menu Language Is A Virus

Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday by Rev. Judith E. Meyer


May Sarton was a prolific writer of journals and poetry and a Unitarian
Universalist. She wrote these two sonnets as part of a larger cycle titled
"Autumn Sonnets" sometime between 1969 and 1972.


If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one;
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure - if I can let you go.


After a night of rain the brilliant screen
Below my terraced garden falls away.
And there, far off, I see the hills again
On this, a raw and windy, somber day.
Moments of loss, and it is overwhelming
(Crimson and gold gone, that rich tapestry),
But a new vision, quiet and soul-calming,
Distance, design, are given back to me.
This is good poverty, now love is lean,
More honest, harder than it ever was
When all was glamoured by a golden screen.
The hills are back, and silver on the grass,
As I look without passion or despair
Out on a larger landscape, grand and bare.


In her bleak but bracing "Autumn Sonnets,"
May Sarton brushes off the beauty of the season
like so many fallen leaves.
Mournful, somber,
she writes of letting go
and going to sleep.
Fall is a time of darkness,
she says,
accept it for what it is,
with open eyes.
Trust that something lives,
buried beneath the snow.

May Sarton lived in Maine,
and the images she drew from nature
have a starkness and a chill
that we do not know here in southern California.
We live in the lush year round landscape
and warmth of a place
where seasonal change is subtle,
outside anyway.
Inside, though, the pinched dread
that people who live in cold places endure each fall
is something we know now too.
This year autumn is the same for all Americans.

But just as fall brings a sense of death
and things stripped away from us,
so it also offers a clear view of what sustains us
through the dark times.
May Sarton writes about
"a new vision, quiet and soul-calming,"
that is honest, hard and lean.
She sees a crisp outline of what really matters,
exposed in the raw, brittle bones of the season,
a "larger landscape, grand and bare."

Thanksgiving this year is a time to see the larger landscape,
distant though it may be,
and to remember what really matters,
which may be closer than we thought.
It is a time to look inside ourselves
for what keeps us rooted and upright.
It is time to give thanks for these things.

Thanksgiving is different this year.
We are changed by the events we have endured.
We are each aware of loss,
even if we have not lost someone close to us.
Everyone has had to make adjustments of all kinds,
and no one has really adjusted yet.

A Time magazine article this week
reported that people are flocking
to be with family this holiday,
but travel can be arduous
and many of us just want to stay home.
The holiday poses other dilemmas as well:
"Have the events of autumn left us humbled, or hardened?"
the article asks.
"Bitter at all we feel we have lost,
or grateful for all that we once took for granted?"
Time further notes that
Americans have turned to family,
to religion,
to fellow-feeling with neighbors,
and to reconciling acts of forgiveness
in the search for connection and meaning.
Yes, there are also impulse shoppers
and live-for-today types making mistakes
to live down later,
and some not holding back on the chocolate or the wine.
We're all a little unglued,
which is a hazardous state of mind,
but not because we don't know
what matters anymore.
As difficult and confusing as these times may be,
we can see clearly enough what we need.

And in that sense it's like all Thanksgivings.
The meaning of this holiday has always been ambiguous
because of its history,
our treatment
of the native people
who taught us how to survive in the new world.
The freedom and comfort
for which we give thanks
are what we gained other's expense.
Most Americans, however,
do not blithely celebrate this holiday
without some understanding of its tragic subtext.
Instead we observe it
while tolerating its ambiguity,
because we need to give thanks
more than we need to have everything be clear.
So this year it is not so different, really:
we look to Thanksgiving to reaffirm what matters,
even in times of confusion and uncertainty.

May Sarton's "Autumn Sonnets" tell the story of a love she has lost.
What is happening outdoors reflects her struggle,
to let go "as trees let go their leaves,"
and "treelike, [to] stand unmoved before the change."
She hopes that her grief will soon feel natural,
moving through changes
like the cycles of the season.
The ravages of grief -
like the nights of rain and raw and windy days,
will give way to a clearer view of the hills beyond
and a "new vision" to calm her soul.

We have been undergoing a similar struggle this autumn.
The horror of terrorism had barely penetrated our shock and disbelief
before we found ourselves at war.
Still in anguish and fearful of what may come next,
we try to understand this complex new scenario
and all its implications.
We may wish for a swift resolution
but our leaders tell us that is not possible.
So we watch, and wait, and learn what we can
to help us understand this new world
into which we have been thrust.
We await a "new vision,"
just as May Sarton once did.
We look for the distant hills to come clear,
where the "larger landscape"
will remind us once again
of our strength and our hope.

May Sarton never tells us exactly
what that "larger landscape" ought to be,
or what "new vision" it heralds.
Instead she simply looks at the hills,
and takes comfort from knowing they are there.
Perhaps what she is showing us
is that we live in a world
which is not entirely of our own making,
or undoing.
When the skies clear and you can see a distance,
it is the sight of nature that comforts and calms,
and rises above the confusion.
The hills are still there,
and they do not know hate.

May Sarton lived most of her adult life
in an old house in a rural place,
where deer and flies and falling leaves
gave her material for reflection.
Nature was her guide and her comforter,
a model for how to accept the cycles of life.
That autumn she wrote the sonnets,
she wished to live as a tree lives,
letting the leaves drop and wither,
standing still and enduring.
May Sarton writes about the tree's "strong root
still alive under the snow,"
that sustains it through the winter.
She wants to grow a strong root too.

Terrorism and war have no counterparts in nature.
You can learn how to live and die from a tree,
but not how to kill.
Perhaps, like May Sarton,
we can gain comfort from a tree too.

These hard times are showing us
we all need to tap into the earth
to weather the elements and stay upright.
If you have a strong root,
give thanks for it.
If you need it,
begin making one.
It is not too late to claim your ground,
plant yourself,
and grow.

Growing strong roots doesn't mean living in one place a long time,
or moving back to where you grew up.
It means building strong ties of family and friendship,
deepening faith and love of life,
living by values that keep you centered and connected to others.
It means knowing your strength
and trusting your resourcefulness.
It means believing that you have what you need
to survive.

This Thanksgiving,
I'm especially aware of how comforting
the intimate bonds of family can be,
and how all the values that give my life meaning
keep calling me back to my roots.
I'm giving my thanks for these connections,
and for the earth.
The human world may be rife with conflict
but the earth still holds
and heals us through the cycles of life and the seasons.

Though I have nothing good to say about terrorism,
I can see that there is much to learn
from this experience we now share.
On other Thanksgivings,
in previous years,
it was enough to remember to be grateful,
to pause for a moment in the rush of our lives
and to acknowledge the bounty that belonged to us.
This year we don't have to remind ourselves
to be grateful
or to remember what matters.
We're alive - as Maya Angelou said,
"I know many are gone,
I'm still living on,
I want to thank You."
We give thanks for life.
And we give thanks for each other.

Earlier in the service
we heard about all the people it takes
to make just one loaf of bread.
There really isn't anything we have
or do in life
that doesn't have a similar lineage
of human effort and care,
of people we know
and people we'll never meet,
connected in ways we do not see
but know are there all the same.
We need each other,
all the time.

And especially in these times:
as we saw in May Sarton's autumn landscape
of bare trees and distant hills,
now *we* see what we have left
and where we are.
"If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange,"
Sarton writes,
"And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep ...
Perhaps what we have lost
will show us what to keep.
And having lost so much,
be grateful for what is still here.
Look out at the distant hills
and think of the trees,
their tap roots and their endurance.
Look inside and see your strength and your love of life.
And look everywhere at the people who share this life with you,
and be glad
that we are still here.

A sermon by the Rev. Judith E. Meyer
Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Santa Monica, California
November 18, 2001

References used to prepare this sermon include "The Autumn Sonnets" 2. and 5., by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993 (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), and Time magazine, November 19, 2001