Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Arriving in a Lear jet

Sometimes an image jumps out. Here's this from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/opinion/28iht-edcohen.html?hp):

The share of national income held by the top 1 percent of American families has doubled in recent decades to 20 percent. That’s a huge shift. I spoke to Doug Severance, a Vietnam vet who’s a hotel employee in Aspen, Colorado. "When I moved here in 1984 we were all family,” he said. “Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

“Now either you arrive in a Lear Jet or you’re a servant.”

Unfortunately, this seems all too true. I've thought about this often as I ponder the state of air travel ("as if" I do much of it) and wonder if it would be in this state (even first class, I hear, is a mess) if the rich actually still flew on commercial flights.

In Maryland, our family lived in Columbia, a planned community developed by James Rouse, a visionary who wanted to mix all races and economic classes, back at a time when segregation was still legal, and who thought, rightly, that this could be done by the private sector at a profit.

A few years ago, the Columbia Historical Society (Columbia goes back all the way to 1966!) had a tour of early homes, including those of James Rouse and one of his corporate cronies (and neighbor) Padraic Kennedy. They moved to Columbia in the 1960s. Their houses crystallized the opposite of the image of the rich arriving in Aspen in private jets and the rest of us (and it IS the REST of us) arriving as the "help." Rouse and Kennedy lived IN their communities, in houses that were slightly (but not much) bigger than the average single family home, beautifully custom designed and on a lakefront--but a block away from townhouses and apartments. These "big executives" were not removed from their communities in gated enclaves. They were not living in MacMansions. By the standards of today's rich, their homes were beyond modest--small lots, four bedrooms, a combined living/dining room in the Rouse home--comfortable but not ostentatious. And the Rouses opened their home frequently for parties to which the entire community was invited. This was just 40 years ago. Even 35 years ago. Black women my husband used to ride the commuter bus to Washington to work with joyfully remember attending these parties.

It's almost unimaginable now that chief executives would live that way. Now they seem more like royalty, completely removed from everyday life and the average trials and tribulations of the rest of us. I remember the heads of the auto companies flying to Washington two years in private jets to receive their bailouts. They seemed entirely clueless about how this level of privilege might look.

This kind of disparity in wealth does not reflect the Quaker equality testimony or simplicity testimony and ultimately sows the seeds of war. Yet there's a rhetoric that supports this inequality running through our culture that we need to push back against. It's not "socialism" to ask for social justice. How do we, in the words of Dorothy Day, create a society where it's easier to be good? How do we sow love (not fawning) for the very rich and in the very rich?

John Woolman writes:

When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labor of their slaves I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labor moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labor, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once, nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind.

Woolman's point is that a few living in too much ease on the backs of the miseries of others has a corrupting effect on the rich that makes them unhappy as well.

And this, which speaks to our condition of high unemployment today:

In my youth I was used to hard labor, and though I was middling healthy, yet my nature was not fitted to endure so much as many others. Being often weary, I was prepared to sympathize with those whose circumstances in life, as free men, required constant labor to answer the demands of their creditors, as well as with others under oppression. In the uneasiness of body which I have many times felt by too much labor, not as a forced but a voluntary oppression, I have often been excited to think on the original cause of that oppression which is imposed on many in the world. The latter part of the time wherein I labored on our plantation, my heart, through the fresh visitations of heavenly love, being often tender, and my leisure time being frequently spent in reading the life and doctrines of our blessed Redeemer, the account of the sufferings of martyrs, and the history of the first rise of our Society, a belief was gradually settled in my mind, that if such as had great estates generally lived in that humility and plainness which belong to a Christian life, and laid much easier rents and interests on their lands and moneys, and thus led the way to a right use of things, so great a number of people might be employed in things useful, that labor both for men and other creatures would need to be no more than an agreeable employ, and divers branches of business, which serve chiefly to please the natural inclinations of our minds, and which at present seem necessary to circulate that wealth which some gather, might, in this way of pure wisdom, be discontinued. As I have thus considered these things, a query at times hath arisen: Do I, in all my proceedings, keep to that use of things which is agreeable to universal righteousness? And then there hath some degree of sadness at times come over me, because I accustomed myself to some things which have occasioned more labor than I believe Divine wisdom intended for us.

Monday, September 27, 2010


This makes me very sad. Must we work librarians to death for profit? I love librarians. To me libraries are sanctuaries, places of calm and peace and good cheer ... and a Quakerly quiet, and librarians are the key to maintaining that atmosphere.


But the bigger picture is perhaps the lack of imagination that allows us to be willing for librarians or any workers to be harried and rushed and overworked. People are already strained with commutes and bills and childcare, eldercare, the many complexities of navigating life these days, and perhaps every job doesn't need to be turned into a treadmill. I don't begrudge librarians or any other worker some time to gather their wits on the job or a moment to say a few kind words to a client. Are any of us going to be happy or at peace in a Gradgrind world of endless toil? Are libraries going to be come as crowded and unpleasant as airplanes have?

A second thought. People, according the article, still volunteer--more than ever--at these for-profit libraries. I am all for volunteering, truly I am, but I do wonder at volunteering where the money is padding the pockets of somebody who, apparently from what he said in the article, doesn't care about the worker. Especially in these times of high unemployment, I think we need to be careful not to do volunteering that takes jobs away from people. It might be better, as the paid librarians are going to be worked into the ground anyway, to challenge these libraries by not volunteering, so that the actual cost of labor is reflected in paid labor. But I struggle with this too, because work should be intrinsically about dignity more than pay, and volunteerism exemplifies that spirit. On the hand, I don't think librarians make all that much money that the owner of the for-profit library company couldn't pay a few more to do the work of the volunteers and make a profit that is real. What do you think?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On Burning the Quran

I am glad the Quran burning has been called off.

Burning the Quran is a bad idea. It does not love the neighbor. It does not love the enemy. It is arrogant and rude, the opposite, Paul tells us, of what love is.

Also, it would be pointless. Should all the Qurans in the world be burnt, its words would live on in the heart of Muslims. Further, I can't imagine even one Muslim being moved to convert to Christianity because we destroyed their holiest text.

However, that being said, I am sorry for all the attention paid to this event. God is stronger than one angry man. Yet this proposed act diverted attention and energy from more pressing, systemic problems. For instance, workers at Dr. Pepper/Motts/Snapple plant in New York state are striking because the company, although profitable, wants to reduce their wages from an average of $18.50 an hour to $14.50. The company argues that the lower rate is what the other bottling plants in the area pay. That's a race to the bottom and a betrayal of the implicit promise that says the rising tide of business should raise all boats. I wish we would pay more attention to these issues. I wish business owners' hearts would be changed to feel compassion for the workers. Even my dear, beloved friends who I know disagree with me on this issue--I would love to know your thoughts as only through prayerful discussion can we come to best solutions.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Quakers and the age wars

Micah Bales posted a blog at http://lambswar.blogspot.com/2010/09/bridging-generational-divide-in.html which made good points about the way Quakers (and other denominations) need to change to be relevant and attract membership. Like him, I agree that Quakerism needs to become less institutionally bound and more open to community (more missional) and transformational in order to attract new members. I too deplore that lack of younger Friends. However, I also regret the lack of Friends my age (late Boomers) and the lack of early Boomers and the lack of older-than-Boomer people who are alienated from Quakerism and other faith institutions for the same reasons as younger people.

Below is the comment I posted at Micah's blogsite, cleaned up but not polished, so I hope you will respond to raw thoughts. I also want to say that my comments in response to your comments keep disappearing into the ether, but I will continue to try to respond.


I enjoyed and resonated with your post, which was thoughtful and held insights. We do need change, but perhaps need changed hearts, not changed generations.

Although I am statistically a late Boomer, like many of my cohort, I think like an emergent (in fact, the emerging church movement was started by disaffected Boomers), so I don't believe that a generational explanation is the best explanation for the lack of change, growth and vitality you see. It may be more that the people who seek--and hence get--fixed, institutional power with strong boundaries and privileges have a certain mindset that is identified as "WWII" and "Boomer" because these are the people who happen to have by this time worked themselves into the institutional power positions. In other words, certain ways of thinking aren't necessarily distinct to certain generations as much as they are distinct to certain people within generations.

Unfortunately, our society works to divide people along lines of color, ethnicity, political affiliation, etc., and age is another way increasingly used to pit people against one another, especially now that we have largely arbitrary labels for different age groups. Does someone born in 1963 (a "Boomer") has more in common with someone born in 1946 than someone born in 1969? I believe we need to be careful about not fostering divisions. I have noticed in my life that in any time period I have studied or lived through, the same attitudes crop up again and again. Dorothy Day, eg, who was born in 1897, in the 1930s held much the same attitudes as many Generation Yers do now. Luckily for her, the dark powers and marketing forces had not yet stamped a label on people born between say, 1888 and 1902 that marked them as different from anyone else. She was able to gather around her like minded people of all ages. And so must we.

I believe we are increasingly sliced and diced into generational groupings by powers that would like to pit us against one another. "Boomers" are pitted--unnecessarily-- against the generations that follow when it comes to programs like Social Security, as if we are not all in this together. Divided we fall. I believe the powers of darkness would love an intergenerational war between Quakers that would divert us from the larger and more important concerns of loving God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds and souls.

Dr. Pepper/Snapple workers still striking


Monday, September 6, 2010


We have a beautiful field of sunflowers just beyond our front yard, along with rows of corn and squash. Roger took a picture of one of the sunflowers, which you can see here.

It's hard not to think of Van Gogh when viewing a field of sunflowers. (Can we equate Barnesville with Provence?)

I remember that Van Gogh started out to be a preacher, but when he gave all his money away and showed too much solidarity with the poor, he alarmed his evangelical superiors. Eventually, sadly, because he lived the Sermon on the Mount too literally, he broke with the church, and became an artist. Yet in becoming an artist, pouring himself into and out through that creation, he became a blessing to the world. So, in the sunflower, I see Van Gogh and God, human creation illuminating God's creation.

The weather has been beautiful and it has been easy to enjoy the hills, the orchards and the views around Barnesville. A few nights ago the sky was moonless and lit with thousands of stars. We could see the Milky Way clearly. These are the times I love living in the country, with the view of Olney Friends School across the lake, and I think of what a gift it is to the students to be around all of this nature.

Things Hidden in Plain Sight

In an essay on a Vermeer painting,Woman Holding a Balance, literary critic and Bible commentator Mieke Bal moves us toward the navel.

She discusses the stillness of this painting, of a woman in blue and white standing before a window in front of a set of scales, and how, because it is so still, so serene, so fixed on a particular moment bathed in light, critics have seen the painting as descriptive rather than narrative, a still life rather than a story.

The painting shows an obviously pregnant woman standing with scales—weighing what?— her apparent assessing mirrored in the painting of the Last Judgment—another weighing of worth—hanging on the wall behind her. Critics have wondered at the meaning of these juxtaposed images. The woman’s unworthy judgment versus the judgment of Jesus?

Bal provides a new reading—the pregnant woman in blue, her head covered in a white veil, is the Virgin Mary. Bal also brings us to a nail hole, carefully painted and lit, in the wall above the woman’s head. Is this just Vermeer’s slavish adherence to creating versimilitude or does he want to draw attention to this nail hole?

Vermeer, Bal argues, wanted to reveal that he moved the Last Judgment painting. This movement disrupts the idea of the painting as still or merely descriptive—it points to a narrative, to a story, a sequence: Something changed, and that change is documented. The painting has a beginning, a middle and an end, but you have to study it carefully to see it.

Bal also interprets the nail hole as a navel. She repeats the traditional theory about text: the pen/brush is the phallus, the ink/paint is the semen, the page is the body/canvas on which the semen is spilled, resulting in creation, new life (form), the work of art, and the underlying message that creation corresponds to maleness. Text is masculine, text reveals. Derrida counters this image with that of the text as the hymen: something that conceals, something that repels and resists penetration, something that would hide its own meaning, something feminine. Bal, looking at Woman Holding a Balance and a Rembrandt nude, locates the symbol of the text in the figure of the navel, be it the navel on the nude or the “navel” as nail hole—the text as revealing what is hiding in plain sight. We never think about navels but they are always there, signifying the dependence of the male on the female.

Bal is being playful, but also, I think, offering profound insight into how often we miss what is in plain sight. Quakerism, in part, is a response to this: God will reveal to us what we need if we only stop and listen. Further, by not being attentive, we unthinkingly repeat what might be a mistake: I am thinking in this instance at a series of paintings of Eve, mostly from the Renaissance, that I looked at in conjunction with a class I am taking on women in the Old Testament. In almost all of these paintings, Eve is, first, presented as a sexual seductress, which is inconsistent with the text of Genesis, but also, depicted with a navel--which also, arguably is inconsistent with the Genesis account--she was not born of woman but created by God from dust or from Adam's side. Perhaps God did fashion her with a navel, but the point is, none of the painters seemed to have the least concern with this issue. Bal, in pointing us towards navels, points us towards attentiveness.

She also brings to mind the question: What else are we overlooking?