“Pillar to Post: Musings of a Wandering Jew”

(This sermon  was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by past President Ana Schuber on August 14 2011 ©. It  is a reflection on the Tornado of April 27, 2011. But it is more than that, it is a powerful story of resilience over the course of a lifetime in the face of immense change. It is a story of healing and of hope.  I offer it here with permission.)


First let me assure those of you who are somewhat confused by the title of this talk:  I have not become a believer…still very much an atheist.  The wandering Jew I am talking about is something similar to this—a wandering Jew (lift plant into view).  Get it?

What makes me have anything in common with a wandering plant?  Well, let me say that although I try to put down roots, it appears to be the intent of the universe to keep me on the run.  (And by the way, when I finish today, someone should take this plant home with them because with my history of moving, it will probably be left here and die).

From Pillar to Post:  an Idiom which is a grammar term I love.  It means “from one place to another:  hither and thither, aimlessly from place to place, from one situation or predicament to another, pretty much the history of my life.  My family dragged me from pillar to post my entire young life.  When I was young, I was allowed one old military trunk to put my “stuff” in.  The trunk itself had had a wandering existence and I inherited it from my uncle who had used it in the Korean War long before it came to me.  Inside that trunk, I had a few toys, books, maps, pencils, artwork, etc.  Since that was the entire collection of things in my life, I was always careful to choose very tiny things to put in there.  I could have a lot if I had very tiny stuff.  To this day, I am not big on souvenirs.  I went to England several years ago…a trip of the lifetime and of all the things I could have come home with, I chose this:  Anubis, a small dog god from the British Museum.  He would have fit nicely in my old trunk.  But even my old trunk is in disarray at this moment in my life.  After listening to Deb Crocker last week talk about collections, I feel like this particular talk should be titled anti-collections, but we are not here to talk about collecting things unless events and places could be considered things.

From Pillar to Post:  Just for fun, I decided to see if I could write down all the places that I lived from the moment of birth to now deciding to only include places I lived for longer than six months:  Albuquerque-New Mexico, Brewton-Alabama, Montgomery-Alabama, Cheyenne-Wyoming, Oklahoma City, Travis Air Base-California, Yokota-Japan, Clark Air Base-Philippians, Birmingham-Alabama, Langley-Virginia, Wheeler Air Base-Hawaii, McCord-Washington State,  Birmingham-Alabama, Langley-Virginia, Teheran-Iran, Kansas City-Missouri, Warrensburg-Missouri, Fort Worth-Texas, Kansas City-Missouri, Sedalia-Missouri, Tuscaloosa-Alabama—4 different addresses.    This doesn’t include the places we lived for less than six months and then I have to add a whole ‘nother continent for that since part of it was in Germany, Greece, Wake Island and Guam just to name a few.

From Pillar to Post:  In terms of a bucket list of tragedies,  I have actually punched my card full including:  war zones in Beirut and Teheran, earthquakes in Japan & Iran, Hurricanes including  Camille, Opal, Erin, and Katrina, Asian hurricanes called Typhoons, Volcanoes—seen one not actually had to run from one, floods in Kansas City and Missouri, Fires in Oklahoma, Tsunamis in Hawaii, and while I have seen and loved (yes, I said loved) tornadoes from afar, I have finally ticked that one off my list.

I won’t say that what happened on April 27th was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, although it did produce one of the worst nights of my life and not because I lost part of my stuff or a house…it was because I didn’t know where people I loved were and because I didn’t have control of myself. It was the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan.  I didn’t have an idea.  I didn’t have a map.  Hell, starting over is my old friend.  I left Iran after being invited to leave by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  We left with my family and my trunk and I went to college.  I walked out of a marriage taking only my kids, the cats, an old computer and our clothes and I rebuilt a life.  I thought I liked starting over with nothing.  Empty my trunk and I can fill it again.  My story is buried deep inside and it can’t be touched by disaster and I don’t need that “stuff” to continue the story.

This time, however, I have encountered within me a different reaction to change.  I have to admit defeat somewhat in my effort to quickly overcome the moment and move on to the next without looking back.  Yesterday, I overheard a volunteer who works with one of the local area support organizations say that the recovery from the April storms is slated to take us up to three years.  Three years to recover to what?  I winced when I heard that.  I am so ready to be over the April storms.  I am tired of hearing about the tornado.  I am tired of talking about the tornado.  I am ready to be on with my life.  I am tired of the look in people’s eyes.  You know that look…it is a lost sort of look with tears around the edges.  I am tired of that feeling inside when I know that I am not going to be able to hold back the tears myself.  I am tired of driving past places I know deep down in my soul and not recognizing them.  I am tired of feeling like a grumpy toddler who just wants to go home.  Every day when I leave the parking lot on the campus, I want to turn toward the east and head home to 18 Forest Drive.  I want to pick up food at China Fun and stop at Sonic and get me a large unsweet iced tea.  I want to go home.

It is not just me.  I look around and it is all of us.  It is the older lady who sat beside me in the hospital the other day and in a very loud voice said “they need to put that McDonald’s back on 15th street so I know where to turn. I drove past it twice.”  It is the kids that are starting back to school this week and last and they are not where they were before.  It is all of us when we drive down one of the affected roads at night and there are no lights.  It is the eerie shapes in the partial darkness around us that are the skeletons of former homes and businesses.  It is the naked and stripped trees that stand against the sky.  It is with us when we think about running to Hobby Lobby or Taco Casa or Milo’s.  It is in our language when we realize that we now have to say…”where it used to be….”  It is with me when I stand on what is now an empty lot and I can’t even remember what it looked like before the storms.

Have I been here before?  I have always been this way before.  It is just the recovery time that is longer.  Usually when I have a life changing moment, I am intact.  I may not have a lot, but whatever I have is all with me after the moment has passed.  This is different.  At this moment, I don’t know where a lot of my stuff is.  I had a call from a friend the other day and he said, “I have some of your art in my kitchen.”  I didn’t know he had anything.  Makes me wonder what else is out there.  It is like waking up as the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz and hearing him say, after the flying monkeys have torn him up….”they threw my legs over there and they threw the rest of the me over there….”  I have talked to others who were affected by the storms and they say the same thing.

What are the lessons that we learn from this event whether we lost something or not?  There are many.

We have to cry.

There was a death here on a massive scale.  Not just the death of people although that was a horrible result of it as well.  But the death of certainty hangs heavy upon us.  Nothing seems certain any more.  We have to grieve and that means denying it, getting mad at it, stomping feet, falling to our knees and crying over stupid things like a lost quilt or a lost book or a favorite sweater or a well-loved restaurant or a gardenia bush.  The tears will be warm and they will wash away and they will comfort.

We have to ask for help.

For some of us that is difficult, not because we are so proud we can’t accept it, but because we are so independent that we almost don’t know how to ask for it, and for many of us we don’t know how we will ever pay back the favor and that weighs heavy on our hearts.  They say three years, but it could be much longer.  This is a long journey back and so there will be for some of us many opportunities before the journey ends to ask for help and really need it.

We have to show Gratitude.

The moment that it happened, there was kindness all around.  In the eyes of the young man who was dressed in National Guard Kaki, the one that told me “Ma’am, you can’t go home tonight” and then “Is there anything I can do?”  The water that was handed out, the chainsaws that just arrived, the sweet faces of friends who just appeared, the hot dogs, the people who called and texted, the ones who showed up to pack, the ones who held our hands and let us cry, the ones who gave us strength or boxes or a place to live, or handed us cash or gave us a hug.   I have written close to 60 thank-you notes trying so hard to let everyone know who has helped me, whether or not I know them personally or not how much I appreciate the help, the little bit of glue that they have offered to bind up my life and put it back together….and if I have left you out in some way, please know that it meant something, everything and I thank you.

We have to allow the change to shape us.

Whoever we are is ephemeral–always changing.  We may think we remain the same, but in fact we change and the role of crisis sometimes is to uncover the authentic self —sometimes that “self” that we hide from the rest of the world.  For me, the crusty curmudgeon, it means letting a more vulnerable self have a moment in the sunshine.  I don’t have the faith that some of you do in a god or angels, but I do have a faith and it keeps me going.  Someone right after the tornado, who knows I am an atheist came up to me and said…”after that, I bet you believe in god”.  While I believe I could have decked him with one blow, I simply said “well, I’ll tell you one thing I believe in the power of that tornado.”  My brand of faith hasn’t been shaken.  I still know that 2+2 is 4 and that when I put sugar in my coffee it is sweet and that the sun rises because the earth continues to turn and that tornadoes are random and powerful and mighty and beautiful and terrible and life-changing.  I am different, we all are.     

We have to let some of it go. 

In order to heal our hearts, we have to find our way out of the damage and let “before” go.  Who hasn’t looked back over his or her life and with nostalgia welling-up and wished for a new start? Rare, indeed, is the person who has never said, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d…”  or “I wish there was some wonderful place called the land of beginning again…”,  Every pillar or post that I have encountered has made me who I am.  Although playing the “what if” game is sometimes fun on a Saturday afternoon, it is not really what I want.  I accept the storms of April and the changes in my life.  The Etch-A-Sketch events of that terrible moment offers me and you a clean slate, a clean beach an empty lot of land to build again.                                                       

Within the darkness that we will feel for some time, we will find redemption; we will find the ability to see the faint light that can shine on the faint new path that will take us—all of us– to a new home.


One Comment

  1. This was so very moving! Ana is a passionate speaker, a natural in the pulpit! She is a wise woman!

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