After attending his senior prom where there was dancing, he went to church and the Sunday school teacher “took him to task about the den of inequity he had entered.” He said, I got “really angry. Surely, I thought, God had better things to do than to worry about people dancing.”
Robert Fulghum escaped Waco, Texas to the University of Colorado, but his father’s illness brought him back to Waco. He enrolled at Baptist Baylor University where he became one of the “disturbed young agnostics on campus.” He graduated from college and went to work for IBM in management training. He was not cut out for this. But in Dallas at a Unitarian Universalist church he talked to the minister about life. Soon he was at Starr King School for the Ministry studying to become a minister.
He became a counselor at San Quentin and at a local mental hospital. He also created a cottage industry cranking out Italian street scenes on huge sheets of Masonite for motels.
He took to heart the words of Dean of the theology school who said “being a minister didn’t mean you worked in a church.” It meant you had some notions about your relationship with larger issues and what was going on in the world. “I learned more about people and marriage tending bar than I could possibly learn in a classroom,” Fulghum says.
Fulghum became the minister of the Edmunds Unitarian Church in Seattle, Washington. He was there from 1966 to 1985. During his ministry he gave election sermons. He said, “I stood up and told them how to vote. They were free to dispute me. The point was I was going to do my homework as an educated voter and they could either sit there like jackasses in a hailstorm and take it, or they could do their homework and we’d have it out.” Fulghum invited a prostitute to preach. “I thought we might have something to learn about sexual values,” he said. He invited a member of the local Elk’s Club to preach who was trying to prohibit blacks from swimming in the public pool. “The church went up in smoke over that one,” Fulghum said. At his retirement the church dedicated a part of its lawn to him. It was covered and full of dandelions. He said, “I was speechless beyond belief. It said they heard me.”
An 81 year old founder and member of the church said, “You never knew what the heck you were going to get. But we’d always been a maverick group, so Robert fit right in.”
Fulghum made a deal with his wife. He’d support her during medical school and then at age 50 he could retire and do what he wished for seven years. Which is where he was when his world changed.
In other denominations, new congregational presidents and ministers go to leadership school to learn how to better lead congregations. Well, Robert Fulghum went to leadership school and wrote a 300 page credo paper on what he believed. Over the years that paper was condensed to this:
This little poem was printed and reprinted and one day went home in the backpack of a child in Connecticut whose mother was a literary agent. This woman tracked down Fulghum and the rest is history. When the agent asked Fulghum if he had any more things like it, he said, “How much do you want? I’ve got boxes in my basement.” Ministers all over the continent would never admit it, but secretly we ask ourselves, “Why him and not me? My basement has boxes of writings.”
Fulghum has written six books. In these volumes are newsletter columns and sermons revamped and revised. They include topics such as Rosa Parks, lost air tickets, Christmas pageants, John Pierpont, Cinderella, giving boxes of Crayola crayons to world leaders, hide and seek, filling out forms, Einstein, ironing shirts and Larry Walters.
Now let me tell you about Larry Walters, my hero. Walters is a truck driver, thirty-three years old. He is sitting in his lawn chair in his backyard, wishing he could fly. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to go up. To be able to just rise right up in the air and see for a long way. The time, money, education, and opportunity to be a pilot were not his. Hang gliding was too dangerous, and any good place for gliding was too far away. So he spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting in his backyard in his ordinary old aluminum lawn chair – the kind with the webbing and rivets. Just like the one you’ve got in your backyard.
The next chapter in this story is carried by the newspapers and television. There’s old Larry Walters up in the air over Los Angeles. Flying at last. Really getting UP there. Still sitting in his aluminum lawn chair, but it’s hooked on to forty-five helium-filled surplus weather balloons. Larry has a parachute on, a CB radio, a six-pack of beer, some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a BB gun to pop some of the balloons to come down. And instead of being just a couple of hundred feet over his neighborhood, he shot up eleven thousand feet, right through the approach corridor to the Los Angeles International Airport.
Walters is a taciturn man. When asked by the press why he did it, he said: “You can’t just sit there.” When asked if he was scared, he answered: “Wonderfully so.” When asked if he would do it again, he said: “Nope.” And asked if he was glad that he did it, he grinned from ear to ear and said: “Oh, yes.”
The human race sits in its chair. On the one hand is the message that says there’s nothing left to do. And the Larry Walterses of the earth are tying balloons to their chairs, directed by dreams and imagination to do their thing.
The human race sits in its chair. On the one hand is the message that the human situation is hopeless. And the Larry Walterses of the earth soar upward knowing anything is possible, sending back the message from eleven thousand feet: “I did it, I really did it. I’m FLYING!”
Some people become famous and lose themselves. Robert Fulghum, I think, did the opposite. When I was on the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Fulghum was at the height of his popularity. He made the front page of the UU world. He was written about in The New York Times, Redbook, Time, and Newsweek. At a staff meeting of District Executives it was announced that then President Bill Schulz was traveling to the northwest to see if Fulghum would become the poster boy for Unitarian Universalism. Word came back that Fulghum turned down the opportunity. Fulghum is a very private person. Of fame he said, “I had the life I wanted before this happened.” Fame to him is a happening. When it is over he says he “will take a bow and say, thank you very much. Episode closed. I have other lives to live.” He, in fact, still lives on his houseboat, shares a life with his physician wife and remains who he was, before Kindergarten was published.
My admiration for him grew when he published book number five. In this book, published in 1995, he wrote about rituals. Fulghum asks, how do we begin our day? What sustains us minute to minute, week to week, year to year – reunions, deaths, celebrations, friendship, love.
In this book, Fulghum tells the story of being 20, being engaged, his fiancé getting pregnant, getting married, hiding the pregnancy from everyone and giving up the child for adoption. In the marriage he and his wife had three more children and never spoke of the child they’d given up. They got divorced and each remarried, happily. But Fulghum found that the memory of the child did not fade. He still celebrated her birthday, January 16, with a ritual, a quiet walk on that day.
And then one day a call came. His fame created the opportunity for the adoptive parents to tell their daughter who her biological father was. “Are you Robert Fulghum?” the voice asked. “Did you place a child for adoption in 1958?”
“Yes,” he said. And so fame gave him the gift of completion – a daughter and a prodigal father – he says. Fulghum became more himself in that moment.
The man who sees maturity as emptying sink strainers and letting dandelions grow wild on lawns opened his life and welcomed the holy into another temple. For holiness is everywhere – and our job as believers is to be vessels and to contain life in our open hands, in our open hearts, in our open lives - to be little temples of the holy and to take them everywhere.
Fulghum teaches us to live an examined life, with a sense of humor. He teaches us that life contains human frailty and human Being – with a capital B. Fulghum is my kind of guy. He makes the Holy everywhere. He takes the Divine and puts it in our eyes, ears, hands and hearts. And after all is said and done, life is Divine. Isn’t it? And we say “Yes! Yes! and again Yes!!!”
-Rev. Ms. Denise D. Tracy
Readings for this service are from Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things published by Villard Books, New York, in 1989. The Elias Schwartz reading is found on page 120. The Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs reading is found on page 83. All quotes from Robert Fulghum are from The New York Times July 23, 1989 article written by Patricia Leigh Brown.