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.
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.
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.