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.