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 www.salon.com/mwt/col/tenn/2009/09/29/envy/ (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.

Faith and Micah's wedding

A few weeks ago, I went to Faith and Micah's Quaker wedding at Stillwater Meeting House.

I barely know Micah and Faith. I met Micah in August at Ohio Yearly Meeting, which is largely held on the Olney Friends School campus. The plain dressing Quakers in their bonnets and long, flowing dresses captured my attention far more than the "civilians" in ordinary clothes.

Red-haired Micah was a civilian. I shared a table with him and some others at dinner one night in the Olney dining hall. I was in particularly bad mood and off my "center." Maybe that's why he and I bonded over a discussion of the demonic. Really. We connected.

In September, my Quaker friend Jaya from Toronto came to town with her friend Quaker Rebecca to stay at our house so they could go to Micah and Faith's wedding. It was Quakers everywhere. This actually worked out well because Sophie had just moved to college and Will and Nick to the Olney Friends School dorm across the lake, leaving empty bedrooms. I hung blue curtains, spread a light blue blanket on the bed, and put a blue bowl on the dresser of one bedroom, creating the "blue" room! Just like the magazines say! Simply rearrange what you've got!

Anyway. Jaya invited me to a meeting for worship with Micah and Faith at the Georgian Pillars, our one and only Barnesville B&B. Given that we have no hotels or motels in "Pixieville" for miles and miles, it's actually the only place to stay. I jumped on the chance to have a meeting for worship there.

The brick Georgian Pillars looks Georgian on the outside in that it's brick, but inside it's a Victorian or early twentieth century house with high ceilings, art glass, stained glass, fireplaces and an amazing mammoth staircase that says "I am made of real, solid cherrywood and I am here to stay. Don't mess with me." So, with that staircase looming in the hallway, I sat in silent worship stared at by stuffed teddy bears and a large knickkack on the coffee table of a tuxedoed bear at a grand piano.

Even though they didn't know me, Micah and Faith couldn't have been warmer about encouraging me to attend their wedding. After the meeting for worship, we drifted into the Georgian Arms sunny dining room and Faith showed us the hand-calligraphed certificate of marriage that all the witnesses to the wedding would sign the next day, as no priest or minister validates a Quaker wedding. Quakers traditionally frame their certificates of marriage and hang them in their houses.

I was surprised at how calm Faith was the day before her wedding. Wasn't she supposed to be going crazy with last minute crises? Shouldn't she be, like, having a nervous breakdown? Well, one of the joys of a Quaker ceremony is its simplicity: Nothing could be a starker contrast to the bridezilla wedding industry.

Micah and Faith's wedding was true to form, truly beautiful in its austerity. No string of bouquet clutching satin clad bridesmaids preceded Faith to the front of the meeting house. It was simply her, in a simple strapless white dress, and Micah, saying their vows each to the other and exchanging rings. Afterwards, people rose as the spirit moved them and shared stories about the couple or about either Micah or Faith. At the end, we all signed the marriage certificate and poured out to the porch for cake and punch.

Some Quakers commented on how few, if any, Quaker weddings they had attended. It's sad there are so few young Quakers marrying in the Quaker tradition, but that could change. I do think the world would be less harried--and impoverished-- if more couples adopted the simplicity of the Quaker wedding. This is a place where less is more. Where simplicity is beautiful.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Amish and Quakers

Are these Amish for real or do they roll up their stage set at the end of the day and plop down in front of their flat screen TVs? I asked this question to my friend Jane as we drove from the Amish vegetable stand. Jane laughed and said she knew what I meant. Especially in a world where so much is based on illusion and deception-- the culture of the faux 1950s diner, the faux "handmade" crafts from a factory in China, the idyllic Main Street lined with all-American houses that only mulit-millionaires can afford--it can be almost mind boggling to accept that the Amish really and truly live as they do.

Yet it's true. They may have all the pathologies of the rest of us, but they do live simply. All around in Barnesville, the Amish occupy farms recognizable by simple white frame houses, laundry drying on the line, black metal buggies parked alongside barns. No cars, no electricity.

It's cool to have them here and in the world because money can't manufacture them and because they are a visible reminder that we don't have to live the way we live, with our toxic levels of consumption, violence, stress and waste. There is an alternative lifestyle that is not imaginary, impossible or utopic but which is happening now, all around us. It's flawed, we know that, but it's here.

On the same trip, Jane and I visited our friend "Sarah," an Amish woman who sells us bread--organic homebaked bread for $1.50 a loaf!--milk, butter and eggs. Her house, with its glossy white walls and simple dark curtains, her woodburning stove and long table with the plain white plastic cloth, is filled with the activities of her life--canning, drying apples, sewing, quilting. Although we can never call to tell her we're coming, she always has time for us. Other Amish might not be so welcoming, but she is.

I almost want to cry with gratitude when I see all her happy-seeming chickens wandering around the house grazing because it means I can buy eggs that have not been produced by grossly overcrowded birds whose beaks are torn off at birth to prevent them pecking each other to death from the stress of their living conditions.

Her son, middle-school aged, showed us a "fiction" book he reads, a book of gentle poems about God illustrated with color pictures that must have been drawn in the 1940s and 1950s. He seemed pleased to have it. How many 12 year old boys from our culture would show off such a book? Another time, we came on a holy day in which the family was resting, and the father was coloring in pictures of birds with crayons. What adult male in our culture would do that? I am astonished that such lives are possible.

We so quickly give up the gentle pleasures of childhood--coloring pictures, enjoying simple prayers. Why do these activities seem so silly to us? Aren't we supposed to come to the Kingdom of Heaven as little children?

I made a comment to Jane as we drove up Sarah's rutty dirt driveway towards the road and home that the Amish seem gentler and more at peace than we do and why-don't-we-raise-our-children-their-way? She reminded me that incidents of child abuse among the Amish are about equal to the larger culture. How do we measure child abuse, I wonder? What do these statistics reveal and obscure?

I know it can be easy ... blah, blah ... to idealize the Amish, who, as humans like the rest of us, have the same failings. But as I said to Jane, the Amish don't start wars. They almost never kill people. That's a start. They show us, in the words of Dorothy Day, that we can build a world in which it is easier for people to be good.

As for Quakers, while I don't think we're called to be as removed from the world as the Amish, we share so much in common with the Amish-- the peace and simplicity testimonies for starters--that it's hard not to feel a kinship. Is there a way we can learn from them without either romanticizing their flawed lives or seeing them as nothing more than an outmoded, oppressive patriarchy? Where's the gray area?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quakers and Humility

But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
David Brooks, "High Five Nation," The New York Times 9/15/09

"There is a general way of treating people that are not seen as being part of the meeting that is condescending and standoff-ish. Young people are seen as being something novel but not to be trusted or counted on...and that is our own doing for not making more of a presence in meetings. However, I have been coming to this meeting for 3 years --fairly infrequently mind you...but enough that I should at least look familiar. I don't expect to be remembered or even to have someone remember that the familiarity is from meeting. But it would still be nice to be treated in a welcoming manner and maybe as if I had a brain. I realize that these are very unkind charges to be making."
Quaker Harlot James at quakingharlot.blogspot.com/2009/09/ive-got-sticky-everywhere.html

When I first came to Quakers, I experienced the insider/outsider divide James discusses in the quote above, and would have fled, had I not had a strong sense of calling. I was astonished at how self-congratulatory some Quakers were about the simple fact of being Quaker. Pride.

I remember once a question coming up at my meeting about "some people" being uncomfortable with calling meeting for worship, well, meeting for worship. The problem was the implication in the word worship that we were adoring a higher being or in some way were coming as supplicants. How about "meeting for meditation?" At this point I said I came to meeting to worship to worship, not meditate, and if we changed the wording, I was out of there. I thought, more angry at God than my fellow man and woman, that I have put up with a lot to be faithful to the call to be a Quaker, but if we're not at least attempting to worship, I, like Jonah, was going to head for being swallowed by the whale. In any case, that rather bizarre--but not too surprising--idea of meeting for meditation was dropped, but not the underlying assumption that the so-called "God within" makes ME the center of the universe. Pride.

I fear that pride goeth a fall and that for all our sense that Quakerism has been on the right side of history, such hubris as infects it will cause a huge blunder. I wouldn't be surprised if a century from now Quakers won't look back at this period of their history with embarrassment or shame.

Clearly, if we have the truth, are smarter than everyone, and are "better" than all those "evangelicals," our condescending mindset will be apparent--and alienating-- to newcomers. Like Martin Kelly, I too see the age demographics and I too worry, though I trust in God to refill the ranks when we become meek and broken spirited and yes, humble. Do such words offend? Surely, the quality of humility is not strained in the Quakers. Therefore, Harlot James teaches us. Posts like James's, written with such humility and so from the heart, can prod us to do better.

But truly to do better--and this ultimately is the point of this too-long post--we need to transform. I remember early on in Quakerism reading an editor's letter in a Friends' publication. The editor spoke of two Baptists turning up at her meeting, looking for a place to stay for the night. She didn't want to host Baptists (at this point, the red flags started to fly up in my mind--replace Baptists with blacks, gays, Muslims, Jews and see how that sounds)-- but, sigh, since the meeting had committed to hospitality, she had no choice. Anyway, she was pleased to report that the Baptists caused no trouble, stayed for Meeting for Worship the next morning, even spoke !! and she thought they "had learned something from us."

OK. I wanted to tear my hair out. What did the Baptists SAY at Meeting for Worship? Is it even slightly possible that God sent those great unwashees to us to teach US something? Why is the prevailing attitude so often what WE have to teach others? What makes us so holy? Why are we so unwilling to expect that others will teach us? Until we have the change of heart--the humility-- to wish and to hunger to learn from newcomers, visitors, strangers, and yes, perceived "enemies," I believe we will continue to shrink. We need to be transformed--that's why we are Quakers--and we do that through humility. We should be filled with gratitude when newcomers or infrequent attenders attend our shrinking, fading, boring meetings in shabby (sorry, I meant "simple" and if you don't "get" that, we will judge you) settings. We are not doing THEM a favor by allowing them into our exalted meetings. They are doing us the favor. God has sent them to teach us something, if we have ears to hear.

Am I being too harsh? I thought about "nicing" this up and decided not to pull my punches. Do you find Quakers too prideful? Can we improve on the humility front? How?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Childhood Influences: Dorothy Day

On my other blog--donnajanenancyemily-- I am doing a series on Childhood Influences. Here is what I wrote about Dorothy Day:

Late in life, Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic social activist, ruminated on the powerful influence of some of the books she read as a child. If we want evidence that childhood books have a profound bearing on who we become, Day is exhibit A.

Day writes about being influenced by Queechy and Wide, Wide World, two novels by Susan Bogert Warner (aka Elizabeth Wetherell) written around 1850. I have not read these novels, but http://merrigold.livejournal.com/1342.html offers the following description of Queechy:

"Like her wildly popular first novel, "The Wide Wide World", "Queechy" focuses on the development of a female character from childhood to marriage. Fleda is by nature a girl "of velvet softness; of delicate, downcast beauty; of flitting but abundant smiles, and of even too many and ready tears". It is religion that enables this soft and delicate character to exert all her strength and face adversity, achieving "patient continuance in well-doing". When those around her are found incapable of providing moral, emotional, or practical support, it is Fleda who finds unknown physical and emotional strength. When all others fail you, says Warner, rely on the promises of God, and persevere.

Fleda's experience is in some part, Susan Warner's. In 1834 Susan and Anna Warner moved to Constitution Island with their father, Henry Warner. They intended to live on the island only during the summer but reverses in Henry Warner's fortune forced them to sell their home in New York City. Even after their writing became popular, the sisters continued to live on the island, doing their own gardening and cooking, sometimes spending winters on the mainland at friends' houses. The sisters promoted the somewhat radical idea that young ladies could actually do their own physical work such as gardening -- Fleda finds pleasure in her garden as well as hard work. The Warner sisters were also known for their deep commitment to religious teachings. The beauty of the natural world, and religion, are beloved by Fleda in "Queechy".

The above is almost a blueprint of Day's life: She became a convert to Christianity (in her case, Roman Catholicism), went to live among the poor and strove every day to be patient and help build a world where it was "easier for people to be good." Like Fleda, she was the pillar of strength in her community. She relied on God. She persevered. As in the real life story of the Warners, Day bought a house on an island--Staten Island--and traveled between it and New York City (and other places). Like Fleda, Day embraced physical labor and found it nurtured the soul. She loved the beauty of the natural world and religion.

Day also read Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle with fascination as a child at a time her family was living in Chicago, and as result of the book, would roam the poorer neighborhoods of South Chicago. The poverty did not repel her. In fact, she was drawn to smells: baking bread and garlic, flowers. This prepared her for living among the poor in the lower East side of New York.

In Day's early reading, we find stunning support for the theory that childhood reading helps form who we become as adults.

I have two questions: what books from childhood can you look back at and see that, unwittingly, had a disproportionate influence on the rest of your life? In what ways? Second, if the early books we read have a disproportionate impact on the "tabula rasa" of young minds, should we be concerned about what's out there? Or can we trust that the influence of the less substantial books will fade away?

Saturday, September 12, 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 problem 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 irrestible magnetism that reaches out across the ages and pulls us in towards him ...but we resist the imlications of this power. We kick against the pricks.

It's very few, however, who will diss Jesus openly, very few 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? Attacking Paul or the Church for making Jesus into something 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. The extraordinary move is to recognize that they 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 incomprehensible -- than it seems. 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?

Friday, September 11, 2009

True Simplicity

I read about a book called No Impact by Colin Beavan. Colin and his wife Michelle Conlin and their four year old child lived for a year trying to leave as little ecological footprint as possible on the planet. They functioned in a NYC apartment without electricity, bought only local food and didn't even use toilet paper.

This stirred my own thoughts about simplicity. Since simplicity has become more and popular, and because it is a core Quaker testimony, I'd like to offer some observations. (One caveat: this is obviously aimed at overconsuming people, not those who lack the necessities of life.) I invite you to offer your own thoughts:

1. True simplicity is religiously based. Beavan, for example, is a Zen Buddhist and truly seems to believe we are all interconnected. My own experience is that simplicity is either an exercise in confusion or a fashion statement (by which I mean an external pose adopted to attempt to look good to ourselves and others) until it springs from trying to live at one with God--as God would have us live--and with integrity. I use the word religiously deliberately because the word "spirituality" itself can be a fashion statement.

2. True simplicity is liberation not deprivation. The great lightbulb that goes off as you shed material stuff is: oh, this feels better. Life is better. When Roger and I went to one car for a time (we now have two again), the results were so good we were sorry when we had to again buy a second car. In the Upside Down Kingdom, the second car becomes the deprivation. It was the same with our television. After a brief detox period, we have never missed it. Less is more. The ability to own fewer material good is a luxury, at least for people at our level of U.S. affluence. If you are suffering through a sense of deprivation for giving something up, you may be experiencing holiness through self-denial, which can be a blessing, but it is not the same as simplicity.

3.True simplicity is rooted in humility. This connects to point two. It's a privilege and a grace to be able to do with less. Thus, we shouldn't beat people up or feel superior to them because our footprint is lighter on the earth. I remember once being infuriated by an article written by a 62 year old retired man with no children who had replaced his car with a bike. I was glad that he had done that but his tone of scorn towards people who still used cars was ruthless. He seemed entirely blinded to the fact that not everyone lived as he did: some people had young children, some people had demanding jobs far from home, some people had health issues ... the list could go on. We have to realize that what simplicity we can experience is a gift. We should never scorn the other person for not meeting our standard, especially when what to us looks like overconsumption may actually represent steps in the right direction for that person. When we start doing judging people, I believe we are functioning at the level of fashion statement.

4. True simplicity means finding the level of materialism that is right for you. It doesn't mean you have to give up everything. It doesn't mean you have to live on a farm or as the Amish do. As Quakers say, you shouldn't get ahead of your leading. I have a sense that we would all be most in touch with God at a far less materially cluttered level, but most of us can't do that.

5 True simplicity shouldn't be confused with lack of money. Because simplicity has become fashionable, people sometimes will say they are practicing simplicity when they can't afford a material good they would buy if they could. It becomes a way to put a good face on what for them is a bad situation. If you are moving into a smaller house with regret because your MacMansion was foreclosed on, you are not practicing simplicity. If you are trading the week at The Plaza for camping because your money is gone, you are not practicing simplicity. I think it's important to live with integrity and name things for what they are. I don't think there is any shame in saying: We didn't want to live in the cramped, lousy smaller house, but we could no longer afford the larger one. If the rest of us are practicing simplicity as humility, we won't make people feel bad for saying that. However, if a person moves into a smaller house or camps out and then realizes he or she loves it and truly wouldn't go back to their old way of living, they have achieved a measure of true simplicity.

Finally, can you be practicing true simplicity if you are doing it for the sake of the book contract?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Plain dressing Quakers and Nurse's Uniforms

I'm going to boil a complex issue into a simpler one (isn't that what blogs are for?)

The other day, I read an article in Salon written by a person who received good health care in India for only $50. It was an article that acknowledged, yes, there are problems with health care delivery in India, but why-can't-we-in-the-U.S.-even-deliver-basic-services-as-well-as-in-India ... You know the story.

What struck me was not the article, though it was a fine-enough piece, but the accompanying photo. The photo showed an orderly hospital with austere but neatly made beds all in a row, like something out of a 1930s movie, and a nurse wearing a stiffly starched nurse's cap.

I was struck by the cap.

I never see nurses wearing caps like that. In contemporary movies or TV shows, if you see such a cap, it's a huge hint that you are entering into a character's fantasy/dream world, a time-traveling sequence or an alternative universe.

I don't know why nurses dropped the traditional cap in this country and I'm sure there were good reasons. Perhaps, as with Roman Catholic sisters losing the traditional garb, nurses were trying to be less forbidding and more accessible. Maybe the caps came to be seen as an affectation. Maybe it saved money not to use them. Maybe nurses came to find them demeaning.

However, the breakdown and dysfunction in our medical system seems to parallel the decline in professional garb among doctors and nurses. I remember my shock about 18 years ago when a doctor came to me with her stethoscope dangling on her lambswool sweater. No white coat. She looked like a civilian! Now I'm used to it as I am used to cluttered and chaotic medical establishments that look nothing like the photo with the row of stiffly made-up beds.

Does the loss of professional "uniform" have connection with the breakdown of our medical system or is it just coincidence?

Then I began to think about plain-dressing Quakers. Living in Barnesville, I see plain-dressing Quakers. At Ohio Yearly Meeting, I saw an array of long dresses, caps, and bonnets, suspenders and straw hats. It's always startling to me, exotic, like tropical birds flying in en mass for a visit.

Websites written by plain dressing Friends tell me that Quakers adopt plain dress out of leadings and that it seems natural to do so. A plain dressing Friend told me it's easier, that it makes life simpler, to wear plain dress. I have also heard that people do it as a witness, to visibly set themselves apart from a wider secular culture that seems to have gone awry. My surmise is, that to those who are led to it, plain dressing becomes a reminder both to them and to the world of the seriousness of their commitment to Quaker values and principles. It is the invisible made manifest. I imagine it helps Friends who dress that way stay on the high road.

I am the opposite kind of Quaker, the kind who dresses with a post-feminist simplicity. You'll seldom find me in a dress. I like clothes that are comfortable and easy to move around in, and for me that is pants. (My mother, in contrast, tried pant-suits in the early 1970s and quickly abandoned them to go back to skirts, which she found more comfortable.)

However, I am starting to wonder if some kind of clothing that marks a person out does help that person to live to a higher standard. I know it's the inward person and not the outward garb ... but I wonder if a starched cap helped a nurse take her position more seriously. Did it signal: Now you are in a different world so work to a higher standard? I don't know. I do know Catholic sisters in this country are starting to appear again in the traditional habit ... is there some degree to which the clothes make the man (or woman)? I'm also aware that I'm focusing more on women than on men, though I think the issue I'm framing has nothing to do with gender.( It's possible that gender issues of the last 40 years have caused women's dress to change more radically than men's, that I focus more on women because I am one or that I have internalized unconscious sexism, but I think this is all somewhat beside the point.) These are unformed thoughts and I'm interested in what people think.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dorothy Day: On Love

In my last post, I forgot one of Dorothy Day's lifelong convictions, from St. John of the Cross:

"Where there is no love, put love and you will find love."