The following is taken from a service I led at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018. Also included are all readings that were used.
My Moral Life (by Mark Halliday)
Two years hence. When I’m ready.
After one more set of poems
about my beautiful confusion.
After I’ve read Anna Karenina
and Don Quixote
and the first volume at least of Proust
and one big novel by Thomas Mann—
say three years. Three years hence:
after I’ve written an essay about the word “enough”
and after I’ve done something so delectable
weaving together phrases from Henry James and Bob Dylan
and after I’ve written an amazing meditation on Luis Buñuel
and after I’ve spent a month in Frankfort, Michigan
being very real and thoughtful and full of perspective
and fresh cherry pie
in four years at the most—
I see it there ahead of me casting a silver shadow
back upon me now, bathing me in its promise,
validating the self that will arrive at it
in four years or less (maybe just two years?)…
Glimpsing it there is sometimes like already living it
almost and feeling justifiably proud.
Water pollution and toxic waste and air pollution;
the poverty of black people in my city;
the nuclear arms industry; in my moral life these things
are not just TV, they push my poems to the edge of my desk,
they push Henry James into a sweet corner,
they pull me to meetings and rallies and marches
and meetings and rallies and marches.
There I am in a raincoat on the steps of City Hall
disappointed by the turnout but speaking firmly
into the local news microphone about the issue,
the grim issue.
When I’m ready.
Four years from today!
STORY FOR ALL AGES
Adapted from The Drawing That Talked
Ricky was a little boy who enjoyed going to school and doing all sorts of things, except for art and writing. Using brushes and pencils did not come easy to Ricky, so his works of art did not end happily, and he would give up in disgust.
But one day Ricky was looking through one of the kitchen drawers, searching for candy, when he found bright green pencil with a large pink eraser on top. Not seeing any candy, and with nothing better to do, he grabbed the pencil and a notebook. He opened to the first page and tried drawing a circle. As ever, it did not go well. The Circle was lopsided and the lines were shaky. He was about to throw the pencil away when his drawing began to speak to him.
‘Psst! You aren’t going to leave me like this, are you? Come on, the least you can do is draw me a pair of eyes!’ said the drawing. Ricky was understandably shocked, but he managed to draw two little spots inside the circle.
‘Much better, now I can see myself,’ said the circle, looking around at itself…
“How are you talking when you don’t have a mouth?” Ricky asked.
‘Suspend your disbelief, kid…. Arghh! But what have you done to me?!’
‘I don’t draw very well,’ said Ricky. “I promise I’ll never—“
‘OK, no problem,’ the drawing interrupted. ‘I’m sure that if you try again you’ll do better. Go on, rub me out!’ So, the boy erased the circle and drew another one. Like the first one, it was not very round. This time, he added eyes and a mouth.
‘Hmmm, I think I’m going to have to teach you how to draw until you can make me look good,’ said the circle.
To Ricky, who remained almost paralyzed with shock, the magic talking circle was an authority figure, and he immediately found himself drawing and erasing circles.
The circle would not stop saying ‘erase this one, but carefully; it hurts,’ or ‘draw me some hair, quickly, I look like a lollipop!’ and Ricky obeyed.
After spending nearly the whole afternoon together, Ricky could already draw the little figure much better than most of his classmates could have. He was enjoying it so much that he did not want to stop drawing. Before going to bed that night, Ricky gave his new instructor a hearty thank you for having taught him how to draw so well.
‘But I didn’t do anything, silly!’ answered the little drawing. ‘Don’t you see that you’ve been practicing a lot, and enjoying it all the while? I bet that’s the first time you’ve done that!’
The boy stopped to think. The truth was that previously, he had drawn so badly that he wanted to quit and he had never practiced more than two minutes at a time. Without doubt, what the little drawing had said was correct.
‘OK, you’re right, but thank you anyway,’ said Ricky, and before he went to bed he carefully placed the pencil in his school bag.
The next morning he jumped out of bed and went running to find his pencil, but it was not in his bag. He searched everywhere, but there was no sign the pencil. His drawings were still there, but no matter how much Ricky talked, it did not talk back.
He found another pencil, opened the notebook and quickly drew another little man. It didn’t speak, but as his eyes looked over it, he saw places he needed to fix. He erased his mistakes and fixed them, working until the drawing looked just how he wanted. When he was done, he smiled. The difference between failure and success, Ricky realized, was all in his willingness to keep going.
Richard Nixon, from “Final Remarks at the White House”
I had a little quote in the speech last night from T.R. As you know, I kind of like to read books. I am not educated, but I do read books — and the T.R. quote was a pretty good one. Here is another one I found as I was reading, my last night in the White House, and this quote is about a young man. He was a young lawyer in New York. He had married a beautiful girl, and they had a lovely daughter, and then suddenly she died, and this is what he wrote. This was in his diary.
He said, “She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.”
That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever — but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man.
And as I leave, let me say, that is an example I think all of us should remember. We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time — I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, “We have just got to let the guy through.” We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.
Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
If You Aren’t in over Your Head
As some of you know, I am currently employed, in a part-time capacity—as the historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum. It’s a fun job, particularly for a person like me who loves history. One of the best things about the work is the chance to really dig into presidential history, to better understand the men who have shaped this country for good or for ill.
Of course, some presidents are more interesting than others. How much can you say about Chester Alan Arthur? He had horses and some cool facial hair, but that’s about it. His legacy is limited to some civil service reforms that would fit in a footnote in a history textbook.
Not so with Theodore Roosevelt. With TR, you have a larger-than-life personality, a man who barreled through life with the exuberance of a dozen lesser men. I would wager that at the mention of his name, most of you probably pictured a barrel-chested and mustachioed man in a cowboy hat waving a big stick and yelling “Bully!” while standing next to a lion he had just killed with his bare hands. Sure, it’s a caricature, but it’s not too far off the mark.
Here was a man so tough, so resilient, that when he was shot in the chest while campaigning as the presidential nominee of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party In 1912, he refused medical attention and gave a ninety-minute speech with blood seeping onto his shirt. He began this speech by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” (Meanwhile, if I feel myself getting a hangnail, I’ll be cutting this 15-minute sermon short.) I could probably cite that incident as proof enough that you can overcome any obstacle with enough determination and grit, but in fact, Roosevelt was even more remarkable.
When he was a young child, Teddy suffered from debilitating asthma. At night, his sleep was sometimes interrupted with asthmatic attacks so severe that he felt as if he was being smothered to death. Doctors had no cure, and his parents were, as any of us would be, terrified. Young Teddy was certainly frightened, too, but he was determined not to let his fear keep him from doing what he wanted to do, and, oh, there were a lot of things he wanted to do. He taught himself taxidermy and created his own museum using animals he had hunted. He traveled with his family to Europe and Egypt. When he was eleven, he hiked through the Alps with his father, which is no small feat for a person with asthma. He took up boxing to strengthen a body he believed was too weak. This youthful love of adventure and activity carried him the rest of his life, even through that would-be assassin’s bullet. Yes, the sickly little boy made himself physically strong by sheer force of will. And maybe I could end my sermon here and everyone would get the point I’m trying to make, but there’s more to TR’s story than that.
In 1884, as Richard Nixon noted, what should have been one of Roosevelt’s happiest moments became one of the darkest he ever experienced. Two days after giving birth, to their first daughter, his wife died of kidney failure. The symptoms of her illness had been masked by her pregnancy. That same day, his mother, who was living in the same house, died of typhoid fever. In his diary that evening, he drew a large black X on the page with a brief notation: “The light has left my life forever.” He was 25 years old.
Roosevelt decided to charge forward. He threw himself into public life. In ten years, he was the head of the police commission for New York City, where he worked at ending corruption and increasing standards for the hiring of officers. Seven years after that, he became the President of the United States. His life exemplifies Newton’s law that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Or, as his friend Henry Adams remarked upon TR’s death in 1919, “He was Pure Act.”
How difficult it is for most of us to act at all! I find myself, like Mark Halliday, putting my goals off for two, three, maybe even four years, as lesser ambitions distract me. When it comes to long-term focus, I have the perseverance of a cat watching a laser pointer. I run here, scamper there, and end up pouncing on nothing, Then I do it again.
I’m not alone. As you’ve probably heard, a reported 92% of Americans fail with their New Year’s resolutions. We represent that other Newtonian idea—that objects at rest tend to remain at rest. Like Ricky in our Time for All Ages story, we get frustrated with the results of our efforts and we stop. Anything that makes us uncomfortable is avoided. We seek comfort and ease above all else.
This is not good for us or for our community. If we never risk failure, if we never dare to flop, we will never experience real, gratifying success. As T.S. Eliot said, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
I don’t mean to make it sound like we are in control of our own destinies. After all, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t ask to get shot before he gave that speech. What we are in control of is the way we respond to the forces beyond our control.
As I was preparing this service yesterday, Facebook reminded me of a poem I had written three years ago. It’s called “Dedicated to a Friend,” and I was startled at how neatly it dovetailed with what I wanted to say today.
what’s one more
fire to put out
ball to juggle
bullet to dodge
mountain to climb
burden to bear?
she can handle another
punch to the gut
slap in the face
kick to the head
yank of the hair
poke in the eye.
hold her down
break her spirit
sap her strength
stop her momentum
kill her dreams.
give you a smile
give fate the finger
give her daughter a kiss
give her son a hug
give herself a break.
she can hope
I do not think we need to become, like Roosevelt, Pure Act. In a lot of ways, that’s foolish. If you are shot in the chest, for example. I would encourage you to seek immediate medical attention, even if it means cancelling your plans, no matter how important you think they are. Roosevelt believed in a masculine ideal that does not fit with the way most (maybe all) of us see the world. He believed that bravery in battle was the highest virtue, that war was a good way to test one’s spirits. That Romantic idea died with the First World War, and should have died sooner.
Rather, I would encourage you to learn from Ricky, to move forward thoughtfully, with joy, toward your goals, practicing and failing and erasing and trying again until you are happy with where you are. It will be stressful. It will not, most often, be fun. You will be battered and bruised. Don’t let go of hope. Give fate the finger and keep moving. And when you do accomplish your goals, take a moment to see how far you’ve come. Stand on the peak of that mountain and look at the valley from which you have just climbed. Celebrate. And then keep moving.
Teddy Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but he who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. …Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.