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