Poet Katha Pollitt writes,
When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I’d ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, “Someday you’ll know what it’s like!”
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
The only thing I didn’t understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I’ll be
thirty-nine, and I still don’t understand it.
That’s Katha Pollitt’s moving poem. For all her life, she (or the dramatic ego of the poem) has understood futility. For all her life, she has understood cruelty, loneliness, and disappointment. But then there is the reality that people are saved everyday. Unexpected things like sparrows, foghorns, grassblades, and tablecloths bringing hope and beauty and peace to us, and our spirits receiving them. Despite everything, we get what we need to keep on moving through life, one step at a time.
Yet this the poet does not understand. How can life be larger than just sorrow? How can life be large enough to dance in? I am struck by how Katha Pollitt spends so much time tracing her understanding of suffering to concrete experiences: of standing for hours on hot asphalt, trudging for balls; of children having been snobbish and cruel to her, as a child; of seeing solitary diners in restaurants and hearing her grandmother scream at her. But as for the insight that “people are saved every day”: not as much room in the poem for that. Katha Pollitt doesn’t spend equal energy tracing it to concrete details and experiences. She keeps it at arm’s length, keeps it abstract. “This year I’ll be thirty-nine, and I still don’t understand it,” she says, and in the end, my sense is that she may never understand. That what she’s really doing is declaring dejection and despair—confirming that life indeed is as small as it sometimes seems, and joy, when it occurs, is a tragic exception. It’s what we tend to do, after all, in order to survive the harshness of futility and cruelty and loneliness and disappointment—especially when growing up. We shut down, we blank out, we shrink. 39 years old, 49, 59, we continue grinding out our survival strategies, even though the circumstances to which those strategies were tuned no longer exist. We stop believing. People all around us saved every day, and we see it, but just as soon as it is out of sight, it goes out of mind. No room in the poem for that; no room in our lives. The sparrow, the foghorn, the grassblades, the tablecloths might even have brought a saving grace to us, personally, but there’s no room. Dejection is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And Henry David Thoreau will have none of it. In the chapter of Walden we are focusing on this morning, chapter two, he says, “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.” Thoreau says, “I have read in a Hindoo book, that ‘there was a king’s son, who, being expelled in infancy from his native city, was brought up by a forester, and, growing up to maturity in that state, imagined himself to belong to the barbarous race with which he lived. One of his father’s ministers having discovered him, revealed to him what he was, and the misconception of his character was removed, and he knew himself to be a prince.” This is our Henry David Thoreau, our Unitarian Universalist ancestor. He stands on the side of the reality that we are saved every day and that this is the deepest reality of our lives, not some tragic exception; that though we can be lost—though we can forget who we really are—we can be found again, we can remember, we can wake up. [Cry of the chanticleer.]
Our topic this morning is the art of living deliberately and not accidentally, or hurriedly, or unconsciously. Peace in the heart, so there can be peace in the world. “I went to the woods,” says Thoreau, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear….” Today we take a closer look at what this meant for Thoreau, and what it can mean for us today.
It begins with his famous line: “Simplify, simplify.” I’ve seen it on more bumper stickers than I can shake a stick at; on T-shirts too. But what’s it really mean?
It’s classic Thoreau to articulate a concept humorously. So, in chapter two, he tells the story about an incident that occurred right before his coming to Walden: his close call with owning his own farm. The Hallowell farm. Oh, he was tempted. The location was secluded; a river ran right by it; he mentions “the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, gnawed by rabbits, showing what kind of neighbors I would have.” “But above all,” he says, “the recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river, when the house was concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which I heard the house-dog bark.” For all of this—seclusion, beauty, nostalgia—he tells of being “ready to carry it on, like Atlas, to take the world on my shoulders.” This is high drama, folks. But then the owner’s wife, Mrs. Hallowell, changes her mind; she doesn’t want to sell after all. Mr. Hallowell, in a panic, offers Thoreau the significant amount of ten dollars to release him from the deal he has already struck, and Thoreau graciously allows him to keep his money, together with the farm. And the point to all this? Thoreau’s realization that not owning the farm actually opens him up to a richer and more satisfying relationship with it. “I have frequently seen a poet,” he says, “having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.” Thoreau is the poet here; and we read in Walden how he has carried away the riches of the Hallowell farm without any damage to his physical poverty. He gets the better deal: while the farmer keeps his few wild apples, he revels in the seclusion and beauty and memory which feeds his soul. Not things but meanings, experiences.
This is what it means to simplify. It’s about opening up to Life Abundant in your own life. Refusing to fill yourself up with things that feel urgent but are in fact draining and demoralizing, so that you end up having no room for big meanings and experiences which vitalize. Refusing to endlessly ruminate on experiences of futility and cruelty and loneliness and disappointment so that there’s no room for anything else. Refusing to be like a shortsighted man in a picture gallery, who studies a masterpiece from two inches away, and intellectually he has clearly and accurately identified 12 different kinds of blobs of color and 7 different shapes, but he can’t see the whole thing, can’t make out the big picture, can’t get the full impact of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He’s blind to all that—even as all that is the source of true worth. Our lives, says Thoreau, are “frittered away by detail.” We live too up close to things, shortsighted, and this is a form of spiritual sleepwalking. But to simplify is to make room for abundance. It is to empty ourselves of the nonessential, so that we can be filled with the essential. It’s the king’s son in the Hindu parable, lost but now found, coming home. It’s the cry of the chanticleer.
The art of living deliberately starts with simplifying, and this naturally leads to the next phase, which is aspiring. “We must,” says Thoreau, “learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” “That man,” he says, “who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way.”
As I think on what this means, a story comes to mind from the work of Abraham Maslow, founder of humanistic psychology and one of the founders of transpersonal psychology. His focus was on self-actualization or, as we Unitarian Universalists might say, people giving full expression to the worth and dignity that is inherently theirs. In the course of his studies, he determined that self-actualizing people very naturally have spiritual experiences—profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, during which a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world; more aware of truth, justice, harmony, and goodness. But now here is the story. When Maslow’s students began to talk to each other about their peak experiences, they began having them all the time. It was as if the simple act of being reminded of their existence was enough to make them happen. Talking and thinking about moments of people being saved every day makes it more likely that we will have such moments ourselves. Conversely, if we do not talk and think about such things, we may block their happening.
Thus we are to aspire, says Thoreau. Talking about God evokes God energy. Talking about heaven brings heaven closer. Hold fast to an infinite expectation of the dawn, hold it close, since (as he says), it “does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.” It goes with us, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. When facing some kind of scarcity in life, you say to yourself like a mantra, over and over, “I trust that everything I need is inside me and near me, and it will become available to me as I need it.” If our lives are frittered away by detail, this will seem like a load of hooey, and nonsense. But in reality it is the largest thing imaginable, a hope, a peace, a vision of Life Abundant, and it requires us to prepare tremendous room in our hearts. We must prepare the way to receive it.
An infinite expectation of the dawn. This is what is on my mind, as I reflect on an anecdote about Thoreau that’s a personal favorite. I first encountered it when I was actually up at Concord, Massachusetts, visiting the fantastic museum there. A picture of skaters on a pond, and this excerpt from a letter by writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, dated December 30, 1842. She writes, “One afternoon, Mr. Emerson and Mr. Thoreau went with Mr. Hawthorne down the river. Henry Thoreau is an experienced skater, and was figuring dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice–very remarkable, but very ugly, methought. Next to him followed Mr. Hawthorne who, wrapped in his cloak, moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately and grave. Mr. Emerson closed the line, evidently too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost, half lying on the air.” That’s the anecdote. I laughed so hard—and then I teared up. Sophia clearly preferred her husband’s statue-like decorum; but, figure skater that I am, I’ll take Thoreau’s athleticism and joy over that any day.
To me it’s a personal and precious symbol of living deliberately. For the man who danced and leapt on ice also suffered from the chronic illness of tuberculosis and often had great trouble breathing. He was continually plagued with poor health. But this did not stop him from reveling in life. “Men esteem truth remote,” he says, “in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.” This is what Thoreau says.
To live deliberately, we simplify and we aspire. And in this way we accomplish what Thoreau calls the highest of arts. “It is something,” he says, “to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” We can do it. Futility and cruelty, loneliness and disappointment; survival strategies we learned growing up that now make us unhappy; dejection as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Yet there can be a new morning in our lives. “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us. Let us spend our lives in conceiving then.” Let us conceive of renewal.
I’ll close with a second poem, one which, for me, sparked a moment of emotional awakening in a time when I was struggling. I had painted the atmosphere and medium through which I looked at my life in dirty grays and blood reds. I was in a place where I, like the speaker in Katha Pollitt’s poem, could not possibly understand how people are saved every day. And then I read this:
“The Cure,” by Albert Huffstickler.
We think we get over things.
We don’t “get over” things.
Or say, we get over the measles
but not a broken heart.
We need to make that distinction.
The things that become part of our experience
never become less a part of our experience.
How can I say it?
The way to “get over” a life is to die.
Short of that, you move with it,
let the pain be pain,
not in the hope that it will vanish
but in the faith that it will fit in,
find its place in the shape of things
and be then not any less pain but true to form.
Because anything natural has an inherent shape
and will flow towards it.
And a life is as natural as a leaf.
That’s what we’re looking for:
not the end of a thing but the shape of it.
Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life
without obliterating (getting over) a single instant.
That’s the poem. Life is large enough for all the things that count. Wisdom is seeing this shape, as natural as a leaf, in which all things can find their right fit, eventually, provided we simplify and make room for them. And God can culminate in the present moment. And God can culminate in the present moment. And over and above it all, fearlessly: the lusty cry of the chanticleer, proclaiming morning.
Let’s proclaim morning together.
The cry of the chanticleer.
All together, 1-2-3: