Homily presented to the
Dakota UU Church of
Normally during my celebration of Flower Communion my contribution is a freshly-plucked dandelion. Taraxacum officinale. I use it because we all recognize it in its omnipresence, as indestructible as love.
We have yet to see them this year because of the incredibly late winter we’ve experienced—only a week ago my wife and I were stranded because our driveway had sixteen inches of snow unceremoniously dumped on it by whatever malevolent snow-god or whatever sleeping spring-god there might be —but I guarantee you they will be coming and they will be everywhere. The dandelion is the cockroach of flora. They existed long before our species rose up from the proverbial swamp and after we return to the dust they will continue to be here.
The name “dandelion,” which I’d always assumed referred to the yellow mane of the flower and its seeming vanity, actually comes from the French dents de lion, “teeth of the lion,” and refers instead to the deeply serrated rosette of leaves that poke up from billions of lawns, in abandoned lots, between the cracks in concrete, in the clefts of mountain crags and skyscrapers, and sometimes tufting out of the useless chimneys of houses where no hearths have burned in decades. They are perennial and rely on bees and flies to pollinate, and when they’re ready, the wind carries their seeds on tiny parachutes to new places. Sometimes they fly as much as several hundred meters. They do not need us at all.
Dandelions are often used as a medicine, usually involved with blood, the liver, and gall bladder. Its juices aids detoxification and bile flow, promotes lactation and the immune system, and helps reduce eczema and cough and asthma. The root can be dried and ground up and added to coffee, like its close relative chicory, and the leaves are often delicious in salads (although I’ll admit I have to add a lot of butter to make them palatable). And most of us are of an age when we have had dandelion wine.
Had Jesus been born in, say,
rather than in the Kansas Middle East, the Sermon on
the Mount might have included the following:
Consider the [dandelions,] how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Now don’t mistake all this information for anything like love for the dandelion. I relish nothing more this time of year than to walk barefoot among my lawns, swiping the heads off these parasites with a few well-aimed kung fu kicks. There is a deep, satisfying, bottom-of-the-gut joy that comes with yanking a 3 foot long dandelion root from my gardens. Few things are as pleasurable as watching the beasts disappear under the deck of my lawnmower. I do not love the dandelion. I tolerate the dandelion.
Because, try as I might to eradicate it, the dandelion remains as much a part of my life as a part of my landscape. I cannot escape its existence. I mow and weed and even spray the lawns, and still they come back up. That is their unique power.
A story now, a contemporary one, about motherhood that serves to relate how people are like dandelions. Our relationships with our mothers, with either parent actually, can be pleasant and problematic at best. I had what I think was a pretty good relationship with my late mother and with my dad, secure at all times in the knowledge that, no matter what, they loved me and wanted nothing but the best for me. Those among us who are mothers or parents likely have that same assurance that they, too, love their children no matter what.
This week we saw the end of a news story that adds a different, more complex concept to this topic. I refer of course to the story of the three girls, now three women, in Cleveland, the first of them abducted nearly eleven years ago, the last of them nearly nine years ago, all three found alive and relatively healthy in the home of their presumed kidnapper.
We can have only the barest inkling what Melissa Knight, Amanda Barry, and Gina DeJesus experienced over the past decade. We should be thankful for that. Worse perhaps, we are even less capable of imagining what the six year old daughter of Amanda Barry and her captor, whose name has yet to be released, has experienced. If she is fortunate she herself will retain little memory of what her life to now has been.
[Note: In illustrating this post I purposely chose a photo in which her daughter's face is blurred. There are many images available where it is not but I think she should be allowed as much privacy as possible.]
There are so many things to be said about this situation, about the Castro Brothers’ activities and what they hoped to accomplish [update]; about the women’s years in captivity and in physical, emotional and sexual abuse; about how this situation happened in a neighborhood of a major American city and not in some Hills Have Eyes outback; about the unwillingnessof police, despite what are supposed to have been multiple reports by neighbors, to investigate beyond the front door of Castro’s home; and most especially, there are things yet to say about Charles Ramsay and his willingness to expose his own past—because in this brave new networked world there are no past sins that can’t be found—in order to do the right thing.
But what I’d like to talk about is Amanda Berry and her daughter. And how what little we know might suggest about motherhood and resilience. The story as it’s come to us is that a week ago today Ariel Castro left his home to eat at a local McDonald’s. If he did this on a regular basis we don’t know, and if he didn’t why he chose this day to do it, no one apparently knows, but when he did Amanda Berry took the opportunity to scream as near the door as she could until someone responded. Charles Ramsay did, and it’s a testament to his heroism that this man, who partied with Castro, eaten BBQ with him, played music with him, didn’t say “It’s a domestic matter” and turn around, and after listening to her story that she was being held against her will kicked the bottom panel out of the door. Berry, carrying her child, squeezed through the broken panel, hugged Ramsay, begged him to take her to his house to use his phone, and then called police.
Some of us might routinely play a mental game with ourselves in which, if we were caught in a disaster and could save only one thing, what would it be. To make it more interesting we often presume that there are no people or animals involved, to make it a specifically material question. What thing would we save? Amanda Berry did not have the luxury of pretending or of there being no person involved. The material object she left with was her daughter.
To put this decision in perspective, consider what myriad complications must have been involved over the past six years. Berry was just under seventeen when she was abducted. After years of sex with her abductor and probably his brothers—we presume the middle brother, Ariel, is the abductor because it’s his house the women were found in but the abductor could be any of the brothers[see update above] or, worse yet, someone we’re not even aware of—she is pregnant at twenty and delivers a daughter into the dark, airless, sunless existence she’s come to figure will be her future. We don’t know if she wanted this girl or feared for her existence, born into the same situation she’d been held captive in, and it’s likely it was a combination of both sensations and any number of others. She may have wanted to abort the fetus, although we have heard suggestions from one of the the other women that Castrobeat her when she was pregnant to spontaneously miscarry. So what we are left to guess at is that either Amanda fought vigorously to have this child or that Ariel, who DNA tests have proved to be the father, had a change of heart over this pregnancy and decided to allow it to be brought to term.
This girl, born into a situation her mother was abducted into, and raised only in the company of the other two abducted women and the Castro brothers—what can be going through her head? She is six years old, she has known only these six people in her life. Two of them are her parents. One of them carried her out of her world into the unknown, into what she can’t possibly know. So while we can’t know what Michelle, Gina or Amanda has gone through we can, with some certainty, know what Amanda’s daughter is experiencing now: Absolute, unqualified, quaking fear.
It seems to me, as an outsider looking in on parenthood, that this is one extreme part of what it means to be a mother: To deliver your child into great uncertainty and, when the time comes, to help her escape into greater uncertainty. But that is what you must do.
It’s well known that among lions it’s the female, the lioness, who hunts and who is really the fiercer of the species so it may be that the distinctive feature about dandelions—their serrated leaves, the dents de lion—may more accurately be termed the dents de lioness. Perhaps the natural reaction as mothers, as parents, even as proponents of religious liberalism, is to emulate the dandelion—stubbornly resistive to any attempt to root us out, to burn us out, and even to the natural tendency of entropy to crumble us from within.
Our message, the message of religious liberalism, the message of people who see great complexity to parenthood—that it is better to be alive than to be dead, that to treat anyone as less than the glorious being that he or she is is itself an evil, that children and the people we’re responsible for need safe food and safe water and safe places to live, and that these are not starry-eyed ideals but necessities—must be heard. We must endure for these messages to be heard. We must become ubiquitous and obnoxious, unwilling to be pressed from our perch. We must be willing to grow quietly beside the more beautiful and cozened strawberry and rose and lily so to suck up some of their excess nutrient and water until we can elbow those more popular petals aside to take the place we’ve earned. To endure as a faith and as a people we need to be as tough, as resilient, and as uncompromising as the common dandelion.