Part 5 of a multi-installment series for Lent
5. Your First UU Spiritual Experience – UUs place the interdependent web at the center of our faith. When was the first time you experienced a moment of transcendent connection that led you to feel as though who we are does not end at the barrier of our own skin?
My mom is from Mattapoisett, a town in southeastern Massachusetts on Buzzards Bay. When I was a child we were there for holidays, school vacations, and as many days during the summer as mom’s work schedule allowed. There were a few summers I spent weeks there with my grandparents, either alone or with one or more of my cousins. The mystical experiences I had there began early and constitute many of my earliest memories. Many, if not most of them, involve an awareness of transcendent connection to the universe that was so much more than my own small self.
The ocean, the waves, the wind, the seagulls, the sea shells, the salt air, the sunlight, the fish, even the palpable sense of history made being in Mattapoisett with my grandparents seem like I existed in many points of time all at once and the scale of the very small (from a grain of sand falling through my fingers to playing with my cousins to fishing with my grandmother) to the very immense (the vastness of the ocean to the limitless expanse of the stars in the night sky, to sweep of history that inhabited my grandparents house and the entire town) was all of a unity of experience in a single point in time and space. I know, quite mystical for a child. I didn’t have these words for it then, but the emotions and feelings have been the same all my life.
My grandparents lived 100 yards from the shoreline, a block down the street from the town dock which was two blocks away from the small town beach. The lighthouse at Ned’s Point was a one mile walk. I would sit on the rocks by the wharf or at the lighthouse or even right in the sand at the shoreline at the beach and watch the ocean for long minutes, and as I grew older – hours, at a time. This little bit of the edge of the sea at the shoreline in a small bay was connected to the oceans all over the world in their depth and complexity. It was full of life. It was in constant motion. It was beautiful and the waves were gentle and the sound they made against the rocks or the beach was hypnotic. These waves seemed to have been doing this forever and would continue to do so forever long after my grandparents, parents, and even myself were long gone.
The name Mattapoisett is from Wampanoag and means “a place to rest.” The name may be related to Wampanoag burial sites found there or that the area was a place for stopping while traveling up and down the Acushnet River. The town was a major part of the shipbuilding industry during the peak whaling years. The ship Acushnet, on which Herman Melville had the whaling crew experiences that informed Moby Dick, was built in Mattapoisett and for many years the mizzen mast of the bark The Wanderer, the last ship built in the shipyards, was the flagpole in Shipyard Park near the docks on the site of the former shipbuilding works. My grandparents’ home was part of a national historic district. A sign on the front of the house notes that it was built in 1824 and originally owned by Philip Atsatt. All of this history seemed tangible and to me, especially as a boy. This sleepy little town on Buzzards Bay was alive with the ghosts and spirits of everyone who had been here before me.
Apart from the incredible experiences of Mattapoisett there is one other early moment of connecting to the transcending mystery and wonder of the interdependent web that predates my early adolescent Christmas and Cosmos experiences detailed in an earlier post. This is the moment I realized the great variety in color among the green leaves on trees. My father was an artist and college art professor. His favorite mediums were pen and ink and watercolors. He would teach summer classes at the college and take his painting students to a local public park in Fitchburg where there were stone buildings, a pond, and miles of hiking trails through the woods. There was a playground for children and picnic tables. Sitting at a picnic table painting along with the lesson he was giving his students, I painted a brown tree trunk and then painted green circles on top of it. My father asked me why I painted all the leaves green. I told him, with as much of a “duh, dad!” expression as I could, because the leaves were green!
My dad said, “Are all the leaves green? Look up at the leaves here,” and he pointed above our heads. “See the sunlight coming through? See it highlight the leaves differently and see the different colors in the leaves on the same tree on the same branch? Look.”
And I saw it, as if seeing the world, as if seeing color for the first time in my life. The leaves over our heads in the sunbeam were bright green, then almost yellow, and green yellow and some were translucent (although the term “see through” was what I remember in my childish brain), and some were blue-ish brown-green in heavy shadow. Leaves of the same kind on the same branch of the same tree in the area of the same sunbeam were all kinds of different colors of green. My mind was blown. My father was a magic color shaman. Just remembering it still produces a sense of wonder and awe and I can’t walk in the woods or under trees anywhere without noticing the variety of colors in the greens. And I still hear my dad saying, as he said to me that day, these words from Tolkien:
I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.
Indeed there is. Once you see that all the leaves are not the same green, you can’t unsee it. And what an amazing blessing that is. What an amazing way to be reminded of my dad and the incredible, awesome, magnificient, mysterious, glorious, beautiful interdependent web of this existence.