Sermon on Legacy

I was invited to speak at my church on Sunday. I spent several weeks (off and on) working on my message and figured I'd foist it off on my unsuspecting blog readers, too.

I also read a couple poems not included in the text below:

Eyes Fastened with Pins by Charles Simic
Men at Forty by Donald Justice

"What Legacy Will I Leave?

For as much as I’ve tried to pretend I am still in the first half of my life, I’ve slowly come to realize that I probably crossed over that invisible line some time ago. Based on my health history, I don’t expect to be an incredibly long-lived person. It’s important that I live long enough to finish raising my daughter, however, because I have seen how her father dresses her when I am not around. Plus, I am convinced that I am the only person in our home capable of unraveling the complexities of our school district's late start/early dismissal schedule. Without me, I’m fairly certain that A would never end up at school on the right days at the right times.

At 42 (in just a few short weeks), I don’t feel that old, but my daughter seems to think I am ancient. She refers to my childhood as “the olden days.” She recently asked me what toys I played with “in the olden days” and I told her we didn’t have time for toys because we were too busy churning our own butter and settling the frontier. Now I know why my mother was so vexed when my middle sister innocently asked her many years ago, “Mom, did they have pens and pencils when you were a kid?”

Still, there are signs that I am indeed aging. Despite my devotion to the practice of yoga and staying at least vaguely fit, I notice that I am a little slower to get up off the floor (and perhaps slightly less inclined to get down there in the first place). Parts of me creak when I wake up. I say things like “those kids” to refer to anyone under the age of thirty. I generally wear sensible shoes. I recently noticed with chagrin that a pair of my favorite jeans is outfitted with a patented comfort waistband. My eyes aren’t working quite right anymore – it seems I am simultaneously nearsighted and farsighted, resulting in the tragic need for bifocals. I get “ma’am’ed” a lot. And so on it goes.

I think often of the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I’m sure many of you are familiar with it. Literary scholars have offered many interpretations of the poem, but the theme of aging and mortality seems unmistakable. It’s a long poem so I’ll just read a portion of it.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worthwhile,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Of course, not a soul among us knows when his or her last day will come. But when it does, will we find ourselves distressed over our inaction, over missed opportunities, over the woulda coulda shoulda of our lives? My yoga instructor urges me to “be in the moment,” but it is so very difficult to do. We are all convinced that there is simultaneously so much time and so very little time. We believe there are an infinite number of days in which we will have the opportunity to right all wrongs but yet not enough time to say, “I love you and appreciate you” to the people in our lives.

And indeed there will be time To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?” Time to turn back and descend the stair,

As I described my declining physical state a few minutes ago, I am sure those of you who are a few years my senior were thinking, “Just you wait, sister!” I know (or at least hope) I have many years ahead of me and can expect to become creakier, wiser, etc . . . and perhaps even to appreciate the process in some way. I’m not ready to “rage rage against the dying of the light” quite yet. I am not planning my funeral, although I do have an irrational fear of bad music being played at that particular event. To prevent this from happening, I have been working on a funeral playlist on my iPod. I have not created a bucket list yet, though I’ve been giving it some thought. I’d like to try kayaking, for starters. I'd love to travel to Europe. My focus today is not so much on death but on the concept of one’s legacy. What will I leave behind and how will I be remembered? What, as Unitarian Universalists, will we each leave behind?

I like to read our seven principles from time to time so that I can be reminded of the beliefs that bind us together and to ask myself, “Am I merely committing these to memory or am I actually living them?”

There are seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote:

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

This exercise requires me to take an unflinching look at my own character. I don’t think of myself as being a particularly nice person so I don’t expect to be remembered that way when I’m gone. I’m cynical. I gossip. I’m terrible at small talk, often forgetting to ask someone “and how are you?” after they’ve asked me the same question. I mutter to myself when driving, calling other drivers names that their mothers would not appreciate. I like to think that the people in my life, including my friends here at the fellowship, do know that I care about them, of course. I may not be the friendliest or most outgoing person you know, but I’m reliable. If I tell you I’ll be somewhere or that I’ll do something, I most assuredly will be there. If I don’t show up, however, you should contact my husband and make sure he knows about my funeral playlist.

I fare better with some of the principles than others. I deeply believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I learned this from my parents. They taught me that a busboy is a cashier is a police officer is a congressman. They taught me that no one is more important than anybody else. I am also glad that I was raised to be open-minded (dare I say, liberal?). I am glad to be able to tell my daughter that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, she can ever tell me about herself that will make me love her any less – and that includes her sexual orientation, of course. Being a UU keeps social justice issues in the forefront of my mind and reminds me that change takes work and activism. Being a UU also helps me to remember that we are all on our own personal spiritual journey and we support each other in that.

Imagine someone who knows you describing you to someone else. What descriptors would they use? “Oh, you know so-and-so, right? Tall, wears glasses?” That sort of thing. Typically, one uses some sort of physical characteristic as a marker. I’ve never heard anyone describe me to someone else, but I’m fairly certain words like “black hair” and “fair skin” are used. I’m hoping they don’t call me chubby but I guess I’ll never know.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we described each other in other ways, honoring the best parts of each other, our hearts and minds?

(I had some ad-libbing here, so you'll just have to wonder what on earth I might have said.)

As for how I’ll be remembered . . . I’d like to hope that I’ll be remembered as someone who cared about animals. The non-profit organization I helped found and build will be part of my legacy. I’d like to be remembered for my stellar taste in music and my love of words and language. That I loved my family fiercely. My daughter is also part of my legacy. It’s a little too soon for me to pat myself on the back and congratulate myself on raising her well, as she is only six. Or, as she prefers, six-and-a-half. I hope I’ll be remembered for caring about things that were important to me and standing behind my convictions. I hope I’ll be remembered as a caring (if impatient) sister, wife, daughter, aunt, cousin, mom, Godmother, and friend.

Recently the chimpanzee that played Cheetah in the Tarzan movies passed away. He was approximately 80 years old. I read an article about his death on The article briefly listed Cheetah’s cinematic contributions and noted that he spent the last 50 years of his life at a sanctuary. The very last sentence of the article was this: "When he didn't like somebody or something that was going on, he would pick up some poop and throw it at them."

Can you imagine if you were remembered for your worst habits or the most unpleasant thing you ever did? If that were the case, the last sentence of the article about me would read something like, “She honked at people who didn’t move when the light turned green, she sometimes did not brush her teeth before bed, and she stole a pair of jeans from Kmart when she was 13.” I’d better recommit myself to living the seven principles and build up some good karma to make up for those jeans. At the same time, though, I suspect that many of us are too hard on ourselves.

I spend so much time and energy worrying about my weight and other aspects of my physical self that sometimes I need a little wake-up call, a reminder that other people aren’t losing any sleep over my substantial mid-section and perhaps I shouldn’t either. I’m not planning to be buried when I die but if I did, it’s not as if my headstone would read, “Claudia was a good egg but holy cow did she like brownies just a little too much, eh?” I have been going to Weight Watchers for over six years now. I lose, I gain, I keep going. One recent Saturday morning, a fellow attendee leaned over and said to me, “Claudia, you have the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I wish I had eyelashes like that.” It occurred to me then that she probably doesn’t notice my weight or think about it at all. Maybe there is more to me than that number on the scale after all.

So, perhaps there is time. For all of us. “Time to wonder ‘do I dare?’ and ‘do I dare?’” Time to say what we mean and mean what we say. To live in harmony with the principles that mean so much to us. As for me, I shall continue my journey towards a more patient and less cynical me. However, if you are ever in front of me at a red light and it turns green, you should really consider driving forward right away.