One of the English language’s most famous poems about loss is “Remember” by Christina Rosetti; the sonnet’s final couplet reads
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
I for one would rather forget that my father died suddenly at age 60 and remember that try as he might, he could not stifle the explosive guffaws when watching the movie Airplane! I would rather forget that my mother’s last hours were spent suffering in a hospital and remember that she would sometimes pick me up from school and stop by the video store so we could indulge ourselves in a classic movie before Dad got home from work.
Many of us gathered here today have losses that are hard to bear – parents, children, partners, beloved friends and family – people who meant so much to us. And we have losses of a different nature – for this community, it is the loss of a longstanding and much loved building.
On Friday night, you began to create a wall of memories, which is laid out here on the stage for you to add to after the service today. It is easy and comforting to remember the fun, the loving and touching moments, the happiness our loved ones brought to us, the joyful times you had in that building with its amazing windows and huge mural. Yet our tendency as human beings is to memorialize loss. We go to gravesites, we build makeshift altars, and on a larger scale, we build memorials – often of granite and marble – to mark the moments of loss.
Are we obsessed with loss? I don’t think so… I think exactly the opposite is true. We remember loss because we are obsessed with life.
Of course we mourn loss. When it’s the loss of a closed loved one, it cuts us in intimate ways – the death of my partner in 1998 was like losing a limb. When it’s a little more distant, like the constant barrage of mass shootings and senseless murders – it cuts into our understanding of thriving in global community and leaves an existential feeling of loss. When it’s something not human, like a building, it’s much more complex. We struggle to put our feelings for something that didn’t feel into context, knowing that for all that it was ‘just a building’, place matters.
It’s all so difficult – these memories. We grapple internally with loss, with pain, with the deep well of sorrow that drowns us in cold unsettling grief; yet while much of our personal mourning is private, we publicly memorialize.
Why do we take time to memorialize? Why do we ritualize it? We do, after all – we have services and parades and graveside markings and songs. We’ve been doing this for millennia – we see evidence of it in the psalms written during the Babylonian exile in the 5th century BCE, where the Judeans mourned the home they had been forced to leave: “by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” There are ancient markers where battles where fought, and stories passed down about Badon Pass and Hannibal and the 300. Today, we see evidence everywhere; even in my little hometown of Taborton in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains, the veteran’s group puts fresh American flags on all the graves of veterans in the little cemetery on the hill overlooking Little Bowman Pond, complete with a brief ceremony at each stone. There are larger memorial ceremonies, and even a Memorial Day in May remembering those lost in war.
Memorializing formally, as ritualist Brigitte Sion says, creates a space where we can claim our right to grief and mourning; we can’t just ‘get over it’ – we need to make space for our memory. And when that space isn’t provided, we find ways to make it.
Sometimes the space is physical, but sometimes the space is in the silences. The space to sit, and look inward, and remember.
I invite you now to a time of quiet reflection and remembrance.
Meditation in Silence
The good news about remembering loss is that context overcomes the sharpness of the loss. Right after my father died, the fact of his death was the overriding thought in my head; I thought first of my father and his death, which led me to think about what losing him meant – no more felling trees with him, no more watching him mow the lawn with his bright orange Houston Astros cap, no more affectionate “Hey, Gracie” when I walked into a room.
But eventually, the loss wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Eventually, it was hearing a Houston Astros game on tv that reminded me of his cap; or watching Airplane! and recalling his all too rare laughter; or seeing a stacked cord of wood and remembering the time we took down a tree that barely made a sound as it fell, calling into question the Zen koan and eliciting my father’s patented wry smile.
And yes, we still have a habit of cooking his favorite dinner, beef roulades, on Christmas eve. We often forget why we do it now – until we sit down to dinner and remember. It’s what Jesus encouraged his followers to do just before he was betrayed and taken away by the Roman soldiers; eat this bread, drink this wine, and remember me.
Note that it’s not “sit here in the dark and cry and remember and let that be the thing.” Now, it’s “do something and remember.” Don’t let the loss be the thing, make meaning from the loss.
This is our call, a year after the fire. We aren’t just to remember but to do something. To make meaning.
What does the loss of the building mean? Is it just a tragedy? Is it the end of something? Or is it an opportunity? My father would never have expected me to stop living and to what he taught me about life and the pursuit of truth and meaning – nor, I suspect would he have wanted me to forget how to fell trees and build gardens. Jesus never expected his followers to stop living and forget the lessons he taught about how to love and treat each other and connect with that which we understand as the Divine.
No, the memory – the remembering – helps us make meaning. We know we have lost something, but in our memories – the meaning of the life, the lessons, the place – inform our present and our future. We are the sum of all that is known – our memories blend with others’ memories, and we form new ideas, new connections, new meaning.
In our hymnal is a pretty, gentle round inviting us to make meaning out of our loss. I invite you to sing with me.
Meditation in Music: #396, I Know This Rose Will Open
One of the most powerful memorials I have ever experienced is the AIDS quilt. Unlike a large, permanent memorial, like the Wall or the Holocaust Museum, that is planned and sanctioned and funded – it is organic, and surprising, and moveable. Adding to the quilt is a given, for it is also ever-changing. It begins with friends, sitting together, sewing and painting and gluing – and talking. Sharing memories, tears, and tissues. And then it’s added to a larger quilt, where more memories are shared as it’s attached to quilt pieces from others; there, our memories become attached to other memories. And then, it is displayed…and others have a chance to remember, to see these lives. And when it is displayed, the names are read. We hear those names – those lost to this horrible disease, those who initially were marginalized even as illness decimated an already marginalized community. I’m sorry to say I have worked on more than one quilt piece – but I am glad that I can remember, and that others can share those memories.
In memorial, the act of remembering is a physical act, that connects us with the past, that connects us with life, that alters time so that past and present can meet, even for a short while. And we find strength in the remembering. Director Anne Bogart says “As a result of a partnership with memory and the consequent journeys through the past, I feel nourished, encouraged, and energized. I feel more profoundly connected to and inspired by those who came before.”
Connected and inspired.
Like a religious community, who comes together just hours after a devastating fire, huddling together to be with each other and find answers, to hold one another and cry with one another and process. A religious community that still comes together, week after week, to hold, and remember, and connect, and become inspired.
I know this is hard – several of you have to me said in passing “I don’t want to remember”, and yet we cannot help but remember, every time we drive past the empty lot on the bend, every time we walk into this room to worship.
But it is important to remember, because it is in remembering that this religious community lives. It is in remembering that we make meaning. And it is because of the meaning that we live. So let’s make meaning.
Where is our meaning? It’s here – in our community. It’s here, in our stories and our dreams. It’s here, in our hopes for the future.
We have a choice – of what lives, and what doesn’t. When I think of my mother, I don’t give much weight of memory to that last day at the hospital. Rather what lives is the endless stream of memories about movies we shared, how to prepare her potato pancakes, how she encouraged me to treat others.
What lives with us? The fights over the organ? Or the joy of good music? The varying opinions on the mural? Or the commitment to the arts? What lives in us is what we tend and care for. We could tend old wounds, old arguments, old resentments. OR…we could tend the meaning that our memories remind us of – our commitment to spiritual depth, justice, compassion, equality, and connection to the earth and each other.
What we tend is what lives.
So where shall we plant the things we want to grow?
What shall we plant? Things that represent new life – plants – in this case English daisy seeds that will grow year after year.
But we will also plant hopes hopes and dreams and ways of thinking, words and phrases written on these tags that remind us of what we want to thrive in our community.
We’ve been talking a lot about that this year – how can we be with each other in new and exciting ways? How can we turn this tragedy into an opportunity? How can we turn the page, turn over a new leaf, and write a new story for the next 185 years?
So let us plant some seeds that will bloom year after year… and let us plant the seeds of our hopes, letting these words and phrases remind us as time goes on how we are rising up like a phoenix from the ashes.
So come – plant some seeds, and plant some hopes and dreams. In this way, let that which was lost live on.
Photos by Mark Sisson.