Thursday, December 31, 2009

Of Sepia Memories and Maternal Fear

My husband and I have always daydreamed about having more children.  My husband is particularly baby-crazy.  He looks longingly upon newborns he sees in stores and museums and points out all the pregnant ladies. He glories in his offspring, shaking his head in frank admiration.   It is as if he cannot believe his good luck in finding himself so honored by their holy presence.  He giggles in delight at the sound of their running feet or at their goofy facial expressions.  He finds brilliance even in their burps.  "Wow!  Nice one!"  He has even commented to me that he feels pity for other parents who can only feel the sting of their own children's inferiority in the presence of our children's obvious beauty and brilliance.  I think perhaps he was born in the wrong time.  Sepia photographs of our rural country family sprawled across the front yard are more his speed.  The men, with twinkling eyes and hats doffed to expose the pale foreheads above sunburned faces, hold babies and toddlers while more small children sit on their mothers' and grandmothers' comfortable laps.  Older children by the dozen sit in front of the grown-ups, earnestly gazing into the camera lens as a big dog, as obligatory as the broad front porch, rests in the sun.  I can imagine my husband's face beaming earnestly out of one of those old photographs, a grand old patriarch with houseful of children, a yard full of children, an extravagance of children.

But those beloved faces, with snapping bright eyes and twinkling eyes, warm eyes and bemused yet sorrowing eyes, have long passed from our sight.  Apart from the photographs and daguerrotypes lovingly preserved in the old chest of drawers, they and their world are gone.  There is little need to fill a farmhouse with stout-limbed, rosy-cheeked youngsters.  We have no fields for planting, no eggs for gathering, no horses for hitching.  And the world is strained and over-crowded.  No matter how much my husband and I long for more children, there is no room for them here.

No room.  No money.  Limited natural resources.  A lousy economy.  A deteriorating environment.  All of these are the reasons I give myself when I must daily mourn the loss of children never conceived.  None of it really helps.  Some women are content with no children or with their one or two.  I fear I may be more animal in nature.  As much as I convince myself of the rationalism of small families, not a single day goes by that I don't long to become a mother again.  But I know from a place in my heart as sad as it is certain, that I cannot have another child.  For the sake of the environment?  Out of respect for my parents' belief that one is irresponsible to have "more than one's share" of offspring?  Because it is fiscally unfeasible?  All of these are good reasons but the reason that rules them is Fear.

When I look at those old sepia photographs, the faces gaze upon me from a merry moment fixed in time.  But I know that the camera flashed and the babies wiggled.  The toddlers strained to be set back on the ground.  The children all ran back to their games and the women to their conversations and their cooking.  The men ambled over to the wagon or to the barns or the fields to comment quietly to each other about crops and prices and taxes.  And later, much later, another photograph would be taken with fewer faces and those sadder and older. Worst of all, it was not only the old dear faces of the grandmothers and grandfathers that time would absent from the gathered family but some of the children too.

My grandfather's oldest sister died in a fire.  He rarely spoke of it.  We know her clothing caught fire and the family watched helpless as she ran and fell.  "She burned up," was all we ever got him to say on the topic to us younger folks and that only after his inhibitions were weathered by dementia.  I visit her grave sometimes in the cemetery where so many of my family rests.  There are too many little stones there.  Too many lambs.  Of course there are more children's graves in the older part of the cemetery.  Fevers and fires haunted that age but over on the green hill, still untreed, lie two of my cousin's children.  We do not speak of that either.  It couldn't be helped.  She was carrying three.  One was miscarried and the other two lived briefly after their birth.  My grandmother's silence on the topic haunts me.

And then there's the tree in my back yard that marks the place where we stood together after I miscarried my first pregnancy and the fear I had only seen fleetingly in the eyes of my elders began to settle heavily into my own soul.  There it has rested ever since.  A dark and jagged thing is this fear and always with me.  I fall asleep listening to its whispers.  When I wake in the middle of the night to lay a worried hand on my youngest child's rising and falling chest, it stands beside me.  I scarcely dare to speak of the future lest fate take offense.

"Do not take me away from these whom I love," I beg and pray.  Every cough, every ache, every separation makes my heart race.  When my husband shakes his head with delight at his children's words, too often my blood freezes.  Don't tempt fate with the arrogance of happiness I tell myself.  Keep your head down and maybe it won't look your way.  But I am drawn to darkness.  I cannot help it.  Each of us carries death with us though most of us tuck it politely out of sight.  I cannot take my eyes from it.  As each of my children was born I knew I had brought them not only to life but to death as well.  Even so I cannot help it, they make me deliriously happy and I rejoice in them.  I fear that the universe will pay me back for this joy.  So I will not have another child.  I cannot bear it.  My love for them is too exquisite.  My soul would not survive.  I have lost myself to them and fear that if either they or I should pass too soon, only the photographs would be left to show my eyes turned toward their laughing faces, to hint at how my mother-heart broke open with every birth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Note to Well-to-Do Quakers on Glorifying Poverty

For several years when I was a child, we lived in a rural county in Upstate New York. Although beautiful, it is also impoverished. Some of the kids in my school came to school stinking and dirty. One boy arrived at school in the dead of a New York winter without a coat boasting that he was so tough he didn't need a jacket. When I told my mother about it, she explained to me that some parents couldn't afford running water or warm coats for their children. This was a revelation to me. I grew up in a comfortable, warm house in the more affluent village.  Although I remember my parents' money-worries, and though I worried about money quite a bit myself even as a small child, I never worried that we would not have enough for food or heat or running water. The poorest kids lived way out in the country on roads that only social workers like my mother often travel. In her job as an advocate and counselor of crime victims, especially of rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and incest she was out on those roads every day. When she told me that some kids' parents didn't have the means to care for them, she never hinted that their children would be better off somewhere else just because they were poor. She and Dad made it clear that poor people do not choose poverty nor are they lazy or lesser in any way (although I did grow up thinking maybe rich people had questionable ethics and a touch of laziness.) She made me understand that people love their children and that children love their parents even in the worst situations. Sometimes a family became so injured, so isolated and so desperate that horrible things begin to happen. When the human heart is shattered badly enough, it lacerates the soul. My mother's job was to stand up for the rights of women and children whose families were caught in cycles of poverty, violence, and isolation. Her job was to empower and protect survivors of crime and if possible, to assist them in making the steps necessary to transcend those vicious cycles. Sometimes that meant families could no longer live together. Usually it meant that people needed help. They needed guidance, and service and protection. They needed money. My folks taught me that poverty does not, by itself, result in scenarios in which men abuse the physically weaker members of their family. It doesn't necessarily lead to drug addiction and alcoholism, to fighting and prostitution and child abuse. But it doesn't help. It never helps.

I have heard and read Friends discussing "the poor" as if they were a laudable group of simple, faithful souls we can all emulate. Whenever I read such a comment, I admit that I assume that the writer or speaker has never had close contact for an extended period of time with "the poor" or else they wouldn't say something so stupid.  Maybe saying those things helps them deal with their guilt over having so much more material wealth than they actually need.  Being impoverished doesn't turn you into Bob Cratchett.  Not by a long shot.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing so honorable or noble or virtuous in poverty. Poverty is dirty and inhumane. It is degrading and exhausting. Oh sure, you can always find examples of those great souls whose light cannot be dimmed no matter what misery they suffer but for the most part, poverty hurts and it twists and it maims those who live in it. Perhaps it makes wealthy folks feel better to think of the poor as noble but I tell you there is nothing noble about going hungry. There is nothing valiant about sending your child to school with shoes that don't fit or with no warm coat in the freezing cold. Tell me how unemployment or work in oppressive settings leads to spiritual enlightenment. Tell me how it uplifts the spirit to know that when your peers go off to college, you will go off to work at some low-paying, dirty job (if you are lucky.)

Tell me why it is alright that among the most brilliant people I know are women who have no money to fix broken teeth in their mouths let alone get the graduate degree they clearly deserve. Tell me why it is fair that we continue to look the other way as women and children continue to be raped and abused by their own husbands, boyfriends and fathers who are themselves dehumanized by their bosses and other men.  Tell me how the loss of unions and the pollution of working class communities does anything to help the American worker. Tell me why there are still people living in the country with no doors on their houses, no water running for their toilets and tubs and no food in their cupboards? Tell me why children die for want of health and dental care, for want of good nutrition? What is so f*cking good about any of that?

I have not seen this famous faithful resignation and special virtue in the poor.   I have seen rage and resentment. I've seen violence and sorrow so intense it festers and stinks. And why the hell not? Why the hell are the poor supposed to be the angels of virtue who save the rich from their arrogance? Screw that. Let the rich save themselves. Give the rest of us food, medical care, housing, childcare, and educations. See how many of us are willing to play the role of "simple folk" when we have the means to feed our kids without worrying if we'll lose our homes.  For many years now, I've lived on the softest edge of poverty and I can tell you that even the mild poverty in which I live has made me more bitter, more angry, and more resentful than I ever thought I could be.  It isn't just the worry about having enough money each month for food and other essentials but the thought that I have been cut off from any real influence as a thinker or a writer or a worker.  It is the shame I hide that I can't invite people to my home or that despite my academic degree I'm not welcome at functions with the rich folk who hire me (or use my services for nothing).  It is the anger I feel when I am told that a good Quaker provides financial support to their meeting.  It is losing almost every battle in which I am engaged whether it is with an employer, a phone company or a doctor.

Having no money has made me more aware of injustice but it has not helped me fight it because having no money makes me a loser.  If you don't have money you lose.   That's the reality.  What I've learned from my life with my husband who is a truck driver is this: They can take your lunch break.  They can charge you for services you didn't buy.  They can ignore your phone calls.  They can deny you medical care.  They can make you work overtime and then they can refuse to pay you.  They can fire you for no reason.  They can threaten you, yell at you and harass you.  They can even deny you time to take a piss.  And there ain't nothing you can do about it because they have money and lawyers and time and you don't.  And we're lucky.  We're fricking rolling in it compared to others in our community.  I'm using every ounce of "capital" I have as a writer, teacher, voter, and mother to fight but after so many years and so many defeats I'm tired.  I'm tired and angry and cynical.

 I've gone hungry because I had no money to buy food.  Like not a penny in the bank and not a penny in my pocket and debt on top of all that. I've gone without health care because I had no insurance.   I slept on folded quilts on the floor of my old trailer because I couldn't afford a mattress. I've had to rely on relatives to put a roof over my head because I could not afford my own place but I could escape it because I had middle-class and affluent friends and relatives who have kept my body and soul together. I'm lucky. Whenever I have been in need, even if I don't complain (and even when I've tried to hide it), my folks have seen my need and they have addressed it.  They bought me that mattress.  They've given me money.  They made sure I had a home and taken my children and me on vacations we could never afford on our own.  They've made the calls to officious pricks who wouldn't talk to me but who would listen to my more powerful parents. But what if they couldn't? What if my parents were as divorced from sources of societal power as I am?

Even though I don't make much money myself, I've had all kinds of luxuries just because I was reared in a middle-class home but I've never had the luxury of believing that poor choose their poverty. I've never had the luxury of believing that there was something God-ordained or beautiful about need. For those of you who characterize "the poor" as models of good Christianity, let me tell you about what I learned as a kid. Sometimes women have abortions because they are raped by their fathers. Sometimes people take drugs because reality hurts so much. Sometimes people drink themselves to death. Sometimes mommies are beaten up or even killed by daddies. Sometimes bosses steal money from their workers. Sometimes people give up their dreams for a job at a factory. Sometimes kids go to school without coats in the winter then lie that they are tough to save themselves from shame.

And this is what I know of the rich. Listen up.  Their poverty is not a mark of their goodness (though good they may be) but a mark of your shame and your failure to live up to your obligations as a human being.  You have no right to your extra income, to your extra homes, to your extra cars, to your fancy clothes and your jewelry until no child has to lie that terrible lie. You have no right to your boats or your vacations or your air travel until no one's has to walk in broken, ill-fitting shoes. You have no right to your plastic surgery and your yoga classes and your health gurus until no one has to watch their child die of a tooth abscess. You have no right to glorify the poor until you have lived among them.

Why I use a pseudonym.

Over on Liz Opp's blog, The Good Raised Up  , she comments about blog etiquette and advises that Quaker bloggers use their "real names".  While I am sympathetic to her rationale for this advisement, I will continue to use my pseudonym rather than my legal name.  Here are my reasons.

1.  While I feel called to maintain an online presence, I do not feel safe on the internet.  Locally, I have a public role that draws some negative attention from individuals who are opposed to my research, teaching, and politics.  Some of these people are scary.  I don't want them to see my blog.   Luckily, most of the people who are allowed to come into contact with me now are those who attend my classes or my events.  Thankfully, with only a few alarming exceptions, most of these folks are sympathetic to my views or are at least sane.  I also do my public speaking in places with fairly liberal membership or in venues with security thus increasing my sense of safety.  Although I can't control all elements of my profile and safety as a public speaker, I am reasonably confident that I am unlikely to have difficulties because hateful conservative lunatic trouble-makers are unlikely to go through the bother of attending historical presentations on nineteenth century religious reform and suffrage or to sign up for college classes. On the other hand, I've found that all kinds of wing-nuts will make comments on my blogs who would be very unlikely to attend my presentations. (Don't worry.  I'm not talking about you guys who normally read my blog.  This is why I screen my comments).   Therefore, I'm not likely to open my personal identity and family to a larger, less-controlled and possibly violent audience.  It is one thing to get creepy comments from people who know me only as "Hystery" and quite another to get creepy comments from people who know who I am and how to find my family.  What is even more scary is the fact that most people who read my blog never say a word.  God only knows what the lurkers are thinking.  Scary.

2.  Other relatives sharing my last name are also in the public view much of the time and frequently appear in the local news.  One of these close relatives has already been targeted by a local cable host for her supportive views on homosexuality.  I do not need to increase the danger to her from him or his viewers.  My blog would unquestionably provide further fodder for this malicious individual's homophobic attacks.  I don't think I have the right to take that chance.  I'd like to go on feeling free to write whatever I damn well please without fear that some crazy person will try to sabotage the careers and well-being of my family.  To share my real name means to surrender my authentic voice.

3.  Both my first and last name and their shortened forms are uncommon enough that it would not be very difficult for an individual reading my blog to figure out who I was in "real life."  I suppose that I could decrease the likelihood of this occurring by removing other identifying information about myself (in what region I live, what I teach and research, my religious affiliations) but I feel that those things are much more important for my sympathetic and sane readers to know than my name.

4.  A name is a noise people make when they want to get my attention.  It is not the same as identity.  I am "Hystery" as much as I am the name on my birth certificate.  There are a few friends who know me both as "Hystery" and by my legal name.  I prefer that they think of me more as "Hystery."  It is the identity I have chosen.  It is the identity that has brought forth the thoughts you see on this blog.  I have two other names I use every day apart from "Hystery."  One is for my professional life and one is for my family.  Although there is one person and one personality, each name is associated with different personae.  I just think and respond better when I am "in character".  I would not expect my students to call me by the name I use with my childhood friends and family.  That persona is too goofy, emotional,vulnerable, and socially inappropriate to be a good college professor.  Likewise, it would make me uncomfortable if my family used my professional name.  That persona is too analytical, authoritative, and theatrical to be a good daughter, mother or friend.  "Hystery" is a different persona who allows me a depth my other two names would not allow.  I like her.  Although she merely says the very same things I say to my family and my students, she says them in a way that is unique to her.  Her insights illuminate my beliefs and fears in a way my other personae cannot and her voice has helped flesh out the rest of my life.  I'd hate to lose that.

4.  I never go to Quaker functions beyond meeting because I can't afford them.  But if I did, I could very easily introduce myself using both my legal and my blogger names.  I could wear one of those god-awful stupid sticky name tags with my name and then ("Hystery") written in parentheses.  Anyone who wanted to connect with me regarding my blog work could easily do so.  (Although I think you'd be very surprised.  "Hystery" isn't remotely like the persona I use at Friends' meetings which is too bad.  When with Friends, I do not feel comfortable enough to be the person my family loves nor confident enough to be the person my students respect so I end up being the person who stands close to my husband and hopes like hell no one will make eye contact with me.  That person is a waste of time.)  For the most part, I do not think this is important in my case for anyone to know my Clark Kent personality.  Why bother?  I am marginal enough among Friends both online and in the "real world" that I seriously doubt that there will be any great demand of my time, thoughts, or skills in formal Quaker settings.

5.  I am unlikely to be featured on Quaker Quaker.  I'm always surprised and sometimes even annoyed when I find my blog featured there without so much as a head's up so I'm not sure that I belong to any online Quaker community or that I should be concerned with following their standards.  It became clear some time ago that I'm just the wrong kind of Friend to be a going concern on the Quaker blogosphere.  But when I do make an appearance, I am consistently "Hystery" whenever I am on the internet and this has been the case for some years.  (A notable exception was when I signed up for a web group for Pagans and didn't have enough savvy to keep my real name from appearing with my posts.  This was a major reason why I left that group.)

So that's it.  Maybe I'm paranoid.  I also will not ever put my picture on the internet (although others have without my permission.)  The problem with the internet is that while all of you are lovely people, others who read my blog and my comments on other blogs are creepy as hell.  I'd prefer the creepy folks not know how to find me.  My ability to share myself without having to look over my shoulder all the time trumps any of my discomfort with violating etiquette.  When online, I am most honest and most myself when I am "Hystery".  To disclose my legal name would do nothing more to help Friends understand who I am and what I believe but would instead push me toward greater emotional and philsophical secrecy and silence.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What is essential for this Quaker Pagan

Robin M. over at What Canst Thou Say has asked an interesting question about the essentials of Quakerism. I responded to her blog and then found that what I wrote was really much more important to me than I realized. It kind of crept up on me how important this response was to me and how I had accidentally stumbled into what may very well be a central truth in my spiritual life. So I've copied it from there and reposted it here. The words aren't nearly good enough and I don't expect it is a very good answer to what is essential for Friends. But here it is for what it's worth.

1. Attendance to the Inner Light.

(to the divine, the sublime, the tender, the beautiful, the wise, the true that resides in each of us and which binds all of the universe together).

2. Attendance to our brothers and sisters

(regardless of color, caste, class, sex, ability, religion, creed, age, or even species.)

It is my Quaker Pagan variation of the following:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Mt 22:37-40

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Reluctant Historian- on teaching and being taught

Normally I wear jeans and a sweater. With three children, the object is to choose an outfit that will resist stains and allow one to move rapidly from one potential disaster to the next. But on some days I wear my “professor costume," and slip into my other identity complete with absurd high heels and a bag of books as heavy as my youngest child.

I started teaching several years ago to satisfy the internship component of my doctoral program and I continued it beyond the program's requirements because I found I could use the money. I'm not a teacher. At least, that's not how I define myself. But now I stand in a suit and heels in front of thirty-odd students who refer to me as “Professor” and trust that I know what I am doing. So I put on my game face. Although always uncomfortable in large complicated groups of people, subject to anxiety attacks and chest pain in crowds, I am strangely comfortable when I get to be the focus of attention. I began giving costumed historical presentations before I started teaching, amusing myself with the elderly ladies who approach me after my lectures to peer under my bonnet at me as if I were a giant automated history doll.

But teaching is different. With historical presentations, one performs in front of a group of mostly eager listeners who want to know something about an historical topic of collective interest. In teaching community college students, the audience is often reluctant, if not hostile to the process. They are required to take my class to graduate. Often their former experience in history classes has been negative, and they often lack critical thinking skills. They want to get the damn thing over to get back to their nursing and criminal justice classes.

So there I stand at the beginning of every semester, a mother, teacher and researcher in ridiculous high heels poised to turn a group of disparate, working class, reluctant students into historians, if only for the eight to fifteen weeks I have them. The relationship between the researcher, the research question, and the research method is particularly important in these moments. Without it, my class becomes meaningless. Without it, I am wasting their time. They will not remember even half of the material I impart to them unless I can make them believe it matters. They have to believe that history matters to me. They have to believe that they matter to me or they will work only for the grade and walk away empty-handed.

Why History Sucks

At the beginning of every semester, I write the topic “Why History Sucks” on the chalkboard and ask my students to brainstorm answers to this hypothetical essay topic. Their answers are always the same: history is boring, history is always about dead white guys, it is hard to remember names and dates, and (this is my favorite response) "history is over". Our first task as a class is to reclaim history, to make it ours. I point out that there are power dynamics at play. I’m the one who gives the grades and makes decisions regarding the syllabus and lesson plans. I’m the one with the big desk and the twirly chair on wheels while they are cramped into horrible little desks in horrible little rows. All history, including the history of history, is the story of power. Our job is to make visible those invisible power dynamics so that we can learn to challenge them. I let them know that they may speak up, move around and challenge me in class. “I work for you,” I remind them, “not the other way around. You are paying me for this and it is up to you to decide what you want out of this and what you need from me.” I want them to know that this is their class, not mine. Taking responsibility for what you know and how you come to know it is a first step in ethical scholarship.

I then explain that all histories and all historians are biased, including me. I give them a brief overview of historiography with a focus on the significant changes from Leopold von Ranke’s “objectivitat” history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” through Marxism and the culturally sensitive feminist historical approaches of the 1960’s and 1970’s through the postmodernist challenges of the ‘1980’s and ‘90’s. Within this discussion, I address their concerns that history is irrelevant, boring, and “over.” I do not suggest that because all history is biased that it is all of equal value. Far from understanding the premise that we cannot approach any topic except through the lens of our own personalities, cultures and experiences as an excuse for sloppiness, such awareness means that we must be all the more disciplined in our approaches. Knowing our limitations makes us more honest researchers, less prone to misrepresentations and errors born of arrogance. My insistence on this principle comes from my position as student of thealogy, a subject in which, as Carol Christ maintains, our limitations are viewed not as failures but as welcome voices in a diverse community of learners. When we accept our vantage points as unique, we are more likely to be open to other voices, to more complex truths, and less likely to subsume other realities into our own for the sake of tidy theories.

In teaching history, I am not concerned with old, rich, white dead guys except as they interact with “us.” There are no rich people in my classes. Although most of my students are white, they are also from working class, rural families with little or no access to formal power in their communities. Many of them are the first in their families to attend college. They do not recognize themselves in the history they took in high school or in the documentaries on great men they see on television. They cannot easily see how any of that is relevant to their own struggles to pay the bills, manage their financial aid, raise their children, finish their homework, and hold down their jobs. Lectures and readings in my class focus on the so-called underside of history, women and minorities instead of white men, working-class and middle-class families instead of the rich, and rural life more often than city life. To challenge their notion that history is “over” we draw parallels between historical events and contemporary concerns. Instead of focusing on a textbook, the students often break into groups to discuss collections of primary sources. We try to learn about our subject matter as compassionate critics, viewing them as human beings similar in many ways to us, subject to our judgments, worthy of our compassion.

I agree with my students that there are too many names and dates to memorize in history, but it is not really the names and dates that I resent as much as the imposition of someone else’s value system. Which names and which dates must we remember? The questions on a test imply that those particular names and dates are somehow more important than other names and other dates. After my first semester, I ceased giving tests. For me, it was a poor pedagogical tool that ignored critical thinking skills in favor of rote memorization. Like other “Goddess feminists” I am not comfortable with arbitrary authority and believe that since all knowledge is relative, no knowledge should be enforced as superior to any other. To enforce my own historical preferences upon my students denied them the right to discover their own path through history. My job is not to tell them what to know, but to nurture them into the ability to discover the stories on their own. Like a mother, I feel I must teach by example and by encouraging them to grow as unique individuals with unique needs.

This belief causes me to downplay content in favor of methodology. I provide them with the tools of my profession, the questions and the controversies that shape my discipline. If I can get them to think like historians, I do not need to force them to memorize facts. If they develop the historian’s passion, the facts will fall into place on their own. Most importantly, I wish them to develop what Christ calls “empathetic scholarship” a process that values disciplined data collection, criticism, and analysis but which exposes the bias and interest inherent in all scholarship, including our own.

To that end, I engage them in lectures and discussions designed to showcase the diversity of the historical field within our subject matter, to show them how one acquires and organizes historical data, and most importantly, how I, as a historian, find joy in the process. They are not responsible for regurgitating that which I teach them. “Should I take notes?” they ask, skeptical of a process in which there is so much discussion but no test. “The information I share with you is all out there,” I answer. “You just have to learn how to access it.” I explain that the authors of their texts, their professors, and all other professional historians are not born with historical knowledge. My hope is that my students learn that instead of taking any expert’s word as their final source of authority, they can look in the books, carefully choose and critique secondary sources and go directly to the primary sources to challenge other historians’ (even my own) interpretations. I have tried to teach them to be much more interested in the questions than in the answers.

The Assignments

I’ve developed several assignments designed to promote their awareness of themselves as researchers and to assist them in the process of owning and utilizing their unique perspectives. With each assignment I emphasize that it is process and not product that interests me. I encourage creativity, insist upon honest engagement, and offer lots and lots of help. They email me at home. I help them untangle their papers, direct their first faltering steps in the library (many of them are unfamiliar with libraries and some have difficulty with reading), and give them moral support and cheer leading when they feel unsure of themselves.

The first thing I insist upon is that they choose topics that matter to them. Many students have a difficult time with this because they are unused to having so much freedom to decide the entire course of their project. Some have given little thought to what is important to them, what interests them, what sparks their imagination. A few even get angry with me when they sense that I am being intentionally vague in my expectations. For these students, being asked to choose a topic and design their own research is, at first, an unwelcome freedom. Some of these reluctant scholars have told me later that they thought I was crazy at first but that they later appreciated having meaningful creative ownership of their own projects.

I give the students several writing assignments. These include reviewing and analyzing historical documentaries and films, primary sources, biographies or autobiographies, and scholarly journal articles all of which they choose for themselves. I ask them to become aware of the different perspectives they encounter, to learn how the authors, artists and filmmakers manifest their perspectives through their media and how those perspectives may be understood as rich conversations of varying perspectives. In the historical marker project, I ask them to first transcribe, then to add to the information on a local historical marker. By speaking to caretakers, curators, historians, grandparents, and by consulting the internet and books, they discover the historical depth of their home towns. Students, initially annoyed that they have to stomp out in several feet of snow to write down the boring information on some ubiquitous blue and yellow New York State historical marker later tell me that once they started looking for historical sites, they began not only to see them everywhere but actually began to wonder what they said. My students and I have learned amazing things about our community from this project, but the ADP project is my favorite.

The ADP Project

The ADP (Adopt a Dead Person) project begins when I ask them to walk into a cemetery to find the gravestone of someone they do not know who lived and died in the historical period we are studying. Some of them choose randomly. Others have felt drawn to particular stones. I encourage them to go ahead and embrace the mystical nature of this project. Over the next several weeks, the students try to learn about their adoptee. They usually begin by gathering other information on the stones surrounding their dead person trying to learn about their person by seeing what family was buried around them. From there, they move on to internet searches to try to find genealogical data, marriage, birth, and death notices, obituaries, and biographical sketches. Some students have interviewed local historians and have combed through archives in museums and libraries. They begin reading nineteenth-century county histories, old archived newspapers, and exploring old photographs.

As the weeks progress, we share the stories of our process. Often they are frustrated, particularly if they are trying to resurrect the memory of a woman or child about whom little if anything is written. I explain that we may never learn anything definitively about such people. When they ask to choose an easier name, I tell them not to give up on their person. "Who else will help revive their memory?" “Who else cares about her now?” I ask. And so my students soldier on. Some of them find marvelous details while others hit one dead end after another. I explain that historians often go on wild goose chases and take wrong turns. It is the searching that matters.

Their papers do not, indeed in many cases, cannot, give specific details about their adopted person’s life. This is expected and perfectly fine. I tell them to write about their journey as they develop a relationship with this person through the research process. Every little detail lovingly gathered becomes a precious revelation. Their “dead people” become real to them. I have watched the students grow fiercely protective of their people, indignant on their behalf. What begins as an assignment can become an obsession. They email or call me excitedly as they discover something new. They learn to contextualize their data (or lack thereof) in the appropriate secondary sources, to discover what life might have been like for their people by studying the politics, culture, gender relations, child rearing, educational and medical histories of the time.

By the time they are done, they may not know nearly as much about their person as they wanted. But they surprise themselves with how much they want to know. They have surprised themselves with how far they were willing to push themselves to gather the information and at how difficult and satisfying it is to piece it together, to create a narrative, to carefully conjecture, to reconstruct, to envision this person, this dead person, once a stranger and now someone with whom they have a living relationship. They learn about their communities, about the past, and about themselves in this process. In the process, we work as a group, and they have encountered as individuals, issues of social justice as they learn what people history has valued and what people it has not.

I suppose it would be easier to assign topics and accept papers at the end of the semester but then I would miss out on all that my students have to teach me not only about themselves but about the research process itself. The issues they face are the same issues I face, whether I have admitted them to myself or not. How does one access information when one is too shy to speak to archivists and curators? Which materials are reliable and which should be avoided? When is it appropriate to judge, or even to condemn the characters we meet in our historical journeys and how do we know whom we have met and whom we have created out of our needs and desires? What can we learn from what remains undiscovered, unsaid, and unwritten? Who are we, and why does this topic, in this time interest us? Who do we serve in our work? Who benefits and who is diminished by our curiosity?

The finished projects often have little in common since they reflect the stories not only of those souls’ whose names are inscribed in our cemeteries but also of my students. Some are highly analytical and formal. Others are more creative, fictionalized letters or journals based on the data the student has gathered. Some students, finding nothing, have written about the historical period in which their person lived and died while others’ have written movingly about the search itself, the frustrations, the controversies, and the injustice of a life forgotten. These papers about finding nothing are often the most fruitful. One student was almost tearful in her indignation. A woman lived. She worked and had a child and yet no one bothered to record even the barest facts of her life. I believe her research honored that forgotten woman in a way few other tributes to her memory could have.

With this assignment, I betray myself as a feminist researcher for whom relativism, far from being a dirty word, is sacred to the search for knowledge. In “Have You Seen This Child?” Victoria Rosner discusses historical obsession as a tool of feminist history writing. While “good history writing” is supposed to value evidence above imagination and avoids historical transference in which the author conflates his/her own feelings and concerns with those of his/her subject, Rosner describes the work of feminist historians whose work has become an act of love. For these historians, their subjective passion for their topics creates a relationship with their (often female) subject matter that Rosner describes as “maternal.”

Fantasy motherhood can produce a range of behaviors salutary for the life-writer, including
care, precision, dedication, commitment, and a sense of responsibility to the subject that goes beyond concern with one’s scholarly reputation.

Of course, the potential pitfalls of this approach are obvious: one can too easily conflate one’s opinions with the imagined contours of the life of the historical subject one has come to love. For me, this is of lesser concern than the danger of falsely portraying oneself as a completely objective arbiter of the past. Such approaches, in my opinion, are arrogant and even dangerous as they create a powerful dichotomy of knower and known, author and audience in which one is learned and the other merely learner, one is judge and the other judged. It is a power dynamic that I, as a feminist scholar find immoral from a social justice perspective and untenable from a pedagogical perspective. At the end of the day, I know too much about my own incomplete learning process to pretend complete mastery to my students.

For me the relationship between researcher, research project and research method is, in the end, not unlike motherhood. As I exchange my suit and heels for jam-stained jeans to write this blog, the same principles must apply. I rejoice in the details and live for the questions. Justice matters. Compassion matters. Discipline matters. But no amount of careful planning, diligence and hard work guarantees predictable outcomes. Historians work with memories like artists work with paints, and the way I see it, memories are merely the impressions left by souls. Working with souls is a tricky, inexact business. I distrust historians who pretend otherwise. For me, work with research projects, children and students requires the willingness to maintain one’s identity even as one loses oneself in the process and to be open to the possibility that the closer one looks and the deeper one loves, the more surprising may be the results.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Temporary Break in the Conversation

Dear Friends,

I need to close this blog down for a short period of time. To do this, I will adjust my privacy settings so that I will be the only person authorized to read the blog. I will reopen the blog to other readers when I am better able to engage in conversation. See you in November.

Best wishes,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Does the Bible Mean for Quakers Today?: Part II of the Pagan Chronicles

Note: While this blog is evidence of a continuing conversation about the role of the Christian and Jewish scriptures in contemporary religious belief among Quakers, the opinions expressed on this blog are not meant to be representative of the Religious Society of Friends.


I've had an interest in bible study since I was a kid. It was cool to see Sunday sermons and the selected biblical passages get researched, analyzed, and discussed. I remember conversations about the relative merits of various translations and hearing about archaeological discoveries and historical research "that could change everything!!" about how we interpret the text.

Today as a grown-up, I'm interested in that stuff because I study the history of religions within an academic context. Given how difficult it is to get people to show an interest in most historical documents and ancient histories, it surprises me that so many other people show an interest in (or feel an obligation toward) study of the bible. Sure, it is a lot of fun if you're into exegesis, but who apart from dorks like me is into that kind of thing? Those who think the bible has the power of perpetual revelation serving as a direct link between God and the reader (like Tom Riddle's Diary in The Prisoner of Azkaban), clearly have reason to study it in depth. But what of people who do not view the bible as inerrant? Why are liberal Christians and non-Christian Friends drawn to figure out "what it means to us today." The answers are varied and diverse.

What follows is only my own approach to the role of the bible and its meaning.

The first question I ask is: Does it have to mean anything in particular? Why should this ancient text have any more power to speak to me than any other? Of course, one can easily and appropriately argue that the bible has had such a long history of strong influence on my culture that it is sensible to continue to study its meaning, agenda, and influence. I agree with this. However, I do not understand why we feel that there is a spiritual significance that resides in the text apart from its cultural significance.

I do not think we can ignore the bible's influences, both positive and negative, on our cultural history. I do not, however, believe that the bible continues to speak to us today apart from our entanglements with its ancient proscriptions, most of which are no longer appropriate for our own situations. The biblical texts were not written for us therefore attempts to make the book speak to us today corrupt the original meaning and motivation of the authors and prevent us from engaging in rational exegesis. I make an assumption that when viewing an ancient text my job is to ascertain, as closely as I am able, what sense it made within the context of the community that produced it. I cannot expect it to speak to my situation for the simple reason that it was not written to address my situation. At times there may be resonance. Human beings are human beings after all. But largely, the socio-cultural differences between 2nd Century Rome and 21st century New York are too profound to warrant expectation of continued relevance. Are we so arrogant that we think that they were all wrong about their own beliefs and context and that God was really using them as a conduit to speak to us? Or are we so silly as to believe that the Bible just keeps changing its meaning with each generation so that a text that condones patriarchy in one generation suddenly means marital equality in another?

So why continue to study the bible if

A) we don't believe the bible was an Inspired-with-a-big-"I"


B) there are so many deeply spiritual texts written in our own time and context that we can understand without outrageous amounts of cultural compromise and apology?

I do not advocate against the attempt to find useful material for social change in the bible or in any religious text. The bible has tremendous poetic and metaphorical authority in our culture. That I can't deny. Simply because it has been used to promote spiritual equality so frequently in the past is reason enough to continue to employ its language so long as that language is useful. Perhaps my attitude here will seem opportunistic. Here is the point where I must disclose that I continue to quote from the New Testament books with particular emphasis on things Jesus said about mercy, compassion, and basically not being a prick to the poor and powerless. I'll also quote from Thomas Jefferson, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Gandhi as well although I certainly do not accept any of them as ideal representations of human virtue. Likewise, while the idea of the Christ is a concept I accept as a sacred archetype, the historical Jesus is not. After studying primitive Christianity, I am convinced that I would not have joined the movement. Still, I am spiritually bound to the idea of Agape whether or not Jesus preached it. The concept of such love existed independently of his particular articulation of it. While I accept that the writers of the canon were inspired, I do not accept that the inspiration was from "God" or that it was somehow more inspired than the latest clever or lovely thing I might hear from my grandmother. (Don't scoff. My grandmother is effing brilliant.)

Now don't get me wrong. I do believe that Friends should study the bible and that they should have a very strong foundation in biblical and religious history. When I went to seminary, I met a woman who wanted to be a Unitarian minister who couldn't find the New Testament if you set it on fire in her hands. That was sad. Let's not be that way. We need to know about the bible if only so we won't look like damn fools when the Methodists and Episcopalians call us out to play.

I do suggest that we study the bible in an attempt to understand what the original Christian communities felt about God. Here's my selfish motivation: I think it is important for people to understand historical texts in their own context so they don't say stupid things about them in front of me. When my students talk to me about the Shakers or the Oneida Community Utopians as if those folks were 21st century people with 21st century problems, resources, and solutions, it makes me crazy. You can imagine how much more crazy it makes me feel when someone suggests a biblical solution for a contemporary problem or expresses a belief that somehow biblical authors were writing for us. They weren't. They not only weren't writing for us and our time, they didn't think we would ever exist.

Now it does seem to me that in order to understand what it means to be a Quaker, we have to understand how past Friends understood the bible. For the earliest Friends, Christian language and tradition was the only show in town. The bible was therefore the most important document although I would maintain that this was not by choice. They didn't have any choice in the matter. Go try finding a New Age bookstore in 17th century England. So as it turns out, much to my disappointment, one cannot understand Friends without understanding both their general historical context and the prevailing biblical interpretations available to them. As history drags on, they'll start to comment on Buddhism, Hinduism,and indigenous spirituality as they would relatively early into their development as a religious body. (Have you read the Letters of Paul and Amicus? I nearly peed myself with delight when I saw "Amicus" talking so positively about Native American and Hindu spirituality.) But apart from fleeting glimpses of awareness and experimentation of cross-cultural spirituality among Friends and their contemporaries, it took the general Western world a long-ass time to discover that other people had more to offer than servitude and woe. Even for the open-minded Quakers, the bible was pretty much it. We have to understand them within their spiritually limited Sitz im Leben. We must be mindful that they didn't have the archaeological and historical research that "could change everything!!!" and they didn't live in the fertile multi-cultural intellectual world in which we live. So we have to cut them some slack when they seem intolerably ignorant. Maybe I'm deluding myself but I personally very strongly doubt that if they were blessed with the wealth of spiritual literature available to us today, they would not have ignored it back in the day. I don't think we should either.

So, as much as I hate to say it, we need to understand the bible because it is a foundational document in our history as a religious people. In fact, Quakers don't make any kind of sense without it. (And this is a Pagan saying this!) But I'm not convinced that contemporary non-Christian Friends need to understand "what the bible means to us today." It doesn't have to mean anything to us today. We have to understand what it meant to our ancestors and how our ancestors' legacy affects us. We need to be able to mature into the finest of their expectations and deliver ourselves from their failings.

They had the bible and they had themselves. We owe much to our ancestors but we are given our own calling in our own context. Our spiritual wellsprings are more numerous and I pray, just as deep.

Study all things for the good we might find there but accept no other Source of Authority than the Divine Source. We are children of Love. Don't underestimate the power of the Divine to find us wherever we may be and do not doubt that Love will speak clearly in the languages we know best. We will find no truth in any book that is not already written on the tender parchment of our hearts.

See also
Part I

Saturday, October 3, 2009

O, Canada! (On gay rights and FUM)

Warning:  This post is not meant to be taken completely seriously.  Except when it is.  Also, I'm a complete ass.

In my last blog post regarding my strong feelings about FUM's policies regarding homosexuality, I was confronted with the interesting phenomenon of those who share my view that it is absolutely wrong to deny equality to all people but who also strongly oppose schism with FUM.  Now, these are people I happen to think are quite amazing people.  These are people who long ago proved themselves to me to be of the highest honor and most uncompromising loving nature.  So as argumentative as I am, I do not feel inclined to cast their words aside or to dismiss them lightly.  I begin to wonder why I cannot find myself in accord with these good people with whom I am almost always in agreement.  A curious thing.  Why don't I agree?  And by "why" I don't mean "What is wrong with them or their arguments?" or even "What is wrong with me and my arguments?" but "What does this expose about my personality and motivations that may deserve my contemplation?"

Perhaps it will be helpful for me to make a list of that which I know (or think I know) about myself within the context of this situation:

1.  I am raised from early childhood to be an advocate for the rights of all persons including GLBT people.
2.  My family has a large number of people who fit into this category.
3.  I give the highest priority to social and environmental justice. Committment to these defines my honor.
4.  My success as a human being is directly related to my ability to stand firm by my principles in the face of opposition.
5.  As far as possible, it has been my policy to boycott, denounce, or otherwise protest those organizations that have stubbornly clung to policies that I feel have no honor.
6.  I believe that I dishonor myself and shame my family if I fail to maintain committment to #3 through my practice outlined in #5. 
7.  I believe it is sinful to choose personal happiness, comfort, or popularity above one's principles.

On the other hand:

A.  I am fearful of war and have no confidence in our government's ability to keep us out of it.
B.  I do not want my children to be a party to war and I love my children more than my principles.
C.  I cannot move to Canada because I do not have enough money.
D.  I can be a Quaker and raise my children in a community that is historically acknowledged as a pacifist organization.
E.  Unitarian Universalists and Neo-Pagan communities annoy me.  (Sorry.  But there it is.)  Quaker communities also annoy me but less so.  (Lower Birkenstock to white sock ratio).
F.  I agree with every testimony liberal Friends share both in their simplistic manifestation as "S.P.I.C.E." and I also identify with and share an interest in conversations about how to understand these testimonies in a manner that is more transcendent, more demanding, more challenging, more broad, etc.  (I'm always looking for ways to challenge myself to a more demanding and austere life.)
G.  I am lonesome for community with people who share my spiritual orientation, philosophical tendencies, and principles who have the power to uphold me, correct me, sustain me, and nurture me.  I also have to believe they have to have the moral authority to do so.
H.  I am hungry for a community of people who both want and need my skills and offerings.
I.  I want my children to benefit from a spiritual community and I don't want them to be as lonely as I have been since I lost my religious community as a young adult.

Also to be considered:

a) I don't feel any community at all with FUM.  Not even a little.
b) I'm not sure why I would.
c) unless I spent more time at meetings beyond the local level where everyone I know is either non-Christian or nominally Christian.
d) but I can't go to meetings because I can't afford them.
e) because Quakers are unconsciously classist.
f) but that's another post.
g)) So it doesn't feel like schism when I resist community with people who could even entertain a policy specifically targeting homosexuality any more than it feels like schism when I resist community with the fundamentalist folks down the street
h)who are crazy.
i) And I don't mean to say that I resist greater community or that I fail to care for them as people since, as it turns out, a good portion of my extended family, almost my entire beloved village and region are conservatives and I love them to pieces.  Also my best friend since childhood goes to that crazy church and talks about possessions, Armegeddon, and biblical literalism and I respect and love her.
j) but holy shit. 
k) and that's pretty much what I feel about FUM's policies and christology.  Wow.  So not what I believe.

I can certainly be in love with conservatives.  I can love them and eat with them and cry and laugh and maintain loyalty to individuals.  But I cannot maintain affiliation with them.  There seems to me to be a very clear difference between loving individuals with whom I disagree on important matters and belonging to and financially supporting the organizations to which they belong.  Organizations have powers that individuals do not have.  One chooses one's political, religious and social affiliations carefully.  One does not join organizations who make public statements that are directly opposed to one's most cherished values.

Now this is a question that comes out of innocence and newness not out of crankiness and bitchiness:  Is it possible that my reaction to FUM is different than other liberals within the Quaker fold because I am so new?  I honestly did not know that NY had affiliations with a religious organization that had anti-gay language.  Frankly, having grown up in the United Church of Christ, when I heard about FUM's policy I was blown away and I was enraged.  I felt betrayed by liberal Friends.  I felt that there had been a bait and switch.  Here I thought I was joining with a group of people about whom I could feel trust and pride and who had the moral authority to lead me and my family and then I hear about this policy which shows an utter and reprehensible lack of love.  When I speak to my liberal parents about my affiliation with Friends, it shames me to have to include information about FUM's policies and that NY has dual affiliation.  It feels worse than that time I had to walk into a Walmart with my fundamentalist friend for her to buy a meat product and baby formula.  God, how dirty that made me feel.

So I have not pursued membership because I am not clear that I want my name associated with FUM.  It would shame me and it would shame my family and it would undermine my principles.

So what will I do for my children?  I don't have enough money to get to Canada.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quakers and Homosexuality

In my local meetings, people are committed to honoring loving same-sex relationships.  I would like to tell people that Friends collectively support the human rights of all persons regardless of sexuality.  Sadly, I cannot do this.  I am seriously bummed out by NY's dual affiliation status and I am unwilling to accept that those who accept FUM's policies or who indicate that homosexuality is a sin are members of the same faith community as myself.  I am not interested in sharing community with those who are hateful enough to allow sloppy interpretations of ancient texts (a hermeneutics of bigotry?) to justify condemnation of human beings.  When asked to choose between the rights of LGBT people and the religious sensibilities of homophobic Friends, I'll turn my back on conservative*** Quakers every single time.  Without exception. Make no mistake.  Opposition to gay rights is every bit as ugly, inhumane, and backwards as racism and sexism.

There is no rational or intellectual justification for bigotry.  Not ever. 

  The ancient perceptions of human sexuality are so dramatically different from our own that it becomes nonsensical to apply their reactions to various sex acts to our modern context.  Scholars of the Hellenistic world indicate a starkly different organization of sexuality than what we understand as a gay sexual relationships.  Pederasty, male prostitution, and the hierarchal relationships between a powerful adult male and a passive younger male are not in the least bit the same as a healthy sexual relationship between consenting adults who love each other as equals.  Hellenistic people did not see people as gay or straight but as powerful and not powerful.  Powerful men had sexual access to adolescents, younger men, slaves and women.  Younger people (both male and female), slaves, and all women were expected to submit and older men were expected to dominate.  Their sexual models were vertical rather than horizontal.  Pauline emphasis on reciprocity in sexual partnership challenges such a vertical construct.  This is just one of many arguments surrounding the changing patterns of gender and sexuality over time that require our attention before we arrogantly assume we understood ancient people's attitudes about sex.

Even if there were not great cultural and linguistic stumbling blocks to the application of biblical language to modern morality, I would not give a rat's ass about the bible's injunctions against homosexual relationships.  Common sense and human decency tell me that if someone loves another a human being and behaves toward their beloved with respect, joy, and tenderness, then that relationship is a blessing to the entire human family. To stand in the way of such a loving relationship is to stand on the side of injustice and intolerance.  It is to make oneself the enemy of the best humanity has to offer. 

I am proud that Quakers were ahead of the general population on such issues as pacifism, slavery, Civil Rights, and women's rights.  To be historically accurate, we must point out that in all these movements, a few radical Friends stuck their necks out and lots of them got themselves read out of meeting because they were quicker to perceive injustice than their brethren.  Progressive Friends in the nineteenth-century remain my models for appropriate discernment practice.  I cannot believe that divine justice could ever tolerate the destruction of families, the restriction of reciprocal love, or the mockery of rationalism.  How much discernment and revelation does it take to uhold the basic human rights of another human being?  How long must we wait?  A generation?  Two generations?  How many good people are we willing to hurt in the process?  How many of their children?  Seriously, what God asks us to be infernal, controlling, irrational, judgmental, busy-bodies until a discernment process tells us we no longer have the right to tell other adults who can stick what where?  (With so much misery in the world that needs our attention, why do so many people have such a perverse interest in other people's goodies?)

Bottom line:  When the Bible, the Church, or the Law oppose my heart's joyful response to another human heart, then I stand with my heart.  Let the Bible, the Church, and the Law be damned.

***In this case, I use the term "conservative" to indicate political and social conservatism as experienced in the United States. I do NOT mean "conservative" as in Conservative Friends who are conserving Friends' religious and traditional integrity. While conservative Friends may differ from me in that they tend to be far more Christ-centered than I am, there is not necessarily any profound difference in our understanding of social justice issues. My issue with conservative Friends is when they behave like so-called social conservatives. These terms are not synonymous and I apologize for the confusion this may cause.

For a continuation of my thoughts, albeit in a more wise-ass fashion, please refer to O Canada.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Quaker Mask of Respectability

We've been away from meeting for worship for most all of the summer. There's always a reason. Sort of. We're either sick or we're tired or we're sick and tired.

It makes me sad to think about it. Why can't I get myself to meeting? What is wrong with me?

My feelings about meeting for worship are layered and intense. In the silence, I feel profound Presence and I also feel it in the words people speak into that silence. I almost never get through a meeting for worship without tears. Even apparently simple messages move me profoundly and the intensity of emotion surrounding me is palpable. Still, all of that is just a tease. When everyone stands up and shakes hands, the spell is broken and I'm surrounded by strangers who don't know my name and don't actually give a damn about me or my family. When they do talk to me (and usually they don't) their masks are back on and they are bland, respectable, officious, and busy. What do I expect? I am just the same. I fuss over my kids and when someone asks me a question, my mind races to find the appropriate formula so that I can supply a politely phrased and bland response that will not betray any unsightly emotion. "I am depressed and lonely. I feel isolated and have been in a panicked despair over my sense that life is a series of crushing, humiliating circumstances beyond my control followed by painful disease or injury resulting in personal annihilation," is not the kind of response anyone wants to hear. They want to hear, "I'm fine. How are you?"

Still, I have these expectations. For instance, I expect that people might say hello to me and smile at me as if they mean it and I expect that spiritual topics not be received with the same distaste as if I'd told them about my sexual habits. I get a very strong sense that "we don't talk about those things here." No one really says it but their body language and their apparent reluctance to share personal experiences of worship broadcasts that sentiment loud and clear.

To be fair, I wonder if I'd really be comfortable discussing spiritual matters with anyone offline where it is so much more critical to maintain the facade of respectability. "Hystery" doesn't have to worry about what anyone thinks of her so she is free to speak openly of her spiritual journey, of her doubts, and her deep fears. If I were to do that in the real world, it is unlikely that I could keep my job for long. Real world relationships, unless they are very intimate, do not bear that much weight and people with responsibilities don't talk about spiritual hunger. They don't expose spiritual wounds-- not without first bandaging them nicely in tidy strips of "rational objective discourse." I've been burned often enough online to know that I don't think I could handle similar rejection face to face.

I'm a closeted spiritual person in many ways and I'll bet you lots of other Friends are as well. Where I live and make my living, I cannot afford to show that I am a haunted soul. In the sane and secular halls of America, to be a Pagan is to be a liberal fruitcake and to be a Christian is to be a conservative wing-nut. I dare not expose the extent to which I am "touched", as we say here in the country. My rational self forbids it.

Maybe we are all wearing masks. I cannot be the only one who removes it in the deepening silence when I think that no one is watching. Why else would Quakers tremble and weep in meeting as I know they sometimes do? I watch the light pass over their faces and I feel the energy whirl in the heavy places between their words. They must also be "touched." Is that not the point? If you sit in a circle and open yourself to Spirit(s) what do you suppose will happen? The brain is a funny thing. My little seizures might explain it all but I doubt that. In no other place but in meeting does my body sweat and tremble with the efforts of the soul. No wonder we are all embarrassed at the end. What if we are all just insane? What of it? Perhaps if we don't say it out loud, we do not have to face that truth. What if the Divine is actually talking to us? What of it? Perhaps if we don't say it out loud, we do not have to face that Truth either.

How much of that prejudice and fear of being exposed do people bring into meeting with them? Where the Divine touches us most deeply is also the heart of us where we are most tender, exposed and vulnerable. How do we dare share that in public? How can we expect others to do so? Are there other closeted spiritual people in my meeting peering out at me under the respectable, nice masks they wear? At the rise of meeting, do they too hurriedly wipe tears from their faces before drawing a mask of respectability over their eyes to hide the naked fears and hopes that haunt them at night?

Oh yes. We wear our masks and we engage in the ritual dance, making a religion of our respectability. We call out the holy words of denial as if we were not really (oh, certainly not!) sitting together in the open each with a wounded soul turned toward the Light. We sing out the protective verses designed to settle us safely back into the mundane world, "How are you?,"-- " I'm fine, thanks. How are you?"

What would happen if we told the truth?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Looking for Work.

Although I want to write a continuation of the last post, "Christ has come to teach the people himself", I find that I am not able to do so at this time. It would actually require a little thought on my part and right now I feel as though I have no thought to spare. I'm teaching a Western Civ. class and a women's history class right now as well as educating my own children in literature, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, math, science, history, health, religion studies, art, music, and geography. It will take me half a beat to settle into that schedule before I can blog properly again. (This entry, although boring and irrelevant to the general theme of this blog, is good evidence that I am making progress toward that end.) I also need to prepare for African American history to be taught in the second half of this semester and a Western Civ. II class for next semester. I also need to begin building a history of nursing and midwifery class to offer to my department chair as a potential special topics course for our nursing students.

I'm also revising my CV because I need to find work. Although next semester I hope my department chair will throw four classes rather than just two or three my way, I'll need more income to compensate for my husband's need to take a low-paying, part-time job in order to go back to school so he can find decent work again. (I could devote another entire blog to the loss of union jobs, benefits, and health insurance particularly among male workers. I'm finding it is much less fun to be a part of historical and economic transition than it is to write and teach about it.) In any case, I need to step it up on my end to compensate for his difficulties. This has been a rough year for us financially and we're slipping backwards. I'll need to either get more frequent flyer miles by doing adjunct work at more than one college or work toward getting a full time position at a college or university. I'm pessimistic about my chances right now. Although I'm confident as a teacher, I'm not good at selling myself to potential employers. I always imagine people in suits are annoyed by my very presence so I cannot imagine anyone hiring me. No matter. I have to do it anyway. I have to put myself out there because my children cannot live on books alone. I'm hoping that five years of teaching experience in both brick and mortar and online classrooms will help me out but there are an awful lot of people just like me out there looking for jobs.

If you know anyone who wants to hire someone with teaching interests in history, women's history and philosophy of religion, historiography and research methodology let me know. (Why in the world didn't I study anything practical? *sigh*)

So that's what's happening right now with me and why there are larger gaps between blog posts. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Christ Has Come to Teach the People Himself: Part 1 of the Pagan Chronicles

The word "Christian" is an historical/cultural term that references those who take the Church as a source of authority in their lives. The Church is a fractured, fallible, historical, contextualized construct. Obedience to its authority and teachings is in no way the same as obedience to Christ. Therefore, it can also be said that those of us who reject the historical construct of the Christian Church are not necessarily rejecting the message of the one who was called Christ. Christ and Christianity are not synonymous.

On many occasions, I have heard others who share many of my beliefs make the statement that they are not willing to forfeit the name "Christian" to those who would use it falsely. To a point, I would agree with them. Christianity is diverse. Why let one group call the shots and set the terms for the rest of us?

So why have I decided to leave off calling myself a Christian? For two personal reasons. First, I don't believe that the teaching of Jesus was unique. I follow his teaching because it supports my conclusions as a rational human being dedicated to the principles of compassion, non-violence, equality, and community. Christian terminology, history, and mythology, no matter how liberally expressed, cannot fully describe my spiritual experience as an eco-feminist, a mother, or more generally as a woman. Second, I do not call myself Christian because to do so is to waste valuable time explaining to others why I bear a label that is so clearly linked to the history of the oppression of women and the denigration of the image and positve legacy of the Divine Feminine.

My argument with Christianity has never been with Jesus and his teachings as interpreted by the Gospel writers (although I am probably place a good deal more emphasis on them as flawed interpretations) but against the phallocentrism of the religion he inspired. Although he does not impress me as a God, he does impress me. He emerged out of both Hellenism and Judaism but stood strongly opposed to the inhumane qualities of each. As Lucretia Mott reminded us, "Christ was a bold nonconformist." His criticisms of religion as practiced in his day were unflinching. His was a religion written on the heart and emerging from direct relationship to the Divine and uncompromising Love for those beloved of God.

Unfortunately for all of us, his followers seemed to usually miss the point. Rome conquered Christianity and appropriated its symbols. The evils of the world with all its injustice, cruelties, and power games were incorporated into the emerging philosophy of the Church. For women, this meant that the dominant beliefs of women's inferiority were written into the theology. We were left with a Father God, a male hierarchy, and a dualistic philosophy that placed light, spirit, reason, good and men on one side of the dichotomy and darkness, carnality, chaos, evil and women on the other. Revulsion at women's bodies, traditions, spirituality, customs and very presence was woven throughout the fabric of Christian art, theory and practice.

As time passed, the Church did too. One would not expect the modern church to behave in the same way as the medieval church. Indeed, by the nineteenth-century, American Christians were increasingly vocal about the need to recognize human dignity and equality regardless of rank or station. Insofar as women are the beneficiaries of their men's status, this move toward justice lifted women. However, the belief in women's inferiority as inherent and divinely ordained was too persistent a component of orthodox Christian belief to offer women any genuine relief. In 1854, at a women's rights convention in Philadelphia, a man stood up against the idea of the right of women to assume equality with men. "Let woman first prove that she has a soul," he demanded. "Both the Bible and the Church deny it." (Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman,Church,and State, 1893)

I'm certainly not saying that the Church in all its manifestations over 2000 years of history was universally patriarchal. In fact, I make it my business to learn about those Christians who despite the weight of history managed to follow the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. But I can't get away from the ugly reality that overwhelms their efforts. Christianity's history is grotesque in its phallocentrism. I'm not going to bother developing this argument further in this post. I think it very likely that we all could name at least a dozen books, articles, and recalled examples from our own lives to attest to this fact. So while I am not willing to say that Christianity has been universally bad news for women, I am saying that from the first generation of Christians to the current generation, "the woman question" has never been fully answered. Ecclesiastical and theological misogyny has not been accidental and it has not been without consequence.

"But then what of Paganism," one might ask, "Has that been woman-friendly?"

To that question, I'd have to ask, "To which Paganism do you refer?" If you are speaking of Bronze or Iron Age Paganism, the Paganism of the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Germans and the Celts then I would have to agree that Paganism's history has been at least as violent, at least as misogynist as Christianity. There have been different emphases in the violence and hatred but I have no delusions that historical Paganism, in the general sense, is better for women than Christianity has been.

But I'm not bothered by that because I'm not a Roman Pagan or a Hellenistic Pagan or Sumerian, Babylonian or Egyptian Pagan. What they did or didn't do to women is irrelevant to my experiences. My Paganism is a Neo-Paganism, a new Paganism that emerges out of nineteenth century Transcendentalism, Progressive Quaker activism, Theosophy, post-colonialism, romanticism, environmentalism, the Civil Rights movement, Spiritualism and feminism to name but a few influences. The word Pagan is far more general than the word Christian and it makes even less sense to stereotype those who call themselves Pagans than it does to stereotype those who call themselves Christian.

To have Pagan infanticide and animal sacrifice tossed in my face as a Pagan is every bit as obnoxious as it is when someone tosses the Inquisition or witch burnings in the face of a liberal Christian Friend. When we are talking to each other, it is simply not enough, and it is simply unacceptable to use historical generalizations to characterize another person's spiritual source of authority. You actually have to look at the person's life and listen to the person's words. You have to let them define their Paganism, or their Christianity, or their Buddhism, nontheism, or Judaism. You have no right to do it for them. Here's why. To put words in another person's mouth and to define their beliefs for them is rude. It is also an inefficient and inaccurate approach to communication. This is particularly true of Friends who, whether Christian or as Pagan, are very likely to surprise the hell out of you with their ability to transcend the historical baggage of organized religion.

So that brings me to why I, a spiritual feminist inspired by the teachings of the human body and the matrix of Nature, find myself at home among liberal Friends. They are not, and have never been the kinds of Christians whose faith was based on a phallocentric interpretation of the biblical texts. Simply put, they don't hold the Christian beliefs I reject. By elevating a belief in Spirit's ability to directly connect to the human soul, they were no longer subject to the teachings of the ancient Church. As revivalists of the primitive Christian tradition, they placed themselves at the feet of Jesus rather than at those of his disciples, the church fathers, clergy, and theologians. They rejected the most injurious components of Christian religion with its obscene justifications for slavery, misogyny, corruption, war-mongering, power-lust, and hierarchy.

What they said was that we could bypass all that bullshit. Christ has come to teach the people himself. When they listened to Jesus, they heard a far simpler (although far more challenging) message. They heard that the only sure way to God was the way embodied by Jesus of Nazareth who taught a message of uncompromising love. Rather than fussing over complicated notions of belief, sin, and salvation, Quakers have let their lives speak. If their collective and individual behavior in the world is indication of the teaching of "Christ" in their lives, then I recognize them as brothers and sisters. Quakers make good Neo-Pagans. ;-)

If one looks at this introductory website to Quakers, one finds statements regarding general characteristics of commonly held Friends' beliefs. They believe that communication with the Divine is unmediated and that the way one chooses to live one's life is an outward manifestation of this inner connection. That's what spiritual feminist Neo-Pagans believe too. And that is why in the United States there have been strong connections between spiritual feminism and Quakers for over 150 years beginning with the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and lasting to this day.

So where does this blog entry leave me, apart from tired? Well, it leaves me with a great deal more work to do. The need for patient, careful, specific, thoughtful, and informed communication is absolutely necessary if Christian and non-Christian Friends are to move beyond coexistence to communion. It also means that there are elements of modern Friends' worship and belief that I must continue to confront as remnants and rebirths of Hellenistic, Pagan, and organized Christian phallocentrism. Associations with Amy Post and Lucretia Mott won't let someone off the hook if they go off in Aristotelian or Calvinist directions. So this is not one of those "Can't we all just get along" kinds of posts. It is an ornery post. But in the end this is the message:

I am a feminist. I am a Pagan. I am a follower of the teachings of Christ. I reject the historical Christian Church. I am devoted to the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends. I am not conflicted. Confused? Don't make assumptions. Ask me about it. I will extend the same courtesy to you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

William Penn and Quaker-Pagan Home Schooling

In Some Fruits of Solitude, William Penn wrote:

"It were Happy if we studied Nature more in natural Things; and acted according to Nature; whose rules are few, plain and most reasonable.

Let us begin where she begins, go her Pace, and close always where she ends, and we cannot miss of being good Naturalists.

The Creation would not be longer a Riddle to us: The Heavens, Earth, and Waters, with their respective, various, and numerous Inhabitants: Their Productions, Natures, Seasons, Sympathies and Antipathies; their Use, Benefit and Pleasure, would be better understood by us: And an eternal Wisdom, Power, Majesty, and Goodness, very conspicuous to us, thro' those sensible and passing Forms: The World wearing the Mark of its Maker, whose Stamp is everywhere visible, and the Characters very legible to the Children of Wisdom.

And it would go a great way to caution and direct People in their Use of the World, that they were better studied and known in the Creation of it.

For how could Man find the Confidence to abuse it, while they should see the Great Creator stare them in the Face, in all and every part thereof?"

I am educating my children at home as Pagan Quakers which means that in our household we emphasize our dependence on the natural world and our responsibilities to it. We teach a reverence for biological and cultural diversity, and a practical morality based on the Pagan belief that "Do what you will shall be the whole of the Law excepting that you harm none." We emphasize individual freedom and responsibility within the context of the matrix of life and the context of community. We encourage joyfulness in that which we know and contemplative humility in the face of that which we do not.

Practically, being a Pagan Quaker kid is not about gods and goddesses or magical rituals and divination; it is about a baby toad rescued from the road, fireflies and star light, the smell of good, rich earth after the rain, and the crayfish in the creek in the woods. It is the lessons of a litter of orphaned mice we could not save, a fallen tree, or a dried up creek. It is about a visit to see newborn babies and the need to be gentle around their great-grandmother's increasing frailty. Birth and Death. Pain and Joy. Need and Abundance. Hope and Nostalgia. Mother Earth and all her children are divinely en-souled. Each creature obeys its own calling as we humans must obey our own. Difference does not dissolve relationship. Kinship is not counted by genes. A tree's mute testimony can stand tall beside the wisdom of the ages and a child's tears over a fallen bird mark the pinnacle of civilization.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Would Lucretia Say?

What would Jesus do? Seems like everyone has a perspective.
As a historian and liberal Friend, I wonder, what would Lucretia Mott say about Jesus and about religion in general?

Mott's response to some who wonder what Jesus would do if he were here:

"He is here; he has appeared, from generation to generation and his spirit is now as manifest, in the humble, the meek, the bold reformers, even among some of obscure parentage."
-- Cherry Hill Meeting, 1849

"I am willing to incur ridicule- to become a spectacle to angels and to men- if I thereby awaken any to a sense of what the times demand of them.
--Lucretia Mott sermon, "The Truth of God" Marlboro Chapel, Boston 1841.

This same attitude got me in trouble back in my seminary days...

"We shall not make progress as Christians until we care to read & examine the Jewish Scriptures as we would any other of the ancient records. By what authority do we set so high a value on every text that may be drawn from this volume? Certainly not by any command therein found. On the contrary, again and again is there an appeal to the inner sense. Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?"
-- Mott, 1841

Her own religious doctrine:

" simple, because it appeals to self-evident conviction. It is divested of mystery and mysticism, for it is not necessarily connected with anything miraculous or extraordinary...Christianity has been lamentably marred in its glory and beauty by the gloomy dogmas fo the schools. Many, however, are now enquiring for themselves, are acknowledging the heavenly light within them. They begin to understand the divine mission of Jesus; how it is what his coming was and ever is to bless mankind, by turning everyone from his iniquities; that, in him, in the great truths which he preached, all nations shall be blessed."
--Mott, 1849

And from the same sermon, Lucretia Mott continued:

"...firm in the blessed, the eternal doctrines preached by Jesus, and by every child of God from the creation of the world; especially the great truth that God is the teacher of the people himself; the doctrine which Jesus most emphatically taught, that the kingdom of God is within man- that there is his sacred and divine temple."

In 1850 she protests against the growing number of offenses for which a Friend could be disowned and laments the growing influences of evangelical and popular Protestant perspectives among Friends:

"...while we refuse the pecuniary aid to the Ministry we countenance all the machinery which supports him- Sabbath & Bible worship- belief in human depravity- a distinction of morals for the natural & spiritual man- a superstitious reverence for Jesus crying blessed Lord & Savior instead of doing the works wh. he said- mak'g a kind of righteousness & atonement of him, if not exactly after the Calvinistic pattern; if this is our course, it will satisfy a wily & grasping priesthood, and our invective against the hired minister will amount to very little..."

Well-established as a spokesperson for radical reform and religious liberalism, she later spoke at the Free Religious Association of Boston:

"Therefore, I say preach your truth; let it go forth, and you will find without any notable miracle, as of old, that every man will speak in his own tongue in which he was born. And I will say that if these pure principles have their place in us and are brought forth by faithfulness, by obedience, into practice, the difficulties and doubts that we may have to surmount will be easily conquered. There will be a higher power than these. Let it be called the Great Spirit of the Indian, the Quaker "Inward Light" of George Fox, the "Blessed Mary" Mother of Jesus of the Catholics or Burmah, the Hindoo's God-- they will all be one, and there will come to be such faith and such liberty as shall redeem the world."

**All the above are taken from Otelia Cromwell's 1958 biography and from Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Speeches and Sermons, edited by Dana Greene, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1980

Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Daniel. Theism and Non-theism

I dedicate this post to our conversation which has inspired and challenged me these many months now. I do want to keep talking to you about my use of the term "non-theist" if you are willing to also keep talking to me. We do have one little difficulty in that a good portion of the way I think is intuitive. It results in perceptions that fall outside of language but which I then translate to an audience in words. If I were an artist, I might be in a better position to communicate.

It goes something like this:

Here is the "Something" I have experienced. (*!*) The words I attach to it are merely a sign of the thing, not the thing itself. I'm aware that when I attach a symbol to the (*!*), I alter the original meaning of (*!*) since each word carries with it connotations I do not intend. There is no way to filter unintentional meaning out your head when I suggest a potential definition of my experience. I say "God" or "Light" or "Reason" or "Power" and the purity of my experience is already sullied in the translation because your experience of these words is not the same as mine and both of us possess historical and cultural translations of these words that create drag and prohibit swiftness of shared revelation.

Poetic and metaphorical language give me a better chance of communicating to you since I can intentionally apply seemingly paradoxical symbols to my experience in the hopes that the ultimate and transcendent meaning I intend but cannot adequately describe will flash briefly in the moment of confusion. Since my understanding of the Numinous tends to be acquired at the margins, my metaphors also tend to play a lot with paradox and to rest outside of orthodox definitions. For me, what some might call "God" is that which is both intimately real and even commonplace and wholly Other and Ineffable. If I use the word "God", people think I mean what I do not mean. The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness. The essence of the butterfly cannot be pinned. The Essence of the Divine also cannot be described. To me, this is the real meaning of idolatry, to settle one's faith in any given word or concept. That is why I resist theism.

I can explain this differently and I would if speaking to a non-theist, like one of my uncles or my father, who cringe at my emotional language. In fact, I will try to explain this differently later. I can speak in that dialect too although it is not native to me. Using metaphorical language, I probably make a lot more sense to you than when I use my "rational" language. That's the whole Jekyll and Hyde thing again. Although I'm resistant to a more literal or personified interpretation of "God", I have a profound sense of the numinous. I couldn't get away from that if I tried so I'm probably a lousy example of non-theism.

I suspect that many non-Christian and non-theist Friends are difficult to place into any tidy categories. Why would an atheist become a Quaker? I think the answer lies in the liminal areas that western dualism abhors. When you look at the kinds of misfits who call themselves "non-theist" or "non-Christian" Friends, you'll probably find people whose philosophical and experiential backgrounds bend gender, cultural, and even Cartesian boundaries of "this-ness" and "that-ness." What are the words to describe "not-this-ness" and "not-that-ness"? That's tough to do. From an historical perspective, we are a civilization in transition. Our old definitions do not serve us so well any longer and the new words are still being invented, still feel awkward on our tongues. We are still in the act of breaking the tension of the water but have not yet made the dive into the deeper layers beneath.

On top of that, you and I are working from different genders, generations, regions, and religious backgrounds. Much of the complications of our communication come from the metaphorical and philosophical tools we use to describe our experience. We are speaking in different philosophical and gendered dialects. Our bodies will experience the input of "Spirit" differently and our brains will translate those experiences differently again. Does that mean that "Spirit" is different? Laying aside verbal tools and intellectual approaches, I just feel, strongly, that you and I are just not that different where it counts. If there were a tender spot on the soul, a kind of spiritual tympanum where the "Voice of the Divine" resonates, I would say that you and I have heard the same Voice. Even when your words are foreign to me, I still believe I can hear "where your words come from."

Finally Spring

My kids and I planted bulbs today.  What a difference one week makes!  The spring warmth has brought everyone outdoors.  People are walking ...