When I was a boy, I had a philosophy about the best way to eat pancakes. That’s right: a philosophy. You put butter on them. You put syrup on them. And then you eat them. And then you do it all over again.
Just like zombies are spectacularly predictable in how they do what they do, that was me with the pancakes.
One morning, I remember my Baba making pancakes, but she didn’t put any butter or syrup out on the table, like usual. Maybe she forgot? So I offered to go get them. “Not this morning, Toshe,” is what she said (“Toshe” was her nickname for me). She said, “I want to show you something different this morning.”
When finally her work was done over the griddle, and there was a stack of steaming pancakes ready to eat, and the smell was so good in the kitchen (it was a mmmmmmmmmm smell), she came and sat down, and she was carrying with her some sour cream and some honey.
Then she proceeded to open the sour cream and dollop out a big spoonful on the pancake that happened to be on my plate, and she followed that act up with pouring some honey onto the sour cream which was on the pancake on my plate, and she looked up at me and smiled her sweet Baba smile, and she had absolutely no idea that I was screaming inside. She said, “Toshe, you are going to love what this tastes like. I call it ‘sweet and sour.’ It’s so good. Here, try it.”
I had to stop myself from fleeing the table. But I was also I curious, as well as a little bit grossed out, and to a seven-year-old boy, that is a potent combination. So I tried it. Sour cream and honey on my pancakes. And the verdict? It was great! Sweet and sour on my tongue, just like Baba said!
Have you ever experienced something like this before? In your life you are in some kind of zombie pattern that is spectacularly predictable, but either intentionally or by accident, you are led into breaking the pattern, you experience a combination of things that really aren’t supposed to go together but they do, and in the end you just want to lift up your voice in praise? Know what I mean?
Peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. Popcorn and mustard. Chocolate chip cookies with cottage cheese. Weird food combinations that seem gross up front, but you try them, and the result is … praise.
There’s no end to combinations that are weird. If you were here with us for our annual Animal Blessing Service back in August, you will remember the video we showed about an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee and the unlikely friendship that developed between Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog. You saw Tarra lumbering away heavily across a field and Bella scampering between Tarra’s legs, happy as can be. You saw Bella roll over, and Tarra, with her huge tree-like leg, is rubbing Bella’s belly. You saw Bella sick for a time, recovering inside the sanctuary’s office, and there is Tarra, right outside the office, every day, every day, with her sad elephant face, waiting for Bella to get better. I mean, it brought tears to my eyes! You see this, and something happens to your sense of the world, your sense of possibility. For that moment, you become just a little less zombie and just a little more alive….
Now I keep on bringing up the zombie thing, and here’s what I mean. Part of it has to do with the human condition. Psychologists call it “cognitive inhibition.” Evolution has made us into creatures who have mental filters operating all the time, straining out anything that seems irrelevant to physical survival and to our current practical goals. It means that we can often find ourselves living incredibly narrow zombie-like lives (and justifying them through some kind of “pancake philosophy”)—unless and until your Baba comes to you and says, “Try this.” Or you see a video of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog loving each other. Or your minister invites you to do a weird guided meditation with him (more on that in a moment!). Exactly the sorts of things that get filtered out because they don’t seem directly related to physical survival or to what’s supposedly “practical.” Because of how we are hardwired, we have to work diligently to balance out the tendency to fall into narrow habits of perception and behavior. Survival of the body is just not enough for us. There must be survival of the heart, survival of the spirit.
And then there’s the pressures of modern life. I was struck by a recent article in The New York Times by Chuck Klosterman entitled, “My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.” “Mainstream interest in zombies has steadily risen over the past 40 years,” he writes. “Something about zombies is becoming more intriguing to us.” Why is that? Just listen: “[Z]ombie killing is philosophically similar to reading and deleting 400 work e-mails on a Monday morning or filling out paperwork that only generates more paperwork, or following Twitter gossip out of obligation…. Zombies are like the Internet and the media and every conversation we don’t want to have. All of it comes at us endlessly (and thoughtlessly), and — if we surrender — we will be overtaken and absorbed. Yet this war is manageable, if not necessarily winnable. As long we keep deleting whatever’s directly in front of us, we survive. We live to eliminate the zombies of tomorrow. We are able to remain human, at least for the time being. Our enemy is relentless and colossal, but also uncreative and stupid.” Are you hearing this? “As long as we keep deleting what is directly in front of us, we survive.” The irony is that zombie killing reduces people to becoming zombie-like themselves…
There must be survival of the heart, survival of the spirit. Strange beauty is something that helps. Something to break the moment open and get to the good stuff.
It’s what we saw happening in the video from today. The scene is from the Wallrafplatz in Cologne, Germany. It could have happened anywhere. Go to any mall here in Atlanta, and it’s the same thing. Modern people doing modern things, going from point A to point B, with a zombie single-mindedness. Although it would be even more true to things if we saw people walking while texting, or checking their email. (I saw a picture on Facebook the other day. It showed a stream of people walking single file down a sidewalk, and everyone is glued to their smartphones, and the caption read: “Here’s your zombie apocalypse.”)
So we have a zombie apocalypse going on in the Wallraflplatz in Cologne, but along comes a man who sets up a small podium, pulls out his baton, and starts to conduct another man on his trumpet, and all of a sudden, right there in the middle of humdrum, music from a well-known galaxy far, far away. Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-DAH-dah… And people’s faces swivel towards the music, people’s faces light up, they stop, they laugh, they appreciate, they touch a bit of magic that is always already available to us but we get lost, we forget how to find it. But the magic has come back, through the music, and for that sweet moment, we come alive again, we touch the spiritual center of what we are. Doesn’t matter what name we give it. Call it Jesus, call it Rama, call it Spirit of Life, call it joy—it is as natural to life as the air and water and trees. It’s deeper than religion. It’s what we are at the core.
Good music breaks the moment open, and takes us straight there. We experienced it last Sunday in our “I Hate Praise Music” service. (Just out of curiosity: how many of you would have come if the service had been titled “I Love Praise Music”? (Some of you—good! But not so with most others…. Just what I suspected.) Last Sunday: one praise song flowing into another, singing on and on and on … and then that part near the end, when we were singing about love. “There is more love somewhere” and then “Love lifts us up to where we belong” and then “I wanna know what love is” and then back to “There is more love somewhere” and with every repeated line we felt Love growing in our midst, we felt the fullness of the Spirit of Life coming upon us, and spontaneously we stood up and held hands. That’s what happened. At least you all did. I didn’t. I was in my own world, carried away, eyes closed. When I opened them, everyone else was standing, and I wanted to stand up, but I felt way late to the party. But the point is, it was our very own flash mob! It happened right here!
It’s moments like this that remind me of the wonderful privilege of being part of a faith community like this. How our Unitarian Universalist diversity in music and word and race and class and belief and age and ability and on and on—how our diversity uniquely positions us to experience strange beauty all the time. How all the time we can find ourselves exploded out of one pancake philosophy after another if we continue to nurture our diversity and give ourselves to it. Try it. Try praise music. Try it like you try sour cream and honey on pancakes. Just try and see….
Strange beauty is so cool, even if weird, even if threatening. Unlikely combinations of food, of animals in relationship, of unexpected events, of a style of music that some or even many Unitarian Universalists might not be so comfortable with. It’s like Baba coming to us, calling us by a nickname we have not heard for years, saying, “ I want to show you something different.” It heals us, it de-zombifies us, it saves us.
I want to close with a poem I wrote a million years ago (well not really, almost 20 years ago), when I was struggling with my job at the time, teaching college. I was taking a poetry-writing seminar, and though at the time I was not aware of it, now I know what I was doing: looking for metaphors of strange beauty to help me break out of my rut. One of them, which this poem features, is that of making music with a saw. Have you ever seen that before? I once witnessed it in Germany when I was on a high-school trip and never forgot. Well, I can’t say that this poem resolved anything practical, but it soothed me then and it continues to soothe me as I look for ways to break open the moment in the midst of my life with all its history, its complexities, its fears. I call it, “Making the Best of It.”
I looked for a space clear of rigs
and I parked the sore thumb of my Volkswagen.
Went in the diner, found a waitress with her hands full of plates
and the place packed with loggers,
some trying to catch her eye for a flirt,
or talking over Merle Haggard on the jukebox,
so I didn’t wait for her. I took a menu,
slipped in a booth and tried looking hungry so she’d find me.
It’s then I noticed the makeshift stage in the back,
a man huge as any other in this space
doing a sound check, Merle turned down
to a whisper. The waitress finally came. “Ready to order?”
She followed my eyes to the stage and said,
“You got a real treat coming up there.”
Then: “What do you want?”
Half-watching him pull a horsehair bow
out of his army surplus duffel,
thin between the meat of his fingers, I told her,
and as she left to put the order in,
I saw him lift up a cross-cut saw,
grip its beech-wood handle,
steady it as he polished the curved-back steel
so it reflected light. He pulled up a chair,
got comfortable, cracked a few jokes
with the men watching him,
I hardly remember the waitress returning.
I was so unprepared for the sound. It was Chopin!
with all the grace of the piano,
although playing it he looked like a wrestler
holding down one end of his man
with an arm lock, the other arm
bending and twisting a leg off. I thought,
That’s how it is with me, how difficult
to know what it was I wanted, so afraid
of committing to the wrong things,
lost in scenery I had long ago stopped seeing,
looking endlessly for something to do with all my time—
while this man, as his lifelong art, chose,
of all things, the saw
because of his father, his father’s father,
the place he was raised, his family’s need,
wrestling to his brilliant need
the clear cut fate he was born to,
making the best of it.
And that’s the poem. Strange beauty. May there be more and more of it!