Monday, June 30, 2008


Most of my life, I have heard dire warnings of population explosion. I remember TV ads growing up warning that the world population would soon be over 4 billion. And in my lifetime, the population has exploded, both locally and worldwide.

However, most European countries are not producing sufficient children to reproduce themselves and a few, such as Italy and Spain, and parts of eastern Germany, are experiencing an especially steep decline.

According to a recent New York Times article, women in Europe want more babies than they're having. Not surprisingly, in the countries that provide the most robust supports for young parents, such as Norway with 54 weeks paid maternity leave, the birth rate is highest. In the U.S., the birth rate is higher than in Europe despite almost no maternal benefits, in part, the Times article theorizes, because our job market is more flexible than in Europe, allowing women to drop in and out with fewer penalties

I wonder if we are wrong in thinking overpopulation is the problem. Perhaps we're on the brink of a sharp drop in population.

Reproductive control is spreading to developing countries such as India and places in Latin America, where the birth rate has dropped off markedly, according to the Times. China, of course, has been aggressively pursuing population control for decades.

There are other factors. For example, AIDS is devastating Africa. Some, like the late Dr. John Lee, argue(d) forcefully that environmental damage is leading to chromosome damage that will cause fertility to plummet. Another issue is the amount of estrogen poured into the ecosystem in the form of fertilizers and growth hormones. High estrogen is connected with low sperm counts.

So for all our fears of overpopulation, we may be on the brink of the opposite problem. Add to that the possibility of a famine, especially as we don't practice biodiversity in large-scale agriculture, and the possibility of a disease epidemic and the earth population could be rapidly reduced.

Some population reduction might be a good thing, but the same geometric progressions that lead to massive population gains also work in the opposite direction. Zero population growth is very different from zero population, which is what shrinking populations head toward.

Do I think the human race will die out? No. Do I think we have to worry unduly about overpopulation? No.

But what are the implications for social policy if we start heading toward deep population decline?

The issues that have been dear to the conservative Christian agenda (I am not a conservative so I am simply stating these issues, not advocating for them) for the past 30-40 years (coincidentally the same period that we became worried about population explosion)-- banning abortion, stopping gay rights, supporting traditional families with tax breaks -- are all issues that the public as a whole has not embraced.

If our framing story is overpopulation, the dismissal of these initiatives makes sense. If the big problem facing our society is the horror of too many people, then abortion provides a service, the inefficiency of gay reproduction is a boon, and making it easier to raise families should be discouraged so that people will have fewer children. Redefining community and interpersonal relations away from child bearing/childrearing, and towards personal fulfillment becomes important as a way of encouraging low population growth.

But if childbearing takes on more urgent importance, is the conservative Christian agenda, unamended, what we want to embrace? Much of it seems to me a throwback to the bad old days of female (not to mention gay) oppression. Is there another way? And how to build it?

Peace testimony from a Christian

Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog has been running a lively thread on violence called "I know it's the law, but it just doesn't sit right with me," that begins with Scot's thoughts about the Supreme Court knocking down the hand gun ban in D.C. The discussion shaped up with the "realists," those who believe we must have the means (ie guns) to defend ourselves opposing those who believe we need to follow Jesus' radical stance of nonviolence.

Here is what one writer, Scott M, has to say:

I’m simply not willing to concede that reality is not as Jesus of Nazareth described it and that his way of being human is not for us right here and right now. As soon as you take his way and say it is not “realistic” for our present experience or that it is an “ideal” for some future reality, that’s exactly what you’ve done. And when Christians have been notable (at least in a positive way) in history, it’s because they have not just cared for their own. (Caring for those like you is and has always been the human norm.) Rather, they have cared for everyone. They have said every human being is a sacred Eikon of the holy God and must be loved as such.

We almost always react in the pressure of the moment in the way in which we have shaped ourselves (or been shaped) to react. If we are ready to respond with violence, typically the human default position, then that is how we will respond. Only when we have spent the time indirectly shaping ourselves to respond differently through spiritual discipline, communion with God, and the willful intent to be a different person do we have any hope that in the heat of the moment we will respond differently. By the grace and energies of God through the power of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, human beings are able to become more human. We do not have to be filled with violence. That does not have to be our default position.

I believe that because I have studied the history of the Church and read the lives of the saints. It’s not an ideal. Normal, everyday people have been so radically altered that their responses almost appear unreal to us. And the impact they have made is amazing. I would rather believe in the reality they saw than the one proposed by the “realists” who say that violence is necessary and evil can only be resisted through evil means. Even if I’m never able to see the world as they saw it and as Jesus described it, I find I would rather believe that’s because I cannot break the chains of delusion which bind me than believe that reality does not exist — that the nature of the world since Jesus broke the power of death has fundamentally remained unchanged.

And so, yes, I believe that if reality is as Jesus described it and as the saints saw it, then there is always a way to respond, a way to stand for the innocent and against evil that will not require us to kill. It may be that the way becomes for us the way of the Cross all the way to death as it has for many for two thousand years. Nevertheless, if the cosmos did not radically change when Jesus came out of the tomb and death was defeated, if all power in heaven and earth has not been given to him, if the rule of the Kingdom is not the rule today for the people of God, why follow Jesus?

What do you think?

Friday, June 27, 2008


We saw the movie Wall-e. It's about a robot named Wall-e who's left behind on a trashed earth to clean things up. He falls in love with a robot probe who has come to see if there are any signs of life on earth so that humans who've gone on perpetual space holiday while the planet is cleaned can come home.

I will review the movie (probably) on "Roger and Diane on the movies," but in the meantime, I have to say the trash-piled earth depicted in the film made me cringe as we sort through our house before we move.

We had two metal file cabinets in good condition that we a. could not sell at our yard sale, b. could not get the Salvation Army to accept as a donation (they don't take office furnishings, they told me) and c. could not get the dump to accept for their free pick-up spot. The dump told Roger the file cabinets were not worth trying to give away. So we trashed them. And I think of the great piles of garbage in Wall-e ...

Somehow, this trashing seemed wrong to me. Did we not try hard enough to find a home for two perfectly good file cabinets? Should we have asked around more? How much time can one spend trying to find a place for every object one can't use? Did we really have to fill a landfill with perfectly good things? It bugs me that somewhere out there we could have met a need with those file cabinets. Aren't we meant to be good stewards of the planet's resources?

But we have so much stuff. We simply don't have time to try to place every piece in the right hands. I'm having a new gratitude for Goodwill and other charities that will actually accept many of our goods and try to get them to people who can use them.

And I still have trouble letting go of things, like my children's toys and books, because they are connected with memories. So I am struggling with attachment. I am afraid if I give up the things that trigger the memories, I will lose the memories too. This is not an idle fancy, as sorting through things has brought back all sorts of forgotten episodes.

Haste is again the culprit in all of this. We buy too much because we don't take the time to buy only what we need and we let it accumulate because we don't take the time to give it away.

I hope we don't end up in a Wall-e world that is totally obliterated by great mounds of trash, though I fear we're headed in that direction. Roger told me today that scientists have determined that the alkaline soil on Mars would be good for growing asparagus. I hope we don't see Mars, now that we've found it has water and arable soil, as a new place to despoil.

Is this a spiritual issue? I don't think clutter (within limits) is necessarily a sign of malaise or that a spotless home is a sign of spiritual health, but I believe the unease about so many goods going to waste points to a spiritual problem in our culture

Thursday, June 26, 2008


The Washington Post ran a story today saying that the Baltimore Sun will cut another 100 jobs. Cuts on top of cuts. I was reminded of an op-ed piece that appeared in the Post recently about the Los Angeles Times: that newspaper too has been ordered to enact another series of draconian staff cuts. This is after one editor left a few years ago protesting the last round of crippling cuts.

Interestingly, according to the op/ed piece, the L.A. Times is scrutinizing reporters on the basis of their productivity. Those who have churned out the most stories will (probably) survive.

As a person who worked for seven years as a newsroom reporter (as distinguished from a freelancer) I can say for a fact that journalism suffers when the whole focus is on churning out as many stories as possible as if they were assembly-line widgets. In fact, not surprisingly, that's what they become: boring and predictable. Ultimately, they become phony stories. Not surprisingly, people stop reading the newspaper.

It should go without saying that the only way, usually, to get the real story, the more difficult and nuanced and harder-to-write story beneath the superficial story that's so simple to churn out, is to allow journalists to dig, ask questions, visit places, take some time to think. But it seems as if, even at the major papers, that time is being yanked away.

As many people have pointed out, weak newspapers are bad for democracy. Investigative reporting is the hardest and most time-consuming for journalists to do, but without it, many abuses by business and government will go on and get worse. Communities are better when newspapers can uncover the unsavory, but now can't expect to have papers with the resources to search out the problems. It will be much easier now for people with power to hoodwink harried reporters.

As we know, newspapers revenues are falling because people turn to the Internet instead of the papers. But newspapers themselves contribute to the problem by adding little value beyond what people can get scanning the Internet.

What is the answer? Obviously, government support of papers would create a conflict of interest. And apparently most of the big papers are going to radically compromise their quality. I imagine the answer will be in the Internet and in the smaller, more independent papers that won't be concerned with high profits.

I hope that in the process of making this transition, journalistic values are not too terribly compromised. One of the things I liked most about journalism were the strict rules that were meant to keep the profession honest and everyone on the same page.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

June Bible Study

The parallel-text Bible study met on Sunday, and included Jean, who hosted, Bill, Ken, Roger, Lisa and me. Jean made sweet potato biscuits and iced tea, and Lisa brought M&M cookies. We don't meet to eat, but it's a pleasant surprise when homemade food appears, if not good for my diet!

We discussed a long passage (nine pages) of Jesus' prophecies for the future.

As is familiar, Jesus foretells a present age filled with wars and famines, earthquakes and floods, and a time of desolation and abomination. We're warned against false prophets and advised, implicitly, to listen to our own inner guides. We're promised that after a period of tribulation, if we can just hang on faithfully, relief will come and new earth will dawn.

Interestingly, in a passage that follows Jesus talks about separating those who fed the poor, clothed the naked, visited the prisoner, etc. from those who did not, but he speaks in terms of nations that have acted with compassion being separated from nations who have not. This is not about individual salvation but about salvation through community. It pulls the focus from us an individuals and puts it on the larger body of Christ. Do you agree with this reading?

More Miscellany

We had perfect weather and a good time tubing the Brandywine as part of the Quaker First Day school camping trip this past weekend. Tubing down the slow-moving Brandywine is a peaceful activity. Dragonflies would rest on us as we floated.

This will be a last vacation, I believe, before we move. It's hard to relax when a great crush of work and transition looms overhead. We almost certainly won't get to Chincoteague this year, which will seem odd.

Today at Quaker meeting, we heard the prayer of St. Francis and I had a sense of how the light has extended 2,000 years, through people like Francis, George Fox and John Woolman, to embrace us in the present day.

Bethanne brought a vegan lunch to meeting. She and Jean, who both also had/have Lyme disease, suggested I find a "Lyme literate" doctor. She and Jean also suggested I take a probiotic to counter the antibiotic, mostly to avoid yeast infections, so I stopped at David's Natural Food Market and bought some. Sophie can use it too, as she is on an antibiotic.

We met with a knowledgeable person last night who suggested we treat our house as an "executive rental" because it is too well-kept for a run-of-the-mill rental. As often is the case in the real estate industry, I think a word like "executive" becomes exaggerated, but our advisor's worries that our house would get "torn up" by "average" renters made me worried and restless last night. I am hoping and praying that we can find the best and not the worst of humanity to live in our house and am sad that there seems to be a destructive strata of people to be defended against.


At our Quaker meeting two Sundays ago, a Friend gave a message that has stuck with me.

She was hired to bake a chocolate vegan cake for an event. Her first cake failed. She tried again, this time baking three round layers instead of a sheet cake. The three layers all collapsed in the middle.

At this point, she had no time left. She had to deliver the cakes in half an hour. So she and her husband, who had popped in, worked to salvage the imperfect cakes. They trimmed away the overcooked edges of the sheet cake and cut it into into four pieces, which they frosted. Then they filled the fallen insides of the round cakes: one with strawberries, one with vegan chocolate chips and coconut, and the other with another fruit, I believe, and frosted them. They ended up with cakes that were fine.

In thinking about this, she realized that we're always working with imperfection ... and that's OK. We can make good things out of imperfect beginnings and build good worlds with imperfect people. Life doesn't have to be perfect to be good.

As this story has played over and over in my mind, a "parable of the cakes," I remember that when the God made the world, he didn't declare it perfect. He called it good.

Then he rested.

And when God speaks from heaven and calls Jesus his son, he says he is "well pleased" with him. This is high praise, but not of the most effusive sort.

What all of this says to me is that good is good enough. What do you think?

Obama again

As I read his book, Dreams from my Father, I'm struck by how powerfully Barack Obama brings back the shape, the smell, the look and the feel of certain moments in time. He reminds me of what it was like to be a child in the 1960s and a college student in the late 1970s or early 1980s. To be formed in the post- New Deal, post-1960s, pre-Reagan world. He brings back the feel of those days, when people had serious discussions about socialism and feminism, and government was not considered a curse. When above all things, we didn't want to become bourgeois.

Forgotten emotions stir in me as I read Obama. I wonder if Caroline Kennedy, a great Obama supporer, doesn't feel the same stirrings. We all are of an age, a mini-generation. If Obama takes as his starting point idealized images of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, and Caroline Kennedy starts from her idealized images of her father's presidency as a return to Camelot, wouldn't that make them likely partners?

As has been often said, Obama resonates with young people. That's clear to me, living with teens who find him "cool" and from talking to the streams of 17- and 18-years when I worked in the primary elections as an election judge.

But I wonder now if Obama doesn't have a special resonance, either for good or for ill, for people who are of his same mini-generation as him, those of us born between about 1957 and 1963, people too young to participate in the 1960s, to have friends in Viet Nam or go to Woodstock, people who spent all of the 60s as children but are old enough to remember those times.

On the other hand, my proximity in age to Obama has, I think, made me unimpressed with him.

Obama is now being taken apart for his "ambition" and "opportunism," just as Clinton was. Can we get over this? To run for President is, by definition, to be ambitious and opportunistic.

It would be nice if Obama could prove to be another Lincoln, but I don't hold my breath. I also worry that his race will derail him. I hope this will not happen but I'm white and I know how white people think. White people are good at getting nervous about race and then convincing themselves they're nervous for some other, more socially acceptable, reason. For instance, anxiety about sending one's children to school with minority children translates into concern about "test scores." This then leads to flight to white areas, which might look racist, but which white people would deny had anything to do with race. I wonder if a white nervousness about the Obama's blackness (even though he's biracial) will build up and translate into some widespread anxiety about some other issue that is acceptable. Again, I hope this doesn't happen, and I hope that the younger generations are less uptight about race than their parents and grandparents!

Who are you supporting for President? What do you think of Obama?

Friday, June 20, 2008

On poverty

When we visited my in-laws on Father’s Day, we told them we planned to rent our house.

Be careful, my mother-in-law said. Her parents had rented their home in North Carolina while the family moved for a time to southern Virginia in the 1930s. The man they entrusted to collect the rent and pay the mortgage kept the money. Before her parents realized what had happened, the bank had foreclosed on their house.

People were desperate for money in the Depression, my mother-in-law said.

The rent for the house would have been paid in cash and probably hand-carried to the bank. For a poor person, the temptation to pocket the cash would have been huge.

Years ago, my father and I were watching a Depression-era movie, perhaps Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. I asked why the movie was making such a big deal out of someone writing a check. A check would have communicated his wealth to the audience, my father said, because people didn’t have checking accounts back then.

No checking accounts? I asked, puzzled. Why not?

Because people in the Depression were so desperate for money that the banks knew they would have just written bad checks, he said.

Both my father, who would be 84 were he still alive, and my mother-in-law, who is 87, talked about desperation for money offhandedly. They mentioned it as a fact about the Depression so ingrained, so given, that it was weird even to have to put it into words.

That kind of desperation is something I --and I imagine many of my peers -- can’t really comprehend. While we’re all aware that there are people in this country living in miserable conditions, such as the homeless or those old women you read about sometimes with roaches crawling all over them, we see these as fringe instances, due to mental illness, addiction, old age, failures in social service safety nets, etc. We know people are desperate in other countries, but that's removed from us. For most of us in this country who are relatively “normal,” whatever that means, and relatively healthy, the idea of actually having no means of getting money is not quite comprehensible. We “get it” in our heads, but not in the way of the elderly women who use 40-watt bulbs and save pencil stubs because of their real knowledge that the money can run out.

We always (or I always) think: well, should some Job-like calamity hit, I can get a higher-paying job, a second job, we can run up our credit cards, declare bankruptcy, sell our house, retrench, work hard and live small for a few years ... But the idea of money, jobs and credit as not available doesn’t compute. Not really.

In Barak Obama’s Memories of my Father, he writes of living from about age 6 to 10 in Indonesia. His mother married an Indonesian man who was called back there a few years after the unrest in 1965.

1960s Indonesia was a tough place, according to Obama’s book, with no constitutional protection for people, and a great deal of illness and poverty. Obama writes of a begging woman with a nose eaten by disease coming to the door and of so many beggars that it was impossible not to harden to them. Obama went for a few years to the Indonesian schools, both because his mother wanted him to be part of the real culture of the country and because the family couldn’t afford tuition at the American school.

But after awhile, saving her son from hardening, from becoming a creature of a brutal culture, trumped solidarity with the masses. She sent Barack back to Hawaii to attend a prep school. She wanted to save him.

As I read Obama’s description of the poor people, many hungry and ill, clawing and scraping for a little bit of survival, I thought of first century Israel. Jesus probably stepped in to a similar world, similarly hardened. He must have been a revelation indeed. Stunning.

Many people I know, myself included, recoil from the brutality in the Bible. But this is the world as many people know it. I ponder this, but only understand that there are things I'm blind to because they're outside my direct experience.

I come to end of this, not sure why all this is on my mind, but there it is.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Airplanes and Simplicity

I read yet another editorial in the Washington Post yesterday bemoaning the increasingly horrible state of air travel. Because of the skyrocketing cost of fuel, some airlines are now charging people to check not only their second, but their first bag ($15) and charging for bottled water and peanuts. Routes are being canceled and delays are still common.

I read all this with a certain blithe serenity. Why is the writer so worked up, I wondered? Then I realized I can be so serene because I haven't been on a plane in 15 months and am not planning to be on one in the near future. It occurred to me that one way to avoid the stress and hassle of flying is not to fly.

Ah, but of course, some have to fly. This is true, but I wonder even how much of that necessary air travel is truly necessary. Can the business of business trips sometimes be handled another way? I have often wondered over the past few years: do we need all these conferences?

I remember, growing up, when air travel was quite the glamorous thing, synonymous with luxury and having "made" it. While air travel, for the masses anyway who have to use commercial airlines, is anything but pampered, I think it still holds some of that mystique. There is something exciting about going somewhere by plane, from arriving at the airport to lift off to soaring over the clouds.

If it becomes a rarer --and perhaps more expensive and less harried--perhaps that will be a good thing?

Like the $7 a gallon gas we're threatened with in a few years, more expensive and less frequent air travel could slow us down and cause us to savor what we have. I'm always struck when people come back from, say, DisneyWorld or a year in a town in a European country, delighted and raving about not needing a car -- and complaining about how wearying it is to have to do everything here by car. Inventing lives where we're don't need cars on a daily basis because they're simply not affordable could be extremely liberating. Avoiding the false glamor of ceaseless air travel could take some of the stress from our plates. We can put monorails and walking paths in our towns and suburbs. Stay home and savor our fewer plane trips more. Have our heads clear as we live in less of a rush and blur. No wonder the Saudis are worried.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On quietude

From a post, On Quaker Monasticism and emergent and convergent friends ( a link to this story is on a list on the right side of this blog.) The writer is ruminating during her vacation to Mexico:

To be here in a foreign land without a sense of mission, without work to do, is dangerous idleness. In the future, I hope to be more conscientious about bringing all of my plans before God and listening very carefully before I commit, rather than assuming that I know the answer already. Just because a plan seems good and logical to me does not mean that that is how God wants to use me.

Yesterday's Jesus Creed blog, in contrast, discussed a book that argues for slowing our pace. (I would look up the reference but I've been having such trouble accessing this blog page that I'm afraid to leave it.) The slowing-down thread comes up from time to time on Jesus Creed and resonates with my own intuition/illumination that God's pace is much more deliberative and gentle than our culture's breakneck speediness. A slower life allows for the "weaker" to keep up, be cared for and thrive.

I think a tension runs in us between understanding the worth of that slower pace (most of us realize that there's some incalculable gift, for example, in being able to sit down for a made-from-scratch meal and enjoy it slowly with friends and family that isn't inherent in the much more efficient fast-food drive-through scenario) and the fear of sliding into laziness, idleness and sloth. Many of us fear squandering our time and gifts because life is finite and precious and we're told to multiply our talents.

Finding the balance is hard. The writer above hits the key note in her last sentence: that what's important is following where God leads us. Frantic busy-ness can be as futile, and hence, ultimately as damaging as sloth, if what we're doing is not what we're called to do.

I am reading Barak Obama's first book, I believe called Memories of my Father. It's a good book, well written and insightful. One part resonated with me vis-a-vis the topic of busy-ness. He writes of moving back to Hawaii from Indonesia to live with his grandparents and attend a Hawaiian prep school.

In the years since he has left them, he writes, his grandparents have in subtle ways given up on life. His grandfather (and his grandparents are probably in their early fifties) keeps up with a job selling insurance that he really doesn't like and isn't suited to and his grandmother goes to work every day at the bank, when she'd rather be a housewife, baking and volunteering at the library. His grandparents are dissatisfied, bickering. They've abandoned their dreams and accepted the status quo: a nice-enough apartment, enough money, security, predictability and safety. But the young Barak senses and is disturbed by their underlying misery. I think Thoreau would see them as living lives of quiet desperation.

The few sentences in which Obama conveys this information brought back my own parents and how they too, at a certain point, just gave up. There was a great deal of activity and hope when my younger brothers and sisters were preschoolers, and a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm as my mother pursued her dream of getting a college degree. There was some excitement or hope as my parents purchased a bigger house in Howard County, and perhaps some excitement for about a year when my mother started with a government job.

But at some point, my parents gave up, went to work every day, came home bored, and plopped in front of the television set, day after day, night after night. To this day, I have an aversion to television. It made me sad to see talented people give up on real life, awakened life, and this has driven me to strive for a different and less empty sort of life. I think this has helped me to embrace Olney: it will be harder, but it offers meaning.

I want to say that I think people can spend all day at work, if their jobs are where God means them to be, either to earn money or to serve him more directly, then come home and watch television and have lives filled with joy and meaning. What bothered me was not the outward circumstance of my parents; pattern of living as much as their overall evident dissatisfaction. I felt bad for them. I knew they were children of immigrants and in my mother's case, an immigrant herself, and that they were children of the Depression. Money and secure incomes were very, very important and they'd watched their own parents sacrifice for them. Both my grandmothers were cleaning ladies, as were many of the old aunts and female cousins, and they did these low-status jobs so their sons and nephews and grandsons could go to college and have a better life (and marry the daughters in the community, giving them a better life). But my parents sacrificed everything --their very selves -- for money. I knew that, according to their lights, they were doing what they felt they were supposed to be doing, and that if it didn't bring them happiness, they didn't know what else to do. So they gave up. Bought lottery tickets. Dreamed vaguely of --what else? -- having the money not to work.

So can we say that idleness, laziness and sloth might be defined as not doing that which God calls us to do? That, ironically, that idleness can masquerade as busy-ness and hard work, when in fact, that work is keeping us from the harder, albeit probably slower, work that God is calling us to do?

Anyway, I struggle with the urge to busy-ness versus the deeper voice that usually says slower is better. And I don't want to sound harsh towards people who are doing the best they can. In some ways, people who sacrifice their very selves for duty need to be honored and not criticized. None of this is easy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


We held our first yard sale ever on Saturday and netted about $100. The sale gave us a deadline for us cleaning out our basement and the opportunity to meet and chat with people.

My story about a home in Columbia appeared in the Dream House section of the Baltimore Sun on Friday. I have two stories appearing in publications on Saturday: a story about the Holiday Hills neighborhood in the Washington Post real estate section, and a story on the Seton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore. The Seton Hill story will appear in a new publication called Rise Up that is being bundled with the Washington Post and other newspapers, much as Parade magazine is. I was able to see a preview of the first issue, and it looked very good.

I'm currently working on another neighborhood story for the Post and also a story on summertime family activities for Maryland Living Magazine.

And attending to the move, so life is busy. I feel pulled in two directions: I'm trying to get as much freelance work as I can done before I leave, while I still have outlets I can sell into, and yet at the same time, the move is keeping me ever busier. Any hints on juggling?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Convergences: On Barnesville

We visited my in-laws on Father's Day. Much of the conversation was about the move to Barnesville and that caused me to think about what has led to this change.

We tend to look for a simple script, but layers of converging circumstances have brought us to the brink of Barnesville.

Certainly, major changes coming to Roger's contract, as well as his office's move from Silver Spring to Rosslyn, motivated him to look for a new job. However, he'd contacted Olney about a job last summer, before all the changes were even imagined. On the other hand, the longer commute and other issues make leaving the current job easier.

Olney Friends School having a house on campus available for us as well as the opportunity to take meals in the dining hall was crucial to the decision: We wanted a complete lifestyle change, not another commute from home to work and all the rush, rush we currently experience.

The proximity of Stillwater Friends was attractive. We can walk to meeting.

The boys turning 14 this year was crucial: if we didn't have children who could benefit from a Quaker education, the job would have been less compelling. Sophie possibly doing a year at the school is also attractive.

My (re)entree into freelance writing has made the move much less complicated as I don't have to leave a job.

All of these factors were like pebbles in the bowl of a spoon: one by itself would not have tipped us, but one after the other after the other-- job changes on this end, the meaningful work opportunity, the kids' education, the chance for a new lifestyle, my work flexibility-- all finally spilled the whole pile into Barnesville.

More subtly, 12 years of (in my case, Christ-centered) Quakerism worked a transformation that made it possible and desirable to make this kind of move. The possible is more important than the desirable, because it's the (just bare) psychological/spiritual ability to actually do what is desirable that makes all the difference. When the opportunity/leading came, we were (if just barely) ready. Despite the problems facing liberal Quakerism, the movement of the holy spirit remains alive in Quaker meetings (whether it's recognized or not or on life-support or not) and the emphasis on simple living, integrity and expectant, silent worship (not to exalt any of this at all) works on one. All of this underscores the importance of community, the "where two or more are gathered."

Have you had an experience in which layers of things converged to make the improbable possible?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lyme Disease

I visited the doctor about two weeks ago complaining of fatigue or what I called a "deep weariness". The doctor ordered many blood tests (three vials of blood came out of my arm by the time I was through). Yesterday, I went back for a follow-up and found I'd tested positive for Lyme disease. Now I am taking an antibiotic (dyoxycycline?) that should knock the disease out in 21 days. I hope this is the case.

I have been suffering from "deep weariness" for at least a few months (initially I thought I would 'shake it off') and possibly since last summer. I left my job in part because I felt "too tired" to go on, though I attributed most of that to burn-out. I possibly contracted this illness early last summer. I doubt I was coming into contact with tics this winter.

Anyway, it's all a bit mysterious. I haven't had joint pain, another common symptom of Lyme, but the combination of the fatigue and the blood test have led to the diagnosis.

Of course, now that I have the diagnosis, I feel that my joints are aching! Such is the power of suggestion!

I also have a low white cell count, possibly because of fighting this infection, though I thought fighting infections raised one's white cell count. Anyway, the doctor's office did another test for that. The doctor didn't seem especially alarmed, so I imagine the white cells can't be too far off the norm. I was too tired at the time to inquire! However, a woman I knew from a church group some years ago was immediately hospitalized over her low white cell count, so I am obviously not near a danger area.

I don't want to be going on and on about my ailments! However, any insights people have into Lyme disease would be welcome.

Otherwise, I appear to be in good health, and compared to other possible problems, Lyme disease is just a blip on the radar. I've also gotten fairly adept at managing the weariness, which I imagine is a good skill to have. All the same, I look forward to the small bursts of energy and alertness I have during the day expanding back to fill most of a day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Quakerism and Christianity

A responder to yesterday's blog remembered encountering Quakers who seemed ashamed of Quakerism's Christian roots. I've seen this reaction to Christianity too and a related desire to remake early Quakers into universalists, even though they were unequivocally Christ-centered people.

Elite scorn for Christianity goes back to the time of Paul. When he said he was a fool for Christ, he signaled, in part, that he knew he looked like an idiot for his beliefs. A well-educated Roman citizen, he realized how naive and country-bumpkinish his faith appeared to his sophisticated peers. He was the white plastic shoe televangelist with the really bad tie and embarrassing pronouncements. But he clung heart and soul to his belief not only in a Christ who came back from the dead, but in the power of love to conquer violence and fear. To those ruling at the height of the Roman empire Paul must have seemed simpleminded. Physical domination and terror were seemingly working beautifully. Love, mercy, peace and kindness would have looked like sheer weakness and sentimentality. For Paul to insist as well that the founder of his movement rose from the dead would be equally laughable.

Most modern-day Quakers believe in love, mercy, peace and kindness, all of which are foundational to Christianity and all of which have subsequently been demonstrated to be powerful in changing the course of world events.

Often, those modern-day Quakers who reject Christianity seem to equate all of it with its worst stereotypes. It's similar to people who are convinced that all blacks or Jews or Muslims fit the worst stereotypes of those groups. In any of these cases, if you do believe members of a certain group are all defined by the worst of the worst, such as that all Muslims are terrorists, of course you will want to distance your group from them.

I believe, however, it would have been the wrong reaction after 9/11 for all non-fundamentalist Muslims to flee the faith, insist they were not Muslims and declare that their mosques had nothing to do with Islam. Moderate Muslims have instead opted to model the peace and reason inherent in their faith to provide a counterweight to the extremist image.

Christianity will always be in the Quaker DNA, permeating every aspect of it. It's important to note that early Quakers' embrace of love, peace and mercy came out of a study of the Bible, not from rationalism, the yet-to-come Enlightenment or Buddhist philosophy. Can more liberal Quakers embrace that this is their heritage (even if it might make them look foolish or feel odd) and see the good in it? I understand this is difficult for people from other faith backgrounds, especially if their faith has been persecuted by so-called Christians. But could it be possible to see that Quakers got Christianity right and proceed from there?

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why a Quaker?

It's busy here with the hundreds of details pursuant to the move ... boxes around for Saturday's yard sale, plans for our first foray into e-Bay ... end of the school year and the consequent flood of paper coming home ... yard work to do ... etc. etc. You get the picture. The boys today are on the celebratory eighth-grade pre-graduation cruise around the Baltimore harbor on the Bay Lady. Sophie is taking SATs.

So back to Martin's question from yesterday:

"Why do so many people want to call themselves Quakers when they can't stand basic Quaker theology?"

Let's unpack this a little. Are there many Quakers who can't stand the basic Quaker theology? What is the basic Quaker theology? Christianity? Belief in a God who is active and accessible? The testimonies? All of the above? And if there are Quakers who don't like this theology, then what about Martin's question: Why are they Quakers? I have to say I have long been perplexed by people who don't believe in God taking on a ... religion, and a Christ-based one at that, with all the baggage that entails. Yet I've seen it, and I certainly welcome people who are on a spiritual journey.

Of course, all of this is speculative ... but let's take a turn at it. What do you think? Why do people who appear to reject the theology join Quakerism? More importantly, why are you a Quaker? Or not?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Catholics and Quakers

Martin Kelly has an interesting post about Quakers and Roman Catholics who "get it" about their faiths bumping heads with people who don't, especially with those who have institutional power. I'll return to his central questions another day-- Why would someone who dislikes Catholic culture and wants to dismantle it's infrastructure become a priest and a career bureaucrat? For that matter why do so many people want to call themselves Quakers when they can't stand basic Quaker theology? and So what would a spiritual community for these outsider Friends [Friends who want to build a true faith community as opposed to maintaining the current bureacracy] look like? (Martin would see the last question, I think, as the central question and the first question as an aside.)

For today, I'll focus on what he writes about the closing of his wife's Roman Catholic parish church:

The current lightening-fast closure of sixty-some churches is the first step of an ambitious plan; manufactured priest shortages and soon-to-be overcrowded churches will be used to justify even more radical changes. In about twenty years time, the 125 churches that exist today will have been sold off. What's left of a half million faithful will be herded into a dozen or so mega-churches, with theology borrowed from generic liberalism, style from feel-good evangelicalism, and organization from consultant culture.

From my encounters as a religion reporter, I agree that the Roman Catholic trend is towards organizing the faithful into mega-churches. I think this a response to the priest shortage. (I'm not sure what Martin means by a manufactured shortage, as the numbers I've seen do show a steep decline in priests. Perhaps he means manufactured in the sense of the church's refusal to ordain women or married men? Or used in this context as an excuse to rush church closings?) However, whether or not the shortage is real, one way to avoid a shortage is not to have as many parishes and hence not to need as many priests. Needing fewer priests also allows the church to be more selective in choosing its priest candidates, which must weigh heavily on the collective mind of the Catholic hierarchy after the recent scandals.

Whatever the reason, the larger point is that people in a new, huge church are likely to lose the sense of connection and community a small, historic parish church can offer. And the lay people, many of whom will be women and married men, will be tapped to perform the duties priests in small parishes once could do themselves. How likely are these people to experience resentment over restrictions that "allow" them to do plenty of hard work but not share in power?

The deeper point (as opposed to the larger point!) involves the haste Martin speaks of. Why rush this important process? I've read that haste is of the devil. Any decision that's rushed through in a blur probably had some facets that wouldn't have stood up under closer scrutiny. The most obvious example is the rush to go to war in Iraq. The more slowly a decision is made (assuming we're not in a genuinely life-threatening or otherwise emergency situation), the more likely it is to be spiritually renewing. For example, taking the time to visit and revisit the question within Baltimore Yearly Meeting of whether or not to stay affiliated with FUM brings out previously unconsidered viewpoints, gives more and more people a voice in the process and is leading to a gentling of the earlier, more inflamed sentiments of some Quakers.

Of course, working against careful, spirit-based and inclusive decision-making is the culture we live in, which is hooked on speed. I struggle constantly to get slowed down to God's pace because God's rhythm is so different from the culture's frenzy. I more and more am convinced that a true point of spiritual discipline is to form us to resist the world's pace.

I can't help but contrast the bureaucratic "efficiency" of closing small churches and streamlining Catholics into megachurches, trampling on some people's feelings and sense of community, with Mother Teresa's insight that Christianity is all about small acts done lovingly.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jane Austen and miscellany

What's my favorite Jane Austen novel? I love Persuasion, but my favorite is Sense and Sensibility, which is not her best, I know, I know! I also love Pride and Prejudice, and have spent a lot of time struggling with Mansfield Park, so that I know it very well.

Roger is concerned that I'm losing interest in religion by blogging about Jane Austen. Nothing could be further from the case!

In fact, this morning I went with the First Day students to a three-hour service at Israel Baptist Church. It was a rousing African-American-style worship. The women wore the most beautiful hats. It was about as different from Quakerism as you can get and a treat to experience.

We continue to sort through the basement, which has the advantage of being about 30 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. We found a box of stuff we moved here 13 years ago and never opened. That will be part of the yard sale. Roger also brought a van load of stuff to the dump. As I may have said before, the overhead of keeping stuff changes when you have to move it: for example, I had about 20 spare gift boxes in the basement but there was no way I was going to move them to Barnesville, so out they went.

I am keeping the faith that we will find a renter, Sophie's situation will work out and somehow we'll arrive with our furniture in Barnesville at the appointed time. And praying that the price of crude oil doesn't inflate to $150.00 a barrel by July, as some are predicting. If so, that will make driving a moving van of furniture to Barnesville cost a small fortune. I look back with longing on the wonderful days of just a year ago, when I had no idea what the price of crude was. And as I keep saying to myself, (leaving aside the personal inconvenience to *moi!*) if spiking gas prices really do cause some changes, such as widespread use of public transportation, that would be a good thing.

I fantasize about a country in which we transport ourselves and our goods in new ways. We gently float down rivers to get from point A to point B. We travel by train. Small towns that were once fueled by train traffic are revitalized. We use the streetcar to get to work and buy our houses based on proximity to the streetcar line. This use of public transportation has the effect of bringing us together as communities, and helps the have nots and the marginalized join the larger society. The threat of global warming begins to fade. Sounds like the New Jerusalem, huh?

But as long as I'm fantasizing, I might as well get back to Jane Austen, who at least incorporated a lurking dark side into her fictions.

What is your favorite Jane Austen? And why? Maybe I'll explain my Sense and Sensibility preference in another post.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Jane Austen and Quakers

Part of my goal with for I call "my year off" (that began mid-September) was to look at what evolution would take place during this season of "life-making."

Well, I never expected to end up moving to Ohio! But certainly my being "free" has facilitated the move.

Right now, I find my cyberspace interest moving away from the Jesus Creed blog (which I will always be fond of) and toward the Janeites list serve. The Janeites are Jane Austen enthusiasts (some might call them fanatics) who love to talk about all things Austen.

I have had more than a passing interest in the great Jane, as a friend labels her, or JA, as I like to call her. My first graduate seminar in English literature was on Jane Austen and largely due to that experience I ditched my fellowship to study international relations (read: warfare) at George Washington University and made the fateful decision to throw myself into a graduate program in that lucrative field of English literature. My life has not been the same since. I hasten to add: despite a graduate degree (masters) in English, I haven't yet starved.

A part of me wants to force myself to stay with Jesus Creed. But a wiser voice says "follow your (cyberspace) passions." And so I shall. I shall continue to read JC with great interest and my heart will continue to be with those Creeders, but, for a time at least, back to the beloved Jane.

Quakerism remains a strong interest, and as fate would have it, the threads of Jane Austen and Quakerism are meeting at Olney. I read on the Olney web site that the school's name comes from a poem by a long dead Taber. I couldn't find the poem on the Web. However, out of curiosity, I googled Olney, Maryland, home of Sandy Spring Friends School, to find out the history of the town's name.

It was named, according to the site, for the poet Cowper's hometown of Olney, in England. Cowper was a great friend of the anti-slavery movement and wrote at least one poem against slavery.

The connection to JA: She was a devoted fan of Cowper's poetry.

Way cool.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama Wins

The newspapers --except for the Pittsburgh Gazette, which is still fixated on ice hockey -- all led with news that Barak Obama has the delegates he needs to win the Democratic nomination for president. He has, for all intents and purposes, won the nomination.

I had believed all along that Clinton win. This wasn't sentiment as much as cold-blooded calculation that she had the stuff to do it.

I read a lot of speculation today about why Clinton won't concede. Much of it swirls around some perceived flaw in her psyche: she's in denial, she doesn't live in reality, she's too much of a crazy, shrill she-witch (not that that characterization is sexist!) to let go. But nobody has brought up an obvious thought that must be on her mind: Gore in 2000. He conceded, then unconceded, making him look the weaker candidate. And as a result, he was killed off by the Supreme Court. In fact, the Supreme Court --or a vote recount--may well have killed him off anyway, but his vacillation at a crucial point didn't help.

Clinton apparently doesn't have a lot to gain by conceding now. Maybe Obama and the Democrats need to offer her a good deal. She's got to know she can deliver a big constituency that Obama needs. Why wouldn't she hold out for a deal?

Several things have bemused me about this campaign. The first is why Clinton is relentlessly attacked as "ambitious." Shouldn't it go without saying that anybody who runs for ... President ... is ambitious? President of the United States? Most powerful position in the world? Were the other candidates all shrinking violets dragged to the podium or selfless altruists in quest of marytrdom? Hhmmm. None that I can think of. Obama isn't ambitious? McCain isn't? Guiliani wasn't? Edwards? Yet why is this word always hurled at Clinton as some sort of accusation? It's hard not to see this as (unconscious) sexism, some sort of deep-seated belief that woman shouldn't dare to compete-- and that a woman who does should be taken down simply for the pure fact of having ambition.

Second, and related, is the idea that Clinton ran an opportunistic, win-at-all-costs campaign. That's what people do. Why single her out? Plus, what if she truly, at the bottom of her heart, and all through and through, believes she is the best candidate to run the country? What if it's less, to her mind, about grabbing the presidency, and more about a frustrated knowledge that she could do a good job at fixing the country's problems ... if only people would put her in the position that would give her a chance?

Third, she's attacked for not being a good team member, vis-a-vis the Democratic Party. But surely she must know that few woman have gotten anywhere by playing by the rules. In a man's world, she has to be expected to make her own way.

I will support Obama in the fall election. But I do worry about his lack of experience. And I wish he would do more to reach out to women.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


In Tim Keller's book, The Reason for God, Keller defines "sin" as anything we put ahead of God. Keller's definition is interesting, I think, especially as many Quakers equate sin with "being bad" and reject the whole idea of it. While I think none of us like the idea of being "bad," we can't help but notice that many things in our world are quite awry.

The following about Keller's book is from the Jesus Creed site:

Identity apart from God is inherently unstable. Self worth and self identity can disappear in an instant if founded on freedom, success, parenthood, work, achievement, church leadership, the esteem of others…

Worse yet – identity apart from God is socially destructive. If our highest ultimate goal is centered in the good of our family we will tend to care less for other families. If our highest goal is the good of our nation we will tend to care less for other nations, and may “defend” ours at all costs. If our highest goal is our individual happiness we will put our economic and power interests ahead of others. If our highest goal is our religion we will despise and demonize those from other religious traditions. If our highest goal is the good of our church, if our identity is centered in our church or denomination, we will defend it by denigrating other churches and denominations.

And - think about it — if our identity is centered our class, our race, our gender — classism, racism, and sexism are the unavoidable consequences.

So racism, classism, and sexism are not matters of ignorance or lack of education. Foucault and others in our time have shown that it is far harder than we think to have a self-identity that doesn’t lead to exclusion. The real culture war is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them. (p. 169)

The problem is not “human evil” - power, domination, and violence – these are merely unavoidable consequences of the problem.

What do you think of this?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Who then should decide?

The number one most stressful part about moving to Barnesville is the situation with Sophie. She will be a senior in high school this fall and wants to stay here and finish up her schooling at Wilde Lake. We'd like her to come with us to Barnesville and experience a Quaker school.

A lovely family from our meeting has offered to take Sophie for the year, as they are becoming empty nesters. We are overwhelmed, and very grateful for their generosity. We couldn't find better people to trust our child with. Others in the meeting have reached out to Sophie to offer hospitality and rides in a way that is truly kind and thoughtful.

However, we still think she'd benefit greatly from a year at Olney Friends School. So we are at an impasse. Should she come or should she stay? Who decides?

Some say that, at 17, Sophie knows Sophie best and should be allowed to make the decision. A friend argued that point-of-view vehemently to me last night at a wine bar. On the hand, old-fashioned as it might seem, I believe Roger and I have a perspective, based on years of life experience (and perhaps some suffering) such that we can see things that Sophie can not, because we're older and wiser. From that perspective, I suspect that if she goes to Olney, it will broaden her and mature her, and 10 years from now ... or 20, she will thank us for making her do it.

However, friends also say, and I think they're right, that a year away from her family, coping with life here, would also mature her. They say I am trying to make her into a person like me and not letting her be herself. Am I? I have pondered that question. I know she is a different person from me, with different strengths and interests. I also know that any parent naturally wants to share with their child what they have found to be good things in life.

When it comes to Quakerism, Sophie enjoys both our Quaker meeting and Quaker summer camp in her own right. She actively likes to come to meeting, I think because it is a wonderful, supportive community. I never have to force her to go. I think (hope) she would experience that on a day-to-day basis at Olney.

Sometimes I feel like an overbearing parent. However, I think it's not so much that I'm overbearing as that times have changed. At the Quaker writing group last night, Rosemary talked about her youth, when adolescents simply did what their parents told them to do, because that's the way it was. Now, we're much more child-centered.

So who decides? What would you do? I really would like to know. The bottom line is, I want to make the decision that's best for Sophie, not just for this year, but for years down the road. I have her interests at heart. And I find myself torn: Should we let Sophie decide, on the basis that "Sophie knows Sophie best" or should we be the ones to decide, on the basis of our greater life experience?

On Exposure

Hello everybody. I had trouble accessing this blog earlier, so here it is, 3:30.

I had hesitated to write about feeling tired the other day, but leaped out of that plane. I always question how much information is too much information in this blog! How exposed do I want to be? But this time it helped to make myself vulnerable: I found out that I should wait four hours after my sinthroid before taking vitamins! Thanks for the information!!!

The place with shrimp quesadillas (and they were very good) is on Frederick Road, on the same side of the street as Jennings Cafe, but down a bit if you are heading west. It's call Shipping or Ship's something-or-other. Anyway, it's a seafood place. I liked it. The server was very nice too.

But to get back on task. How much exposure is too much on a blog?