stages

Pittsburgh Daffodils, April 2013
Photo Credit: Melissa Firman

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

“Stages” ~ Hermann Hesse

After you’ve attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation for awhile, you learn to expect the unexpected.

You don’t expect people to be so welcoming and open-minded. You don’t expect to hear words you’ve never heard spoken aloud in church before (or, at least, spoken aloud in a positive way). You don’t expect so much laughter, for church to be so damn fun. 

When talking to people unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, they often ask me (a UU for almost 13 years) what services are like. And I usually respond that while there are elements and rituals that are the same, each service is different. You know, just like people.

I arrived a few minutes late yesterday to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills, so I missed the first few lines of Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stages” spoken aloud as the opening prayer. With its theme of exploring endings of life, love, and friendship through poetry, I knew Sunday’s service was going to be a spiritual can of Red Bull for me, thanks to the last 15 months of unemployment hell/ freelancing/Bill’s cancer treatments, and this week’s news of accepting a new job.

I was proven more than right.  It had a sprinkling of Robert Frost, an abundance of Edna St. Vincent Millay – with meditation music provided by Art Garfunkel on CD.

All my plans have fallen through
All my plans depend on you
Depend on you to help them grow
I love you and that’s all I know
When the singer’s gone
Let the song go on
But the ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast but they pass too slow
I love you and that’s all I know

We were asked to form a circle and hold hands for the closing prayer, a continuation of Herman Hesse’s “Stages.” We shuffled into place. (We don’t usually do this.)

I noticed P. then for the first time and grabbed hold of his hand. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like I could let go. I didn’t want to.

I never met P. before that moment.

There are some people who you feel you have known forever, yet you’ve never met. Maybe they remind you of someone – or several someones. Maybe it’s something about their spirit that needs to connect with yours. Maybe it’s not for us to figure out. Regardless, I am one of those people who believes that we meet the people we meet for a reason. We may not always know it, but there is a purpose for our being here and our encounters are not as random as they may seem.

And so we stood, hand in hand, encircled, listening to the words of Herman Hesse as the closing prayer.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.

Visitors get a handmade nametag (if they choose), which is what P. wore yesterday.I took that as my opening cue. 

“Good morning!” I said. “Is this your first time here?”

His third, he said. He’s from out of state and here in Pittsburgh for medical treatments.

I nodded, resisting the urge to say dammit, I thought so. I mean, why can’t my instincts be this accurate about things like winning Powerball numbers? 

“You’re in a good place,” I said, meaning both Pittsburgh as a city and a medical community AND our UU congregation.

We talked about the church and our backgrounds, and P. told me a bit more about his condition. Unlike other converations I’ve had like this, suddenly I wanted to know more about this stranger I truly wanted to call my friend. I also know exactly where in my personal Checked Baggage Claim department this was coming from. I could feel the questions wanting to spill forth. Are you okay? Do you have family here? Do you need a ride to the hospital? Can I bake you a casserole? 

“If there’s anything that the church can do for you….” I said, telling him the name of our pastor, who wasn’t there yesterday.

We talked more, about endings of the most personal and final kind. About wishes and pre-arrangements and blessings. All this, in a matter of minutes.

The church started to empty. A friend came up to us to congratulate me on my new job. I wasn’t done with P. yet.

“I feel like I’ve known you forever, P.,” I smiled, giving him a hug goodbye. He smiled back. 

“Thank you, Melissa,” he replied.

“I hope to see you again soon,” I said, fully aware of the meaning of the phrase.

“And you will.”

We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end. 

“Stages” ~ Hermann Hesse

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