It Tolls For Thee

“It Tolls for Thee…”

Rev. Penny Hackett-Evans

August 13, 2017

Birmingham Unitarian Church

There is a story of a man who was learning to install telephone polls. They are hard and heavy and they stand up to 40 feet tall. There’s a critical moment when you place the pole into the ground and it is unstable and may topple over. If it hit you, it could, of course, break your back or even kill you. On the first day of the job the new guy turned to his partner and said “If this pole begins to fall, I’m running like hell!” But, the old-timer replied “Nope, you don’t want to do that. If that pole starts to fall, you want to go right up to it. You want to get real close and put your hands on the pole. It’s the only safe place to be.”

I think knowledge of death is something like that telephone poll. We all know death awaits us. And, there is no part of us that especially wants to run towards it and put our hands right on that truth – to spend time contemplating that truth…

What if you suddenly knew that you only had one year to live? Would you live differently than you are right now? Would you embrace the preciousness of time? Would embrace some urgency to live authentically? Would you rale against this fate? Would you be filled with regrets about what you had or hadn’t done in your life?

Most of us know intellectually that we and others will die. Our work is to move this understanding from our head and nestle it deeply in our heart. What if you only had one year to live?

A Jewish tradition holds that we should all walk around with two pieces of paper in our pocket – the first one says “I am dust and ashes”… reminding us that we will die, that we can’t control things, that we are small in the grand scheme of things. Life is not all about me. and, the other paper says “The world was made for my benefit”. There is much to be treasured here. I can’t do everything but I can do some things. I can forgive, love, care behold beauty etc. Both things are true. the world was made for us – and we are dust and ashes. How to live within those parameters?

I had thought of passing out 3 x 5 cards and asking you to think about your own death. On one side of the card, I was going to ask you to write down 3 things you would stop doing if you knew you were going to die in a year. And, on the other side, I would have asked, what are 3 things you would start doing. I encourage you to think about that even though you don’t have the card in hand. I found that it was harder than I might have thought to decide on three things for myself. The first thing that popped to mind when I thought of what I would stop doing was that I would definitely stop exercising. I’m guessing that’s a fairly common thing to want to give up. But, after that it got harder… What WOULD I stop doing if I knew I was going to die in one year? What would you stop doing? Would you quit your job? Drop off the committees you serve? Stop buying things? Stop going to the doctor? Would you stop procrastinating? Stop playing video games? Stop drinking? Would you stop “wasting time”?

Tom and I were discussing this on a long car ride recently and we finally each came up with three things and we told each other what they were. And, almost as soon as we said them, we ourselves couldn’t remember what it was we had said we wanted to give up! Which only illustrates how hard it is to make such decisions and to follow through with them. Besides giving up exercising, What I finally decided I would wish I could stop was seeking approval from every corner of the earth. I would want to just give that up – if only I knew how… and, finally I would stop being in a hurry. I don’t know why I’m always in a hurry. It’s just my default. But, I don’t like it. And, I would truly like to slow down. But, please don’t remind me of that when you see me rushing around because I’ll get angry if you do! It’s funny how our habitual ways of being in the world are ingrained in a part of us that even we don’t understand. We grew into these habits because they served us in some important way at some point. Even as we say we might like to change, a part of us resists.


A few years ago I was involved in a musical project with a large group of women. We were recording a CD with women from all over the country. There was a woman in that group who was immanently dying. But, she wanted more than anything to be a part of this recording project. And, she was. We all did everything to accommodate her. I had not known her before. She made a HUGE impression on me. she was funny, and kind, and told wonderful stories, and she was full of life and talked openly about dying– even as she could hardly walk and was losing her sight. I was so impressed with her that I wrote her a note when I got home saying how much I enjoyed meeting her. The note was returned to my unopened. She died a few days after the recording project had ended. I remember thinking to myself that I want to die just like sister Willie Julie died – full of life and laughter and kindness and generosity – without bitterness or resistance. And a few days after I had that thought, I suddenly realized – Sr. Willie Julie did not get that way because she was dying. That was how she lived her whole life. And, if I want to die full of life and laughter and kindness and generosity – I guess I better start practicing NOW.

So, back to my list -- I would give up exercising and needing approval and being in a hurry. The second part of the exercise is to say what you would take up. What would you start doing if you knew you were going to die in a year? Would you take piano lessons? Retire? Find new or more friends? Would you get a tattoo? Would you get your papers in order? Would you tell everyone you loved them? Would you join the choir? Find a lover? Take that trip you’ve been wanting to take? Would you throw a big party? Rent a cabin in the woods by yourself? Would you write that novel? Reconcile with your sister? Ask your kids to come home?

I decided that most of all I would wish to be kinder. I am not unkind – but I would wish to be more conscious of being as kind as possible in all situations. This of course is not easy to do. I can say I want to do it – but that doesn’t make it so. But, if I were dying in one year, I would want to be remembered like my friend Sister Willie Julie – I would want people to write on my tombstone that I was kind. I would want people to say “she truly lived”.

So, we can mostly think of what it is we might want to stop doing or begin doing if we knew we were going to die in a year. So why don’t we? Why don’t we just take that trip, reconcile with our sister? Find work that is meaningful? Stop being so needy?

Probably we don’t live the life we imagine for ourselves because it’s hard. If we could just suddenly be kinder, open our hearts to the one we have alienated, find a new job – we would. We would do that if it was easy. But, as Neb Duric reminded us last week, we humans are “risk averse”. It is built into our genetic code to protect ourselves. We have become who we are because it worked for us. And, on some level we don’t quite believe we’re going to die. And, the truth is that most of us have much more than one year to live. So, we keep postponing those things we say we want most of all. We think we have time. In some future moment, we will reform ourselves and live the kind of life we say we want to live.

A friend once sent me a list of the top 5 regrets of the dying;

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.

  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  5. I wish I had let myself be happier. Many people remark that there was so little authentic joy in their life.

We can’t just push a button in ourselves and make ourselves remember these regrets, but we would do well to hear them. This advice from those who are near death is worth listening to. Death’s advice is to live fully while we are alive. But, that is not easy advice to follow.

I remain convinced that it is not death that we are afraid of so much as regretting that we didn’t live as fully as we might wish we had. The poet Mary Oliver addresses this in one of her famous poems, “When Death Comes”

When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn; when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; when death comes like the measles-pox;

when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;

…When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

There is a Buddhist tradition of writing something called a “death prayer”. It is a prayer that is written on the last day of your life. If you don’t die on that day, you must write another the next day. Frank Ostaseski in his book “The Five Invitations” tells a powerful story about a women he was working with in the hospice he founded. The woman was living on the streets of San Francisco when he found her and brought her to the hospice. Frank was sitting in the hospice one day reading a book of these Japanese death poems and the woman asked about them. He explained what they were and she said she wanted to write one. She went to her room and a few hours later came back with this poem;

Sono’s Death Poem

Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray,

soon enough the seas will sink your little island.

So while there is still the illusion of time,

set out for another shore.

No sense packing a bag.

You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.

Give away all your collections.

Take only new seeds and an old stick.

Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.

Don’t be afraid.

Someone knows you‘re coming.

An extra fish has been salted.

Mona (Sono) Santacroce

She asked Frank not to write it down, but to memorize it and say it at her memorial service – her advice about how to live and which he did. It was subsequently written down and is now fairly widely known. At first I thought the poem was about “crossing over” into death and doing that without fear. But, on later reading, I realized that the poem is not about dying, it is about living. About changing you ways. About trusting others. Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray – live the life you mean to live NOW - while there’s still time.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A couple of weeks ago Tom and I were visiting our children and Grandchildren. They live in a small New England town and one late afternoon we all decided to walk into town where there was a free concert on the village square. Our plan was to all go out for dinner after the concert. But, as the concert wound down, our five year old Grandson began to tire – and probably most of you know how that goes down. He begins to whine, and pout, and beg to be carried and then escalates to crying, kicking stones etc. Our daughter declared that we would not go out to dinner with this kind of behavior. So, the five of us began walking home. The five year old, continuing in his despair. And me getting more and more irritated at the whole situation.

When, seemingly out of the blue, our 8 year old Granddaughter began to sing a little song she had learned at school. It was one of those repetitive songs with counting and it goes on and on. And on and on she sang walking down the middle of the road with the rest of us. It was innocent. She was not trying to cheer anyone up. She was not trying to show off. She was not self-conscious in any way. Before long, the rest of us, one by one, began to sing the song too. The song had motions with it and we slowly began singing and dancing our way up the middle of the street. Even the five year old eventually almost joined in. Over and over the five of us sang this song and danced up the street. Near their house, a neighbor came walking by smiling and commented on how much fun it was to watch this unlikely parade on their street.

This little scenario captures for me, the essence of what I have been wrestling with here this morning. Life is hard. We usually don’t get our own way, others have control over us, we get tired, we get cranky, we escalate and make things difficult for ourselves and others. This is my usual response to barriers in my life – I become a tired five year old, pouting and kicking stones.

Would I wish that I could be the singing dancing 8 year old? Of course I do! In the midst of unhappiness, she just began to sing. That never occurs to me! If I knew the road ended just beyond the bend, maybe then I would think of singing instead of whining. But, the thing is, we don’t ever know when the road ends.. we hardly even let ourselves believe that it will end. But, if on that particular afternoon, that particular road had ended just around the bend, you can bet I would wish that I had been singing and dancing rather than resisting and pouting. So, why don’t I sing and dance metaphorically more often? Because I’m too busy, because the road isn’t going to end tomorrow, because I have a habit of pouting instead of singing? Because I need someone else to lead the parade…

And, that’s where you come in. We need someone to show us the way. We need someone to begin singing and dancing just when we are at our wits end. We need a community to sing and dance with. When I am here, you show me how to sing. Here we remind each other each Sunday that the road will end at some point, that singing and dancing is an option, that we are not alone in our forgetting to live the life we mean to live.

Favorite UU poet Mary Oliver has written this famous poem with it’s unforgettable last line…

The Summer Day

Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

(Let us spend some moments in silence contemplating that important question.)

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