Once again, with the turning of the year into springtime, we find ourselves in the holy season of Passover and Easter, and we are also observing our Unitarian Universalist Flower Celebration. And this year, Patricia Polacco’s story “Chicken Sunday” reminds us about what’s at stake, what it’s all about.
Take Mr. Kodinski. At one point, when the children return to the hat store and give him a basket of pysanky eggs, he softens up, he says thank you in Russian, “spaseeba,” he sees that they are not the ones who were throwing eggs at his door, his eyes glisten and his mouth curls into a warm smile, he invites them to have some tea…. And this is when you turn the page in the picture book, and you see the artist’s rendering of the scene: a red-haired girl with two long pony tails, who is author Patricia Polacco as a child, then her two friends Stewart and Winston, all drinking tea and eating slices of poppy-seed cake, and Mr. Kodinski, smiling, wearing the big black hat and prayer shawl of an Orthodox Jew, holding out a cup to one of the boys, and there, on the bare arm he’s holding out, is a tattooed serial number, his registration number from his time in Auscwitz. Mr. Kodinski had been there. And no doubt he had returned, at least momentarily in his mind, when the bigger boys were throwing the eggs at his door, and he cried out, “All I want to do is live my life in peace.”
It’s our cry too. The cry of ages for justice and freedom. The cry from roughly 3500 years ago, when the Israelites ached under the grinding enslavement of their Egyptian masters. The cry from 2000 years ago, first-century Palestine, when people suffered the brutality of Roman rule, as illustrated in devastating form through Jesus’ execution. The cry from just 70 years ago, when Nazi Germany emerged as the 20th century’s version of ancient Egypt and Rome; when oppression took the form of fascism, the concentration camp, the Holocaust; when a fellow Unitarian Universalist, Dr. Norbert Capek, was arrested, sent to the death camp in Dachau, murdered by poison—a man who dared preach about spiritual freedom, who dared compare the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person to a flower. All these cries, over the ages. That’s what Passover, Easter, and our Unitarian Universalist Flower Celebration convey to us. Through them, we remember. Through them, we hear.
This is the world that the kids in the story are in, and we’re in it too. Bigger boys throwing eggs at the door of civility and common decency. Bigger boys and bigger girls who are bullies, who are thieves, who have succumbed to the temptations of abusive power in some form or fashion, and either they are consciously siding with Pharaoh and Caesar and Fuhrer, or their hearts and minds have become enslaved and they do not know it, they don’t know, they make choices that go against their best interests and they brag about it, they berate everyone else, see themselves as righteous, as pure. This is our world. Temptations of abusive power everywhere.
Yet the children in the story don’t succumb. The power they exert is not abusive, but creative. They don’t take up with the bigger boys and throw eggs, but decorate them. Make pysanky eggs instead and give them as a gift to Mr. Kodinski, or sell them so that they might get Miss Eula that pink hat she’s been wanting so desperately. Such good, creative children….
And it is all out of love for Miss Eula. That’s what saved them, I think, from going the way of the bigger boys. Gratitude. The opposite of resentment. The opposite of a sense of entitlement.
Miss Eula. A different religion and race from the child Patricia Polacco, but she adopted her as her own, side-by-side with Stewart and Winston. Miss Eula fed their bodies with amazing friend chicken and collard greens with bacon and hoppin’ john and corn on the cob and fried spoon bread. Fed their spirits, too, with her song voice like slow thunder and sweet rain, or her unstinting trust and belief in them, or her honest longing for the Easter bonnet in Mr. Kodinski’s window which she openly shared. “The most beautiful I ever did see,” she’d sigh…. This is how she fed them, body and soul, and they wanted to get her that pink hat more than anything in the world.
Do you have a Miss Eula in your life? A Miss Eula for which you feel such gratitude that you would use the power you have creatively and not abusively? More than anything in the world?
For myself, my grandmother comes to mind, my Baba, who among all the many adults rushing around in my life actually slowed down and took time with me. Played games with me like Scrabble and Trouble on Saturday afternoons. Taught me card games, solitaire. One Easter weekend many years ago, she boiled dozens of eggs, prepared dyes, put into my hand the stylus that you use to draw patterns on the egg shells in hot wax and showed me how, how to make my own pysanky eggs. You never forget these things. You never do. They build up a gratitude in you that takes on a life of its own, and you want to keep giving this goodness away.
Miss Eula can remind us of exactly such things—people and events that have fed our individual growth. But she can also bring to mind how we are fed body and soul by the amazing grace world in which we live, and even when life turns hard and scary, we are still fed by small things, a hug from a friend, birdsong, the turning seasons, a wise word, a sense that whatever happened it could have always been worse, a singing voice like slow thunder and sweet rain. The universe is nothing less than Miss Eula to us all. The approximately 100 trillion cells of my body, or your body, and all these cells organized into greater degrees of complexity—tissues then organs then organ systems then you and me—and all of it survives and thrives by the grace and sacrifice of other organisms: other bacteria, other plants, other animals. Nothing we’ve done deserves this; they are there not because of anything I have done necessarily; their lives have their own significance and standing. And yet they die for me. My very living requires their dying. They die for me, and in my own turn, at some point, I will die for them, I will give my body back to the earth. The circle of life goes on.
How can we not go in gratitude? Miss Eula is everywhere. And Miss Eula is also how the Passover Story ends, and the Easter story, and the story of Dr. Norbert Capek. Moses, aided by the power and might of the Lord, leading the people out from bondage and into freedom, proclaiming “Let my people go.” Jesus’ followers after his crucifixion, unarguably feeling that despite the brutality and finality of his death, he was somehow still with them, resurrected, still alive and vibrant, his message of the life abundant undiminished. And then Dr. Norbert Capek: just look at how his ideals have triumphed and still live among us, in the Flower Celebration he created—in the end proven far stronger than the supposedly invincible Third Reich ever was.
The temptation to abuse power is always there—to throw eggs rather than create with them. To steal rather than to preserve, or give. But gratitude saves us. Gratitude for the slow thunder and sweet rain voice of love in our lives, for all the Miss Eulas that surround us and inspire us.
In this holy season, my hope for you is to be like the children in the story when they go into the backyard, when Stewart reaches into the hole in the trunk of their “wish tree” and pulls out a rusty Band-Aid tin. They count the money they’ve been saving for weeks, because they want to know if they’ve got enough to buy Miss Eula that pink hat. And they don’t. So they start to think. How can we make this happen? How are we going to express our gratitude for you, Miss Eula? That’s what I hope for you. This day, to wonder, how can I express my gratitude for my life? How can I start a gratitude habit, or strengthen the one I’ve already got? Since last October, once a month, we’ve been planting seeds of soul—learning spiritual exercises that can grow our hearts and spirits—and you need to know that they all point to this seventh and last one. This is the last and final exercise. Every day before you go to bed, write down five things that you can be grateful for. Or, in some other way, devote 5 to 10 minutes each day to think about and feel how the actions of some person or being have made a positive difference to you. You want to work for justice in this world, and create with the eggs you’ve been given rather than throw them? Start with gratitude. You want to use your power positively and not abusively? Start with gratitude. It’s all about turning up the volume of the voice of slow thunder and sweet rain. Turning up that volume. That’s what the holy season we’re in is really all about. That’s it.