Word order is a particular problem in fish meetings, which Miles said she dreads. In a long sentence about a particular variety of fish, and in a language where the noun – the name of the fish – comes towards the end, the interpreter is left guessing about the subject of the sentence until it's completed.http://gizmodo.com/inside-the-weird-bra
Zinn: You view the conflict as being primarily about pipe-weed, do you not?http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/unus
Chomsky: Well, what we see here, in Hobbiton, farmers tilling crops. The thing to remember is that the crop they are tilling is, in fact, pipe-weed, an addictive drug transported and sold throughout Middle Earth for great profit.
"when you have a thought, you write it downhttp://yudkowsky.tumblr.com/post/103192
'You are different from the others. You will never know their innocence… and that is why you should hate your own existence. Die. Die. Die.'
then you figure out whether, if your life were a fantasy novel, these words would be spoken by figures wearing black robes, and speaking in a dry, whispering voice, and they are actually withered beings who touched the Stone of Evil
and if so then you don’t listen"
As we approach the holiday season, we might be reminded more often of family myths and stories. We have choices about how to emotionally and spiritually prepare for this season of reflection. This sermon was written for the UU’s of Fallston, November 23, 2014.
* * * *
Sometimes when I am working on a sermon, the subject will make me think of some music that gets stuck in my head for a few weeks. This time, one of the earworms was “Memory” from the musical Cats (by Andrew Lloyd Weber, Trevor Nunn, T. S. Eliot, and Zdenek Hruby), based on poems by T. S. Eliot.
All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days
I was beautiful then
A time I knew what happiness was
Let the memory live again
The song evokes painful nostalgia, but also a sense that the way we bring up and reflect on the past has implications for how we can move forward into “a new day.” With the holidays approaching, there will be advertisements that encourage us to make positive memories with our extended families, revisit an idealized past, and reconnect with the people who have known us the longest. Whether that is a good idea or even possible for any of us is kind of beside the point. Memories, especially family memories, are likely to be a factor this holiday season. We have some choices about how to emotionally and spiritually prepare for a period of reflection.
In my family, musicals are part of the story. My middle brother’s elementary school class took a field trip to see a performance of Cats when it came to DC. To prepare, they studied T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and did an art project on the poem of their choice. One of the actors from the touring production visited his school and led a workshop in which the children pretended to be cats. The same actor met the children at the dressing room door on the day of the show. I remember seeing the book of poetry propped open all around the house, clearly getting some use. I also remember my brother coming home that day, exploding with descriptions of the special effects surrounding the character of Mr. Mistoffelees.
My brother (who gave me permission and additional material for this story) said that everything about the show met him right where he was. He wrote to me:
“In the theater I was sitting next to dad in the balcony. It was awesome. Magical. I loved cats so much as a kid, and here were all the things I could ever imagine springing to life in glorious costume, song, dance, and spectacle … the thing I focused on overall was the stories … that each cat was amazing in its own unique way. Still kind of the message of my life.”
My brother vividly remembered details from that performance, about thirty years ago. He has gone on to be an artist, a puppeteer, an educator, and a teacher of teachers. Don’t tell him I said so, but I am very proud of him. I have no doubt that the artist-in-residence experience and the performance represented a turning point for my middle brother. (I feel compelled to mention here that I also have a youngest brother, who was three or four years old at the time. I’m proud of him, too.)
My dad, on the other hand, was kind of confused. He went with my brother’s class as a chaperone. He didn’t get it. When he got home, my Dad talked about feeling a bit anxious when he realized that he hadn’t instructed my brother to dress in church clothes, as the other parents seemed to have done. As I recall, he didn’t have much to say about the performance itself.
A few months later, in his ongoing quest for fairness, Dad took me to see Joel Gray in a revival of Cabaret at an outdoor theater. Remembering the wardrobe conversation, I tried to dress nicely. I remember being cold and enjoying the show anyway, although I am sure I complained. Dad loved the show and thought it was much better than Cats. In later years, Dad mentioned the comparison many times, to my brother’s sadness. (Dad mentioned the comparison again when I talked to him about using this story in today’s sermon.) It is hard to love something so much and not have your parent share your enthusiasm. I know when I’ve introduced him to things I’m devoted to (like the new Doctor Who), and he didn’t turn into an instant fan, I’ve been disappointed. It can feel a little bit like a negative judgment from someone whose opinion matters very much.
Now that we are older and have some practice thinking about our dad’s needs before our own, my brother and I have more understanding about why he enjoyed one show more than the other. Cats is episodic. It doesn’t have a traditional plot arc or realistic characters. Cabaret has a narrative with plenty of room for emotional distance. My dad likes stories because of the way they help him make sense of the world. If he wants to remember something, he contains it in a story. It’s still sad that he doesn’t feel the same way about some of the things my brothers and I all enjoy, but it feels a bit better to realize that his preferences are about him, not us. That sounds obvious, but I don’t think we’re the only kids in history for whom that lesson comes late in life. I appreciate that he has been willing to try things out with us, even when they aren’t his cup of tea. When I think of all the art shows, school plays, scouting ceremonies, and who knows what else he showed up for, I am in awe.
Looking back on our family’s exploration of music theater in the late 80s, it is interesting to me that we were all arranging our memory of that experience as it was happening, and that our memories of that time have been continuing strands of conversation in our relationship since then. The way we create memories influences us, the way we talk about them later affects our relationships, and our ability to reframe those memories in later years impacts our ability to heal and grow. As we encounter live and remembered family members over the next few months, we can try to construct new memories with care, to be curious about the perspectives of the people we’ve made memories with, and to reframe negative experiences with compassion and understanding.
Construct Memories with Care
The first step in having memories that strengthen a relationship is in the way we tell ourselves the story of our lives as it is happening. Once we have interpreted the facts a certain way, it is hard to separate the raw data from our interpretation of it. When we ascribe motives to others, group an incident with our understanding of a larger trend, or make inferences about information we don’t have first hand, we are making choices about the internal monologue of our life stories.
Recently, I received an email inviting me to an event and asking if I could help out a bit. There was a flyer attached, which I didn’t open because the relevant details were in the email. I replied that, yes, let me know what I could do, and I wrote the date and time in my calendar. The day of the event, I got another message with more information about how I could help. I responded that I would be there and at what time. When I parked the car, I was feeling pretty good about being early enough to help. As soon as I walked in the door, I knew I had made a mistake. The event was in full swing, almost half over. I had missed some meaningful content and let people down who were hoping for my help. In my calendar, I had written that the event started at 8:00. The email I received had said 7:00. The flyer that I didn’t read stated the actual start time, which was 6:30. It was an exercise in humility. My friends love and forgive me anyway.
I was reminded that I might be more skeptical of the things I am absolutely confident that I know for sure. It’s possible that I need to be more careful to wear my reading glasses when I am entering dates into my calendar. If I want to confirm information with someone, I need to ask directly rather than assuming they will correct me if I’m wrong. Although this time I didn’t do it, I’m usually in the habit of checking multiple sources for event information. Now I know why.
How similar is this to the way we construct family memories. Two people in the same conversation will remember it very differently. The words get mixed up in our minds with our interpretation of those words, which are in turn influenced by all the other conversations we have ever had with that person on that topic. Those two people might come away both being absolutely confident that they know for sure what happened, even if the other person disagrees. Yet we can always back up and try again with our glasses on, or at least with an ear toward checking interpretations. We can talk about the multiple layers of meaning going on in a single conversation, before those layers get compressed into one story that may be true in some conflicting ways. Just like checking multiple sources can improve the accuracy of a calendar item, asking for different perspectives can bring more fullness to our understanding of a conversation we’re having in that moment.
In a sermon last year (“Siblings/Sharing,” November 17, 2013), I mentioned the work of Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University. Her insights bear repeating, and I’d like to go in more depth about them this morning than I was able to before. (I’m drawing mostly from her book I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults, but I have also found her other books, such as Talking from 9 to 5, to be very helpful.)
Tannen says there are always cross-cultural forces at work in conversation, even within the same family. People of different generations and geographic backgrounds will bring different frames of reference, different assumptions about the way life works. Because these assumptions are part of the fabric of how we make sense of the world, it can be very difficult to articulate why we’re not finding common ground. Tannen relates an anecdote (p.164) about Albert Macovski, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.
“His parents warned him he’d be making a big mistake if he went ahead with his plans to become an electrical engineer because it was too hard to get into the electrician’s union. Working class immigrants from Poland, his parents had only one frame associated with things electrical. The worlds of engineering and of universities were outside their experience.” Tannen has other examples of the ways parents and grandparents and children miss each other’s meaning because their frames of reference don’t match, like an absent stair step.
There are also differences in the type of conversation people expect. Tannen identifies report talk, the kind of words that convey bare information or that are used for holding forth on a topic, contrasted with rapport talk, words that mark and deepen relationships with the sharing of intimate information or that explore personal choices through open-ended conversation. When one person is trying to establish rapport and the other person answers with a concise report, that is frustrating. When one person is looking for a report of needed information, it is annoying to instead receive a rapport response, long and not necessarily decisive.
A big theme Tannen found in family conversation was the axis of connection and control. These are two forces we seek and we try to escape in the dance of family dynamics. Furthermore, a family member can easily reach out with what they think is a form of connection and have it come across as an attempt for control. In her chapter about adult siblings (p. 257), she writes:
“Parents in general, and mothers in particular, find themselves nicked by the double-edged sword of connection and control. If you care about people, you have opinions about how they should live their lives, but expressing those opinions can come across as interfering or controlling rather than caring … [Tannen explains that this double-edged sword gets passed to oldest siblings, often but not exclusively oldest sisters. She goes on:] Along with the responsibility of caring for younger sisters and brothers can come the habit of judging their behavior and telling them how they can do things better. When these habits continue into adulthood, older sisters can be resented for taking over and telling others what to do.”
“Rose, an older sister in her fifties, was telling of the strains that had attended a family gathering. ‘I felt vaguely unhappy the whole time,’ she said, ‘because I couldn’t make everyone happy.’ Then she added, ‘I realize this is very narcissistic of me.’ Narcissistic—that is, self-centered—because she was worrying about everyone else? In a way, yes: Thinking it is your job to make everyone happy puts you at the center of the family. In that sense you are being self-centered. But it’s a particular kind of self-centeredness when the power you seek is to make everything okay for everyone else—a benevolent dictatorship. That is what parenthood is. And that legacy is often passed on to the oldest child, especially the oldest sister.”
I think Tannen’s story about Rose shows tremendous insight on Rose’s part. She stopped to ask questions about the role she had been playing for fifty years. She questioned her assumptions and moved toward seeing things from her sibling’s perspective. As that family gathering goes from being a present experience to being a memory, Rose will have an added dimension of understanding. When we don’t talk about our frameworks, our intentions, or our true feelings, we risk entering mismatched data into our permanent memory banks. If we’re in the middle of an emotionally powerful conversation, it is worth stepping back to identify where we’re coming from and to check our assumptions about the other person’s meaning. We can create three-dimensional memories with all of the richness of human care rather than flattening our family narrative into a single story.
Another practice for memories that strengthen relationships is to be curious about the stories we think we already know. Just like we can change our understanding of a conversation before it becomes a memory, we can go back and listen for missing information to add to a past chapter. It is more difficult to reinterpret a memory than a present experience, but we can do it. If we’re in a position to talk with family members about the past, we can ask questions, listen, and be willing to let go of the meaning we constructed out of that story. Tannen shares one such reconciliation from her own family (p.223):
“As an adult my father became acquainted with a cousin whom he had met only once, when they were both small children in Poland. This cousin had harbored resentment from that one meeting because, for a long time after, their mutual grandfather had used the visiting city cousin as a remonstrance: ‘Why aren’t you religious like your cousin Eli?’ But the story behind that meeting shows how mistaken his grandfather was.”
“My father was living in Warsaw with his mother’s family. This cousin was living in Kielce, where my father’s father was from. When my father was six his mother took him to visit his father’s family. The favorable impression was made when the cousin (who did not normally wear a skullcap) tried to snatch the skullcap off my father’s head. As my father tells it, ‘To prove how serious I thought it was, I hauled off and smacked him.’ The irony is that my father did not normally wear a skullcap either. But when his mother took him to visit his deceased father’s relatives, she had warned him that his grandfather was very devout, so he had better wear a yarmulke at all times. When he fought his cousin who tried to knock it off his head, it was his mother’s anger that he feared, not the Almighty’s.”
What a revelation it must have been to her father’s cousin to find out that the famous cousin Eli from Warsaw was just a regular person trying to avoid his mother’s punishment. Similarly, I imagine it was strange for Tannen’s father to find that he had been an unwitting character in a myth constructed by his grandfather. It is a blessing to have one of those flashes of insight about the past, like suddenly realizing you’ve been holding the map of your journey sideways.
Here is where our UU spirituality comes into play. When we have a memory of someone in our family that seems to follow a well-known dramatic trope, like the perfect do-gooder or the underhanded villain, it might be worth questioning our assumptions. Universalism teaches us that people are human, that we all have imperfections and that these imperfections do not cut us off from the human family or from the Divine. The Source of Love is always available to us, if we choose to reach back to its open arms. Therefore, if our personal stories seem to replay a melodrama of universal values, chances are we’re missing some information. People have reasons for committing unkind acts or making bad choices. That doesn’t mean we should put ourselves in harm’s way around people who can’t seem to stop hurting others, but it does mean we should be suspicious of an internal monologue that labels family members as purely good or evil. Fill in the blanks of the old stories if you are able. Be curious.
The third practice for using our memories to strengthen relationships is to reframe. This is sometimes possible even if the other people in the story are beyond reach, cut off from contact or dead. If there is an incident from the past that still holds the weight of sorrow or disappointment, try taking another perspective. Create some alternate hypotheses about what the events might have meant to the other person, both their actions and yours. Try to remember what else was going on in the world and in your lives at the time; give the incident context from that moment rather than cataloguing it with other episodes that seemed to have a similar meaning.
My mother passed away six years ago. I miss her very much. We got along well for the last 15 years of her life, and I have happy memories of her from childhood. When I think back on some of the fights we had and the ways I avoided closeness when I was a teenager, I sometimes feel betrayed by my younger self over the time I wasted. There were the occasions when I was supposed to wait for her somewhere and found my own way home instead. As an adult, I figured out that I did that because I didn’t want to look conspicuous or vulnerable in public, and I also realized how frantic she must have been and how much chaos my absence introduced in her busy day. As a teenager, I didn’t have the words. I probably rolled my eyes and shrugged or stormed out of the room to cover up my inability to understand my own mind. There were also the arguments over how I should be allowed to go wherever I wanted with whomever I wanted at whatever hour.
The reframing part comes with knowing that arguments about freedom are predictable. Those negotiations are part of growing up, and my parents did the best they could to talk things out with me after the shouting stopped. I would have lost my temper with myself sooner than she did. The time we spent arguing was not wasted. It was a symptom of vertigo in the middle of a sharp turn toward adulthood.
Tannen writes that relationships operate along axes of connection and control. The connection continuum ranges from suffocating closeness to estrangement. The control continuum stretches from hierarchy, where the up and down positions bring responsibilities, to equality, where members protect and empower one another equally. Moving along either continuum requires adjustment. Furthermore, any time one family member says something to another, there is the potential to confuse the literal meaning of their words with the metamessage, or heart meaning. Comments meant to protect or to be attentive look like control maneuvers. Actions meant to fulfill a familial obligation come off as reminders of the hierarchy. There are many ways to tell the story of the same set of actions.
If we’re ready to consider reframing a past experience, ask whether something that felt hurtful could also have been an attempt at closeness. Consider the possibility that a misunderstanding could grow from shifts in hierarchy or frameworks that carry different assumptions about one family member’s responsibilities to the other. We may never know the final answers, and an explanation doesn’t erase hurtful behavior, but we might be able to increase compassion for the people who populate our earliest memories, including ourselves.
Antoine de St.-Exupéry, the author of “The Little Prince,” wrote:
In a house which becomes a home, one hands down and another takes up the heritage of mind and heart, laughter and tears, musings and deeds. Love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between the generations. Therefore we do not neglect the ceremonies of our passage: when we wed, when we die, and when we are blessed with a child; When we depart and when we return; when we plant and when we harvest … We live not by things, but by the meanings of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.
As we are creating and reflecting on family memories, we are sifting out the passwords. These keys open doors to strong relationships, growing interdependence, and insights into the people we would like to become. “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things.” The meaning of a family member’s words or actions might not be what it seems. We live by the meanings of connection, nurture, and protection, yet also by the new meanings of cultures and frameworks that are changing as we speak.
Construct your new memories with care. When conversations become intense, consider stepping back to talk about the frameworks you are working with and the heart meaning behind your words. It’s easier to correct a misunderstanding before it becomes a story.
Be curious. Be open to new ways of interpreting family myths and stories. Rest in the unconditional acceptance of the Spirit of Life and believe in the three-dimensional complexity of loving, flawed human beings.
Reframe, even the oldest stories. Take another look at the context around a memory, investigate the dynamics of connection and control that might have been in play. Compassion for the people involved in a painful family story won’t change the past, but it might make it possible to move into the future.
May we write ourselves into long, meaningful stories, filled with mutual respect and care. May our memories lead us into a better future.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.
are you really saying that the flat earth people represent the majority of Christians?Here's my answer:
No, not at all. Only the ones who take the Bible literally.
Very few do. Many say they do, but ask them if they believe snow and hail come from storehouses in the sky, as clearly stated in the book of Job, and they say "that bit's metaphorical". Yet Adam and Eve is not. Neither is the Great Flood, though that depends on the existence of a Firmament with valves in - the ""Windows of Heaven" to let the Waters Above in.
Martin Luther had it right. Either you can believe in scripture as inerrant and literal, or you can rely on "natural Philosophy" - science -, observable facts and reason. The two ideologies are irreconcilable. He therefore rejected reason and natural philosophy.
Natural philosophy because it was wicked,as it contradicted scripture. Reason because while it sometimes supported scripture, it just as often subverted it, it could never be relied on to tell you what you wanted to hear. It was, he said, a whore in that regard. The greatest enemy Faith has."Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters...
It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night... We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding."
- Martin Luther, Luther's Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
- Martin Luther
He was quite right. Reason will only tell you how things are, not how you know them to be through Faith alone.
To take as one example, the facts say that Herod died in 4BC, and that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6CE, ten years later. The Bible says that Christ was born during Herod's reign, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Reason would point out the contradiction. But Faith says the bible cannot by definition be erroneous or contradictory, so Reason must be abandoned.
Christ was born before 3BC, and also in 6CE, And if ( these facts) are beyond our comprehension we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.
I’m very glad I made it to shul today, despite the horrible raw (and slippery) weather — when I was traversing downtown, a lady slid beside me and almost crashed into me. I’m very glad she didn’t, because then probably both of us would have gone down, and that wouldn’t have been good on a number of counts.
The service was good — I really like the Rosh Chodesh blessing when the rav does it — that man has an exceptional set of pipes, and his voice is particularly well-adapted to Jewish liturgical singing (in the same sense that Nina Simone’s voice is perfect for jazz).
There was also a nice kiddush afterward with smoked salmon, salads, and various other things (hey, I like food as much, maybe more than the next person!), and a technically-meat cake (baked in a meat oven, according to M, the lay kashrut expert). Funnily enough, in the kitchen afterward where I was helping to clean up, M. stopped one of the women from filling up a slow-cooker liner with (even cold) water, on the grounds that you can’t do that on Shabbat. The woman said, “I did not know that.” I said, “Yeah, M, I learnt that from my giant set of books on the halacha of Shabbat, which I’ve read already,” and she said, “You have? Good for you!” Then I said to the other woman, “According to the book, you’re allowed to fill up something to soak it if you’re using the water for other purposes, so you can kind of direct the water into it, but you can’t fill it up directly. You have to sort of do it ‘accidentally-on-purpose.’” They laughed. Go me. I’m learning this stuff!
During the kiddush, we had a guest speaker come in, who happens to be the archivist for the local Conservative congregation (and by extension the whole kehila), and talk about some local Jewish history, particularly pertaining to a landmark legal case here in Canada that helped overturn restrictive covenant deeds (in 1951), where one of the people involved was local. The archivist noted that Mitt Romney’s parents had at one time owned property in the contested development, and someone said, “I guess covenant deeds didn’t exclude Mormons, huh?” and everyone either sort of laughed or went “Ooooh…“
The rebbetzin also invited me to come to a “women’s lecture night” that includes a dinner, and said that since I had lost my job, I could pay a donation of whatever I could afford rather than the full price (which is ridiculously cheap at $25; I was expecting it to be at least twice that). I’m going to take that as a step forward in terms of being integrated into the community. It’ll be nice, assuming I’m not living elsewhere by then.
Which brings me to my titular reference (l’Mitzrayim means “to Egypt”). I told the rav that I had lost my job about six weeks ago and that it was looking very likely that I would have to relocate. He said he’d make sure I was referred to another rabbi there (eases my mind) and then gave me a personal insight. He said, (and I think this deserves a really big lehavdil) “It was in G-d’s plan that Joseph went to Egypt, but there was no way Joseph would have gone to Egypt of his own accord. If it had required him to be dragged there in chains, G-d would have caused there to be chains. As it was, the only way Joseph would go there was for there to be a famine… G-d has arranged for your own personal famine and shortage.” That’s not quite his exact words, nor is it the whole thing that he said, but what he said did manage to move me almost to tears. He has quite a talent for that when it comes to me.
I always feel slightly weird emerging back into the “secular world” after one of these powerful experiences. (I actually wish I could just walk home and be alone with my thoughts, although today was really not a good day for me in terms of walking; I had to stop a couple of times and shake out my bad leg, since it seemed to want to be painful and sore. But now is also not the time for me to consider an intra-city relocation. *sigh*)
Then I went home and got under the covers with a couple cats (who follow the lenient ruling regarding pets and Shabbat) and slept until well after motzei. I made Havdala and then ate something, then called my mother, and now I’m writing this and listening to Marvin Gaye.
More days like this, please. Also a new job, while You’re at it. ^_^
I found Laverne Cox's image on the cover disrespectful to Black women I support trans women in their quest for civil rights but I do not support them occupying women's spaces. There are serious inequalities in this country that come with being female. I cannot and will not accept someone who was born a man having privileges over a woman.