Finding Meaning In the Stories We Tell: A Service of Our Living Tradition


Author Rebecca Solnit says that we give meaning to the change in our lives by the stories we tell. This Sunday we will hear the stories of four of our elders as we honor their years of cultivated wisdom. We will also welcome our new members, pledging to walk with them with gratitude for their added presence in our ever-unfolding congregational story of justice-seeking and compassion-claiming love.

Reading: Why Did the Unitarian Cross the Road

There may be several possible answers to why the UU crossed the road. Among them because that’s where they were serving coffee; they didn’t cross it, they transcended it, or they only got as far as the middle of the road because they didn’t want to take sides. The fact is that we cross the road for the same reason the chicken did, to get to the other side.

The Sermon

Getting to the other side isn’t always simple. People we love die, we grow and change in unexpected ways. We make mistakes and hurt people we care about and vice versa. We can find ourselves more alone than we can bear, yet there are times we are overwhelmed by the beauty of this world and the blessing of unexpected kindness.
Getting to the other side is made easier, when we choose to travel with others. Life in community isn’t always easy, but it’s the only place we can practice being human. Finding our way to the other side is less treacherous when we listen and learn from those who have made the trip before, and who know something about the route, Jesus, Buddha, Rumi, Starkhawk, and Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk. Teachers who’s living was and remains a testament to the sacred dimension of being human.

We will reach the other side with fewer regrets and less baggage if we have found a way to accept each other for who we are, even as we seek to be who we might become. In community we are reminded of our ideals, yet it’s also a place to confess our limits and express our deepest hopes. Liberal religion isn’t easy street, but what we do have to offer is a tradition that affirms human dignity, that encourages spiritual growth, and is intellectually honest in the face of the complexities of our time. We offer these tools and our companionship so that we might help each other get safely to the other side “Everyone has a story” says Larry Smith, a tag line he used to launched Smith Magazine in 2006. As a logo he picked the symbol of a chicken because he wanted to tell the stories from a chicken -eye view, -as opposed to an eagle,- he wanted to hear about lives from the ground up, the view of folks in the midst of crossing the road. He remembers the day he realized the importance of people’s stories. He was walking with Smitty, his grandfather who came to America in 1911 from Russia at the age of four. Smitty was a small-town pharmacist who talked to everyone on the Atlantic boardwalk where he lived. On this day, Larry realized he had never asked Smitty the story of his life, and when he did, Smitty talked for 2. 5 hours. Larry wanted to ask all his readers, for their story, and he asked them to do it in 6 words. Hemingway who, as the story goes, was once challenged in a bar to write a whole novel in six words inspired him. Hemingway wrote,” for sale, baby shoes never worn.” Larry received 10,000 six-word memoirs in one day. He said, people wrote with humor, honesty, and without apology.
“half-Italian, half Jewish, totally stuffed”
“after cancer, I became a semi-colon”
“I have Asperger’s, what’s your excuse?”
Larry’s passion for story is something Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, realized during his internment with the Nazis camp. Frankl, spent time in four camps, and during his last, he became aware he was thinking small thoughts, asking limiting questions, like “Where is God? Why are people evil? Will I die today?” Thoughts that were bringing more hell into hell.

To get unstuck, he took a deep breath and imagined an image of a classroom filled with students. He was standing in the front of the room teaching them how to survive the holocausts of their lives. To make this dream come true, he began to take notes from those around him. Trying to discern why some people survive, and why others do not. He watched, and asked them what was helping them to sustain their humanity? He discovered that we can survive the darkest of times if we have a powerful “why.” On his first day of teaching he said to his class, “Imagining you kept me alive. Thank you.”
How would you tell your story in six words? Larry found that the limit helped invited people’s creativity, helped them find the thread that gives their life meaning, even if just in that moment. Like:
“Dad’s simple sermon: follow the love”
“Half Black, Half White, totally colorful”
Telling your story also gives you a chance to notice something previously unnoticed, but suddenly important. We asked our youth.
This from 5-year-old Ryan Kehoe
“A ladybug could kill nobody.”
and this from 8-year-old Teddy Stoddard
“A very bright lamp, kills moths.”
This from 10-year-old Harrison Manell-Bailey. “I really love basketball and sushi.”
Telling your story also gives you a chance to claim the memories that sustain you and give you hope. This one from Teddy Stoddard
“Magic, the gathering; love food; Playing!” — and
This from Ted and Liz in this congregation, “Lawyers in love, 30 years later”
Telling your story gives you the chance to let your honesty liberate you. This from Larry’s people:
“someone should have objected at my wedding.”
“we’re the family everyone gossips about.”

But what is most powerful about people telling their story is that it makes visible the altruistic, idealistic forces already at work in the world. Forces that help us make meaning of our life, help us find our “why?” My colleague Robert Fulghum, the person who wrote All I Ever Needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten, was seeking the answer to his “why.” At the end of every workshop, every presentation, every speaker, he would always raise his hand and ask “What is the meaning of life?” Usually the presenter nervously shrugged and laughed off the question. One day, at the end of workshop at the Institute of Peace on the Island of Crete, he asked the founder Alexander Papaderous. “What is the meaning of life?” This time, Alexander answered by telling his story. When he was a boy, the Nazis attacked his village. His parents hid him, and fought them off with their farm tools, but there was so much rage on the part of the Nazis for the villager’s resistance, Alexander was one of the few survivors. Shortly afterwards he found the parts of a Nazi motorcycle, and took a piece from the broken rear-view mirror and polished it into a circle using a stone. Alex pulled the mirror out of his pocked, and held it in such a way to catch the sun light and reflect into Robert Fulghum’s hands and said, I don’t know the meaning of your life, or anyone’s, but I have been called to reflect light into the dark places in the hearts of others. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.

Meaning, is the driver of resilience, and the maker of joy that begins with the word “Why” What is the meaning of your life? Share your story, change the world.

Honoring Our Elders

Carol Maclennan

Carol Maclennan has been part of this church for nearly 70 years, joining the women alliance in 1952, the year she arrived in town to teach high school history. She had just graduated from Boston University with a teaching degree, having spent her high school and childhood years in Newton, where she attended the Newton Unitarian church. Her parents and grandparents were Universalists from Milford and she can remember many heated discussions about the merger with the Unitarians in the early 1960s..

Her wisdom is woven into the DNA of this church. She worked as the parish administrator from 1977-1996, and served as the Director of Religious Education after that. She loved working here, loved the people. She has been active in the alliance for more than 70 years, helping to sew the blue robes the youth choir wears and the many customs for our holiday pageant. She met her husband Alex, an electrical engineer at the Draper Laboratory at MIT, in Harvard during her teaching years. She remembers the moment that changed her life. She had just finished her first year as a teacher and had gone home to her parent’s house after school closed. Graduation was a week later on a very hot, humid day in June and she had no desire to return to Harvard via public transportation in the heat. Her father was adamant–“graduation is part of your job”. Back to Harvard she came and met Alex that evening. They were married for 57 years until his death in 2012.

I forgot to ask the elders what their 6 word memoir is but I am going take a guess here, Carol, based on what you told me. “Caring For More Than One Generation.” You see Carol loved caring for others and making a home. She raised her daughter and a son in a 3-generation home as Alex’s father, a manager at the Fisk Warren Estate lived with them for seventeen years, and her mother for seven years. Carol remembers fondly how close the children were to their grandparents, and how good it was for her kids to grow up with them. Carol has 5 grandkids, and a great granddaughter born just five days ago. When asked what advice would she give to young people today, she said, “remember, the world is wide open, not restricted by gender, decide to be different.” Thank you Carol for your many years on the planet.

Pat White

Pat grew up on a farm in NJ along with her three sisters raising goats, chickens, and turkeys. She majored in zoology at Douglas College, the women’s College of Rutgers University. She first worked for the Education Testing Service in Hopewell, NJ but was interviewed for what was to become the start of her computer-programing career. The interview consisted of solving puzzles, which she excelled at, and eventually that led her to be a computer programmer and program manager at Digital Corporation. In the early part of her career, a post-WWII rule said that women couldn’t work in the evening so when working late her work group would cover for her and pretend she was just “visiting”. She worked back when computers were huge mainframes and they used to heat up soup for dinner in the mainframe cabinet when they worked late, which was often. I bumped into Nancy Reifenstein last Sunday, who told me how difficult it was to find professional jobs for women in the 1950s even with advanced degrees. Nancy remembers fondly the day Pat came to the Women’s Alliance meeting driving her new green Mercedes convertible, and how happy they were for her success. Nancy recalled when Pat was promoted to manage her division of all men, and how much the men in her division respected her. I love the image of Pat in her green convertible cruising around town.

She traveled internationally for work and with the Choir, “Sharing a New Song”. A small list of her contributions of service include hosting Vietnamese refugees, “Boat People”; organizing the Harvard Help for senior transportation; strong supporter of the Harvard library construction, her “biggest single donation”. She led bird walks at Fruitland’s for the Audubon society for 40 years. She has an intense love of animals (especially birds, cats and dogs) and open space/ wilderness. She participated in the national backyard bird count and has found time for bird watching on multiple continents while she traveled.

Pat is a beloved Aunt of her 5 nephews and two nieces and her many great nephews and nieces. Some of you may have Steve, her nephew and his wife Kathy when they come to church during their visits. She was always a favorite Aunt to Steve; always buying him a favorite toy when he was young and then being wonderful when he had a family to bring to visit her. He notices how Pat has made deep, loving connections here. Pat continues to care for the birds, and her dog Polly, and she loves to sing in our choir and to go to Indian Hill concerts. Pat turns 80 in a week- thank you Pat for all your years on this planet.

Otto Solbrig

Otto Solbrig, is 88 years old, and when I interviewed him a few days ago, he said “I am scientist- biology, has been my doing all my life.” He wrote his first scientific paper when he was nineteen, and has honored many times for his work. He showed me the medal given to him by the emperor of Japan when he received the international prize in biology in 1998 from the Japanese Academy of Sciences for his work on plant biodiversity. He was also the president of the International Union of Biological Sciences, traveling often between here and Paris where this organization is located. He had the honor of getting to know scientists from Russian, China, European countries, and Australia, learning to navigate the changing politics in his relationships.

He has published 23 books, including two with Dorothy his wife, also a biologist, and a long- term member her. He was born in Buenos Aires but grew up on a town a few hours away. He attended University, and was a good student, and he became active in the resistance movement against the dictator Peron. As a result just as he was taking his final exams, his records were deleted from the University system, and he was thrown out. He went home for a short time but then returned to the University only to be jailed with other students for four months. Finally released he came to this country in 1955 with a recommendation from one professor and a clandestine copy of his exemplary grades. He landed in Berkley and was admitted conditionally by the University of California. He eventually met the dean who accepted on the spot him offering a full scholarship to the PHD program, which was to be his first and only post high school degree. He did a fellowship at Harvard, then worked at the University of Michigan where he met Dorothy and then he came back to Harvard working as professor from 1969-2002.

Otto has a daughter and son from his first marriage. Some of you may know Hida, she presented Tuesday at the Alliance meeting. This summer Otto and Dorothy celebrate their 50 wedding anniversary, “marrying Dorothy is a highlight of my life” says Otto. Otto is atheist but was profoundly influenced by a minister in his childhood who told him about the Sermon on the Mount, and how important it is to put yourself out to the world. Otto says, “I’ve had a lot of things happen to me, but it has been a wonderful life. I had to work at it, but I succeeded.” Thank you Otto for your many years on the planet.

Jean McCrosky

Jean, is 92, and is well known in the area for her activism to stop the Devens airport-some of you might remember the picture of her in the Boston Herald holding the sign “save the valley for future generations.” She is known as well as for her prolific writing including the publication of two books, the first being a memoir, “Secrets of the Water Rats” about growing up on the coast of Rhode Island. Jean grew up loving the water world and she loves sailing. Her dad owned the newspaper the Westerly Sun, and she wrote editorials as a kid. Jean was born into the world just beginning to recover from WWI and was a teenager when WWII started. Making sense of history is important to her. She wrote Art Goulash, the curriculum she developed and implemented with school age kids in town using art to tell history. The rough draft of a third book, a series of short stories about Harvard is in final edits, something her grandson wants to help her with so stay tune.

Jean, or Chit as she was known in high school and college -a short version of her middle name, came to Harvard after she met her husband Max while working in Cambridge as a secretary. They put everything they had to purchase the big white house on Littleton road where one of her daughters lives now. Her husband, Max was an astronomer who worked at the Harvard Observatory. One of her favorite memories is the year they went to the Midwest together to hunt for a meteorite, which they found and is now in the Smithsonian. They were married for 60 years, they have 3 daughters, one son, and 8 grandkids. Gail, who is here with her today, remembers a potter’s wheel in their kitchen growing up. Jean is an accomplished potter, winning prizes in Boston. She says she got started working at a potter’s studio in Cambridge as a clean up person. She would watch and learn as she cleaned. Jean also helped start the Harvard Roxbury Day Camp during the 70’s, and has been a member of this church for over 60 years. Thank you Jean for your many years on the planet.