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Presented May 10, 2015, by Alexis Engelbrecht Villafane
Listen to a recording of "Reflections from a Rebellious
27:14 minutes - 24.9 MB - Reflections from a Rebellious Romantic .mp3 file.
When I spoke here in October, I talked about looking at the world using
the eye of the
Trickster - to take on a perspective that plays with our concept of
boundaries and reality; it's a perspective that doesn't buy the argument
"that's the way it must be because that's the way it always has been." We're
going to keep the tradition of ancient Tricksters in mind while we spend time
with Romanticism on this Mother's Day in an effort to acknowledge and develop
the well-known but not consistently practiced idea that what matters most in
this life is not what can be bought or sold, rather, it is found in
relationships, the development of the self, nature, and there are no fees
involved in transactions of true value. I'm going to begin where I ended my
talk on using the Trickster's Eye. I closed with these words from Roman
"Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
The Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, puts this into practice in his poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud". He describes, "A host of golden daffodils/Beside the lake, beneath the trees/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze"(lines 1-3). In the last stanza, he is home and writes:
For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They [the daffodils] flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
The words I choose for meditation are actually lyrics to the song "The Best Things In Life Are Free" by Buddy DeSylva and Dew Brown. Ray Henderson composed the music:
The moon belongs to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone,
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in the spring,
The robins that sing,
The sunbeams that shine,
They're yours, they're mine!
And love can come to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
As a ninth grade English teacher at the junior high school in Quincy many years ago, one of my favorite units was one I designed on Romantic Poetry. Upon hearing the word "Romantic", most students thought about mushy, lovey dovey poems, but they soon learned that while there is a lot of love in Romanticism, it is a love for nature, for the uniqueness of the individual, for ancient texts, and a love for self-development and reflection. It can be easy to dismiss the Romantic poems of the middle to late 18th century because a casual reading may make one think that they are merely poems about nature; however, a careful reading will find these men and woman to be rebels within an increasingly materialistic world (the Industrial Revolution) and one that minimized feelings. William Wordsworth, who lived from 1770 to 1850, is the poet I will use the most today. His piece, "The World is Too Much with Us" illustrates the rebellious thread that weaves its way through a celebration of nature:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
The world is too much with us. There are times in my life when the world is too much with me - when I have concerns or fears that related to things that, while real and arguable valid, really only matter as much as I let them matter. I recall my professor in an international economics class saying that the financial system we use only works because most people are willing to go along it. When the world is too much with me, I have often attempting to morph myself into a system or an ideal with which I really go not want to come into alignment - when I am feeling pressure to go along with something that I do not really want to be a part of. When the world is too much with me, I am "out of tune" with my values, and I need to center myself - to renew my mind rather than to conform to the systems of this world.
Wordsworth's world saw the Industrial Revolution, which brought great advancements and great damage. His phrase "[w]e have given our hearts away, a sordid boon" is an interesting one because "sordid" means that which is bad and dishonorable while a "boon" is something that is helpful. Using these words together acknowledges the tension between the benefits of various industries and their harmful consequences. In The Pleasures of a Nonconformist, Lin Yutang also recognizes how science and technology contribute to the modern world when he writes:
We can have better sanitation, better drinking water, better lighting, more power to replace manual labor, better fertilizers, perhaps even better can openers. We can build better and more roads. Because these things are obvious, we usually have them in mind when we speak about [the] modern progress of a nation. (30)
The problem is not the technological advances themselves, rather, it is, as Yutang goes on to state, that "man's moral progress does not keep pace with his material progress"(30).
"The world is too much with us . . . Getting and spending we lay waste our powers" -- What are our powers? Are they the ability to obtain a certain position and earn a certain salary - are they the ability to work a certain number of hours each week? What about the ability to look a certain way, and to live a certain lifestyle? Yes, in a sense, those abilities are powers, yet we possess others. We possess the ability to love. We are able to build and maintain meaningful relationships. We can learn, reflect, and create.
In the second chapter of Walden, the philosopher Henry David Thoreau writes:
I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts . . .
Thoreau wrote Walden to describe his experience of living as simple of a life as possible for two years, and he describes his reasoning in this passage:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practi[c]e resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .
Of course, not all of us can spend two years on the land of a good friend (who, in Thoreau's case was Ralph Waldo Emerson), and I'm not blind to the fact that the idea of spending an extended period of time in the woods might not be appealing to everyone. I do think that it is possible for us to deliberately make time and space for reflection - to consider what Thoreau calls "the essential facts of life". Asking what is essential to our lives is an excellent way to eliminate the superficial and the unnecessary. I do not think there is only one way in which that can be done; however, I believe that time must be made for restorative thought.
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-/Little we see in Nature that is ours . . . " The way of our world makes it very easy to overlook our inherent connection to the natural world, but we are the stuff of dirt and of stars. Whether you believe we are formed by the hands of God or you prefer Carl Sagan's reasoning that "Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff" (The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective).
I never fully appreciated the affects of immersing oneself in the natural world until Kurtis and I spent two weeks with my parents in Moab, Utah. Now, my parents' trips to Utah are the type of trips in which I receive phone calls from my mother letting me know that they're spending the day at Dead Horse Point and to call their hotel if I don't hear from them by 5PM so that people know they need to be rescued. A trip with them involves a significant amount of hiking, mountain biking, and camping and . . . it was awesome. Even eating and dressing for the day took on new levels of importance - we needed to eat foods that would effectively fuel our bodies and we needed to dress for our environment to be safe. The author Thomas Hardy was influenced by the Romantics, particularly William Wordsworth, and it wasn't until my time in Utah that I understood this line from his book The Return of the Native: "We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive"(14). Living in Oregon, which we did for nine months, also forces a person to dress for the reality of the climate because it usually looks like it is going to rain and will probably do so at least once a day.
Returning to our natural roots doesn't require a person to risk one's life or to move to the Pacific Northwest; it can be as simple as making time to take a walk or to simply sit outside. It does not mean isolating oneself from one's community - even Thoreau returned to civilization. It simply means finding ways to connect and tune into our environment and to care for our bodies and souls. More and more studies are showing the dangers of ignoring our bodies' needs, whether that be sleep, how we eat, or how we move.
In "Lines Written in Early Spring", Wordsworth shares both his delight with the natural world, and his concern with humanity:
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
To her fair words did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And 'tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure: -
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature's holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
What has man made of man? A means to an end, someone who is only someone if they have "done something" deemed desirable by society or who has jumped through the required hoops, a title, a consumer, a . . . well, I could go on and I suspect you may have a thing or two to add. But that's not what this talk is really about. I think we know, all too well, the problems within the various systems of our society. By systems, I mean obvious systems, such as healthcare, educational, or judicial systems. I am also pointing to the classes within our society, various bureaucracies, institutions, and processes that should not be as complicated as they are but are deemed as being necessary . . . again, I'm sure you could add a system or two yourself, but this leads me to what I want the main thrust of my talk to be - that, when it comes to going along with stupid and damaging rules created by various people and organizations, I think we should come together as thoughtful individuals to proclaim, in the words of the 80's band Twisted Sister and in the spirit of the Romantics, "we're not going to take it, no, we ain't going to take it, we're not going to take it anymore."
Of course, it's one thing to rebel, but what is there to embrace? The minister in the church I attended with my family would say that he didn't want to be against something . . . he wanted to be for something. It's important for us to be aware of what we are for, and it's crucial for us to consider what it looks like to be for those things - to strive to act in a manner that supports our values, especially when doing so goes against the grain of what society expects. Going along with social constructs because doing so is easier than doing what one knows to be true and good only perpetuates injustice and validates the very institutions and ideas that cause us harm. As the Onceler tells us at the end of Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax", "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot/nothing is going to get better/It's not". Lin Yutang, writes, "Let every man have the courage to think for himself. In this capacity, of man to think for himself, to refuse to believe in humbugs, lies the true motive force of all human progress" (27). Let us be sure that we are not perpetrators who limit the potential of our brothers and sisters by underestimating their abilities. Let us be sure we honor our personal and Unitarian principles by the way in which we treat others and our environment. Let us, particularly on this Mother's Day, honor those who do the noblest of deeds out of a love that is unconditional and to whom complete repayment is impossible. Finally, let us delight in the beauty that surrounds us by tuning into nature and our true selves.
I'm closing with my favorite poem by William Wordsworth. It encourages us to embrace our inner child and to delight in that which is truly beautiful and good: "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold"
. . .
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So be it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each my natural piety.
Yutang, Lin. The Pleasures of a Nonconformist. Cleveland: World Company, 1962. Print.
All of the quoted poems by William Wordsworth are public domain and were accessed using: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.