Chapel Talk Archive

Laurie Sales

I have always loved Christmas. I don’t know if this is true of other Jewish children, but for me, there was a kind of magic about Christmastime that totally enthralled me. Perhaps it was because it was always at arm’s length, while at the same time being force-fed to me through TV commercials, Christmas choir concerts, and neighborhood decorations. I am not quite sure what it was, but something about the onset of the Christmas season gave me goosebumps and giggles. I distinctly remember walking home from middle school in the days after we turned the clock back, looking into the windows of people who were just starting to put up Christmas lights, and dreaming of what this year’s holiday season would bring. The smell of Christmas in my hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey, is and will forever be one of the best smells I know. If I close my eyes now, I can just about bring it back. Memory works magic on our senses, doesn’t it?
 
These days the Christmas season starts around Halloween. This is earlier than it did when I was a kid, but it’s true, right? Any day now, we are bound to start hearing that Christmas Shoes song on the radio and seeing Santa show up in just about every advertisement selling TVs and DVDs at low, low prices. This year, however, the feeling I have is different. This year, I suppose I could be dreaming about hanging stockings by the fire, dressing the tree with all the new beaded Maasai stars I brought home from my friends in Tanzania, convincing the dorm to host a Christmas party, and getting each other Secret Santa gifts—but I am not dreaming of those things this year. I am not really dreaming about Christmas at all because, well, the month of December feels like a Big Blank Page. Because nowadays, when people talk to me about anything that exists more than a few weeks into the future, all I can see is question marks, blank spaces, and this kind of blinding light that is full of intense anticipation and promise, but is totally shapeless.

Is that what it feels like to become a mom? I’ve always imagined that I would be a mom. Just like many of you, I’ve said things like, “When I have kids I’m going to dot . . . my whole life. And yet now, I feel like I am stepping into the complete unknown. Standing on the precipice of something intensely bigger than anything else I have ever known. It kind of gives me goosebumps and giggles of a very different kind.

Precipice—a word I love. One of the definitions is “a very steep rock face or cliff, typically a tall one.” Precipice. Used figuratively, it means on the verge of something, but not just anything: it implies being on the verge of something that will forever change your perspective, forever change your sense of being.

I talk about this idea often when I take groups of you to Kenya or Tanzania. The day before we arrive in our host community, I ask each one of you to imagine the community and to record your expectations, fears, insecurities, and ideas about what is ahead. I think it’s an important exercise, those of you who have traveled with me know, because you can never unknow what you know. Once you have stepped off the cliff, you can never unknow the drop and where it will take you. In a few weeks, I will be holding my son, and from that moment on, I will never be able to unknow him, unknow the feeling of being his mom, unknow the feeling of having brought his little life into the world.

So here’s the funny thing—when I look around this Chapel, right now, I see each and every one of you as someone’s child. Not just you students either, I mean my colleagues and friends as well. I am suddenly seeing the world through this lens, in which the arrival of each and every one of you was awaited with the same kind of unknowing anticipation that I have for my kiddo right now. I don’t know how often you think about the unconditional love that comes to you from your parents, but I can guarantee you, from where I stand now, it’s maybe one of the most remarkable feelings a person can have. And each and every one of you is the recipient of it. Just think what we, as a community, could do if we could channel a common direction for the surge of all that love—well, it might be larger than what I can take on in a morning Chapel Talk, but it sure is a thought.

One morning when I was a senior in college, I was sitting with my four roommates at our favorite diner in Evanston and we were chatting about our parents and our upbringings and one of my friends asked, “If your parents raised you to be one thing, what one thing did they raise you to be? Like they would have looked at you as a kid and blessed you to be what?” I still remember each of the answers. My friend from Manhattan, whose mother was a curator at the MOMA at the time, answered, “Be smart.” My friend Jackie, from Pennsylvania, who had been raised on a resort owned by her parents and who was a successful child actor answered, “Be cool.” We laughed at her, and I think that hurt her feelings, because it was somewhat true. Whether by example or by design, Jackie had indeed been raised to be funky, hip, and cool. And she was. My third roommate answered, “Be successful.” My remaining roommate and myself looked at each other. We were both from New Jersey, from parents of moderate wealth and modest lifestyle. I knew what she was thinking. “Be happy,” she said. Then everyone looked at me.

“Be good.”

I don’t think I really knew at the time what “be good” meant to me or how it would play out in my life. I like to think that now I know more. I try to be good—I try to be good to others, be good to the Earth, even be good to myself. Back then, I think it was more about a drive to appear to be good so that I would not get in trouble. Being good for me as a kid meant winning approval. Even as a little girl, I was the kid who would rush into my parents bedroom at midnight to tell them that while they were out I had convinced the babysitter to let me stay up a whole extra half hour, and that I was sorry, and that I couldn’t sleep until they knew the truth. Disappointing my parents was one of the worst things I could imagine.

How many times has any of you used the phrase, “my mom” (or “my dad) is going to kill me?” I used that all the time when I was a teenager. I was deeply afraid of getting in trouble, and I was convinced that my latest mistake was grave enough that I would lose their respect and admiration forever. Some of you may relate to this feeling. But of course the truth is, our parents are people, just like us, and they have the same background of mistakes and failures and bad judgment calls. They may not want to broadcast it, but all of your parents are full flesh and blood people. And like you, they have needs and fears and insecurities. And like you, they are not perfect, they are not always happy, and they are not always right. But they always love you. Even when you can’t surely see it.

The best example I have of this comes from my own grandmother—my father’s mother, who suffered with Alzheimer’s the last several years of her life. Her deterioration started with a paranoia and grew from a state of intermittent confusion to utter loss of all name/face/ place/event history. It happened slowly, and it was very difficult to witness. She lived with my grandfather and an amazing health care aide, about whom I could write a whole other Chapel Talk, until my grandfather died in his early 80s. He was the last person she really knew, and in his hospital room, when we were all there to say goodbye, she was so disturbed and frightened that she accused us all of plotting to kill him. It was very painful and strange. She was my grandma, and even though I was a young adult at the time, it seemed like a significant betrayal of everything we were supposed to mean to each other.

But then, a few days later, this amazing thing happened.

My grandpa, Sam, passed away, and my family made plans for sitting shiva, a mourning ritual that is an important part of the Jewish tradition. Sitting shiva is a gathering of family and friends, and in this case, we hosted my grandfather’s family and friends in the house in Florida that he shared with my grandma. My grandma did not recognize anybody there, including my father,—her son,—and my aunt,—her daughter. She spent most of her time sitting on the salmon-colored sofa, pointing to people and asking, “Who is that?”

For a while, I positioned myself by the lox platter, greeting older aunts and uncles who approached me with kind faces and compassionate glances. Then I sat down to eat in the chair opposite my grandmother.

“Who is that?” she asked the woman sitting with her.

“That’s Laurie”

“Oh, hello, Laurie,” she said to me, “Do I know you?” The question has a bit of a stab to it, doesn’t it? Like, how could she not know me? She was the first person who took me to the theater, the grandma who taught me about manicures and tea parties and who snuck me M&Ms when my own mother wasn’t looking.

“Yes.” I said. “You know me.”

“What do you do?” she asked me.

I told her that I worked in the theater, and that I was in the process of directing a play. She jumped in.

“I have a niece who works in the theater.”

And then she proceeded to tell me all about me. She told me about my college graduation that she had attended and how I had studied theater at Northwestern University and at the graduation all the theater majors had worn their new headshot on the top of the their caps. She told me about my best friend from high school, Kelly, and how Kelly and I had a theater company together in New York, and we were raising money for an important play that we had written. She told me about my brother, and how I was always trying to get him involved with me in my theatrical pursuits. She knew everything about me. She clearly adored me. She just didn’t know that I was me.

And I guess that is how it goes sometimes. The people who love you from day one, the people who love you truly unconditionally, will love you through anything—even when they don’t know who you are. That is the kind of potent feeling of which I am just now starting to be aware. That’s the precipice on which I stand. It feels really, really big.

I’ve been recording this whole talk so someday he can listen to it. Or maybe so I can listen to it to remember how I felt on this morning. So before I step down, I’d like to say a few things to the little guy who can hear my heart beating from the inside of my body.

“Hi, guy.

I don’t want you to worry about being smart, or being cool, or being successful, or being good. I don’t even want you to worry about being happy, because you won’t always be and that’s OK. You’ll know, I hope, from watching your dad and me that we believe in deep feelings, and that those feelings come in a wide variety of flavors. It’s why we can cry at weddings and laugh at funerals and put beloved pets and people in the ground and not pretend it doesn’t matter.

I hope that you have insatiable curiosity about the world and that, like your dad, you find the behavior of crows and ravens to be so fascinating that you will forget whatever important thing you are doing to watch these birds whenever they cross your path. I hope you love the stars, like your grandma, and never cease to appreciate how small we all are in this beautiful universe.

I hope you grow up with the capacity to be deeply moved by the human experience. Maybe, like your grandpa, you will tear up at the Olympics or when a favorite baseball player is inducted into the Hall of Fame. Or maybe, like me, you will sit in this Chapel and feel your heart open up so big as you listen to students share their personal stories and songs.

I hope you love this community. I hope you will know so many of the people who are sitting in this room today as your extended family. I hope you will celebrate big moments of life with them—I hope you will appreciate small moments of life with them as well.

I hope you know the world to be your community and for it to be yours. I hope we raise you to take responsibility for your place here on earth. A few months ago we danced with you and 20 Maasai children under the stars in Kenya and promised we wouldn’t make you wait as long as we had to discover that there are so many ways of being in the world. So many ways of seeing in the world. I hope when you listen to this, we have made good on that promise.

I hope you forgive us, me and your dad, when we aren’t what you want us to be. Because we won’t always be. We’ve been known to make pretty big mistakes and suffer pretty big failures and make really bad judgment calls. We have our own needs and huge fears and insecurities. And like you, we are not perfect, we are not always happy, and we are not always right. But we always love you. Even when you can’t surely see it.

So this is me, your mom, talking to you from the pulpit in Chapel on Friday, October 18, 2013. You are up here with me. There are like 400 people listening to this right now. I’d like to take this opportunity to enlist the help of these folks in giving you your first enormous feeling of love coupled with cheek-reddening embarrassment.”

I would like to ask everyone in the Chapel to, on the count of three, face me here and lend your voice to our son to say, “Hello, baby” together. Will you all agree to do it?

OK—one, two, three.

Thank you.
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