‘What’s the third thing?’ someone asked.
Friday, December 24, 2010
The Last Book of the Summer
September 7, 2010
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
When I first started thinking about this opening service, a few weeks ago, I opened a file on my computer. I do this when I have no inspiration—when I’m drawing a blank. I called the file “The Last Book of the Summer.” I encourage my English students to do this when facing writer’s block: to just open a file and start collecting things, anything to get to get the creative process rolling. Think of it as your very own compost pile; see what grows there. Don’t do any weeding. I imagined that my own file would be a place where I would collect wise sayings—proverbial inspiration for the beginning of the new year. The file would become so chock full that a sermon would just write itself, preferably long before yesterday… preferably before today.
That didn’t happen. My students say the same thing.
So I went back to the name of the file and my original intention: “The Last Book of the Summer.” What did I mean by that? For me, this was all about a state of mind, one I wanted to cultivate intentionally. It was about doing all the things I needed to do to be emotionally and spiritually prepared for another year; it was about curiosity and a yearning for knowledge and beauty and truth. Mostly it meant reading whatever I wanted to read—letting my mind explore freely in the world of ideas and literature, or any field that I wanted. It meant starting to read a new book, even this weekend. This state of mind went far beyond just personal reading, or the courses I took this summer. It could have been called “The Last Hike of the Summer.” Or the last motorcycle ride. “The Last Event of the Summer” was about being instead of just doing; Being with friends or a loved one or seeking peace in nature.
Luke’s gospel weighs in on this dynamic of doing vs. being in the small but wonderful passage about two sisters, Mary and Martha. It’s only four verses long, but it’s the story of a dinner party where Jesus is the guest of honor. Martha is overwhelmed by the many tasks of the dinner, while her sister simply listens to Jesus, and his unconventional spiritual teachings. During this teaching time, you can almost feel the rising irritation in Martha. When Martha complains to Jesus, he defends Mary to her busy, overachieving sister: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” The doers among us are, no doubt, annoyed by this response. Martha was expecting support, and some help. She got neither. But what is the one thing that Mary chose? Jesus doesn’t name it directly, but it is to found by being in the moment, intentionally, not by rushing from one task to another. Maybe it’s completely obvious when you slow down in the moment, with a student or a colleague. Maybe it’s too mysterious to name. Maybe it’s so simple that children know it by heart, and they know when we’re not doing it.
As I was doing my own last events of the summer, I also knew I was playing chicken with the calendar-- the clock was running out. Moreover, and more formidably, I knew I was playing chicken with my to do list. If you keep a to do list, you know exactly what I mean. If you don’t keep a list, I don’t how you do it. Are you rain man? Do you have a manservant? I’ve always wanted a butler. For my sacred to do list, I don’t use a blackberry or any technology: just a notebook and a pen. With just these barest essentials, I can make a little hell all on my own. When I lose my to do list, I am seized with panic and terror…and something indescribably wonderful. Maybe I am finally free. This freedom never happens. I just buy a new notebook. But my activities this summer brought to mind an alternative to the to do list. So what is the alternative? I call it the to be list. These are the places, people, events, pastimes that fill me and you with inspiration, well being, vision, imagination. Love. You can’t be truly present to others without finding ways to fill yourself; to open yourself to the beauty that is all around you in this place, and in your life. To the goodness of God in creation. Like Jesus at the dinner party, it’s hard to name, but it’s the better part. It defies naming in its utter simplicity.
What would it be like to have more than just enough inspiration? What would it be like to have more inspiration than you knew what to do with? To experience a living God; To see a miracle in the ordinary events of our daily lives. You can’t give for very long, or very meaningfully, from an empty place. My to be list had brought up many questions about how to begin a new year.
Some of us have already sent our children off to another year of school. We’re the tardy ones here at Kent. My youngest daughter Althea just started kindergarten last week. Althea has autism, and she is a beautiful puzzle, one that is an honor for me to help solve. But I think we all are. Have you figured yourself out yet? I hope not. Althea really likes school, that’s clear, but she always has. She loves to learn things, in her own unique way. But we’re still completely dependent on written communication from the aides and teacher to know about the big events of her day. On the second day of school, we read that Althea “was having trouble transitioning.” I had to smile. Who doesn’t have trouble transitioning? Transitioning is my biggest problem, I think. Work is fine, except in February. Vacation is great, except at the bitter end. It’s going back and forth between the two that is so challenging; that’s what makes me a basket case. Maybe tonight it will get a little bit easier.
I asked Althea for advice about my sermon yesterday. She responded simply; she turned off my computer screen. Perfect. Shut it down. Sometimes she turns the whole computer off to make her point (she loves gadgets and technology), and she’s quick as a thief. I really have to make sure to save my documents. But Althea had spoken. It was time to work on my to be list with two curious and creative daughters. The sermon would have to wait.
The world is not what you imagined it to be; it can be so much more. To remember that is to choose the better part, the good portion, like Mary before the words of Jesus. In painting a still life, you discover the extraordinary complexity in the simplest objects. In a scientific hypothesis, you leave behind, just like the great scientists before you, the world as it had once been explained by others. It doesn’t quite work the way they said; here’s how things really work. You can prove it. In coming up with your own thesis in response to a work of literature, you think a new thing--chart a new course, for your mind and your imagination. You seek a newer world. You begin your own unique map of the world, how it really looks to you.
I won’t share the title of my last book of the summer (ok, it’s a P.G. Wodehouse; his comedy allows me to face the cruel world with a smile), but there is also the best book category, which I will share tonight. My best book of the summer was The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen. As a novel, it defies classification. It is an odd size to begin with; it sticks out in every stack with other books. The book’s shape is the result of the marginalia in the novel. In the margins of the book are T.S. Spivet’s maps and science experiments, drawings of the people he meets, and his philosophical musings. To enter this book is to enter another world. You’re not in Kansas anymore; you shift into crazy color. The protagonist is a twelve year old cartographer who lives with his family on a ranch in Montana. The boy is a genius, a prodigy, but he is quite humble, even unappreciated. The Spivet family is beautiful and eccentric, but they haven’t been the same since T.S.’s brother Layton died in a gun accident. T.S. was a witness to his brother’s death in the barn, and he is deeply traumatized. Nobody has gotten over what happened to Layton. The book is about T.S. Spivet’s secret journey across the country to the Smithsonian Institute. As a scientific illustrator and a mapmaker, T.S. Spivet wins the Smithsonian’s prestigious Baird Fellowship. His mentor, a Montana college professor, submitted the boy’s work without telling him. The Smithsonian chooses Spivet without knowing that he is a twelve year old boy, and they invite him to give a speech in Washington, D.C. Without informing his parents, or his mentor Dr. Yorn, T.S. decides to travel to Washington, all on his own (he’s a cartographer, after all), travelling mostly by freight trains. I won’t give away his adventures on the road, but I would like to share his speech to the Smithsonian.
Here is T.S. Spivet. Even though he is a fictional character, he makes me proud to be a teacher.
“’Hello everybody…My name is T.S. Spivet. I am named after Tecumseh, the great Shawnee general, who tried to unite the tribes of all the Indian nations before he was gunned down by the U.S. Army at the Battle of the Thames. My great-great grandfather Tearho Spivet, who was from Finland, adopted this name after his arrival in the U.S., and someone from every generation has been named Tecumseh since…and so sometimes when I say T.S., I can feel my ancestors inside there. I can feel T.T. and T.R. and T.P. and even T.E., my father, who is very different from me—I can feel them all in my name…’
‘You are all probably very smart people who have earned their Ph.D.s and whatnot, so I will not try to tell you things you do not know about, because I have only graduated seventh grade and do not know as many things as you. But, besides my name, I would like to tell you three things tonight…’
‘The first thing is I wanted to thank you for letting me speak and thank you for not canceling my fellowship because I was younger than expected. Often, I am younger than I might have expected, but this does not stop me from doing my work. But it is a dream come true to be at the Smithsonian…’
‘The second thing I would like to tell you about is why I make maps. Many people have asked me why I spend all my time drawing maps instead of playing outside with boys my age. My father, who is a rancher from Montana, does not really understand me. I try to show him how maps can be useful in his line of work, but he doesn’t listen. My mother is a scientist like you people, and I wish she could be here tonight, because I think that even though she says the Smithsonian is an old boys’ club, she would have many interesting things to say to you and also she might learn how to be a better scientist…Even though she is a scientist, she still doesn’t understand me. She doesn’t really see the purpose of mapping all the people that I meet, all the places I see, everything that I have ever witnessed or read about. But I don’t want to die without having taken a crack at figuring out how the whole thing fits together, like a very complicated car, like a very complicated car in four dimensions…or maybe six or eleven, or I forget how many dimensions there are supposed to be…’
‘Are there any questions so far?’
‘What’s the third thing?’ someone asked.
‘What’s the third thing?’ someone asked.
“Yes,’ I said. ‘What’s the third thing?’”
T.S. forgot to write about a third thing. So he has to improvise, to speak from his heart. Along with telling the story of how his brother Layton died from a gun accident, and how it hurt his family, T.S. Spivet begins to ask questions of his audience. He asks them:
“’Can you tell me how pervasive cellular cause and effect is? How much does nanochance dictate the course of time? I just get the feeling that everything is predetermined, and I am going through the motions of tracing an existence that will be what it already will be…’
‘Do you ever get the feeling like you already know the entire contents of the universe somewhere inside your head, as if you were born with a complete map of this world already grafted onto the folds of your cerebellum and you are just spending your entire life figuring out how to access this map?’
‘Perhaps if we sit here for three or four days and really concentrate…I am too young to pay attention for that long, but I just have this feeling that is always present—like a low humming tone that continues beneath everything—that we know everything already, but that we’ve forgotten how to harnass this knowledge. When I make a map that exactly captures what it is trying to map, it is like I already knew this map existed; I was just copying it. And this gets me thinking: if the map already existed, then the future already exists. Is this true? Those of you who with Ph.D.s in future science, has this meeting already been determined? Is what I will say already a part of the map? I am not sure. I feel like I could’ve said a lot of different things from what I’m saying now.’
‘Well, all of this is just to say that I will do my best to fulfill your trust in me. I am just a boy, but I have my maps. I’ll do my best. I’ll try not to die and I’ll try to do everything you want me to. I can’t believe I’m finally here; this is like a new beginning, a new chapter for my family. Maybe I can decide.’
‘That is all I have to say.’”
Tonight is about letting the world become something new and strange, something troubling and wonderful. It’s about choosing the good portion. It’s about remembering and recapturing the wonder and mystery you first experienced in your life, and in your chosen discipline. You get to share with our students the things you know. As you finish your last book of the summer, I encourage you to start a first book of the fall. It will help with your transitioning. And leave room in the margins for your own thoughts, questions, and exploration, for your own maps of the newer world. And don’t forget to keep working on your to be list. That is all I have to say. May God bless all of you in the coming year.