This I Believe: Peg Guilfoyle (2013)

Intro:  Peg Guilfoyle has been a member of this community for more than twenty years and has worked in the arts, and particularly in the theater, for longer than that.  She is the author of regional history books on the Guthrie Theater and the Basilica of Saint Mary and many commentaries.

This I Believe

I have struggled with this.   I have avoided it like poison.  Like the plague.  I agreed to do it almost a year ago, when it was safely distant and I remember thinking  ‘ it’s your turn, Peg’.  I am very big on taking my turn.  So I spent January in a light state of dread and February in a kind of periodic paralysis, drafting, stopping, drafting, stopping.

Should I take the biographical approach?  The confessional approach?  The Hail Fellow Traveller Well Met approach?  The literary approach… where I mostly quote other people about what I believe?

In drafting, which is part of the work of the writer, even typing the words This I Believe in caps seemed overly declarative. It isn’t that I don’t believe in anything.  Quite the contrary.  It might be that what I believe in is unfashionable.

It might be that I had to learn what to believe, not having been taught to believe in much in a perilous childhood.   This gives one, or at least it gave me, a highly and possibly over-developed sense of privacy.

But what I think I discovered in the drafting is that I believe in too many things…. At least too many things for one piece of writing and speaking.

Yet, here I am.  It was my turn.  Plus, thinking about the things you believe in is hardly wasted time.  And discovering you believe in too many things for one writing is a rather happy complaint.  And it’s appropriate to talk about these things in this room, privacy notwithstanding, because this where a large part of my learning in these matters has been formed.  It turned out that I thought I was coming to this community for the intellectual life, but it’s been my spiritual life, a phrase that once made me shudder, that was revived and discovered here.

Church was a social accessory when I was a child.  The parish this and the parish that.   The parental cocktail parties were glittery and none of what looked like friendships and relationships were what I would now call close. But you grow up where you are.    But I was a romantic and drawn to beauty and for that reason I was drawn to church.  I loved the ritual and the anthemic stories.  I loved the color of the vestments and the height of the church and the serenity of the statuary.  I loved the quiet.  At the age of eleven, I was the organist for 7:30 mass, still then the Latin mass, and I still remember the pleasure of entering the empty church and sitting alone in the loft, separate from the few early risers below.  I loved the familiarity and the sense of history.  I liked mumbling the responses.  I knew they were part of something much bigger than the small hard world of my family.  And then, as soon as I went away to college, I stopped.

My heart opened…. I felt it open… on the delivery table when my first born was placed in my arms, leaving an inky footprint on my belly.   I made a surprised sound and the doctor, busy with something in my nether regions, asked if I’d felt pain… a patently foolish question.   But what I’d grunted at was a physical sensation in my chest.  Lying on the table, I felt something in my heart that had been closed… doors?… fly open and all my love rushed out toward my child… and once those doors fly open, they never close again.  All that rushing in and out… love and fear and joy.  And, it turned out, the ability to believe in things larger than the rush of my own days.

Once a number of years ago I was invited to join a book club that was largely populated by high powered media women. It was called book club although there was little book conversation.  I shortly, open-mouthed with astonishment at the way they talked about the world, developed a more descriptive name for it that involved alliteration with the word book, and also included the words wine and whine.   I enjoyed the fast talk and the hard edge in that crowd and there were twelve members, so you only had to entertain them once a year.  I am in many ways a deliberate innocent, though, so when it came time for me to suggest a book, I suggested one that I really loved.  Fiction, which is not common for me.   The book discussion, never a lengthy or substantive affair, was even shorter that night and finally, one of the women asked me with a rather puzzled air, what I liked about this book.

My answer was unexpected, even to me. What I like about this book, I said suddenly, is that it is about things that I believe in.  What, someone asked without interest, were those?  And I spouted.  Courage.  Wonder.  Honor. Invention.  The power of evil, and the power of good to triumph over it.  The essential and enduring beauty of the world.  The deep pulse of the city.  The wild winter landscape.  Magic.

I assure you, that stopped that conversation dead in its tracks. And a couple of months later, it was my turn to entertain, and right after that I became “too busy” to remain a member of that particular book club.

I was surprised in retrospect that I spoke so true-ly in that room and maybe I wouldn’t have if I’d thought a little more before speaking.   But it seemed like an orderly and necessary thing to do, to respond with truth when asked what you believe.  To answer falsely, or dismissively, would have seemed like a spoiling.  Although it was well before I came to carry this idea in my bones, as I do now, I was not hiding, or pretending, or being anyone other than who I am.

Then when I was drafting for a while I went through a simple listing and that seemed like a way in to the Big Question of what a person believes.

I believe in music.   And its power to illuminate and transform.  Me, and everyone else.  Particularly when we are making music together.  And especially when it’s gospel and roots music.

I believe in church architecture.

I believe in the precision and power of words.

I believe in the necessity of staying awake in the world.

I believe in biology, that we are creatures whose oversized, and sometimes over-busy brains, encourage us to disallow and forget the fact that we are flesh and blood, the product of an evolutionary process that seems very important to us, and is in fact only a tiny tiny slice of the universe at large.

I believe that what would unite this world fastest, what would make everyone instantly forget their differences, would be a good old-fashioned thumping hostile alien invasion from the stars.   We’d be bonded then.

I believe in my children.  And in your children.  They really are an arrow that we shoot into a future that we will never see.

I believe in the power of artifacts, things that we can hold in our hands from the past, our historic past, and our own past, and I believe that these things carry a distinct charge, like an electrical charge, that we can feel.

I believe that if we look over the landscape, and squint to throw our eyes out of focus, and open up all our pores and listen, that we can glimpse everything that has happened there in the past.  Our ancestors, familial and species, moving over the land, going about their vanished business, rising up, falling down, vanishing.  But not gone.

I believe in beauty.  And the imperative of seeing beauty in every day.

I believe in the power of story.  To teach.  And to make teachings stick.

It got be a long list in my draft, the Things I Believe.

Sacred music.

Cathedral architecture, essential justice.

The power of the sky.

The necessity of silence in order to be able to hear.

And learning to be able to say I don’t know, when all my training taught against that.

Accepting uncertainty.

And things happening for a purpose, and people appearing in one’s life for a purpose

And how bread has to rise.

And singing all the verses.  And singing them in the middle.  As an alto, I always seek the middle harmony, the one that fills out the chord.

I have been in this community for a long time.   I first walked in the door on a Sunday morning, which happened to coincide with the first Sunday of the tenure of the previous minister.  I came alone, and I came because I had moved out of my busy city life with my husband and two small children.   I had been completely, and happily, bound up in my work for years.  There is nothing so immersive as the theater… sometimes whole seasons would go by without my giving notice to the outside world.  Or wait…. There is nothing so immersive as being a mother to small children.  Sometimes whole seasons would go by….Every day I was left alone with my two small children on our hobby farm.  And although this was a choice we had made together, after some months, I was in desperate need of adult conversation and a reminder of what had once been my intellectual life.  I found it here.   And, in due course, my children found a home here, and a like-thinking community.  They went all the way through RE, through the teen group, through the OWL program, through the youth conventions, through being youth representatives on our church board.  Young adults now, they are UU through and through.  Not regularly churched, but thorough-going free thinkers with a highly developed moral sense.  They are still in touch with many of the young people they grew up with here.  They are still welcomed when they come through the door at the holidays.  My husband started coming when our toddler daughter refused to go to RE without a parent, and I refused to give up my hour in the adult meeting room.  In time, he, too, became embedded here.

Some of the things I believe I have learned in this community.   I have come to believe strongly that it is best to say what you think, and to try to speak and act honorably in all things.   I have come to believe that spending time in a community that says that out loud and regularly may be the best way to make that a norm.   I have come to believe that Sunday is a Sabbath, and that I need a Sabbath.   I have come to believe that every time I feel most alone and isolated, most like the outlier, the stranger, if I raise my eyes and look around, I will see that there are people, all around me, who are engaged in the same struggles and uncertainties that I feel.   We are all on the very same continuum.  We have much more in common than we have separating us.

And every time I am privileged to stand here and look out there, I take strength from the beauty of the faces I see, each one very different, and standing in our own places on that continuum, and each one entirely the same in desire to open and to act for good in the world, each in our own way.   I like to look around the room when the opening words are being spoken, and find a child who is speaking them by rote and watch those shining faces say ‘love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.  This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in understanding, and help one another.’

There are people in this congregation, some of them in this room, to whom I can turn for a moment of comfort.  With whom I can freely howl with laughter in a most undignified way.    With whom I can exchange a glance of understanding when something beautiful or moving passes through the room.   Brothers and sisters.  Siblings separated at birth.  I have found here no need to “hide, to pretend, or to be anything other than who I am”. And the speaking of those words, every week, has become a powerful incantation that has replaced the rituals and ceremonies of my childhood church. And I have found, here, the wit to recognize that I am a better person, and have a chance at making a better world, if I behave the same way outside this room.   If I go through my days without hiding, without pretending, without being anything other than who I am, and who I am called to be.

I’m not sure that, without this community, I would have ever noticed that as a value.  I’m not sure I would have waked up to that shattering  observation.

So.  Beauty.  Gratitude.  The pleasure and nourishment of sitting in a circle that is giving serious consideration to the world.

And oh, yes.   Divinity.

And I think the most that I can say about that is that it does not seem to me that the music of Bach, and the architecture of cathedrals, and the immense beauty and order of the natural world and the tremendous surging power of singing together … it does not seem to me that those things can mean nothing and it does not seem likely that they are accidental.

I am afflicted by clippings.  I am a looker, a seeker after kindred spirits, and often I find them in other times and places, or maybe I can just recognize them better when they are distilled into a book or a poem or a quote.

I have clippings so yellowed that they are brown.

“We live only to discover beauty.  All else is a form of waiting.”  Kahlil Gibran.

“Writing is very easy.  All you do is sit at the typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead.”  Red Greene.

Poems innumerable.

Speeches from Shakespeare, which I carry in my head.

And this from Edith Wharton.

“In spite of illness, in spite of the archenemy, sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

This I Believe.