CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


I come now to Air. We are always very concerned about air, about air quality and air purity, about the first breath that a child takes.

We speak of the breath of life or the last breath, the dying breath. And thus, I think it is appropriate that the Greeks adopted Air, or as they call it, Wind, in the active sense, as one of the four elements with which they described the physical world.

I don’t know where to start actually. So, not knowing where to start, I will start with Meg Greenfield. Meg Greenfield was a columnist who wrote for Newsweek and for the Washington Post. Some years ago she wrote a column, that appeared in both the newspaper and the magazine, that really attracted my attention. It was written on the event of her 40th birthday. And she wrote as follows:


“On my 40th birthday,
I woke up,
that I was too old
to die young
and turned over and went back to sleep.”


For me, that has always stuck in my mind as being sort of emblematic of moving out of the fire of youth and into the long passages of the middle of life.

What Meg Greenfield was writing about is what we all have to do in the middle of life. She was simply going on, going on, doing it every day, picking up the right foot, picking up the left foot, writing her columns.

Being in the middle, as she was when she wrote that column, is knowing that life has not turned out the way you planned it.

For me, being in the middle means looking up from my desk at the two rows of cook books in front of me and realizing that there are recipes in those books that I probably will not cook.

It’s going for a long walk in the afternoon. I figured out that the neighborhood walk I take has about 64 different variations. But I now have come to recognize that I will probably miss a few of those, simply by oversight or slip of memory.

Being in the middle also means looking around at the books in my house or in the library and realizing there are books that I probably won’t write and there are certainly many, many, many books that I won’t read.


And I am daily reminded that there are
names that I will forget;
days that I will forget;
even sweet memories.


Being in the middle is... looking back, by accident, and seeing that the crest of the hill is behind you and above you a little bit.

Yet... for me, and I think for all of us, we still thirst for peace, liberty and justice, our fifth covenantal principle.

I certainly still strain to accept myself as I am, and in doing so, to accept others more fully and to encourage the spiritual growth of all; as written in our sixth covenantal principle.

This is much on my mind, the difficulty of accepting others, of recognizing our commonness, of recognizing that we are so much the same.

The differences we see looming so large are so small.

Metaphors illuminate our experience. They are useful both as teaching aids and as memory aids. I offered you the metaphor of the plant: of the earth period of plants being the germination below the soil, their emergence, their growth; then they move into a period of enormously rapid adolescent growth, their fire period, and then finally, even for them, the middle comes when they fruit and each day there is another fruit and another fruit and another fruit.

They just go on going on.

For those of you more technological oriented, there is the space shuttle: first bound to the earth in a long period of preflight preparation, and the straining to get off the ground, then the fiery assent, and then, finally, the boosters fall away and the engines turn off and the shuttle moves into orbit, doing the work it was planned for. Going on, going on, orbit after orbit, around, and around, and around, each one the same but each one a little bit different.

Here is another metaphor, the metaphor of the trapeze: the trapeze artist trains and trains and trains. Then one day, the time comes to slowly climb up off the earth, up the rope, to grab the bar, to swing back and forth, higher and higher and higher, and then to finally let go, to fly through the air.

We think of the daring young man on the flying trapeze. But it is easy for the young because they have no fear of heights and they don’t worry about the lack of the net below. But for those of us in the middle, who know either that the net is very thin or very small or not there at all, we still let go, and we do our work and we fly through the air.

We keep on, going on going on, knowing there’s no net down below if we fall, if we fail.

After our rising up out of the earth, after our ascending on fire, we reach the middle, where we know how to do it and we have to go on doing it.

It seems to me to be very proper that Air should be emblematic of that middle period

Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote:


"Wild Air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere..."


We don’t think about air often enough or deeply enough. We tend to think about where the next meal is coming from. But, you know, you can go for 40 days without food; not comfortably, but you could do it. You can go for four days without water; again, not comfortably, but you could do it. But just try holding your breath for four minutes! That is tough, that is really tough. But we never think of that as we breath in and breath out, as Thich Nhat Hanh instructs us to do, to breath in and to breath out. We never think of the many gifts of Air.

Without air:

There would be no sunrises and sunsets, there would just be the light turning on and the light turning off,

There would be no blue skies, no gentle breezes, no mist or rain or fog or any of the other wonderful parts of the weather that enthrall us and educate us and uplift us.

There would be no sound, we would to communicate in sign language.

There would be no voice, no songs or hymns, no cries of pain or joy, or of loss or of love.

But we have air. We are fortunate.

Dwelling in the present moment; I know this to be a wonderful moment.

In the present moment, on other days:

I’ve asked you for

Reflection: To think of what brings each of us here and keeps us here. We all need for ourselves to work out what brings us here and what keeps us here.

I asked you for

Reconciliation: To recognize that our own inherent worth and dignity, as that of the others here and throughout the world, comes from our commonness, not our uniqueness but our commonness. The fact that we are so much the same and so little different.


I have a good friend who is a biologist. I once asked him “How come it is that some people have hair, and some animals have fur and some fly through the air with feathers and some swim in the ocean with scales?” “Well,” Paul said, “It is really very simple. It is just one gene out of 100,000 that you have to change, to change hair to fur to feathers and scales.”

Now just imagine if the human race was divided among those with hair, those with fur, those with scales, those with feathers. We would have these enormous wars with the Feathers against the Furs and the Scales against the Hair. And yet we would be fighting over a small difference in one gene out of 100,000 genes. That difference would loom larger than many of the differences that now divide us.

I asked you for

Reengagement: I asked you to think about what it meant for you as a UU when you signed the book and became a member of the congregation? Remember I gave you the symbol of the tangled hands as a matter of engagement? I said to you that it was a matter of agreeing to get in each others’ faces and stay there. Of considering and, at times, accepting the views of others, even though they differ radically from ours.

I also asked you, at the same time, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, to think what will happen if each of us refuse, if each of us pass by? What will happen to the other?

Now, I’m going to ask you...


But first, let me tell you a story. I’m going to tell you a story about a little girl and her grandmother.

One day, a nice spring day, a little girl went and knocked on the door of her grandmother’s house and asked her grandmother to come out for a walk with her. And they went out together, hand in hand, and they walked up a long, sloping grassy hill.

When they came to the top, they were both amazed. Down the other side, it was a little bit steeper but at the foot of the hill there was a field. In that field there were flowers, not just one or two flowers, not just a dozen or two dozen or five dozen flowers, not 100 or 1,000, maybe not even 1,000,000, just flowers as far as you could see, all the way to the horizon... millions and millions and millions of flowers.

The little girl was very excited, as little girls get at moments like this. She tugged on her grandmother’s skirt and said “Nana, Nana,” because she called her grandmother Nana. She said “Nana, let’s run down there and let’s pick a bunch of those flowers.”

Nana looked at the steepness of the hill and thought about it. She was a little bit slower than her granddaughter. Recently, she had noticed that things took longer that they used to take. It got later earlier and she worried about her teeth; she was using a lot more dental floss than she used to.

So, she said “Sweetpea.” (She always called her granddaughter Sweetpea because she had trouble remembering her real name.) She said “Sweetpea, let’s you and I walk down there slowly and carefully and we will pick as many flowers as you can possibly hold. And then we will pick one more.”

So, hand in hand, they set off down the steep part of the hill toward the meadow. Half way down Sweetpea stopped and turned and said “Nana, I don’t understand. How can I pick one more flower that I can hold?”

Her grandmother said “You just wait Sweetpea, you’ll see.” They walked down to the bottom of the hill and started to pick flowers. They picked as many flowers as Sweetpea could hold. Then they picked one more and another one more and another one more.

The moral of the story, if you haven’t already guessed, is that

each of us can always pick up one more flower,

we can do one more thing,

we can teach one more child,

we can comfort one more person,

we can make of one more stranger a friend.

In doing so, by going on, going on, going on, we affirm life.

There is a popular hymn which UUs sing with a wonderful set of lines in it:

"My life flows on in endless song above earth's lamentations.

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing."

And that music, the gift of the air and of life, is our ministry to each other.

The ministry of the middle, the ministry of middle age, is working without a net:

Being in the middle....

between one’s parents and one’s children,


being in the middle between job and home,


being in the middle between work and play

and always, always, being in the middle between doubt and knowledge.

Day by day, we affirm ourselves and each other by simply

Going on, going on, doing the best we can.

Working up there without a net,

Doing the familiar, laborious work of the world.

Eliot wrote:


"I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice."
We, every day, construct those things upon which to rejoice, the simple and the everyday.
As we also sing:
"We bring love and laughter home
and ever more, joy is ours as the years unfold"
Each alike but each different, as year follows year in the mid-life,
in Hopkins' words: There is always air
"This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life's and air’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise..."