“There comes a time,” runs a quote from the classic movie Field of Dreams, “when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”
There comes a time. When we give ourselves fully to a piece of music, and it pierces our soul. Or in conversation with another person, and you come away amazed by the power of the connection, surprised by joy. All the cosmic tumblers clicking into place. You see what’s possible.
That’s what Field of Dreams has been for so many people. A movie about longings barely known, but felt deeply enough that they eat at you; a movie about what it looks like when those longings gradually become understood and how they can send you into the world to do all sorts of things you never thought you’d do; a movie about being surprised by joy. If you’re a baseball fan, it can’t get any better than this. If you aren’t—say, for example, you’re more a fan of ice rinks and figure skating—it’s still all good.
Let’s start with the line up of characters. Not all of them, but the ones that touch on the issue of fathering in some way, on this Father’s Day. First is Ray Kinsella, who appears to have it all—a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, a gorgeous house and productive farm in Iowa. But listen to what he says—see if any of you recognize it: “I’m thirty-eight years old. I have a wife, a child, and a mortgage, and I’m scared to death I’m turning into my father. […] The man never did one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him…. I’m scared that that’s what growing up means. I’m afraid of this happening to me.” He’s depressed, in other words; and he also feels intense regret over how he and his Dad were never able to make peace with each other. His Dad was an aspiring baseball player but never made it, and “so he tried to get his son to make it for him,” but Ray wouldn’t buy in, rebelled, refused even to play a simple game of catch with his father. The old story of the struggle between father and son, where, as writer Samuel Johnson put it, “one aims at power and the other at independence.” Ray left home and never looked back. “After a while,” he says, “I wanted to come home, but I didn’t know how.”
What deep longings these are! To be vitally alive, living your own life and not someone else’s story; and to finally come home, to make peace with an estranged parent now that you’re in a different and perhaps more compassionate place.
Then there’s the longings of Terence Mann. The movie portrays him as a symbolic father, famous in the 1960s for his philosophical and political leadership. “Wrote the best books of his generation, was a pioneer in the civil-rights and anti-war movements, made the cover of Newsweek, knew everybody, did everything, helped shape his time, hung out with the Beatles!” But by the early seventies, this father was worn down and worn out. Tired of his symbolic children, who had either become too extremist or too apathetic to listen to him, so he stopped writing books. Self-isolated. Big vision and talent, but nothing big to work on anymore. Ray manages to find him, and here’s how Terence Mann responds: “I can’t tell you the secret of life, and I don’t have any answers for you. I don’t give interviews, and I’m no longer a public figure. I just want to be left alone, so p-i-s-s off.” Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “like all dreamers I confuse disenchantment with truth.” But can Terence Mann find a way beyond disenchantment? When he’s absolutely sure that he’s opened every door to be opened in his life, can he believe in the possibility of another one that’s still undiscovered and yet unopened, and can show the way into a new form or new phase of fathering?
Yet another main character we meet is Doc Graham. Fifty years earlier, the good doctor had been a minor league baseball player nicknamed “Moonlight Graham,” and one day he had a shot at the majors. “The last day of the season,” he says. “Bottom of the eighth inning, we were way ahead. I’d been with the club for three weeks, but I hadn’t seen any action. Suddenly old John McGraw points a bony finger in my direction, and he says ‘Right field.” I jumped up like I was sitting on a spring. Grabbed my glove, and ran out on the field. [But] they never hit the ball out of the infield. The game ended. The season was over. I knew they’d send me back down. I couldn’t bear the thought of another year in the minors. So I decided to hang them up.” That’s what he says. What he did then was become a medical doctor like his Dad, an amazing doctor—dedicated, devoted, beloved—and the baseball dream shifted, found itself transformed into a dream of serving humanity through medicine. All the moonlight—all the passion—that had gone into baseball, moved into a different direction. One dream feeding another. Which explains Doc Graham’s response to Ray’s offer of a chance to live out the wish to bat just once in the major leagues. Doc Graham refuses. He won’t do it. Referring to the community he’s symbolically fathered so faithfully for fifty years, he says, “This is my most special place in the world. […] You feel for it like it was your child. I can’t leave here.” “Son,” he says to Ray, ”if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes … now that would have been a tragedy.” A hard message for Ray to hear. Hard, because, remember, all along he’s thinking about his own father, he’s thinking about how his Dad never seemed to ever do a spontaneous thing, never seemed to do anything about his own dreams—he’s thinking all this, Ray is, without ever once considering that his father might have put his moonlight passion into fathering, which he had to, since his wife (Ray’s mother) died when Ray was a young boy. Never once thinking that his father might have said to him, “If I’d only gotten to be your father for five minutes … now that would have been a tragedy.” But that’s how fathers feel about their children, or ought to. That’s how they feel.
Powerfully moving—so profound to hear and to know that no dream need ever die, but let the energy they embody shift, and old dreams will feed new ones.
Nevertheless, even as I hear Doc Graham saying what he says, perhaps there’s some old longing for baseball still there. Some residual yearning to know what it would have been like to bat in the major leagues. (For myself, I’ve long wondered what would have happened if I had stayed with figure skating as a boy, and not quit…)
All these unfulfilled longings in the father figures of Ray and Terence and, to a lesser extend, of Doc Graham … all these deferred dreams. And “What happens,” asks poet Langston Hughes, “to a dream deferred?”
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
None of these, for Ray Kinsella. What happens is that he’s out in his cornfield one day, and he hears a Voice. “If you build it, he will come.” His inner longing to be vitally alive and to be his own person, coupled with the yearning for peace with his Dad, is as yet so unknown to him that it’s entirely split off, comes to him as a mysterious Voice from seemingly elsewhere. Strange. Suspicious. Smacking of delusion—perhaps even more depressing evidence of going downhill fast. There’s a scene in the movie soon after Ray’s heard the Voice for the first time, and it’s morning, he’s coming downstairs and sees his daughter Karin watching TV. It’s an old Jimmie Stewart movie called “Harvey,” in which the main character has a full-blown relationship with a six-foot rabbit that’s invisible to everyone else. Ray instantly goes to the TV set and snaps it off. “Why did you do that?” Karin asks. “It was funny.” “Trust me,” her Dad replies. “It’s not funny. The man is sick. Very sick.”
That’s exactly what it feels like when we hear or experience a call to something different in life. A new job; a changed relationship; an old endeavor ending, only to make way for something new. You don’t necessarily know what the deep longing is that it’s tied to. Might take a while for it to make sense, even just to you, forget about others, who all the while may be right up in your face, telling you you’re crazy, telling you you’ll lose everything. Know what I’m talking about? But you just know you have to do it. You know in your heart. “Something tells me,” says Ray to his wife Annie, “that this may be my last chance…. I want to build that field.”
And he did. Ultimately it would lead to him to experience something that, this Father’s Day, I would give anything for. Ultimately, he would meet his dead father as he was when young and fully alive, years before Ray was ever born, and then have a catch with him, experience the sweet simple back-and-forth of it, the I give to you, I receive back from you, the I accept you and you accept me, no expectations, no bitterness, no disappointments. He would experience being at peace, coming home again at last…. Everyone must travel this journey for themselves. Parents, even when dead, never stop living on, because they are an integral part of one’s heart and spirit, permanent, THERE.
But about all of this happening, Ray at first had no inkling. He just built the ball field—made a gut-level decision—and, interestingly, what the movie shows is how one person’s pursuit of a dream triggers others to start pursuing theirs, and they all end up feeding each other and learning from each other. If this morning you are wondering whether to follow that Voice that’s been telling you, in one way or another, “If you build it, he will come,” stop wondering and do it. And see how your choice releases others to pursue their dreams too. Do it.
This is clearest where Terence Mann is concerned. That father figure of the 1960s who, by the time Ray finds him, as we know, is stuck in disillusionment. So unlike old Doc Graham, whose dream energy shifted. At one point Ray says to him, “You once wrote ‘There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.’” At this, Terence Mann just groans. “Oh my God. You’re from the Sixties!” At which point he pulls out a bug sprayer and starts to spray Ray, saying “Out! Out!” But that’s only the beginning. Ray succeeds in taking Terence to a baseball game at Fenway Park, both hear the Voice telling them to “Go the distance,” both see the name “Moonlight Graham” on the scoreboard, and Terence has just found an undiscovered, unopened door in his life. The universe has just opened up for him. He ends up insisting he travel with Ray all the way to Chisholm, Minnesota, to find Moonlight Graham, and you can just see the energy shifting. This burned-out father of the 1960’s starting to find a way to live with passion and integrity in the here-and-now. Passion building and building until you get to the part in the movie when Ray is up against the wall, the bank is going to foreclose on the mortgage tomorrow unless he sells the farm today, and this is when Terence Mann says: “People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it, and arrive at your door, innocent as children. […] People will come.” A little after this, when Terence is invited by the ghost baseball players to return to the afterlife with them, so he can experience it and share the story with the world, he says YES, he takes on that purpose for himself, he walks to where the ball field ends and the corn begins, and he knows that if he takes one more step, he’ll cross over, he knows he’s face to face with absolute Mystery, and this is what he does in that moment: he GIGGLES. That’s what he does. Light years from where he was when he first met Ray. Spirit lifted up. Fatherhood redeemed. He GIGGLES. When was the last time you ever did that, with sheer delight? I know it’s fiction, but fiction is better than anything else in telling the truth about what it means to be alive. Our UUCA phoenix symbol is real. From the ashes, new life. No one is ever so lost that they can’t be found again. That’s Universalist faith. That’s what WE believe, a Spirit of Life people.
This morning, what does your field of dreams look like? What’s your living vision and living purpose? I want to close with a poem about fatherhood, and the need for fathers to have living dreams to serve so that they can stay strong for their children, of the flesh, or of the spirit. From the German poet Rilke:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.