Sunday, August 19, 2012

Corporate Discernment in which the Sense of the Meeting is that of an Insecure Adolescent Hoping to Stay Popular with the Other Cool Kids in the Room.

The creative and destructive tensions between individual and corporate discernment among Friends have long interested me.  It seems to me that the successful process of corporate discernment involves the act of deep listening, both to each other and to the Presence that moves among us.

Deep listening is an art.  It involves the ability to honor one's principles without shutting oneself off to new evidence or to new possibilities.  It requires tenderness but not capitulation.  It requires firmness but not rigidity.  It involves applying enough compassion and imagination to allow us to stand outside of our own sense of attachment to our own subjective realities.  It requires patience to stay grounded long enough to transcend the personal and cultural differences that obscure our spiritual kinship.

Corporate discernment requires this deep, loving listening to our brothers and sisters so that we can remain in good and righteous relationship to them even as our individual ideas seem to struggle and strain for consideration.  But corporate discernment, as much as it relies on our abilities to engage in loving dialogue with each other, is not, in the end, about you and me trying to get along.  It is about you and me reaching out together to better understand the will of the Divine Presence.

It is a remarkable thing, and one I would not have considered possible if I had not witnessed it myself.  A room full of unique individuals could transcend their individuality to become a vehicle of adoration and obedience to a Holiness that embraces them all.  Both silent worship and worshipful meetings with attention to the business of Friends require a discipline of hearing each other with love while keeping one ear tuned in toward the Divine Presence.  In this way, what each of us may know of the Divine is magnified in a room full of other Friends tapping into that same Present Energy. 

In holding each other in this Light, we have the power to sit with the anger, the pain, the bitterness, the exuberance, the hopefulness of each of our individual human messages until such transitory things pass away and The Message, howevery stumbingly and imperfectly articulated, remains. There can be an exhilaration translated into solemn quiet tears in such moments.  I have seen this many times among Friends as the room seems to collectively acknowledge that Something Good Has Happened Here.  But from then, we come to the real human work of responding to that Message. Our relationship to the Spirit that moves us so powerfully and tenderly in a gathered meeting for worship does not end when we stand and shake one another's hands. At every step of action and reflection, we repeat our process. Slowly, deliberately, passionately...

But sometimes it seems to go wrong. We make corporate decisions that can't possibly be a reflection of Divine Will (unless Divine Will calls us toward apathy, prejudice, power-mongering, greed, and a slothful service of convenience and convention). So how does that happen? Why do we crucify our prophets?

I believe it is because in those times we are not faithful to our process but merely to maintaining the appearance of the process. Discerning the will of the Presence is not the same as discerning the will of the group.  There are times when the group leans away from prophetic voices called to move us closer to the Divine will in favor of voices that call us to lean toward that which is comfortable, profitable, popular, or conventional.  In these cases, the prophetic voices that arise in our midst are received not by a corporate body but by a room full of individuals who are choosing to be drawn toward the message, to remain neutral to it, or to resist it based on personal motivation. Those who resist it provide a counter-leadership even if their resistance to the prophetic message is silent.

I do not condemn Friends for this.  We are imperfect creatures, but our stumbling does not make us less beloved.  I think that it is natural and normal for us to pass through this very limited human response to messages.  It is perhaps even necessary for those of us who sit in the process of corporate discernment to allow ourselves to pass through our individual emotions and thoughts before we are able to draw more deeply into the Presence.   There is nothing inherently wrong with our individual perspectives, for they too are given to us as a tool for helping us understand the will of GOD.  Our problem lies not in our individuality nor in unity with the group.  Our problem lies when individuality or community are no longer the servants, but rather the masters of our understanding.  Revelation does not always arrive with a clap of thunder.  More often, perhaps, we may expect it after long and dull conversations, repetitions, emotional anxieties, and hard, hard work.

I'd like to hold up the psychological and emotional components of corporate discernment. It seems to me that while we may be more skilled at acknowledging the spoken conflicts and compromises Friends engage in during the process of corporate discernment, we are not always aware of the underlying and unspoken emotional conversations that define our relationships to each other and to our Source.  Even in silence we often project our intentions (so often personal and selfish) to our brothers and sisters even as we pay lip service to the process of corporate discernment.

So much of communication is non-verbal.  We read each other's faces and bodies.  We can sense emotion.  When we speak of the sense of the meeting, I believe we are often really speaking of sensitivity to the subtle, emotional feelings in a room. Many of us are weighing (albeit often subconsciously) the unspoken response of our neighbors to the messages we hear and speak. Even still bodies and faces speak loudly to those who have ears. They cast their disapproval into the energy of the room whether or not they say a word.

  I have wondered why we do not talk much about this. We seem to be aware that while our vocal and written conversations are helpful and community-building, they are also notional and therefore not a true substitute for relationship with the Divine. We know that we must be mindful of mistaking our words for the Word.  We acknowledge that the sound and fury of human language may distract us from a truer Message.

Well, there is fury in silence too.

Why do we not also acknowledge that many of our silent, emotional interactions are also notional, arising out of collective fear and insecurity far more than out of tenderness toward the Divine Presence? Why do we not acknowledge that we are picking up on our f/Friends' feelings and attempting either to resist them or to make it right with them (even if that means turning away from what we are called to do?)

That prickle of disapproval one feels in a room after a discomforting witness is as real a response as any angry speech.  One feels if the silence that greets one's words is a welcoming and thoughtful silence or if it is icy and disapproving.  The exchange of glances, the set of a jaw, a hardening distance in the eyes-- these things alarm us and distract us.

Perhaps we mistake the desire to bury that angry human subtext as corporate discernment. I have seen the angry, although subtle energies of one person poison "corporate discernment" as Friends scrambled to balance their desire for friendship (with a small f) with their desire to serve a greater Ministry.   In these cases, Friends seem to be saying, "God forbid we offend this man! (and too bad if we offended God in the process.)"  We make idols of each other.  One has money we cannot afford to lose.  One has influence we do not dare challenge.  Another pouts and makes us all feel lousy when she doesn't get her way.  Still another launches into speeches we would rather not hear.  How much easier it is to become people-pleasers rather than Truth Publishers.

Quaker history is full of examples of prophets whose ideas were met only with scorn.  It is full of examples of "corporate discernment" that claimed that God called not for equality, nor for peace, nor justice, nor love, nor integrity.  Quaker history is full of examples of Friends declaring their loyalty to the status quo rather than to the Almighty.  We have not always followed our Guide. 

I think, maybe, it all comes down to Integrity.  We cannot be anything other than human, and therefore, we must be imperfect.  But as imperfect as our faithful translations of the Living Word may be, they will so much more so if we are not honest with ourselves about our limitations.  Do we believe that, of all human beings, Friends alone are capable of corporate discernment of the will of the Divine will without falling prey to our own unspoken dialogue of pride, pain, and foolishness?  I believe that until we acknowledge that our words are not alone the vehicles of our voices, we will remain out of tune, and discord rather than harmony, will mark our community.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dipping My Toes

I'm not particularly good at titles.  In fact, I'm lousy at them.  A more honest title for this blog post would be "Dipping My Toes in a Sea of Despair:  A Melancholy Contemplation of a Depression Realized Incrementally."  But that doesn't fit into the little space the blogger designers allotted to me.

I'm also not particularly good at cheerfulness and positive thinking.  I am not incapable of joy, but I do tend to anticipate troubles and tragedies.  From childhood, I have found negativity to be a good personal policy.  As a perfectionist, I would study for four to six hours for every test I took.  I'd all but memorize the readings assigned to me by reading each of them five to ten times, and I'd check and recheck my work.  So great was my fear of making a mistake that I would jump up in the middle of the night to check my work one more time.  Yet, even after all that preparation, I always expected to fail and find myself humiliated.  I figured that to expect failure and humiliation prepares one for that horrid eventuality and if, for whatever reason, one did not fail and was not humiliated, one could enjoy one's non-failure as a lovely little surprise.  Of course, I should point out that "failure" to me was any grade lower than 97%.  100% or higher was good.  98%-99%  was a B (and a bit of a disappointment).  97% was a C and anything lower made me so ashamed I could hardly stand it.

Adulthood changed some of this obsessive brooding over grades.  In adulthood, I became a mother, experienced the deaths of loved ones, and learned that I too was vulnerable to illness and accident.  My tragedy-focus has shifted to the fear of death rather than to the fear of failure. I still fear failure very much, but I fear death and disability much more.  It seems that now I'm also beginning to fear the aging process.  I've begun to realize that when someone mentions "the young people", they are no longer referring to me.  This is astonishing and upsetting.  I no longer look at myself in the mirror when it can be helped because the person I see there is decreasingly recognizable to me as myself and I'd rather not look at her until through diet, exercise, and some miraculous lotions, she gets herself back in shape.

But all of this is not what I started out to say in this blog post.  I meant to discuss despair and how I've recently begun to dip my toes in a pool of it.  Usually it is just my toes although occasionally I get lazy and my whole foot slips in as well.  When such a thing happens, I try to back away and have a snack or watch some Star Trek or Doctor Who to reset myself through distraction.  This is a quick fix and like most quick fixes, it doesn't last for long.  Soon enough I find myself inching back toward that dark pool and itching to slide into it.

It is a terrible temptation, this pool of despair.  I want to dive into it headlong.  Very much.  I'm so tired of fighting that temptation.  It would be lovely to just relax into those waters and allow myself to be carried away.  It takes ever so much energy to keep my game face on and pretend that somehow, in some way, I am not being broken bit by bit by all the horrors around us all the time.  Do you suppose there is some committee of demonic people in a room brainstorming new varieties of fantastic injustice?  I'd like to think there is because to believe that normal, mundane human beings are this cruel to one another is just too heart-breaking to contemplate.  Yet, try as I may, I find myself doubting that there is a demonic committee bent on manifesting the heights of human despair.  Instead, very sadly, there is just the human race, just the lot of us, contributing a vast diversity of crappiness to the human condition.

I am very tired of straining against the brute force of injustice, nastiness, violence, and cruelty.  I often feel like I'm struggling alone.  Perhaps you know the feeling.  Have you ever read something especially despicable and wondered if maybe you were going crazy?  I try to remember, even as my mouth soundlessly forms the liberal lament, "What the f@ck?!!", that others share my morose and outraged assessments of the loathsomeness of the human condition.  I try to remember that just as I am not alone in my anger, neither am I alone in my attempts to struggle against what seems like the inevitability of our own self-destruction.  Lots of us are straining and we're all pulling together in that giant tug-o-war over that dark pool. 

I try to remind myself of all the activists, intellectuals, artists, teachers, healers, parents, lovers, and humanitarians who are struggling along with me.  I try to remember, but it is hard.  I keep reading about arrests and intimidations, beatings, dismissals, and demotions.  I continue shouting out the truth to which I've committed myself.  "Love! Love! Love!" I keep calling out, and "Justice, Compassion, Peace!"  I don't know if anyone is listening.  My students seem to appreciate the message in the days that they belong in my classroom, but their ability to carry their own messages into the world is doubtful.  They are working class people and already pretty disempowered and vulnerable.  I don't harbor any delusion that I'm teaching a new generation of activists.  If they can keep a roof over their head and find money to feed their children, it is about all they can expect.

The pool of despair beckons because it would be nice to just lose myself in it and surrender to a certain knowledge that there is nothing I can do.  The news is full of horrors so insane and absurd that I often think they are some kind of joke at first.  "Is this a real headline?" I ask myself hopefully.  "Maybe this is from one of those fake news sources that publishes absurdist stories for comedic effect."  Except the fake news stories are no longer as absurd as the actual news stories and no one seems to be laughing anymore.

Sometimes I stop watching or reading the news to try to save my sanity.  That is only partially effective because I continue to run up against injustice whenever I speak to acquaintances, friends, and relatives.  It seems that every single day I hear another story of the petty humiliations and discouraging injustices that are the regular fare offered up by both public and private institutions.  Being alive in the western world seems to require immersion in a Kafkaesque nightmare of paperwork, regulations, debt, and broken dreams. 

I won't get into my own personal stories of grinding, debilitating, petty injustice.  My own troubles, though interesting to me, would probably be tedious to you.  I'll just say that I'm an adjunct and as such, I believe there is a special place in hell for college administrators.  Also, my husband has just learned that he will be laid off from his dream job (or rather the crappy entry-level seasonal job that might possibly turn into his dream job)-- on his birthday.  So that's a bit of a bummer too.  We knew he would be laid off, but they had assured us that he would be able to work through the winter.  Now they tell him that the money in the budget allocated for allowing low-paid guys to clean toilets and paint fences is needed elsewhere.  Similarly, it is apparent that my college does not have enough money to pay their adjuncts a salary that allows us to make payments on our student loans.  Certainly, there is no money for adjuncts or seasonal federal workers to have health insurance.  Colleges and the governments have so little money.  That's why they can barely afford to invade multiple foreign countries and give tax breaks to billionaires or build useless stadiums and hire more college administrators with enormous salaries.  But I digress.

We were talking about despair.  It seems that fish and aquatic life are dying off enmasse.  And so are little kids in many parts of the world.  Hell, the entire effing planet is burning, baking, drowning, and withering.  Where climate change isn't picking us off, crazy men with automatic weapons are.  Or maybe you'll be lucky and survive all that and only have to worry about poverty, homelessness, or a lifetime of debt slavery. 

Why can't I stop brooding?  It could just be my age.  I've been reading up on the topic and it seems that Gen Xers are more likely to be despairing and to commit or attempt suicide.  My sister and I have always referred to our generation as "Generation F@cked."  Our parents lived in difficult times, but believed they could usher in an era of peace, love, and progressive change.  I grew up on those promises and was nurtured on my parents' faith in the principles of equality, justice, and compassion.  But I matured into a world marked by recession, warfare, climate destruction, and the rise of the Religious Right. 

So, I'm tired.  I think I've always been tired.  I can't remember a time when I was not tired.  It feels like we are slipping into Hell and I'm awfully exhausted by clinging to the precipice.  Wouldn't it be nice to just let go?

What does this have to do with Paganism or Quakers?  I don't know.  I guess they aren't helping me much.  In fact, both groups are currently on my list of "Groups of People Who at One Time Offered a Sense of Intellectual and Spiritual Promise in an Otherwise Degrading Life, but Who, In My Current State of Despondency, Disappoint Me So Much That I Feel Like Crying When I Think About Them:  A Topic for Future Blog Post Discussion."  See?  I told you that I'm lousy with titles.

(Also, here's a video of a song parody and accompanying article that is slightly related to this topic inasmuch as it is about people my age feeling bitterly disappointed and angsty.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Rant: Professional Identity: Homemaker

Warning:  This is a rant.  This is not a measured, spiritual, uplifting piece.  This post is written in anger and is therefore somewhat self-pitying and abrasive.  It is probably also offensive.  You have been warned.

What is my profession?  I am a homemaker and a homeschooling mother.  I am also a college professor, but this is my second job.  I do it only because my debt requires a second income.  I would stop teaching in a New York minute if my financial obligations were mitigated.

When people ask me what I do, I assess their ability to damage me and then I answer accordingly.  If they are not in a position to bully me or my children, I tell them that I am a homemaker and that I also teach.  If they are in a position to bully me or my children, I tell them that I am a college professor.  People who hear that I am a college professor are doctors, nurses, school officials, and others who may use their professions as excuses to become very busily and judgmentally involved in others' lives.

I have found that when I first mention that I am a homemaker, I get a variety of negative responses.

Response #1:  Condescension.  "Isn't that nice!  I wish I could stay home with my children, but I just couldn't afford it.  It must be so nice to be home with them all day.  You must have your hands full!"

Related to this response is their tendency to then treat me like I'm a half-wit.  I notice this particularly in doctor's offices.  When they see me as a homemaker, they are inattentive, rude, and bossy.  As soon as they see on my charts that I also have a doctorate and teach in a college, they adjust their tone and vocabulary to indicate that they now respect my intelligence and my ability to make informed decisions.

Response #2:  Judgment:  "You have betrayed the feminist movement and/or are wasting your education."

Sometimes the reaction really has been that blatant and nasty.  Most of the time, however, it is more subtle.  People give me a great deal of advice on how to get a job teaching in a university.  They encourage me to network, apply myself, and become more assertive. 

Of course, the two responses often come together.  People tell me how "nice" it must be to stay home with the kids and then give me advice to help me escape that unfortunate situation.  They tell me that they are so impressed with my ability to (my goodness!) write, teach, and look after children.  My, my!  So busy!  They must think I'm a complete innocent if they think I believe they're actually praising me for staying at home in an unpaid job. 

I study the history of domesticity.  I know that it doesn't make me somehow "special."  I'm not unaware of its changing status, and I'm not likely to believe that somehow my choice to be a homemaker makes me unusually patient and self-sacrificing.  The job undertaken by most women until the most recent generations is certainly challenging, but to gush about it as if it is unusual and soooo nice, is a bit much.  I know that tone.  It is the same tone people used to speak to me when I was a child.  "Well, good for you!  You know how to write your own name.  What a smart girl!"

So here's the point of this post, fair readers:  If you happen to speak to a homemaker, try not to be condescending and judgmental.  It is a real job, a real calling, and it takes real time and energy.  I am not lazy or unskilled.  I am not doing this because I can't make it in the "real world."  I actually mean to be where I am.  I  also do not need ego-stroking.  I'm not ashamed of being a homemaker and don't need your praise or pity. 

Don't tell me that you would do if you had the money.  That's especially insulting to a person in a low-income family.  Relatively speaking, while I am more privileged than many people living in poverty, I am very likely far less privileged than you are.  My spouse is a blue-collar worker and we have lived from hand to mouth our entire marriage.  It takes some doing, let me tell you, to stay home.  If you are going to tell me that you would stay home but you just don't have the money, you'd sure as hell better hide your vehicle (or your clothes, or vacations, furnishings, jewelry, etc.) that cost more than my entire household.  It isn't nice to tempt Quakers to violence. 

The thing is that I respect and admire people who work outside the home.  I see that choice as challenging, interesting, and important.   It would be nice if such people felt the same way about my choice, but if they don't, I much prefer that they keep their mouths closed than respond to me by bullying me, judging me, or by gushing saccharine insincerities in my direction.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Put On Your Listening Ears, Friends

This will be a short post, but I hope it leans more toward simple than simplistic.  I've been watching, and reading, and listening to Friends' worries about our ability to communicate with each other.  Christians, and theists, and non-theists, oh my!  And God help us (if you accept the word "God"), but what about the Buddhists?  And what do we mean by "Christ" and "conservative" and "humanist" and "convergent?"  Oh, what a muddle! 

Yes, it is rather. But you'll pardon me if I say that I hardly think it matters.  Because whatever you believe or don't believe in terms of theology or thealogy or humanist philosophy doesn't really tell me what you believe at all.  Not really.  If I spent many hours with a Friend hearing about their beliefs all nicely-packaged and well-thought-out, and pretty-and-polished, I wouldn't get much more out of it (if I got anything at all) as a half an hour spent listening to that same person telling me stories about their life.

Stories about being little.  Stories about their children.  Stories about getting old.  Stories about regret.  Funny stories.  Angry stories.  Lively stories.  Embarrassing stories.  Goofy stories.  Sad stories. 

People tell you who they are and what they really, truly believe in their stories.  Sometimes without even meaning to.  Most of the time they don't even know they are doing it.  But listen to them.  Really listen to them.  Watch their faces and their bodies move in the telling.  Watch the lights and shadows of their souls move across the surface of their words.  This business of stories is so very human (and so very divine).

Learn to read between the lines.  Learn to watch for pain beneath bravado, for fear beneath contempt, for injury beneath humor.  Learn also to see little bits of courage, and passion, and love, and joy peeking out where you don't expect it.  A twinkle in the eye.  A wry smile.  A shrug.  A tear.  A pause.  These little things are majestic.  You can find the very heart of humanity in a sigh.

Then, instead of analyzing the story, instead of judging the storyteller, participate in that grave and beautiful humanity.  Participate in that divinity.  Hear people into voice.  Be curious about them.  Care about them.  Rejoice in them. 

So that's my advice.  I think such a thing can grow out of our history.  We are a listening people.  If we can spend an hour listening for the Sacred in the silence of a meeting house, we certainly can spend a minute listening for the sacred in each other.  Maybe I'm naive or even a bit silly, but it seems to me that if ever we are to be a people gathered, we have to trust in each other's worth, trust in each other's calling, trust in each other's stories.  What if, as the spiritual says, God is trying to tell you something?  Put on your listening ears, Friends.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Meeting for Worship with Atttention to Bats

Our last meeting for worship was a bit peculiar.  Our family represented five sixths of the worshiping presence.  That was not the strange thing.  We're a wee tiny little meeting and in the summer months, people are often busy with other obligations.  What was strange about the meeting was the bat that draped itself over the exit sign.

My youngest son and I usually go out of the meeting after half an hour.  When the big bell in the tower chimes ten o'clock, we slip out together and find a place to sit in one of the hallways of the large academic building or else we wander outside.  On that day, he wanted to sit on the couch in a lounge and talk.  As we sat on the couch and began our conversation in hushed tones, I happened to look up at the exit sign above the door to the stairwell.  On it was a little brown bat (a common American little brown bat my knowledgeable children later told me) which had positioned itself quite neatly over the X.  (Here's a Wikipedia article about these bats:

Very much like a bat, my eyes are not very good even with my glasses and I had not seen such a creature "in the wild" before.  I was not sure that I was indeed seeing a bat.  Maybe it was just a bit of brown-colored insulation.  Maybe some zany college student had placed a toy on the sign as a joke.  Perhaps it was a real bat, but was dead.  Why would a real, live bat be hanging out in the building so close to where all the action was?

My little guy couldn't wait to go into meeting.  He was miserable to have to sit for a few minutes in silence, then wait while we stood silently together holding hands as is our meeting custom and then, finally, when a Friend, perhaps seeing his barely contained excitement, gently asked if anyone had anything they'd like to share, his spirit nearly leaped out of his body as he burst out, "Yes!"

From there the meeting activities seemed to have a great deal to do with bat speculation, bat observation, and bat capture.  My husband, concerned that the college staff would kill the bat if they caught it, insisted upon capturing it himself.  Using a box and a shirt, he spent about an hour on bat safari.  I checked in on him at one point to find him standing in the hallway while the bat swooped and swirled around him.  Eventually, he was successful and the bat was released outside.

Earlier this summer, my gentle husband heard the high-pitched sounds of a fly trying to escape from a spider's web.  As he often does, he took the fly out of the web then carefully unwrapped the silk from its body so it could fly away.  I reminded him that now the spider would have no food.  He responded that when spiders start to scream in distress, then he would certainly rescue them too.  In fact, I'm the spider-rescuer in the family.  They are safe with me as I carefully clean around their webs and carefully rescue them from sinks.  Indeed, it is a family rule that no creature, large or small, should suffer death or injury at our hands if we can help it.

Sometimes, however, an animal's death cannot be avoided.  On one occasion, we were driving along when the car in front of us struck a woodchuck.  The driver in the other car stopped and so did we.  My husband checked to see how the driver was doing.  She had exited her car to see the woodchuck and was quite upset by the experience.  The woodchuck was still alive.  My husband told her very gently that she was not to worry about it and that he would take care of it.  She continued on and he retrieved some gloves and a cardboard box out of our trunk and placed the injured animal in the box.  I held the box on my lap as we drove to the veterinarian.  We had very little money in those days, but he was willing to go into debt to try to save the life of this old, bloodied, beat-up woodchuck.  And I was willing to let him.  Perhaps fortunately, the poor thing died just as we pulled into the vet's parking lot. 

I was sympathetic to that impulse because I once spent my entire savings from my first job as a teenager on euthanizing a strange cat that had been struck down the street from my house.  It was clear that it was dying, and the neighbors were going to fetch a shovel to kill it.  My cousin and I insisted that they give us the cat and we took it to the vet to be put down humanely.  There went my savings, but I felt it was money well spent.

It was wonderful that in the case of our meeting for worship bat, the animal survived and went on to live another day.  A happy ending.  We left our meeting for worship with attention to bats in good spirits because it felt like time well spent.  We are trying to teach the children to offer love to the little things.  We want them to believe that it is worth spending an hour of your time ducking and lunging like a fool to capture a bat that might otherwise be killed.  We want them to know that there is nothing unmanly (or unwomanly) about allowing your heartstrings to be tugged by the plight of an insect.  We want our children to be moved by the suffering of others, especially if the creatures are feared and avoided by others, and to feel that as far as possible, we are called to alleviate that suffering.

I see this part of their education as the intersection between our Pagan and Quaker understanding of the world.  It is important to me that they apply the principles of love and compassion not only to human beings, but to our animal brothers and sisters as well.  It seems to me that if they, like God, keep their eye upon the sparrow, their measure of Light will shine more brightly.

I want us to remember to behave in a manner befitting Friends.  One of my favorite songs of childhood included the words, "They will know we are Christians by our love."  I don't much care if folks identify my children as Christians, Pagans, or atheists as long as the name they make for themselves is grounded in love.  I want them to let their lives speak. 

May they always remember that gentleness, especially to the most vulnerable creatures, is a mark of their love of the Divine in all Life. "I expect to pass through life but once," said William Penn. " If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again." 

Friday, June 22, 2012

So very un-clever. Suggestions? turns out that for a number of reasons I have the intellectual wherewithal of a goldfish.  I used to be clever, but over the past five years, I've grown increasingly less so.  My writer's block has become more of a tackle followed by a vicious kick to my head. 

And my spirituality?  Please!  Talk about aridity.  Apparently I'm a latter-day Moses working on 40 years in the wilderness except without the burning bush, golden calf, commandments, charioteers, and shape-shifting serpent-sticks.  Not that I want any of those things, but it might be nice to have some compelling matter about which to write.  (Actually, I'm not much like Moses at all.  More like... what?  Like something different than Moses, but related in an intelligent little twist that will make my readers delighted.  Nope.  I got nothing.)

I need to start writing again.  I'm tired of this dry spell.  If anyone wanted to throw me a line, I'd appreciate it.  My own ideas are dull.  My own questions are stale.  My brain atrophies and my ideas......Whatever. Forget it.  This post stinks too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Bridge

There's a covered bridge over a stream that runs through our backyard.  My father build it as an act of whimsy out of the steel remains of the trailer I lived in before my family and I moved back home to be with my grandmother and parents.  The trailer was old and ratty because that was what we could afford.  We called it our bicentennial trailer because it was manufactured in 1976.  As an historian, I developed a kind of philosophic attitude about the trailer.  In those days when I was battling leaky ceilings and warped floors, the promises of '76 seemed pretty sad and worn to me.  I wasn't feeling like my bicentennial trailer or the nation I lived in offered me much hope of a brighter day.  I pride myself on being able to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but that old thing defied my best attempts.  It was ugly, uncomfortable, and smelly.  We lived there for a handful of difficult years.  My husband's jobs were physically exhausting and disempowering.  I was working on a Master's degree and raising two very young children.  We had no money that wasn't borrowed and there were times when the pickings were pretty slim. 

We stayed in that trailer until after I'd begun a doctoral program, had begun teaching classes at the community college, and was expecting my third baby.  We still had no money at all.  At one point, during my pregnancy, we were sleeping on piles of quilts on the floor because we could not afford a new mattress.  My parents would have helped, but we often didn't tell them just how pinched we were.   I guess we felt like we must have done something wrong somehow to be so poor.  Both of us had gone to college (perhaps I was excessive about it) and my husband had worked hard since he was a kid.  We were honest, hardworking, thrifty...the whole nine yards.  We followed the rules.  We did not take our first vacation until after more than ten years of marriage.  We purchased everything second hand.  I hung laundry on the line and even learned how to wash it in a tub since our machine (a used washer given to us by friends) was not always reliable.  I learned to make my own cleaning supplies and how to cook on a shoestring budget.  But we had huge bills and low income.  There were medical bills and student loans and we ran up our credit card buying groceries and paying rent we couldn't really afford.  I'm still making payments on food I bought for my kids ten years ago. 

Eventually, the old trailer caught fire.  We were lucky.  It was an electrical fire between our room and the kids' room, but it didn't last long because it turns out that we also had a leak which put the fire out before it had a chance to grow.  I woke to see the smoke and we went to my folks' house.  It was not safe for us to return.  My father and mother had already begun talking to us about moving into their home which they share with my maternal grandmother.  The house was big enough for all of us and they needed help and respite.  Grandma is a bright and witty woman, but she is physically frail and needs folks around to ensure her health and safety.  My parents were both working full time and wanted to be able to have time together.  They wanted to be able to travel too which was almost impossible without someone to "hold down the fort." 

 I was a stay-at-home mother who worked only one or two days a week at the college.  I could also help by "being around for my grandmother" which means ensuring that as she ages, she would not have to live in a nursing home.  I help with housework, meals, and watching over my grandmother.    My husband, who has heavy equipment, plumbing, building, and other useful skills could help my father maintain the house and property.  It is a good deal for all of us.  My husband and I would get to live in a larger home where we have the help and support of my parents in raising our family.  My parents would get to travel together and maintain the privacy of their marriage because they now would have the ability to take a break from the demands of caring for an elderly parent.  My grandmother would get in-home care and assistance so she would not have to face the fear and expense that is associated with nursing homes. 

So now we all live together.  There are four generations under one roof which can get a bit chaotic (especially when aunts, uncles, and cousins come to stay with us!), but we are very happy together.  My children are outnumbered by adults in the household.  They run between my parents' rooms on the second floor, my grandmother's rooms on the ground floor, and our rooms in the basement.  Everywhere they go, there are grown-ups who love them.  My grandmother will be 96 this week and unlike many older women, she is not only still in her own home, but is the matriarch of an active family.  Young and old, there's a place for each of us here so long as we're willing to squeeze in and share.  I am thankful.

But back to the old trailer.  When the time came to leave it, it was winter.  After a few days absence, our pipes burst and further damaged the already substandard structure.  There was no way we could sell it so, according to the mobile home park rules, we had to dismantle it and carry it away.  The menfolk in the family recycled or found uses for most everything.  Much of it was wood which is fairly easy to repurpose, but the steel beams undergirding the trailer were a bit more difficult.  They were carried over to my parents' large yard until we could figure out what to do with them.

Eventually, my father decided to use them to build a bridge over to our island.  It seems fitting to me that the foundation of our old family home, as dilapidated as it was, should become a bridge to something so wonderful.  I like to remember that foundation and that old life sometimes not just to fuel my feelings of gratitude for a richer, more comfortable life today, but because  I am thankful beyond words to be at home with my extended family.  I am thankful for our laughter, our play, our work together, and for the love that surrounds all that we do.  But I'm thankful too that we had that experience of struggling on our own.  I'm glad I had that experience of failure.  I've learned to be as grateful for our need for rescue as much as I am thankful for the rescue itself.

(Our covered bridge.  The creek bed is dry in this image, but at times, we have a little rushing river in the backyard.)

 (The island.  Scene of summertime childhood adventures, and candlelit Yuletide scenes)

The thing about working hard, playing my the rules, and failing to thrive anyhow is that it knocks a whole lot of arrogance out of a person.  I have watched my husband get sick and injured doing the most back-breaking work.  I know what it is like to be frantic with worry about empty wallets, empty bank accounts, and empty cupboards.  I know what it is like to try to fix a house with duct tape or to prepare meal after meal of rice and beans.  I know what is like to be treated with disdain by those who size you up by the shabbiness of your home and your clothes.  I know what it is like to be bullied into tears by people who think they are better than you.  I know what it like to feel poor, and worn-out, and angry, and hopeless.  And so I know too that I can carry that feeling with me over the bridge into my new life. 

In my new life, I'm a college professor rather than a woman with postpartum depression living in a trailer park.  I like how impressive "college professor" sounds.  Who wouldn't prefer an ivory tower to a trailer park?  But I'm not really in an ivory tower.  They don't let me close to the towers.  I guess I'm closer to the gatehouse.  The lords of academe may just decide to kick me outside the protection of the castle walls at any point!  Teaching at a community college as an adjunct is a job with few benefits.  There is no health insurance.  We can be dismissed without warning at any point, and we make significantly less for our work than full time faculty earn (and far, far, less than college administrators pocket each year).  It is also one of the least prestigious teaching gigs a person with a doctorate can land.  No one can boast about being contingent faculty at a rural community college and be taken seriously by other academics. 

But I am glad of it, because it is my bridge.  I can take the foundation of my old life and turn it into something beautiful, useful, even whimsical.  I have an opportunity to be the professor who listens to students problems and does not dismiss them as "excuses."  I can be the professor who teaches history in a way that is relevant to those of us who work and who struggle.  I can be the person who tells them how brilliant they are, how useful, and wise, and wonderful they are.  I get to be the person who sees their eagerness, their smiles, and their dawning enthusiasm as they begin to see their worth through my eyes. 

Now don't get me wrong, I'm still often discouraged, sometimes deeply so.  I still wish I could stand completely on my own.  I wish I could afford better clothes, toys, and vacations for my children.  I wish I didn't have to worry about how to pay for medical bills, insurance payments, student loans, and groceries.  I wish that people looked at me with the kind of respect given to successful academics in fancy private colleges.  I still resent being dismissed and overlooked.  But here's the deal:  those feelings of resentment and sadness remind me to use whatever I've got to help folks around me.  They remind me to pour my energy into being an island of welcome.  Let me be the smile that softens the edges of lousy day.  Let me be a safe harbor.  Let me be the one who offers love instead of contempt; hope instead of abuse.  Let me be the one who says "yes" instead of "no".

It is important to offer bright welcome in the midst of naysayers.  A community college is like an island in the midst of hard times.  People come there because they are out of work or in dead-end jobs.  They need training.  They crave education.  They want better lives for themselves and for their families.  At a community college, there are lots of single mothers and dads looking for new beginnings after being laid-off from their jobs.  There are young people hoping to save some money on their college expenses.  There are lost souls finding themselves again after addictions, abuses, and hard times.  There are lots of people with learning disabilities who struggle with college work.  There are lots of people who have a hard time getting their schoolwork done because they are also working full time jobs and raising families.  My students tell me about poverty, about violence, and about injustice at work and in the court system.  Some of them are struggling with physical and mental illnesses or watching people they love struggle. 

The world is hard.  It hurts to live in it.  Failure and loss are all around us.  No one hands out candy for good work.  Most of the time when you keep your nose to the grindstone, all you get is a bloody nose.  Some among us do very well, but I can't see that they are more deserving than the rest of us.  I think some folks mistake their wealth as a symbol of their worth. That's a bit funny, isn't it? As if privilege is an indicator of anything more grand than chance and good connections! I've learned not to believe the myth that "I make my own success." It is both physically and metaphorically impossible to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps.  I too used to think that if I worked hard and was a good girl, I would gather in a harvest of plenty.  But we do not live in a just and moral society.   Fortunes are made of greed, dishonesty, and cruelty while good people, decent people, honest people, get slapped down every single day.  My students do not deserve their sufferings and I have not earned my privilege.  I am here only because I have been loved and helped.  I'm here because I had parents, teachers, professors, and friends who offered a helping hand at just the right moment.  And as love is my history and my legacy, it is also my responsibility.    What I have, what any of us has, comes to us as a gift.  What I have is only mine as long as I am willing to share it.

I don't propose that we can make the injustices of the world vanish just by holding hands.    We can do everything right, but if we do it alone, we fail. And the world is full of failure. It is full of the suffering bred in the lie that we must stand on our own. We have believed that lie and built a society in which the rich feed on the poor and the poor are segregated by shame.  We've created a society that is the opposite of a good family.  We have a society that punishes those who are most vulnerable and which enriches those who are most callous to the cries of need around them.  We have a society that despises the young, the old, the sick, and those who care for them while it glorifies selfishness, gluttony, and greed.   But this is nothing new.  The history of injustice is as old as history itself.    It will take more than a few generations to create a just society. 

But we have to start somewhere. When I am feeling low I try to remind myself of this.  We have to start somewhere and we sure as hell aren't going to make a dent in this mess unless we tackle it as a team.  We'll make our success together. It is love and giving, partnership and patience that brings wealth.  What do we have to give?  We have our work.  We have our strength.  We have our compassion.  Let us care for the children and celebrate the elders.  Let's offer hope and comfort in the midst of despair.  Let us feed each other.  Let us give thanks for the gifts we have received by giving of our time, our labor, and our resources.   In a pinching, cruel world, let us be generous.  Let us be welcoming.  Let us be loving.  In a dark world, we must shine.   It is time for us to be each other's salvation.  I am certain that the only way out of the poverty of our lives is each other.  Love is the bridge.  Hope is the bridge.  Joy is the bridge.  We have to become the bridge builders.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

May Day in Mennonite Country

Around here, we call Beltane, May Day, and it wouldn't be May Day without Mennonites.  Each year at this time, we take a drive to a local Mennonite nursery and purchase the plants with which I revive my garden.  I suppose I could buy my plants at any nursery.  I could also, I suppose, grow them from seed myself, but then that wouldn't feel like May Day.  Somehow, it is the Mennonite folks who make the day seem authentic to me.  I wonder how the Mennonites would feel if they knew they were a part of my Pagan holiday.  I doubt they would approve, but as I often go among them in a long skirt and a kerchief on my head, they probably don't suspect a thing. 

Honestly, I can't say why the local Mennonite community has become so much a part of my spiritual landscape.  We hold very few religious views in common.  And I only say "very few" because it is more polite than saying "Nothing".  I know they are theologically conservative, while I'm a liberal.  I know they believe in prescribed roles for men and women while I believe that a person should, as the old Free to Be You and Me Album says, "do what she likes to and not just what other folks say."  Perhaps I crave time among the Mennonites because I am a plain-ish sort of person, and often wish I could just chuck it all and don the Mennonite garb, hang my laundry on my line, and forget that I went to graduate school, forget that I have obligations to the world outside my home, and, while I'm at it, forget the 21st century too.

In any case, we drive to a Mennonite nursery in the countryside where we've bought our plants year after year.  In our travels, we admire other Mennonite businesses.  There's the bicycle shop, a clothing store where they sell collarless men's suits, bonnets, and girls' calico dresses.  We admire the farmhouses, the green fields, the boys and girls on bicycles, and the horse-drawn buggies.  After the long, New York winter, even the pale sun that filters through a clouded sky is welcome.  It warms us so that we throw off our jackets, thankful to leave them in the car as we converge on the nursery. 

My children are like shoots of young life, riotous tendrils of green twisting and climbing away from me.  They want to touch and smell everything.  A few words, some gentle, and some sharp draw them back to me and remind them of their manners.  The nursery is never crowded so I can simply say, "Boys, " in a warning tone and they return to my side, or to that of their father, a bit deflated, but none the worse for wear.  Soon, they are wandering off again in search of tomato plants, ceramic frogs, and gazing balls.  They want to fill the giant cart with plants, and I'd happily obige if I only had the money to do so.  I fuss over the plants doing mental calculations within the budgeted confines of garden wall and bank book.  Even so, we always spend too much.  But such a glorious expense!  I can hardly make myself mind.

Finally, when the car is full of fragrance and flower (and the dark soil is spilling over onto the seats of the car), we go home where we set our cardboard boxes full greens, and pinks, reds, purples, yellows, and orange inside our little fenced in garden.  For the next many days, there is the process of planting, transplanting, and garden-scaping.  The garden gnome who has spent his winter peering at me from under a table in my living room takes his place outside between the strawberry plants where he presides throughout the summer.

I think gnomes might also be plain people.  It seems to me that my gnome is plain despite his red hat.  I'm not sure that "plain" has much to do with color choices or the cut of one's clothes, but more to do with a kind of earthiness.  I think plain is like onions.  There's not much more humble than an onion, but how bold they are as well!  Herbs too are plain folk.  I fill my garden with herbs not because I cook with them or use them in crafts.  I just like the surprise of them.  They are often such unassuming little plants, sometimes close to the ground, and sometimes rangy and wild.  They may not be much to look at, but their fragrance is heaven and they dance on the tongue.  I love my marigolds because they seem so very common and yet it is said that when applied to the eyes, one can see the faeries.  And daisies are plain, though the very image of cheer.  Sunflowers too are plain especially since they, like good Friends, know how to turn their faces to the Light.

Perhaps on May Day when I pilgrimage to the Mennonite community, I am just trying to draw nutrients from the rich soil of their faith.  Especially as my own spiritual wanderings are so often through arid lands, I envy the deep roots of their tradition.  Perhaps I seek to purge myself, if only for a few hours, of the toxic discontent I feel with the modern world and its cheapness, its cynicism, its naked greed, and its long-abiding viciousness.  But I think, maybe, there is more to it than that.  I think I travel to Mennonite country on a Pagan holiday because I'm a little bit of this and that and cannot pretend to be otherwise.  I think somehow, without knowing when the process began, I slipped between worlds and grew roots there like the tenacious little flowers that creep up the stone walls of the old barn foundation in my backyard.  They do not have the luxury of rich soil, but they always seem to say, "The sun is out!  It seems a shame to waste it."  Perhaps on May Day, I am seeking out my own plain, not in the outward forms of bonnet and apron, but in the inward hope and cheer of holding fast to the belief that one does not have to be a floral showpiece to be beautiful.  No verdant paradise is required to transport a soul to heaven.  Just a little dirt, a little rain, and little pluck is all we need.  The sun will do the rest.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Pagan Blog Prompt: Ghosts

I've never seen a ghost.

At least, I've never seen anything spooky or spectral outside of my dreams. I've had plenty of experience with synchronicity and overwhelming feeling related to those who have parted this life. I've also spent my fair share of time in Lily Dale, NY and have visited the site where the Fox Sisters first heard the Rochester rappings that began the modern Spiritualist movement.* At Lily Dale my mother, father, husband, and daughter have all received readings. No one ever seems to select me for that sort of thing. Too bad. I think I'd like that.

I guess I don't think too much on this topic. I do study the history of Spiritualism in the United States and can tell you quite a bit about how Spiritualism is connected to other spiritual and religious movements such as Theosophy, Neo-Paganism, and the New Age, not to mention its long relationship with free thought and secular humanism. I can also tell you about how it was the Quakers who ensured that it would become a serious religious phenomenon rather than a backwoods flash in the pan. I might even tell you in what ways I see connections between Spiritualism and Quaker worship, belief, and experience, and that's all well and good....But I've never heard or seen a ghost.

There were all the times when I used to speak to my great grandparents as a child long after they died. For instance, throughout childhood I chatted to my deceased great-grandmother and worried about whether or not she would be proud of me, and I used to ask my grandfather's father, who died almost 60 years before my birth, to help me with the door. You see, the door to my grandparents' front porch was sticky and I could not turn the knob on my own. Great Grandpa's old-timey picture hung in an old oval frame high up on the wall by that door. There's a kind of sepia sternness in that picture if you don't notice how the eyes smile over his prodigious moustache. I look into those eyes and say, "Grandpa, would you help me with this door?" and the door would open nice as you please. I didn't think there was anything so funny about that. Of course he would help me. I was a great-grandchild!

There have been the many conversations I've had with my Grandpa. He and I often have conversations about caring for the family and responding to folks with generosity. He died 13 years ago. Our conversations have not stopped. Since his death, each time I see a hummingbird, I know he is near. Sometimes I see him in my dreams. He tells me to be gentle. He reminds me to be kind.

Dreams are funny. There are surreal dreams, and flying dreams, and running dreams. There are house and baby dreams and oh-my-god-where-are-my-pants dreams. There are profound religious dreams and dreamy dreams...and there are those dreams in which you know you are dreaming, and you know the person you are talking to is no longer part of the waking, living world. After my father's best friend was killed seven years ago, I began to see him in these dreams. In the waking world, his death continues to be a kind of nightmare for all of us who loved him. It was a sudden and violent death, an insulting and unjust death for a man of such peaceful convictions. It is hard for me not to cry in anger when I think of the unfairness of it. It is hard to see the shadow of sorrow cross my father's face when his best friend's name is mentioned.

My father has looked after his friend's wife and daughters, being present for them in memory of Ken. And in his way, Ken has been present for my father too. In my dreams, I watch my father working and see that Ken is with him, looking at Dad a bit sadly because Dad can't see him anymore and they miss each other so much. What a pair they were! Bad-assed pacifists and liberals the both of them. It is does not seem right, or even real, that they can no longer play ball together or joke and laugh and cuss together, or talk politics or march in protest together. But they are still together. It seems to me that death does not end relationships, it merely changes the rules of conversation. Ken died but did not go away. Not really. He stands with my father, as he did in life. Death cannot unmake brothers.

No, I've never seen a ghost, but there have been plenty of times when my hands have written words, expressions, and entire concepts that I did not understand until after they were written. I have fallen in love, again and again, with persons dead and gone as I, as an historian, have read their words, their stories, their lives. (Historians are necromancers you know. We bring the dead back to life.) As a mother, I have schooled my children in the principles and passions of our ancestors and have taught them to call on their names. I have leaned close to cemetery stones and cried over strangers' graves. Most of my girlhood crushes were on men who died centuries ago. I frequently ask for help from my mother-in-law who died before I met her. My whole body feels the weight of memory whenever I enter a place that has known a fullness of souls and a wealth of time. I am apt to shake or burst into tears when I touch objects that belonged to my much-loved dead. Every day of my life I'm talking to the spirits of the dead, reading their words, listening to their wisdom, crying and laughing with them. They are with me all the time.

But I've never seen a ghost.

*"Rochester rappings" is a misnomer since the whole thing begins in Hydesville on a rural road just outside of Newark, NY.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Privately Pagan

Dear Readers,

I am retiring, at least for now, the term Pagan from the title of my blog as the term, as it is most frequently applied by other Pagans, rarely reflects my beliefs or intentions as a spiritual person.  The word will continue to have meaning for me within my personal spiritual practice and private life. 
My thea/ological perspective has not changed.  My admiration for several other individuals who call themselves Pagan has not changed.  What has changed, and which has been changing for some time, is my naive belief that my confidence in the legitimacy and meaningfulness of my own definitions of Paganism could outweigh the fact that I stand against much of the most popular and pervasive attitudes and convictions shared by the Pagan authors and communities to which I have access.  I am only causing confusion when I continue to use the term.  So I will not.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

To Cure a Broken Heart II

An update to the last post in which I ruminate upon my mitral valve prolapse, tachycardia, and sense of spiritual longing for an unnamed something.

I have been drinking lots and lots of water and doing my Qi Gong.  It feels good to do these things and gives me energy to add small amounts of cardio exercises to the mix.  I am careful with this because I do not wish to raise my heart rate excessively.  I find that exercising for five to ten minutes at a time repeatedly throughout the day is a good pace for me right now.  I haven't checked my pulse recently, at least not with anything other than my fingertips against my skin.  It feels slower to me.  I guess I don't want to be discouraged if a more accurate mechanism tells me that I'm wrong.  I've become more in tune with my body's feelings.  I have learned to breathe more deeply from my abdomen rather than from my chest.  I've learned different ways of slowing my pulse when it races and therefore alleviating the intensity or even stopping anxiety attacks before they take hold. 

Last night I dreamed that I entered a house in a virtual world.  I gasped in surprise and delight as I opened the door.  The first room contained two glorious Christmas trees, round and fat.  They were covered in old-fashioned decorations and around the room were wonderful displays of dried herbs and flowers.  Each subsequent room I entered was likewise filled with colorful, fragrant dried plants.  Herbs and sliced citrus to be used in wreaths and other crafts hung to dry over a large fireplace and were arranged prettily on an old sturdy table.  I felt great admiration for the householder's ability to use the natural world as a medium of artistic creation.  I admired the simplicity of her home and the way that it blended Earth, Spirit, and Art so seamlessly.  I wanted that too.

The woman who owned the house was enviable.  I realized as I moved from room to room that I wanted to be able to live and work the way she does.  She told me that the saving grace of her home was that it had a large skylight on the top floor.  I've been learning about chakras lately and even as I write this, it becomes clear to me that this must relate to my desire to be more open to the Divine Source that has felt so distant from me for so long.  I've been living in my head with all my windows closed.  I've been watchful, ready to defend myself from people I've grown to accept as smarter than I am, people who scoff at my spirituality which my honesty will not let me hide and my intellect will not let me accept.  I've been angry with myself for a long time for failing to be what I believe others want me to be.  But every day I find more and more evidence that I'm not "that kind of academic".  I'm not "that kind of intellectual."  I'm not "that kind of feminist."  I don't think I ever can be no matter how hard I try.  I'm not sure why I continue trying.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Modest Recommendations to facilitate "sticking together"

Yesterday I wrote about my sense that Friends should stick together despite our many theological and practical differences.  I think there is a need for, and I think we have the discipline and will to model a loving community that centers itself not on a set of shared "truths", but on a principle of love.    Sadly, my own community of Friends is greatly troubled and conflicted.  They are making difficult decisions about who they are and how they should proceed.

I'm not sure about the right path, but it is good to spend time thinking about it.  It is good to spend time talking about it with others.  My husband and I both work on Sundays.  We do not get much time to spend talking to Friends about these concerns so I am using this blog as a place to flesh out ideas among other Quakers.  Speaking as a liberal Friend and as an attender at a local, rural meeting with very few members and attenders, I sense a need for Friends to spend more time in the following activities:

1.  Talking to each other.  I'd like us to spend time talking about our theo/alogies, core beliefs, emerging and developing beliefs, and philosophies.  The point of this talk should not be to compete with each other or to create an orthodoxy or a hierarchy of truths.  The point should be to get to know each other at a deeper level.  Our community is not sustainable if we do not know each other at the heart and soul level.

2.  Laughing with each other.  When people share deep thoughts and religious action, it is very easy to get caught up in a kind of morbid seriousness.  Life is far too important to take seriously.  If we are able to laugh at ourselves, we are less likely to take offense.  We are more likely to forgive.  Try hating someone with whom you have just shared a laugh.  You probably can't do it.  Our community needs joy, and we can find it in each other.

3. Cry together.  Like learning to laugh with each other, learning to cry together will strengthen our meeting.  Learning to share our worries, pains, illnesses, and tragedies will be tough.  Many of us are taught that it is unseemly to betray vulnerability.  When asked how we are, we are taught to blurt out the cheerful lie followed by an insincere question.  "I'm fine!  How are you?"  To become the Beloved Community, we actually need to care enough about each other to offer up the truth.  I do not suggest that we use our meeting as a kind of dumping ground for toxic emotion.  Certainly Friends who are also in the caring professions must be careful that they are not exploited for their psychological and counseling skills.  However, we do need to know that when we are not fine, we can say so and know that we are loved.  The world is full of pain, and I think it needs us.  We cannot offer mercy and comfort outside our meetinghouse doors if we cannot find it within.

4.  Eat with each other.  This can be tough with crazy schedules and with diverse diets.  Dish to pass meals are great.  Those of us who have very specific diets can share our favorite dishes with others and ensure that we have enough to eat, but the focus should not be on the food.  Instead, it should be on the communion and fellowship.  Breaking bread (or rice cakes, or corn thins, or gluten-free cupcakes) together reminds us that we are a family.

5.  Learn together.  We can and should continue to explore the history and practice of our faith.  We can learn more about Friends who sit next to us in worship and Friends who worship in distant lands.  Some of us have more experience or have studied more than others.  Those who have spent more time on a given topic may facilitate a conversation.  We can share books, watch videos, and even just "kick ideas around."  I like the idea of "kicking around" ideas.  It helps keep my learning playful and reminds me that while Friends value individuality, they also value corporate discernment.  While Friends engage in individual devotions, we are not solitary practitioners.  We can apply that same strategy to our learning.

6.  Include the children (whatever their ages).  Young people don't tend to stick around Friends' meetings.  When they have wings to fly, they often fly right away.  I think that it must be very difficult to be a child in a Friends' meeting.  I have worked hard to help my children grow into the discipline of a silent worship service.  I am proud of what they have accomplished.  I have also worked to teach them about our Testimonies, and history and to see themselves as a part of the unfolding of a collective Quaker service to the world.  However, I cannot help but notice that children and their parents are not always clearly welcome in the midst of all that stately and profound silence. 

We "young family" types wiggle too much.  We are undisciplined and immature in our bodies.  We make noise and sometimes say or do things that are awkward or inappropriate.  This is how we learn and grow.  I think that grown-up Friends forget about all the bouncing energy and playfulness, the impatience, curiosity, and restlessness that is a child's birthright.  I think they forget about the rebelliousness, hormonal surges, melancholy, and firecracker tempers that go along with adolescence.  And they forget that as we age, and as we go through our own adult losses, romances, disabilities, illnesses, and passions we too may need other Friends to move beyond brittle patience to a more hearty and heartfelt welcome for folks in all stages of life.  Let us learn to embrace the young, the goofy, the headstrong, the depressed, the coughers and snifflers, the forgetful, and the wigglers for they too shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

7.  Lean into the messages.  When I first began attending meeting for worship with Friends, I had read that Friends receive messages from Spirit which they feel compelled to share.  I read that they must discern between the messages of their own egos, and those of "God."  To be honest, I thought this was probably nonsense.  However, I decided that if I was going to give worship with Friends a fair shot, I would "do it properly."  To me that meant that no matter how insightful, clever, profound, or eloquent the message that popped up in my mind, I would keep a sock in it unless I felt certain that the message did not come to me through my own ego.  I therefore thoroughly expected to never utter a single peep.

When I received my first message, it blew my mind.  It was, as I have written before, a thoroughly unpleasant experience, but it was unpleasant in much the same way that giving birth is unpleasant in that it was still very, very good.  The sensation of losing control was almost nauseating.  My hands sweat and trembled.  An idea (and not even an idea to which I felt any particular connection) raced round and round my head.  Words formed as my heart raced, and then I spoke.  That's how it happens with me.  Maybe it happens with you in another, but equally profound way.

I think we should teach newcomers to trust that the messages will come.  They do not need to be forced.  We do not need to be the authors of the messages.  There is another Author who only needs us to be the vehicles, vessels, and voices of those messages.   I think we should remind each other that the speaker is not the source of the message.  The message may reflect the speaker's individuality, flaws, and mannerisms because although the note may be perfect, we are not perfect instruments.  It is also perfectly fine when they come through someone else.  The message and not the messenger is where our focus should rest.

We need to lean into these messages.  We need to pay attention to them, treasure them, and allow ourselves to be excited by them.  Too often I notice friends reacting to a message in much the same way as they would to someone with an unfortunate case of gas.  They act mildly embarrassed and then pretend it did not happen.  If it is poor form to discuss messages after meeting, that's really too bad.  I'll tell you what.  When Spirit sends a message through me or through the person sitting next to me, I'm not just profoundly moved, I'm excited as all get out.  I!  That's a pretty amazing thing, isn't it?

8.  Be like a family.  It is important to honor the ancestors.  It is even more important to feed the babies.   Our future grows out of our history, but it has to grow.  We have to change.  I notice that some Friends hold up the first generation of Quakers as a kind of generation of saints.  Perhaps they were.  But so too were the Quietists and the Conservatives, and the Liberals, and the Evangelicals, the Beanites, the Gurneyites, the Hicksites, the and the Congregational Friends.  Revelation did not end with George Fox.  Each generation had something to learn and something to teach. 

There is nothing we can do about the tensions and the schisms that rocked the Quaker world in the days of our ancestors.  It is sad to think about their communities blown apart by dissent and anger.  But perhaps we can learn to focus on the energy and light that was generated as a result of those explosions.  We can do more than just learn from their mistakes to become less cantankerous and contentious Friends today.  Their conflicts, tensions, and reconciliations shed light on our path, and remind us that we are a growing and evolving people, and that as flawed as we are, we are the recipients of continuing revelation.

Let us continue to work with faith toward Peace in this new year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Dream of Confused Quakers: A Star Trek miracle

Free association.  Writing very quickly off the cuff.

  I'm a Trekkie and I've passed that along to my children.  Right now, in vacation-mode, we are watching a Star Trek marathon.   Several Star Trek episodes seem to focus on one or more of the Enterprise crew losing their memory and/or sense of mission.  It is a good theme.  Effective and entertaining.  Lots of us feel a sense of loss of identity and mission.  We're happily tooling around the Universe when out of the blue, we're swept by a beam and our memories, personalities, and ambitions become nebulous at best. 

So whilst watching an episode in which Data, Troi, and O'Brien are behaving quite badly because they can't remember who they really are  (Damned alien body invasion again), I was suddenly reminded of a dream I just had.  The details are fuzzy, but it was about a small group of Quakers who couldn't remember just who they were or what they were doing.  I was watching them and thinking about their condition although I could not speak to it.  They were bewildered, but clearly well-intentioned.  They only knew one thing and that was that they were Friends.  They weren't quite sure what that meant, but it was a beginning.

Perhaps, I thought, even if they aren't sure what being a Friend means, if they just cling to each other, they'll remember.  That's what happens on the Enterprise.  They forget who they are and they forget what their mission is, but they stick together.  Eventually, one or more of them remembers something about the Prime Directive and they are able to convince the others.  At base, no matter how evil the alien or insidious the beam, or distressing the plot line, the crew always find in themselves the ethical core of the Prime Directive. 

We live in a distracting world full of noises and blinking lights.  Sailing about in our spaceship, it is easy to be ovewhelmed by all the unexplored territory.  Going boldly where no one has gone before has its dangers.  Friends are no longer wholly Abrahamic, monotheistic, or even basically theistic.  We have invited Vulcans, Betazoids, Klingons and even androids to share our ship, to take the helm, and to be our crewmates.  They come to us with different cultural values, different histories, and different assumptions.  But if they believe in the Prime Directive and are willing to not only abide by it, but allow it to become their guide when the dangers of space invade their minds, wipe away all their sensor logs, and interrupt all their data streams, then you know that at the end of the story, the crew will get back together.  They will reaffirm themselves as the people of the Enterprise, the people who believe in the Prime Directive.  Their ethics, their morality, their actions, while disrupted and confused at first, will begin to align with that Directive.  Sacrfices will be made.  There will be close calls, but in the end, they'll stick together and they'll remember who they are.

And who are they?  And who are we?  We are a diverse people bound together by a Prime Directive.  We may be confused about our mission, about our identity, and about our approach.  Worf and Troi almost never agree.  Spock, Kirk, and Bones are conflicted about the nature and direction of humanity, yet somehow, it is difficult to imagine an Enterprise made up only of "by the book" Star Fleet types.  It seems that the Prime Directive is not best served by literalism or legalism.  It is always bad news when the Star Fleet brass come on board and begin messing with the crew's process.  You have to live in space to understand it.  No desk jockey understands the Prime Directive in the nuanced, compassionate, and even maverick way that our fine crew understands it.  And no Star Fleet engineer stuck on base knows just how much the ship can take.  The Star Fleet engineers always warn their captains that "she'll fly apart", but they also manage to hold her together, usually by breaking all the rules in the manual.  It is their creative tension that keeps her steady.  Be cautious, be quick, and push it to the limits. We'll never truly know what she's got until we're willing to push past warp 9.  Technical knowledge is great, but the Enterprise requires experience.

I've been witnessing a great deal of handwringing about the identity and future of the Religious Society of Friends.  Lots of it seems to have to do with resentment against aliens in our midst who do not share our Earth values.  They remind me of Bones grousing about that damned green-blooded Vulcan.  What are we to do with this diversity?  There are Vulcans who insist on cool,analytical approaches and who have peculiar, otherworldly philosophies.  There are Betazoids who want to infuse everything with an emotionalism that often makes us uncomfortable.  There are androids who seem (although we are never really sure) to not possess any emotions at all.  In addition to that we have former members of the Klingon and Romulan Empires.  And the Borg too!   They aren't Terrans.  That's for sure.  Their existence challenges our assumptions that the best worldview comes from our particular world.  But they are all Starfleet.  They are all believers in the Prime Directive and each, regardless of individuality of personality and culture, has wed him or herself to Star Fleet's mission of exploration, of seeking out new life.  More importantly, they've bound themselves to the principles of the Prime Directive.  For some it is a passion.  For some it is a mission. For others it is a God.  For some it is "merely logical."  They all have a role to play and each of them will save the ship and its crew at least once in at least one episode.  I suspect the same is true of Friends.  Let's be careful who we beam off the ship.  They might be the very soul who saves the day in the next episode.

Let's not begin a process of defining ourselves by exclusion.  Let us have faith instead that whatever spiritual dialect we speak and whatever our religious species, we are drawn to Friends because we share a profound core belief, and we can be trusted to embody the wisdom of that belief.  It is our Prime Directive, interpreted a bit haphazardly by some captains and quite strictly by others, but ever-present in our minds and hearts.  It provides us with an unassailable core on which we have built our community.  We have called in our Inward Light, our Guide, our God, our Christ, our Spirit.  We have calmly acknowledged its presence and called it nothing at all.  We have sought it in Silence and activism.  We have interpreted it through our holy books, our dreams, our histories, our meditation, our scholarship, and our conversations.  Our Enterprise has been our Testimonies, and it has been a good ship, although often under heavy fire and in need of extensive repair.  It carries us where we need to go to search out new life and new civilization.  It is the vehicle of our mission, our hope, and our principles.  It is the medium of our ability to find life in the cold emptiness of space.  But even it is not the center of who we are.  Even if it is destroyed, the crew will survive so long as we stick together.  No evil plan has yet been devised that could permanently rob the crew of its devotion to each other and to the Prime Directive.  It is unthinkable.  I don't think the Writers would have it. 

Live long and prosper, Friends.  Qapla!

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 ...