Central East Region: Gould Discourse : An Annual Lecture Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association St. Lawrence Chapter
Main Content

2012 Gould Discourse - Lynn Ashley

By Lynn Ashley

From Grandmother's Closet to the Occupation of Wall Street - A Contemplation on Loss

Gould Discourse, April 27, 2012, Rochester, NY

Download a PDF of this discourse.

We Experience Personal Loss

I have been cleaning closets. Cleaning, clearing and redistributing the contents thereof for this past year and more. The process started last year in January, when during a visit with my mother in South Dakota, it became apparent that she would no longer be able to live alone. The first sorting of her life's possessions began then, when we helped her to move into an assisted living community.

Last summer my niece, Leslie, drove from the west coast and I from the east to meet at my mother's home in the Black Hills. Our goal for that trip was to clear the main floor of the home my parents built 50 years ago. Leslie and I kept so busy in the brief time that we had together that we rarely took time to give voice to the memories we shared.

Clearing the living areas last summer was relatively stark emotionally compared with the emptying of a bank of storage cabinets that I undertook during a return trip in December. In those cabinets were the archaeological stores of the generations: Mom's sewing stuff—thimbles and pins and needles, and fabrics! remnants of summer dresses and winter jackets, silk of a wedding dress, satin from a prom; there were hundreds of family photos some of which dated back to the earliest days of photography, photos of ancestors, many unnamed and no longer remembered; and then of the generations I have known; reminders of trips taken, long drives across the country, first airplane flights, of oceans and mountains, of skies studded by storm clouds and those the shade of blue that only the sunshine of the high plains makes possible... There were photos of babies and of grand-babies, of old friends long ago scattered, of flowers, extended and blended families, and new frontiers.

With limited time, I made my way through layers of family history. Some things went to Mom; some to other family members; some I kept; and some we let go of.

When I came to an old gift box from Ferley's Jewelers, a little store that once stood in the center of my grandparents town, my emotional distance crumbled. Expecting to find a cake plate wrapped carefully inside, I wondered a bit when I found nothing more than layers of fabric. Soon, I realized that I had uncovered a cache of items that came from my grandmother's closet: paisley squares of aqua blue and rusty orange, kerchiefs that had been my grandfather's; and a half dozen once-lovely hankies, each edged with two inches of lace—my grandmother's—and each marred by the lining-in of her name with permanent thick blue marking pen, a violence perpetrated by launderers in the nursing home in which her life ended. Further into that box were crocheted doilies and hand-embroidered antimacassars against which heads and hands of those beloved ones had rested.

When I unfolded the first of my grandmother's aprons, torn and stained, I began to weep. Seeing and touching those sweet, tattered linens took me back in memory to my own earliest days and to ghosts of people I had loved, and by whom I had been loved. I wept for parents whose hair was still full and dark, whose strides and whose minds, whose engagement with their community was marked by vitality and creativity and commitment; for grandparents whose memories had not yet failed, for my grandmother who had greeted us so often outside the kitchen door in those aprons, a welcome smile, a wisp of hair at her brow touched by the prairie breeze. In an instant an obsessive clearing of closets shifted from being a job to be completed to one that held a lifetime of memories. That moment brought a gnawing awareness that our own faculties diminish and vulnerabilities increase. While the biggest loss in this transition was my mother's, I wept for all that was no more, for all that might not ever be.

Personal Loss is Experienced in the Context of Societal Loss

Personal losses, those experienced and those anticipated, reside in the clutch of loss pervading the larger society. All our lives are touched by news of the world, by what is happening around us and the loss of security, stability, a sense of justice, community, identity.

We are appalled at the ridiculous gun laws, Florida's infamous 'Stand Your Ground' enabling circumstances in which Trayvon Martin, wearing a hoodie, and carrying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea was killed. There's another law in Florida, recently passed, this the subject of a recent New York Times editorial: "The City Council (of Tampa) is sensibly preparing tight security precautions for the area (around the center where the Republican presidential convention will be held. They will be) temporarily banning clubs, hatchets, switchblades, pepper spray, slingshots, chains, shovels and all manner of guns that shoot water, paint or air. But not handguns that shoot actual bullets. In other words, someone outside the convention hall will be entitled to pack a handgun, but not a squirt gun."(1)

With rare respite, there have been stories of violence and war every day for as long as I can remember. The longest ongoing conflict on earth is taking place in Columbia; since 1964, as many as 200,000 people have died in their drug wars. Afghanistan holds title to the second longest ongoing period of conflict: 3 million Afghanis have died since 1978 when Russia invaded the country. The most deaths during this past year occurred in Mexico; 20,000 died in drug wars there.

In the United States, the number of veterans who commit suicide each year, exceeds the total number who have died in a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just two weeks ago, Nicholas Kristoff wrote in the New York Times, "For every soldier killed on the battlefield this year, about 25 veterans are dying by their own hands. (One) American soldier dies every day and a half, on average, in Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes......We refurbish tanks after time in combat, but don't much help men and women exorcise the demons of war. ...We enlist soldiers to protect us, but when they come home we don't protect them." (2)

48,000 young men and women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan: the wounds they have suffered will continue to affect them, their families, the communities in which they reside, and this nation for decades to come. (3) We are all wounded because of their loss.

Our sensibilities are assaulted by another kind of violence as well: the loss of civility in public discourse. Ironically, on Easter Sunday, the Washington Post reported, "Exactly one month after the conservative radio host (Rush Limbaugh) sparked outrage by calling Georgetown law-school student Sandra Fluke "a slut" and "a prostitute" in a three-day diatribe, stations are standing by him, advertisers are trickling back to his program and the news media have moved on." (4)

The wealthiest among us buy elections. Stories associated with the interconnected web of finance and power and politics, of PACs and Super PACs cause us to wonder if we have lost our voices as citizens participating in democracy.

We mourn the fact that pacific sea otters, like bats and bees and frogs are at risk, threatened by parasites, bacteria, fungi, toxins and chemicals, loss of habitat and food sources. We mourn the fact that the southernmost maple groves that grace this state will die out as global warming makes it possible now for us to grow flowers and trees in our gardens that a decade ago we could only have admired in New Jersey.

"Do we believe?" has become the operative question concerning 'hot' topics of public discourse. Do we believe in climate change? Do we believe that children ought to be taught in fifth grade that evolution and creationism are equally valid scientific theories and then told to choose which is right? Do we believe that a decent education, affordable healthcare and a sustainable wage are rights that ought to be accorded everyone? Do we believe the environmentalists or the economists—and which scientists and engineers?—in the ongoing "discussion" concerning whether or not hydro-fracking, and now propane-fracking, should be allowed in New York State?

Circumstances for which we grieve come close to home. At the news conference at which he reported that Eastman Kodak had filed for bankruptcy protection, the president of the company stated ... 'we have already effectively exited certain traditional operations, closing 13 manufacturing plants and 130 processing labs, and reducing our workforce by 47,000 since 2003.'

It's not only Kodak and Xerox here in Rochester, and all their suppliers and distributors whose numbers have diminished; there are others whose workforces are significantly reduced that once contributed significantly to a thriving upstate economy. Some of them are no more: IBM, Link and Martin Marietta in Binghamton; General Electric and Lockheed Martin, in Utica; Carrier Corporation in Syracuse; National Gypsum, Bethlehem and Republic Steel, in Buffalo. Buffalo, once the eighth largest city in the United States was second to Minneapolis for flour-milling, and second to Chicago as a railroad depot. Now it is the second poorest city in the United States.

We have lost business and industry, and we have also lost personal relationships. The endowment of the Unitarian Church of Barneveld, for example, was managed for years in the trust department of a local bank. The trustee was well-known by members of the church community and checked in with them regularly. Several years ago, that local bank was purchased by Fleet, and then Fleet merged with Bank of America. Now the trustee is in Providence, Rhode Island, and hasn't a clue about the community or the congregation.

Confronted and affronted by personal and communal loss, we turn and return to our religious homes seeking inspiration, community and hope. More than perhaps any other places outside our own homes, it is in our congregations that personal, communal and societal losses converge. Every time a minister leaves, for good or not so good, we recall leave-takings of other ministers and others in our lives, for good and not so good; we remember and we grieve. With each death of a beloved one among us, we recall times in the history of the congregation, joys we have shared, challenges we have endured. Mindful of all that is not as it has been, we grieve.

Each conflict in our congregations, regardless of its severity or intensity, threatens for a time the congregations' well-being as fear that church "as we have known it" will be lost. For some there is the threat that we will lose our personal religious identities. We forget that times of transition open new possibilities, opportunities for new ways of being.

As with every time of mourning, we reconnect instead with all our griefs. Our histories, past and present, personal, congregational and societal, influence our response to conflict and potential loss. Whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we name it, or hold it in silence, personal and institutional memory contributes to our attitudes and and how we behave with each other. We share losses today that include among other things a sense of security, justice, civility, political power, and the freedom to express in safety our opinions and to feel heard. We are concerned about the degradation of the environment, and ultimately of the ability of the earth—and all of life—to be sustained. We have lost our sense of community and a sense of knowing who are our neighbors. Our children and our children's children have scattered across the country and we have lost the wisdom of the generations, the stories of our families, a sense of continuity. Aware of these truths, we are also conscious that we will lose (or are losing) personal abilities, strength of body and strength of mind-- and, since the turning of the millennium, we have all lost a sense of freedom and security.

We need to be mindful of the disconnects, of the growing chasm between rich and poor, of the busy-ness of our times, the politicization of the personal, the reduction of scientific truths to questions of belief. All too much is cloaked in political discourse that has been and continues to be purchased by a wealthy few and laden with half-truths and blatant lies; in disrespect; and the determination to define those who disagree as opponents rather than partners in dialogue; to annihilate rather than to cooperate. This reality contributes to personal and societal, emotional and spiritual overload, and brings a degree of existential unhappiness into our homes, our families, and community.

Henry Nelson Wieman, my favorite Unitarian philosopher-theologian of the mid-twentieth century, wrote seventy years ago that he believed there were three possible outcomes for humanity:

First, (we may destroy ourselves). Second, we may fall under the domination of a ruling elite that will ruthlessly set policies for its own benefit .... Third, national leaders and other powerful individuals may commit themselves to the process of creative interchange whereby we learn to cooperate with each other ...." (5)

Is this view so different from others in history, or have we indeed been standing in recent decades at a crossroads?

The Challenge is to Make Meaning of Our Losses

We need to weep, dear people, to take time out of time, to be mindful of the people, the places, the experiences, that have touched our hearts and minds. We need to allow ourselves to grieve, for if we do not, it is possible that we will be caught in a simmering anger that covers our pain in bitterness, in distancing that keeps us from forming close relationships, or in depths of despair. The losses will keep piling up until we find our way into them that we may ultimately let go. Let there be no doubt: anger and pain, doubt and anxiety—and rage—are perfectly reasonable responses to some of the losses we experience, and to the losses passed down through the generations. The challenge to each of us is to find some way to make meaning of them, to learn that we may move forward into the future to create and live into a new vision.

When I came across that box of linens from my grandmother's closet, I knew I needed to let them go. But I couldn't just toss them into the garbage. I lay them along the back of the sofa. For several days, as I walked past, I paused: taking one, then another, to run my hand over the embroidery and the tatters, to look into the stains. I put on those aprons and told my husband tales of my childhood. Finally, I knew what I needed to do: I cut out the large embroidered 'C' that adorned one of the antimacassars and saved those marred hankies of my grandmother's. I will make a quilt. At the center will be that 'C,' surrounded by lace. One day, my son will have the quilt, and it will be for him to decide what next.

Karen West, from our congregation in Watertown, told me about finding three wedding rings... 'my mom's, my grandmother's, and aunt's,' she wrote. "I explored what they were about... the dates of marriages, the ages of the women, the lengths of their marriages, the children, or not..... In the end, I was so taken with the sense of closeness that those rings brought me, I decided to put them on and wear them. Three years later, I still have them on my right hand."

I had not seen Meredith Mercer, a member of the Albany congregation, for years, but there we were not long ago on the street sharing stories of explorations of our mother's closets. When I told Meredith about finding that box from my grandmother's closet, she told me about clearing her mother's attic and finding her grandmother's wedding dress. "It was pretty badly chewed up by the many little creatures that had gotten to it....but I saved the piece that would have been over her heart, and sewed it into the hem of my daughter's wedding dress."

I have heard stories of men's ways of grieving, how men tend to sit or stand shoulder to shoulder, bar style, while we women sit around the kitchen tables, face to face, to share. A story of one man's grief, which I heard at General Assembly several years ago, has stayed with me. It reminds me that grief is indeed a unique process and one that takes place over time. I no longer remember who told it, but this is the story as I remember it: After his father died this man cleared the attic of his parents' home. Not ready to let go of much, he packed up boxes and moved them into his own attic. Then he received a job offer that required a move across the country. In anticipation, he brought out those boxes he had packed away when his grief was raw and began to look through them. He gave some things away; he threw some out; and he took some with him. There were more moves. Each time, he would go through the boxes, and each time, he would keep some things, and let go of others. After several moves, he took up woodworking. He constructed a single box in which he placed the last few things which he carried with him ever after.

We carry things across the country, we build boxes, we tell our stories, we write memoirs, we journal, we participate in covenant and affinity groups. "We may go deep into the found objects of our ancestors," Karen West wrote.... And, I would add, we go deep into the objects of our own lives. We participate in church programs; we attend worship; we engage in spiritual practices. And finally, we just may allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel so that we may turn toward the larger communities to which we belong and engage in new and creative ways.

Then it is that we turn to read the news. When we see the headlines, our first inclination may be to hide our heads in the sand—or better yet, to move to some pristine far away island, white sand beaches untouched by oil spills and uncluttered with plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Gratefully, though, deep down we know that we do not have to run away; that there have been other places and other times when we have felt lost, powerless; when whole peoples have felt powerless, when they have been oppressed, suppressed, depressed and discouraged. Then, touched by unpredictable, unlikely, unexpected events, we change as individuals. Something happens and we find a glimmer of hope, a sense of reconnection. In community, people unite to respond powerfully to challenging circumstances in which they find themselves, and the world may be changed.

Henry Nelson Wieman called these turning times in our lives and in the lives of larger communities 'creative events'. He believed they were manifestations of God.... that they were God ... moments that originate in the community of at least one other being in which everything changes... moments that have the capacity to cause us to shift from despair to hope, to change our hearts and minds, moments that take us beyond anything we might have imagined or desired: 'aha' moments, but more, when some new idea or feeling merges with what we already know and we experience a profound sense of interrelatedness with all that is, when we see something or feel something that we have never felt or seen before, when we are transformed. We experience a deep sense of communion, a sense of 'new creation,' of being and becoming. The world and time and place and space take on new meaning. (6)

Creative events may be experienced at the most ordinary as well as extraordinary of times, during a walk in the woods with a friend, during a church committee meeting, or with a public event that shakes the world. Creative events have the capacity to change our lives, to change the associations to which we belong, and to change history.

We recall some of those 'unlikely (public) events.' There was Rosa Parks, her story a reminder that no matter how oppressive the circumstances, before we act against injustice we have to be ready in heart and soul and mind to lose even more than we already have. Remember the Chinese student who would come to be known as The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square? It is unlikely that we will ever know his name or what became of him but that image of him facing a caravan of tanks remains indelibly imprinted in our memories, and stands as a symbol of 'one merely being human' courageously confronting a great power. More recently there was Muhammed Al Bouazzi, a fruit seller in Tunisia; he would not live to see the change that his death brought to the Middle East.

There are moments when our own grief is transformed; and there are times when the shared grief of entire nations may be transformed. Over this past year, we have witnessed from afar the Arab Spring, a series of creative events of incalculable magnitude the outcome of which we cannot yet know.

But I want to invite you further back in history to glean wisdom from one inspired by another spring, the Prague Spring, which took place a half century ago and more. Although he lived in different times and under exceedingly different political circumstances from our own, his was a time not unlike these times: Vaclav Havel emerged as an influential voice for the powerless and ultimately came to understand the profound connection between politics and the human spirit. He understood the enormity of loss that can overcome citizens of entire nations; and was witness to, participant in, and observer of a creative event that changed the face of Eastern Europe.

In 1976, members of a rock group in Czechoslovakia, the 'Plastic People of the Universe,' were arrested—and eventually tried. Havel wrote,

(Those) unknown young people ...wanted no more than to be able to Hu, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership. ... When their trial took place, a new mood had begun to surface ... People were 'tired of being tired': they were fed up...(The trial served as the catalyst to bring them together.) ...Groups of differing tendencies which until then had remained isolated from each other, reluctant to cooperate, or which were committed to forms of action that made co-operation difficult, were suddenly struck with the powerful realization that freedom is indivisible. Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing... the very notion of 'living within the truth'...(7)

Following the trial, a curious group united: communists and non-communists ... The significance, Havel would write, however, was not ...that it was communists and non- communists but that it was "a community that (was) ... open to anyone... No one (was) assigned an inferior position." (8) Sounds familiar... a bit like the Occupy Movement?

Occupy has been defined by people of all ages and diversities of opinion who have come together, 'no one assigned an inferior position' sharing a desire to live in the truth and giving expression to societal loss and vulnerability. Already, they have contributed to a shift in local as well as national political discourse, and led people to name and to explore fundamental flaws in systems, particularly of government and business, which contribute to social and economic injustice. In a world in which there is that growing difference between rich and poor, where burgeoning costs associated with a decade of wars have led to the excision of programs whose purpose has been to sustain community: health, education and public good; in which our trust in the basic institutions of government is compromised; in which corporate and economic institutions sometimes spin out of control.... the impermanence of careers..... people losing homes, losing jobs... in which our sense of security and safety has been compromised...... we have been invited to work together toward resolution and reconciliation: to participate in the unfolding of a series of creative events.

Vaclav Havel wrote, "... movements that gradually assume political significance do not usually (at first) consist of overtly political events or confrontations between different forces ... that are openly political. These movements for the most part originate ... in the ... 'pre-political,' where 'living within a lie' confronts 'living within the truth.'" Havel understood political systems. He came to question, as have others since, whether western democracy, with its "mass political parties run by professional apparatuses... (with its) complex focuses on capital accumulation .... (and the) omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information" is the best or only form of government that will work for all peoples and all nations. "All of (this)," he suggested, "can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity's rediscovery of itself." (9)

Havel truly wanted humanity to 'rediscover itself.' He imagined a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to the 'human order,'...a new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of 'higher (personal) responsibility,' a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community.... It starts, he believed, with the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, sympathy, solidarity, responsibility, and love. (10) Henry Nelson Wieman would have said that rediscovery of our humanity is made possible only as the outcome of creative interchange... this manifestation of God. And where better than in religious community.

In Religious Community We Make Meaning of Our Losses

Many of us come into religious community in response to crises in our lives, to experienced and anticipated loss. We are offered opportunities to respond to our grief, to rediscover ourselves,and to participate in creative interchange, which as Henry Nelson Wieman and Vaclav Havel came to understand, has the capacity to open the door to finding our way out of loss. So, how can we in our congregations participate in the creative event? What work might we do—what work do we do—together that we may ease the pain of these troubling times and participate in the creation of a better world?

How many of us came to church for the first time, or came back to church after a time, and wept in worship? Worship offers the opportunity for each of us to find time out of time, a sorely needed respite from the everyday, in the songs we sing, in spoken words, in the sounds and rhythms of music, in the sound of silence. At every moment in worship, there lies the possibility that we may be touched to the very core of our being: In response to our yearning we may experience a sense of connection both to a deep place within and to that which is greater and outside ourselves. The creative event.

Our rites of passage—weddings, child dedications, coming of age, and memorial services—are grounded in certain principles of our faith, in respect for the dignity and worth of those who participate in and/or create these celebrations; and by doing so give expression to unique truth and meaning. And yet, in wedding vows and in the promises we make to our children; in the eulogies and communal sharing at memorial services, we are reminded of the values of our faith, of that which is most important about living, being and becoming, of the importance of family and of friends, of exploration and generosity, of spirit, and ultimately of turning to make a difference in the world.

We come together that we may think about and respond to the facts of our lives, and we are made all too aware of the passage of time, of the timeless circling of beginnings and endings, of the stages of our lives, of the interconnection of the most intimate moments of our lives with these troubling times, of our ultimate vulnerability, and of the reality that we are a part of a process greater than ourselves, members in an interdependent web of all living things, of all of space and all of time. We come together that we may respond, that we may find comfort, that we may celebrate, that we may make meaning. With a sense of isolation, too often we come together in our beloved 'communities of memory and loss,' to be reminded that we are not alone. We come that we may be transformed.

In Religious Community Our Spirits May Be Healed

Whether or not we look deeply into the stuff in our closets, whether or not we open the boxes that lie within, whether or not we make and/or keep a small box that holds the remnants of the histories of our families, our friendships and our lives, sew a hem in our daughter's wedding dress, participate in the Occupy movement, the stuff of our losses stays with us if we do not allow ourselves to grieve. We cannot let go if we do not express our grief, and this is a purpose of religion and of religious community.

In religious community, we are offered opportunities to regain a sense of connection within, with others, and with that which is greater than ourselves. That sense of reconnection—the experience we might say of the creative event within our lives—enables us to create a new vision of ourselves, of our purpose in the world. The process often begins in solitude, for at the base of humanity's rediscovery of itself is the rediscovery of oneself. "Dive into yourself," wrote a 7th Century saint, "and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend." And Lao Tze, 2600 years ago knew, "For there to be peace on earth, there must be peace in the cities, in the neighborhoods, in our homes, in our hearts.'

A comment made by Jeanne Crane, a former district program consultant and member of the Canandaigua congregation, has stayed with me for some time, "We are called to build beloved community within a framework of love." We will not get to love.... we will not create the world we dream about ... if we do not do the work of quieting, of taking time, of healing within. If we cover the pain, if we simply seek to cover up the losses (because we're supposed to stay strong, keep a stiff upper lip, get over the death of a loved one in the three days allotted by law)... if we deny the depths of our pain, keep busy clearing and cleaning the closets, getting rid of things, getting stuff done, constantly texting and instant messaging others, checking off the items on our to-do lists, it is likely that we will remain isolated, disconnected.

We may just find ourselves without time or inclination to stop to appreciate the songs of the birds, the perfume of the lilacs, the shapes and the shades of the tulips, and the aroma of a cup of tea. Rabbi Simon Greenberg wrote,"One does not need to fast for days and meditate for hours at a time to experience the sense of sublime mystery which constantly envelops us. All one needs to do is notice intelligently, if even for a brief moment, a blossoming tree, a forest flooded with autumn colors, an infant smiling." (11)

And so we seek solitude. We need to be quiet, where, left with our own thoughts, our own memories, we may open the way toward rediscovery of ourselves. We may begin the journey inward with our own rituals, by holding and touching and finally keeping old pieces of fabric, by learning what we can about our foremothers as we wear their rings, by building a box to keep what's left of our fathers.

We may begin by seeking to empty ourselves in meditation. Or we might seek words to guide us into meditation, that we may uncover our own thoughts and feelings. Some of us sit quietly in the wee hours of the morning. Some of us subscribe to the daily e-letter from All Souls Church in New York—A Common Meditation for All Souls—in which we find words to inspire, to guide, to invite us inward (some of which I have included here). Some of us pray "not," as the Reverend Davidson Loehr wrote, "not (necessarily) to something, but from something...to which we must give voice...not to escape from our life, but to focus it; not to relinquish our mind, but to replenish our soul."

Two simple words serve as one of the most profound prayers I know: thank you. It has been observed that simply repeating "thank you" has the power to move us from despair to a sense of connection. (12)

Last summer, I felt overwhelmed by the number of closets that I needed to clean, and constrained by exceedingly limited time. Early each morning I would jump out of bed, get dressed and frantically begin working. After eight or nine hours each day, I would go to visit my mother. She would cry because she "just wanted to go home," or she would get mad at me because I was "taking her home" away from her. And then I would get mad. One evening, way earlier than was my usual departing time, I stood at the door, my hand on the knob, voice raised, "Do you really want to be miserable for the rest of your life? Can't you just find something --anything!—to be grateful for!" (And then, I was talking to myself.) "If you could just find something to be grateful for... " This was a creative event. I began taking some time each day to express my gratitude, and to be quiet, to feel the depth of my own sadness, to be present, and to listen deeply to my mother in her grief.

Especially as we age, when the vision of our future narrows, when as we lose the people, the pets, the places through whom, with whom, and in which we have found meaning and purpose and pleasure and joy, then may we turn to the small wonders that surround us for which we may be grateful. Through them, may we be connected once more—and deeply—to that small voice within and to that which is powerful and good and outside ourselves.

In Religious Community We Are Called to Reach Out and to Act

If we are to do the work that Henry Nelson Wieman and Vaclav Havel invite us to do—then we must aim to engage in deep conversation with people whose attitudes and beliefs are different from our own. Let us start, though—let us continue—in our congregations, in which we search for our own truth and meaning, but too often are reluctant to share. Where better than in our religious homes to practice—and engage in—the work of building trust and openness, solidarity and sympathy? The change starts within, it takes time, it is risky. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Turning inward may help to cope with and to give expression to loss. Turning outward can take us from grief to hope. Reaching out to the larger communities of which we are a part to do the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world—taking action to heal in some small way this hurting world, helps to connect and reconnect us with life. Working to mitigate injustice then takes the form of spiritual practice. It serves to transform a certain energy that resides hurting deep within, into a power for positive change. Working together has the power to take us from being a gentle angry people to being a gentle loving people.

On a crisp Saturday morning just a few weeks ago, I joined Lois Griffin, chair of the social responsibilities council at First Unitarian Universalist in Albany. We met and rode together to the Albany City Court where a few hundred people had already gathered to march in honor of Trayvon Martin. As relatively late-arrivals, we stood at the far edge of the gathered crowd, and unfurled a banner that proclaimed, Standing on the Side of Love. One of the organizers stood before the crowd, described the route we would follow, and made clear that this was to be a non- violent response to a violent act. She then pointed to the three of us, standing with that banner, Standing on the Side of Love, and asked, "Would you lead?" As others stepped up and offered to take turns carrying that banner, we had opportunities to move back and to speak with our neighbors. With the chant, "Skittles, a hoodie and iced tea," filling the air we talked about our sons and our grandsons who look like Trayvon, and we shared our sorrow for that particular young man and his family. Something happened within me as I lowered my voice and quietly repeated the words, "Skittles, hoodie and iced tea." That a young black man should die while wearing a hoodie and carrying skittles and iced tea, his killer free for too long under the proclamations of public officials that he had simply been 'standing his ground' offended me. We Unitarian Universalists who were there that morning stood in solidarity and in sympathy with people across this country, and we were standing on the side of love.

Touched by creative events in our own lives, and held in religious community may we find ways to feel into and then, over time, to let go of the most painful aspects of our loss. Let us find ways—through deep conversation—and in silence—to participate in the rediscovery of our humanity, that we may continue the lifelong work of creating and re-creating new visions for ourselves, for our congregations, for our faith, for the larger communities in which we reside, for all humankind, for this earth and all her creatures.

  1. NYTimes Editorials/Letters, Friday, April 6, 2012 (p. A20)
  2. New York Times: A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame
  3. Wikipedia: List of ongoing armed conflicts
  4. Washington PostWatch the video presentation (YouTube)
  5. Henry Nelson Wieman, Religious Inquiry, Boston, MA: Beacon Press (p. 217).
  6. Henry N. Wieman, The Source of Human Good, Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1946 (pp. 57f).
  7. Jan Vladislav, ed., Vaclav Havel or Living In Truth, London: Faber and Faber, 1986 (pp. 63-64)
  8. Ibid., p 65.
  9. Ibid., p 116.
  10. Ibid., p 118.
  11. Simon Greenberg cited in "A Common Meditation for All Souls"
  12. Lewis Richmond, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, as described in an interview heard on WAMC Radio, Albany, New York