Opening Words: Lucille Clifton was a great poet – I had the privilege of listening to her at Chautauqua a few years ago – she died last February at age 73.
Lucille Clifton, I Am Running into a New Year
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
– from Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980
The book Alpha Leadership: Tools for Business Leaders Who Want More from Life, by Ann Deering, Robert Dilts and Julian Russell.
“On November 1995, the violinist Itzhak Perlman performed at the Lincoln Center in New York City. He had polio as a child and walks with crutches. The audience waited patiently as he made his way slowly across the stage to his chair, sat down, put his crutches on the floor, removed the braces from his legs, settled himself in his characteristic pose, one foot tucked back, the other pushed forwards, bent down to pick up his violin, gripped it with his chin, and nodded to the conductor to indicate he was ready.
“It was a familiar ritual for Perlman fans: the crippled genius making light of his disability before his sublime music transcended everything. But this time was different.
“‘Just as he finished the first few bars,’ the Houston Chronicle music critic recalls, ‘one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.’ It was obvious – he had to put down his violin, replace his braces, pick up the crutches, heave himself to his feet, make his laborious way offstage and either get another violin or restring his crippled instrument.
“He didn’t. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The audience was spell-bound.
Everyone knows it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. He played with such passion and such power and such purity…You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head…At one point it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get…sounds from them they had never made before.
“When he finished there was an awed silence, and then the audience rose, as one.”
We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering – doing everything that we could to show him how much we appreciated what he’d done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music he can still make with what he has left.’
Sermon: Starting Over
Birches, Robert Frost
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Frost’s narrator says, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile and then come back to it and begin again.”
“It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / and life is too much like a pathless wood / where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it, / and one eye is weeping / from a twig’s having lashed across it open…”
It’s a new year, 2011, and there’s a sense in which we’re all starting over… we carry new calendars with lots of blank pages; we start over when, as the poet said, we ‘run into a new year.’
Of course the ‘old years blow back’ at us; we don’t really leave the old years, we carry them – all our old promises; they can be a burdensome baggage unless we develop some kind of conscious method of ‘starting over.’
Lucille Clifton concludes her poem about ‘running into a new year,’ by saying, “…I beg what I love and I leave to forgive me.”
Forgiveness is one of the ‘keys to the kingdom’ – you know, that set of keys that allow us to unlock some of the heavy baggage, lighten the load, and start over, and move on, again.
Chess players talk about a variety of openings – planning the first moves to gain advantage.
Writers talk about the opening sentence which sets the tone, invites the reader to take a journey. A few well-known opening sentences:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Herman Melville opened Moby Dick with a three-word sentence: “Call me Ishmael,” referring to the Biblical character to whom the Muslims trace their religious roots – Ishmael, Abraham’s first-born son by Hagar both of whom were evicted from Abraham’s house when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. The name Ishmael characterizes orphans, exiles and outcasts. The Koran sees Ishmael as the first prophet.
Another three-word opening sentence of note is from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “Howard Roark laughed.”
My sense has always been that those opening sentences were most likely composed as the finishing touch to the novel – by then the author knows how it all started and what the opening line should be.
When I meet with couples to plan a wedding the first question (and they’re ready to respond to it) is ‘how did you meet?’ How did this relationship begin? That question leads into all the other chapters in their story book…all of the chapters that led to the wedding.
Every couple knows how important or significant the opening conversation was. What every couple learns, sooner rather than later, is that the relationship is changed by the exchange of vows — it’s a new beginning, like starting over. The vows are followed by a long string of new beginnings…start over, for example, after an argument, which is where the art of forgiveness comes in handy; or the onset of a life-threatening illness when the vow that says, ‘In sickness and in health’ takes on new meaning.
There’s a sense in which all of our important relationships start over; commitments, expressed or implied get altered a little here and there as the years pass and reality sets in.
Many couples I’ve talked with about their beginning start with a memorable conversation…now some of those conversations take place before they actually meet ‘in person.’ The internet provides the opportunity to meet before getting together. I’ve officiated at several weddings for relationships that began on the internet.
The more traditional newlyweds start married life with a honeymoon. There’s a Biblical passage in the book of Deuteronomy 24:5 “When a man is newly wed, he need not go out on a military expedition, nor shall any public duty be imposed on him. He shall be exempt for one year for the sake of her family to bring joy to the wife he has married.”
Originally “honeymoon” simply described the period just after the wedding when things are at their sweetest – a sweet month; it is assumed to wane in a month.
Now we use the term to describe a new beginning to a job – the honeymoon period — the time before it becomes, in Robert Frost’s poetic description:
”too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.”
That’s when you know the honeymoon is over and you’d like to ‘get away from the job awhile and then come back to it and begin over.’
The beginning of a new job isn’t always a honeymoon, of course; it’s more often characterized by that ‘pathless wood,’ where everything is new.
I remember my first teaching job; after I signed the contract, agreeing to teach six classes a day as well as some extra-curricular work, I was terrified.
My first senior ministry, in Attleboro, was not terrifying so much as it was mystifying. I moved into my office in mid-summer when ‘not a creature was stirring, not even a church mouse,’ and I sat behind an empty desk for awhile then I asked the volunteer in the office if she knew of any shut-in folk. She gave me a few names and I started making pastoral calls and whoever I visited usually had more names to add to that list. The mystery ended quickly.
When I started here in Westport 26 years ago I was energized; my work was cut out for me.
Eight years later, after controversies about the roof and the organ, and some less public controversies, I was ready to ‘get away from here awhile,’ went on sabbatical, and after six months I was ready to ‘come back to it and begin again.’
Every September, when we gather outside on the lawn for our homecoming Sunday, there’s a sense of coming back to begin again.
Indeed, every Sunday morning there’s a similar sense of starting over, hoping to (finally!) ‘get it right.’
People who lost their jobs in this difficult economy know what it’s like to start over – when ‘one eye is weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it open.’
Millions of homeowners who went into foreclosure know what it’s like to start over.
Superstar athletes learn what it means to start over when age or injury takes them out of the game and out of the spotlight and they have to create a new identity.
Bernie Madoff’s son Mark tried to start over but found it too overwhelming.
Everyone who’s ever gone bankrupt had to start over.
In some ways we all start over in some small way every day, and we all have times in life when we find ourselves starting over in bigger ways.
As we enter the New Year, then, we do well to take stock, acknowledging to ourselves, at least, the gratitude we feel for what life has given so far.
We’re ‘running into a new year / and the old years blow back, and it will be hard to let go of what we said to ourselves, about ourselves, when we were sixteen, twenty-six and sixty-six.’
May we find a place in our hearts forgiveness so we can start over with a clean the slate.