Summer Daze

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, July 3, 2005 – 

To stay in one place and watch the seasons come and go is tantamount to constant travel: one is traveling with the earth.

– Marguerite Yorcenar

Reading Picnic, Lightning Billy Collins

It is possible to be struck by a meteor

or a single-engine plane

while reading in a chair at home.

Safes drop from rooftops

mostly within the panels of the comics,

but still, we know it is possible,

as well as the flash of summer lightning,

the thermos toppling over,

spilling out on the grass.

And we know the message

can be delivered from within.

The heart, no valentine,

decides to quit after lunch,

the power shut off like a switch,

or a tiny dark ship is unmoored

into the flow of the body’s rivers,

the brain a monastery,

defenseless on the shore.

This is what I think about

when I shovel compost

into a wheelbarrow,

and when I fill the long flower boxes,

then press into rows

the limp roots of red impatiens-

the instant hand of Death

always ready to burst forth

from the voluminous cloak.

Then the soil is full of marvels,

bits of leaf like flakes off a fresco,

red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick

to burrow back under the loam.

Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue,

the clouds a brighter white,

and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge

against a round stone,

the small plants singing

with lifted faces, and the click of the sundial

as one hour sweeps into the next.

“Summer Daze” The Rev. Alison Cornish

I have strong memories of a couple of summers growing up. For a few years our family rented a cottage on a lake just half an hour away from our home. Mom, my brother Michael and I moved out there for two weeks, and Dad “commuted” to his job, joining us every evening after he got off work. It was a vacation in the sense that we were not living at home, but in many ways, life actually went on as usual. There were still all the normal household tasks to accomplish – meals to prepare, clothes to be laundered, and the details of life to be tended – and yet, for me as a child, we might as well have been in a different country rather than in the next town.

I have vivid memories of where we stayed at Coventry Lake. The cottages we rented were not what Long Islanders on the east end call a “cottage.” These were more like glorified cabins, named unimaginatively after the color their owner, Mr. Carlson, had painted them. We stayed successively in the “white house,” then the yellow, and finally grand “Redwood.” The cottages were swaybacked and drooped low to the ground, but each one had those requisite attributes of a true cottage – a screen door that snapped shut on a rusty spring, wood floors swept clean each morning with a straw broom, chenille bedspreads that carried a distinctive smell of “cottage,” jigsaw puzzles and well-worn paperbacks stacked on the musty bookcases.

There was surprisingly little to do. Take a rowboat out for a go ’round the lake, circumnavigating the little island. Sit at the end of the dock with a fishing line, the hook adorned with a freshly dug nightcrawler. Swim back and forth between shore and the anchored raft – but only if you were old enough (I never seemed to be). On rainy days, read a whole book, play cards, do that jigsaw puzzle, bake some cookies.

Before I go all nostalgic here and say “it was perfect,” let me catch myself and say, “yes, it was pretty darn wonderful.” But what was so wonderful falls somewhere outside the clichÈs, “those were the good old days” or “life was so simple then” or “summertime, and the living is easy” or “ah, childhood” – although there is probably some truth in all of those. No, what was wonderful about these summers was the sense of time – or, rather, timelessness – that I can still feel tangibly by recalling specific images and memories. Being at the lake was about getting up in the morning and having the day stretch out in front of us to play out as it might – no plans, but instead following the beat or muse or rhythm – of not even being sure what day it was, because it just didn’t matter … the point was to be in complete synch with the moment, and to let the weather, or the mood, or some deep intuitive impulse make the decision about what would happen next. And, it was about the feeling of wholeness that came from living, for a time, in that way.

The sense of time, or timelessness, and wholeness, which I experienced in those summers at the cottage is a rapidly diminishing part of all of our lives – even in those rare times when we are not working at one, or several, jobs. In fact, I – and some of you – live in a place where the majority of the people around us during the summer are ostensibly “on vacation.” But my observations tell me these folks “vacation” in pretty different ways than I did growing up. Just watching the speed of cars, furrowed brows, cell phones ringing, even on the beaches, it seems clear that these people are doing more than rowing around an island or whiling away an afternoon with a jigsaw puzzle. In fact, from the outside, it seems that “vacation” looks a lot like the rest of the year – same life, different setting.

Looking back, I guess I would call our time at the lake not simply a vacation, though it had some of those attributes. It was, for me, a time of deep spirituality.

Uh oh, there’s that word. Spirituality. There is perhaps no other word that has so consistently swirled about my time here with you over the last few months than “spirituality.” Without a doubt, this is a hot button subject for Unitarian Universalists – spirituality – what is it?

Do we need it? Will it be imposed? What is it? Does it mean God is taking over Unitarian Universalism? Is your definition the same as mine? Do I have to have it? Do you? WHAT IS IT, ANYWAY?

Don’t think that I’m actually going to answer all of these questions! But I will tell you what I think I mean when I say “spiritual,” and maybe that will start the conversation. To me, spirituality is the sensation of being both fully and completely immersed in the moment at hand, and yet at the same time, experiencing a connection to something much larger, broader, than myself. That’s why I so love the quote from Marguerite Yorcenar at the top of your orders of service. She says: To stay in one place and watch the seasons come and go is tantamount to constant travel: one is traveling with the earth. She perfectly describes what is to me a spiritual moment – stay in one place, be wholly and completely in the “now” – and by so experiencing that specific moment in time, know a larger truth – in this instance, that one “is traveling with the earth.” Whether I knew it or not lo those many years ago, that’s what time at the cottage was for me – for those two weeks, as the days unfolded before me, I was fully a part of the moment – immersed in my experience of the specifics of place, and at the same time connected to my own intuition, and to the eternal rhythms of the earth and sun which I knew as the light as it moved from dawn to dusk, into the night, and around again to bring the next day.

To me, this awareness is a mark of spirituality.

I see a spiritual moment described in Billy Collins’ poem that I read earlier – He says

This is what I think about

when I shovel compost

into a wheelbarrow,

and when I fill the long flower boxes,

then press into rows

the limp roots of red impatiens-

the instant hand of Death

always ready to burst forth

from the voluminous cloak.

Then the soil is full of marvels,

bits of leaf like flakes off a fresco,

red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick

to burrow back under the loam.

Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue,

the clouds a brighter white,

and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge

against a round stone,

the small plants singing

with lifted faces, and the click of the sundial

as one hour sweeps into the next.

In fact, the poet even adds another layer to my first description of “spirituality.” First there are the common and small details of our lives – the compost, flower boxes, roots. It is their very ordinariness that points the poet, and the reader, to contemplate the specter of death. And then the immediacy of the world is somehow transformed – “Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the clouds a brighter white.” Yet it all takes place in “ordinary time,” – “the click of the sundial as one hour sweeps into the next.”

And yet, in the midst of this inbreaking awareness of the beauty and preciousness of the world, there is the specter of death – “the instant hand of Death always ready to burst forth from the voluminous cloak” –

We diminish spirituality when we expect it to be all bright smiles and happiness. Spirituality is there in death and loss as well as in sunsets and a soaring sea gull.

When I experience these moments, it feels to me as if I have personally become the connection between two very different poles – at one end is a snapshot of a very specific moment, one that holds great intimacy, and at the other pole is a fleeting glimpse of that which is ultimate – that which I choose to call God, but what others call mystery, or nature, or a higher power, or the way of the universe, or the unknown. A spiritual moment of intimacy and ultimacy might happen as Pat and I together watch the last rays of the sun fade into twilight, but it might also happen at a bedside in a hospital next to a critically ill patient.

And, then again, these same circumstances might not yield such a feeling at all. For though we can set the stage for a spiritual moment, we cannot write its script or choreograph its entrance.

Like an involuntary shiver up the spine, a moment that I think of as being spiritual appears in its own time and space.

Yet, we can set the stage. Unitarian Universalist minister Arvid Straube calls this kind of preparation “a spiritual maintenance schedule.” Sure, he says, “the spirit will break in to our obsessed, anxious lives on occasion, whether we do anything about it or not. But we can derive immeasurable benefit from spending just a little bit of time each day nurturing our spiritual life.” He compares his spiritual maintenance schedule to a car’s owner’s manual, but with a lot fewer requirements. He has four commitments on his schedule:

First, a daily practice of spending time in prayer or meditation. He says it can be as few as ten minutes a day – though 30 minutes a day is ideal. But think of it as ten, he says, because no matter how busy you think you are, you can find ten minutes a day for this. And it’s worth looking at his definitions of “prayer” and “meditation” because I think these, too, are loaded words for Unitarian Universalists. Prayer, he says, “is simply being in touch with the most honest, deepest desires of the heart … Prayer is simply getting in touch with the deepest desires and currents of the heart in quiet, and in as much trust as we can muster, with as much honesty as we can possibly find. That’s all.” No special words, no specific form, no deity required. And Arvid points out that meditation takes many forms – silence, walking, yoga.

Meditation, and prayer, in his words “help us find our wholeness.”

Second, he calls for a weekly practice of Sabbath – “one day a week where you don’t do anything that you’re obligated to do. You don’t work or shop. You just enjoy being alive.” Perhaps this comes closest to describing my experience as a child at the cottage – it was a form of Sabbath because, without obligations, I freely experienced the sensation of just enjoying being alive.

Arvid says “for families with children, I think this is the most important [spiritual practice] of them all, because we are raising a generation of children who don’t have their parents’ time.”

He continues, “when I’ve preached about the Sabbath, parents come to me and say, ‘It’s just not possible. There are all the chores that have been saved up’ … But what’s more important? Time with your children or things for your children?” His words remind me of a conversation I had not long ago with a young girl. Her father had recently changed jobs from the night shift – going to bed just as the kids were getting up – to a day shift. Rosie told me “now we go to the beach every single day after he comes home from work. It doesn’t matter how tired we are, or what the weather is, or who else is around … every single day, we go to the beach together.” She said it with such conviction and pride that I felt tears spring to my eyes, even though I had never met her dad.

Third, Arvid talks about a commitment – at least monthly – to being part of a group that “nurtures your spiritual development.” This might be a 12-step group, or a women’s or men’s group, or a dream group, or a support group that helps you with a common struggle, like grief, or cancer, or blindness – “any group that meets with the purpose of encouraging each other in our spiritual growth and helping each other to see where the spirit might be leading us now.” It is in conversation, in relationship, that we hear about new ways of looking at the world, and receive affirmation for our own journeys of the spirit.

Finally, Arvid recommends a yearly three- to ten-day guided retreat, a more extensive version of whatever your preferred practice is – meditation, yoga, silence, prayer – it doesn’t matter what, only that you have a chance to sink more deeply into the discipline.

Arvid closes his thoughts with these words:

“I really hesitated for a long time offering this schedule, because I was worried that I would help to foster a misconception. I don’t want you to think that the things on the schedule are spiritual and the rest of our lives are not. The goal of these practices is to help us get to the point where our whole lives are spiritual practice.” Ultimately, there is no difference between the spiritual and ordinary stuff of life. “There is no difference between prayer and the living of life. There is no difference between meditation and the living of life.” That’s the aim, but the point is to practice.

And practice is how Arvid suggests that we “set the stage” for the spiritual in our lives – to give the space and time for that shiver up the spine. Once a day – ten to thirty minutes in prayer or meditation – once a week – take a day free of obligations or work to rest – at least once a month – meet with a group that nurtures your spiritual development – and once a year take a three- to ten-day guided retreat away from home. And what will happen? While we can’t know the specifics, in all likelihood our experience of life will grow richer, deeper, and more meaningful.

Is it hard to maintain this kind of “spiritual maintenance schedule?” For most of us, it’s hard to change how we have come to live our lives. What Arvid suggests comes easier to some than others, and some practices are easier to adopt than others. For example, I’ve been meeting with a women’s group not once a month, but once a week, for over 7 years now … but keeping a weekly day of Sabbath? I find that almost impossible. But I keep trying, keep writing “off” in the little box on my calendar, keep devising ways to “remember to remember, when I remember.” I’ll venture that most of us have at least the beginnings of the structure Arvid outlines already in our lives.

None of us can return, except in memory and story, to the times past. But my “summer daze” as a child in a weatherbeaten cottage on a lake serves as a kind of well, a source, for the feeling of wholeness of the kind I – and perhaps you – yearn for today. Over the rest of these “Summer Daze,” I hope to continue to build on the fragile structure I have in place to support my commitment to a life for the spirit – my own, and that which keeps company with the larger forces of Life. I invite you to do the same. It is a good time to do this.

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