When I was eight years old, I saw a movie entitled Escape to Witch Mountain. People called me Tony back then, and it just so happened that one of the movie’s main characters was a boy also named Tony, about my age, together with his sister, named Tia. Tony and Tia were brother and sister orphans who had suppressed memories of their past, but they knew that they must have come from somewhere special because they had psychic powers. Tony could move things with his mind, and Tia could unlock any door by touch and communicate with animals.
I sat in the dark, movie playing, eyes wide open, drinking it all in: their narrow escape from the horrible juvenile detention home; their breathless journey towards a place called Witch Mountain where they believed they would discover their true identity; and evil Lucas Deranian who was hot on their tail. I hated him. His only interest was to enslave them and capitalize on their paranormal gifts. Every close call they had with the guy made me squirm in my narrow theater seat and bump my brother beside me, or my father; and that day a lot of the popcorn in my bucket was sent flying everywhere.
To this day I continue to be an entertaining movie date.
It was hard falling asleep that night. I had seen something and heard something in that movie that made me want to drop whatever I was doing in my life and go find my real family. Didn’t matter that I was sleeping in a bed in Peace River, Alberta, Canada and had no idea where my personal Witch Mountain was. I just wanted to go. I just wanted to leave. I lay there in my bed and I felt inside myself, as deeply as I knew how. I was looking for the same kind of power that Tony in the movie had. I gathered up my will, I told myself to believe and that if I believed, my body would rise up off the bed like a feather, like a miracle. Finally, I would have hard evidence and indisputable reason for why I had always felt like an orphan in my life, why I had always felt like a stranger in my family and world, why I had always felt like I was meant for something else.
I awoke the next morning, sorely disappointed. But I would not let the memory of Tony and Tia go, their escape to Witch Mountain, the feeling I had that they were my true family and not the people in same house I was in.
This was me at eight years old. Already busy with the important work of discerning my vocation, but I would not have called it that at the time. It is a very grown-up word that, much later on, I would learn from theologians, which names the journey of shedding false selves and growing into one’s true self and purpose in the world.
As little Tony, I called it “going to Witch Mountain,” and maybe the name you have given it is just as unique.
We’re talking about finding the way home today, as an old year passes and a new year begins, and with it, new opportunities, new possibilities.
It is a path and a process that never ends, too. In her way that is always so eloquent, Judy spoke to some of that process a moment ago. So does poet and Unitarian Universalist May Sarton, who is writing in old age when she says this:
Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and many places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces…
May Sarton says this, and it does take time; discerning one’s authentic self can be a meandering way, with jarring moments indeed of being “dissolved and shaken.” At times we can find ourselves wearing other people’s faces, because we want to please them, or because we just want to survive. But wearing another person’s face—trying to live someone else’s life—will inevitably fail. “True self, when violated” says Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer, “will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.”
We get lost again and again. The good news is no one has to stay lost. We can get found again. We can find ourselves. The key to this is “letting your life speak”—listening to the deep aliveness within each of us that has a certain nature and we feel how its yearnings go in some directions and not others. It is about listening—beyond and beneath the Big Voice of one’s moralistic superego that insists you must do this or be like that in order to be a “Good Person.” You have to learn to listen beyond that, to the still small voice within where one’s integrity really resides.
This language about “letting your life speak” comes from a book with roughly the same title by Parker Palmer, and it is a great read. The one piece of advice he gives that I particularly want to focus on this morning is this: “When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts.”
I encourage you to do that, as you continue your personal journey of becoming authentically yourself. And right now, I want to get back to the kid I was, when I used to be called Tony, to demonstrate just what this spiritual exercise that Parker Palmer is recommending looks like in action.
Three years after seeing Escape to Witch Mountain—three years after that movie cut through all the trivia of my regular world and I heard the call to my true home through it and I just wanted to drop everything and go there—three years later, my fascination would settle on something else: on a paperback I carried with me pretty much everywhere, entitled Fifty Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane (a name I thought hilarious). The book included such gems as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow.” I’m eleven years old. Not sure how much of “The Three-Day Blow” I actually understood, assuming I even read it. I did read the Jackson and Poe stories for sure—I do know that. Creepy. But it didn’t really matter how much I did or did not read, how much I did or did not understand. It was about the words. I loved them. Word after word after word, creating scenes in your mind, creating new life. I carried that book of 50 Great Short Stories everywhere I went as a reminder of that power.
I hung out a lot at my Dad’s medical office, and on Saturdays, while he’d be in his office doing his charts, I’d be out front in the receptionist’s area, where the electric typewriter was. I’d turn that thing on, and the sound it growled out was gnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. I could feel the power surging through it, barely restrained. I’d roll in a new sheet of paper and start typing. Each letter would bang down hard on the page, bang, bang, leave its mark. Letters building words, words building sentences. My book 50 Great Short Stories would be right beside me, and it comforted me, made me believe that perhaps the power of Jackson and Poe and Wolfe and O’Conner and Hemingway with all their words could be my power too. I already knew that I didn’t have the extraterrestrial power of telekinesis that the character of Tony from the movie had; that had already been proven. But I still felt like an orphan, I still felt like there was a Witch Mountain out there for me to travel to, where I would find my true self. I still needed to get there, somehow.
Maybe writing was how.
Yet here’s what would happen as I’d sit there at the typewriter growling its electric growl. I’d go blank. I’d have no earthly idea what to say. The feelings that roiled within me: no way to translate them to words. It was always this way.
Isn’t it amazing how, so early in life, we can already see in cameo the central yearnings and challenges of our days? We can also see how the Universe is dropping clues here and there about the way forward. For me it was so many things: a movie, a book, and it was also people like my Church of Christ pastor in high school, who took me under his wing. We’d go on home visitations together, and we’d be driving in his car, and he had a hairdo that was huge and lacquered up with Aqua Net, so much so that it was stereotypical televangelist hair, his hair had its own personality, its own gravity. We’d be driving down the road, him behind the wheel and me on the passenger side, and his right hand would be on the wheel, and every time someone passed by going the opposite direction he’d give them a small wave with that hand, and sunlight would glint off that hair.
God, I wanted to be just like him. Not the hair part. The friendly and caring part.
Clues from the margins. Things coming into your life, and they make you want to drop whatever it is you happen to be doing, and do something else. Even if you don’t know what that something else is yet. You just feel restless. You just feel like you are meant for something more.
When I was 20 years old, I had two dreams. Here’s the first: “I am one of six black birds. We are in a circle, teaching people. And the people encircle us.” The other one goes like this: “My elephant is trapped in a tightly-fitting glass bottle. But I release him and discover that he is just like soap. I soap up with him, and it utterly transforms me. I am especially thrilled that it makes me capable of skating like I’d always dreamed, as well as any Olympian.” Those were the dreams. Just so powerful for me. I had them when I was still in college, almost on my way into graduate school. The dreams teased me with a sense that I was meant for something that would help others and be healing for myself, but what? What was I holding that I should drop, and what new thing should I take up?
I had no earthly clue.
Isn’t that the way of it? The way of our lives? Later, much later, we can look back and understand. But not up front, not in the moment. Marilynne Robinson, in her wonderful book entitled Gilead, has her main character, an old preacher, say it like this: “Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“In deep darkness, a miracle was preparing.” Have I ever told you about the first time I stepped into a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Deep darkness. Here’s what I mean. Hated it. Because the preaching was so bad. My former wife and I, with our two-year-old daughter in tow, went to the small Unitarian fellowship in our town, and while the people were friendly, the worship was terrible, and the preacher took 30 minutes to share his laundry list about what he did over the summer. BORING. I was outraged. I wanted to stand up and shout FRAUD. It was like I was eight years old again and back in that darkened theater, watching Escape to Witch Mountain, except the evil Lucas Deranian had been replaced by a terrible windbag of a preacher who was squeezing the life out of me.
I couldn’t stop squirming in my seat, which embarrassed my poor ex-wife horribly.
Later, when I was in seminary studying how to be a preacher in my own right, I came across these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838, delivered to that year’s graduating class of Unitarian ministers. “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.” Who knew that I had been channeling Emerson, seated as I was there in that small Unitarian fellowship, listening to the preacher waste my time?
Sometimes the call to our true self happens not as an experience of delight but as an experience of complete disappointment. That preacher wasting my time…. Somehow I must have known about the better possibilities of preaching—that truly good preaching does not so much waste as fill, enrich, enliven, ennoble, intrigue, inspire, make you laugh, make you cry, bring you back to your senses, make you feel human again. All through words, which the preaching shapes and sends forth. An electric typewriter bangs them out mechanically, but the preacher whispers them, shouts them, sings them. The preacher carries you with him; you and the preacher for a time are together inside a story and a meaning that, if good and true, can change your life.
Now, think again about what it was like for me at eleven years of age: how I’d be sitting in front of the growling typewriter wanting to get started on my own short story but I’d have nothing to say. How I’d feel the power slip through my fingers, slip away. Well, after college and graduate school, and then eight years teaching college philosophy, there was no more problem. One of my first sermons in seminary was 6000 words long. Keep in mind that for me, a 20-minute sermon consists of roughly 2000 words. It was one whole hour of me, holding forth. I was talking about the spirituality of imperfection.
I had a lot to say, apparently, about imperfection.
But at least, finally, I could feel the power flowing through me. I couldn’t levitate myself like Tony in the movie, and it didn’t look like writing actual short stories was in the cards for me. But preaching was.
I had found my Witch Mountain. The home that my eight-year-old self yearned for was finally found.
And still—the road runs ever on. True self is like a horizon. It gives us a definite direction but it is also ever receding.
I am on to my next Witch Mountain, and then the next.
It’s about spiritual beings having a human experience. What home is—what authenticity and integrity mean—is always in process, and never fully achieved.
True for me and true for you.
Not too long ago, I used the following story in a sermon. You may remember.
A man traveling through the mountains suddenly found himself being chased by a huge hungry tiger. He ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff. There, with nowhere else to go, he caught hold of a thick vine and swung himself over the edge.
Above him the tiger paced, and growled. Below him he heard a sound, and looked down to see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the vine.
Then he heard the faint sounds of something scrambling out from the cliffside, coming close. Mice. Two of them: one white, one black. They positioned themselves just beyond his reach, and started gnawing at the vine. At this, the man started to panic; they were eating through it way too quickly. But then, something else caught his attention: a completely unexpected, fragrant smell. A wild strawberry, a big one, growing out of the cliff near by. Holding on to the vine with one hand, he reached and picked the berry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
That’s the story, and I can only hope that, in the midst of your hectic days in this new year of 2021, mice nibbling your nerves away, tigers above and tigers below, something will come to you that helps you glimpse your true self. Perhaps it will be a sermon. Perhaps it will be a story about your life that you remember—you, when you were six or eight or ten years old–and there are clues there about your nature, your unique inclinations and yearnings and desires.
Whatever it is, no matter how lost you may feel in your life at the time, reach for that strawberry. Reach out and take a bite.
We get lost again and again. The good news is that no one has to stay lost.
May 2021 be a year full of sweet strawberry wisdom for you and for us all.
You and I, listening to our lives, on the continuing path towards authenticity, true self, Witch Mountain.
We’re getting found.
We’re going home.