I Love You All, Everything

Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

David A. Mix Barrington

29 June 2013

Here is my sermon, "I Love You All, Everything", for the summer service of 29 June 2013. It includes excerpts from Our Town by Thornton Wilder, which I have edited by removing and reassigning speeches in the last two scenes.

"This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder."

That's the first line. The Stage Manager stands out on a nearly bare floor, with a few tables and chairs, and tells you that you are going to see the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, starting in 1901. In 1938, when Our Town was first performed in Princeton, New Jersey, it was strange for an actor to tell you that you were seeing a play. You knew you were in New Jersey in 1938, but the actor is supposed to pretend to be in New Hampshire in 1901. And so he does, he just lets you know that he doesn't expect you to be fooled. When I perform Shakespeare today, I'm not trying to fool anybody -- I'm pretending in order to tell a story, just as Shakespeare's own players did, and it's the magic of the language that takes us somewhere else.

You probably know the story. In Act I we get the facts about Grover's Corners, and we meet the Gibbs and Webb families. About all that happens is that Emily Webb helps George Gibbs with his algebra, and George gets scolded for being lazy with his chores. In Act II we see the run-up to George and Emily's wedding some years later, and get a flashback to the day they first knew they were meant for each other. Then in Act III we're in the town graveyard, with an actor in a chair to represent each grave. And the Stage Manager tells us why we're here:

"Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars… everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

"You know as well as I do that the dead don't stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth… and the ambitions they had… and the things they suffered… and the people they loved."

"They get weaned away from the earth---that's the way I put it,---weaned away."

"And they stay here while the earth part of 'em burns away, burns out, and all that time they slowly get indifferent to what's goin' on in Grover's Corners. They're waitin'. They're waitin' for something that they feel is comin'. Something important, and great. Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?"

I have a long history with this play. The summer between my junior and senior year of college, my sister Jennie directed Our Town for the Westwood Youth Theater, an organization consisting of little beyond her own considerable energy. She got a good college actor to play the Stage Manager, enlisted me and another college student to play the Gibbs', and filled out the rest of the case with high school students. My brother Peter, then twelve, played all the boys' parts. It was my first serious acting experience, and a big factor in my returning to acting at the age of 40.

Two years later I saw it performed by undergraduates in England, who apparently thought that all rural Americans shared the North Carolina accent of Gomer Pyle. About ten years ago I saw a version at our local performing arts charter high school, with two actresses playing the Stage Manager. When another character asked the Stage Manager a question, they would silently confer before replying. Two years ago I missed a performance by the Ashfield Community Theatre, involving some of my friends from Hampshire Shakespeare, and then last fall I heard about the production at the Northampton Center for the Arts, directed by Toby Bercovici.

I probably should have auditioned -- playing the Stage Manager is one of the more realistic items on my bucket list, not that I was in the same league as the woman who got the part. But I can afford at best one show at a time, and I do Valley Light Opera in the fall. I did fortunately get to see the show, which is what brought me to lead this service today. On the day I saw Our Town last December, I was about as close to an existential crisis as I ever get.

The reason was an interview I had just heard on WHMP with retired biology professor Guy McPherson, author of the blog Nature Bats Last, on the topic of catastrophic climate change. In this audience, it's likely that most or all of you are somewhat familiar with the scientific consensus about climate, as expressed in the statement I read earlier. The earth is getting warmer, it is due to the carbon dioxide humans have put in the atmosphere, and the consequences are going to be severe. The consensus statement says "human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by the year 2050 if we continue on our current path".

2050. If I am still around, I will be 91 years old and largely a spectator in the human story. My daughter will be 60. And "substantial degradation" doesn't sound as bad as the warnings that meteorologists were offering before Katrina and Sandy. But hurricanes are both easier to predict and harder to ignore than global temperature change. By "substantial degradation" they may mean abandoning New York City, or no longer growing wheat in Canada.

There are those who challenge this consensus as too alarmist. Perhaps even if the earth is getting warmer due to our carbon dioxide, we don't actually have to do anything about it because other factors will somehow compensate. The energy industry, as well as the Republican party in the United States (if that's not redundant) are each eager to publicize any disagreement or doubt in the scientific community about the size and speed of the effect.

Guy McPherson, on the other hand, rejects the consensus as not alarmist enough. He says that they are ignoring, or insufficiently considering, positive feedback effects. Positive feedback effects are not necessarily good -- they are called that because they act in the same direction as the original effect, as opposed to negative feedback which tends to cancel the original effect out. For example, warming the atmosphere releases methane from the Arctic, which causes further warning of the atmosphere. These effects, he says, are so bad that there is no longer anything we can do to prevent the loss of our civilization, our species, and probably our biosphere. And he's willing to put dates to his predictions -- human extinction by 2030.

Listening on the radio I could tell that Bill Newman and Monte Belmonte were stunned. They have interviewed people before whom I would classify as insane, such as anti-gay activist Scott Lively, but McPherson doesn't appear to be insane. (Though he may well be wrong, and I dearly hope that he is.) The phenomena he warns about certainly exist -- it's a matter of how big they are, and what else might happen to counteract them. What passes for good news in his predictions is that our industrial civilization will collapse well before 2030, thus reducing or eliminating our greenhouse emissions. But he says that the damage is already done.

People like me who have comfortable lives are used to reasoning about the future. Will our investments be sufficient to support us in retirement? Have we provided our children with the tools they will need to survive and prosper? Will the people our organizations are hiring now be the right people to keep those organizations going on after us? But what if there is no future? What if the end of our species is coming in the next decade or two? After hearing Dr. McPherson I found myself noticing every reference in the media or in my own thinking to the future that he says will not happen.

In my summer service last year I spoke about predictions of the end of the world coming from Christian and other mythologies, and about the fear of nuclear Armageddon that my generation grew up with. For nearly a century, our American mythology has included a distant planet doomed to destruction, where a single scientist, ignored and suppressed by his government, is able to send his infant son away to earth. Our cinemas this week feature another version of this myth, and another story of most of the earth's population turning into flesh-eating zombies. None of those stories, though, dominated my thinking the way that this idea did. It was like, I suppose, getting a death sentence.

I'm fairly comfortable, I think, with the idea of my own personal death, and the reason is expressed in the Laura Nyro song I sang earlier. When I die, and when I'm gone, there will be one child born to carry on. My life and death are part of a larger pattern, I hope, with something carrying on beyond me -- my own children, other people's children, people who will remember me and what I did. I don't know how I'd react if I learned I would be dead in a year, but I would hope to handle it as well as the musician Rob Morsberger, who just died at age 53. In an interview from a couple of months ago, he said that he viewed his death as part of his life and his life as part of something larger, without any reference to organized religion or a physical afterlife. He was proud of what he'd done, and of how he had lived and loved, and that was that.

So with my similar faith somewhat shaken, I sat down last December to see Our Town again. I knew what would happen, of course, and most of the words I would hear. There were two acts instead of three, the soda fountain scene was cut, and the Stage Manager was a woman in a wheelchair, but it was the same play. And I found that it spoke to my existential crisis.

There's no reason to think that Wilder himself believed in a physical afterlife, seated in a New Hampshire graveyard or otherwise, but we know something about what he meant by the graveyard scene in Act III. In his book Our Town: An American Play, Donald Haberman says:

"In a preface written for the publication of Our Town but not printed Wilder remembered that since seeing some classical archaeological sites in and around Rome, where he spent 1920-21 at the American Academy, he often looked at the world around him through the eyes of an archaeologist a thousand years in the future. He repeated this observation some fifteen years later in a talk he gave before the James Joyce Society, saying that his having become aware of the view of the archaeologist altered his attitude toward life. Knowing that millions have already lived and died and that probably millions more will live and die paradoxically both reduces the importance of the individual life and makes more urgent the need to provide some validity for the reality of the unique experience."

And in Act II the Stage Manager refers directly to the idea of looking on our lives with the perspective of a longer time horizon:

"I think this is a good time to tell you that the Cartwright interests have just begun building a new bank in Grover's Corners---had to go to Vermont for the marble, sorry to say. And they've asked a friend of mine what they should put in the cornerstone for people to dig up… a thousand years from now… Of course, they've put in a copy of the New York Times and a copy of Mr. Webb's Sentinel… We're kind of interested in this because some scientific fellas have found a way of painting all that reading matter with a glue---a silicate glue---that'll make it keep a thousand--- two thousand years."

"We're putting in a Bible… and the Constitution of the United States---and a copy of William Shakespeare's plays. What do you say, folks? What do you think?"

"Y'know, Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts… and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,---same as here. And even in Greece and Rome all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then."

"So I'm going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone and the people a thousand years from now'll know a few simple facts about us---more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean?"

"So---people a thousand years from now---this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.---This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."

In the play, the dead are different from the living because they have perspective, and the transition that the newly dead go through is the acquisition of that perspective. From the perspective of a thousand years, even the treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight look small. A fully lived life is a small part of a larger picture -- of what, the living cannot know. Something is eternal, and that something, the Stage Manager says, has to do with human beings. Our story is part of a larger human story. Is that, I wonder, any more or less true if we happen to be characters in the very last chapter of the human story?

In Act III, of course, the newly dead person is Emily, who has died in childbirth at the age of 26. She's something of a chatterbox by contrast with the more experienced dead, and she soon realizes that it is possible to relive her life, to return to a day in the past. The others advise her to choose an unimportant day, and she returns to her twelfth birthday, listening to her parents just before breakfast:

MRS. WEBB: Charles! Don't forget, it's Emily's birthday. Did you remember to get her something?

MR. WEBB: Yes, I've got something here. [Calling up the stairs] Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?

MRS. WEBB: Don't interrupt her now, Charles. You can see her at breakfast. She's slow enough, as it is. Hurry up, children! It's seven o'clock. Now, I don't want to call you again.

EMILY: [softly, more in wonder than in grief] I can't bear it. They're so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I'm here. I'm grown up. I love you all, everything.-- I can't look at everything hard enough.

[She looks questioningly at the STAGE MANAGER, saying or suggesting, "Can I go in?" He nods briefly. As though entering the room, she says, suggesting the voice of a girl of twelve:]

Good morning, Mama.

MRS. WEBB: Well, now, dear, a very happy birthday to my girl and many happy returns. There are some surprises waiting for you on the kitchen table.

EMILY: Oh, Mama, you shouldn't have. [to STAGE MANAGER] I can't--I can't.

MRS. WEBB: But birthday or birthday, I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow. I want you to grow up and be a good strong girl. That in the blue paper is from your Aunt Carrie, and I reckon you can guess who brought the postcard album. I found it on the doorstep when I brought in the milk--George Gibbs… must have come over in the cold pretty early… right nice of him.

EMILY: [to herself] Oh, George! I'd forgotten that…

MRS. WEBB: Chew that bacon good and slow. It'll help keep you warm on a cold day.

EMILY: [with mounting urgency]: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally's dead too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it--don't you remember? But just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another.

MRS. WEBB: That in the yellow paper is something I found in the attic among your grandmother's things. You're old enough to wear it now, and I thought you'd like it.

EMILY: And this is from you. Why Mama, it's just lovely and it's just what I wanted. It's beautiful!

MRS. WEBB: Well, I hoped you'd like it. Hunted all over. Your Aunt Norah couldn't find one in Concord, so I had to send all the way to Boston. [laughing] Wally has something for you too. He made it at manual-training class and he's very proud of it. Be sure you make a big fuss about it--Your father has a surprise for you. too; don't know what it is myself. Sh--here he comes.

MR. WEBB: [off stage] Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?

EMILY: [in a loud voice to the STAGE MANAGER] I can't. I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. [sobs] I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back--up the hill--to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. [to STAGE MANAGER] Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. [pause] The saints and poets, maybe--they do some.

EMILY: I'm ready to go back.

I love you all, everything. Emily's perspective tells her, somehow, that every moment of her life was full of meaning even though she never realized it, even though almost no living person ever realizes it. Emily sees that as tragic, but I find it sort of reassuring. However things appear to you, this says, your life is actually full of meaning.

That's a statement of faith, of course, one that's implicit in our UU principle that calls for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, because that search presupposes that there is some meaning to be found. But we have to take that on faith. We may have occasional moments of being like a saint or poet--I think I do--but most of the time we are stuck with just a free and responsible search.

Let's hear the end of the play, where that evening the dead are visited by Emily's widower:

MRS. GIBBS: Were you happy?

EMILY: No… I should have listened to you. That's all human beings are! Just blind people.

MRS. GIBBS: Look, it's clearing up. The stars are coming up. Emily, look at that star. I forget its name.

MAN: My boy Joel was a sailor,--knew 'em all. He'd set on the porch evenings and tell 'em all by name. Yes sir, wonderful!

MRS. GIBBS: A star's mighty good company.

MAN: Here's one of them coming.

MRS. GIBBS: That's funny. Tain't no time for one of them to be here--Goodness sakes.

EMILY: Mother Gibbs, it's George.

MRS. GIBBS: Sh, dear. Just rest yourself.

EMILY: It's George.

MAN: And my boy, Joel, who knew the stars--he used to say it took millions of years for that speck o' light to get to the earth. Don't seem like a body could believe it, but that's what he used to say--millions of years.

MRS. GIBBS: Goodness, that ain't no way to behave! He ought to be home.

EMILY: Mother Gibbs?

MRS. GIBBS: Yes, Emily?

EMILY: They don't understand, do they?

MRS. GIBBS: No dear, they don't understand.

We don't understand, and there's some comfort to me in understanding that we aren't supposed to understand. But we still have to live our lives, and I want to live my life well. Whether we are definitely part of the last chapter of the story, as Dr. McPherson believes, or whether we might be part of the last chapter, as the other scientists warn us, living our life well has to mean dealing with the reality of climate change. I don't have any answers. We have a Climate Change Group in this Society, and you will hear from them, including Sarah, four weeks from now. What I'll leave you with is my own idea, based on whatever limited perspective I have, of what I might be doing to make a difference.

I'm a teacher of computer science. My day job is to give the next generation the tools to use the power of computing--in my case, largely mental tools, habits of thinking that will help them reason about computing and thus make them more powerful practitioners of computing. They might use that power to build better video games or to make faster stock trades, but I hope that some of them will use it to help people use energy in smarter ways, and thus use less overall.

I'm active in electoral politics. While perhaps none of our politicians have the single-minded focus on climate change that the times actually demand, I think it's undeniable that some of them are much better than others. I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you that we have a U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts the day after tomorrow, and that the two candidates have sharply different positions and records on that issue and many others. I may not urge you from the pulpit to vote for any particular candidate, but I may and do urge you to vote. I spent the day that our president was first elected in New Hampshire, canvassing door to door, and I finished that day in downtown Peterborough, usually considered to be the model for Grover's Corners. Also the day after tomorrow, we'll here what that president has to say about climate change.

The final way I hope that I'm making a difference is one that I share with all of you. And that is simply this place--this Society. We have a chance here to model the kind of community that we want our larger society to be. Here we make our decisions and we live our lives based on truth and love, and we help each other do that. In the next few years, we may be called upon as a larger society to make difficult decisions, to make huge sacrifices, or even, if Dr. McPherson is right, to die well. How we live with each other here might help determine how we will do that on a larger scale. So on this fine morning not so far from Grover's Corners, all I can ask is that you go out and live.

Last modified 29 June 2013