love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world
& in this world of
Usually we think of a place as being ‘somewhere’ out there; a part of the world, like Westport, or Vermont; or out there on the moon, or the stars…that kind of place.
But I don’t think that’s what the poet meant when he says that ‘love is a place.’ Love is not ‘out there.’ It’s ‘in here.’ It’s a state of mind; a place that lives in us, and makes us come alive.
‘Yes’ is a world; not the outer world; not the earth with the planets and stars, but the universe we live in; the feelings in us that help us to feel connected to other people; help us to feel re-connected to others…yes nurtures the spirit…
Sermon: Finders Keeper
maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles;and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
A good poem is like a mini religion – it works (if it works for you) by speaking to something that’s real, but not necessarily rational. It speaks to the intuitive mind; it touches you without your needing to know why.
A poem that speaks to you must stand on its own two feet. It doesn’t need to be propped up. You don’t have to be talked into it, converted, so to speak. You don’t need my interpretations or explanations.
The poem about Maggie and her friends who went to the beach one day is the first Cummings poem in my collection I called Natural Selections – the poems that speak to that aspect of my life I call my spirituality.
I like the fact that Cummings’ father was a Unitarian minister in Boston. The Cummings’ poems that speak to me are like little sermons. One, “i thank You God for most this amazing day” stands alone – it’s not a sermon so much as a prayer.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Like Maggie and Molly and Millie and May, I’ve gone to the beach on lots of days. On one such day, recently, I walked the beach just above the line where the gentle waves were rolling onto the sand, and I recited the Maggie and Millie poem out loud. It occurred to me that I should try to tell you the sermon I hear in it.
I’m always hearing new things in the poems I’ve memorized; poems I take out here and there and recite to others, or to myself, or to the waves or the sea gulls.
This poem speaks to me about the idea of the Sabbath – the deeper meanings of the seventh day, the day, the old story says, when ‘God rested from His work of creating the heavens and the earth, all the plants and animals, and human beings.’
The idea of the Sabbath is a reminder to set aside some time in order to be present to that ‘still small voice’ that can get lost in the email, telephone, television, stereo, iPod, newspaper, magazine, book, cell phone, palm-pilot calendar-appointments, and all the other demands that are made on us, for our attention.
Each of those things says, “Pay attention to me.”
A friend told me that the sugar is running in the maple trees in Vermont, so she took a day last week to tap the trees. She wrote, “Today I collected sap with the Brothers at Weston Priory. What a pleasure to be out working hard in the crisp air.” That’s what a Sabbath is meant to be.
Isn’t it interesting that she said it was a pleasure to work hard in the crisp air? Yes! The Sabbath isn’t about ‘not working.’ It’s about paying attention in a different way.
That’s what Maggie and Millie and Molly and May were doing on their day at the beach.
Who are these four women; or are they little girls; or are they teenagers? Are they sisters? Friends?
I picture them as pre-teens; old enough to go off on their own; they’re neighbors, summering on Cape Cod, and the beach is within walking distance. It’s important that they made the decision, on their own, to go to the beach; and to go with one another, as a group.
Maggie discovered a shell. She didn’t just find a shell – she discovered a shell. The word suggests exploration. Remember that line from T. S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.”
Maggie was exploring her inner world, at the sea, and she discovered a shell ‘that sang so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles.’
She got religion – she got connected to the music that’s in herself; it’s about that thing we call the soul, the human spirit. It’s about that thing that makes us glad to be alive; to celebrate life in the moment. “yes is a world, and in that world of yes live, skillfully curled, all worlds“
This little poem has worlds that are skillfully curled inside.
“At this time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’ So he called a little child to him whom he set among them. Then he said, ‘In truth I tell you, unless you … become like (a child) you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4
Maggie and Millie and Molly and May were children who entered the kingdom of heaven that day – the kingdom is an interior destination — it comes to you in little moments, here and there; fleeting moments that may last a millisecond…when you feel strangely connected to everything there is.
Remember those lines from William Blake: (Auguries of Innocence)
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
In Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Edmund, the O’Neill character, says to his father and brother that his high spots have all been connected with the sea. He asks if they want to hear one, and he doesn’t wait for the possibility they may say no.
“Here’s one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon…I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.” …
“And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!
“It was a great mistake my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.”
Maggie’s shell; Millie’s starfish; Molly’s crab and May’s smooth round stone, are symbols of the internal workings of their minds that have a direct influence on their spirits, or their souls – which is to say, how they feel about themselves, and how they will live out the day…their life.
They went to the beach to play—they were ready for a Sabbath. They were together, but each of them found something different from the others; they had their own separate and unique experience.
That’s a basic tenet of our Unitarian faith — religion comes to us through our own experience—not through a formula, ritual or book. The books and rituals may confirm our experience, because we recognize ourselves in the myths.
The poem is about their individuality, on the one hand; but it’s also an affirmation of the group; it confirms what we know down deep – that we need one another through every stage of life. These four represent what Carl Jung called the archetypes—the basic models we inherit; things that come to us from the unconscious mind; patterns of thought.
Maggie and Millie and Molly and May are aspects of each of us.
Millie befriended a stranded starfish; she represents something in us that wants to help; wants to ‘show a kindness.’ The starfish was stranded; it wouldn’t have survived without help from Millie. She ‘befriended it,’ by tossing it back into the sea where it could continue to live.
Millie was practicing the golden rule; it was a brief friendship of lasting value to her as well as the starfish.
It’s not always so easy or clear: how to be a friend. The demands of friendship depend on what’s happening in the moment. St. Exupery’s defines it in his wonderful story of The Little Prince as ‘establishing ties.’
Millie offered the help that stranded starfish needed…she did not defer or neglect the opportunity to do a good thing for that starfish; she had to do it ‘now.’
Millie showed compassion, which is the essence of the best in human nature, and may be the closest we can get to the place where God lives in us.
Molly was chased by a horrible thing, which raced sideways blowing bubbles. There are scary things in life; sometimes we have to flee; but fear can take us over and get in the way of a Sabbath.
Her fear got in the way of discovering her inner voice with ‘a shell that sang so sweetly; her fear got in the way of befriending a starfish; fear keeps us from having a friend…fear makes us feel helpless. Poor Molly.
Some religious beliefs are fear-based; they feed into the basic, existential fear; they paint a picture of a god to be feared, an angry god who fuels the flames of an imaginary hell.
‘May came home with a smooth round stone, as small as a world, as large as alone.’
May is my favorite.
Remember the story of David and Goliath: David reached into the river and pulled out five smooth stones; this was his arsenal, all the ammunition he had, or needed, to face the giant, Goliath.
The smooth round stone represents that solid something we call our personal faith; it represents experience, smoothed by the ebb and flow of the tides we’ve lived so far. It’s the world ‘in a grain of sand,’ as Blake put it.
May ‘came home,’ in the sense that there was a moment, like the one O’Neill expressed, when she felt ‘at home’ in herself; she felt ‘at home’ in her world…in the here and now; she ‘came home’ to that in herself, and in each one of us, that helps us feel that we belong.
He said, “I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.”
May you discover a shell that sings so sweetly you can’t remember your troubles, at least for a minute; may you befriend a stranded star, and get away from things that chase you, running sideways blowing bubbles, and may you come home with a smooth round stone…
For whatever you lose, like a you or a me, it’s always yourself you find in the see. And remember, once you have found it, experienced that sense of connection to the mystery; once you’ve found yourself by losing yourself, it’s yours forever. Finders keepers!