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A sermon by Cathy Seggel, Director of Religious Education, for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, May 2, 2010

Sabbatical Reflections

I wonder if you have ever had this experience. Perched on a swaying train, gliding along, past unknown, yet familiar landscape, on your way, to work, to play, to greet family or some combination of those missions. I like rail travel. I can see, actually sense where I am going. It feels like a time-out, almost, fantasy travel. On the Northeast regional train from Boston to Washington, DC there are a few miles that are my favorite. The tracks hug the coast and for that magical interlude, it seems like the train car is floating in the water. For me it is always about water. For a few moments there are tides on both sides, all at once. The train car glides through swamp grass beds and peeks at open-ocean, light sparkling on slate gray water. As a passenger, feelings wash over me that all is well, that I am where I am supposed to be, that I am going somewhere.

That isn’t always the case with me. I tend to lean in the direction of thinking that I can always do better, be smarter, direct my travel in a way that could allow me to savor and save the world more fully…

Of course, this year, the months from January to April had particular significance. With your blessing, I had charged myself to find ways to review, refresh and renew, while relieved of everyday professional work. What a treasure! What a responsibility! What a maze of possibility.

In case we haven’t met, I am Cathy Seggel, the professional religious educator who works with James, Fred, Posey, Katy and the other staff of this church and many, many volunteer leaders. I have served this congregation for twenty years and speak to you today following a three and a half month sabbatical leave. So what did I do and learn? I promise, there is much I will continue to tell you, about visiting other UU congregations, of ideas that are percolating in me and about books worthy of trying. For now, this morning, I share reflections about what the past three winter months were like, for me.

When I spoke here in mid-December, I asked our children and youth to take time while I was gone to Stop, Breathe, Listen and remember what they feel is most important in life.

That is what I wanted to do. Review, Refresh, Renew was my drumbeat.
WOYAYA, my heartbeat, a tune behind the scenes.

Originally, I thought I should travel to distant lands, study with renowned wisdom keepers, become a master Pilates exerciser, paint my house, reinvent myself, open an independent school, perhaps cure a disease.

You were with me, of course, especially, in the beginning. January was challenging. I missed my people. Church workers don’t usually make time to nurture hobbies or friends whose schedules include weekends off. I was not sure how to begin. I had imagined being very happy to be left alone… Would I find my happy??

I stayed in RI for the month of January, organized my home office, read and started my journey to find treasures in other UU congregations. I visited local colleagues and family, actually staying out on Saturday night. The pile of books to read was high. Which would be first up, "The Future of Faith" by Harvey Cox or "I Feel Bad About My Neck" by Nora Ephron? You guess.

I watched a PBS special about happiness that explored narratives about friends, work, family and other elements on the road to happiness. I was particularly touched by the story of a prisoner of war, Bob Schumaker, during the Vietnam War, who described the isolation and fear he experienced during his three years entrapped in solitary confinement. He explained the “Tap Code” that prisoners used to stay connected, to keep their spirits and hopes alive. Amazingly, they taught each other new languages and conducted music lessons through sounds on the walls. Bob even imagined building a house, tiny step by step. Oh my goodness.

I began to use that metaphor in looking for how we all connect, communicate. We need tap codes in life, for overcoming loneliness and growing through temporary misfortune. I would need to search for mine.
What is your tap code?

I sure was glad when the chaplain at Brown offered me a temporary haven, encouraging me to study in their offices, which I did. We shared concerns and ideas to better support the young adults who belong to both of our communities. And, we swapped stories about our mothers. You see, Janet’s 94 year old mom lives in the assisted living facility where I dreamed my own mom would live. We laughed, with tears in our eyes, about finding balance in work and personal arenas, while accompanying a parent who can no longer live alone. Our moms are buddies.

But that was only January. My time away was heavily laced with accompanying my mom on her journey. I also read the witty Ephron volume about the trials of women aging with dignity, regardless of the effects of gravity on their bodies.


In early February, I finally got out of Dodge, flying across the country to San Francisco. I understood the message about putting on your own oxygen mask first. On the West Coast, chats with ministers and religious educators were to be blended with cramped lodging in my sister’s small home, with our mother. One goal of the trip was to meet her two-month-old first great-grandchild, Wesley. He is brilliant, beautiful and most of all, jolly!

I discovered at least four treasure troves in San Francisco. At First U San Francisco, I soaked in a message about change that affirmed my call to help open hearts to embrace the opportunities inherent in growth. At Starr King School for the Ministry I climbed “holy hill” to finally reach the tiny inspiring UU enclave where so many of my friends studied, including our James. And, I consulted with the minister of RE at the vibrant and welcoming UU Church of Berkeley, its campus on-high with breathtaking views of the Bay area.

By far, the most moving worship experience was Celebration at GLIDE Memorial Methodist in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco. I’ll bet some of you know of it or have been there. I heard about it, but had to feeeel it. Their mission is to create a radically inclusive, just, and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization. The worship style takes participants to another level, integrateing a powerful spoken message with singing jazz, blues or gospel with the Glide Ensemble and the Change Band. Everyone voices their solidarity and love. I did too, loudly.

In the refreshment department, I paused for a half-day at a small, meditative sanctuary called, Kabuki Hot Springs. There, I dunked myself in, first hot, then cold tanks, next steam, next sauna, all the while breathing, floating. As in our reading today, the 8 glasses of lemon/cucumber laced water was the best thing I ever tasted.

That wasn’t my only wet experience in California. Though not escaping for a long silent retreat or distant travel, I did drive, by myself, in a Mini Cooper, over the foggy Golden Gate Bridge, on mountainous, winding, scary and breathtaking roads, to Calistoga, for 24 hours of bliss at the Indian River Mud Baths.

Yes, modest, careful, shy, me, immersed in molten, volcanic ash, dunked completely in a claw-footed mineral water tub, wrapped in flannel and placed on a resting cot. When I told my youngest daughter, she remarked several times, “YOU did THAT?”

The escape also included a huge open-air floating pool fed by the bubbling mineral geyser. Strangers bobbed with me on noodles and floats. I shouldn’t forget to share that après mud there is a rest oasis, the Buddha Pond, scattered with wooden lounges and peace flags.

I did not get stuck in the mud. I did feel warm and safe and connected with all of life.


Next, in March: To Sarasota, Florida, seeking warmth, to help my mother see her old friends, who had become mine, to say goodbye to her home, her independent life.
Time for me, to swim through memories.
To let go of that chapter of our family history. To move on.

It was the coldest, rainiest March in recent history.
Okay, more time to work on the house: clean, sort, shelve, de-clutter, dump, recycle, re-use. Yikes- to trim, weed, plant, groom. Those were precious days of physical work and emotional labor, that I could only dream of on previous, shorter visits south.

I did take part in Sunday sunset drumming circle, on the world famous quartz sand beach of Siesta Key. Beginning with one or two drummers sounding the beat, it builds to over 30 percussionists and scores of smitten observers and costumed dancers of all ages. That drumming community felt close and supportive, open and welcoming. Happy.

Mid-month, I flew home to RI to officiate at the joyous wedding of a very happy couple. The groom grew up in our church!
For me, A pleasure, an honor.

That month, I read the book that grabbed my soul and informed my sabbatical reflections, "Love & Death" by Rev. Forrest Church. I had been meaning to explore his writing, his mantra, one I have grown to love.
Perhaps you have heard it before.
Want What You Have, Do What You Can, Be Who You Are

His words explain best:
Wanting what we have mutes the pangs of desire, which visits from an imaginary future to cast a shadow on the present, which is real. Doing what we can focuses our minds on what is possible, no more, no less, thereby filling each moment with conscious, practicable endeavor. And being who we are helps us reject the fool’s gold of self-delusion. It also demands integrity- being straight with ourselves and one another.

Along with Woyaya, that mantra began playing on a continuous loop in my being.

On a personal note, in Florida, I exercised more and gathered resolve to keep time for personal reflection and self-care a priority once my sabbatical time was up.
Let’s remind each other about that.

Last, April: Back to RI to settle mom in assisted living- finally. On the first morning when we entered the lobby I did this (arms up!) I was relieved to reach that promise-filled moment. There’d be help for mom beyond our family, opportunities for friendship and activities that I could never offer alone … Of course, it took some weeks of being on-site to help the staff there understand mom’s needs, her personality. Like, her passion for daily doses of sunshine and dessert. My project manager’s cap was on. I looked through dual lenses from years as a nurse and later, in faith development ministry.

I love being at Epoch. I learn from our seniors. Have you heard about The Elders? They are an independent group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. Here in our neighborhood, on a smaller scale, I have a new community of elder guides, in looking for connection, for affirmation and for fun.
One of my colleagues suggests that assisted living centers represent a new kind of campus ministry, yet to be realized. Hmmm…

In April, I also continued my review of gatherings from churches, online and from my own archive of “must go back to” documents. I have collected ideas about adult faith development from places I visited and a scrapbook of orders of service and brochures. In each congregation, I heard a similar song, one about people yearning to feel connection and seeking ways to transform their own lives and their world.

Meeting with his special assistant, I had the opportunity to learn about UUA President Morales’ plan to give more emphasis to lifespan religious education and to intergenerational integration in our congregations. To hear about their desire for a unified view of professional ministry that integrates parish, community, religious education and music. At 25 Beacon, I viewed the “Milestones Project” photo exhibit- more about that another time.

The last week before returning to my desk at church was stressful, despite hopeful attempts to fit in everything I hadn’t managed in my long/short three months. I did board that soothing Amtrak train from Providence to NYC the last weekend. I did see my son and reconnected with a dear friend I call “sister by choice.” We walked, by the sea on the Jersey shore, regaling in tales of our antics through the years.

Then, as predicted, April 20 dawned. I returned to a faith community that was stretching to rearticulate a covenant, generously funding a fair budget to fuel growth and health and to a team of volunteers and staff who had held and enhanced the programming that I so love.

We are going, Heaven knows where we are going but we know we will.

We can’t always know exactly where to go to find meaning and happiness. Sometimes it is hard to see our happy. In a recent magazine article, Shonda Rhimes shares that it might help if we decided that we have enough, we are enough. That we are standing knee-deep in our happy right now.

Who knew that it would be the rainiest, coldest winter, even in Florida?
I have begun the practice of breathing, listening more, tuning in to what I already have.

I contend that by cherishing connections and keeping our tap codes alive, we might manage our expectations so that we really do want what we have. Thus, be better poised to do what we can and be who we are.
I did find a Pilates teacher. I will find a RI drumming circle.

I want you to know that the whole time I was not here, I wore this bracelet, gifted to me by the Religious Education Committee. Each bead represents a wish from them to me. Now, I am back, to share the jewels I uncovered in other places.
And, oh yes, I toasted you all with champagne from James and used his compass to find my way home.

Woyaya: Written by Ghanaian drummer Sol Amarifio, is the title song of a 1971 album by Oisibisa, a musical group of Ghanaian and Caribbean musicians. It was frequently heard in work camps throughout central West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. The arrangement in Singing the Journey comes from the version by Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock). “Woyaya” doesn’t have a real meaning, it’s just like saying “oh, yeah” as an affirmation without literal translation. This song is frequently used in UU rites of passage ceremonies.

So, on this day after May Day, Please rise in Body or Spirit and join me in singing, No. 1020 in the teal hymnal, Woyaya.

We are going, heaven knows where we are going. But, we know within.
And, we will get there, heaven knows how we will get there. But, we know we will.
It will be hard, we know. And, the road will be muddy and rough, but we’ll get there,
heaven knows how we will get there, But, we know we will. Woyaya, Woyaya