When I Was a Child I Read Books

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 9 March 2014 - Audio available

When I was a child, I decided that I didn’t want to learn how to read.   So my mother took me to the library to do research.  Where in the world could I go where I wouldn’t have to read?   Lapland was the answer -- a mystical place (in my mind) where children spent their days herding reindeer. “It’s very cold there,” my mother told me.  “Are you sure that’s where you want to go?”  Of course, she didn’t offer any suggestions about how I might get there, and the trip to the library drew me into the world of books, despite my protests.

Reading was never my strong suit as a child, a shameful prospect when you come from a family of intellectuals.  Of course, my mother, who was a professor in the field of child development, always doubted her own intelligence.  Her insecurities kept her from ever pursuing a PhD, even though she was highly respected in her field.  “I’m not that smart,” she’d tell me.  “I just know one thing really well.”  That one thing saved the lives of many, many children and inspired the work of thousands of teachers. I know the work she did is still touching young lives.  But she never felt she was good enough.  This is how it often goes for women: the insecurity, the self-doubt, the reticence to claim your space. 

I guess plenty of men struggle with their own self-doubt, especially if they are not of the ‘alpha male’ variety.  We can all suffer from the internal and external social demands that tell us that who we are and what we are is never enough.

Yesterday (Saturday, March 8) was International Women’s Day.  The theme for this year was Inspiring Change: a call to challenge the status quo for women’s equality and to encourage advocacy for the advancement of women around the world.   In some ways, being a female minister means that every day feels like International Women’s Day –perhaps especially to those who miss the days of booming male voices, and a more “male” sense of spirituality. Women who step into roles of leadership know that their presence can trigger reactions that come from the baggage we all carry because of our relationships with the different women in our lives– our mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and granddaughters.  Of course, male leaders can equally trigger reactions that come from our relationships with our fathers, brothers, and the rest.  It’s just a different dynamic.

I think many of us like to imagine that we are living in a post-gendered world.  I admire young people who are really pushing the boundaries between what is male and what is female.  The margins are growing wider and more and more people are finding their place to fit in.  But, honestly, I think we are a long way away from letting go of assumptions about what defines women from men -- beyond the obvious.  We are no more living in a post-gendered world than we are living in a post-racial world.  It takes a lot of practice to let go of the stuff that has formed us. 

Of course, each generation has a different story to tell.  My daughter’s generation of women, now in their early twenties, often see the hard-fought battles of my generation as vague and distant history.  Things as simple as being able to wear pants to school or play on the hockey team are understandably taken for granted.  Feminists are seen as something strident, as obnoxious (although sometimes loveable) old ladies (like me). Inequality is something that happens far away in other lands, in other cultures.

I could speak to you of those women in other lands, of the need for the education for girls, of the need for equal rights.  We know that when women have access to education and jobs, the entire society benefits.  We know that, if we are to create a more peaceful, just world, there have to be more opportunities for women.  The more opportunities women have, the more women can inspire change in their own communities.  Improve the lives of women and you improve the lives of children.  Improve the lives of children and you bring hope to the world.

But you know all this. You are smart people.  You read widely.  That’s what they say about Unitarians in general.  We are among the most educated, well-read groups of people on earth.

I came to serve this congregation with a desire to move Unitarian Universalism from a place of always being too much in the head to a place of the heart, and when I spoke from the heart, there were those who recoiled.  “Too much female stuff,” one person, who is no longer with us, told me.  Yet for me, when I go to hear someone else preach, I respond more to the personal stories, to the honesty, to the emotion, than I do to carefully crafted intellectual arguments.  Secretly, I confess, I’m just not an old-style Unitarian.

I am not who I seem, and I’m guessing that many of you are most likely not who you seem.  How many things do we hide about ourselves in order to fit in?  If our surrounding culture tells us to live up to certain norms, even when we break away, we do so at such costs to our spirits.  It takes time and practice to let go of the old feelings, and some of us are better at it than others.  I think, as we age, we can forget what it felt like to wage the battles we had to wage when we were younger.  We get used to being the people we’ve become.  We forget it wasn’t always this way.  Then again, maybe some people pop out of the womb fully formed, never doubting themselves, always clear about who they are and what they think.  If you have been so blessed, I envy you that life of clarity.

I started out thinking I would talk about Marilynne Robinson today, the author who wrote the novels Gilead and Housekeeping.  But her book of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books ended up inspiring other thoughts.  She writes that she grew up in Idaho, a badly maligned state, a place that sophisticated Easterners look down upon.  “If you’re from Idaho,” people ask her, “Then how were you able to write a book?”  Her answer? She read books as a child and she came from a place where the secret passwords of culture, that distinguished one class from another, simply didn’t exist.  Her bookish life and her capacity for being alone fortified her for the more judgemental social circles of the East.

I’ll never forget when David and I joined our second Unitarian Universalist congregation in the Boston area, some 22 years ago.  At that time, the membership committee would publish new member biographies.  How embarrassing to be among all these doctors, lawyers and business professionals who had gone to Harvard and MIT, while I was listed as an unemployed Montessori teacher. I felt ill equipped to engage in the intellectual conversations that came up in coffee hour.  I was not one of them. I have always lived the life of an outsider, until I became a minister and found myself on the inside of something as complex as a congregation.

A fellow minister once told me the story of his daughter coming to hear him preach.  “Dad,” she said after the service, “you use too many expensive words.  People need a fancy university education to relate to what you’re saying.  I couldn’t bring my friends to hear you.”

I sometimes think we Unitarians are like those Easterners looking down on Westerners.  We say we respect each individual, but we can get judgemental and perhaps a bit too proud.  We forget that much of our intellectual prowess comes from a place of tremendous privilege.  We say our communities are open to everyone, yet we create barriers that demand a certain level of education and class. 

As a child, my family didn’t hold out much hope for me, struggle as I did to learn how to read, tell time, spell and do math.  I was the creative child:  the artist, the singer, the dancer, the free spirit. My brother was the smart one.  As the youngest in the family, I thought intelligence came to you magically, and I didn’t have it.  I was convinced that looking up words in the dictionary was cheating. Everyone around me was older and brilliant.  They just knew stuff.

My earliest years at school were pretty torturous.  I remember passionately despising those early reading books with Dick and Jane, and their especially annoyingly cute little sister, Sally.  I remember getting in trouble for scribbling furiously over Sally’s face in a fit of frustration.  I remember my poor mother and father falling asleep as I tried to read to them at night, a painful exercise recommended by one of my teachers.  Nothing would make me feel worse than having to read out loud in class.  Oral reading.  The words still make me quake (I’m saying that for dramatic effect – but you know what I mean).  You have no idea how ironic it is for me to now have a role that requires me to read out loud every week.  Every time I read in French, it brings back those memories of stumbling over texts as a child. As someone here once said to me, “There’s nothing more humbling than trying to learn French as an adult.  It makes you feel like a stupid child again.”

It’s funny how you can outgrow those earliest experiences and still get thrown back into them as an adult.  As I lay these memories out, they make me laugh now.  Yet I know that five minutes with my brother can bring me back to being 12 or 6 years old again. 

With time I blossomed as a creative writer.  When I did finally get recognition for my poetry and short stories, I was ostracized by my peers for being adored by my teachers.  I entered into the later years of secondary school feeling silenced.  I was told that girls shouldn’t be so vocal, or act smart, and I was foolishly convinced. By the time I finished high school, I was sure I wasn’t university material.  I didn’t even try to apply to college.  I had attended an experimental high school program where we had no grades and I had done terribly on the national standardized tests.  For years, I felt those numbers defined my intelligence.  How could I amount to anything when I carried the burden of those numbers like a weight upon my shoulders?

But you know there are some things that carry you through.  I hadn’t lost that love for learning that my mother had instilled in me from a very young age.  I couldn’t do well on standardized tests, but I knew how to research anything.

Research got me a job as an apprentice to a costume designer at a summer theatre, which eventually led me to technical school to study jewellery design in New York City.  Sadly, I was a decent designer who had terrible technical skills.  My acid-stained, blood-blistered and saw-scraped hands were proof that this was not the right path for me.  But I made friends with a brilliant young man who convinced me that I should apply to university.  To my shock, I was accepted into a political science program.  Those studies opened new avenues of thought for me, whole worlds I had never experienced before.  But university wasn’t easy for me.  I had to work hard.  I had none of the basic skills that my fellow students had.  I had to learn how to write papers and footnotes and I was such a slow reader. Finding my voice was a long, slow process and I often doubted myself.  I was so shy.  To speak out in public was terrifying.

Today I wonder who that young woman was.  She exists as a shadow in my life.  I realize that I have been pushing myself for years to overcome the doubt, the reticence, the fear that I could never be enough.  And yet, here I am.  I have arrived, and I can’t really tell you how.  How did I learn to read 800 pages a week in seminary?  How did I become a public speaker?  How did I find my voice?  There’s something that has propelled me forward, that has kept me from saying “no” to each daunting opportunity.

It feels really good to tell you this, to admit to this shadow self, and to tell you that I know from my own experience that people can grow and change in amazing ways.  As a woman, I’ve had to really struggle to find my voice, to give myself permission to speak out.  I have been inspired by many women in my life, by women who are not afraid to be loud, or strident, or emotionally honest.  And I am grateful for the many men in my life who have encouraged me and cheered me on.  But, in the end, it all comes from within you, from your own courage, which is often something as simple as deciding to reject the negative stories you tell yourself.  I’d like to say I’ve completely mastered that, but then I wouldn’t be telling you the truth.  Most days I feel strong and positive, but like anyone else, I can have my dark moments.  Are any of us ever fully free from our pasts?  These days I am grateful for my own story. 

So, I stand before you a new woman having made my confession on this day.  You are all so smart and I may not be one of you.  But please, please, don’t praise me or offer sympathy for my past.  Instead, tell me what has challenged you.  Tell me if it has all been easy for you. Tell me that we can be a little less smug about our intelligence and our education.  Tell me that you will have the courage to confront what challenges you the most.  And tell me that we don’t have to be stuck in our heads all the time in order to feel worthy in this world.

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