Preached at the First Universalist Society in Franklin
By the Reverend Carol Rosine
March 20, 2016
I’ve been asked a lot in recent weeks what I’ll be doing when I retire at the end of the church year and my reply usually is that I really don’t know. Or I’ll be asked if I’m excited about my upcoming retirement and I usually reply that I have mixed feelings. I know that a lot of you can’t wait until you can retire and dream about what you’ll do instead. But when you’ve really loved the work that you do? What then? I keep remembering my dad who was a workaholic like me and had a tough time after retirement. He ended up with a lot of “what ifs” and regrets when he no longer had meaningful work to fill his days.
Many years ago one of the films that brought an Academy Award nomination for Jack Nicholson was entitled “About Schmidt.” This film opens with Mr. Schmidt sitting in his empty office, watching the clock. When 5 o’clock comes he gets up, puts on his coat, takes one last look around, and then leaves, closing the door behind him. His work is over and later, at his retirement banquet, he is assured that his life has been successful. He’s been good at what he’s done. He’s been faithful to the company. Loyal. He’s done his duty by his family—supporting them by earning a comfortable income. He should be proud.
But late that night, in bed, he turns over, looking at the gray-haired woman beside him and wonders where she’s come from. Who is this old woman beside him? And as the days go by, he admits that there’s so much about her that irritates him. Her incessant cheerfulness. The way she interrupts him. Even the way she sits down. But then, suddenly, without warning, she drops dead. And he’s in a daze. Everything he’s come to expect has been turned upside down. Who’s going to take care of him now? Who’s going to toast the bread for his sandwich just right or make sure that he has barbecue potato chips—not those plain ones? His daughter won’t do it. She’s going to marry a mediocre water bed salesman who’s not nearly good enough for her.
Schmidt’s life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would when he dreamed of starting his own company and being on the cover of Fortune magazine. And now he’s just marking time until he dies. He was an actuary—used to working with tables predicting how much time people have left and he figures he’s got 9 years. He’s a sad man, a very sad man. And underneath that calm, steadfast exterior, he’s an angry man, a very angry man.
This past week as I was re-reading parts of this book and trying to decide what I wanted to share with you this morning, I kept thinking about not only the ending of my time as your minister, but also about Schmidt and how his life had not unfolded in the way he had hoped, and so he ended up walking out of his empty office, head down, shoulders slumped. He was approaching the last chapter of his life in a way very different from the author of this book, Philip Simmons, who was an English professor, married with two small children, when at the age of 35 he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and told that he had less than 5 years to live. ALS, the same disease that ended Pam’s brother’s life as well as the life of my friend Mary Harrington.
I’ve shared stories written by Philip Simmons before because he had so much to teach about how to respond to those unexpected things that life brings. When Philip heard that he had ALS, he knew enough about the disease to know that he, a young man with small children, would die a slow death, gradually being forced to let go of everything he loved so desperately. And yet, instead of sinking into despair, he decided to live his final years thoughtfully, intentionally, completely open to the fullness of what he was experiencing. Instead of dying in 5 years, Philip lived for 10 which gave him time to write this book: Learning to Fall. The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. A book in which he shares a journey in which he experienced fear, anger, sorrow, but also deep gratitude for the blessings that continued to fill his life.
You may recall one of the stories he tells in this book because I’ve told it before. It’s about the dump where he used to go with his father when he was a boy. This old town dump eventually became a waste transfer station when it was decided that you couldn’t have a dump a hundred yards uphill from a swamp damned up by beavers to make a shallow, reedy pond. There were snapping turtles that crawled up out of that swamp each spring to find a place on land where they could lay their eggs.
“One day I went to the dump with my own son, Aaron, who was then six years old. We arrived to see a turtle making its nest in a pile of sand that had been bulldozed to the dump’s edge. She had laid her eggs in a pit about a foot deep and two feet across, but by the time we got there, Marilyn (the waste transfer supervisor) had already removed the eggs from the nest to save them from the raccoons, planning to incubate them at home and return the hatchlings to the swamp. If the turtle knew that the eggs were gone, she seemed unconcerned, and what my son and I watched was a snapping turtle with a shell the size of a hubcap trying to crawl out of a sandy hole.
No matter how many times you’ve heard the story of the tortoise and the hare, you have never really understood it until you’ve watched a turtle get where it needs to go. She had a bad time of it. The sand was loose, and the sides of the pit kept crumbling beneath her, tumbling her back to the bottom. Each time she fell, she resumed her climb without pause, stubby legs churning at the same slow, relentless pace, webbed claws shoveling sand behind her, her prehistoric head with its fabled jaw thrust forward, implacable as time itself. Pathetically, she made no progress, and after a while we turned to the business of dumping trash and sorting bottles, as I explained to my son that Marilyn or somebody would eventually help her out.
But that didn’t happen. By the time Aaron and I had finished our chores and turned to look again, the turtle was gone. No one had helped her. Though we had not been attending to her business, she clearly had, and now she was down in the swamp again, getting on with whatever else needed doing that day.
I have seen other turtles. Out driving in early summer you’ll encounter them on the roads where the road dips to cross a stream. I once stopped my car in the middle of a bridge to let a turtle cross. It must have climbed out of the stream some fifteen feet below, and I got out of my car to watch it haul itself across the asphalt until it reached the bridge’s edge, and then, not knowing it was on a bridge, tip over the edge to plunge back down into the stream from which it had come. Though I don’t know how the turtle felt about this, I felt awful. But while I was busy entertaining my frustration at the wasted effort, while I was busy making the turtle’s fall an emblem for all the botched beginnings and abrupt endings of my days, the turtle was busy swimming to the shore and hauling itself out to begin the long climb up the bank again. As if to say to me, where I stood swaddled in my mooning and moaning self, as if to say, ‘See? See how I dance? See how it’s done?’ ”
You know, this sounds pretty depressing. A turtle whose eggs are taken away, manages to dig herself out of her hole so that she can start the process all over again. Another turtle who climbs 15 feet to a bridge only to fall over the edge and have to start the climb over again. Like poor, sad Schmidt, punching the clock in the actuary office each day only to wonder, at the end, what happened to his life.
But I think that in talking about the way these turtles kept going, doing what they were meant to be doing, Philip Simmons was talking about something else. You see, we have certain expectations for our lives. We expect sometimes, especially when we’re young, that life will turn out like we’ve planned. That people will recognize how special we really are and we’ll be rich or famous or powerful. We’ll find the ideal partner and live happily ever after. Our children will excel and will love us as much as we love them—all the time—and never give us a moments worry. We’ll stay healthy and vibrant and thin and so will those we love the most. And if problems arise? Why they’re just problems and can be solved. But how many of us have had our lives unfold in just the way we’ve planned? Just the way we’ve dreamed?
Life happens. Death, disease, divorce, disappointment. And we find that so much of life can’t be carefully planned. That life isn’t a problem just waiting to be solved, but that so much of life is a mystery, a mystery in which we find ourselves immersed. And yet it is this mystery that can help us appreciate just how precious life really is. As we confront our losses—as we acknowledge how much we have to let go of—it seems that everything is outlined in high relief—becomes sharper, clearer, more beautiful. A paradox, to be sure, but it’s true.
Philip Simmons had 10 years to practice letting go before he died. Ten years in which he kept falling more and more frequently until he lost complete control of his body. But he was not a deeply sad man, an angry man like Schmidt. Oh, he was sad sometimes over all he was being forced to give up, frustrated at what he could no longer do. And he felt sorry for himself frequently. Pity that he referred to as his personal mud season. You see, he knew about mud because he lived in New Hampshire and every year in March and early April in his town, over seventy miles of dirt roads turned to mud, and most of their driveways as well. After school, he says, he’d meet his children “where the bus drops them off on the paved state road, and we walk home through the real thing. We stomp and squish, we poke and stir, we sample textures and colors. Sometimes it takes us nearly an hour to walk the quarter mile.” He knows mud. And he says
“We all, of course, go through personal mud seasons, and these can occur at any time of year. We suffer illness and depression, the loss of loved ones, failed or failing marriages, crises of faith—in ourselves, in others, in our gods. But personal mud seasons need not be brought on by things so great as these. Humans have a peculiar talent for misery, and lacking big reasons for unhappiness, we make ingenious use of small ones, all of the bounced-check and runny-nose occasions of woe. We need the mud, it seems for our mud seasons give us the pleasure of self-pity, which for most of us ranks between bowling and sex. Now, my illness weakens certain parts of the body, but not others, and I’m sorry to say I’ve had to give up bowling.
Still, having given up certain pleasures, I must pursue the ones that remain to me more often, including the pleasure of self-pity. I’ve needed mud more than ever, and a fatal illness offers the advantage of keeping mud close at hand. A few short, wobbly steps have me wallowing. But it’s been five years now, and as a source of mud my illness has lost its freshness. Even the glamour of tragedy wears thin, and I must fall back on the ordinary, everyday returns to mud we all so much depend upon: my computer crashes, the dog chews the windowsill, my children cut each other’s hair with poultry shears, my wife fails to appreciate my talent for staring out the window at the bird feeder. Mud, mud, mud. I’ve learned, though that our need for mud goes much deeper than our need to pity ourselves. We need the mud for what grows out of it….”
My sense is that Schmidt would be oblivious to the mud pulling at his boots as he trudges along. But Philip Simmons while wallowing in it also knows that things grow out of mud. That mud can be the source of new life, of beauty, of unspeakable pleasure, joy even. And so, in spite of and perhaps because of his illness, he manages to live a full, rich life. With eyes wide open. With heart wide open. Listen to his words one more time:
I was in the kitchen one day with my daughter, Amelia, who is six years old. My children know that my hands give me trouble now with little things—all the zippers and clasps and buckles and screws with which we like to think we hold our world together—and Amelia must have remarked on this, and then our conversation went this way:
“My hands don’t work very well, but I can still hug you.”
“And what if your arms don’t work?” she asked.
“Then you’ll have to hug me,” I said. “As long as you hug me, I’ll be OK.”
Now my daughter has a lawyer’s precision and a nose for cheap sentiment.
“Well, Papa,” she said, “if I don’t hug you, you can still survive.”
“There’s nothing to say to this, of course. She knows what the turtle knows, and she’s right. I can survive. And, being human, I know more: not only that I can survive but that I am blessed. Each day that I can get out of bed in the morning, I am blessed. Each day that any of us can move our limbs to do the world’s work, we are blessed. And if limbs wither, and speech fails, we are still blessed. So long as this heart beats, I am blessed, for it is our human work, it is our human duty, finally to rise each day in the face of loss, to rise in the face of grief, of debility, of pain, to move as the turtle moves, her empty nest behind her, her labor come to nothing, up out of the pit and toward the next season’s doing.”
And so it will be for me as I live into what the next stage of life brings to me. I’m feeling a bit muddy now as I ponder what I could ever do that would bring the satisfaction that being your minister has brought. But who knows—there may be a whole fabulous chapter waiting. Perhaps one day my wildest dream may reach fruition, an art wall filled with the work of Carol Rosine, a really late-blooming artist.
Sing: Dear Weaver of our Lives’ Design #22
May our eyes be open to the abundance of Life in which we live,
Our ears attuned to the still, small Voice of Life in which we are,
And our hearts ever reaching to touch and be touched
By the Source of All Life.
So may it be. Amen.