Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stories Like Constellations

 10 stones, 3 stories

I was noticing how you could use the exact same group of things to make 3 very different stories:

Story 1: 

It had been cloudy all weekend, but the last day of their vacation was a sunny day and so the family set off on a walk. The walked through the woods, and followed the stream all the way down to the great lake. The family played on the shore there, scrambling over rocks and exploring, putting their toes in the cold lake, and gazing out at the horizon, amazed that a lake could be so big. The day was so beautiful, and they were so glad to be together as a family. But the knowledge that this was their last day hovered over them like a cloud, and it was sad to leave the beautiful lake, and their special time together. They promised themselves they would always remember this wonderful family adventure.

Story 2: 

Water flows down through all the tiny creeks and streams into larger and larger tributaries until finally it flows into the lakes and the oceans. The sun shines on the water and it evaporates into the clouds, then the water rains down back onto the earth and feeds the trees, and the people and life itself. And this water cycle repeats and repeats endlessly all over the world.

Story 3:

The young geologist was out doing research in the forest. Her research required her to be out in sunny weather and terrible weather surveying, but she didn’t care, because she loved being out in nature, and she loved her research. One day as she was out taking samples, she followed our human footprints and found that toxic chemicals were flowing into the local watershed. She was so sad and angry to see that this was happening to a place she loved and had spent so much time studying, and so she vowed that day that she was going to dedicate herself and her research to protecting this ecosystem from harmful human footprints. She vowed that one day she would come back and see this watershed clean again. 

I wonder what story you would make with those very same stones?

A special note of thanks to Dr. Leanne Hadley for these symbols, her beautiful "Holy Listening Stones" I encourage you to explore visit her website and explore.

Stories Like Constellations

Do you remember the first time someone showed you a constellation? I remember thinking “that doesn’t look anything like a bear” I mean, the big dipper does look kind of like a ladle, but most of those constellations are real head-scratchers. Of course the important thing is not that it looks like a swan, or a hunter, or a bear, but that constellations helps us orient ourselves to the sky, to notice that it’s really the same stars every night, even when the earth’s motion causes their position in the sky to change. Imagining constellations helps us to make connections across time and space, Noticing, naming, and then tying it to a story, all help us orient ourselves when we look at the night sky.

We do this same thing in our own lives - constantly making up stories about why things happen and what those events mean. Out of the millions of events of our lives, small and large, when we tell the story of our life we choose a few that feel important to us, like stars that shine most brightly, and tell our story that way. For example, when I write my bio that is on the church website, I chose growing up in a musical family, going to music school to become an opera singer, dropping out of opera school, moving to California to go to seminary, serving the Palo Alto congregation as their Minister of Religious Education and becoming a mother at the same time, then moving back east with my family and Son, settling in Ithaca and becoming your minister. That’s a pretty good story, it explains where I cam from and why I’m here today. It totally leaves out many important stars in my sky though, it leaves out my love of plants, and my passion for the environment, it leaves out my white privilege, and how race has impacted my life. All stories center some things and leave others out, or leave them in the background. As Author Rebecca Solnit says “The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”

Consider how peoples who live in different places have different names, different stories for the constellations. I was taught that the big dipper is part of a constellation called Ursa Major (Big Bear) after ancient Greek myth about a nymph turned into a bear to protect her from a God’s jealousy. In the Ojibwe culture, the same stars are named after the Fisher, a 4 legged hunter common in the great lakes area, who was pinned to the sky by an arrow as he fled, having successfully rescued the birds and the spring form the spirit monsters[i]. In Hindu Astronomy, what I think of as the big dipper is called Sapta Rashi- the seven great sages. In Arabian culture, the bowl of the big dipper is a coffin, and the handle is the mourners following it. Depending on where you live, where you stand, what time of day it is, what time of year, different stars are more visible, more prominent in the sky. Where some see a bear, others look at the same stars and see sages. It’s okay that we have different stories, and when you notice that you don’t seem to be on the same page as someone else, it can help to ask their story about what you are looking at together.

Stories can be helpful tools- they help us remember where we are headed. Here’s a super simple story “I’m going to go to seminary because I want to understand what it all means and I want to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.” So even though it takes 5 years or longer from making that decision through getting your first minister job, you have a story to hold all those millions of everyday events from researching seminaries, filling out applications, taking out student loans, moving, writing papers, doing an internship… you get the idea. The story gives a shape and a purpose to that time. That’s a tiny little personal story. There are big stories too- Joanna Macy has one I like called the Great Turning. It’s the story of how we the people had participated in damaging and endangering life on earth, and causing this great extinction event, but we are gradually waking up to the harm we were causing, and slowly but insistently turning the great ship of society towards healing and justice for humans and all living beings. It’s a story that takes some sad and challenging facts, and forms them into a shape that provides hope and purpose. All of us have a role in that story, it’s like a giant constellation that holds my little one, like how the big dipper is part of the Ursa Major.

You could easily look at the world and tell another story. One story I hear a lot is “humans have ruined the earth, we are terrible and selfish, we are headed for an inevitable apocalyptic hellscape, and there is nothing we can do about it. We see that story on TV a lot. I remember asking my husband “don’t we have any shows that aren’t set in an apocalypse?” (We switched over the Great British Baking Show and that helped a lot.) You can see why we would tell that story- looking at the exact same facts that give shape to the story of the great turning but the question is- how does the story impact our mental health? How does it impact our actions? I know when I hear the “all is lost” story it makes me depressed and I want to just give up. In fact the Research shows that stories of guilt and hopelessness are not great at motivating people. Some stories have the power to heal, other stories are like viruses. Finding healing stories is part of our role as a faith tradition.

I’ve also heard a story that goes: “don’t worry about Global Climate change, technology will save the day” But this story leaves out lots of important information about suffering and loss that are happening right now. It may not make us depressed, but it doesn’t spur us to action either. Stories that are unconnected to reality are unreliable guides for life in the real world. Stories that are grounded in reality are better guides.

Here’s a story I’ve been thinking about a lot lately; what is the meaning of the second half of life? I’ve just turned 50, my son is off at college, and I’ve been a minister for almost 25 years. People tell themselves all kinds of stories at midlife. One common story is of regret- the great love lost, the accolades never won. Another story is of the glory days- The good times gone and never come again, and things are all downhill from here. Some folks tell a story about a fresh start- the story of midlife where you leave your family and your career and start again, a new life for the second half. But what if you like your family, and you like your job? One story I could tell goes: “well, I did it- I became a minister, I raised a son, I have a long record of service to our denomination, I did what I set out to do. I have served my purpose” but that story doesn’t really help me figure out what to do next. I am looking for a story with a new chapter. Betty Freidan wrote in her exhaustive book “Fountain of Age” that while the story we tell is that it’s all downhill in the second half of life, human development has new stages we’ve hardly studied, that there are parts of our minds that grow and develop into our elder years. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller contend in their book “From Age-ing To Sage-ing” that everyone grows old, but not everyone becomes an elder. Of all those different stories about the 2nd half of life, I find most inspiring the story where now at age 51 I am want to be an apprentice elder. This feels like a story that gives a sense of meaning and purpose and hope. You could tell all those stories about the second half of life looking at the same facts, but each leads to different places. I want to choose a story that inspires, heals and strengthens me for the journey ahead.

Even if we find a really good story, there is a danger in holding our story too tightly. When new stars appear, perhaps because you’ve got a new more powerful telescope, the story must be flexible enough to include them. Consider Galileo whose gazing at the stars and planets through his new telescope revealed new proof for Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun. But the Religious hierarchy was telling another story, a rigid story that could not be moved. That scripture said :

The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. [Psalm 96:10]
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. [Ecclesiastes 1:5]

And there was only one possible interpretation of those scriptures, so Galileo’s new story about how the universe worked could not even be entertained. This has always been one of the great strengths of our Unitarian tradition- the ability to take new discoveries, new information into our story. That’s part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Such flexibility is important in our more personal stories as well. Think about the teens who graduated high school during Covid and headed off to college this very pandemic year. Now think about every movie you’ve ever seen about college life. Those usual stories of college life are just going to bring sadness and confusion to our Covid freshmen. I say to my son as he struggles through a hard semester in near isolation “college is always hard, but you are also making history. You are not just going to college, you are also surviving a pandemic” There is a great crisis of meaning whenever a beloved and useful story is challenged, that’s a basic truth of being human, but the gift is that we can also change our stories, a little or a lot, responding to changing world we encounter.

Finally, we have to remember that people are not their stories. Even that super factual bio I gave you at the beginning; all those statements are true, but that’s not me. Each person is more complex, more subtle, more dynamic more interconnected than even a methodically researched biography. A story is just a tool, that helps us remember where we have come from and where we are going. The stories we share help us head in the same direction with a common purpose.

This week I invite you to notice the stories all around you- Notice different the stories about the same events. Notice the stories we tell on the news and on social media - the stories that heal, the stories that harm. Notice the stories we tell about our own lives, and if you notice the story you are telling feels limiting or uninspired, change it- it’s just a story. And when you find a story that inspires you, delights you or gives you a sense of purpose and hope, share it so whenever we feel a little lost we can look up and remember where we are.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The April Fool

Being an adult is great for some things. I know how to do my taxes, when to take the car in to have the snow tires off, and that even though it looks like spring out there, we have not seen the last of the snow and frost, and it is way too early to plant tomato plants in the garden. I know things about myself- that there will be consequences if I eat dairy, and that I do my best writing in the morning.

But sometimes These same gifts of experience are also the greatest challenge for we who consider ourselves to be grownups. We have seen government leaders come and go, we have seen rampant corruption, we have seen intractable problems continue year after year, decade after decade. I started a fantasy novel recently in which the idealistic protagonists set out to create a utopian society. “we know how well that will turn out” I said to my husband. He looks up from the news and replies “what could go wrong?” It’s easy to become jaded. We put together all those thousands of past experiences, and have trouble imaging a future that doesn’t contain all those same old pitfalls. We create a life based on what we have learned of ourselves, of what we prefer, of what is expected of us, and it can easily become like a pair of shoes that are too tight. The world can become small and predictable. But this pandemic is a perfect example of how things can change so quickly in ways we did not expect. April fool’s day reminds us that there are universal patterns, archetypes, that open doors from our adult confinement. Today we will consider the fool, the trickster and the Child who remind us that the unexpected is not only possible but inevitable.

An archetype is sort of a character that all of us is familiar with, is a character that all humans have encountered at some point in their life. Today I want to describe 3 archetypes, the first archetype is the fool. The fool, at least as it is presented in the tarot deck, is a character of innocence. The one who acts without knowing. The common picture in many tarot decks is of a young person about to step off a cliff onto thin air. Any sensible adult would look at that and say “What is he doing, that’s crazy and dangerous, foolish.” But this archetype contains the possibility that somehow things might turn out okay. Like Mr. Magoo, do any of you remember that old cartoon? That nearsighted fellow was constantly teetering on the precipice of disaster, only to be caught by some accident of fate.

The fool relies on intuition and faith to make his way into the unknown. Even we sensible adults have to do this all the time. Here’s a really mundane example- I just made a vacation reservation for September. What is the world going to be like in September? Who knows! There could be a whole new strain of the virus that our vaccines don’t protect us from. One of us could lose our job and we could be broke. There could be an early cold snap and It will be too cold to put the kayaks in the water. I sat there with my finger hovered over the “reserve now” button for quite a long time, thinking of all the uncertainties, and finally clicked, stepping out past the edge of solid ground, into the uncertainty and the unknown. Any new adventure, any new project requires all of us to be a bit of the fool.

The fool is the archetype of beginnings, and so is perfect for spring. Those beautiful spring days of March invite us to hope, even though we know winter is not done with us. Our spirits need a fresh start with a fresh season, We need to go out in to the spring, enjoy spring, hope for the growing season, even knowing winter’s return is guaranteed. The fool is a helpful archetype for living with uncertainty.

A related archetype is the trickster. Where the fool is innocent, the trickster is wily. Many folk tale traditions have tricksters- like Anansi, or Briar Rabbit. Or perhaps Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. The trickster comes up with the plan no one is expecting, and so can find solutions and outcomes that folks expecting the ordinary will not see coming. This is why the trickster is a popular archetype among folks who live outside privilege, outside traditional power structures. The GameStop stock drama, where day traders drove the stock prices up defying all market expectation [i]- that was an act of the trickster archetype. Banksy[ii], and other graffiti artists are tricksters. The legislator or lobbyist who slips something into a bill that no one reads is a trickster. I will admit to you this archetype is a challenge to me. I like when things follow a plan, but writer Elizbeth Johnson, in her book Ask the Beasts reminds us that nature too is a trickster. She writes:
“if all were law, the natural world would ossify; its ordered structure would be rigid, repetitive deterministic. If all were chance, nature would dissolve into chaos; no new patterns would persist long enough to have an identity. But chance operating within a lawlike framework introduces novelty within a pattern that contains and directs it. Their creative interplay brings forever new living forms. Rather than being an enemy of law, then, chance is the very means by which nature becomes continuously creative” [Johnson p. 170-171]
Life needs both regular predictable things, and new and surprising things- that is what makes nature creative and sustainable, that is how the natural world has adapted and survived all these billions of years.

In fact, the origins of April Fools day may be rooted in the unpredictable nature of spring itself. There’s much debate about the origin of our April Fool’s day, but it seems like folks at our latitude have been celebrating something at this time of year since at least as far back as ancient roman festivals called “Hilaria” to the goddess Cybele. There are foolish traditions around the spring equinox in France and Scotland, and historians theorize that underlying them all is the quixotic nature of spring, a beautiful 70 degree day with sun, followed by an unwelcome wintry mix. I think we’ve all been caught up in mother nature’s spring pranks at one time or another. I’ll never forget the year I preached at Big Flats on Easter, and watched the snow fall thickly all through the sermon, hiding all the eggs hidden for the Easter egg hunt under a blanket of snow. Mother nature the trickster in all her glory.

The Child archetype is one I need the most right now. It’s easy for us adults to lose some inner vitality. When we get stuck in “what will probably happen” the well-worn patterns of how things usually go, how we need things to go to keep the bills paid, the gutters clear, to present a professional persona at work that folks can trust and depend on. In a hard year like this one, we need not only our adult self who can figure out how to make an online vaccine appointment, but we also need the child archetype who has a wisdom our adult self has forgotten.

I loved that story from Susan’s reading, of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung trying to get in touch with his inner child. After thinking about it, analyzing it, with no success[iii], he had to get down on his hands and knees and start building things out of blocks. This is not always easy. Adults are used to being good at things, at being competent and in control, and if we truly take up the inner child, we might appear a bit foolish.

I remember being, maybe 7, and coloring in my Winnie the Pooh coloring book. I remember the satisfaction of just filling in the shapes with my crayons, and enjoying the result. I hadn’t really drawn anything since, because my adult self knows I’m “not good at drawing” and I don’t have any training or experience. Like the child in our Panda story today, I decided to put aside drawing something perfect, and just drawing “my own way” to reconnect with that satisfaction I got coloring when I was little. I don’t post my drawings on Instagram or anything, if I’m really pleased I might show one good friend, because I have made a decision that I’m not trying to make good art, I’m just trying to give my inner child an opportunity to play.

I think part of the reason I like yoga so much is because you get to roll around on the floor. Adults are definitely not supposed to roll around on the floor- unless you have your yoga outfit on and you are exercising, then it is perfectly okay.

I was at the lake with my husband last weekend, and he was throwing rocks into the lake. This was what he did with his grandfather when he was little, he explained, his grandfather took him down to the edge of the Susquehanna and they would throw rocks into the water together. And I was glad his inner child had come out to play.

What does your inner child love? What does it need right now? Our poor inner children have been trapped inside being responsible for so long. Spring is calling us out to play. There are so many opportunities for stomping in the mud, for digging in the dirt. Before long we will be able to pick dandelions and make dandelion chains. I remember endless battles over whose turn it was to swing in my friend’s hammock that lasted all summer long. There are plenty of things our inner child can do inside too- making forts, decorating Easter eggs, playing with play-doh or Legos or Lincoln logs. I invite you to ask yourself, what were you drawn to as a child? What was the activity you could not tear yourself away from when your parents called you for dinner? As your minister, I encourage you to find time this week to check in with the child archetype; what would delight them right now? It doesn’t have to make sense, or be useful or productive. Experiment, try a few things and see what feels most delightful. If you feel foolish you are probably on the right track.

We need our child archetype not only for the health and wholeness of our spirits, but for the health and wholeness of our society as well. When adults lose hope looking back at the history of racist policing in this country, and lose heart that real change is possible, the inner child fills the sidewalk with brightly colored professions of love for black lives and of hope for a better world.

We have all had a challenging year, and even with the days getting longer and the vaccinations proliferating, we are not so naive as to think life will all be smooth sailing from here. The April fool invites us to hope despite the knowledge of winter, to invite our child to play despite feeling foolish, to take that leap forward into an unknown future, knowing life needs both the predictable and the unexpected to unfurl her creativity. Invite the fool, the trickster, the Child out to play. 


[i] https://www.msn.com/en-us/entertainment/gaming/gamestop-stock-drama-continues-as-price-soars-and-hedge-fund-blinks/ar-BB1d9aHK

[ii] https://www.biography.com/artist/banksy

[iii] I twice went over the details of my entire life with particular attention to childhood memories; I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of my disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgement of my own ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” This I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.