Sunday, September 30, 2007

intellectual equals elitist?


  • I write this in response to various posts I have read regarding classism among Friends. I tend to be socialist in my perspective but am loathe to glamorize the working class. You see, I grew up in the working class. My people were shopkeepers, farmers, and blue collar workers. Some bloggers have suggested that middle-class, well-educated Friends are insensitive to the realities of the working class. That's probably true. I certainly know what it is like to spend time with folks far richer than I. I am familiar with that growing sense of astonishment with their cluelessness regarding wealth disparity. On the other hand, I have difficulty buying into the idea that Quakers should be taken to task for their love of learning for the sake of learning or for their assumption that others share this passion. The argument goes that working people haven't the time or resources to be intellectuals, artists, or activists. Such activities belong to those with privilege. Are we working class people actually trying to proud of our ignorance? Are we saying that our call to serve humanity is somehow less real because we have less money? Does intellectual work truly belong to the upper classes?


  • I have heard folks say that Friends are classist because they are willing to engage in work without counting their wages. The argument goes that only rich people insensitive to the needs of the poor can revel in a job that feeds the soul but not the belly. Very well. To a degree, I share this concern. Rich folks don't get it. I'm the first to point that out. But I speak as a poor person who chooses to feed the soul before I feed my belly and I come from a working class background. I am therefore uncomfortable with the notion that the choice to work in a creative or intellectual field is an indication of classism. I always felt it was an indication of one's love for the world.

I am a low-income person reared by a social worker and liberal clergyman. We lived in working class communities and never had much money. Still,my folks reared me to believe that the only work worth doing is work that combines passion and compassion. I borrowed so much money to achieve my degrees that I will be paying for it for the rest of my life. I never considered quitting even as the debt mounted and we learned that we could not own a home, could not afford a second car, could not buy clothes first hand. I could have quit and found a decent job but that would have betrayed my calling.


This mindset alienated me from my community and from my extended family. It alienates me from the students I teach at the community college who often react negatively to intellectualism. I joined a community of Friends because I was so tired of being an outsider in a working class community that mocked my passion for education and my indifference to earning money. I wanted to be with people who didn't believe that work as an artist, intellectual, or activist doesn't qualify as "real work." I am proud of my rural, working class family and community. I am proud of their ingenuity, humor, kindness, hard work, efficiency and modesty-- but I take no pride in their dismissal of intellectualism. I have always felt such narrowness marred their otherwise beautiful spirits. Their ignorance makes them less receptive to difference. It douses the fire in their souls and limits their service to humanity. I cannot accept that being a working person must also mean being a passionless, ignorant person.


My grandfathers were both working class men. My paternal grandfather reacts to difference and intellectualism with scorn. When I earned a scholarship to attend college, he did not congratulate me. Believing that intellectualism makes a man effeminate and that a college education is a waste on a woman, he suggested that I become a waitress instead. My other grandfather, Theodore, was always proud of me and my choices. He went to agricultural school then ran a little paint shop in town and worked hard well into his eighties so that we could follow our dreams. He told all us kids that the function of education was to broaden our minds and increase our joyfulness. Money was merely a secondary concern. Both men worked all their lives and never had much in their wallets to show for it but while one grandfather scoffed at "college educated idiots" the other grandfather reaped a bounty of joy.


So let's ask each other to become more sensitive of class differences. That's a great goal but don't ask me to glorify the working class belief that intellectual work is not real work. Don't ask me to believe that a narrow budget justifies a narrow mind.

Monday, September 24, 2007

My first time

As a general rule, I am a loquacious person and comfortable with public speaking. Still, since I began attending our small monthly meeting this summer, I have felt no desire to speak. I have come to the meetings and studied Quakerism because I am attracted to its principles and discipline...a discipline that closely resembles that which I already practice. However, I have found limited use for the silent waiting. Waiting for what? That's a hard question for someone like me to answer in my current condition- a condition resulting from a period of unprecedented spiritual aridity. In fact, I have been content to usher the children out for First Day school so that I wouldn't have to sit there in that long silence thinking, for the most part, about how pointless it all was given my tendency toward non-theism. For what, exactly, was I listening? Truthfully, I heard very little except others shifting in their seats, (Why did he think nylon was a good fabric to wear to meeting?). I'd sit uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing my ankles and listening in horror as my stomach growled noisily. I could even hear the sound of my own eyes blinking (ch-snick, ch-snick), but I never heard God or any approximation thereof.

But this week, I sat and listened to myself think about the pointlessness of sitting with my eyes closed and wondering how long it had already been and when my stomach would begin its relentless rumblings. Increasingly bored with the back of my eyelids, I looked around the room we occupy. It is a large room with several slender Gothic windows set into walls of white painted brick. The panes of glass are frosted but some of the window panels were pushed open and through them I could feel the breeze and see the still-green maple leaves outside dancing. As I looked at the even rows of white bricks and the repeated pattern of slender windows on the wall, my mind wandered aimlessly around thoughts of symmetry. I recalled the time my artist uncle muttered with disgust, "In the absence of anything better: symmetry." My admiration for my uncle notwithstanding, I am an admirer of symmetry, of plainness, of simplicity, of order and discipline. I suppose, Vulcan-like (excuse the Star Trek reference), I crave order because my most inner nature is violently emotional.

And as I sat there watching the sun and wind dance on the little patch of leaves I could see through one pane of glass, I thought that outside was a "riot of life" and it came to me that the order of our meeting place was made more beautiful by the light and life outside which, in the end, would always be more real than anything we well-intentioned, well-ordered folk could construct. And so it is also true of me. My desire toward plain dress and voluntary simplicity in lifestyle, my academic and spiritual disciplines, my faith and practice are all symmetrical windows and white painted bricks. They are real and solid and even, I hope, useful and beautiful things. They define me, contain me, sustain me, and strengthen me. But the light...the light that illumines me.... comes from a wild place.

So I knew I needed to say that. I didn't particularly want to say it. It scared me to have to say that. We had gone weeks without a word spoken and I am merely a newcomer. I felt I had no right to say anything. If they were content with the silence, these seasoned Friends, then who was I to open my mouth to talk about bricks and breezes? I started to feel shaky. My heart pounded. What was all this about? Was this nerves? I speak publicly for a living for goodness sake!

Then another woman spoke a message about honoring our personalities as well as our bodies. I glanced down at my hands and was surprised to find them drenched in sweat. The words kept repeating themselves in my head and my heart kept pounding and I felt this curious sensation. I felt as though I had been strummed and that a part of me was vibrating with energy. I wanted so much to speak and release this terrible energy. I even parted my lips to do so but pulled myself back again and again.

Then, and I can't quite understand how it finally came to pass, I spoke. My palms dried and my heart ceased its pounding. And that was that. Out of my grumpy, non-theistic silent inner rant arose a truth about wildness that I had to share. It didn't even make much sense (and I so love all that is sensible!) Perhaps I have been clinging too tenaciously to my ability to analyze my own spirituality. I have been troubled by the inconsistencies of my theo/thealogical convictions. I was moved to speak, I say in passive voice. By whom? By whom indeed! Despite my discipline, the light that illumines me comes from a wild place.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

becoming convinced: part 1

I'm a solitary type of spiritual person. In that, I mean that I've never felt much of a need for community in my personal questing for truth and spirit in my life. There is a rebellious streak in me a mile wide that deeply resents the idea that another person could possibly know what the most intimate part of my soul requires or what the Divine has given me to share with others. Still, since I left the liberal Protestant church of my childhood, I have missed having "a people" to call my own. I have longed for a greater spiritual family in which to rear my children and for people to whom I could belong and with whom I could feel at home. In the following blog series, I will be exploring my process of convincement as I make my spiritual home among the Religious Society of Friends.

Neo-Pagan

That which others call God is in the natural world. My debt is to the Earth and my commitment to the web of life that sustains me. My morality is grounded in my belief that I must honor diversity and uphold life sustaining interdependent relationships. Woven through this living tapestry is the dark thread of Death. I honor Death too and the mystical, contemplative wisdom that grows from our dance with a Divine Presence that knows no dualistic boundaries of light/dark, death/life, male/female. So I am a Pagan-- a Neo-Pagan since I do not wish to reclaim the so-called ancient ways of any people. I am not an ancient person and cannot pretend to be. My world is a postmodern world. I cannot pretend it is otherwise. I must busy myself addressing the social issues of today. Additionally, I will not become a spiritual imperialist. Not if I can help it. Let me be a student of indigenous spirituality. Let me be filled with gratitude for others' wisdom, beauty, and knowledge but do not let me claim that knowledge as my own. Let me not exploit it. What I own, I must earn.

It would have been easier if after I left the church, I could have become Wiccan and entered a coven. But I am NOT Wiccan. Nor do I feel comfortable with most Neo-Pagans. Too much of the New Age intermixed in their rituals, perhaps? Too much ritual period? I've never cared one bit for ritual. I'm just too Protestant to buy into it, I suppose. For a long time, I joked that I was really a Protestant Pagan. I want to live simply, peacefully, with dignity. I want to uphold the right of all persons to live with dignity. I place no faith in ritual or ceremony. Magick leaves me feeling spiritually empty. Although I understand why it is valuable and effective for others, my rational mind rebels against it. I spend too much time explaining to myself that "lighting a candle provides a visual stimulus that awakens subconscious archetypal, etc...." and not enough time actually feeling that symbolic connection beyond the words. I have been a solitary pagan choosing to study thealogy as an academic. This process has further distanced me from other pagan people as I grow impatient with what I see as a lack of focus and of thealogical and hermeneutical discipline among the broader pagan community. I find that I am physically uncomfortable in spaces where pagans gather. It isn't me. I don't belong there and when I say "the Goddess" or refer to my pagan spirituality, I am all too aware that I am as much a misfit among the pagans as I was among the liberal Christians.....And so I have grown lonelier.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

inarticulating

What does one say when one feels compelled to express a concept that is not quite clear in one's head but that presses tightly against the heart? I've been trying to find the right words to express a growing sense of becoming...of moving from one stage of life to another. My inability to articulate and define this process depresses me. I am stumbling around it and fumbling with it but unable to express it and yet I know that I must continue worrying it, turning it, fermenting it. I am growing into it without words...letting my body tell stories in which my mind cannot share--inarticulating.

I find myself giving away bags and bags of my clothing. First I rid myself of clothes that do not fit and clothes that I never liked. Then one day, I purged my closet of most items with colors and patterns leaving only a few solid colored, plain items and a few old favorites. Later, I began to purge even this remnant. Meanwhile, I began spending time looking at Quaker blogs related to plain dress and seeking expressions of Neo-Pagan plain dress. What would Neo-Pagan plain dress look like? I began to crave practical shoes, long dark skirts and dresses and aprons. I ordered kerchiefs on-line and when they arrived, I wore them with great relief. I keep thinking of myself as marked. What does this mean? I found that when I wear "worldly" or "conventional" clothes, I feel almost panic-stricken.

I can no longer stand to wear short skirts. When I try to wear pants, I feel bizarre and emotionally uncomfortable. I scramble back into long skirts and find that I can breathe again. When I must teach courses at the community college, I do not wear my kerchiefs although my clothes are very drab indeed. I attempt to compromise with clothing that can "pass" as conventional if still rather plain-looking. But, oh, wouldn't it be something to walk into class in a bonnet and apron!

I am a Neo-Pagan and am now attending a Quaker meeting. I am a leftist and a feminist. These things I know how to articulate. But there must be something else that is moving me toward plain dress, something that is of me but which is not yet fully discovered. I feel its pull as a physical sensation, a compulsion, a leading, a passion, a hunger. I do not understand it though I feel it in my gut. "Think with your head, not with your gut," my father always told me....but I feel these irrational things whirling around like sand in a plunge pool, coarse bits of chaos cutting smooth and graceful lines into the rock.