Carrying Forward Our Past

Does the task of choosing which papers, or pictures, or books to save ever feel daunting? How about decisions on which memories to save? At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll explore what from the past  we choose to carry forward on our journey, and what helps us let go of (or at least lighten) our load.  The choir will sing. 
Text of Sermon

Carrying Forward Our Past

On the journey through life we pick up a lot. There is material stuff. There are experiences. There are the lessons. So much accumulates. What should we keep? What’s helpful to keep in easy reach?

How do we decide? Are we bold and rationale? When does our heart lead?

Today is the 100-year anniversary of WWI’s armistice. The war killed 100,000 Americans, and over 15 million soldiers and civilians. There is a need to honor and respect those who died, and too there is a need to remember the price of war. The original poem ‘Flanders Field’ and the response to his work read earlier has lifted the poppy as our reminder, worn in Canada and other places to remember. This is a hard lesson we are obliged to carry. Among other lessons, this shared history is a part of the load we carry together.

Our choir anthem ‘Try to Remember’ encourages us to keep on in ‘easy reach’ times beauty, and tenderness. We too need to hold close these memories which help make the journey light and fun.

What to keep? What to carry?

Over the last decade Bill and I have learned what our parents chose to keep as we’ve sorted out their belongings-and done our part to frame their legacies. My Dad’s story is our most recent endeavor.

My Dad lived a full life. He was a gregarious engineer, who made his living in construction related sales. He loved books, and travel, and puzzles. He played tennis regularly at 85, and while his golf game added strokes with age, he mesmerized his teenage grandsons by hitting the ball dead straight at every opportunity.

Dad had a stroke at 85, lived almost 3 more years in ‘ok’ shape, and died a few years ago at 88.

I want to carry his legacy forward. For me, it’s an honorable obligation. He made part it easier by writing a memoir when he was about 80, complete with pictures of every house he lived in, excerpts from a diary when he was in Korea at age 23, and reflections on life lessons learned.

A nice story of a life. A story that too included divorce and health challenges, and a few career set-backs-all in the memoir-but overall a story of happiness and resilience.

What I ask you to think about now: How did he still have a few pages he wrote while in Korea?

He kept stuff. And as we emptied Dad’s townhouse, my sister found every calendar he’d had since age 20, and thousands and thousands of slides,notes from every volunteer meeting he had ever been to (all in folders), financial statements, health reimbursement forms, and every map he ever picked up at a gas station or through AAA. There were notebooks of a daily journal he kept for years (done on his computer, but he still printed it), and more.

We all need to decide what to keep and what to toss.

For many, it is difficult to let go of the physical records – a sort of proof of our time on earth. We are not all Marie Kondo, the popular author who advises having a continual process of keeping a clutter-free life. She advocates putting all belongings in the middle of the room and only keeping ‘what sparks joy.’ Interesting theory, but I’d likely learn to ignore the pile! “The big fear we all have, says clutter-clearing guru Marie Kondo, is that if we throw away objects we’ll somehow be losing the precious memories and legacy that goes with them. Not so, says the Japanese bestselling author: truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard things associated with them.” The article goes on with Kondo’s 7 guidelines for a gentle sorting process, with a clear goal of continual purging as a spiritual process.

Some can do this. A friend of mine was perplexed by her new husband’s process of opening the mail. He’d stand over a trash can and keep just what he needed. A birthday card from his mother – opened, read and trashed. A birth announcement from a college roommate with a cute picture. Open. Add to ‘to do list: “Send check to Nate” and out the announcement would go.

For those who do this relentless tidying by your nature (anyone here?) I invite you to listen – this may not be your sermon, but it might help you understand those of us with full attics and offices a little better. As UUs we do try to love across difference.

It can be hard to let go, and often it is only when faced with space constraints or moving that we are forced to make ‘keep/don’t keep’ decisions. And for those who have downsized significantly, by choice or circumstance, I most often hear, “It was agonizing, and when done was freeing.” (Has this been true for anyone here?)

When it comes to our stuff, inertia is a powerful force, and we let stuff build-up. It’s hard to get started, and then takes momentum to make notable progress.

We’re more likely to start if we do a few things.

One is to name our fears. This sounds dramatic, but in the anticipation of a purge of our suits and ties from a long career, or favorite shoes from back when we could handle heels, or of that outdated copy of ‘Dr. Spock’ we might feel that loss of identity, of being needed, of a certain sense of purpose. We may fear aging in a fresh way.

We may fear making a mistake and discarding something we’ll want later– tossing a financial record for an account we forgot about, or an important part of our health history. “What if” can lead to fears, and procrastination. We may fear of forgetting the experience of receiving all those Mother’s Day cards.

In addition to fear, in our discerning we may open sadness. We may be sad we’ll never see a deceased friend’s handwriting again. We may again touch unfinished projects and bad purchases.

It helps to remember that these memories are brought forward in the sorting, not while the boxes age in the attic. We are rewarded with memories as we make our decisions.

As the fears and other emotions are named, it might it help to think of them in the big picture. To zoom out and see how they fit on your journey.

To help get started, you might find value in capturing your narrative…your story.

For some the work of writing a memoir or creating scrapbooks which distill a story may fit – a plan to pour the essence of something into a record. Momentum for some may come in having a plan for storytelling. Ministers at some gatherings offer a colleague sufficient time to tell their odyssey as a story. Others may find rituals of letting go have a place. A colleague decided she couldn’t once again move 30 years of journals, nor did she want them read by others, and had a bonfire and said goodbye.

There is a freeing when we pare down what we carry, and with less to carry, doors of possibility may open.

We all need to ask how long to hold on to what?

This is true not just of stuff, but life experiences. The details of everyday – grocery store trips, haircuts, and visits, and holidays build up. Lots in the past we can call forward and lean on. Memories of perfect beach days, and of first loves. And memories of loss and grief. Points of hard choices.

What purpose does a memory serve in our life? We can ask: Are we still learning from it? What does it remind us to do more of, or less of, as we look forward? Can we zoom out and capture a larger narrative of our life? Not ignoring pain or disappointment, which are a part of a story, but in time integrating the bits into a whole.

For some there may be a ‘negativity bias’…a pattern of holding tightest to the deepest challenges. For some, and for the community at large a holding to of a nostalgic view.

From ‘The Way We Were… (sung earlier)

Memories may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it’s the laughter we will remember
Whenever we remember
The way we were

There is not a right or wrong way, yet in the sifting we ask, “How is this serving me?”

We want enough cleared (non-cluttered) space – both physical and emotional – to savor the present; to deal with the ‘right now’

At times, there is value in not rushing to ‘keep/not keep’ decision.

Some parts of our journey, especially challenges, begin with shock and we don’t know how they’ll find a place in our own story, or the community’s story. While “this too will pass” is a useful adage, sometimes we need to be awake to the pain, or joy, or confusion and not rush past.

This has felt especially true over the last few weeks.

In a two week our collective attention has been drawn to not only one, but two mass shootings. Saturday, October 27. Wednesday, November 7. In just eleven days. I sense our capacity to carry more images of loss, and our frustration with a society with a proliferation of guns well beyond what hunters need is overloaded. We need time to digest and discern what we are called to make of our overwhelmed-ness. I feel close to numb knowing of 13 more deaths – names, losses, and too knowing gun violence is well beyond mass murders.

It’s further been an emotional week as we participated in an election where we were invested not only in the outcomes of individual races, but in trying to discern a longer-term direction locally and nationally. Remember way back to Monday. Many sheared with me fear going into the election. Others angst. Would the outcome help us trust more? Doubt more? Will common sense prevail?  What do we each carry? What do we set aside? What still needs to cool.

And fires in California, immigrants under challenge, … much in two weeks.

So, while there are times we need momentum to clean closets and to find a place for bits in our larger story, we also need to take the time needed to stay awake to areas needing our attention right now. When bigotry and hatred are present, we need to be clear in our processing and in our response.

So, how do we choose to carry our past forward? Where do we have an obligation to pass forward lessons? Where do we find joy in shaping legacy?

Our UU faith is broad. Yet, not surprisingly, there are few specifics on whether you should hold onto a collection of 1970s cassette tapes by Neil Diamond, or should save a child’s first lost tooth, or how tightly you should to hold the pain of being wronged.

Nothing exactly specific, and too there are at least a few good questions arising from our shared values for reflection.

*** UUs value experience in determining what guides our lives. For this, our personal stories, and community story, and sense of culture help us know what to trust – what to have faith in. Our narratives teach us of love, and work, and beauty. What from the past helps you with these lessons? What is extraneous? What do you choose to carry forward?

*** UUs value of generosity. Might it help to think of others in deciding what to save? What might be better used by another? Who might benefit from us carrying a lighter load?

*** UUs value an open mind and open heart…a readiness to embrace change and be transformed. How might carrying just what we need help us be more open to the present?

As we close today take a moment … offer gratitude for you story, your life, your memories … offer gratitude sense the precious history here in this sanctuary

May we each carry forward from our pasts what we value and can carry, may we have the courage to do the sorting, and may we each find the gift of freedom which comes from a lighter load.

May It Be So


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