Seeking, and being found by, meaning

Opinion: Columns

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Sunday morning, I awoke in search of meaning — no different really from any other day in my life to date. Sunny Sunday mornings in late August are full of meaning for me, memories of savored childhood summers coming to an end, Sabbath observed just enough to distinguish this morning from all other mornings of the week, where peace comes dropping slow, as Yeats would say.

I was on the lookout for meaning as I left for Unity Temple's "Welcome Sunday," start of the post-summer worship year. As I walked in the morning chill, meaning moments echoed in my head and heart from yesterday when my son and I took Tyler and Bryce to Rehm Park for the final day of the hand-crank trains, a tradition at Rehm since 1960 — when I was their age — and a tradition now for my grandsons these past three summers. The boys are old enough now to motor around with joyful fury.

Traditions are meaning moments, which is why we reenact them. Reenact them long enough and they become rituals. Rituals turn ordinary time into sacred time and space. The last day of the year for hand-crank trains felt like sacred time. 

Afterward, they played in the sand pit with barefoot intensity, then clambered on the climbing structures. The weather was sunny with low humidity, cool enough to make you think of donning a jacket but not enough to do anything about it.

A friend of my son brought her son along and the three boys tested themselves on a natural climbing structure, better known to us as a fruit tree. Beneath its boughs, we briefly entered universal summer, just as this summer was preparing to take its leave. 

Entering and leaving always feel meaningful.

With Tyler and a friend pursuing some convoluted Paw Patrol scenario, which Tyler narrated out loud in his vigorous soprano voce from the top of a slide, Bryce found himself torn between Tyler's directorial insistence and an unfolding mother-son drama nearby. Silently, with interest, he looked from one to the other and back again.

"Bryce has always been a 'take it all in' kind of kid," his take-it-all-in father observed, astutely.

A moment of meaning.

Tyler's moment came later at Junction Diner in Forest Park when I took him to the bathroom and mentioned how much older and taller he's getting. He looked up, beaming, and said with great enthusiasm, "When I'm older, I'm going to have a big moustache. And I'm going to be covered by monkey fur!"

Tyler has always been a "let it all out" kind of kid.

At Unity Temple more moments awaited. "Water Communion" was the focus, which means congregants bringing vials of water from summer highlight-reel moments, fountains and seashores and rivers and rain showers, water made holy by collective experience and confluence.

Tears seemed an apt gift to bring to this ceremony, and a couple formed as I waited my turn, but they're hard to aim, and I was more in the mood to pour — to pour out this summer of myriad, mixed memories, to empty my very self, as St. Paul put it. 

Emptying and filling always feel meaningful.

Or, as Unitarian minister Elizabeth Lerner Maclay wrote, "As drops of rain that find each other and build to become a track, a rivulet, a stream, a river, a sea, so are we drawn together; so are we fortunate to find each other; so are we bound together, on this shared passage toward an unknown ocean and eternity."

Earlier that morning another moment of meaning surfaced, courtesy of "acoustic biologist" and musician Katy Payne during an On Being interview when Krista Tippett asked her to talk about how being a Quaker influenced her work listening to elephants and whales in the wild.

 "I guess I've always felt that a simpler life would be a good thing for me," Payne replied. "Quakers are wonderful practicers of simplicity. They attempt to get their worldly affairs down to a dull roar so they can help a little bit in meeting some of the world's needs. I find that just being silent is a wonderful way to open up to what is really there. I see my responsibility, if I have one, as being to listen.

"My church is outdoors mostly. What's sacred to me is this planet we live on. It's the only planet where life has been found. And that, to me, is ultimately what I consider sacred. And I must say that if I could ask these animals if there's anything equivalent to what we speak of as faith, I would love to do that. We just don't know. … Out there, rolling around and swimming and perfectly at home in the waves, are these enormous animals. And by golly, they're singing, of all things. What that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead to be discovered is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge. We are just beginning."

Moments like these made me think of one of the books that changed my life, "Man's Search for Meaning," by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Coincidentally (or not), after returning home and turning on my computer, I found my regular Sunday email from Maria Popova's "Brainpickings" blog, this one titled, "Viktor Frankl on Humor as a Lifeline to Sanity and Survival."

That night I had dinner with my son and said goodbye, just as the day before, he said goodbye to his sons, who just a week ago started kindergarten. The following day Dylan left for Japan for five weeks of drilling with his National Guard unit. 

Endings and beginnings always feel meaningful.

We are meaning seekers, but meaning has a way of finding us … if the door is open. And if it isn't, meaning finds a way to open it.


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