Friday, November 11, 2016

Wendell Berry: Solace

As I move from numbed to grieved, this poem offers solace. The photos show the nature around my home:

  by Wendell Berry

"Yes, though hope is our duty,
let us live a while without it
to show ourselves we can.
Let us see that, without hope,
we still are well. Let hopelessness
shrink us to our proper size.
Without it we are half as large
as yesterday, and the world 
is twice as large. My small
place grows immense as I walk
upon it without hope.
Our springtime rue anemones
as I walk among them, hoping
not even to live, are beautiful
as Eden, and I their kinsman
am immortal in their moment.

"as beautiful as Eden, and I their kinsman am immortal in their moment."

Out of charity let us pray
for the great ones of politics
and war, the intellectuals,
scientists, and advisors,
the golden industrialists,
the CEOs, that they too
may wake to a day without hope
that in their smallness they
may know the greatness of Earth
and Heaven by which they so far
live, that they may see
themselves in their enemies,
and from their great wants fallen
know the small immortal
joys of beasts and birds."

HT: Elaine Pigeon

 "the small immortal joy of beasts"

Monday, November 7, 2016

Election tomorrow

Tomorrow is election day in the most stunning Presidential election in living memory and perhaps in the history of our country. The news of the first major-party nomination of a woman presidential candidate, remarkable in itself, has been utterly overshadowed by her opponent, the U.S.'s first brush with an unfettered demagogue contemptuous of U.S. democratic law and norms, mocker of the disabled, women, minorities, prisoners of war and fallen soldiers, coming within a hair's-breadth of power. Adding to the spectacle and the terror,  Brexit occurred in the midst of this, harbinger of the real possibility that the unthinkable could occur here too in a world where the average citizen has been effectively disenfranchised for far too long and may lash out with the wrecking ball at hand.

We face tomorrow hopeful but with the knowledge it could go either way. If the election goes the way I hope, in which a moderate, center-left lawyer, former senator and former Secretary of State wins the prize, I believe we should do the following:

First, take a moment to celebrate. Instead of living in constant dread, we ought to have at least moment of rest before we get back to work. Yes, Clinton will be ruthlessly opposed, but yet she will have power: the power of executive appointments, the power of the Presidential pulpit, the power to set the tone in the executive branch, the power in hundreds of subtle way to influence federal departments to head in directions that are pro-people. She will have the power to propose a budget and a legislative agenda.

Second, we need to push back against the rhetoric that government is fundamentally bad, fundamentally evil, inherently some hybrid of the "beast" in Revelation and Stalinist "socialism." Every time I go past the Young Republican bulletin board at a college where I teach, I feel a rise of anger at the poster that reads "Taxation is Theft," (a "gotcha" variation on the old socialist slogan "property is theft") not simply because I disagree (I do disagree, but can tolerate disagreement) but because it seems to me an unchallenged lie: in fact, not paying taxes is theft of the worst sort, theft from your country. We need to fight back against the notion that "government is the problem." In fact, to sober minds, sound government is a good and a gift.

In that vein, I like a wording, that could become a slogan, that I have been hearing more: whenever basic government spending is attacked, such as on education, roads, libraries, health care, as "socialism," people are saying: "It's civilization, not socialism."

Government spending long predates socialism.
"Government spending is civilization not socialism."
It is what civilized nations do.

After celebrating an election (I hope) and standing up for government as civilization, the third step will be keeping our eyes open and, of course, working for peace, especially as Clinton is feared to be a warmonger.

As we know, however, the crazed elements in this country will not stop their ruthless, relentless campaign to undermine all progress. Moreover, we know that probably about 40% of voters will vote for Trump. He may go away, but, sadly, we have to expect another demagogue to follow.  The election has laid bare to what extent Trump is nothing new: he is a type well-known to Europeans, well understood by great writers. There's a surfeit of parallels, a huge body of literature to describe a person like him. We have been fortunate so far in this country not to have let his likes grab ultimate power, but his type is out there. The next one is likely to learn from Trump's mistakes and successes and thus be even more dangerous.

Of course, although this is a secular blog, we need to keep our spiritual houses in order and lean into that "ocean of light."

Perhaps in two days we will wake up and this blog will be so much dust in the wind. In the meantime, I remain optimistic.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Le Carre: A Quaker writer? Bodies and violence

A friend mentioned John le Carre seeming to her to function as a woman's writer. I have been thinking about this while watching the mini-series The Night Manager, based on a le Carre novel of the same name. However, it was not until I watched the first episode in season four of the series Luther with my husband that I understood how le Carre reflects a woman's--and a Quaker's-- stance.

Luther, a British series, focuses on the angst-ridden policeman Luther (Idris Elba), who investigates violent crimes. The season's opening episode involves a serial killer/cannibal of the most gruesome sort, who eats pieces of his victims' bodies. Although officially not working as a police officer, Luther is soon on the trail of this man.

In The Night Manager, Jonathan Price (Tom Hiddleston), the British night manager of a Cairo hotel, fails to protect the life of an Egyptian woman he has fallen in love with, the mistress of a high-powered Egyptian criminal who murders her. Price is recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Coleman), who runs a somewhat maverick British intelligence group, to infiltrate and bring down Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a powerful illegal arms dealer associated with the Egyptian woman's death. 

Jonathan and Jud, center, have bodies that are painfully vulnerable to abuse by alpha male Roper, on the left.

The Night Manager had me riveted with anxiety for the main character, Jonathan, because he is rubbing shoulders with a sociopath (Roper) who we know will brutally (and with torture) wipe him out if he suspects him of betrayal. To make matters worse, Jonathan falls in love with Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), Roper's highly off-limits American mistress, and she with him. They take what seem to be extreme risks to be with each other. We worry both that Roper will find out they are in love and that he will discover Jonathan is a government agent. Meanwhile we also know that corrupt intelligence officers high in the British secret service will protect Roper and throw Price under the bus if they find out about him. The strong, rather than protect the weak, side with the strong.

It may be The Night Manager is more riveting and anxiety provoking than Luther because it is better directed (Susanne Bier, the director, won an Emmy for the series.) However, I think there's more to the story than good direction, and that the tension the le Carre evokes come from fundamentally reflecting a female point of view.

As I watched Luther, not very anxious despite the machinations of a serial killer, I realized that I was comforted because of Luther's god-like (male) qualities. For all his various inner angsts, we know he is invincible. He is a crack cop, better than anyone: against him, what mere serial killer has a chance? He keeps London as safe as it can be kept.

Luther's body is protected, not vulnerable and is aggressive rather than aggressed upon. 

Jonathan, on the hand, exudes vulnerability. He's gentle, not tough, a hotel manager, not a trained, savvy police officer. He's sensitive, without (like Luther, who also is caring) being hardened. Watching his unprotected body as he walks beside Roper, one feels a primal fear for him: he has no real way to defend himself. He is in the position of the woman, his body at the mercy of a nearby male who claims aggressive ownership over it. Over and over we see him vulnerable. (This is problematized because he does kill a man, perhaps necessary to make him palatable, but the overall thrust of Jonathan is vulnerability.)

Roper, of course, does not exert sexual ownership over Jonathan, but he does openly exert alpha male control. He renames Jonathan without thinking to ask him what name he would like, insists he participate in corporate crimes that make him vulnerable to arrest, and demands that he be absorbed into Roper's plans and organizations and that he adjust to them without question. Jonathan is there for one reason: to serve Roper. He is expected to have no agency outside of Roper's desires. He does (or is expected to do) whatever Roper tells him. All of this makes him like a woman. Like a woman, he smiles often and makes himself pleasant, agreeable and non-threatening to Roper through words and body language. 

Price is supported by other vulnerable people who happen to be women: Angela Burr is visibly, heavily pregnant and also under attack by higher-ups in British intelligence for getting too close to Roper. Jed, Roper's girlfriend, is unhappy and has a body equally as vulnerable to assault as Jonathan's, as well as a young son her work as Roper's mistress supports.  I may have some issues with using motherhood to buttress the moral worth of female characters, but it underlines their bodily vulnerability. As we see during an attack on Roper's young son, children's bodies, like women's, are easily assaulted.

It's hard not to feel acute anxiety over the fate of these vulnerable people fighting Roper, especially Jonathan and Jed, who are so physically close so often to a ruthless man. We feel viscerally their bodily weakness, the risks they are taking and the courage they display.

I find it hard to feel as acutely over Luther, who blankets us in the sense that he is strong and invulnerable, that he will take care of the people in the series and hence of us, the viewer. This is the male stance, ultimately tough and impregnable. It argues, using an individual, that strong, violent males (and by extension groups of strong violent males, ie armies) are what keep us safe. 

Le Carre's argument, that the strong alpha male ultimately threatens, rather than protects us, seems to me more far more realistic than the protective capabilities of the alpha male. As Le Carre shows, violent men inside and outside of legitimate organizations work together to oppress the rest of us: they aren't enemies to evil, they are its friends. And as the protagonists in the The Night Manager illustrate, women (and most men), instead of trying to emulate the violent alpha male, should be using their brains to defeat violence, rather than trying to hide behind the faux protection violence offers. Feminism took a very wrong turn when it decided that its role model would be the ruthless female CEO in spiked heels who outdoes that most ruthless male CEO. Instead, and more realistically, we should, like Le Carre, try to show the inherent problems with the accumulation of power/violence into too few hands-- and insist on other solutions. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Quakers and literature, Game of Thrones and Virginia Woolf

Sadly, the recent shooting in Orlando makes an appropriate backdrop for my topic: the debut of new book on Quaker literature and the question of how we can move towards a more robust imagining of peace.

Quakers and Literature raises pertinent questions about the role of literature in society.

The anthology, Quakers in Literature, will be officially launched this month at the Friends Association for Higher Education Conference in Woodbrooke, England. I would like to praise this book and juxtapose it to my viewing of the series Game of Thrones.

A beheading on Game of Thrones. It's not uncommon: this beheader ends up beheaded, but the take-away isn't that violence is bad: the take-away is win at all costs. 

Game of Thrones, though not without its entertainment value, is characterized by cartoonish characters, cartoonish violence and cartoonish plots. Violence and ritual humiliation substitute the sensation of shock for genuine feeling. In this series, a viewer can get a faux emotional jolt or pay-off (of sorts) without a real emotional investment. 

The show is set is some other time period--it's fantasy--presumably very long ago. It's Roman European-esque in feel (and Middle-Eastern-esque)--pre-Christian certainly, but with a medieval overlay. The people are barbaric as a matter of course, and so are constantly chopping each other's heads off (or delving axes into people's brains) and perpetrating other acts of violence. 

The Hound learns that peacemaking is for losers. He goes out and kills a bunch of people to avenge the peacemakers.

Recently, a man named the Hound who was left for dead reemerged. He falls in with a wayward wandering group that has decided to renounce violence. Their leader even makes a strong statement about how more killing isn't going to stop they cycle of killing. Lest you think this might open an alternative path in the series, no ... all but the returned hero, who happens to be away when it happens, are slaughtered (not that there is the least question this will occur), and the man who made the speech about peace is found dangling, hanged. This is replayed in the next episode too, lest we missed the message: peacemaking leaves you dead. Peace is for losers. Losers, losers, losers. Kill or be killed. Strike first and hard or die. 

The message dunned into the audience week after week --as was done in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and who knows how many other series--demonstrates that the most violent man wins. All religion is a scam or evil, so don't look to that for help. Strong woman are routinely humiliated--for example,  a queen,  Cersei, is subjected to one of the most intense scenes of ritual humiliation I have ever witnessed --as a penance imposed by a priest of some cult, she must walk naked through the streets of her city while being pelted with rotten vegetables and jeered at. 

Cersei dared to be strong: men get to see her naked and humiliate her. Rape and threat of rape are common tools used to control women on his show.

As a Quaker and also as a sane person, I find this constant messaging advocating ultra violence disturbing. Of course, as with all these programs, the producers can coyly say they are depicting something outside of the societal norms of our world.  Naturally, they say they don't condone this behavior. But, as with  he Sopranos and Breaking Bad, everything about the rhetoric of these programs DOES condone it. Real men are validated for being ruthlessly violent. Ruthless violence wins. Compassionate morality is baggage for weaklings and nonentities. Who needs the Nuremburg rallies to whip up the base when you have Game of Thrones?

Therefore, it was refreshing to read an essay by J. Ashley Foster on Virginia Woolf's peace stance and the Spanish Civil War from the Quakers and Literature book--it's long but well worth reading. 

Woolf looking pensive in 1939, the year World War II began.

According to this essay, Virginia Woolf was involved with Quakers, such as Kathleen Innes, who published through Hogarth Press, (Innes published four books on the League of Nations with Hogarth) and they all advocated for peace. This article cites, of course, Woolf's Three Guineas as a feminist peace essay, but argues that, more fundamentally, "pacifism is one of modernism's idioms." This pacifism is internationalist in nature (rejecting fascist nationalisms). Woolf herself envisioned a fictional "Outsider's Society" in  Three Guineas made up of the daughters of educated men who would work for peace. Foster sees the corollary of this in peace efforts that emerged during the Spanish Civil War.

We remember there was a time when many non-Quaker women, and I think of Eleanor Roosevelt,  believed that women had a particular role in promoting constructive peacemaking--building the conditions that would lead to peace that lasted through "justice and the rights of all."  Woolf's aunt, Caroline Stephens, was a feminist Quaker whose pacifism informed Woolf's feminism, and Roger Fry's sister Margery was a Quaker. Quakers published through the same presses and belonged to many of the same political organizations as the Woolfs and other modernists, and the Woolfs sold manuscript pages of Three Guineas to raise money to  aid Spanish Civil War refugees.

The Spanish Civil War

It was comforting to me to remember that Woolf, who I often think of primarily as a stylist, engaged in serious peace work and political work during the Spanish Civil War and to review her strong commitment to pacifism and her strong belief in the connection between peace and feminism. I remember too during this period (late 1933-early 1935) Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also in England, dedicated to pacifism and trying to build international coalitions to fight National Socialism, most notably at the Fano conference in 1934. I wonder if the Woolfs and Bonhoeffer ever brushed shoulders, but that's an aside--what I care about is that  intelligent women speak out for peace--and I can't help but wish for our own Outsiders group to push back against shows like Games of Thrones. 

I also can't help but think that the male producers of Game of Thrones (I looked up their bios and saw no sign of military experience) are advocating a warrior mentality and articulating a position that validates ruthless slaughter without having an actual experience of war themselves, which makes this program all the more dangerous. 

This brings me back to Quakers and Literature. It's no wonder that a culture that leans relentlessly on violence as the only authentic form of power would produce a constant stream of individuals who try to express power through slaughter or that they would be attracted to ISIS as the most ruthless group of all. A question I raise in my essay in Quakers and Literature, called "Quaker Literature: Is there such a thing?" is why Quakers have been sidelined into homespun, nostalgic domesticating fictions when so many serious issues confront us. Is this really a time for escapism? Or do we need to be concentrating more effort on a literature--fiction and non-fictional--that imagines solutions to our problems through a Quaker lens? After all, without an imagination, the people perish. I would argue that a culture that pornographically repeats violent images over and over again has lost its imagination and its mooring. We who look at it outside a perspective of violence--we the Outsiders--perhaps have a responsibility to pick up the work Woolf started and advocate more imaginatively for peace. Where can we start?

Friday, June 3, 2016

My new book

My book is out: The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who resisted the Nazis and was executed for his complicity in the July 20, 1944  plot to assassinate Hitler. 

The focus of The Doubled Life is on reinserting women back into his life story, but possibly of more interest to readers at this site is Bonhoeffer's connection to Quakerism.  My writing of the book was informed by my Quakerism, which raised issues of women's silencing and equality for me as I began to research Bonhoeffer. Another connection to Quakers is in Bonhoeffer's similarities to Thomas Kelly:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Some theological similarities between Bonhoeffer and Quakers:

Pacificism (peace testimony): Although Bonhoeffer, no doubt with some anguish, got involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was, as mentioned above, a pacifist. He felt, however, that so many people were suffering and dying that he had to sacrifice his own desire for moral purity. Violating his conscience was less important than saving others. He thus rejected Kantian moral absolutes. We continue to debate this decision.  

Living your beliefs in the here and now (integrity): Like the Quakers, Bonhoeffer didn't invest his faith in "airy notions" (though he was more overtly theological, probably, than the average Quaker) but strongly believed that Christianity was meant to be enacted now, today, in this world. For this reason, he embraced the Old Testament (what we now call the Hebrew Bible) because of its emphasis on finding God "in the center of the village." That was a radical move in Nazi Germany, which wanted to eradicate the Old Testament along with the Jews. Like the Quakers, for him faith was expressed in what you do, not in what you say. Despite his highly troubled relationship with his fiancee, Maria, he admired the many ways she lived out her beliefs in action. 

Religionless Christianity: Related to living in the here and now, Bonhoeffer, like the early Quakers, wanted a Christianity stripped of its cant. For him, Christianity came to be defined as prayer and action. The crisis in institutional Christianity he  experienced is on going today. 

The Inner Light isn't your conscience: Like the early Quakers, most notably Robert Barclay, Bonhoeffer rejected the notion of "let your conscience be your guide," understanding this as a way for people to set themselves up as God. Like the early Quakers, he was interested in the light (though he would not have used that term) as way of discerning and doing God's will in the world. 

Community and Simplicity: Bonhoeffer invested enormously in his believe in the power of community to shake off the Nazi yoke. He found his deepest fulfillment in the several dissident seminaries he founded. Life in these communities was lived very simply. 

Equality: Bonhoeffer might not meet the bar on the equality testimony as we understand it, as he was a product of a hierarchical and patriarchal culture. However, it's worth noting how profoundly he was influenced by the black church in Harlem in 1930-31 at a time when many Americans were blinded by racism. Further, near the end of his life, he embraced the idea of what might be called "the community of good people" that transcended notions of class. 
Some further Quaker/Bonhoeffer connections:

During the course of a year in Manhattan at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer met Jean Lasserre, a fellow seminarian and French pacifist. Bonhoeffer was converted into a Sermon-on-the-Mount Christian pacifist by the encounter. Bonhoeffer and Lasserre travelled to Mexico in 1931 and were asked to address a Quaker group there, as it was so unusual at that time for a German and a Frenchman to be friends, given the animosity World War I and its aftermath had bred between the two cultures. (I'd love to know more about the meeting these two had with Mexico Quakers.)

When Bonhoeffer decided to run a seminary, one of the models was Woodbrooke, in Birmingham, England. He imposed a period of silent worship on his his seminarians, with which they found difficult to cope. (Further, the Berlin Quaker meeting was active in helping Jews and others during the Nazi era. If Bonhoeffer had a connection with them, which is quite possible, it would necessarily be submerged.) 

Thomas Kelly's brother-in-law picked Bonhoeffer up in Manhattan when Bonhoeffer traveled there in June, 1939. 

Bonhoeffer was friends with Quaker physicist and pacifist, Herbert Jehle, whose peace-loving ideas were considered quite strange in 1930s Germany. After the war, Jehle named his children Dietrich and Eberhard, after Bonhoeffer and his best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Jehle also helped Bonhoeffer's fiancee, Maria, come to the U.S. after the war, where she studied at Bryn Mawr. 

Like many early Quakers, Bonhoeffer did jail time. Like a few Quakers, he was executed. 

Herbert Jehle, Quaker

I began the book at Earlham School of Religion. Without the Quakers and Brethren I met there, this book never would have gotten off the ground. 

For Bonhoeffer, at the end of the day, the personal was the theological and the theological was the personal. My book concentrates on the life, with all its flaws, as an expression of a lived theology during a period of war and totalitarianism. 

The book can be purchased through Amazon. A $9.99 kindle version is available. If you would like an actual copy, the best price ($30.40) is via Chris Graham at .

I hope you will read the book. I know it's expensive (and I signed a contract that more or less insured I won't make any money on it) but I would love it to be read and discussed. Many of the issues Bonhoeffer faced remain eerily relevant to our own times. In addition, one of Bonhoeffer's best friend Bethge's biggest disappointment after the war was his sense that the Lutheran Church in Germany simply wanted to return to "the day before" Hitler took power: it seemed to Bethge not to want to learn from the experience of Nazism. Do religious institutions suffer because they haven't fully come to grips with the modern world or the aftermath of World War II? 

More on the book at:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Communal Discernment and Radical Individualism

I can count on most of my students arriving in the college classroom with an unexamined ideology of radical individualism. When we discuss food issues--how much power, say, should the government exercise over food--the response I hear usually is "none. Leave it up to the individual." We begin to parse that: what about alcohol: should people then be allowed to drink and drive? That, they tell me, is different. What about food labels? When I was a child, I tell them, we didn't know how much sugar, salt, calories, etc food contained. Should the government continue to mandate that? Well, yes, that's useful. And on it goes. We cling to an ideology that has swung to an extreme. As we examine it, we begin to realize that curbing radical individualism can be a gift rather than a curse.

I have internalized much of that individualism: it's part of the air I breathe. I don't want anyone to tell me what to do, in part because the people with the most proclivity to tell others the "truth" often have the least grasp of it themselves.

Individualism is a strong part of our meetings. In fact, Quakerism could be argued as the perfect religion for individualistic society: everyone in their own bubble, worshipping whatever God they want or none at all, practicing the mantra, "you go your way and I'll go mine and if our paths cross, it's beautiful."

Of course, we know that in reality indivdualism is not what Quakerism is about. In fact, it's a truism that Quakerism is more aligned with Catholicism in its notion of a corporate body than with Protestantism's focus on individual conscience (though we have that too). But how do we get to community and more particularly, the communal discernment we might crave, through the desert of radical individualism?

I spent a weekend with eleven other Quakers at the Friend's Center in Barnesville exploring that question. I found it a fruitful event for several reasons.

First, Herb Lape, the facilitator, invited everyone the first evening to talk about themselves. We got to know each other and were encouraged to share about often taboo topics, such as our political orientation. I felt from the start seen and heard and appreciated, as I believe others did as well. One of my chief illuminations confirmed that we can't do corporate discernment successfully if we are not seen and heard as who we are as individuals--and loved. Trust and intimacy is foundational and something we shouldn't skip over, or worse, gloss over by not seeing differences.

Second, if Herb seemed to be going off topic and people brought that up, he was responsive, truly listened and changed course or explained himself more clearly. I thought he was a wonderful facilitator, modeling both authority, humility in the strongest and best sense, and willingness to learn.

As we entered into our study, we looked at John Woolman, a good model for communal discernment as he represents the turn in Quakerism to what I call modern acceptable discourse. While Fox and his cohort were fully willing to mix it up, naming their enemies Antichrists and whores of Babylon, Woolman witnessed to loving empathy towards the other. He believed firmly that slavery was a great evil that must be abolished, but he was willing to listen to and love the slaveowner and to bow to the corporate discernment of the Meeting. If the Meeting told him to wait before acting, he waited. He was able to move Quakerism towards unity on abolishing slavery by his willingness to respect the community as a body.

We  discussed or the pitfalls of corporate discernment: it shouldn't become group think. People at odds with the group may be the prophetic voices the group needs to hear. Also, there are no rules about timing: unity can come very quickly or can take years and either is OK.

Other "takeaways" from the weekend include the following, from John Bensons' notes:

Trust in speaking to that of God in everyone. Acknowledge gifts, and
bring them into community.

Value individual discernment in community:
     Be willing to hear the lone voice in a community.
     Have the courage to speak up and be the lone voice.
     Do these concerns point toward being a prophet?

Community authority doesn't necessarily undermine individual freedom:
     What is freedom in the spiritual sense? Doing whatever we want whenever we want? Or being free to say no to our urges and appetites? How can surrendering ourselves to God make us free?

Understanding communal discernment as a Quaker “distinctive” – other
religions don’t do it:
      It is a horizontal process, not hierarchical. There is one vertical
     connection: the one that links the community to God.
     The consequences of this method can be awesome.

A process of sorting it out could look like this:
     - what I want
     - what the community wants
     - what God wants for me and the community
      - what God wants from me and the community

We need to know that God is alive and active among us.
    Believe in God AND believe that we can hear God (from experience and practice)
    We need help. So we join a community.
     Notice the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist.

We need the cloud of witnesses who went before us, ie, a tradition.
      Tradition is just democracy/consensus/unity spread over the centuries
before us.

For corporate discernment:

Use the Scriptures.

Test any new revelation that affects the community.

Practice humility, the discipline of not having all the answers.

Ask what is the most loving thing to do?

Some of this will not be appealing to non-theists, but nevertheless reflects the wisdom we gleaned. What do others think: what is the place of corporate discernment in our meetings and, if we think it is important, how do we get there?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Today I participated in a poetry reading at Ohio University Eastern, where I teach.

I had been wondering what poem to read. My brother just died in December, and I had been finding solace in Wordsworth's  "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" which I had recently blogged about, but felt strongly I shouldn't read. 

Daffodils are the subject of  "I Wander Lonely as a Cloud." The daffodils dance joyfully in the breeze in that poem.

What then can I read, I wondered? I had chosen a stanza from a poem called "The Jazz of Pussycats," but needed more. Several hours before the reading a poem called "What is Death?" showed up in my mailbox, sent out by Friend Susannah Rose. 

Not only was the timing of the poem's arrival and its theme perfect, the poem was written by Henry Scott Holland, the same name as a mentor who encouraged me strongly on my Bonhoeffer book

OK, thought I. I will read the poem. 

Not only was the poem perfect for the occasion, but another person, Tom Flynn, read "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." Tom not only read it, but said almost exactly what I would have said about it. 

I tend to be suspicious of "connect the dots" serendipites, but yet I wonder. Is this all coincidence? The uncanny timing of the poem's arrival, the poem itself, the author, Tom reading Wordsworth? 

Perhaps I construct all this. And yet. I suppose the most important take away is that we never know who we will touch when we send a poem or a word out into the world. Susan Rose could not have suspected that I needed just that poem for a poetry reading just that day. As I worry about this post, I am trying to trust that maybe it too will speak. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Past into Future?

I became part of a Quaker discernment group last year and have been trying, as far as possible, to be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. This has been a struggle--I want to schedule the Spirit for when I "have time." But do any of "have time?" Is time ours to possess and slice and dice as we find convenient?

So I am stopping today to blog, though I have many other more important things to do. What if I had blogged here every time in the past year the Spirit prompted me? Would I have failed to get done what was so important to do? 

I have begun to notice the slippage lately between me and my college students, who are mostly teenagers. I become more acutely aware that their world is not my world. This came home to me forcefully a few years ago when I showed them an ad featuring Grace Kelly. None of them had heard of her. When we studied art forgery, they had no idea who Greta Garbo was. I felt it too this year, as my students, for a song analysis paper, shared groups I had never heard of before. They love Linkin Park. They don't know the classic Beatle songs. Some of them love Tupac, who at least I've heard of (and whose music I want to hear--but haven't yet.) Pink Floyd is not part of their context. 

It has occurred to me too that the world most of them, at this point, have grown up in--what they remember, these students born after 1996--is the post 9/11 world. Most of them don't even remember the day 9/11/01. What they've grown up with, what is "normal" to them is what I think of as a grim, gray world of wars, terrorism, shrunken job opportunities, impossibly high college tuitions. I find myself--heaven help me!--wanting to share how it "used to be."

As a member of an older Meeting, I encounter many older Quakers who tell stories about the past. I have been wondering why that impulse is so strong, in me and in them, and I think it is because, as we experience the slippage between how things are versus how they were, we want to preserve and pass on the memory we have of how things were, especially what has changed.  Yet the past is so fragile-- a piling up of ephemera, mood, feeling, texture--that I have more and more come to believe we have to listen carefully to that something behind--or more accurately, within-- all that content we pour out.

I don't worry about subjectivity at all--ie, whether we remember the past through rose-colored glasses--because that doesn't seem important: of course we are remembering subjectively. The subjectivity, in fact, seems to me the most important part of the content: why have we chosen these details? Why? What do they represent and how is that valuable?

I have been thinking about all this, because sometimes, perhaps when my students ask me, outraged, yearning for the answer, why, say, college costs so much, why they have to take out so many loans, my first response has been to describe how it didn't use to be that way--to explain "what it was like in my day--" and yet they don't respond to that. I have found that when I talk about what it was like in The Day--trying to convey a zeitgeist--younger people glaze over. So I have stopped. 

A realization I have had, as alluded to above, is that it isn't so much facts and information I hope to communicate, as the feeling of a certain time, what it felt like to be alive in a certain moment. For while in a true sense things never change, they also do change all the time. One of the shocks of getting older is realizing that what had seemed completely normal and permanent, literally unchangeable,  is completely transient and impermanent. It's a cliche that those clothes and hair-dos--so normal-- become as old, out-dated and faded in the photos as the clothes in our grandmother's album. Police officers don't wear the same uniforms anymore. Children can no longer run free and unsupervised around the neighborhood. The technology changes. 

I remember going for the first time into the atmospheric St. Clairsville Library, a store front building on St. Clairsville's Main Street, tall and narrow, through a lobby, up an open, airy,  narrow, winding staircase to a second floor, and having my heart twist in my chest as I came across a set of wooden card catalogues. Card catalogues! This library had card catalogues! Tears almost sprang into my eyes. When had I last seen a card catalogue?

The catalogues were for the rare books collection. I have no particular partiality for card catalogues per se, but seeing them there broke (I won't change that typo)  back a flood of memories and emotions. I felt a huge desire to tell someone who wouldn't know what they were all about them: how very long they were, what it felt like to pull them out and go through them, how the book listings were typed on hard paper stock the size of notecards and how you brought you own notecards to jot down information, then went to the stacks to find the books. How you hoped the books you found lived up to expectations!

Yet none of that is important. It's boring really. Who cares? How different is it to look something up on the computer? Who would want to do it that old way? Thank God we have the Internet! What are you talking about with card catalogues!?

Of course, it's not the card catalogues that are important, but what they represent--a way of thinking and being and even moving through  the world that we don't have (much) anymore. It's spatial--how we relate to the world--and sensory--weight and smell, sight and touch. How we experience knowledge and information is different now. Is this important? I don't know. But something in me has an impulse to preserve the memory. 

So when I listen to older Quakers talk--and I love history--I try to--or need to try harder to--listen through and behind and within the stories, because the stories often aren't the most important thing. But they are the vehicle.

What I am struggling with is how to tell the stories--and to capture the texture of a time you need to tell a story--but how to tell them so that they are not tedious and irrelevant. How do we capture the details they convey a zeitgeist, a texture, a surround of what it was like in a past moment in a way that still matters? This seems important, in Quakerism, in our world, in our personal lives, because the only way to pass on the feeling of a time is through this compilation of story upon story. Yet so often I fear we do it in a way that loses the forest for the trees instead of conveying how the trees made up this particular, ephemeral forest. How can we do it better, as a Society, as Selves?