Thursday, December 31, 2009

A New Year

Any resolutions?

What makes a good resolution?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Barnesville

Only three days late ...

We had a lovely Christmas ...

We went to ecumenical Christmas Eve services organized by the Barnesville Ministeriam at the Presbyterian church, where the Rev. Andy Wood is the pastor. We love Andy and he feels like our friend because he hangs out with Quakers. Ela and Bill, who are both very talented musicians, and who used to work at Olney, performed on the cello and whistle. Bill makes his own whistles, which look like piccolos. Needless to say, Bill and Ela were wonderful. The whole service was lovely-- the storybook church with stained glass windows, the traditional Christmas carols .. Joy to the World, Silent Night... and readings about the birth of Jesus ... the glow of lit candles at the end ... very "tender" in the Quaker sense of the word. They even rang the old-fashioned bell at midnight ...

Barnesville was pretty and idyllic on Christmas Eve, with the lit wreathes and big stars made of white lights attached to the lampposts along Main Street, the road glistening. Even the lopsided, decorated Christmas tree with colored lights on the corner added a touch of whimsy.

Christmas day was nice and I think (hope) everyone liked their presents. I liked mine. I read The Financial Lives of Poets, which I loved, except that (male) author treats women as objects--I felt like saying, come on, already ... is there anything more to the fictional wife than a "tight bod" and "hot bod" and that she's "cute" and that other men find her "hot" and that the protag. wants to have sex with her? And the other surface things: she likes to shop because she has "issues" from her childhood and she's good with their young sons (which makes him jealous because he wants the attention)? What is she like as a person? What's in her mind and her soul? And all the other women in the book are the same: "hot" Amber the HR woman, and the son's hot second grade teacher whom he wants to ... you know .. and the "hot,' "Nordic" blond Bea who .. guess what he wants .... and it's simply depressing that in an otherwise great book, where the men are immediately drawn as fully human, and yet there's not one woman who is more than a body. It wasn't deliberate either, I don't think, as he goes to pains to make this fictional hero sympathetic. But that's my rant.

Sophie's flight in from Baltimore was delayed so we had a big rush getting to Jane and Clyde's for Christmas dinner. As Jane said, after two years, it's a tradition! Bill and Ela also came and there was more music. Clyde, who is a retired music professor, played the piano, Jane sang (beautiful voice), their daughter Susan played the flute and Ela and Bill again played the cello and whistle. I lack the musical gene, so I listened. It was a lovely, old-fashioned event in the big high-ceiling living room--we even had a fireplace--and I don't think I can remember ever having had such a musical Christmas, filled up with so many Christmas carols. And I was thinking how nice it is that we all share a cultural heritage of Christmas music: People from farflung parts of the country can gather and we all know the same songs ... Something to think about. I like to think the music touches people with some of the true, pure sweetness of Christianity at its best.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Amish Grace and forgiveness

I hope everyone had a good Christmas.

In the book Amish Grace, which is about the shooting of 10 and killing of five Amish girls at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse in 2006, we see the Amish dwell with some wonder on how much easier it can be to forgive someone you don't know for a big crime than to forgive the people in your community for small transgressions.

I was a religion reporter at the time of the shootings and the Christian News Wire overflowed for awhile with Christians (white, privileged males) stunned and brimming with revelatory enthusiasm for this display of ... Christianity inherent in the Amish forgiving the killer and his family. I remember not being too forgiving of these pundits ... This Amish forgiveness is a revelation? Huh? Isn't this, like, .... you know, "dude," your FAITH? You've been bombastically blowbagging on this wire service about Christianity the whole time I've been a religion reporter and it takes the Nickel Mines shooting for you to "get" what forgiveness is ... ie, the heart of Christianity, what Jesus-died-for?

I remember after 9/11, first hoping fervently that it would be found an act of domestic terrorism, ala Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. My thinking was that if it were domestic terrorism, we'd avoid a war. When I discovered it was Islamic terrorists I realized OK, being a military state, the US will have to drop some bombs on Afghanistan, but let's pray it's short and quick. Beyond that, the passage about "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" and ... significantly... your lap will be filled with good things, pressed down and flowing over ... rose unbidden to my mind almost constantly. I did feel a forgiveness that had nothing to do with reason and everything to do with living in the spirit. I was surprised to find the rest of the world--even the Christian world--not with me on this.

At that time, I thought, as the Amish later did, well, who am I to forgive? I didn't lose anyone in the attacks. And--how is it that I can forgive this horrendous act and yet become incandescent with homicidal rage when a teenager cuts me off on the highway, causing me to fishtail into the lane with the oncoming 18 wheeler? I would certainly have vaporized that clueless teen, though he clearly had no malice towards me, in an instant. Or why was it so hard for me to forgive the person in my old meeting who stood up shaking with rage over the FUM employment policy but who couldn't see that I felt just as marginalized as a gay person when I heard an Easter message denying the resurrection? When that person told me I was wrong to feel marginalized? When that person dismissed the Israelis and the Palestinians and said they "just have to learn to get along," but then attacked FUM in the most scathing terms and said we had to split from them? Was that such a big deal?

I think of the Browning poem," Soliloquy of the Spanish Courtyard," in which one cloistered brother hates another for no good reason: "Grr, there go, my heart's abhorrence! Water your damned flowerpots do! If hate killed, Brother Lawrence, God's blood would not mine kill you!" Brother Lawrence's offences include needing to go trim his myrtle bush and inquiring after the Latin name of parsley ... in word, he innocently grates on his antagonist's nerves.

When I first read this poem as a college freshman, I saw the narrator as completely other ... and while the intensity of his hatred is extreme, I now realize we all have a touch of him inside us.

I think it's popular to denigrate the Amish--perhaps they speak too strongly to our longings, so we have to keep reminding ourselves that evil patriarchs and pedophiles mingle among them, as well as liars, drug addicts, oppressors and scoundrels... but I think, collectively, the Amish have much wisdom to offer. I do ponder, as they do, how we can be so unforgiving over the small stuff. Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Transformation: Inward of Outward?

Marshall Massey made the following comment in response to the blog on Amish Grace and Quakers: To adopt the [Amish] practices is, I think, to mistake the outward for the inward. Friends have historically had their own avenue to humility — the avenue of quietism, a stilling of our selves inspired by a powerful recognition of our own fallenness, and by a sense of our tremendous every-moment dependence on our Lord. It is to this, and not to outward tactics, that Friends need to turn.

Christmas, because of its garb, is a good time to think about outward wrappings and inward presence.

During Christmas, outward wrappings are more distinct than during other times of the year. Our houses are often transformed with trees, wreathes, advent calendars, pine boughs, candles, eggnog, mistletoe, creches, beautifully wrapped gifts and other signs of the season. Often our touches are old-fashioned or nostalgic--an idealized 19th-century village under the Christmas tree, a touch of a Nutcracker in either our music or a wooden replica of Tchaikovsky's figure, a viewing or reading of The Christmas Carol. We associate these outward signs with inward states:

--The Dickensian Christmas represents conviviality, family harmony, good spirits, fellowship. We are longing to be surrounded by healthy community and loving family.

--The shepherd and magi Christmas represents the conjoined simplicity and grandeur of the holy, the sacred made incarnate on earth, the sacred available through the everyday things of life. It is God's love alive and available in the here and now. We long for the sacred in life. We long for an extended season of goodwill to all men and women. We long for a just world.

--The trees, the pine boughs, the candles, etc., those elements borrowed (or stolen) from the pagan, represent our love of the living things of the world, our longing for light and life during this darkest period, our longing to incorporate earth love and joyfulness into the sacred.

During the Christmas season, we hope that putting on the outward form of what we long for will transform us inwardly--individually and collectively-- into what we wish to be. I think primarily this happens unconsciously--we don't think "I'm putting up this creche because I want all babies in the world to be treated kindly" or "I'm drawn to buy this colorful print of Dickensian carollers because I want to live in a more convivial world." But I do think we long for a world where everyone is cared for, community is strong, the material goods of the world flow abundantly, the earth is protected, and joy abounds.

Of course, we know that many marriages fall apart during the Christmas season. Many children can't come home, because no matter how beautiful the packaging, the underlying poison is too deep. We know the world is a highly flawed place. If anything, the beautiful packaging of Christmas can underscore-painfully- how far we are from the ideal.

The great question is: Can the outward form change the inward person--can the dress transform the soul? Some say that the great distinction between Christianity and the other two religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, is Christianity's persistent belief that the inward soul of a person can and must be transformed, that in fact the salvation of the world can only occur when people undergo the soul transformation --a new way of seeing--that leads to the true outward change ... of everything. The other religions, it is said, put more faith in outward changes--following laws and a set cycle of prayers, fasting, etc.--for softening or least ameliorating, the hardness in the human heart and thus engendering change.

Quakers have always come down hard on the side of the primacy of inward transformation, seeing the outward forms of the faith as "counterfeits." The early Quakers, as we know, saw the rites of the church as allowing people who participated to believe they were godly people without transforming their lives. They saw the rites of the church becoming an end in themselves, not an avenue to transformation. The Quakers swept away these rituals to open room for the essential, to put people in the unmediated presence of God with faith that this would result in world transforming change.

But we Quakers use ritual, and I would argue that sitting in stillness is one of the most rigid rituals of all. Coming from a different tradition, I tend to see the cultural ritualism of the English all over the faith--try introducing the tiniest variant or "programming" into a meeting for silent worship. So my questions is: what privileges silent worship over other rituals?

Also, like Marshall, I believe inward transformation is the key: I believe in inward to outward, not outward to inward. The most beautifully trimmed Christmas tree in the world will not magically mend broken hearts in a family. On the other hand, is there a transformative possibility or quality to the outward? For instance, many people think some transformative quailty was lost when the Roman Catholic sisters began adopting "civilian garb" and the church moved from the grandeur of the Latin Mass. What do you think?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amish Grace and Quakers

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher focuses on the Amish capacity to forgive after a troubled non-Amish man shot 10 and killed five Amish girls in the Nickle Mines schoolhouse in 2006. To explain the Amish ability to forgive, the authors delve into Amish theology.

I am struck, as I have been before, by similarities between the Quakers and the Amish. Both are peace churches that believe in simplicity, community and integrity. Both seek to "finish" the Reformation by bringing the Christianity back to its earliest beginnings, stripping it down to its essentials.

But the Quakers and Amish have also forked away from each other. Most Quakers don't express simplicity through distinctive dress, habits or transportation. Most Quakers have gone the way of the wider culture in valuing individualism over community. Quakerism from its start embraced equalitarianism, whereas the Amish have always been patriarchal. About 15% of Quakers have moved away from the centrality of Christ to embrace a full-fledged universalism, while the Amish are all devoutly Christ-centered. Many of those Quaker churches that still embrace the centrality of Christ have moved away from Quaker distinctives that Amish groups share, such as no paid clergy, opting instead to hire a minister.

As with the Amish, the Quakers, I believe, put forgiveness at the heart of their faith practice. Peace churches, almost by definition, replace revenge and retaliation with forgiveness. But what if the Quakers adopted some of the Amish practices to underscore forgiveness? Would this help us?

1. "In the Amish faith, the authority of the community overshadows the freedom of the individual."(92) "'Individualism,' said a 40-year-old Amish father, "is the great divide between us and outsiders.'" (93) The primacy of the community is stressed in the following ways:

a. verbal expressions of personal faith are seen as prideful, as if one is showing off one's religious knowledge. Individual interpretations of the Bible and personal testimonies are seen as "haughtiness." "For the Amish, genuine spirituality is quiet, reserved and clothed in humility, revealing itself in actions rather than words. Wisdom is tested by the community, not by an individual's feelings, eloquence of persuasion." (94)

b. crafting your own prayers is seen as prideful. They use the Lord's prayer.

Some of the practices that Amish Grace pinpoints as laying a groundwork for forgiveness are:

2. Emphasis on the New Testament, and especially the gospels. The Lancaster Amish Lectionary focuses on Matthew 1-12, which includes the Sermon on the Mount, for the first 12 weeks of every year. What if we focused on the Sermon on the Mount for three months of the year?

3. Frequent recitation of the Lord's prayer, as noted above. This would bother some, as a rote prayer might seem a "counterfeit" faith, but a thoughtful and frequent recitation--a mindful praying-- might be helpful.

Given that a roomful of Quakers can be markedly lacking in humility, would we do well to adopt some of these practices?

Monday, December 21, 2009

George Fox: Ponder in the Heart

But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

"And you may see how Mary wrapped Christ in swaddling clothes, and how tender she was of the heavenly birth, conceived by the Holy Ghost. And must true and tender Christians, that receive Him in the spirit ... she kept all the sayings that were spoken of Christ and pondered them in her heart. And so should every good Christian." From Mind the Heavenly Treasure: Thoughts for each day from the Scriptures and the eight volumes of the writings of George Fox", compiled by Gary Boswell.

Here again, we see the thoughts of early Quaker George Fox expressed through concrete imagery. Here, he draws us to visualize and dwell on Mary's "tender" care and clothing of the infant Jesus, advising us to be as tender in our thoughts as she was in her physical care for a fragile infant. Here, the vulnerability of Jesus is laid bare. Do we tenderly cradle his beliefs--in forgiveness, mercy, love, peace, joy, abundance, compassion--or do we dash his infant's head against a rock?

It also strikes me that Mary ponders things "in her heart," fusing together the intellect and the emotions. In her body, the embodiment implied by her pregnancy and childbirth, she also grounds God in the physical. The infant Jesus stands for ideas that don't make sense--which are dismissed as impossible, as fantasies, as for "some other time," in the cold light of pure rationality, but which did make sense for the here and now to Fox and his followers and which do make sense when we enter the upside-down kingdom today. They speak to the deepest longings of our hearts. They are possible here and now.

I visited a mosque a few years ago. It was a beautiful mosque, unlike the others I had visited, which were basement rooms in office buildings. This mosque was light filled and open and empty, with a deep, thick tawny Oriental rug on the floor. It had a stark, sacred feeling. Afterwards, our guides told us that Jesus was a revered figure in Islam and recounted a story from the Quran of the infant Jesus, under a date tree, speaking, in a miracle, to tell those denigrating Mary as a fallen woman that she was a virgin impregnated by the Holy Spirit. From birth, he protected his mother

I thought at the time that in the Christian faith is a birth story lean in miracles--a visit by an angel, a virgin conception and a choir of angels breaking good tidings of great joy to a group of shepherds. But Jesus, the center of the story, is simply a human baby born in very humble circumstances. He is protected by his mother, a model of how we protect our faith with gentleness, mindfulness and nurture, a model of how he needs our care, how he needs us to be his body. Also, an infant can't survive with partial attention--it demands our dedication.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gratitude and Giving

This is a response I posted on Jeanne's blog on giving, but since it fit with the theme of gratitude, I thought I would post it here.


I appreciate your blog, and I hear what you are saying about elites supporting other elites ... Quakers supporting Quakers. I do get angry when I see the symphony hall built in my home town from a major donation and know the money came from the profits of racist fear-mongering in real estate years ago. They helped wreck the city and now they’re putting up a fancy venue? And in a city full of housing that you wouldn't let your pet live in ... a symphony hall? Then, like Chuck, I do remember I appreciate Mozart --but that too, I recognize this as a class-based taste ... and why should educated class tastes be supported ahead of others?

But as I mull this, I think of how healing it was for me for my Quaker meeting to support its own after coming from a church that always seemed to want to take my money. Take and take. It meant a great deal to me that the meeting would support my children going to Quaker camps ... and it meant a great deal to my children. When my meeting cares for me that models how to care for another ... but I agree, that care has to push out to the "least of these."

Also, my husband works for and two of my children attend Olney Friends School, hardly an elite boarding school. It's a school that provides a true Quaker education to kids who might not have any other opportunity to get one--because they would might be turned down for admission at the elite Quaker schools. Not because they couldn't do the work, but because they couldn't pass the test or look good enough on paper, which in itself might be a class issue. Or because they want an alternative to an elite school. I see hope for the world in schools like Olney. However, Olney does depend on support from other Quakers--it can't make it on tuition alone ... so I struggle with this. I hate to see needs compete and want to believe there's abundance for everything important, that we don't need to divert from one charity to the next but to divert funds from the latest consumer good so we can support more charities, especially these days.

As I write this, I realize how tight the budget is at Chez Reynolds, tighter than in decades. I think many people are feeling the pinch. All the same, I think we could look at our spending creatively and find ways to support more groups ...While I think it takes a leap of faith to believe the resources are here, I believe they are here. Do you believe they're here?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The library: Collective blessings and gratitude

One collective blessing I am grateful for is the Barnesville Hutton Memorial public library. It's in the center of town, housed in a lovely small new building with a bowed floor-to-ceiling window letting in natural light and comfortable armchairs tucked in the corners. It even has a Quaker genealogical research room.

As in most libraries, the librarians are friendly and helpful. The library is part of a system of county libraries that together comprise one big library. I can get almost any book I want through interlibrary loan. And so can anybody else in the community.

I am especially glad to have the library these days, while our family's disposable income is limited. In the old days, I would have gone the easier route of clicking the button at Amazon and having my books delivered, bought and paid for.

I am on queues for most of the books I want. For instance, I look forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but people are ahead of me in line for it. So the library is not the route to immediate gratification. But it does cultivate patience. And I will have to pick the book up, rather than having it deposited on my doorstep, but that's all right: I'll get to go the library!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Are we self-centered: Blessings and gratitude

Blessings and gratitude have been much on my mind this past year. Possibly as a result of the economic crisis, more people seem to be stating what they are grateful for and calling out their particular blessings.

Individual blessings are no doubt good and in times of economic distress, it can be useful to remind ourselves of how grateful we are to have houses, jobs, and health insurance while all around us people's lives fall into ruin and chaos.

At the same time, it can come across, even when sincerely and humbly meant, as a tad self-centered to celebrate one's own good fortune in the midst of the carnage. It is good to have a roof over one's head, a job and access to health care, and better yet to be grateful for them, but at the same time, it's a sign of the sickness in our society that not everybody has these things. What I often hear is a gratitude not centered in a context of abundance but in a context of scarcity. What I hear is not gratitude that we collectively are prospering but gratitude for my individual fortune. "I" am so grateful to have what others don't.

How would it sound if someone were to stand up in meeting and say: "I am so grateful to have air to breathe," if, just a few blocks a way, people were choking and gasping and possibly dying from lack of air?

What good is a blessing if others don't share in it?

I am convinced that God's true blessings are meant for everyone. When the Bible says the sun shines on the good and the evil alike, it points to the paradox of rewards but it also describes how God gives. God rains down blessings on us in great abundance. Indiscriminately. Not just on the "deserving," by whatever arbitrary measure we may devise to determine that, but on all people. Maybe all people are deserving in God's eyes?

The forces of evil would try to hoard those blessings for the few. But at the point, they get turned into something spoiled, like the manna from heaven the wandering Israelites tried to hoard. I don't think, for example, it's a blessing, in and of itself, to live in a huge house when others are homeless.

Things that are blessings for the few can linger and rot. When we think of haunted houses in the popular imagination, for example. we think of large old Victorian dwelling, with flapping shutters askew and inside, cobwebs festooning the once-fancy woodwork. Or we think of ancient castles. We seldom think of haunted huts or cottages.

Yet we live in a world that routinely encourages us to hoard the blessings for ourselves and our group, be it our own children, our faith groups, our cities, towns, counties, states or countries.

When the English ruling class started to enclose what had traditionally been common grazing lands, lands available to promote the common good and common prosperity, trouble ensued. Today, some don't care that water and air, traditionally freely available, at least in this country, have become polluted. There's money to be made by selling the clean versions of these-now--commodities.

As we contemplate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, it's integral--not simply a pretty embellishment-- to the story that he was born to bring grace to all people. He is a universal blessing. He brings a hope for peace and goodwill to all.

The challenge I am taking up is to try to be thankful for and to ask for blessing for all people. If I am grateful for a job, a home or health insurance, then I want that for everyone. If I deserve it, so does everyone else. I ask why isn't that blessing raining on everyone? What more can I/we do to ensure it?

When I think of the blessings I would most like to spread, they tend to be more of a spiritual nature: I would love everyone to have loving relationships, goodwill, peace, joy, beautiful surroundings, health, etc. But I also recognize that we are incarnate, material beings and the above spiritual needs are nurtured by physical security. Of course, we can have all these things in terrible circumstances--and the saints among us carry love, peace, joy and all the rest into the darkest dungeons--but most of us are not saints.

This is a roughly written piece, as I try to process these thoughts. I recognize that a crude equalitarianism is not necessarily a blessing either, though I think it might come closer to God's vision than what we have around us. Certainly we don't want to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator but to bring everyone up to a comfortable place. I keep thinking of John Wesley's dictum: earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can. Do we agree with that? How can we take what we have--our blessings--and make them more of a blessing to everyone?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life in Barnesville: December

I learned the other night that molasses makes a good fertilizer, especially if your soil is low in sulphur. Just add a teaspoon (or perhaps a tablespoon) of blackstrap molasses to a gallon of water and pour on your plants. It's supposed to be a natural miracle- gro. I like this idea because it's so simple.

I have to keep chasing two fat squirrels out of the birdfeeder. I've never seen animals so fat run so fast.

Cows are being pastured just beyond our front yard, so I am studying cow behavior now and again. Not much to report, except that the two new calves run around and frolic. The adults don't stand entirely stock still, as they graze, but they're not doing much else.

It snowed today and is very cold and windy. However, I managed to get Sophie from Muskingum, along with all the stuff she was taking home for her winter break, without any problems.

Barnesville's Main Street is pretty. Christmas wreaths lit with white lights are attached to the lampposts. With the light snow and the decorations and the old brick and stone buildings, the town looks idyllic, at least at night. I continue to appreciate the quiet and lack of traffic here, the ease of parking and shopping. Other than clothes, we can get everything we need in town--there's a grocery store, several dollar stores, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a library, a Rite Aid ... a rare occurrence, I think, in this day and age, and probably supported by the Amish, who I imagine don't find it feasible to ride their buggies all the way down to St. Clairsville to shop in the big box stores and the Walmart. Again, I marvel that it's is the religious groups--the Orthodox Jews in some areas, the Amish in others, and doubtless other groups--that keep communities alive. Rules we moderns reject as senseless and archaic, fit for another era, such as not working on the Sabbath (and hence living close enough to the synagogue to walk) have hidden values. Should Quakers start embracing the Sabbath? Should we start thinking of driving as work?

I have become a vegetarian and that is going well, although in this geographic area (and perhaps all areas) it can be a challenge at times to find something on the restaurant menu other than a grilled cheese sandwich. I've been thinking about veganism, as much of my impetus towards changing my diet is factory farming ... but I can't figure it out. I'm pondering it. Here, I could buy Amish milk and eggs, as I sometimes do, and rest assured the animals are not abused, but so many processed foods contain milk or eggs ... as with many things, it's gradual.

Roger and I had trouble getting out of Barnesville on Saturday, one of the drawbacks of being six or so miles off the interstate. Cars were spinning out of control on the ice on the windy, hilly roads, blocking traffic. We were eventually able to get to Route 70, but for a moment I thought we were going to end up like De Smet, South Dakota from the Little House books--snowed in all winter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

George Fox: live in the pure hope

"And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." (1 John 3:3)

"O! Live in the pure hope, which purifies you as He is pure; which hope is Christ ... and so feel Christ your hope, which anchors your immortal souls, that stays it in all waves, storms, and tempests, and is safe and sure in all weathers; Christ who is the same today as he was yesterday; so no new thing." George Fox, from Mind the Heavenly Treasure

Fox and the early Quakers seem to have often written of "pure" things, such as "pure hope" and "pure peace," and I believe the adjective "pure" had special meaning for them. I wonder, what to them, was the difference between pure peace and peace, pure hope and hope.

Having just learned about the potency of images to the early Friends, I note that Fox contrasts the unchanging "anchor" of Christ to the uncertainties (waves, storms and tempests) of this world and declares Christ as the place of safety. As Fox notes, not a new thing ... or image ... but powerful all the same.

Interestingly, he asks us to "feel" Christ, which moves us from intellectual argument to heart place, from empirical evidence to mystical, possibly ecstatic, union.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Liars or Friends?

I have been thinking recently about the Lewis and Clark journals, which I read in the early 1990s. I'm recalling ... and I hope have this straight.

As I remember, early in their exploration of the territory received in the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark disciplined a member of their party. This was a military expedition sponsored by the US government, and Lewis and Clark were both military officers.

They proceeded to beat an insubordinate recruit.

Native Americans were on the scene, watching, and their leader, distressed at beating, tried, I believe, to prevent it, and then cried tears at the violence.

Lewis and Clark were astonished and thought the leader must be feigning his distress. Why are you so upset, they asked? Don't you beat your son?

No, never. We don't beat our children.

Here is where it gets interesting. Lewis and Clark simply could not believe the chief--and the Indians in general-- didn't beat their children. It was so far out of their child rearing and hierarchical paradigms that they simply assumed the leader was lying. The only way they could make sense of the statement was to assume that the leader must have had a hidden agenda. It also fed into their preconception that Indians were deceptive.

Lewis and Clark were not alone in believing in the necessity of corporal punishment. Samuel Johnson, usually an enlightened man, defended it as the only way to compel young boys to learn their school lessons.

Of course, from the vantage point of today's culture, we know that we can raise successful children without resorting to physical violence -- and in fact, better understand the psychological harm that can arise from physical punishment. We can look at this encounter between Lewis and Clark and the Native American leader and see it as culture clash.

What interests me about this episode (aside from the fact that I'm glad our culture has moved in the direction of the Native Americans) is how we process what doesn't fit into our framework. We tend, I believe, like Lewis and Clark, to dismiss what doesn't fit as a "lie." (I believe Nietszche said a similar thing when he wrote that we label the "other" as evil.) In Lewis and Clark's case, as I remember, they didn't see the Indian as evil, but as childlike, deceptive and, most of all, contemptible. There was no attempt to, say, do a thought experiment and assume that perhaps he was telling the truth. And if he was, to ponder what the implications of that might be. There was no reflection that seemingly "normal" discipline might truly be distressing to another culture--and perhaps there might be something to think about in that slippage between the two cultures.

I'm thinking about this because recently the "culture wars" have been breaking out again in a part of the blogsphere I frequent ...and the assumption on both sides is that the other side is either deliberately lying or that innocent people are being misled by unsavory leaders with the ever-present hidden agendas. But what if we really tried to get into the minds of the people on the other side? What if we assumed that they were telling their truth--that they weren't misled or lying, childlike or contemptible? What leads them to this truth that is different from our truth? What can we learn from it?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Global Warming: Who cares?

There's been much debate lately about whether global warming is "real." Since that long-desired northwest passage is emerging due to melting ice ... my feeble mind says global warming is "real." Is the warming caused by greenhouse gases and carbon emissions produced by industrialism or is it just a natural fluctuation in the earth's temperature? I certainly don't know but it seems a tad suspicious to me that 50 years ago or more scientists started worrying about this possibility and devising models that showed that carbon emissions would warm the earth ... and voila, everything seems to be happening as they hypothesized, only faster.

I'm certainly not one to bow and worship at the idol of science. I know science can get things terribly wrong. Words like lobotomy and thalidomide dance through the brain ...

So perhaps science has it wrong. Maybe we can continue to flood the highways with ever more cars and throw ever more heat into the atmosphere and the earth will do what it will--heat, cool, stay the same--paying we humans as much mind as a gadfly. Maybe it doesn't matter. I don't believe that--I do believe our lifestyle, for lack of a better word is having an effect on the planet and not a good one-- but for me, the underlying issue is not solely whether cars, for example, are adding to global warming. Avoiding destroying the eco-system is important (I do care) but so is another question: do we want to live in a car-dependent culture?

And for me the answer is no.

Even if (here I can fantasize for a moment) cars are having no environmental impact, all the same, from a quality of life standpoint, it's dystopic for so many people to spend so much time sitting locked in traffic in little metal cubes that burn up money. It's dystopic not to have a choice. In addition, highways are dead space. How many communities have been broken by having a highway cut them in half? How much sense of geography and place do we lose when we drive around all the real places to get where we are going on highways?

OK, I'm throwing a mishmash of issues into the pot, and none of what I am saying is new. However, I seem to need to say it.

I have no answers, but I think if we can alter the debate or at least add the question of "how do we want to live," maybe we could make a little more progress. Maybe if we stopped assuming that cars are the be all and end all that have to be defended at all costs, we could stop arguing solely about whether they're contributing to global warming and ask: Are they really THAT important? Do we really want to be so dependent on them?

Just a thought.

Should we--brothers and sisters from another planet-- start a "bring back the buses" movement?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sister From Another Planet

Often I feel like sister from another planet in that I seem to look at life through a different set of lenses. For example:

I actually liked the period during which we had one car. It slowed us down. It felt good. It felt right.

I wish all our towns were connected with trains and buses and even passenger boats drifting down waterways.

I don't think the government does everything wrong. I think they handle many programs well.

I don't agree with the sentiment: "If their own parents don't care about them, why should we?" when children are in trouble. On that note, I didn't like the parties in elementary school given for the children whose parents got the school forms back "on time." Should a child whose parents are so disorganized or have so many problems they can't get the school forms back be doubly punished? When I would say that, I would hear "If their own parents don't care about the, why should we?" Then I would feel angry. And then I would feel ... like sister from another planet.

Well, the list could go on. Almost daily. It can make one despairing, frustrated or misanthropic, but then it gets back to ... ...loving people anyway, looking at life through their lenses, not judging ... accepting that the world won't conform to my ideas and that's probably a good thing ... any other ideas?

Same anyone? Additions to the list? It could go on and on and on .... :)

Monday, November 30, 2009

On Memoirs ... and Quakers

What haikus, images, memories of the past could you share?

Memoirs are in the air these days from Ben Yagoda's book to Sarah Palin's memoir to classes in memoir writing. The Quaker Writing group I was part of in Maryland coalesced around memoirs.

Memoirs, as Yagoda apparently notes (I haven't read his book) are interchangeable with autobiography. Even if they purport to be about someone famous, they are inevitably, in part, the story of the writer.

Most often, however, people tell their own stories in memoirs.

We get interested in memoir writing when we're old enough to realize that a world we thought was timeless and unchanging was in fact bound to a certain time and place. Things that seemed permanent--natural--the order of being--surprise us by changing. We see that the seemingly eternal is ephemeral. Hence, we realize we our identity is more fragile than we once believed, bound as it is to a world in flux. And as we reflect on that change, we want to capture and communicate some of what once seemed fixed and solid before it dissolves and before we dissolve with it. In that way, memoir is much like photography--never objective, sometimes arranged, but always meant to capture, somehow, a slice of reality, to hold it, freeze it, keep it. Not a random reality but an iconic reality that contains meaning, that traps the elusive feeling of a time or place. We want people who did not live in that time or place to know a little of the flavor of what we experienced, and to know--although they won't--that what they see as fixed in their own lives is similarly prone to flux. Most of all, we want to reassure ourselves that what we remember really did happen. Sometimes we think we might have imagined it and hence that we might be the butterfly dreaming of being a human, that our own identity may be in question ... so when we write it down, as when we take a snapshot, we bring it to the safety of a common space, hedged by the certainty of words and punctuation and the tangible affirmation of other people's eyes on the page. Memoir brings us into community and hence into life.

I first became interested in what I will call, with not a little irony, the drama of my own life, when I entered my mid-thirties, and it became clear that the world had altered in strange ways since my childhood. This was brought home to me through having children of my own by this time and recognizing that their childhood would be different from mine. While I did not have what might be called an ideal childhood, there was much about it that was good and that I wished my own children could experience: going out to play without play-dates or adult-organized activities, the now-dissolved but then-intact ethnic community we used to visit in New York City, with it's own language, food and customs, walking to school with friends, playing endless games of jacks and pick-up sticks and later on, Monopoly, the thrill of unsupervised (and sometimes illicit) friend-making, the time to dream with friends ...

On a larger level, my family lived, albeit unwillingly, through such "social movements" as white flight out of Baltimore City, and I have as well memories of the sixties and the then sense of imminent upheaval and all the odd details of social change--my teacher wearing a paper dress to school (disposable dresses were to be the new thing)-- a pink paisley shift that made her anxious all day, she said, that it would tear. Not two years later, we were concerned with "pollution" (such as too many paper products) and participated in the first Earth day, trooping out as a class to the baseball field watch colorful balloons (yes, balloons, those enemies to birds and other living things) drift into the sky to commemorate the moment. How cutting edge we thought we were!

Of course, in what we choose to write, the details we remember, the way we frame events or understand people, we reveal ourselves. That leads me to my one rule for memoirs: Be generous to those you write about. There's nothing more chilling, for me, than reading of a person long dead, or simply not around, unable to defend himself or herself, who is knived in someone's story. I always imagine a person tied to a chair, mouth duct-taped shut, hit by blow after blow.

Quakers, as we know, focus on the spiritual autobiography, a form of memoir in which interiority is given form and substance. Writing becomes our icon, our cross, our bread and wine, our faith made incarnate and tangible, our symbolic and yet real participation in the flesh of earthly creation. It's interesting that early Quakers rejected other forms of representation--music, painting, etc.--but not writing. Perhaps this goes back to the gospel of John and Word made flesh. It connects us, in some ways, to Judaism and Islam, and to Eastern Orthodoxy, where the icons are understood not as representations but as words.

I wonder though, why memoirs are so popular today. Any thoughts? Any thoughts on what we might be writing about in these times? How important is it to capture history through our personal lenses?

George Fox: Dew and armor

"I will be as to the dew unto Israel." Hosea 14:5

"So God Almighty be with you all! The dew of heaven is falling upon you to water the tender plants; and the blessing of God be amongst you, which showers down amongst you." George Fox: "Mind the Heavenly Treasure."

God's blessing-- a dew or light shower--is a collective blessing, as indicated by Fox's use of the plural "you."

Community blessing is the true blessing: I agree with John Donne that no man (or person) is an island. I have been struck this past year with how gratitude for individual blessings can unintentionally smack of celebrating one's own exceptionalism. God's true blessings fall on us as a whole: the sun shining, the water flowing, the trees fruiting, peace blooming. I believe it's when we try to corner these blessings for ourselves alone that trouble follows.

I also appreciate the gentleness and simplicity of the dew image. It shows God incarnate in nature, infusing and nourishing us, not controlling us. How can we try to dominate and ruthlessly exploit a nature that is created by God and manifests God's spirit?

"Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God" (Ephesians 6:13)

Now is the time for you to stand: therefore put on the whole armor of God, from the crown of your head to the soles of your feet, that you may stand in the possession of life." George Fox: "Mind the Heavenly Treasure."

The image of armor contrasts sharply with that of gentle dews and showers. But as we know, God's armor is faith, integrity, peace, truth, Spirit, and speaking God's truth to power. Paul understands the "upside down kingdom" and here renders a violent image gentle and insists that this gentleness will vanquish violence and evil. Given how often Christianity has been wedded to violence, how do we reclaim the original intent of the faith as a counterpoint to violence?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Middletown and Quakers

I recently read Middletown in Transition, a 1937 sociological study of Muncie Indiana that focused on the many changes brought to the town--the subject of a 1920s study-- by the Depression and the New Deal. Several thoughts on this book: I had an early edition, if not a first edition, so that lent a physicality to the reading experience. I held the raw text, with no frame to contextualize it, no handy "updates," no modern introductions. The "World War" is still the one and only world war. The 1890s are a point of reference. The footnotes are at the bottom of the page, complete with ibids and op cits. I found that reading an unmediated text made the work seem more "authentic," probably in the same way that looking at a second century scrap of papyrus with a fragment from the gospels renders that more immediate.

Several things stuck with me from the book, which I've had to return to the library, so can't refer to. First, how similar the situation then is to now, especially the recurring optimism or, more precisely, desperate hope, that everything is on the brink of--or in fact is--bouncing back to normal, all our hairs back in place. The book stops at 1935, a year in which both the authors and the people of Muncie assume that the Depression is over! It sounds so much like now, when we are told the recession has ended, despite the skyrocketed unemployment rate and record numbers of people using food stamps.

A huge difference between then and now lies in the fact that the New Deal safety net, then a radical concept, is more or less in place, which has meant we haven't experienced the extreme collapse, desperation and ruin of those times.

What struck me most, however, was how little thinking has changed in 70 years! It's remarkable. Many in Muncie were convinced that the New Deal was going to destroy the world! Bring down America! Reward sloth. Mark the end of civilization as we know it! Of course, the same people who saw the mark of Cain or the first phase of the apocalypse in the New Deal were quick enough to take the money, in the form of WPA and CCC projects, systemized government relief programs and even the beginnings of social security. Many attacked FDR but realized at the same time that the money brought a great deal of immediate, tangible benefit to the community! So I wonder, when we see the proven value of social security and unemployment insurance, food stamps, and government investment in roads and other infrastructure--and the prosperity these brought, particularly after World War II --that some persist in attacking these programs. As I read the book, I couldn't help feeling a bit frustrated at how little this country has moved ideologically in 70 years, which means we have to keep refighting the same old battles. On the other hand, we do now accept as normal programs, such as the above-mentioned, that were radical innovations in the early 1930s.

This gets back to class issues: In Middletown in the early 1930s, social classes were stratified, with a wide gulf between the working classes and the "business" class, as it's called. Then, as now, the working class was hardest hit by the economic crisis.

Class keeps popping up for me in different places. My cyberfriend Ellen Moody from the Jane Austen and women's lit world is sensitive to class issues in what we read, and I appreciate how quick she is to point out, for instance, that "genteel poverty," such as experienced by "marginal" women in Jane Austen's world was quite different from working class poverty. Class issues come up repeatedly in the Quaker blogosphere. Class issues have emerged for me recently in children's literature. Perhaps because of the recession, I am more sensitive these days to my own class privilege.

For Quakers, sensitivity to class issues, and our own classism, is a natural concern, as equality is a core value. As Quakers have long recognized, erasing arbitrary and unfair distinctions between people builds a stronger society. It seems to me rather than make everyone like us, we need to support people in being who they are, which means, for example, higher pay for people engaged in labor that we need, but which doesn't require a college education. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

American Movie, social class, Kierkegaard, despair

I recently saw the film American Movie. It's a 1999 documentary about Mark Borchardt, a 29-year-old with a passion for movie making. The film documents his struggles to finish a black and white horror film called Coven.

Struggle he does. Perhaps the most overt theme in the movie is how every card in this working class high school drop-out's life is stacked against him. Mark is intelligent, energetic, determined to succeed, funny and personable. He has a vision and a passion. Yet because of his class situation, there's almost nothing to support him. Certainly very little money and almost no access to people with the education and expertise to smooth his path.

His Wisconsin world is bleak, from the barren, frozen landscape to the small, drab house he shares with his mother (and sometimes his three children from a former marriage) to the cramped trailer where his uncle lives in a mobile home park. Mark supports himself by delivering newspapers and doing janitorial work in a mausoleum/cemetery (at one point this involves washing defecation off a bathroom wall). His best friend is a cheerful, overwieght recovering alcoholic and acidhead whose main activity in life involves buying scratch-off lottery tickets, which he justifies as a better use of his money than drink or drugs.

As for Mark's family, they are less than the American Family Values ideal: His brothers say disdainful things about Mark: he won't finish his film, he's a hopeless dreamer, he's a loser, he has about enough brains to work in a factory. His father, who is separated from his mother, won't help him with the film. He self-righteously doesn't like the "language" in it. HIs mother doesn't think he will ever complete the movie, which he has been working on for years. People come to production meetings, then melt away when he needs them. Luckily, he has a girlfriend who actually doesn't undermine him. Possibly his best supporter is his shrunken old uncle in the trailer, who gives him $3,000 to complete the film and makes it through 31 takes of a scene in which he has to say four short lines that he keeps botching. The uncle is no great enthusiast however: At best, he is a verbally abusive skeptic, the unwilling underwriter of a project he doesn't believe in and has been bullied into financing.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? Yet the grace in the movie is the way Mark works with the people around him. He's largely patient and good-humored through what must be enormous frustrations. He's able to laugh. He's able to see the good in what seem like the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. He's able to inspire them to be better than they are. He's able to pull them together, however imperfectly, into a community that transcends itself. Through his passion, he draws them in and releases their energies: Near the end, it's amazing to see them all working feverishly against a deadline to edit the movie in the hours--even minutes-- before its premiere.

His mother gives him a place to stay and though often unwilling and largely unable, she fills in as an extra and does camerawork. His acidhead friend is nothing but loyal. He even gets his young children to help with the filming from time to time.

You wonder how Mark keeps on. He gets depressed sometimes--and lashes out bitterly at the safest people in his life, his mother and uncle--but he never despairs.

Kierkegaard and Mark

About the same time I watched this movie, an essay ran in the New York Times written Gordon Martino about Kiergegarrd and despair ( This essay, I thought, describes Mark.

According to the Times piece, Kierkegaard distingushed between depression and despair. Despair is the state of not wanting to accept who you fundamentally are, of wanting to get rid of yourself, as Kierkegaard put it. It's a malaise of the spirit. Depression is the blues, the self being out of sorts. Ironically, accepting who you are can lead to depression--if you fancy yourself a wealthy extroverted businessperson but your soul cries out that you are truly an avant-garde musician-- that can be depressing, given the mores of the culture. Yet that very depression--the struggle of the self-- can lead to spiritual growth. Though we've collapsed the spiritual and the psychological in our culture and see despair as a form of depression, a malady of the self, in fact, a person can be depressed and yet spiritually healthy; happy and yet spiritually ill.

Mark, it seems to me, enacts this Kierkegaardian distinction between despair and depression. For as depressed as he gets--and who wouldn't, with his bleak, miserable prospects--he is not a figure of despair. He's fundamentally doing what he was called to do--fundamentally expressing his deepest, most creative self as he enacts his filmmaking. Bad as everything in his life is, including his movie, we respond to his spiritual health and vitality, his integrity. And the rawness, pain and vulnerability of his desire.

At one point in this film, Mark, in many way this most spiritual of people, drives around looking at Macmansions and talks about aspiring to the American Dream of material success. He discusses having a Christian ethic but also wanting money, about being torn, about being half a Christian. It's funny in its naivete of expression, but we're drawn, again, to his integrity, his awkward passion to express who he really is.

In the end, his irony is our irony: Reaching his goal of material success might be the very thing that drives him out of depression and into despair. At the same time, in seeking his goal, he is fully, authentically alive.

Do you agree with Kiergegaard's dinstinction? What blocks us--many of us probably more privileged than Mark--from finding and expressing our authentic selves and how do we do this in a way that isn't narcissistic?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reading the Bible in the Manner of Early Friends

One of the pleasures of living in Barnesville, that "Quaker crossroads," is Friends Center, which holds weekend retreats on Quaker topics about four times a year. I spent this weekend there at a retreat/workshop on reading the Bible in the manner of early Friends.

Our facilitator was Michael Birkel, a religion professor from Earlham. Michael is a scholar with a gift for connecting with people. That made the weekend especially pleasant, as did the mix of people attending the workshop.

I already knew that the early Quakers read the Bible "in the Spirit" and were immersed in the Bible. It was, as Michael put it, "their mother tongue." I also knew that they read the Bible experientially, becoming co-participants in its story, which is also a post-modern way of approaching Scripture.

What was most interesting to me was to understand that the early Quakers read the Bible not in terms of "facts" or "truths" or "rules," but in terms of images. The images that we might speed through as metaphors or representations of abstract truths, they sat with and luxuriated in. These images--rivers and mountains, roses and lilies, roots and rocks, soil and seeds, fat and feasts-- had reality and resonance for them. As they were writing letters or pamphlets, one Biblical image of, say, a river, would trigger an association with another Bibilical image of a river or of water, and what would emerge would be a rich juxtaposition of Bible passages, ranging, say, from Exodus to Isaiah to Luke to Revelation. They gravitated to the Song of Solomon, a deeply-felt erotic imagistic love poem, as often reflecting their experience of the Light. Their faith was not abstract, but embodied, textured, tangible and sensual.

I love the idea of the early Quakers, whom we (or I) tend to think of as rejecting music and art and other forms of corrupting "riot and revelry," actually enjoying the richness and beauty and fecundity of Biblical images.

The emphasis on experiencing Scriptural images led them to a fuller understanding of Biblical truth. By not trying to immediately get "behind" a metaphor to its meaning, they were able to see the value of the metaphor itself. For instance, George Fox realized that the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God in the book of Revelation was not an accident but indicated the nature of the "warfare" Jesus will "wage" in the "end times." What kind of army would a lamb lead? Would "a lamb" lead troops armed with carnal weapons? Fox said, no, of course not, and tied the "warfare" of Revelation back to the "armor of God" described in Ephesians: the Lamb's weapons will be faith, truth, righteousness, peace. With these, love will defeat the carnal, militaristic powers of Satan.

It's a gift to us that the early Quakers were pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment thinkers. They felt no compunction to slice and dice the Bible scientifically, to approach it empirically, to boil it down to a set of propositions or rules. They were completely comfortable with experiencing it emotionally and in an embodied way as well as intellectually.

What do you think of their approach?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Two book reviews

In the October issue of Friends Journal, I reviewed Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet, which discusses strategies for Bible reading. In the current issue, which is the books issue, you can, if interested, read my review of the Diaries of Dorothy Day.

East Richland Friends Church

Yesterday, I went with my friend Sally to East Richland Friends Church, an Evangelical Friends congregation about 15 minutes from Barnesville.

It's a treat to live in a place with such a variety of Friends worship available--Conservative Friends, Evangelical Friends and in Pittsburgh, Liberal Friends.

The congregation was warm and vibrant, with a sense of spirit pervading the sanctuary. The church, which has a 1,000 members and 800 attenders on a typical Sunday, is growing and thriving.

East Richland reminded me of Cedar Ridge Community Church, a nondenominational emerging church begun by Brian McLaren. Like Cedar Ridge, East Richland has stage at the front of a large sanctuary flanked by two big view screens, a rock band and praise music. No donuts and bagels in the atrium, however, and no communion.

I didn't see--admittedly I've been to all of one service--any signs of Quaker distinctives. We sang praise music and listened to a sermon, but there was no period of silence, no opportunity for people in the pews to speak and no mention of such Quaker testimonies as simplicity, peace or equality. I was told that the church offers communion four times a year, which would also put it outside historic Quakerism. The service was simple and non-liturgical, but if the word "Friends" was taken from the name, I would have assumed it was a non-denominational "low" church.

It was a contrast to Stillwater, where the demographic skews much older and where a sense of sacred quietness prevails. My first thought : East Richland seems more "alive,"more a-crackle with energy, and I pondered, longingly, how can we capture this vitality and export it to our silent meetings?

But now I wonder: Is crackling energy the only sign of God's spirit? Of course not, and the somber stillness of a silent meeting can reach much more deeply into our souls. And God can work through the small often more effectively than through the large. But still I find myself poised, wondering: Do our silent meetings need an infusion of energy and vibrancy and a period of growth? Are they dying or is that my lack of faith? What is God's plan for them and how can we forward that?

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gossip and Quakers

Martin Kelly raises an important issue on Quaker Ranter and I'm willing to help it go viral (even though he's not asking :)). Here it is:

"Ethnographic Study Looks at Gossip in the Workplace" in the NYTimes:

The earlier studies found that once someone made a negative comment about a person who wasn’t there, the conversation would get meaner unless someone immediately defended the target. Otherwise, among both adults and teenagers, the insults would keep coming because there was so much social pressure to agree with the others.

Some interesting here. They say gossip usually spirals down until someone intervenes to defend or deflect. In one school, gossip set up rival camps; teachers eventually left and student test scores fell.

Friends (and Christians more generally) are officially against gossip, though of course we're not immune and I've seen it act as almost a kind of currency in some settings. But what are the classic Quaker tools for deflecting this natural human tendency and keeping our communities from the downward spirals of camp building? "

Factionalism, favoritism, in-groups and gossip do immense, and I would say, often unacknowledged, damage to Quaker institutions and meetings, as well as in the wider world. I've seen the "mischief making" and I've seen people more often than I'd like to have leave meetings because of it. Mostly, they don't care about the quarrel, whatever it may be, but they do care about the way people act and they are appalled at what they see. As Quakers, as upholders of the community and equality testimonies, we should be fighting gossip and factions (which are patterns for destroying community and equality) at every turn. They are against our core beliefs of how we live out God's word in the world. What do you think causes the problem, and as Martin says, how can we deflect it? What do you think of people stepping forward to protest as soon as it starts? What if you come into a situation where this behavior --and the "in-groups"--are already entrenched?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Persimmon Cake recipe

Someone asked for the persimmon cake recipe. Here it is. It comes from I actually baked it in a bundt pan rather than a loaf pan and it turned out well. I used my food processor to make persimmon pulp.


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
2 cups persimmon pulp
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9x13 inch loaf pan.
Whisk together the flour baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl, set aside. Whisk together the eggs, persimmon pulp, milk, and vanilla extract in a separate bowl until smooth. Fold the persimmon mixture into the flour mixture until no dry lumps remain. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake in preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from the pan, and allow to cool completely on a wire rack before icing.
Nutritional Information

Amount Per Serving Calories: 298 | Total Fat: 1.6g | Cholesterol: 37mg

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Age Girls (and Boys), Quakers and sweat lodges

I finished a book by Deborah O'Keefe called Good Girl Messages: How Young Women were Misled by their Favorite Books. In it, O'Keefe is critical of much of girls' literature produced between 1850 and 1950 because of the passivity it celebrated in girls and young women, manifested in such poses as fainting, reclining, smiling, submitting, weakening, wasting and dying.

O'Keefe goes on to maintain that very little genuine evil exists in classic girls' literature. Many books relay the message that a girl with a radiant, upbeat, smiling and helpful personality can melt crusty hearts and inspire a new level of generosity, vision and gentleness in formerly irascible authority figures. O'Keefe cites Pollyanna as one of the fictional heroines whose golden, sunbeam personality and determination to find the positive in everything changes her environment.

When I was reading this account of Pollyanna, I was nagged by a memory: at one point I happened to read an article in a New Age publication. A woman wrote about her elementary school daughter coming home from school moping every day because "her teacher didn't like her." The mother had no patience with this whining and told the daughter that if she smiled at the teacher more and was nice to her--if she practiced the good karma of positive thinking and sent that out into the world --the whole situation would change. The daughter took the advice, went out of her way to be nice to the teacher and voila, happy ending!

I have to say I was exasperated by the article. I have no doubt that a positive attitude can help us make our way through the world to some extent, but to elevate that to the status of life strategy seems to me inane at best and dangerous at worst. It's based on the assumption that we will spend our entire lives in safe, secure, middle class world where evil is kept firmly in check. It essentially assumes there is no real evil in the world, just something more akin to bad mood or a bad hair day. Nothing a smile won't dissolve!

The denial of evil is one of my chief problems with New Age philosophy, a philosophy which I think has seeped into Quakerism. I remember a woman standing up in our meeting during the height of the Darfur crisis (or at least the height of media coverage of the crisis) and stating she had not believed in the existence of evil until she started reading about the genocide, but now, even though she hated the word, she could draw no other conclusion but that there is evil in the world.

I wondered --OK, I was being judgmental-- "what universe has this woman been living in?" but then I thought, I'm glad she is seeing the light. Looking back, I realize she was courageous. I think it was hard for her to stand up and risk sounding fundamentalist or narrow minded. There was a denial of Self-- a surrender of her own will that the world be in happy harmony -- in speaking her truth. She was acknowledging that she could no longer live in that false reality. And oh, do we long for that to be the reality, that day when all tears will be wiped away!

I appreciate the Quaker emphasis on finding that of God in everyone, emphasizing grace over sin and understanding every person as having direct access to the light of the Holy Spirit. But if this slides into denying the existence of evil, then we become a society of Pollyannas, hoping to smile injustice away or to melt cruelty because of our radiant "patterns" of good living. Da Nile is a long river.

Humans repeatedly get caught up in social systems that make it easy for them to do heinous things. This does not mean that certain people are inherently evil, and others not. However, it might be a worthy goal, in the words of Dorothy Day, to build a society in which it is easier for people to be good. We can't do that by denying evil exists or by thinking we can eradicate evil with the vibes of our positive personalities.

One of the chief goals of religion is to teach people how to live in the world as it really is, not the world of distortions we create out of own desires. This is hard. It means we have to be transformed to see the distortions for what they are. It takes time, at least that's what I have found, which seems obvious, but read on ...

What most repels some Quakers I have talked to about the Bible is it's seemingly endless litany of unspeakable violence and suffering. Some Quakers want to create their own Bible out of the nice verses--the Peaceable Kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13. I like these parts too. But unfortunately, the ultra violence of the Bible more accurately reflects the world we still live in. By telling us about that world and the often mistaken ways characters in that story behaved, the Bible offers us strategies to deal with reality. It doesn't tell us the false story that this world is great. Mostly, it tells us that living in this world is hard and that we have to sacrifice to build a better world, but that if we work at it we can build a community of love that is stronger than all the evil around us.

In contrast, the New Age worldview offers religion lite. You fly in for a weekend and you fly out "spiritually renewed." A New York Times story recently ran about three people dying in a sweat lodge run by a New Age guru named James Arthur Ray. Ray's retreat typifies what's wrong with this kind of so-called spirituality: middle-aged people paying more than $9,000--$9,000!!-- to fly to Arizona for a short course in becoming Spiritual Warriors that included the deadly sweat lodge only loosely based on Native American models.

A website the New York Times linked to at is eloquent in its pleas for people not to confuse New Age shams with genuine Native American religious practice: "Learning medicine ways takes decades and must be done with great caution and patience out of respect for the sacred. Any offer to teach you all you need to know in a weekend seminar or two is wishful thinking at best, fraud at worst. ..."

The Native Americans are saying just what serious spokespeople from other religious traditions say: Religion is hard! It takes time! Decades! It's messy, it's dirty, it's perilous, it changes us in ways that challenge our egos... we don't so much erase our egos as have to jump over the barrier they put up. That's why faith is so often likened to a seed or a plant (Christian tradition) that gets planted in "dirt" and takes a long time to sprout, or seen as something that has to take place with in the cycle of Nature (Native Americanism), not in a room, not in a weekend. It comes with messy traditions that we don't want to touch... but that's part of what we grapple with, the darker sides of our collective humanity ... and yet some Quakers seem to want to just build a high-walled garden and pull out all the "pretty" parts of the "spiritual life" for themselves and have a little dabble of Native Americanism, a few verses from the ever-popular poet Hafiz, some watered-down Zen Buddhism, a taste of Roman Catholic mysticism through Gerard Manley Hopkins ... how can that work?

Anyway, to what extent do you think Quakers are in Pollyanna mode when we "speak truth to power?"

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"right size it"

In yesterday's blog, I posed the question; If having fewer material goods is not "a lower standard living," how do we more accurately describe it?

An answer struck me. I remember that during the recession of the early 1990s, I was working for a computer company (ie, private industry). Many of our business associates were laying people off and shrinking their businesses. They insisted that they were not, let me repeat not, "down-sizing." They were "right sizing." I remember it being a faux pas even to say "downsizing."

Well, that was all rather ridiculous, but I think the term "right sizing" is in fact apt to describe a move to simpler existence. What do you think?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

small towns

In Another Turn of the Crank, a book of essays by Wendell Berry published in 1995, he entreats us to build small, sustainable communities that recognize the interconnectedness of all people. He also advocates seeing the earth's ecosystem--air, water, soil, plants and animals--as at one with humankind.

Berry notes the environmental extremes and disjunctions on both sides of the equation. He abhors the strip mining and other degradations to the natural habitat of his native Eastern Kentucky and other places , but at the same time, he pushes back against the desire of some environmentalists for protected land that's so pristine humans can't use it. He argues that we live in a strange tit-for-tat system in which it becomes "OK" to rape and pillage part of the environment because you have "preserved" another part. "Preservation" of part of the land isn't a magic formula that offsets destroying another part, he argues. In fact, he says, both practices tend to be inhuman(e) in the sense that humans are Xed out of the environment.

Rather than striking a balance between unused, untouched land and ruined land, he says, we would be better off to use all land--or almost all land--in respectful, sustainable and environmentally sounds ways.

As I was reading Berry, I was reminded of Wolf Guindon, a Quaker who settled with several other Quakers in Monteverde in Costa Rica in 1950 because the country had no draft. Guindon became involved in the movement during the 1970s and beyond to save the rainforest he lived in and was instrumental in helping to set up vast preserves, such as the Children's Eternal Rainforest. However, he clashed at times with environmentalists who wanted to keep the preserved rainforests entirely pure. Wolf envisioned certain areas set up as picnic grounds and for swimming, so that the local population could enjoy the beauty.

I tend to agree with Wendell and Wolf that it's better to coexist with and enjoy the nature around us than to place it off limits to human touch. It seems better to teach people how to live respectfully in an eco-system than to forbid entry.

Today I read an interview in Sun magazine with James Howard Kunstler, who made largely the same point: to survive after peak oil, which he says is now, Americans will have to live differently, in smaller walkable communities that very much resemble the small towns of yesteryear and may in fact be those towns. He sees globalization not as inevitable but as something that will end when oil prices rise high enough to make shipping goods halfway around the globe economically unfeasible. (A friend from Singapore offered an example of the absurdity of globalization. (Maybe we need friends from other places to see what we view as "normal.") He and his wife, who own a house in Maryland, went to Home Depot and bought bags of gravel to put under their deck. The gravel was imported from China. My friend couldn't get over it. 'They shipped rocks halfway around the world!' Yes, absurd, absurd and yet we all understand the economics.) After reason is restored and it once again becomes crazy to ship gravel across the earth, local farming, local communities and local industry will undergo a rebirth, sez Kunstler.

I have to say that for years I have dreamed of living in a place where you could walk everywhere you needed to go and where trains connected communities. Kunstler calls this move away from the car--and the smaller houses we will have to live in and the gardening we will have to do-- a decline in the American standard of living. But is it a decline or simply different? To me, it sounds better. I spent enough time in a minivan chauffering children to activities not to want to do that again. I love the idea of children being able to walk themselves to little league practice or dance class or me being able to walk to market. I loved my time living in a small house and preferred it to the bigger home we moved into after our family grew.

On the other hand, much as we might like the idea of small town communities, they can also be bastions of cruelty and narrow-mindedness. We associate lynchings with small towns. In 17th century England, women in small towns who complained about abuse or injustice by the men in power there were sometimes labeled witches and burned or hanged. Today, we rely on larger government entities to control the abuses of the small town dictator. However, if we are going to go back to living in small communities, rather than rely on the government (though I do believe in Aristotle's model of a stronger force protecting the everyday person from the abuses of the petty tyrant) I believe we must find ways to structure our communities with kindness, compassion, creativity and opportunity.

So two different questions: If having fewer material goods is not "a lower standard living," how do we more accurately describe it? Second, if we are going to be living in smaller communities, what are some ways to keep them from becoming abusive?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Persimmon Cake

Our persimmons are now "well-frosted"--or at least, somewhat frosted--and so I picked some. I've discovered they're best when they turn bright orange, almost the color of a cherry tomato, and are beginning to shrivel.

When I'd gathered enough, I whipped them into a pulp in the food processor and made a persimmon cake from a recipe I found on the Web.

I served it at the Quaker Writing group meeting this evening. It was the color and texture of an English plum pudding, a moist, dense cake. The "tasters" --aka the writing group--liked it. I was glad.

I was informed that you can frost persimmons by picking them and putting them in the freezer. Now why didn't I think of that? I was also told that November and December are more the months for persimmons, but we have had a cold snap recently.

In any case, the golden and orange persimmon globes are colorful and pretty in the tree. People in Barnesville with persimmon experience tell me I should try an actual persimmon pudding. Maybe I will.

This is all the more thrilling for me as I am reading a book now called Jane Austen and Food. After her father died, according to this book, Jane and her mother and her sister Cassandra lived in a "cottage" called Chawton, with a big garden surrounded by high walls. They grew pears and greengages and many other fruits (and vegetables) and made their own jams, jellies and preserves. So as I baked with persimmons, I liked thinking that Jane Austen would have done the same.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The importance of we insignificants

At Stillwater Meeting this morning, there were a flurry--if you can have a "flurry" in a Quaker meeting --of messages about the importance a small, seemingly insignificant person can have in carrying out God's will for the world. I find it interesting that so many of us were on the same thought trajectory in this meeting and cannot help but wonder--and believe--that God was speaking through his people, and that these thoughts were the the thoughts of the Holy Spirit as it filled our room with its palpable presence.

The messages went well into the afterthoughts section following meeting for worhsip, so I did not speak my thoughts, which felt as if they were a message too, and which were on the same theme. I have been reading Bob Dixon's two-volume work on sexism, classism and racism in (primarily English) children's literature, written in the 1970s. He documents outrageous examples of racism in books still in print in England at the time (I hope they are out of print by now), such as the story of the black doll who is disliked and rejected because of his black face until, at the end, as a reward for helping a sprite, his face is washed pink in the rain and then all the other toys and his owner decide they like the new, "attractive," him. In the section on sexism, Dixon discusses a recurring theme in girls' literature, which could be summed up as "punishment of the tomboy." In many books, a lively, assertive, active girl--a tomboy--disobeys adults who tell her not to do something physical and as result, has a terrible accident which lays her up for months or years in bed and/or a wheelchair, until she learns the lessons of docility and sweet acceptance of her lot. As Dixon puts it about yet another of this type of girl's book, "Yes, you guessed it. The wheelchair for her."

While it's appalling the ways in which stereotypes were (and are) taught and reinforced, I thought DIxon was partially wrong when he also blamed "religion"--in the vast majority of these cases the religion he has in mind must have been Christianity--for reinforcing sex, class and racial hierarchies. He places this blame offhandedly or incidentally--he's not really concerned at all with religion, but seems to add it as an afterthought--and he reminded me that it's true that Christianity has often been twisted to support an unjust status quo. As Dixon puts it, religion can reinforce the notion that everyone must stay in his or her supposedly God-given place, and not challenge an unfair manmade social system that assigns certain groups of people second-class status.

A cursory glance at the Bible shows that in God's kingdom of ordering and assigning of tasks there is no second-class based on race, class or sex. The Bible is replete with stories of the lowly--the second-class citizens in the eyes of the world--being selected as the chosen ones. For example, the "weaker" sex rises to the occasion in the stories of Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, Abigail, Esther, and Mary Magdalene, just to name the few that pop to mind almost instantly. Joseph is sold into slavery (definitely a step into a lower class) before he saves Egypt and then Israel from mass starvation. Jesus is explicitly the son of a nobody. Peter and Andrew are fishermen. Finally, the story Acts, of course, shows the breakdown of an ethnic stereotype that reserved the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for bona fide Jews. Every human, the early apostles discover, can be touched by God's spirit. We learn there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek in the kingdom of God. Hierarchy is erased. People will, obviously, stay male or female and keep their ethnicities, but these will no longer be used to assign places higher or lower in the status hierarchy. How has this message gotten so messed up????

We can help dispel the false constructions of Christianity used to uphold privilege and oppression by building churches and meetings that continue to enact the Biblical stories of equality, simplicity, integrity and inclusion. As the many messages in Meeting for Worship expressed, we insignificant people need to keep on keeping on --like the Hobbits in the Lord of Rings (one example used in a message), the small bird threatened by a hawk (another example) even when we are discouraged and don' t want our tasks, and don't think it's possible to succeed with all the darkness in the world crushing down on us. Blogs such as the one on Quakers and social class, and books like the recent--I'm taking a stab at the title-- Fit for Friends, not for Friendship, can keep us focused on the ways classism and racism can infect our communities. We can continue to spread messages of compassion, love, joy, equality, kindness and mutual support. We can continue to assert that these are the true messages of the Bible. OK, this is terribly preachy--I cringe on rereading it and of course, these are just my thoughts, not what anyone "should" do or would even want to do, and to me they seem so obvious I wonder why I am writing this !!! but then I think of all the ways religion has been and can be distorted to beat people down--but OK. I'll stop. :)

Slightly off topic, but one question: My sense is that very little sexism infects the Society of Friends. Am I wrong about this?

Friday, October 9, 2009

George Fox: Christ, but not to rule over them

“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” (Col. 3:15):
The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them; the nature of the world is above Christ in man until Christ hath subdued that nature in man.
George Fox, from "Mind The Heavenly Treasure," a collection of devotions.

"The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them." Isn't this the heart of our troubles: that we want Jesus, "but not to rule over us?" Isn't that the issue in the Society of Friends--that many want the beautiful aesthetic of Jesus, the love, the joy, the peace, the forgiveness, but within the context of a Jesus molded to our liking, so that we can control him? Isn't that at the core of our endless debating and overthinking about the resurrection, the Virgin birth, the divinity of Christ? That we want to reduce him a to great sage, put him on the level with other great sages, on a level with us? We're drawn to him ... there's an irresistible magnetism that reaches out across the ages and pulls us in towards him ...but we resist the implications of this power.

It's very few, however, who will diss Jesus openly,who are not on some level, in awe of him. We'll attack Paul without a second thought, as we will the institution of the church, but when it comes to Jesus, we treat him gently. Even Hitler was in awe of him--or at least afraid of his followers. Instead, like us, he attacked Paul: "that Jew" as he called him, the one who turned the "Aryan warrior" Jesus into something else. Aren't we still doing that? Not attacking Paul for being Jewish, but attacking Paul or the Church for making Jesus uncomfortable to us instead of confronting the idea that Jesus himself may be uncomfortable to us?

We are, as Ben Witherington put it, a Jesus-haunted culture.

We "would have a Christ." We love the idea of Christ, and if not Jesus himself, then his surrogates--Fox, Woolman, Francis of Assisi. So many Quakers would, ironically, want to start the faith at Fox, as if Fox were not explicitly living out the words of Jesus ... or want to start with a Jesus as man, Jesus stripped of the difficulties, the miracles, the grandeur, the majesty.

We would have a Christ but not to rule over us.

What if we, wildly, radically, impossibly, behaved as if --"as if"--isn't that what faith is?-- the whole story were true and not pick out the parts that allow us superiority? Of course, people don't rise from the dead and ascend to heaven after walking for a time on the earth. Of course, virgins don't give birth. There's nothing radical or remarkable in asserting that these things can't be true. It's completely ordinary to reject them. (Paul knew this. That's why he called himself "a fool for Christ.") The extraordinary move is to recognize that the seeming impossible might be real because that is to recognize that the world and the universe as we know them might be more miraculous--and multidimensional and sacred and wild-- than they seem. Doing that involves a paradigm shift.

What if we would have a Christ to rule over us?

Then, Fox says, we would have peace in our hearts. And from that peace in our hearts would flow peace within the Society of Friends. Do you agree with this?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pain and the (Quaker?) world

I've been reading Quaker blogs recently about pain. Quaker Harlot James and Hystery pop to mind. I have been thinking about them probably too much. Then I came across this from Cary Tennis at (I'm not at all suggesting that any Quaker person's pain is the result of pursuing status or material good (au contraire as I think the pain derives in part from awareness of the unconscious worldliness of meetings) but that the theme of pain struck me:

Look around you. Recognize that we stand at a crucial point in history. I submit to you that your discomfort with attainment of status and goods is a form of knowledge; it is a form of seeing; you are seeing what is in front of you and naturally it makes you nauseous. It should. Because in the background the planet is burning.

Your discomfort is a form of world knowledge. You are being called; you are being nudged by the world. What you feel is not envy but contempt, and what is behind the contempt is the nudging of the world; it wants something greater from you.

Is it so far-fetched to consider that all our discomfort with present conditions is in fact the world speaking to us, begging for our help?

Does planting trees feel good? Does feeding the hungry feel good? Why is that? If the world were giving us instructions, how would it do so? Is not pleasure the world's chief instrument of instruction and guidance? Is it not pleasure that the world has used to ensure procreation?

Why would it not speak to us by giving us pleasure when we do certain things and depriving us of pleasure when we do other things?

Then we ask, what feels good to do? Has your life of constant attainment and striving ceased to give you pleasure, as you see it mirrored in the striving of others? Could it be that it feels good to be of service because that is the world's wisdom, because that is what it wants of us? Yet observe how cynically we dismiss the good feelings we get from charity work or volunteering as a kind of false do-gooderism, as unworthy of us. We say that we are buying our way out of true commitment, buying our way out of guilt with this little bit of charity work, this donation, this volunteer time.

Maybe we are not buying anything. Maybe we are indeed joyfully paying -- paying as the fruit tree pays by bearing fruit, as the bird pays by singing, as the antelope pays by running.

Could it be that our feeling of worth when we do good things is genuine? Could it be that it is only with great reluctance that we steel ourselves against our better natures, in order to participate in useless, wasteful activities? Could it be that our willingness to sacrifice our need for meaningful lives is the one thing our masters most desire in us? Could that be why this quality is the thing they stress through stultifying educational programming, through empty television and media, through the utter meaninglessness of political drama, through advertising's attempts to transform us into conditioned consumers of armchairs and cold creams: that the whole system that has taken us to this point of unimaginable calamity -- the earth, our source of life, now threatened in some fundamental way -- needs to be reorganized and reoriented. And why? Because what we have arrived at is indeed an organized calamity -- not in any conspiratorial way but more in the way of the tragedy of the commons multiplied by a million, a logical clustering of individual decisions that collectively, by deracinating a million small commons, brings us to a collective tipping point?

Why is that such a strange or novel idea? Isn't it, to the contrary, more or less obvious?

I think it is obvious but hard to accept.

I know this has taken us a long way from your personal discomfort with your attitude toward your peers, but this is my suggestion: Treat your discomfort not as something to be cured or eradicated, but as a sign of your dissatisfaction with your own current life, and a sign that you are being called to a new and deeper relationship with the world.

What do you think of this?

Shouldn't all of us with commitments to religious communities feel at least a smidgeon of hope, a soupcon of joy, and a large serving of humility because we are at least one tiny step closer to solving the world's problems? Shouldn't we embrace our pain and the pain of being in our communities and become the change we want to see? Are we being called, through our pain, to a closer and deeper relationship with our spiritual homes? I keep coming back to reaching out. It is painful for me to reach out, painful because more often than not it's a good deed that doesn't go unpunished, because the person who reaches out embraces vulnerability and gives the other the power of rejection and dismissal ... and because I love my solitude ... but I've determined that it's not me or you or us having done something wrong or been something wrong that gets us treated badly but that people treat us as they've been treated and for a long time we've been treating each other badly, thus it will take a long time for the slapdowns to be finished ... but we still keep on ...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Monster or Miracle

"I have never seen a greater monster or miracle than myself." Montaigne

What more can we say?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pumpkin (festivals) and Persimmons

I spent Thursday and Friday morning in the school kitchens baking pumpkin bread for Barnesville's annual pumpkin festival. The Olney Friends School senior class sells the bread as a fund raiser for the senior class trip.

Every year, the largest pumpkin is crowned King Pumpkin. This year's pumpkin came in at more than 1,500 pounds. This is close to the world record for the largest pumpkin ever, which is 1,528 pounds. However, the Barnesville pumpkin festival allows gourds into the competition. The largest gourd on record weighs more than 1,800 pounds.

The new King Pumpkin is huge ... and flat.

While I was helping to bake pumpkin bread, I learned some other interesting facts:

Persimmons don't ripen until after the first frost. Interesting.

Don, the Olney farm manager, said he is having the Jonathan and Empire apples (hope I have those names right) made into apple butter. First you boil the apples down into apple sauce, then you boil them down even further, adding a lot of sugar (apple butter is apparently half sugar) until you have a nice smooth paste. The key is never to stop stirring with the paddle.

Jessica, our gardener, came in with a plastic bucket filled with giant kale leaves. They were as big as palm leaves and a vivid green. I couldn't over how huge they were. My baking partner, Richard, told me it was a good season for kale.

About half a dozen wild turkeys have been shredding Richard's kale and other vegetables. It's hard to shoot them, Don said.

It's been raining buckets today, but Roger and I still went to the book sale that the Barnesville Historical Society holds on Pumpkin festival weekend. Do we need MORE books? Not really. But at 10¢ for paperbacks and 20¢ for hardbacks, it's hard for us bibliophiles to resist.

With the rain pouring down, we've yet to stroll the fair proper, so no fried snickers bars to sooth our tastebuds ... so far.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's a Persimmon?

This time last year, after I had been living the bucolic rural life for about, say, six weeks, somebody asked me: "Are you going to put up your persimmons?"


"Put up" my "persimmons?"

He must have seen the blank look on my face because he said, laconic, "You know, you've got that persimmon tree in your yard by the barn. Little tree. Looks like it's got a lot of fruit this year."

Oh--and he was asking me if I were going to can the persimmons.

OK. Like, oh yeah. Now where do I come from? S-u-b-u-r-b-s. Like right. Like I'm going to put up persimmons.

Now I know people in the suburbs "put things up." But what on earth is a persimmon?

I don't think I'd ever seen one. In fact, I thought they were some exotic fruit that grew in, say, England. You know, like gooseberries. The kind of thing Benjamin Bunny might eat in Beatrix Potter. Of course, I'm the person who some years ago took mulberries to my Quaker meeting because I didn't know what they were and my daughter had eaten some from a bush in our yard. As they say, you never stop learning ..

I went outside later and looked for the persimmon tree and sure enough, there it was, a little tree by a bigger tree by the red barn. And yes, little golden fruits that looked like yellow cherry tomatoes dangled amid its leaves. Persimmons. My body of knowledge had just once again increased.

I ate one just to make sure. I've been much bolder about eating flora since I wrote an article on poisonous plants in which I learned that it's exceedingly rare to die of plant poisoning the U.S. in this day and age. (Unless, of course, you're that young man in "Into the Wild" ...)

The golden fruit was sweet and soft inside. Good. I gathered some and ate some more, figuring, macrobiotic, anti-oxidant, what could I lose. I never did put them up. I think other people might have gathered them. Or the birds.

In any case, this year I went out and looked at my persimmon tree, and lo and behold, fruit was forming. It's wonderful--Edenic really--to have the earth produce such bounty without any effort on my part. I tried a persimmon. Not ripe yet. But soon enough.