Friday, December 23, 2011

Hobbit houses for Olney?

Have I mentioned I love Olney Friends School?

Emma Churchman put a link on Facebook to this charming house a man built in Wales for about $4,700 (3,000 British pounds):

Isn't it lovely? And apparently green too. For some reason, it made me think of Olney.

I'm remembering all the land Olney has, its expertise in green building ... and perhaps a need for staff housing. Of course, too, there's always the question of where to put the student lounge. Wouldn't this be a wonderful, whimsical way to live? Or a good place to go to hang out with friends?

And it could offer Olney some extra publicity. Who wouldn't want to go to the Hobbit school? Now we just need to get the film class students to film the building going up ... Maybe we could even invite over the man who built the original ... What do you think?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas thoughts from Maria von Wedemeyer

Maria von Wedemeyer was theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's much younger fiancee--they became engaged shortly before he was imprisoned in April of 1943. She was a brilliant person in her own right and a good writer. In celebration of the Christmas season, here are some words of Maria's from a letter to Bonhoeffer in Tegel prison in 1943:

"Isn't there bound to be a rekindling of the desire for holy tranquility and universal peace? I couldn't help thinking so last night, while walking home through the dusk with my little tree. The snow glistened underfoot, and there were countless stars in the depths of the sky overhead. All that is Christmas originates in heaven and comes from there to us all, to you and me alike, and forms a stronger bond between us than we could ever forge by ourselves." Love Letters from Cell 92, p. 138.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Egg Nog and Quakerism

Almost every Christmas for as long as I can remember, I've had (non-alcoholic) egg nog, usually from a carton bought at the grocery store.

This year, however, I had a brilliant idea: let’s make homemade egg nog.

I looked up a recipe for non-alcoholic egg nog on the web. The ingredients were simple: eggs, whole milk, sugar, nutmeg, salt, vanilla.

I gathered six large eggs from the refrigerator and broke them in bottom of a heavy saucepan, then separated two more eggs and added the yolk. Half a cup of sugar and half a teaspoon of salt followed. I whisked this all together, then added four cup of whole milk, slowly letting it stream from the measuring cup as a I whisked it in with the eggs.

The hardest part, in these days when it is no longer safe to use raw eggs, was stirring the nog non-stop for 45-60 minutes on low heat until it thickened. Roger and I read Fanny Burney's Cecilia to each other as we stirred. When that was done, we added a teaspoon of vanilla and half a teaspoon of nutmeg and stirred.

What it tasted like was liquid custard. Our recipe called for topping it with whipped heavy cream, so we did, but that could easily be dispensed with.

The result was delicious. This is not a drink for the lactose intolerant nor the vegan, of course. Another year, perhaps, I'll tell the story of getting raw milk and free range eggs from my Amish neighbors, but this year all the ingredients came from the grocery store. With dioxides concentrated at the top of the food chain, we don’t want to be drinking non-organic whole milk on a regular basis, but once a year is probably fine.

To be honest, I had never really liked egg nog. I would drink it annually because it was part of the ritual of the holidays, but I never felt any regrets when it disappeared with the Christmas tree. It had always tasted a little weird. I now realize it's because I have been, all my life (with a few exceptions), been drinking a factory nog.

The point of this certainly is to celebrate homemade egg nog.

But it’s also for me to wonder: Why have I accepted a vaguely unsatisfying substitute for so long? I never even questioned why a drink so celebrated never tasted very good. And that leads to a broader question, which seem trite question to ask, a little bit of homey moralizing (which, of course, I would never do!) but I don't think it is. We perhaps need to keep revisiting this question in order to stay mindful, to keep from becoming complacent: Where else do we settle for a poor substitute because we never think to question what we’re doing? Do we do this with our Quaker faith? Where? How can we change?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fifty-Minute Hour

I recently bought a used paperback copy of The Fifty-Minute Hour, Robert Lindner's bestselling 1954 study of some of his most interesting psychoanalytic cases. The book caught my eye because my father, who died almost eight years ago, would talk about this book when I was a child. Seeing the title brought a vivid rush of memories.

We never owned the book, but I remember my father's great enthusiasm for it, although I was never sure if he'd actually read it. One of my father's great hallmarks, especially in his younger days, was his sense of wonder. He would open the conversation with: "Did you know, that when a psychiatrist charges you for an hour of therapy, you really only get 50 minutes?" He would then go on to explain that the psychiatrist needed time to clear his mind between sessions. This would lead to the Lindner book, and the essay that most fascinated him.

In that essay, his most famous, Lindner describes being confronted with a patient who is convinced he is traveling to other planets. As my father told the story, Lindner finally acknowledged the man was telling the truth because of the enormous level of detail he supplied. Once Lindner believed him, the man was cured. All he needed was to be believed; then he admitted his story was fabricated.

I bought the book to make visceral a memory: it was a way to hold my father. I also wanted to test my memory--did the book match up to my memory of my father's telling of it? Did his telling match up to the book? Two levels of memory were to be interrogated: mine and his.

I girded myself to dislike the book. After all, it was written in the 1950s and therefore sure to be the work of a sexist, racist and domineering white man. However, I was pleasantly surprised and had my own stereotypes challenged: Lindner comes across as a very humane individual, with a genuine liking of other people and a system of ethics rooted in deeper soil than the fashions of his decade.

For instance, he takes time out in the essay about the space traveler to blast lobotomies: "No, I could not ... consign him to the new kind of vegetable kingdom being created by so many of my well-intentioned but mistaken colleagues." (p. 189)He understood that many of his patients were more sinned against than sinning and didn't flinch from the horrors of poverty or orphanages.

However, he was a man of his time in his belief in the wonders of technology. His book reads sometimes like a Rod Serling narrative, perhaps the opening to the Twilight Zone: "Very likely the day is not too distant when the remarkable animal we call man will be … concerned solely with the command and care of appliances that do his work." (xiv) Perhaps this wonder and embrace of technology derives from the lives he witnessed: Most of his cases date from the 1940s, and involve people born shortly before the First World War. The harshness of the lives many led in a pre-New Deal world is immense and the book unwittingly testifies to an enormous social change over the course of a century.

I most enjoyed this read, which was an easy but yet informative. It also confirmed my memories--my memory of my father's memory of the space traveller was (almost--I won't spoil the book) correct.

As a Baltimoron, I was delighted that Lindner had his practice in Baltimore, in a building overlooking Mt. Vernon Place.

However, when I tried to find out more about him, I discovered that what's on the web is scanty, especially for a person who was both a best-selling author (he also wrote Rebel without a Cause) and a serious scholar. I could find very little. He died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41, two years after this book was published. I spoke about him to the Earlham School of Religion reference librarian, Jennie Kiffmeyer. She also poked around and could find very little--the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she said, represent a dip in Internet information as much of that era has not yet been well digitized. She was planning to look in the physical reader's guides. I imagine Lindner must have been profiled in big spreads somewhere: Perhaps the Baltimore Sun magazine or Esquire? It's a mystery and there's nothing like sleuthing.

I did find Internet discussions of the identity of the planet hopping man. One popular idea is that he is Cordwainer Smith (see , who published the sci-fi work Norstrilla.

So, to finish, every once in awhile we discover books that put us in touch with the past in more ways than one. Has this happened to you?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I found a review of an upcoming book at after reading about the death of the author, Elisabeth Young Bruehl, in the New York Times. Bruehl's book, Childism, has not yet been released. In it she argues for understanding children as a distinct group. Here is a part of the review:

Thanks to half a century of work by feminist intellectuals, sexism can be understood as an ideology and a prejudice. All kinds of discrimination and violence against women are united in our minds by the concept. But when we read in the newspaper that a child in New Jersey has died from neglect, or that a child in Florida’s protective services has disappeared without a trace; when we learn that children seeking political asylum in our country have been held in solitary confinement, or that molestation of children has been covered up in yet another diocese of the Catholic Church, we do not say “there is prejudice against children at work in each of these instances.”

In 1989, the United Nations issued a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by more governments than any other UN Convention. The Convention does bring together in one document descriptions of many of the forms of child maltreatment we read about daily in the newspaper, but it does not make us think of children—all the world’s children—as a group. It is about “the Child,” an abstraction.

And there is no indication in the Convention that there is a form of prejudice against a group—children—at work in all the forms of maltreatment. We might call it “childism,” on analogy with “sexism,” which was coined in 1965 on analogy with “racism.”

Childism is a hard form of prejudice to recognize and conceptualize because children are the one group that, many assume, is naturally subordinate. Until they reach a stipulated age, children are the responsibility chiefly of their parents or guardians—those who have custody. But what does custody permit? What distinguishes it from ownership? One of the essential ingredients of childism is a claim by offending adults to the effect that “these children are ours to do with exactly as we see fit,” or “children are here to serve, to honor, and obey adults.” These claims make a subordination doctrine out of natural dependency, out of the fact that children are born relatively helpless and need to be taken care of until they can take care of themselves. It seems normal to insist, “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother” without any reciprocal “Honor Thy Children.”

As the opposite of growth promoting altruism, childism takes many forms. In the half a century old field called “Child Abuse and Neglect” (CAN) four main types of child maltreatment have been identified and described: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. These categories are now used for all statistics gathering in the field, but they do not strike me as very illuminating. They do not reflect how frequently the four types are combined in a given case, for example. And they do not prompt inquiry about the subordination purposes served by maltreating—as a classification of wars by the types of weapons used would not prompt inquiry into the purposes served by war.

Listening to my adult patients in psychoanalysis who were maltreated as children, I have heard basically three stories: they tell me that they were not wanted, that they were controlled and manipulated, or that they were not allowed to be who they felt they were. So I have come to think in terms of childism that intends (1) to eliminate or destroy children; (2) to make them play roles no child should play; or (3) to dominate them totally, narcissistically erasing their identities. These three broad categories capture the forms of childism from the child’s and the adult survivor’s point of view. Survivors make it very clear that the worst part of their experience—the most difficult to heal from, the least forgivable—was that no one protected them from it. They often make it clear, as well, that they have internalized the prejudice and direct it toward themselves.

The equality testimony serves Quakers well in how they/we treat children, though abuse, of course, occurs in all groups. The immigrant group I was associated with as a child, before my Quakers days, also valued its youth. The ethnic narrative was one of sacrifice and struggle so that the children could have better lives. I have also met other family groups, perhaps entrenched here for many generations, who have felt threatened at the idea of the children doing better than the parents, so I am grateful for what I had.

Two figures I have been immersed in during the past year referred often to their childhoods: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the rest of his brothers and sisters accomplished as much as they did because of the strongly child-centered, though still patriarchal, family they came from. Dorothy Day wrote repeatedly of her upbringing. She was clearly the scapegoat in her family, suffering what we today might consider abuse, although it was normative for her times. However, she managed to find love and support in her family. Under the power of religious conviction and the Holy Spirit, she was able to use her childhood formation to help others. I recently saw an Indian "Bollywood" movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, centered on the idea that family unity is the basis of all that is important in the world. In this over-the-top musical, a wealthy family is ripped in two when the eldest son defies his father to marry the woman he loves. The loss of a parent's blessing and a home without "the warmth" of elders is a terrible blow to the young couple, while the loss of their son leaves a deep hole in the life of the parents. Here family love is idealized and raised to the highest pinnacle. Family, tradition and religion weave together to form the fabric of the life worth living. The movie, while in no way realistic, has caused me to ponder how we as Quakers can forge stronger ties with our children in our individualistic culture.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Bonhoeffer Struggles

I attended the Bonhoeffer conference at Union Theological Seminary in
NYC in mid-November, which was a celebration of the near-completion of the
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works translation. I had a fine time. I was
delighted to be at Union, which I had never visited before. (I am told
that all the college campus scenes for the TV show Law & Order are shot at Union.) A bit of drama ensued as Occupy Wall Street was shut down while I was there, a blow to the 46 Union Theological students who had been participating and an upsetting event to the school in general.

The Bonhoeffer talks were very interesting, ranging from Bonhoeffer's
reception in different countries to issues with translation and
theology. I learned that Fortress will be releasing a volume of
Bonhoeffer poems and a volume of his sermons in the next few years.

I was also interested to hear several times that the initial reception
to Bonhoeffer in Germany in the 1950s was mixed because he was seen as a traitor to
Germany by some. That certainly made my mind reel. How could that be?
Hitler was a horror. But then I realized that the Germans take law
and order seriously (although the rule of law certainly suffered under
Nazism) and that having one's country overrun by invading armies,
even in the interests of toppling of a genocidal madman,
is still a terrible experience. Yet I struggle. As a Quaker and a pacifist, I
struggle with Bonhoeffer's decision to get involved in an
assassination plot, though I certainly understand his anguished sense of responsibility to do something to combat the evil. On the other hand, as a part of the human race, I struggle with any defense of Hitler. I do struggle to find that of God in Hitler. As one speaker said, however, "It's easy for Americans to love Bonhoeffer." That I agree with.

As an aside, I listened for how the Germans at conference pronounced Bonhoeffer, suspecting it would not be our "Bon-hoff-ER." It was not--the Germans have a more melodious pronunciation that sounded to me more like "Bon [with a slight long-E to the Bon] -HEFF-a."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beautiful Barnesville

We woke up this morning to white mists all around the house, with an especially beautiful one hanging over the lake like a fluffy cloud. After the run of glorious, unseasonably warm October days, the temperature has cooled. The leaves on the trees outside of our living windows are turning golden and orange. In the field, once a meadow, just beyond the edge of our lawn, students dug more than 1,600 pounds of potatoes yesterday, demonstrating why the potato became a staple. We have in our kitchen a bag of potatoes from the school. Later today, I will make potato soup. I already have bread baking in the bread machine. This is as domestic as I get. :)

I love the quiet here, and the view of "our" barn, which is painted red with a green roof. Later today, we will walk over to the Olney playing fields to watch Will and Nick play in the faculty/student hockey game. Have I told everyone in the world yet they are the co-captains of the team?

Sophie is living at the Creativity House on the Guilford campus and seems to be enjoying that.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to give a paper on Jane Austen at the Indiana College English Association conference. Since I have started at Earlham School of Religion, I have wondered how I could fit my Jane Austen obsession into my seminary education--giving the paper was a demonstration of the two worlds merging. The conference was wonderful, and I was in my element being there, to put it mildly!

Over the past ten days, I've had the chance to attend a talk by Sarah Niemoller, the widow of Martin Niemoller, the man imprisoned by the Nazis. Martin Niemoller is famous not just for standing up to the Nazis, but for saying "First they came for the socialists and I said nothing because I was not a socialist ... then they came for the Jews and I said nothing, because I was not a Jew, then then came for me and there was no one left to speak for me." Sarah, age 88, was a wonderful speaker, and her life seems to have spanned epochs.

And after several weeks of travel to and fro, it is such a pleasure to have some breathing room back in Barnesville.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism: Novels

I have been busy with "other things," but am now glad to get back to A Portraiture of Quakerism.

Thomas Clarkson wrote a A Portraiture of Quakerism in 1806, based on the intimacy he developed with Quakers while working for abolition of the slave trade. Clarkson used the first part of his book to explain the Quakers' strange prohibitions on hunting for sport, gambling and the arts. In doing so, he was trying to "normalize" Quakers to help build a case for abolition. Since they were the most fervent supporters of ending slavery, they had to be presented as a sympathetic group to the larger English public.

Clarkson discusses the various art forms 18th century Quakers prohibited or discouraged, including music and theatre. In one chapter he discusses novel reading. According to Clarkson, Quakers didn't object to novel reading on the basis that novels were fictitious. Quakers understood Aesop used fables (fictions) to teach wisdom and that Jesus spoke in parables (fictions). All the same, in the late 17th century, George Fox discouraged the reading of "romances." Quakers frowned on novels as the offspring of romances--in each case, the subject matter was often "worthless" and "pernicious," according to Clarkson. Quakers, in theory, allowed the reading of good (ie, "moral") novels, but so few existed and people read novels so indiscriminately, that Quakers discouraged the practice.

Clarkson noted particular concerns: Novels offered young people the illusion of having knowledge than they didn't really possess, and women (!) frequently read them. In a burst of sexism, he wrote that it was more "disgusting" for a woman than a man to appear more knowledgeable than she was. In addition, novel reading would unfit a woman for domestic tasks. Further, novels inspired people to act from "feelings," which could "pervert" morality, leading to actions based on sentiment, not moral truth. Worse, novels might inspire people to think for themselves (!), "believing their own knowledge to be supreme," and leading to "scepticism." Finally, and worst of all, because novel reading could be so alluring, it pulled individuals away from other, weightier reading, such as in science, law or religion, leaving people with no way to evaluate novels' flighty fancies.

As an aside, Jane Austen seemed to be aware of all these winds blowing in the early 19th century (remember, Clarkson's book was published in 1806) and addresses them in her novels, critiquing flights of "feeling" or "sensibility" in Sense and Sensibility, defending novel reading inNorthanger Abbey and being careful to supply at least an overt conventional moral message in all her books. We know too that she read "weightier" literature as well as novels.

Acknowledging that we are viewing Quakers through the prism of an Anglican outsider, several points to consider emerge:

--Early Quakers did not perceive novels as intrinsically or inherently evil: Quakers objected to their content, not their form. We can happily write all the fiction we want, as long as it edifying and truthful! How can we do more of this? Quakers have a fairly thin record as writers of important literature: where are our Flannery O'Connors and Graham Green's ... our Dosteovsky's? We do so well with non-fiction and introspection--the Journal of John Woolmanand Kelly's A Testament of Devotion jump to mind as two books that have far transcended the Quaker world and become classics--that it seems we should be able to do better than such domesticating fictions as Friendly Persuasion.

--During the 18th century, many Quakers became doctors and scientists (in large part because other careers were closed to them). For instance, Jane Austen's probable acquaintance, the Quaker Luke Howard, was the first to name to clouds as we know them today--cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, etc. However, for all their interest in Enlightenment empiricism, Quakers had apparently not yet embraced individualism, as can be seen by their denigration of novels as inspiring people to believe "their own knowledge to be supreme." What a far cry from today, when the individualism that clearly does lead to "scepticism" is applauded and encouraged. Do we as a Society need to question individualism more?

-- I find a tension between what might be called "communitarian values" (not believing one's own knowledge to be supreme) and pursuit of knowledge. Eighteenth century Quakers were apparently anything but anti-intellectual. Their fear was not of knowledge--they encouraged their members to tackle weighty subjects--but of a shallow, superficial veneer of information that substituted for mature thought. Did or do too many Friends possess simply a popular culture smattering of knowledge? What the eighteenth century Quakers valued was not the creation of a priestly/intellectual caste with a monopoly on knowledge, but a Society in which everyone was deeply educated--not to believe whatever they wanted, but to help inform the group. How do we weigh the truth that anyone can "prophesy" against the truth that some people have cultivated more wisdom than others?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Everything for everyone?"

I am concerned with the way polemic and inaccurate statements are bandied about as uncontested "fact" and my growing conviction is that we need to keep challenging the fuzzy thinking. In the Jesus Creed post quoted from below (I like Jesus Creed because all sorts of people "gather" there and thus the diversity of opinion is broad) Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed blog owner, has been talking about the changing philosophy of education funding since the 1960s, in which higher education was seen a public good.

From Jesus Creed at

In order [in California] to assure access for all, tuition charges were banned—only “fees” for some costs other than education were allowed. Most funding was to come from taxpayers. The premise was that higher education was a public good for the state, which was nursing its own future entrepreneurs and taxpayers. As Mr Kerr put it, the universities were “bait to be dangled in front of industry, with drawing power greater than low taxes or cheap labour”.

That consensus has been upended. In 1990 the state paid 78% of the cost of educating each student. That ratio dropped to 47% last year, and will fall even more during the current academic year, after the latest round of budget cuts, overseen by Jerry Brown, the current governor and son of Pat Brown.

From a frequent blog responder:

California tried to provide everything for everyone, and they went broke. Thus, things ended up worse (and yes, worse for the same people they were trying to help) than had they simply been responsible in the first place. It’s odd that people continue to not get this after so many examples. Ultimately, when the same thing happens on a national scale, the truly poor will be the ones most hurt. Our desire to provide everything will ultimately lead to the most vulnerable (some like to call them “the least of these”) ending up worse than before. This is why people claim (rightly, in my view) that endless amounts of ‘helping people’ results in those people being worse off than before.

My response:

California never tried to provide “everything for everyone.” That’s simply not an accurate statement. I lived in California years ago and was not allowed to loll around collecting a welfare check. I worked hard to make a living. However, in the past, responsible people have believed that investing in the civic sector by providing “for the larger good” was an honorable, responsible and worthy task to be engaged in by sober, mature citizens. My heart broke when I read that people cheered at the latest Presidential debate the idea of letting a person without health insurance die in the emergency room. My heart breaks to be part of a society in which we are not a commonwealth anymore but a a group of individuals each out for himself or herself. My question is–under the guise of the unchallenged (by some) assumption that we “can’t afford things” anymore, which flies in the face of massively improved productivity in the US over the past 20 years– or that the least bit of sharing in the culture for the common good somehow equates to “socialism”–are we becoming evil? Is the Christian ethic of the Good Samaritan being subordinated to the lust for money?

My response was perhaps overly impassioned but I am concerned about, for instance, people cheering the idea of letting an uninsured individual die in an emergency room. Sometimes I feel I went to sleep in my beloved United States and woke up in a nightmare land. What can we do?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Saying no to blood sports: A Portraiture of Quakerism III

Perhaps the section of Thomas Clarkson's 1806 A Portraiture of Quakerism most congenial to modern sensibilities discusses the Quaker prohibition on blood sports and cruelty to animals. This prohibition is not, Clarkson points out, against hunting game for food--it is a prohibition against hunting for sport. It is not censuring or forbidding having animals as stock for food, labor or wool--it censures causing such animals unnecessary sufferings.

Clarkson splits this section into three parts, leading with rational and empatheric reasons to avoid harming animals, then discussing Old Testament and New Testament objections to cruelty.

Rational reasons are as follows:

It has been matter of astonishment to some, how men, who have the powers of reason, can waste their time in galloping after dogs, in a wild and tumultuous manner, to the detriment often of their neighbours, and to the hazard of their own lives; or how men, who are capable of high intellectual enjoyments, can derive pleasure, so as to join in shouts of triumph, on account of the death of an harmless animal; or how men, who have organic feelings, and who know that other living creatures have the same, can make an amusement of that, which puts brute-animals to pain.

In keeping with his campaign to "normalize" Quakers, Clarkson aligns their anti-cruelty sentiments with those of the mainstream poet and abolitionist Thomas Cowper, a favorite of both Quakers (both Olney, Maryland and Olney Friends Schools are named in honor of Cowper's home town of Olney in England) and Anglicans (Jane Austen, for example, was a great fan of Cowper).

Cowper, too, railed against animal cruelty in his long poem The Task:

Detested sport
That owes its pleasures to another's pain,
That feeds upon the sobs and dying shrieks
Of harmless nature, dumb, but yet endued
With eloquence

Clarkson then goes on to find a prohibition against animal cruelty in the Old Testament:

The Jews obliged all their converts to religion ... to observe what they called the seventh commandment of Noah, or that "they should not eat the member of any beast that was taken from it, while it was alive." This law therefore of blood, whatever other objects it might have in view, enjoined that, while men were engaged in the distresing task of taking away the life of an animal, they should respect its feelings, by abstaining from torture, or all unnecessary pain.

The New Testament, according to the Quakers, further enlightens humans in mercy and lovingkindness, leading to gentle treatment of animals.

But in proportion as he is restored to the divine image, or becomes as Adam was before he fell, or in proportion as he exchanges earthly for spiritual views, he sees all things through a clearer medium. ... Beholding animals in this sublime light, he will appreciate their strength, their capacities, and their feelings; and he will never use them but for the purposes intended by providence. It is then that the creation will delight him. It is then that he will find a growing love to the animated objects of it. And this knowledge of their natures, and this love of them, will oblige him to treat them with tenderness and respect. ... Hence they uniformly look upon animals, not as brute-machines, to be used at discretion, but as the creatures of God, of whose existence the use and intention ought always to be considered ...

Two notes--as he does throughout, Clarkson shows his understanding of Quaker culture by invoking George Fox, this time, Fox's outrage at hunting and hawking and other activities which cause animals to suffer. It's interesting that Quaker deployment of Fox as authority has not much changed in two centuries. Further, Clarkson plugs into a wider current of late -eighteenth century "sensibility" that was probably the first sustained modern view of animals as having a right not to be tormented. Of course, throughout history, individuals have objected to torturing animals, but the Enlightenment saw a rise of interest in a movement against animal suffering.

Finally, Clarkson understands Quaker theology as one rejecting mindless dominion and aligned to what we would today call "creation care."

Certainly, in a culture that could justify cruelty to slaves as "dumb brutes," compassion towards animals was of piece with compassion towards slaves. If it was wrong to beat beasts of burden unmercifully, so it was wrong to do the same to human "beasts of burden." As today, we see the linkage between how we treat the least in nature and how we treat the least of humankind.

I find little to argue with in the eighteenth-century Quaker ban on blood sports and animal cruelty: If only it were more embraced today. What is of more interest to me are blind spots. Many of those who hunted, for example, probably never thought about the terror and pain they were causing an animal, which leads me to wonder what cruelties we're blind to today? Can you think of any?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In between Quaker Portraitures: Pointon and Lindbeck

The article cited below by Marcia Pointon provides a late twentieth-century interpretation of the sometimes tortured eighteenth- century Quaker relationship to material goods. If Clarkson, in Portraiture, offered an idealized view of Quakers, his odd bedfellows in the fight against slavery, with an eye towards "normalizing" Friends to upper-class Britons, Pointon examines some of the difficulties eighteenth-century Quakers had in navigating the world of consumption. In doing so, she emphasizes how "this-worldly" Quakers were in their understanding of the power of material goods:

Marcia Pointon, 'Quakerism and Material Culture', Art History, September
1997, pp. 397-431 (HT: BPD)

As for George Lindbeck, one of the books I recently read for an ESR seminary class in Constructive Theology was Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine, a modern classic. In this book, Lindbeck argues that the notion of religion most common in the West since the nineteenth-century is "emotional expressivism," the idea that we each, as individuals, have "our own" individual, interior experience of the Divine. After we have that experience, which in this mode of undertanding, is considered universal, we "translate" it into the language and culture (sign-system) of a religious faith. Thus, if we're born in to a European-American family in Ohio, we would likely translate a mystical encounter with God into the language of Christianity; if born in Iran, we would likely translate the same experience into the language if Islam. In a nutshell, religion works from the inside out and flows from the individual to the community.

Lindbeck, whose initial agenda in writing the book was to devise ways to foster ecumenical dialogue, turns "emotional expressivism" inside out. Religion, he says, is a "cultural linguistic" system, first and foremost, in other words, a grammar. Rather than functioning secondarily as a communal expression of shared interior experiences, the culture and language of our religious heritage determines the kind of interior religious experiences we as individuals have. We go from the outside (culture) to the inside (mystical experience). And, if our "interior" religious experiences are structured by our language and culture (the religious rituals, stories, songs etc. that we learn), then the "mystical" encounters with the ineffable that a Buddhist has are fundamentally different from those of a Christian.

Understanding religions as cultural linguistic systems or "languages" is useful for interfaith or ecumenical dialogue because it respects, rather than erases, differences between faiths (nobody would ever, for example, posit that French and German are the "same") and it eradicates the need to establish one religion as "superior" to another (French and German are simply two different languages and one doesn't have to devise a hierarchy to show that one is better than the other).

Lindbeck thus argues that since there is no single transcultural experience of the spiritual there is no need to posit a transcultural, overarching experience of religion: “One can no more be religious in general than one can speak language in general,” he writes. Religion is located in particularity. This leads to the now familiar move from doctrine to stories--religion is not a set of propositions but a community of people who share a language and heritage for understanding the divine.

Lindbeck's theory is obviously problematic for Quakerism, as this is a faith group that highly values individual mystical experience. At that same time, the Society of Friends is a highly communal--and even orally-dependent--group. The question becomes, how does Quakerism align with and challenge Lindbeck?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism II: Prohibitions

In volume one of A Portraiture of Quakerism, abolitionist Thomas Clarkson systematically works through the various activities, common to his English upper class, that are prohibited by the Quakers, and endeavors to explain the rational basis for these prohibitions. In this post, so it stays reasonably short, I will look only at one. His goal is to make Quakerism, which no doubt appeared at times a bizarre, fundamentalist (ie, arbitrary and irrational) and forbidding cult intelligible to people of a certain class and education. While framing his story as describing the “quaint Other,” Clarkson’s agenda, I imagine, is to render Quakerism more respectable and rational, in order, thus, to render abolitionism more respectable and rational. Notably, Portraiture appeared in 1806, a year before legislation was passed banning the slave trade (though not slavery) in the British Empire. It is true too, that over the course of 150 years, Quakerism had in fact shifted from its radical and apocalyptic beginnings (early Quakers did not think the End Times were coming soon—they thought, with the execution of Charles I that the End Times HAD ARRIVED, a concept known as Realized Eschatology)—to a group that, influenced deeply by Enlightenment thought, and the reality that the New Jerusalem had not yet descended, had become more rational. Whether this embrace of rationalism was a step forward or backwards is, of course, still debated among contemporary Quakers

To a modern Quaker reader, the prohibitions Clarkson has so far described--against gambling/lotteries/games of chance, music, dancing, theater, novels and blood sports—break into two categories: prohibitions that (in a softer way) are still strongly accepted and prohibitions that are rejected. Modern Quakers would probably accept and support the prohibitions against gambling/lotteries/games of chance and blood sports and reject the prohibitions on music, dance, theatre and novels.

The Quaker prohibition against gambling which Clarkson justifies at length we would sum up as recognition of its addictive nature—the Quakers, rationally, want to avoid a pastime that can lead to ruin. Other comments he makes as reasons to avoid gambling, lotteries and card playing—the last, which we know from Jane Austen, was a common pastime—include their tendency to be a waste of time, their tendency to habituate people to the concept of effortless gain and their tendency to excite passions.

Clarkson emphasizes rationality when he writes: “For when they [Quakers} consider man, as a reasonable being, they are of opinion, that his occupations should be rational. …. “ and “The Quakers are not so superstitious as to imagine that there can be any evil in cards, considered abstractedly as cards, or in some of the other amusements, that have been mentioned.” But cards take away from more fruitful occupations.

A chief objection, then and now, to gaming Clarkson writes is the following: “For by gaming a man learns to pursue his own interest solely and explicitly, and to rejoice at the loss of others, as his own gain, grieve at their gain, as his own loss, thus entirely reversing the order established by providence for social creatures.”

Reading this section in light of Jane Austen, I’m reminded of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, whom we find at the beginning of the novel so engrossed in a game of lotteries at Mrs. Phillip’s that she hardly notices Wickham. This characterizes her as immature and childlike, impulsively fixated on the moment to the exclusion of all else, but also, in light of Clarkson’s words on gambling and gaming, as in an environment that excites her passions and primes her for “quick win” risk-taking—in her case, being the first married of the Bennett sisters. She does rejoice at her gain of a husband ahead of her sisters and Austen does lead us to understand Lydia’s “elevation” as a grotesque reversal of the social order, all the more galling for Lydia’s cluelessness about the sacrifices that saved her.

I think today about the state lotteries and casinos, and personally, can't help but agree with the early Quakers on the corrupting influence of this. I too think that the idea "I too could be rich tomorrow," no matter how remote, encourages people to support regressive tax laws that make it harder to build a juster society. I tend to believe that there is something insidious and destructive in the valorization of the pursuit of quick riches, especially when it is only for the very, very few and the rest are left in poverty ... but the question arises: in prohibiting gambling, lotteries and games of chance, are the Quakers merely attending to the outward shell and not the inner soul? Or, as George Lindbeck suggests in the Nature of Doctrine, does the outward (social) form of the faith largely determine the inward experience? Where do you fall on lotteries?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Portraiture of Quakerism, I

The Quakers, as every body knows, differ more than even many foreigners do, from their own countrymen. They adopt a singular mode of language. Their domestic customs are peculiar. They have renounced religious ceremonies, which all other Christians, in some form or other, have retained. They are distinguished from all the other islanders by their dress. These differences are great and striking. And I thought therefore that those, who were curious in the development of character, might be gratified in knowing the principles, which produced such numerous exceptions from the general practices of the world.

Thus writes Thomas Clarkson, an eighteenth century abolitionist who, with William Wilberforce, worked closely with Quakers on the movement to end the English slave trade. His interest in the Quakers led him to author a three-volume book about the Society of Friends. Volume 1 was published in 1806, a year before the 1807 Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade (but not slavery) in the British Empire.

Clarkson explains his motivations as follows:

From the year 1787, when I began to devote my labours to the abolition of the slave trade, I was thrown frequently into the company of the people, called Quakers, these people had been then long unanimous upon this subject. Indeed they had placed it among the articles of their religious discipline. Their houses were of course open to me in all parts of the kingdom. Hence I came to a knowledge of their living manners, which no other person, who was not a Quaker, could have easily obtained.

As soon as I became possessed of this knowledge, or at least of so much of it, as to feel that it was considerable, I conceived a desire of writing their moral history. I believed I should be able to exhibit to the rest of the world many excellent customs, of which they were ignorant, but which it might be useful to them to know. I believed too, that I should be affording to the Quakers themselves, some lessons of utility, by letting them see, as it were in a glass, the reflection of their own images. I felt also a great desire, amidst these considerations, to do them justice; for ignorance and prejudice had invented many expressions concerning them, to the detriment of their character, which their conduct never gave me reason to suppose, during all my intercourse with them, to be true.

Nor was I without the belief, that such a history might afford entertainment to many.

Clarkson’s work, like Robert Southey’s Letters from England, written at almost the same time, offers a critique of English society as seen through the eyes of outsiders. Clarkson will also critique the Quakers from the point of view of a sympathetic outsider to their group.

I look forward to continuing reading this work, which can be found on-line. It will be interesting to learn more about how English Friends lived in the 18th century, not only to compare them to the “normal” English of that period, but also to compare them to Quakers in our time.

Several thoughts pop immediately to mind. First, much of my interest in Clarkson and Quakers of this period derives both from being a Quaker and from my interest in Jane Austen. Austen brushed up against Quakers during her life, and she was a great fan of Clarkson. We know she read his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade. As a Clarkson admirer and as a subscriber to circulating libraries, as well as a voracious reader, she almost certainly read A Portraiture of Quakerism.

Second, although Quaker numbers were to dwindle to dangerously low levels by the middle of the nineteenth century, at this time, Quakers seem to have been robust. Even if they were already dwindling in numbers, they were active. For example, 300 Quakers petitioned Parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1783. Though separating themselves from the rest of society, their strong objection to slavery forced them into alliances with people like Wilberforce and Clarkson, who were not barred from becoming members of Parliament as Quakers were.

A glance at the table of contents of Portraiture shows Quakers to have been, not surprisingly, “more different” from the general society than they are today: much of the first volume focuses on what Quakers prohibited: gaming, gambling, lotteries, music, drama and novels, to name a few.

A recurring question in contemporary Quakerism in this: Should we be more of a "peculiar" people? Some Quakers do adopt plain dress and use "thee" and "thou." I have no objection to these kinds of separations and believe they can provide a frame for an alternative worldview. Mostly, however, I believe that deepening our discernment as a faith group so that we can coalesce around being lights in the world from a faith, rather than a political, perspective, is our chief task.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Needed: a society dedicated to the care of others and the pursuit of wisdom

Cary Tennis, the advice columnist at Salon, wrote this as part of an answer to a question by a person feeling overworked and stressed and yet dedicated to a job. Cary's response rang true to me. What do you think?

"We do not live in a good society. That's another thing.

This is not a society dedicated to the care of others and the pursuit of wisdom. Wouldn't that be an amazing society? But that's not the one we have.

You live in a world that tricks you into believing that if you do what it says you will be happy. You won't. You won't be happier if you get the top spot. You won't be happier if you answer every call.

You say you work for a cause you believe in. You might be happier if you work more directly for your cause. I'm not sure what cause that is, but if it's, say, to create safer conditions for fishermen, you might be happier if you were actually fishing. Or if it's to keep the environment pristine, you might be happier if you were actually in that environment keeping it pristine. Or if it is an organization dedicated to helping people, you might be happier if you were actually helping those people yourself. That's one thing that happens with organizations, is that they alienate us from the ennobling activities they are formed to promote.

So there's that.

And this other thing is about being a person in an adversary relationship to the large economic and social forces that affect you. I grew up in a time when this was clearer. But it is still clear today.

Nothing has changed structurally; we are still a hateful, war-waging culture that denigrates women, celebrates killing, despoils the planet, plunders the resources of less powerful people, keeps a permanent underclass in virtual economic slavery and wages imperialist wars abroad. We're still the same country we were when I was growing up in the 1960s.

We just have better games.

That's it in a nutshell. The "military-industrial complex" Dwight Eisenhower warned us about had a public-relations disaster in the 1960s, when it failed to adequately sell its project to America's youth. Since then, it has learned.

The other day I was walking along wondering about the differences between people in their 20s and 30s today and during the 1960s and 1970s, marveling at the happy, well-adjusted faces I meet in the cafes and clothing stores, and wondering why my anguish and panic at our global state does not dent their cheerfulness, and also thinking about my largely unsupervised youth, unhygienic and renegade, and it occurred to me to see that today's parenting regime seems to have coalesced around the project of keeping youth constantly socialized and trained and busy so that they cannot sit around and wonder what's wrong. Because wondering what's wrong leads to troubling conclusions.

We have responded to the problem of existential anxiety not by confronting it with existential philosophy but by creating an ever-larger and more sophisticated web of 24-hour distraction and socialization training, so that young people are prevented from attaining the socially analytical skills that might lead them to see how they're being fooled. If they saw how they are being fooled they might disrupt the functioning of this system. They might go on strike. They might bring the whole thing crashing down.
Keith Olbermann the other day suggested we take to the streets. What happened? Nothing.

We don't know how to take to the streets. Besides, it looks just awful on television.

So you can go ahead and do your job, but just be aware that you are being conned. You are living in a dishonest and rapacious culture, and you are doing the best you can to make it work for you. Even those of us working for causes we believe in are working in a basically anarchic, amoral system, without the benefit of unions or workplace protections and in an economic system that has no moral foundation.

That's what we do. That's who we are. And that weird anxiety you feel from time to time, that's not a problem. That's just the truth seeping in.

You're OK. It's the world that's messed up."

Friday, August 5, 2011

On Connection

I’ve decided to accept that, both in Richmond and Barnesville, I live in a state of grace.

I live in general grace, for, as we know, without the inbreathing and exhaling of the Holy Spirit, the earth would cease to be.

But more specifically, I live in a state of internet grace.

In both places, for mysterious reasons, my internet connections phase in and out as they please. Sometimes the connectivity pulses in and out by minutes or seconds, flickering on and off like the light of firefly. Sometimes I have blessed hours with connectivity, as if the cows of cyber-stability have been securely pastured in my field; sometimes, too, I am blessed hours without the internet at all and must do "other things." Sometimes whole days go by and I am forced to a McDonalds or a library.

I receive both being on and off the “web” as gifts. Like a farmer, I habituate self to forces I cannot control.

Inevitably, this has an impact on my blogging. I jump when the "ding" sounds--e-mails have flooded my mailbox, the connection is present!

When the moments of grace arrive, when the firefly is lit, and the internet pours out its presence, I respond first to the pressing demands—that (dozen) e-mail(s) that must be responded to right now, that article or review that ‘s due, that research that has been holding up my progress.

Then I go to blog, full of life, full of potential fire—and the light blinks out, the way closes. Posts linger, half written, in Word documents. Somehow, to write, I have to be “there,” in this blogspace.

And sometimes I am too tired, too spent, for the act of writing.

I have a long, backlogged list I hope to blog about: the Olney graduation, the change of seasons in Barnesville (complete with apring photographs taken on my cell phone), more on Dorothy Day, who I left hanging as an abused child without rounded the picture, posts about theology, about Earlham School of Religion, about my reading on Quaker women writers, heaven knows what else. Have I mentioned how much I loved the movie, The Winter Bones? Is it too late? Must my slower internal rhythm correspond with the lightning quick pace of the outer world, or is there something to be gained by the slippage?

Perhaps I should rename my blog BehindtheTimes, but I’m sure the name is already taken. :)

It occurs to me that my friends often cut and paste their posts and e-mails (have I mentioned I am a great Jane Austen fan? ☺) and render them, almost verbatim, as blogs? I’ve posted so much—on Jane Austen, on the Mysteries of Adolpho, on Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Should I keep this blog circulating by moving these thoughts over here—to a blog about Quakerism? Yet all of this feeds this Quaker.

Well, I will keep on. Did you know it was a Quaker who named the types of clouds--nimbus and cumulus, etc.-- in the early 19th century? And that Jane Austen knew him, that they were neighbors? And that in Emma …

For another day.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dear Rosa

Rosa Shull died two days ago. She was in her early twenties

Death is almost always as surprising as it is inevitable. Despite images of the River Styx, with their tease of boats and crossings, the chasm between life and death is so total, so irrevocable, that it stuns us with its non-negotiable finality, its inflexible refusal to enter into dialogue. It goes in one direction only and won’t hear our pleas. Our needs are not its needs.

To be dead is to be parted from this earth as embodied, moving flesh, no matter what paradise, heaven or new life lies on the other side. I trust in an afterlife; I grieve the loss of this life.

Rosa, your death—so sudden, so unexpected, so young—is like the proverbial blow to the solar plexus, leaving me gasping, airless, groping for direction. How could it be? How could someone so vitally alive, so personable, bright, kind, artistic, with such an abundance of gifts to pour out on humanity, have died? How could someone so infused with the life force be gone? The mind reels.

I have a memory of you and Sophie walking across the Olney campus in front of the Main Building, a sunny day early in the Fall of your senior year. You both have short haircuts, that come to some sort of V at the back of your necks. You are both tall, blond, light eyed. You walk side by side with a confidence that is infectious, startling, healthy, alive, sharply radiant.

In another memory, we are at lunch and you are talking about a dessert—a pastry—that your grandmother used to make for you in Russia (or was it the Ukraine?), where you presented a seamless merging of a life far away and the present moment.

Annie Dillard writes, “I was …ringing. I had been my whole life a bell.” That is you, with your clear voice, the ringing, rounded cadences of a Midwestern accent, yet beneath the surface, music rising up and down, laughter.

I want to believe that when we die, we are transported to another "place," where we don’t know we’ve died, where we wake up and are healed and everything bad that went before is revealed to be a nightmare, an illusion. We go home and our relationships are whole and holy, infused with light. People we thought are dead are alive and present. We overflow with joy because everything has been set aright. We praise, we sing, we laugh.

Rosa, I can’t believe you are gone—it simply defies my soul’s comprehension—yet I can imagine you in heaven and also feel your spirit suffusing the earth. In the future, I will see you in things that move and remind me of your voice. All is still outside my window, but in a shadow of the window, cast on the carpet as a square of light, shadows move rapidly, dancing, waving at me.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Framing Dorothy Day, part II

Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day wrote often about her childhood and cast it in happy terms. Her stories of making dolls from calla lilies or enjoying happy times gathered in the dining room reading and eating apples (which she would peel and salt) paint an idyllic picture of her girlhood. Even the privations are cast in positive terms-- a sheltered childhood allowed time to read and study; housework when the family could not afford a maid instilled discipline and a work ethic, being the primary caretaker for her baby brother when she was not at school gave her an opportunity to push the carriage up and down the streets of working class Chicago that had so gripped her imagation as she read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Poverty meant a chance to play with the poorer children. Prosperity meant a more comfortable home.

Yet between the lines--and within the lines of her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin--a harsher picture emerges. She states in The Eleventh Virgin that as a child she was “slapped for many things.” (EV, 8). When Della and Dorothy were holding horsehairs in a brook, hoping they would turn into snakes, Della fell into the water and Dorothy (called “June” in the novel, presumably because in real life her middle name was May) was “whipped for it because, Mother … argued, June was two years older and should have known better.” (EV, 8) Later, Dorothy learned to cope with punishment through reading: A friend gave her a book about a saint and “thereafter, …[she] prayed to Pelagia, her birthday saint, every time a whipping threatened. It didn’t avert the punishment but her faith remained unshaken.” (EV, 16) She remembers being so tired from baby care of her younger brother John, born when she 14--including being assigned the four o'clock feedings--that she was exhausted at school, where she was working hard to earn a college scholarship.

She also recalls much housework--and perhaps most poignantly, isolation. Her father “in one his recurrent moods of superiority, would not let his daughter play with the girls of the neighborhood … Mother … assisting him in carrying out his idea of exclusiveness ….” (EV, 23) In such a state, “there were no adventures to make her realize that life was joyful.” (EV, 29) Dorothy longed for the days when the family had been poorer and she’d been free “to mingle with crowds of children in playgrounds and play in the dirty streets with strange little girls and tell them wild, imaginative tales.” (EV, 29) When the family moved to a more affluent neighborhood, “it was a humdrum life of lonesomeness.” (29) She longed, early on, for the freedom she saw among the working classes.

Why did Day frame her childhood as happy, when it clearly had its share of grief--and possibly abuse? She left home at 16 and was, for the most part, self-supporting for the rest of her days, preferring unheated tenement rooms and heavy labor to returning home. Late in his own life, her father described Day as the "nut" of the family, and wrote that he wouldn't have her around him.

I haven't read anything that discusses the possibility that Day was an abused, scapegoated child. I understand she didn't want to be portrayed that way. Also, what's considered abuse in one generation or culture is often normal child rearing in another. At the same time, it's not hard to see a person who was the underdog and scapegoat in childhood sallying forth as an adult to help those stigmatized and held down. What most interests me, as I look at 20th century "saints" (and Day resisted that label) is how we misread what seems to be lying in plain sight in front of us in favor of a narrative "line." Why would we not see what is there? Do we do her a disservice when we look away?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Framing Dorothy Day I

In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, a character named Mary Crawford has grown up in the household of a corrupt uncle, a Navy admiral. At one point, she says wittily that she knows all about "rears and vices," following that with the statement "Now don't accuse me of punning." Of course, it seems obvious, even without Mary pointing to it, that she is indeed punning--she knows all about rear and vice admirals and all about their "rears and vices."

However, on the various Jane Austen lists to which I subscribe, violent fights break out periodically over this statement. One faction sees the worldly Mary punning, the other says no, of course she's not punning--look, she even says she's not punning. I have a level of frustration with this second faction, wondering how in the world they can't see the pun, especially given that Mary and her brother Henry are serpents who invade the "garden" of Mansfield Park, complete with allusions to Milton--and complete with adroit skills at manipulating language. I give enormous credit to Jane Austen for creating in Henry and Mary such well-rounded characters--they are so charming, so talented, so delightful, so capable, at times, of genuine social kindnesses--that you half fall in love with them, while at the same time knowing the "city" has twisted and corrupted them. Their vices hide in plain sight.

Dorothy Day was an enormously good woman who should, I believe, be made a saint. Her childhood contributed to that, and she's documented her tale of growing up at least three times. Yet because of the way she's framed it, the real story may be hidden in plain sight. To be continued ...(Not a tease, I'm just out of time right now ...)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Easter

With Easter almost here, I am imagining preparing the earth to be pleasing and welcoming for a loving God's return. If we made that our goal rather than profit or domination or personal pleasure, what a beautiful world we would create.

I imagine we would clean up our mess, plant trees and treat the animals kindly.

I imagine we would feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

We would definitely stop bombing and fighting each other with carnal weapons.

And, while we're envisioning this, what if God kept delaying his return day by day, so it was always tomorrow ... and we were on good behavior so long that it became a way of life?

What a wonderful world it would be.

Happy Easter.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New York Times: The Missing Photo

I have been writing "utopic" visions and with others, have begun to envision a world of small, caring schools, floating to work on waterways and more time at home to hang laundry and grow gardens. This is the beginning of a lovely portrait of a shalom world, and it's fruitful to have these visions. "Without a vision, the people perish."

However ... in the real world, I sense something fearful.

I sensed it this morning when I woke up and pulled up the New York Times. I was faced with an image of illegal immigrants in Arizona, dressed in their black and white striped prison uniforms. For a moment, I couldn't quite register what I was seeing. If it hadn't been for the bright color photograph, I would have thought I was looking at a Nazi concentration camp. It was a disturbing image. So disturbing that I decided later I would blog about it.

But strangely, when I went back to grab the image from the New York Times, it had disappeared. A slideshow of five photos had been reduced to one image of students in Georgia protesting immigration. Hhhm. For some reason, the sudden disappearance of the inmates troubled me as much as the initial image.

The photo I've posted here is from the website:

The photo we now see is captioned: "Approximately 200 convicted illegal immigrants were handcuffed together and moved into a separate area of what has been deemed Tent City, by order of Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Wednesday, Feb. 4 2009. Arpaio is using Tent City to keep illegal immigrants separate from the rest of the inmate population. (AP photo)"

I wake up every morning and see the contours of life as I have always known it. There's food in abundance, a roof over our heads, warmth in the winter and gas for our cars. We take summer vacations and our children go to school or to college and we have gifts for Christmas and we read books and watch movies, take walks and visit friends. If we are sick, we go to the doctor. We put money away for retirement.

Yet since the financial crisis of 2008, I've felt anxious.

Roger and I spent a long weekend in Toronto last summer. We loved Toronto. Everyone seemed so relaxed and at ease. I didn't feel the undercurrent of fear that I do here.

At a weekend retreat in Barnesville, I asked a Canadian Friend about this, commenting on the different atmosphere I sense between here and Canada. Is it just me? I asked. Am I projecting my own anxiety onto the people around me?

No, he said. There's definitely some level of fear in the United States that's palpable. He feels it when he comes here. He doesn't know what it is.

Often, I want to brush all this away, like some nightmarish cobweb, to convince myself that it's some weird, warped fantasy devised by my own mind. Perhaps it's my fevered imagination that finds beneath the facade of normalcy that America is changing in unsettling and ominous ways. It must be me, I think. Perhaps I am spending too much time reading about Germany in the 1930s: Don't we always diagnose the illness we are studying?

And yet the dots ... I keep finding dots that unsettle me.

Five states, including Ohio, calling for sub-minimum wage for teenagers--along with a rollback on protections for teen workers.
IKEA taking advantage of the cheap labor in southern Virginia to open a factory there--$8 an hour for workers versus $19 in Sweden (their minimum wage).
Draconian laws against illegal immigrants.
A city in Michigan assuming "emergency powers ..." that takes governance from elected officials in favor of vesting it in an appointed board: (HT: MM)
Constant reports of the dramatic increases in the wealth of the upper 1 percent of our country, along with the flattening and even decrease of wealth for the rest of us.
News that Paul Ryan, author of the bill that would replace Medicare with inadequate medical vouchers for seniors, requires his staff to read Ayn Rand, a "philosopher" hostile to Christianity and apparently to any form of compassion save self interest.

I'm sure much more could be added. I worry that something strange is happening in the United States that will strip most of us of our rights and our livelihood, predicated on a financial "emergency." Am I even thinking this? How can this be? I fervently hope I am wrong and this current period and its excesses will dissipate as the American economy recovers.

Thomas Wolfe wrote eloquently about about his gradual, growing awareness of the profound evil of Nazi Germany during a visit there in 1936. It was this awareness of what he called a primeval evil that led him to conclude he couldn't go home again. He'd lost his innocence. The passage below, written on the heels of his visit to Germany, could equally apply to today:

From You Can't Go Home Again

I think the enemy is here before us, too. But I think we know the forms
and faces of the enemy, and in the knowledge that we know him, and shall
meet him, and eventually must conquer him is also our living hope. I
think the enemy is here before us with a thousand faces, but I think we
know that all his faces wear one mask. I think the enemy is single
selfishness and compulsive greed. I think the enemy is blind, but has the
brutal power of his blind grab. I do not think the enemy was born
yesterday, or that he grew to manhood forty years ago, or that he
suffered sickness and collapse in 1929 [or 2008], or that we began without the
enemy, and that our vision faltered, that we lost the way, and suddenly
were in his camp. I think the enemy is old as Time, and evil as Hell, and
that he has been here with us from the beginning. I think he stole our
earth from us, destroyed our wealth, and ravaged and despoiled our land.
I think he took our people and enslaved them, that he polluted the
fountains of our life, took unto himself the rarest treasures of our own
possession, took our bread and left us with a crust, and, not content,
for the nature of the enemy is insatiate--tried finally to take from us
the crust.

I think the enemy comes to us with the face of innocence and says to us:

"I am your friend."

I think the enemy deceives us with false words and lying phrases, saying:

"See, I am one of you--I am one of your children, your son, your brother,
and your friend. Behold how sleek and fat I have become--and all because
I am just one of you, and your friend. Behold how rich and powerful I
am--and all because I am one of you--shaped in your way of life, of
thinking, of accomplishment. What I am, I am because I am one of you,
your humble brother and your friend. Behold," cries Enemy, "the man I am,
the man I have become, the thing I have accomplished--and reflect. Will
you destroy this thing? I assure you that it is the most precious thing
you have. It is yourselves, the projection of each of you, the triumph of
your individual lives, the thing that is rooted in your blood, and native
to your stock, and inherent in the traditions of America. It is the thing
that all of you may hope to be," says Enemy, "for"--humbly--"am I not
just one of you? Am I not just your brother and your son? Am I not the
living image of what each of you may hope to be, would wish to be, would
desire for his own son? Would you destroy this glorious incarnation of
your own heroic self? If you do, then," says Enemy, "you destroy
yourselves--you kill the thing that is most gloriously American, and in
so killing, kill yourselves."

He lies! And now we know he lies! He is not gloriously, or in any other
way, ourselves. He is not our friend, our son, our brother. And he is not
American! For, although he has a thousand familiar and convenient faces,
his own true face is old as Hell.

Look about you and see what he has done.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Dorothy Day and a good book on children's literature

I'm reading a good book on children's literature called American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood by Gail Schmunk Murray (1998).

What interests me about children's literature is the lifelong impact it has on readers: In other words, that it's formative. It colors how we view the world. As Murray argues, it's also conservative. Such literature is written by adults who have typically wanted to inculcate children with whatever they consider the prevailing "good" morality of their time period, be it Christian sentiment in the 19th century or acceptance of minorities in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I would add too, that because it is imagined by adults who, inevitably, transmit the values of their own era--essentially the era before the birth of the child reader--children who internalize these values are carrying forward and conserving older values. If they express these values as adults, they are expressing the values of their grandparents' generation, though, of course, influenced by the experiences and values of their own lives.

Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was much influenced by the 19th century novels she read as a child. Two that impressed her were Wide, Wide World and Queechy by Susan Warner, both huge best sellers before the Civil War and an influence on a generation of literature to come. In these novels, which are sentimental by today's standards, young orphan girls survive in a cruel world through faith in God, patience, innocence, kindness, forgiveness and self sacrifice. Although these novels were written from an evangelical Christian perspective, Day was able to carry their values into the Catholic Worker movement. Along with other books, they gave her an inspiration and a touchstone. The Catholic Worker hospitality houses required huge amounts of patience, kindness and self sacrifice. They also ignited the popular imagination: the CW hospitality house movement spread quickly.

Books like Queechy and Wide, Wide World remind me of Shirley Temple films of the 1930s, often featuring Temple as a brave, innocent and virtuous orphan girl who makes her way in a cruel world. It interests me that such Victorian motifs carried into the 1930s, a time of great suffering, and that they manifested in both films and the Catholic Worker movement. One could argue that the compassion imagined in the 19th century is in many ways realized in the 20th century, especially during the New Deal of the 1930s, as many of the people who grew up reading 19th- century children's literature came of age. And it's surely possible that children's book like the Little House series, which, as Murray points out, promoted self help and implicitly critiqued government programs, have influenced the politics of our era in an individualist direction.

Questions that arise for me include: What values did I imbibe and have I carried forward as a child reading children's literature in the 1960s and early 70s? What values are today's young adults carrying forward? What impact have they had and will they have on how our society is structured?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sub-minimum wage

Here's on child labor:

Several states, including Ohio, want to roll back minimum wage for people under 20. The details vary from state to state, but apparently Maine is proposing $5.25 an hour for this specific group.

Here are my problems with this:

An acquaintance of mine has a daughter who started at the same state university she attended 30 years ago. She wanted the daughter to work her way through college for character building reasons, but noted that the cost of the education there had gone up by 10 times in 30 years while minimum wage had increased a mere 2.5 times. These figures made it impossible her daughter to earn enough to work her way through school. A sub-minimum wage would make that financial struggle even harder, especially as Pell grants are under attack now.

Apparently, at least in some states, the proposals abolish the kind of oversight that prevents abuse. In fact, some of the legislation takes away any requirement for record keeping. The message is clear: Employers can hire very young workers and do what they want with them. (This in the wake of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire?) The most vulnerable will be the most exploited.

I have been wondering when and how the assault on minimum wage would come. Never, ever do you hear anyone like Boehner, our representative from Ohio, say anything but "job creation." There's never any talk of decent jobs at decent wages with decent benefits .... Now I know how minimum wage will be attacked: Use the states, target specific groups, slice and dice, whittle and prod .... Then the "rest of us" will have to compete with $5.25 an hour ...

Where is the mainstream media on this? The New York Times spent masses of time on the Triangle fire but in the meantime, in real time, Rome is burning all around us. We hand wring over past abuses while politicians are trying to rewind the tape to recreate those days.

Perhaps this summer, when it looks like I will be unemployed, I can get involved in politics for the second time in my life. I'm simply not an overtly political creature ...

Am I over-reacting to this? I really see this as a part of a "vision", not to bring the rest of the world forward to decent wages and benefits for workers, but to create a huge class of underpaid proles in America who can "compete" with Third World workers in a race to the bottom. It makes me deeply sad on spiritual level.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Visioning the green community

Shak El writes:

"Green Utopianism does not have to mean a return to the farm (tho it would not stop those who wished to do so). It could easily embrace an industrial society based on green energies (sun, wind, wter, geo-thermal etc). necessary labor would be gradually reduced by moving ever towards full automation and shared work load divided amongst the population. Some estimate that we could produce everything we need with only 10-15 hours of necessary labor."

"Some estimate that we could produce everything we need with only 10-15 hours of necessary labor."

When I was growing up in the 1960s and even into the early 70s, a shorter work week was very much a vision. With increased productivity, we would could all live well and by working fewer hours live, paradoxically, more abundantly.

In the 1960s, the idea of a shorter work week was linked to the technological Utopia that was going to liberate us all, and we were less sophisticated about environmental issues. I remember the first Earth Day, when our elementary school class stood on the baseball diamond and let go a great flock of colorful helium balloons. We wouldn't do that today ... but we meant well.

What made my heart sing was hearing others speak (not just Shak El, but Alice, Hysery, etc.) of that seemingly long lost vision of an abundance of time rather than of material goods. I have been thinking much about vision these days, and the quote from Proverbs that "without a vision, the people perish" sticks in my mind. It's not just any vision that Proverbs means, but a vision, as the next part of the quotes notes, that is tied to the law--which, as I read it, links it specifically to the building of the shalom community.

We seem so surrounded by visions of scarcity. We are told must work longer and harder for less and less and do so in an environment of fear. Yet our productivity has grown massively in the past 50--and even 20--years. By embracing a vision of simply living more simply, and wisely using the technology we have, we could be released from lives of toil. If we lived at the level of the average family of the 1950s, we could all work shorter weeks, with less stress and more joy and time for family, friends and community.

Back in the 1930s, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement advocated for the same vision: People living simply by working 20 hours a week and spending another 20 hours a week in discussion and education, ie. in community. If people in a society that had so much less could have this vision, we can too. (I think. I hope.)

We live in a culture too that values work as work, so that one can be fearful of advocating for leisure. And some, but not all of us, will have passions, be it for building a bicycle from scratch to helping build a Friends boarding school, that will take up large amounts of time--but not feel like work.

Overall, this green vision is not about "leisure" per se but achieving a more balanced life. In The Overworked American, the author, Juliet Schor, cites studies that once people work 30 hours a week or fewer, they actually watch less television and are more apt to be involved in politics and community. Could this be the real reason we are told we must work ever longer and harder?

Not to restate the obvious, but maybe it needs to be said more often: Fewer hours in an office or commuting to a job might lead to less money but it would also open up more time for gardening and hanging laundry and walking places and enjoying life. Maybe we'd read more books. Maybe we'd be healthier, driving down health care cost. Perhaps I dream ...

Beautiful Barnesville, Fairyland and Walking.

Roger and I walked the seven miles round trip to the Fairyland ice cream stand yesterday. One of the charms of Barnesville is how it captures a simpler, bygone era. Of course, my feet now hurt ... even after bathing them in Olney's lake. Ah spring!! How we love you!

I'm struck with Barnesville's quiet when I come back here from Richmond on the weekends. I live on a shady, quiet, old-fashioned street there, but Route 40, a few blocks a way, provides constant, subliminal traffic noise and there's the train whistle, and an undercurrent of hum from people in houses built in a row along a street. It's not bad noise, but it's noise. Our house in Barnesville, however, is surrounded by fields and a barn, with the lake on one side, and we are set far back from the road, so the quiet is profound, except for the birds and the geese, and occasionally, sounds drifting over from Olney.

Since, like Jane Austen, I live "half in" all the books I've read, our walk to the Fairyland reminded me of when Donna Parker and her best friend Ricky, a freckle-faced girl, took a long walk to the soda fountain on their day off from camp counseling in the Donna Parker books, a children's series written in the late 1950s, early 1960s ... which book was that? Of course, the soda stand looked a lot closer when they were whipping past in the car on the way to camp ... Has anybody read the Donna Parker books?

And while I'm ruminating on long walks ... trekking to the Fairyland reminded me too of a March of Dimes walk-a-thon through Baltimore when I was 14. I wish I had photos and/or a route map from that day, because it was street after street of tidy rowhouses with marble steps ... and most of that is probably gone now or in disrepair ... I took it all for granted, of course. I know there's a metaphor here somewhere. :)

Any walk memories?

Monday, April 4, 2011


In her essay "Lush Life: Foucault's Analysis of Power and A Jazz Aesthetic," Sharon Welch quotes Steven Weinberg's list of five widely held utopian visions:

Free Market utopias: In this vision, government is limited and the world, freed of regulations, becomes “industrialized and prosperous.” However, “For many Americans the danger of tyranny lies not in government but in employers or insurance companies or HMOs, from which we need government to protect us. To say that any worker is free to escape an oppressive employer by getting a different job is ... unrealistic," Weinberg writes.

Best and brightest utopias: The best and the brightest are put in charge. The problem: all elites end up prioritizing their own interests.

Religious utopias: Religious revival sweeps the earth, getting rid of secularism. We know what happens when religious communities start to safeguard their "purity."

Green utopias: The world rejects industrialism in favor of simpler living and small communities. This vision “falls prey to the common tendency ... for those who don’t have to work hard to romanticize labor.”

Technological utopias: A dream of a world made efficient and rich through the dispersal of cutting edge technology. This vision doesn’t sufficiently address environmental concerns of loss of local community.

I've read much about all these visions, and the one I probably fall prey to is the Green utopia, probably because I never have supported myself through farming. Do you have a "favorite?" Are there more to add to the list? Could all of these work together or is that another utopic fantasy?