Three Chairs in My House

Three Chairs in My House

Rev. Anthony David

Feb. 7, 2010

“There are strangers above me, below me and all around me,” says poet Joy Harjo, “and we are all strange in this place of recent invention.” The place of recent invention is Los Angeles, the city of Angels, but it could be anywhere in modern America, it could be Atlanta. “We matter to somebody,” the poet says:

We must matter to the strange god who imagines us as we revolve together in

the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way.

We can’t easily see that starry road from the perspective of the crossing of

boulevards, can’t hear it in the whine of civilization or taste the minerals of

planets in hamburgers.

[…]

Everyone knows you can’t buy love but you can still sell your soul for less than a

song, to a stranger who will sell it to someone else for a profit until you’re

owned by a company of strangers in the city of the strange

and getting stranger.

I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow who was never good at singing or

much of anything but finding gold in the trash of humans.

So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that

hangs over this precarious city?

Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing

anything, not just yet.

But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.

And that’s the poem. We’re on the path to the Milky Way, which is so hard to see from the perspective of the crossing of boulevards, so hard to taste in hamburgers. What are we doing here, in this city of the strange?

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, wonders about it, too. “Society,” he says, “is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other’s way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another.” Society is commonly too cheap. Strange. Full of Sneetches. Full of Sylvester McMonkey McBeans.

Yet this is not to say that human relationships are categorically toxic. Only to say that there is generally a pattern in force, in the process of becoming a functioning part of American culture—and this pattern tends to be about buying and selling souls, or at least losing them. It is why Thoreau says, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” Among people, the mask goes on. And it stays on for so long—we relate so thoroughly through our mask—that we forget it is but a tool, a means; it becomes “old musty cheese.” Among people, the larger soul that we are—the knowledge of this—is lost.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week, Saxby Chambliss, United States Senator from the great state of Georgia, insisted that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays and lesbians should be continued. Doesn’t matter that Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he personally supports ending the policy. “Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” said Admiral Mullen. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.” That’s what he said. But it doesn’t matter for Senator Chambliss. Senator Chambliss has fixed a mask on gays and lesbians, glued it on, and he won’t allow it to come off, he won’t allow gays and lesbians to have integrity as unique individuals of inherent worth and dignity. The mask means immorality. The mask means chaos. The mask means bad things. Ending the policy, says Senator Chambliss, could lead to watering down of other military rules, such as those regarding alcohol, adultery, fraternization and tattoos. Chaos, disaster, let loose.

To this nose, it is a sentiment that smells of old musty cheese. So strange. I heard it, and—knowing that still too many people agree with him—felt again that old feeling of loneliness in the midst of a crowd. Wondered about what I am doing here, on this strange path to the Milky Way. Would rather understand how to sing from a crow who was never good at singing or much of anything but finding gold in the trash of humans. Maybe you too.

Today I want to share some insights on this that come from chapters five and six in Walden, entitled “Solitude” and “Visitors.” If among people, in ordinary society, we can lose ourselves and feel lonely, in solitude we can find ourselves again. “Evidences of unexplored and uncultivated continents” to be discovered—but only if we are intentional about it. “What do we want most to dwell near to?” Thoreau asks. “Not to many men surely, the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life… [T]his is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar.” Right there.

Now, one of the unexplored and uncultivated continents that Thoreau discovers in solitude is a renewed sense of relationship with people. (For solitude is not incompatible with friendship, or company.) Solitude, setting up a situation in which people no longer act like Sneetches or Sylvester McMonkey McBeans. Says Thoreau, “Children come a-berrying, railroad men taking a Sunday morning walk in clean shirts, fishermen and hunters, poets and philosophers; in short, all honest pilgrims, who came out to the woods for freedom’s sake, and really left the village behind, I was ready to greet with — ‘Welcome….’” And if he should happen to be gone when they came by to visit, they would leave him things. “I find,” he says, “that visitors have been there and left their cards, either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf or a chip. They who come rarely to the woods take some little piece of the forest into their hands to play with by the way, which they leave, either intentionally or accidentally. One has peeled a willow wand, woven it into a ring, and dropped it on my table.” It is all for freedom’s sake. Taking the mask off, for a time; for a time, leaving the village behind.

Reminds me of a short poem by Rumi:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

Do you have access to such a field? Do you dig your cellar there? For some, camping is how it happens—getting out there, putting up the tent, setting up the campfire, letting life happen at a completely different pace than usual. For others, it can be a small group in a congregation, a covenant group or some other group—people you learn to open up to, grow with over the course of a time, until you can feel a campfire at the center of your circle even if you happen to be indoors, meeting in group member’s contemporary home. Yet a third way can be a way that no one hopes for: your car breaks down, your house floods, you get bad news, and the illusion of control shatters. But in the midst of this, unexpected kindness. Humaneness. A peeled willow wand, woven into a ring. The lost soul found.

So many ways to the field that Rumi talks about. So many ways to Walden Pond. Although I will say, with Thoreau, that even then, some people resist. The opportunity to take off the mask might be right there, but some people won’t do it, or have forgotten how. “I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors,” he says. “Girls and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of [loneliness] and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was all taken up in getting a living or keeping it….” That’s what Thoreau says, and in my life I have known it first-hand, perhaps you as well. One psychiatrist calls it the “weekend neurosis.” It’s time off, but you can’t relax, can’t stop thinking about things left undone. Though you might have already done ten impossible things, someone points out the eleventh impossible thing undone, and because you aren’t comfortable with the fact that you are only one person, who can do only so much—a natural being of rhythms, of seasons, of both action and stillness—you allow that eleventh impossible undone thing to penetrate into your deepest self, to become an inescapable irritant. Can’t leave the village behind, can’t leave the email alone, can’t take the mask off.

This is suffering. There’s got to be a better way. And crow—the crow of the poem—just laughs. Crow says, Find a way. Dig you cellar in solitude. Wait, wait and see. Unexplored and uncultivated continents are right there, waiting to be discovered.

Yet another one of these is what Thoreau calls “intelligence with the earth.” “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature,” he says, “a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt-sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me.” Can’t you just see this, in your mind’s eye? And then it begins to rain, and Thoreau says, “I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.” And so Thoreau concludes, rhetorically, “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”

How suggestive all this is. To me, what it sounds like is that Thoreau, in his solitude and communion with nature, has directly experienced a hidden through profound implication of our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the interdependent web of all existence. Interdependency means no arbitrary breaks in nature; it means a basic seamlessness out of which all the varieties of existence, organic and inorganic, arise. Yet for hundreds of years now, certainly ever since the philosopher Rene Descartes, an arbitrary break in nature has been canonized and made sacrosanct. I’m talking about res extensa and res cogitans—that’s Latin for matter and mind. Nature broken up into two basic pieces: dead matter on the one hand, and organic beings capable of some kind of experience on the other, from the simplest reactions of single-celled organisms to stimuli, to the sophisticated conscious functioning of humans, and dolphins … and crows.

This break in nature’s fabric is what Thoreau appears to reject. “Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me….” Everything, he seems to be saying, not just human beings, possesses interiority and depth. The world is truly an interdependent web of all existence in the most basic of senses—an ocean of feeling—feeling fundamental to all things organic and inorganic—and this becomes the very possibility of experience and consciousness of any type. Call this idea pansychism, or panexperientialism. No longer is it impossible in principle to explain how dead matter gives rise to experiencing, living creatures. For dead matter is not dead. Even in matter, there is interiority and depth, if only of the most rudimentary form. The interdependent web is truly interdependent. No arbitrary breaks.

“Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” Such deep emotion here, in Thoreau’s words…. Perhaps nothing less than an emotion of homecoming. For the mask we wear in usual American society includes a deep sense of alienation from the rest of the universe. On the outside, looking in. Pride in our uniqueness among all things in nature, which is at the same time a sense of being cut off, of utter and agonizing loneliness. How can we truly belong to the earth, how can this world truly be family and home for us, if what is most intimate to us—our experiencing, inner self—has no place in this world, is inexplicable in this world, is but a view from nowhere? A scientific and philosophical problem that hundreds of years has not put even a dent into. A scientific and philosophical problem that has, in fact, twisted up the best minds, “makes science incapable of making rational sense out of the very existence of scientists.” This comes from philosopher Albert North Whitehead—his take on the infamous mind-body problem.

But Thoreau, in his solitude and communion with nature, experiences directly the ocean of feeling that is in everything in a basic sense. The presence of something kindred. Intelligence with the earth. He digs his cellar right there.

The mask goes off, for a time. Not that human society is fatally toxic and resists all reform. I want to emphasize this. Thoreau readily admits that he loves society as much as most, says “I am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.” Yet there are times the old musty cheese smell overwhelms, times we need renewal, times we need to recover the soul, times when we need to deal with our strange world of Sneetches and Sylvester McMonkey McBeans and Saxby Chamblisses, our world of “weekend neuroses,” our world of intractable philosophical problems. Our world, which is nevertheless on the path to the Milky Way.

So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that

hangs over this precarious city?

Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing

anything, not just yet.

But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.

And we can do that too. Follow Thoreau’s lead. Lots of shine to be found.