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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 7, 2008

            I seem to remember that it used to be that the first assignment of the new school year would be, inevitably, to write an essay on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”. That was always sort of the dark cloud darkening the otherwise clear and carefree skies of summer. You always knew that, come September, you would be called upon to account for how you had spent those halcyon weeks of July and August. You knew that the teacher was going to ask, and that you’d have to write about it. And you couldn’t just write, “I stayed in my pajamas until two in the afternoon, and watched The Three Stooges on television.” Or “I hung around with my friends until it got dark.” Or stuff like that (which was, largely, the truth of how the summer had been spent). So, if you did something even remotely worth writing about, you had to make sure you filed it away in your mind, so you’d at least have something to write about in September. Or at least, that’s what I did.

 

Because, you see, you always knew that there would be a reckoning. I had one teacher (I think she was an ex-nun) who even upped the ante even further. She didn’t just ask “What Did You Do On Your Summer Vacation?”. No, she asked her classes, every year “What Did You Learn On Your Summer Vacation”. To her, it wasn’t enough fur us just to be in the summer—or even merely to do. No, to her, there had to be a verifiable (preferably quantifiable) result from all that time the doors were opened, the barriers lifted, and we were let out of the direct supervisory control of the power and authority of the Woonsocket, Rhode Island Public School Administration. There had to be what people in the business world today call “quantifiable receivables” from all that time we had off in the summer. She took her job seriously, which was admirable. But boy, did she make us suffer for it!

 

For better or worse, that’s a lesson that has stayed with me in all these (many) years since. “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” You Know Who sings. It may well be that we modern men and women get too hung up on doing, on building, on producing—rather than just on “being”—perhaps even to the detriment of our souls, sometimes. But for better or worse, there is something in us, products of the great sweep of Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Protestant work ethic, and classrooms with teachers like that ex-nun I had that we all are, which just about demands that we fill every single unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run; and that we account for how we spend these seasons of our lives, summer or not.

 

So, here’s my reckoning of what I did this summer.

 

The artist Andy Warhol once said that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame. Well, I think maybe mine came this summer (though I’m hoping I may have at least a few minutes of it left).

 

In June, as you may know, a book of mine was published. We had an official launch party here at the church, which some of you attended, for which I am grateful, and at which we made a rather tidy sum for the church, which was great. It was a whole lot of fun, and it raised the curtain on one of the most interesting summers I have ever had in my life (though I barely left Stoughton , and spent all but one night of it at home).

 

This summer, I learned something about the press, and the power of the media, and that omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent idol we worship in this culture, whose name is Marketing, and whose hold over us is pervasive. And you know what? It was fun; it was interesting; it made me almost famous—for about fifteen minutes, maybe. Maybe it even paid a couple of bills (though we won’t know that for sure until the royalty check arrives—next September). But it was temporary, and fleeting, and it passes like the bloom of the rose. It’s sweet and vivid for a season, but then it’s gone. I’m here this morning, so, obviously, I kept my day job (which is also, often, my night job). I kept my various part time jobs, too, at least to fill the long gap until that royalty check finally arrives.

 

So there was no great coast to coast book tour. But I kind of feel as though I’ve been on one—all from the comfort of the desk of my study at 98 Bassick Circle.

 

I have discussed The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen with radio talk show hosts in Davenport , Iowa and Dublin , Ireland , not to mention New York and Cleveland and San Francisco , and points between. I have talked with reporters from the Toronto Star and the New York Daily News (though I am still waiting for the call from the New York Times Book Review and The Times Literary Supplement).

 

Good Morning America hasn’t asked for an interview yet. But I was invited to New York by producers from A&E to offer “expert commentary” for a biography they’re filming about “the Boss”. (I talked on camera for almost two hours; if three minutes makes it into the finished program next winter, I’ll be satisfied.)

 

I haven’t gotten the call from Oprah (yet). But I did have a nine minute interview (complete with music) with Lianne Hansen on Weekend Edition on National Public Radio. (And as one friend said, being on NPR is sort of like being a rock star itself, within certain circles of the leftish intelligentsia where some of us hang out, at least).

 

I still haven’t heard from Bruce (nor do I expect to, really). He didn’t drop in on the way to moving his son to Boston College this September. I don’t believe he’s here this morning…  He doesn’t endorse books written about him; nor does he get in the way of them; which is, perhaps, the way it should be…

 

But what a short, strange trip it’s been (to paraphrase a somewhat different musical influence). As I said, I kind of hope it isn’t over yet-- and I don’t think it is. Interest in Springsteen has this way of rearing up its head every now and then. A little over a week ago, I was contacted by an editor from the New Republic wanting a brief article (500 words; by the next day if possible, reverend; no problem, I answered, Words R Us, after all), because, this editor said, it was a “sure thing” that Springsteen was going to be in Denver to close the Democratic convention, and that his song “The Rising” was now the “official” theme of the Obama campaign. Well, the article got written, by the next day. But it turned out that neither of those “sure things” was true: Bruce never showed up at the convention; and “The Rising” was just one of many, many songs by a variety of artists played over those four days in Denver . So, my well-honed, slightly over 500 words, article on “The Rising” rests in a sort of publishers’ limbo.

 

But I do have a few precious memories to share from this short strange summer trip—and, who knows, maybe even a few lessons worth pondering.

 

In the mini-barrage of publicity that followed the publication of my book, I remember waiting for my interview with a “Classic Rock” radio station deep in the American heartland.  As I sat on the phone that morning, waiting for my time on the air, I got to listen to the guest who preceded me telling about his ability to hang various items—bowling balls, even—from his pierced nipples!

 

            It was quite a shock. I never recovered. My interview was a snore. I sounded pedantic and hopelessly stuck in my head, meandering from point to point about the relevance of Springsteen in the spiritual search of modern men and women. The hosts seemed more interested in how many songs Springsteen had written dealing with “ladies of the evening” (that wasn’t the term he used, but there are children here this morning). I kept trying to talk about songwriters as the mythmakers of our day. They wanted to talk about his first marriage to the actress Julianne Phillips. I wanted to discuss the religious imagery in The Rising…

 

The lesson here, driven home once again, is that not everyone sees the world the same way any of us does—which is a humbling, and eye-opening, and so very important perspective to remember: whether we’re peddling a book, or preaching a sermon, or watching the nightly news about the current election campaign. We all think that different things are important; we all bring different experiences to the table. Trying to inch just a little closer to understanding one another is a big part of the reason of why we’re here—why we’re here in this church, and why we’re here, on this Earth.

 

I remember, too, when the mini-p.r. barrage was at its height, and the interview on NPR had just been aired (and had been featured, somehow, on Yahoo’s front page that day), and we got home from a day trip to see The Producers at the Theatre by the Sea in Rhode Island, and I thought, what the heck, let’s see how the book is doing on Amazon (a ritual I had started to reenact… about every twenty minutes or so…). That morning, when we left for Rhode Island, The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen  had been ranked somewhere around # 8000 (of a total of about 3 million books altogether), which wasn’t bad. When we got home that same evening, and I checked, I saw that it was ranked # 109 And would actually stay at those stratospheric heights… for a few days, at least… (It’s now back around # 6,000, which isn’t bad, really).

 

The lesson here was again one of humility: Why would all those people, I thought, ever want to go out and spend good money on something written by me? And then, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to have had the opportunity to share my ideas with people near and far. And then, and even greater sense of relief when most of them didn’t think it was total nonsense (though a couple did, including one reviewer who said it “read like a high school term paper”. I wish I could have written like that in high school!) But finally, I felt a kind of awe when I considered how powerful just that little bit of media coverage can be. Which is also kind of scary. But it’s also empowering to think that such notoriety (for good or ill) is available to any of us, if we dare to put our thoughts out there, and do our best, and share with one another the passions of our souls, and what we think is really important and worthwhile.

 

It also reminded me of how fragile and fleeting are the forces that exalt one person—or one book—or one candidate—or one party—or one season’s passing fancy—over any other. And how it is the ebb and flow of life that, truly, makes it so wondrous.

 

It reminded me, yet again, of how grateful I am to all of you for the opportunities I’ve had in this little church of ours to go to the edge of my thoughts, and share that which I’ve come up with, with all of you. As I told interviewers over and over again, you here at this church were very pleased that I’ve written this book, because now, finally, I have someone to talk to about Bruce Springsteen besides you!

 

Summer passes quickly, and it fades as fast at high rankings on Amazon.com. But I look forward to all the seasons we now have ahead, and the opportunities we have to explore and to share with one another the living gospel—the amazing good news—which are these wondrous lives which all of us lead.


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