The following lines from Whitman will lead us into the sermon:
“There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.
His own parents, He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him.
The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by…”
There’s nothing one can say about mothers that will apply to everyone, or please everyone – I learned that the hard way.
Some responded to my first Mother’s Day sermon in Westport as being saccharine. One person said, ‘My mother was not sweet, she was very bitter.’
Another told me that she had never met her biological mother and the sermon was a painful reminder, leaving her feeling bereft.
I came to realize that everyone has his or her story of mother, and my sense, now, is that the story we have about our own mother is part of what psychologists call ‘our personal myth.’ Tolstoy’s famous opening words to Anna Karenina come to mind:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
(The Anna Karenina principle says that a deficiency in any number of factors dooms it to failure. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel)
Our personal myth is the story we tell ourselves and others about ourselves…about our life. Like all mythology, it is a Truth story, with a capital T, where in our quest for meaning, facts mix with imagination and emotion, and it all sticks to us like crazy glue, and if you’re not careful with it you can drive yourself to distraction.
Mothers often torment themselves with feelings of failure or inadequacy, partly because our culture has an almost worshipful attitude about ‘the good mother,’ and many women who become mothers feel inadequate and imperfect.
Hopefully, your personal mother-myth works for you, but if it doesn’t, it’s necessary to demythologize the old story with a good dose of critical reflection, putting disappointments and disillusionments in proper perspective, finding the right balance and a healthy acceptance of things as they are, integrating ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ into a functioning self.
Our personal myths run deep, sinking down to the place ‘where the spirit meets the bone.’
Insight, however, is the royal road to recovery; insight recognizing the myths for what they are…they are not lies or untruth; they are simply the stories we tell to ourselves and we tell others about ourselves.
Maturity, including religious maturity, requires a deepening understanding of and appreciation of the symbols, rituals and mythologies in which you’ve been living…things you’ve been taught to believe, or things in which you’ve been indoctrinated.
One of our tasks is to see those stories for what they are, realizing that at their best they have helped us to feel a sense of personal participation in what we might call God, or a higher power…feeling the power of Creation moving in us, individually and collectively, and feeling liberated by those new and deeper understandings.
This is what our Greek forebears called ‘the examined life,’ which is worth the living.
Mothers and motherhood and mothering mixes memories with myths and requires the cleansing of mercy, or forgiveness, thus the title: memory, myth and mercy, a virtual trinity.
An article in the Encyclopedia Britannica says that ‘a myth is a sacred narrative usually explaining how the world or humankind came to be in its present form.’ It goes on to say, ‘although, in a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story.’
Bruce Lincoln defines myth as ‘ideology in narrative form.’ He says, ‘Myths may arise as either truthful depictions or over-elaborated accounts of historical events…they are transmitted to convey religious or idealized experience, to establish behavioral models and to teach.’
Mothers are often idealized, sometimes demonized, and eventually they have to be humanized, which is where mercy comes in…to be forgiven.
‘Who is forgiven much, loves much; who is forgiven little loves little.’
From a religious point of view, mercy is evidence of what might be called ‘divine favor or blessing.’ Our ability to forgive, and our openness to allow forgiveness to be felt, is the primary example of that mercy.
While forgiveness is one of the important keys that free the spirit, the acceptance of putting limits on forgiveness is equally important.
Let me say that again: you don’t have to forgive everyone for everything; we need to acknowledge the limits of forgiveness, this applies to each of us as individuals with personal experiences, and it applies to us collectively.
Now, I promised to say some things about mothers I have known and loved, and about mothers of those I’ve loved.
My father’s mother died when he was four years old, just a week after his father died, both in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. He was raised in an orphanage run by one woman who bought a house shortly after the flu epidemic hit and she took in a dozen or so orphans, four of whom were my father, his two brothers and a sister. She, in essence, provided the mothering he got. He respected and appreciated what she provided, but he didn’t get much ‘tender love and care.’
He had stories about ‘the home,’ as he called it; he had a rich mythology; his older brother, Ed, ran away from the home when he was twelve: he called it ‘jumping the fence.’ When Ed was 16 he got a job driving a coal truck and when my father was 12 he ‘jumped the fence’ and went to work on the coal truck with his brother, both of whom lived with the family they worked for.
From time to time I’ve told you things about my own mother – things I trust she would feel okay about my sharing.
My mother grew up in severe poverty. She told me about her last day at school – she was in the tenth grade and showed up in school that day with no stockings and was sent to the principal’s office. He told her to go home ‘and not come back until you are properly attired.’ The year was 1931 — she couldn’t afford to go out and buy a pair of stockings to cover her legs, so she found a job as a waitress and never went back to school.
A year later, at age 17, she got married as the country went into the Great Depression; a year later, in 1934, she became a mother for the first time…with eight more to follow.
She suffered the loss of one of her children at 8 months old.
She was completely devoted to her family – cooking (food was a sign of love) and washing clothes with a ringer washer…I had moved out of the house before she got a modern washing machine…she hung clothes on the line using a pully from a window or porch…frozen on the line in winter…
I was very fortunate…she was first and foremost a loving mother…
Shortly before she died, when I was singing her praises to her, she said, “I wasn’t always a good mother…” and I said, “Well that only added to how great you were,” and I quoted Scripture: “Who is forgiven much loves much, who is forgiven little loves little.”
Our mothers depart from us,
but we sleep soundly,
stuffed with food,
and fail to notice this dread hour.
Our mothers do not leave us suddenly,
it only seems so ‘sudden.’
Slowly they depart, and strangely,
with short steps down the stairs of years.
One year, remembering nervously,
we make a fuss to mark their birthday,
but this belated zeal
will save neither their souls
They withdraw ever further,
withdraw even further.
Roused from sleep,
we stretch toward them,
but our hands suddenly beat the air —
a wall of glass has grown up there!
We were too late.
The dread hour had struck,
Suppressing tears, we watch our mothers,
in columns quiet and austere,
departing from us.
I wondered about the translator’s choice of the word austere, which I thought might suggest something about his image or stereotype of mothers as ‘strict and forbidding…severely moral,’ the way life in a convent might be…sober, solemn and serious.
The word wouldn’t apply to my own mother at all. I’ve told you some things about her, and always with the thought that she wouldn’t mind.
Her mother, the only grandmother I knew, was a most amazing woman…she had six children, only three of whom made it to adulthood; she lost a leg when she had her first child…and she lost that child…she walked with crutches, her artificial leg – what she called her ‘wooden leg’ wasn’t state of the art, even then; but she never lost her spirit; she was fun loving, had a near-constant smile and great laugh.
My first wife, Anita, was and is a wonderful mother. Indeed, her becoming a mother kept me out of Vietnam; to make a long story very short, I had joined the Marines platoon leader’s class at the end of my first year in college and would have started training after my junior year, but I got married at the end of my sophomore year, so I became disqualified…
When I was in high school every boy assumed he would serve in the military and we all talked about what branch and when to go, etc.
In college, from 1958 to 1962, we got a student deferment, 2S was stamped on the draft card; then, when I graduated, I got a deferment for teaching, but they removed that and I asked the friendly woman at the draft board if there was any other deferment since I was in my first year of teaching, was married and would just as soon not go into the service, and at that time no one had heard of Vietnam, except the folks who cut out the deferments.
The kindly woman in the draft board office said, “Well, if your wife had a baby, that would do it.” I said, “What if she was pregnant.” She said, “A positive pregnancy test would do it.”
Shortly after that I was drafted into the army, had my physical and other tests and was prepared to go, but in less than two months we had a positive pregnancy test, so her becoming a mother kept me out of what would soon become the war in Vietnam.
So, there are the women who were the mothers I’ve loved. And there’s one more. When I met Lory her daughter Carlyn, my step-daughter to be, was two and I’ve been sharing the parenting with Lory…Carlyn will be 22 at the end of the summer…
I have a kind of mythology about each of them.
One of the important tasks of good parenting is to nurture a sense of humor in their child. It’s also important to draw appropriate boundaries around the uses of humor-to have a good sense of humor, an appropriate sense of humor. A joyous person must first be a civilized person.
Our cultural attitudes influence parents and children-many of those attitudes have come down to us from the Greeks, who said that the life of the spirit, the soul, begins with a baby’s first laugh.
Aristotle defined human essence as animal ridens, ‘the creature who laughs.’ Language and laughter separate us from the other animals, he said, but it is only laughter that grants us our uniquely spiritual life.
Socrates compared humor to salt. A certain amount of salt seasons the meal, but too much can ruin it. Socrates was concerned about laughter turning into derision, like salt on a wound. It must be used carefully, as well as sparingly.
Norman Cousins understood the benefits of humor. In his book The Anatomy of an Illness he writes about being diagnosed with what he was told was a painful terminal illness. The first thing he did was to get out of the hospital to a more cheerful place. He checked himself into a hotel, asked a friend to bring him a movie projector (this was in the days before videos) and some Marx Brothers and other funny films, and laughed himself into a full recovery. The vitamin C helped, but the laughter, he said, was the best medicine.
We read from one of those Greek philosophers, Heraclitus, who was born in 535 BCE and who was known as ‘the weeping philosopher’ because of his deep sadness about human nature.
He was also known for his basic premise, that life is all about change: ‘change alone is unchanging.’ He said, ‘the beginning of a circle is also its end.’
Some change, like aging, just happens in the flow of time; some change, like illness, happens for reasons we may or may not be aware of.
But there is a category of change that has to do with our own volition…our will…our intentions…our decisions.
One of those changes has to do with our personal myth. When we realize that the story we’ve been telling to our self about our self isn’t serving us, we can change it; we can alter it; we can balance the ‘ain’t it awful’ part with a dash of ‘how fortunate I have been’ part…
Lots of times the tweaking we need to do is about mothers; the mother we had and the mother we have been…
Our memory is ‘selective.’ And it is malleable. Like clay, we can mold and shape it and reform and reshape it.
There are lots of reasons to nurture a sense of humor, and as many to be careful about it.
The process of parenting is summarized in the word ‘nurturing.’ To nurture is feed. The root of the word nurture comes from the Greek verb ‘to suckle.’ The verb ‘to nurse’ shares the root. It means ‘to flow,’ so we’re reminded to ‘go with the flow.’
To nurture is also to cherish; to educate; to guide; to raise; to discipline, teach, cultivate-to promote growth. It’s serious business, so a good sense of humor is important. It’s one of the most important things in life.
We need to nurture a sense of humor in our children. We know, instinctively, that it’s important. That’s why, on this Mother’s Day, I decided to explore what we call ‘a good sense of humor.’
Humor is often inappropriate: the racist, sexist, homophobic jokes.or the scornful, derisive, sarcastic, laughter are not part of a good sense of humor. But is that kind of humor always inappropriate?
Parenting makes many demands. It is challenging and often complicated. It requires lots of laughter. The following quotes from day school children, responding to questions about the Bible provide an opportunity to oxygenate the blood. They said:
In the first book, Guinessis, God got tired of creating the world so he took the Sabbath off.
The Jews were a proud people and throughout history they had trouble with unsympathetic Genitals.
Moses led the Jews to the Red sea where they made unleavened bread which is bread without any ingredients.
The first commandment was when Eve told Adam to eat the apple. The seventh commandment is thou shalt not admit adultery.
When Mary heard she was the mother of Jesus, she sang the Magna Carta.
Jesus was born because Mary had an immaculate contraption.
St. Paul cavorted to Christianity, he preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage.
Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.
Laughter makes the world bearable. Well, laughter and a hug. Laughter, a hug and some good home cooking.
Laughter, a hug, some good home cooking and the right pillow, like the one Goldilocks found: not too hard, not too soft, but ‘just right.’
Laughter is good for us. That’s why we always call it a ‘good’ laugh. A good sense of humor is a gift from the gods; it’s a gift first for the one who has it, and it’s also a gift for the people around her.
A good laugh may not cure the ills of the world, but it might be ‘just what the doctor ordered.’ So, take two aspirins, have a few good laughs and call me in the morning. And have a happy mothering day!