped people or not. And if you profited from it in the 1800s, you were profiting from the economic engine of slavery, whether your ships carried cotton or not. Even when some of us were opposing segregation, some few were still supporting it. In the 1940s, there was a Unitarian congregation in Atlanta that staunchly refused to integrate. This was despite the prevailing spirit in the association as a whole, which had helped the Atlanta congregation many years before to buy their own church building, and still held title to it. Our movement doesn’t allow for much coercive authority – something which stubborn injustice can exploit. Eventually, though, a solution was found: our association couldn’t convince that congregation’s membership to meet its most basic moral standard, so they sold the building out from under them instead.

This is just to make it clear that we were never the cutting edge of the struggle for racial justice: some few of our number have been great leaders, more of us have been good followers, some of us have worked on the wrong side of history, and too many of us have just stood still. Our tradition teaches the fundamental equality of all people, and has done so going back to when that that was a fairly radical statement. It is now more the consensus. Fifty years ago, if a Unitarian Universalist declared that race is an invention based on drawing arbitrary lines across the human family, they were far from alone, but they did have a number of powerful forces arrayed against them. Today, this is more broadly understood. What was maladjustment then has become simply adjustment now.

Unitarian Universalism is maladjusted to the world as it is. I can say this because when we adjust ourselves to it, when we reconcile ourselves entirely to the status quo – that is the exact point at which we cease to be Unitarian Universalists. In choosing to take up the company of heretics, we choose to be out of alignment with the larger world. That creates two responsibilities: The first is to stay ahead of society’s own realignment. We are who we are as a faith movement because in times past, when the consensus shifted and we found that we were now hanging out in the middle, we looked towards a larger love, grounded in the best truth we could find, and ran in that direction, towards the margins once again. When assessing the moral choices of figures from history, it is sometimes suggested that we should make exceptions for their context, and remember that certain things we may deem bad or wrong were widely accepted in their day. It is our determination not to be satisfied with the grading curve of history. The buying and selling of human beings was as wrong 150 years ago as it is today. The Chinese Exclusion Act was as wrong in 1882 as it is today. The practice of redlining – of designating certain towns or neighborhoods for one race, and others for another – was as wrong 60 years ago as it is today. And there are evils in this world that will be as colossally wrong to the person who stands in this sanctuary one hundred years from now as those things are to me – and so it is up to me to recognize their wrongness and give into or hide behind the status quo.

The second responsibility of being a people defined by heresy, is not just to make sure we stay maladjusted, but to strive to be maladjusted creatively. Not just to be at odds with whatever we consider to be wrong in the larger world, but to live out that position in a way that pulls the center towards our parcel of the margins. We must be imaginative and determined at making our maladjustment effective.

In the case of the matter before us this morning, our counter-cultural values challenge us as a community to be a place where issues race and of privilege and oppression can be and will be engaged with, actively and openly. It means an imperative to interrupt conversations and challenge “the way we do things here,” in order to disrupt dynamics that keep the comfortable comfortable and the afflicted afflicted. It means really coming to know that the line between privilege and oppression, somewhat like the line between good and evil, cuts through the heart of every human being – it harms all parties concerned, and what’s more, there is no pure status on either side of the line. Race connects to class, connects to ability, connects to gender-expression, connects to sexual orientation, and on and on.

Because of the overlapping, interlocking nature of privilege, it is impossible to be entirely this or that, at all times and in all ways. And yet we must also affirm this truth without allowing it to serve as an excuse for a relativism that ignores the immediacy of specific forms of injustice. We must train ourselves, over and over, to understand racism not as a series of disconnected and individual acts of meanness, to paraphrase Peggy MacIntosh, but as an invisible network of systems conferring dominance on one group. And finally, we need to be ready to hear and to take to heart when someone else points to a privilege we are abusing, or a calls us out on a system of oppression in which we are participating or just expresses the spiritual ‘ouch!’ that comes naturally when we encounter the 50th unconsciously hurtful thing of the day. We have to be strong enough to want to change from the people we are to the people we are capable of being, if we want to move our world from the way that it is, to the way that it can be.

Freedom Is Not Free – 1/12/2014

It is a rare thing that I see an actual movie in an actual theater. There’s the expense, to begin with – I am now old enough to be frustrated by how much ticket prices have increased from the days of my youth. But mostly there’s the question of finding time among the competing responsibilities of work and home. A parent and a partner and a worker, I have promises to keep, as Frost said. He was talking about why he didn’t have time to go exploring in the woods, of course, but I suppose I don’t get around to that very often, either. It’s just far easier for me to wait until the movie becomes available for viewing on my computer screen, and watch it over the course of two or three nights.

So it was a great personal accomplishment and no small feat that I actually did manage to see a film a little while ago. Every now and then I hear about a movie that needs to be seen in the theater or is best not seen at all. I was told that Gravity was one of those films, and having now seen it, I would agree. The story is about astronauts drifting, spinning, and careening through space. Far, far, far above the earth the characters spent most of the movie falling in a way that looks like flying. They seemed weightless, unconstrained by the pull of the earth, free of so many basic limits, even the concepts of up and down, or the ground beneath your feet keeping you bounded to two dimensions. But it was a spectacularly dangerous and terrifying freedom. When the action on the giant screen and the thunder from the surrounding speakers made me feel like I was going through all that, like I was spinning and careening along with the astronauts on screen – I wasn’t sure I could say I was enjoying it. And perhaps that was the point: that there are extremes of freedom of which we ought to beware.

Both for the theme and the subject, it reminded me of a scene from a Simpsons episode of some years ago. Homer the astronaut floats gracefully through the space shuttle, almost dancing on air. Until he realizes he cannot stop, and crashes into the ship’s glass-walled ant colony. For a moment, we see inside the colony to the tiny forms of the ants, and their chittering sounds are even translated for us at the bottom of the screen. They watch powerless as the human form barrels towards them, shattering the glass and spilling them out into the shuttle. Liberated from their glass enclosure the ants cry out, “Freedom! Horrible freedom!”[i]

This message is one of an ongoing series, offering possible definitions of important terms in our theological vocabulary. The subject this morning is the meaning of freedom – of the word, as it can be understood in our tradition, and of its place in the world. Freedom is a very important word – it might be fair to say that as a nation, it is our favorite word. In our particular religion, freedom is also right up at the top of the list of our most cherished values. It’s so important to us that A. Powell Davies, one of the great Unitarian ministers of the 20th century, described his religion in part as,

“The religion that says freedom!–freedom from ignorance and false belief; freedom from spurious claims and bitter prejudices; freedom to seek the truth, both old and new, and freedom to follow it, freedom from the hates and greeds that divide humankind and spill the blood of every generation; freedom for honest thought, freedom for equal justice, freedom to seek the true, the good and the beautiful with minds unimpaired by cramping dogmas and spirits uncrippled by abject dependence.”[ii]

This spirit of questioning, challenging, and seeking in pursuit of liberation has led our tradition to intersect with more generalized, secular movements whose watchword is freedom. In 1966, 214 young men turned in their draft cards in protest of the war in Vietnam during a ceremony at Arlington Street Church in Boston. 67 more chose to burn their cards, using a candle that was said to have belonged to William Ellery Channing, the grandfather of American Unitarianism. Importantly, Arlington Street’s minister, Jack Mendelsohn, was against the draft card burning – he opposed the war, but thought the destruction of the cards was needlessly flamboyant and confrontational. But, he agreed to let the activists who organized the event conduct it in the way they felt would be most effective. He knew and trusted them enough to give them the leeway – the freedom – to do as they thought best. It was neither the first nor the last example of public protest involving Unitarian Universalists. It’s something we are known for. In 2011, the filmmaker Michael Moore addressed the Occupy encampment outside city hall in Oakland, CA: a large crowd living in tents for weeks in the heart of a busy downtown, trying to bring attention to bring attention to economic inequality and a broken political system. In his remarks, he said, “The media and the power establishment is having a hard time figuring this out. So, be patient with them. They are used to just a few people showing up with a few signs and then they go away and have a meeting in the basement of the Unitarian Church. God bless the Unitarians, by the way.”[iii]

We speak with reverence about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning to which we are called – a freedom which our spiritual ancestors yearned for, suffered for, in some cases died for. Yet, as the recently deceased minister Gordon McKeeman observed, we often seek the truth, “with considerable apprehension lest we find some, only to discover that finding a truth compromises our freedom by demanding our allegiance to it.”[iv] Another of my departed colleagues, Rev. Dr. Forrester Church argued that our love of freedom came from a context that has almost entirely passed away: our ancestors were heretics in times when heresy was dangerous. That is much less the case for us. “Today,” he said, “our problem is not bondage, but bondlessness. Most of us are already free. We don’t need more freedom. We need the resolve to employ the freedom we have responsibly. We need to invest a little of our precious freedom, and bond ourselves to others in redemptive community.”

The problem of boundlessness is indeed very real. Every moment of the day we have a vast array of options at our fingertips for what to do with our energy, our resources, our time: our lives. But viewed critically, for even a moment, so many of these choices feel as frightfully empty as the vastness of space. We can feel as though we are hurtling through the vacuum, ungrounded and unable to stop. So I agree with the sentiment of Forrest Church’s words but I have to quibble with his phrasing – this is a sermon about words and their meanings, after all. The problem, as I see it, is not exactly that we are too free, and need to be bonded together again. It is that we are made captive by our boundlessness – and we need to be bonded together so that we can be liberated.

To reappropriate a phrase: freedom is not free. Freedom is the power and opportunity to make meaningful choices, to know that there is real purpose to who we are and what we do, and to act from it. The meaning is critical – this is not just about choosing between options, it is letting a sense of deeper consequence guide our lives and actions. Such meaning can only come about through context, connection, and relationship. We can’t get any of that floating alone, atomized and isolated in space – a feeling that our culture of non-participation and perpetual distraction seems calculated to achieve. In the film Gravity, the female protagonist finds herself literally alone in space. She was alienated from life on earth even before she left it behind, and the tremendous effort necessary to even hope for survival seems purposeless. That is, until, she begins to think about someone else – someone who isn’t even there with her, but to whom she is connected. Someone for whom she is something more than just an object, floating in empty space. That connection is enough to get her fighting again.

The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams described three tenets for a faith of free people: the first is that it cannot be unencumbered by meaning. It must hold that real meaning and purpose exist in the universe beyond the pleasure or whims of individuals – including each of us. The second tenet is that this purpose, this theological center – however we understand it – must find its richest expression in cooperation towards the common good. The third tenet is that no freedom is achievable without the power that comes from banding together, and then directing that power.

Without a context, some network of connection, there can be no real freedom. Without some larger thing to belong to, there can be no collective power. About 4,400 years ago, the king of Lagash, a city-state in what is now Iraq, issued a decree forgiving the debts of his subjects and freeing the slaves in his kingdom. His edict was the oldest appearance in writing that we have of the word amargi – the Sumerian word for freedom. Literally, amargi means ‘to return to one’s mother’.[v] Making someone a slave means taking them out of their context, robbing them of their ability to make promises or form relationships that can’t be arbitrarily broken or destroyed by someone else. The subjugation ends when they return to their mother – when they are restored to their network of human connection. There are other examples of similar patterns in human words for freedom. That English word itself is connected to the German word for friend.

But somehow we have come to have a popular understanding of freedom as the complete lack of rules, or expectations, or even requests from anyone else. The ancient Romans understood libertas as the power of unlimited control over other things – ‘things’ here including human beings. By its later days, Rome was an empire addicted to war, desperate for the gold and resources it could thus obtain, and for the residents of foreign lands it could capture and enslave. Limitations on what one could do with a possession – a bag of coins, a chariot, or a human being – were seen as infringements, obstructing the principle of ownership. Two thousand years later, Roman law still shapes our own society and way of thinking.[vi] So that all rules and ordinances for the public welfare such as building codes and laws to protect the environment, are attacked as eroding basic liberties. So that money can be ruled to be speech and its use a sacred right, only exceeded by the right to own any number of powerful weapons, and to take them anywhere you like. Freedom, an ideal grounded in connection to others, is now intermingled with a principle of absolute autonomy – perfect separateness from others in order to maintain authority over what is mine. The human value that is supposed to describe the ending of slavery has come to be defined by the ancient practice of it.

Eight years ago, an article appeared in the New York Times about an alarming trend: elephant violence was on the rise. In countries across Africa and Asia, reports of elephants attacking humans, other animals, and other elephants were on the rise. These were cases where the elephants were not being threatened or abused – the attacks were unprovoked. A team of animal psychologists had a theory as to why: poaching, habitat destruction and war were killing vast numbers of elephants, leaving orphans and widowed mates behind. The survivors lived with a ‘species-wide trauma.’ Elephant society was collapsing. The solution they proposed was to resocialize them with the same techniques used to help human survivors of war other serious trauma. Random violence is generally an act of desperation, an expression of powerlessness. It is a way of making a meaningful choice – a choice for a terrible, destructive meaning – when all the alternatives seem closed off. Backed into such an existential corner, we are inclined towards rage or despair or both. The only way out is to regain meaning through connection.

“The source of rights is duty,” Mahatma Gandhi said. In order to be free ourselves in a lasting, meaningful way we have to ensure the freedom of others. This, in turn, necessitates the responsibilities of community. And that is what congregations such as ours are striving for when we seek to live freely together. After A. Powell Davies described his religion as freedom from ignorance and freedom for equal justice, he turned back upon his audience, “As you have listened to me, have you thought perchance that this is your religion? If you have, do not congratulate yourself. Stop long enough to recollect the miseries of the world you live in…And…ask yourself this question: What are you doing with it?” It is up to us, as individuals and most especially as one community, to keep answering that ringing question over and over again: what freedom we have, we have because of others, and each other – our connections, our responsibilities, our promises to keep. What then shall we do with the power we have to do what is right, together?

 



[i] Season 5, Episode 15, “Deep Space Homer”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPc6qaEQ600

[ii] From, “Is This Your Religion?”, in the collection of his work, “Without Apology.”

[iii] Video of his entire speech here: http://vimeo.com/31333327

[iv] As quoted in a Small Group Ministry Session Plan from the UU Church of Eugene, OR, March 2010

[v] David Graeber, Debt, p. 216

[vi] David Graeber, Debt, p. 203

The Empty Page – 1/5/2014

In a comic strip from a Sunday some years ago, Calvin, the impetuous, imaginative 6-year old, and his best friend Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, take their toboggan out into the snow-covered woods. It is the first day of a new year, and the white powder blankets the forest. The two survey the scenery in awe.

“Everything familiar has disappeared!” Hobbes says. “The world looks brand-new!”

“A new year…A fresh, clean start!” says Calvin, and Hobbes continues that thought: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on.”

With or without the fresh fallen snow, the start of a new year has some of that feel to it: a clean slate, a new beginning. And Hobbes the tiger is far from the first to compare a new year to an unmarked page. The Jewish tradition imagines its new year – which, of course, came several months ago – as a new page or chapter in the Book of Life, the record of all things. That metaphor, in turn, may have been inspired by the mythology of ancient Egypt, where the bird-headed god Thoth was thought to keep accounts of the moral measurements of human hearts. And Egyptian civilization is among the oldest to have developed a system of writing. So this idea that a new day or a new year brings a new page to write our lives upon has roots that go back nearly as far as writing itself.

Like a painter setting out with an empty canvass or a sculptor sizing up a block of stone, we often turn towards a new year with great ambitions, or at least the ambition of having great ambitions. This is where the annual ritual of New Year’s resolutions comes in. The big plans and bold hopes we set out for ourselves, to be accomplished in the year to come. Sometimes this can prove a great opportunity to set yourself on a new trajectory: to develop new hobbies, form new human connections, or learn more about yourself and the world around you. And sometimes they are discarded before the last Christmas trees make it to the curb. My own experience with making resolutions this past year fell somewhere between total success and utter neglect: that third possible outcome from a New Year’s resolution – the late-in-the-year scramble. Last January I set the goal of getting my office here at the church better organized, hanging some pictures that were waiting to be hanged and clearing off all the piles of stuff on my desk. And I even managed to accomplish this much, with a few months still to spare. But as anyone who might be listening on the speaker in my office can attest: the room is now in need of another reorganization. A project I will put on this year’s list of resolutions.

I recently came across a picture of the middle fold of an old notebook used by the great folk singer and activist Woody Guthrie. On those two pages he wrote down thirty-three resolutions for 1943, most accompanied by sketches and doodles. Among these were, #1 “WORK MORE AND BETTER,” #11 “CHANGE SOCKS,” #19 “KEEP HOPE MACHINE RUNNING,” #21 “BANK ALL EXTRA MONEY,” followed by #22 “SAVE DOUGH,” – something worth committing to twice, then – #31 “LOVE EVERYBODY,” and #33 “WAKE UP AND FIGHT.”[i] That last one is something that Woody surely lived up to – he was notoriously determined and unswerving in his work for the rights of workers and of all people to be free. He certainly woke up and fought in 1943 and every other year of his public life. But his commitment to singing out for justice wasn’t a decision just made once and carried through from then on. The words in his notebook hint that he had to recommit again and again.

The New Year follows the old, but it does not overwrite it. The page is new, but the book is still the same. We are at the beginning of a new beginning, but everything that has already happened has still already happened. And when we look back at the past, or when the past looks ahead to us, the connection between both places is always real, but also always imperfect. Like a radio signal near the edge of the broadcast radius, there may be more static or less, but there will always be some. Similar patterns occur again and again – my desk acquires new clutter, for instance. But things also change. This is what makes possible all the fun of trying to predict what’s to come in the New Year – another major pastime in this season. Isaac Aasimov, the one-time professor of biochemistry at Boston University and colossus of American science fiction, wrote an article on the occasion of the 1964 World’s Fair, predicting what the future would be like in fifty years – that is, in 2014. In it, he described a world of electroluminescent panels – the flat screen-displays you find everywhere now in offices, homes, cars, and carried around in our purses and pockets. He also predicted that we would “phone” each other not only to hear but to see – something that is becoming more and more common today, due to all of those electroluminescent screens. The self-driving cars he anticipated are still being tested, though, and they do not hover a few feet off the ground, as he thought they would. The world of “enforced leisure” he envisioned, where humanity, “will suffer badly from the disease of boredom,” and “the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!” – this has not come to be.[ii] Automation and technology have made many types of work less necessary, but they haven’t made many of us feel less busy, or put those of us without work to do at ease. So even a very smart fellow, who spent so much of his life dreaming and thinking about the future, couldn’t get quite everything right.

Let us return, though, to the metaphor of the blank piece of paper that the turnover of the calendar has placed before us. It is a great opportunity to write the next act of our lives. The thing about such opportunities is that they bring us face-to-face with two deep truths, contained in each of us: our own potential to be great – to say what is true, to do what is right, to live with purpose and meaning – and our fear of that potential. The fear that we will fail to live up to it, that things will not unfold as we hope or plan. That you will buy a year’s gym membership and never see the inside of it again after Groundhogs Day. That you will try for that promotion, and end up having to work for the person who got it when you did not. That you will call your sister up for the first time in 15 years, and she’ll hang up on you. Writers are very familiar with this sort of fear: the fear of the empty page. Anything is possible, so all manner of failure is possible as well. This is an attitude that looks at a case such as Isaac Aasimov’s, that I mentioned earlier, and does not see the many predictions he got right – it sees only the guesses he got wrong. For them, it’s called Writer’s Block – it makes a writer afraid to write. Its equivalent makes a person afraid to live.

The poet Robert Pack writes about this gnawing feeling in his echo sonnet To an Empty Page:

How from emptiness can I make a start? Start

And starting, must I master joy or grief? Grief

But is there consolation in the heart? Art

Oh cold reprieve, where’s natural relief? Leaf

Leaf blooms, burns red before delighted eyes. Dies

Here beauty makes of dying, ecstasy. See

Yet what’s the end of our life’s long disease? Ease

If death is not, who is my enemy? Me

Then are you glad that I must end in sleep? Leap

I’d leap into the dark if dark were true. True

And in that night would you rejoice or weep? Weep

What contradiction makes you take this view? You

I feel your calling leads me where I go. Go

But whether happiness is there, you know. No

So how from emptiness can we make a start? There are a number of wise methods that experienced authors recommend to those struggling with Writer’s Block. I will offer you three, with some thoughts on how to apply them to making use of the new beginning we have at the start of this New Year.

The first method is to start in the middle – never mind the introduction or the establishing of the characters or setting. Jump right into the action, feel it, get pulled in by it, and use that momentum – you can always circle back to work on the beginning later. How that should work when you’re writing a story is pretty straight forward, but it can also work as we author the next chapter of our lives. Obviously there are things we can’t skip over – some not forever, and some not at all – but the New Year can be a time to cut to the chase of some dimension of life. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Bluebeard, the main character meets Circe Berman, the woman who will become his closest friend and chief antagonist by greeting her with, ‘Hello.’ This is the exchange that follows:

“Tell me how your parents died,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I beg your pardon?” I said.

“What good is ‘Hello’?” she said.

She had stopped me in my tracks. “I’ve always thought it was better than nothing,” I said, “but I could be wrong.”

“What does ‘Hello’ mean?” she said.

And I said, “I had always understood it to mean ‘Hello.’ “

“Well it doesn’t,” she said. “It means, ‘Don’t talk about anything important.’ It means, ‘I’m smiling but not listening, so just go away.’ “

She went on to avow that she was tired of just pretending to meet people. “So sit down here,” she said, “and tell Mama how your parents died.”

Rash, socially inappropriate and more than a little bizarre, her gambit is also effective. The two people have a real conversation about something that matters to each of them. They form a real connection, and they are both made better for it. I am not saying that the best way to start a New Year is by resolving to ask strangers impertinent questions – although if that works for you, great. But if you can start in the middle of new experiences and potential relationships by resolving to be less guarded. To skip as many formalities and empty pleasantries as possible by focusing on saying things that are actually meaningfully true for you, and inviting others to join you.

The next trick is to write as though you are writing to someone you love. If we are writing with our lives on the page of the year, then this means doing something that has someone else – someone special – in mind. In 2012 a man named Bob Carey gained national attention for his photographic self-portraits, taken all over the world, with him wearing nothing but a pink tutu. The Tutu Project began as a one-time amusement which took on a new importance after Bob’s Linda learned that she had breast cancer. Images of him– a large, rather hairy, middle-aged man – standing mostly undressed in strange surroundings, save for the pink frills, proved to be one of the few things that could make his wife consistently laugh, as she navigated the uncertain waters of her diagnosis and treatment. This photo series has become a fundraiser for the Carey’s own foundation supporting women fighting the same disease. Linda said of her husband, “It takes a lot for him to put on that tutu,”[iii] Doing anything crazy takes a lot – and the most courageous things are always at least a little bit crazy. The people we love can often be the place where we get that needed inspiration from.

The last trick is usually called free-writing: write about anything – your breakfast, the color of your socks, even disconnected strings of words – but write. So if you are really having trouble getting started on this year, the suggestion would be to find something small, and new that you can do each day, and just do it without worrying if it’s useful or productive or good. A friend and colleague of mine once decided he wanted to make

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himself paint. He hadn’t done it much before, and not for many years, but he was determined to give it a shot. So he cut out a series of wooden squares – tiny little things, about three inches on a side – and he painted them all white. And then each day, he held himself to the discipline of painting something on one of those squares. Sometimes just a line, or a few dots. Later, there got to be pictures. He started experimenting with texture and depth. For one of them, he glued a kewpie doll to it. By the end of his project, he had a whole wall full of little paintings, ordered by date in his dining room. Were they good? They were his. They were him, on display in his home, and if nothing else, they had got him back into painting.

The path before us is ours to determine for ourselves – a daunting task, I well know. But we cannot get there – wherever we might discover ‘there’ to be – if we are too afraid to venture out and mar the page. There will be stray marks, cross-throughs and errors of grammar and spelling on the page of this year. Sometimes, our lines won’t rhyme, or our narrator will prove unreliable. Sometimes the red ink will overwhelm the black. But there is no way to discover our story except to begin it.

In that comic, the last Calvin and Hobbes comic, from nearly twenty years ago – yeah, it makes me feel old, too – the two friends finish surveying the new day, and set up the toboggan. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy,” Calvin says as they brace themselves and begin to hurtle down the snow-covered hillside. “Let’s go exploring.” My friends, as we begin together the year ahead, may we with awe, and a great sense of the possibility before us, explore this fresh page of life, together.



The Borderline Between the Years

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the border between the US state of Vermont and the Canadian province of Quebec. It has two different mailing addresses and mail boxes, so as to receive the post from both nations. Its books are all in Canada, but its main entrance is in the United States. Visitors to the Haskell’s theater sit in Vermont, but the operas they come to see are all performed in Quebec. Crossing from one side of the Haskell’s reading room to the other is an international voyage. The building is cut in half by an invisible line that officially divides two different nations, with different histories, traditions, ideas, and even languages. And the Haskell’s novel response to the problem of that invisible line, is to act like it doesn’t exist: no border fence cuts through the opera hall, and you will not be asked for your passport in order to use the library.

The building did not arrive where it is by accident. It was put there intentionally as a bridge for relationship and understanding. By standing on the line, the Haskell is a part of both nations, challenging the idea that each is separate and distinct from the other. There are strange and wondrous things to be learned on the borderline. Elsewhere on earth, there are two islands in the Bering Strait, in the far North of the Pacific Ocean, called Big Diomede and Little Diomede. Little Diomede is in Alaska; Big Diomede is only about two and a half miles West, but that puts it in Russia, part of a different continent and on the other side of the International Date Line, where it is 24 hours later. So if you stand on the Western shore of Little Diomede, you can look into tomorrow.

This is the sort of borderline moment that we find ourselves in, at the turning of the year. Like the gap between Big and Little Diomede, like the line down the middle of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, we are in two different years at once, or very nearly so. Not merely in between, but still within reach of both. The year that is ending as I write this, that will likely have ended by the time you read it, still is not settled in those first weeks of January. We still have the time to resolve our accounts, to make amends, to reconsider the last twelve months, and to form our own story of what 2013 was, and what it meant. Its epilogue is in our hands.

And, at the same time, we are living out the prologue to 2014. The two, in fact, are the same thing. The hinge has two pieces, but acts as a single object, requiring both. The way in which you seal the old year is the way in which you open the new. We might choose to close 2013 in any number of ways: with celebration and revelry; with acrimony and regret; with sorrow, impatience, hope, or melancholy. But however we choose to do it, we will be choosing what comes first for us in 2014. The past is a thing we may never be fully rid of, nor something we can ever entirely lose. So whether you are saying ‘goodbye’ to 2013 as ‘good memories’ or ‘good riddance’, may it set a new way forward for you in the year now beginning to begin.

 

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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