As I have done for the last four years at this time, I gave the last sermon of the current year at the UUSO. It has now become a tradition.
And as I have done for the last four years, I'm putting the full (uncorrected) text on this here blog and will post a link to the podcast version once it is a thing I can link to. I'll put it behind the cut. Before you click on, let me be the first to wish you a happy New Year.
Before the sermon text, however, the reading I chose, read by the man who wrote it: "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins.
Sermon: Best of Intentions
This is my fourth pre-New Year’s sermon. You’d think that by now I’d have run out of ideas. Some, of course, would argue that I have.
Still, we press on.
My first year, I discussed a tradition that I’d stolen from an editor friend in Austin. On New Year’s Eve, he and his partner would choose one would choose one word to focus on for the coming year, a word like “grace” or “patience.” I suggested everyone in the congregation pick a word for the coming year, just because it can imbue the the next 365 days with a sense of direction, even if its a subtle one.
Because you guys are willing to play along, you joined me in this ritual, although calling it a ritual is giving it more weight than it might deserve. Part of my ritual involves writing the word on dozens of pieces of paper, which I then scatter in places I will find them as the year passes. I leave little reminders for future me to find. I do this because I know how long I generally retain information, especially information that I need to hold on to for more than a few minutes.
The following year’s sermon was an opportunity for the congregation to share their own words and talk about how it worked out for them. Again, you all played along. Thank you.
I decided to shake it up last year. Rather than pick one word, I suggested finding a jar. In that jar, you were to place little slips of paper. And on those slips of paper, you will have written a moment that you wanted to remember, a sliver of time that would act as a small candle when life got too dark. Every year has its dark patches. Some years just stand out because those patches were extra dark or extra long.
Because I am of the go big or go home school, I picked a ginormous jar. I brought it with me, in fact. [hold up bag] Want to see how many memories I collected? [pull jar out.]
In case you can’t see from where you are, this jar contains two slips of paper. Two. And the most recent one comes from February of this year.
Based on my visual aid, this year has been a lousy one, one where there were no good memories to hold on to. That wouldn’t be the case. In my opinion, any year when you and those who live under your roof are still alive at the end of it, is a good one. As of my writing this, we are all upright and breathing. It’s a win.
Have there been moments that I could have written down? Yes. Dozens, I suspect. But since I didn’t write them down, I can’t quite recall all of the details. Watching my oldest deliver her faith statement as part of COAST was pretty great and is still stuck in my mind. Hearing my youngest tell me that he’s enjoying learning things in school was also a banner moment, especially given how he and school had gotten along up to this his fifth grade year.
So, yes, there have been lots and lots of good things to hang on to. Why didn’t I write any of them down, despite my best intention to do so?
The short answer is: I completely forgot.
I didn’t forget in a “I’ll write it down when I get home and have a piece of paper” way; I forgot in a “I didn’t even remember that I was doing it and had this big jar” way. Every now and again I’d move the jar to a new location because it was in my way, from the middle of the dining room table to my desk to a shelf that I never really notice. With each move, it shifted just slightly further from my attention. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” contains more than just a grain of truth in my case, at least.
I’ve often wondered if my inability to remember random stuff is a sign of something more serious than simply getting closer to the end of my 40s than the beginning of them. I read somewhere that forgetting where you put your car keys is fairly normal and no cause for concern. Forgetting what your car keys do is a big red flag, however, that you might want to talk to a medical professional.
I’ve decided to be reassured by this. I still know what my car keys do, even though I’ve occasionally tried to use my Subaru key to start my Kia. That I blame on inattention and fading eyesight more than forgetfulness, which isn’t as reassuring as it should be, now that I say it out loud.
Regardless, this year is the year where I completely and utterly failed to keep on top of my grander plans. There were extenuating circumstances, of course. My kids are right in the sweet spot of being old enough to be a lot of fun to travel with but young enough where they still want to travel with us so we’ve been trying to work in as many trips as we can before my oldest heads off to college, a day that we know will be here faster than we can blink.
We’re also in a new phase of this parenting thing, too, where the basic life functions — the millions of diapers and baths and bedtime stories — has shifted into the logistics — the who needs to be where when and what stuff do they need to have with them. This is the stage of parenting that’s right in my wheelhouse, by the way. I excel at scheduling, even if I occasionally forget where the Teen’s riding boots are. Which, frankly, are not my problem because she is more than old enough to keep track of them herself.
It's amazing how much brain-power it takes to keep this system moving, especially when you add in two parents with two full-time jobs and one dog who will pester you incessantly until you kick her soccer ball around the backyard for a few minutes at the end of a long day. There’s only so many balls any given human juggler can keep track of and keep in the air. Some are going to get dropped. You just have to hope that they aren’t any of the crucial ones.
And this year, knock wood, I didn’t drop anything that led to death or dismemberment. Or, if I did, I’ve forgotten about it, which almost amounts to the same thing. I”m kidding, of course, I’m sure someone would have mentioned it had that been the case.
I’ve been asked a couple of times what this reflection will be about. “Failure,” I’ve said to some. “Memory,” I’ve said to others. It’s about both, now that I really sit down to write it. It’s about failing to remember things over the course of a year, over living in that space between the pull of wanting to capture all of the best moments forever and ever and push of knowing that your particular brain doesn’t excel at doing that. Which is why you come up with ideas like the jar of memories. It sounds like a plan that should work right up until the time comes to put it into action. The wonderful tyranny of everyday life frequently gets in the way of our loftier plans.
Failure, even small ones like forgetting to write something down, even though you had the best of intentions to do so, shouldn’t be a cause for grief. Rather, as self-help-y as it sounds, it can be one of our best teachers. Adam Savage from the show Mythbusters continually reminded the viewers that “Failure is Always an Option.” One of the best parts of this show, which is built around two geeks testing urban legends, is when their experiments don’t work like they’d anticipated. The result of their failures and of ours, if we can pay a little bit of attention, almost always ends up with stronger a approach to a problem. But, first, we have to fail.
This year, I failed to do what I publicly said I would, which is a little embarrassing, mind, but not even close to the end of the world. In hindsight, past me couldn’t have anticipated the pace of life right now and how adding one more thing, no matter how lovely it would have been, was the wrong move. For me. It might have been the right move for you. I hope your jars are full of joy.
This year, however, I’m going to go back to basics and just pick one word. One word I can do, especially if I leave little reminders for myself to uncover during the course of a year.
I’m not sure yet what my word will be. It won’t be “remember.” You are welcome to that word — or any other that you believe you would like to point yourself toward in 2016.