Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A witness to the war: Michael Yon

I recommend my reader(s) this blog by independent journalist Michael Yon: Online Magazine. He's apparently a non-affiliated reporter in Iraq who is closely associated with certain US Army units. His reporting of actual, on the ground fighting is nuanced, humane, non-ideological, and vividly points out the complexity of the situation in that troubled land.

(He claims to be supporting himself with contributions via PayPal. If so, isn't that an amazing new paradigm of journalism?)

I find it interesting that right wingers are publicizing this blog and that most of the readers who comment on it seem to support the war politically and read his reports as confirming that position. It is true that he is not neutral: he is clearly more sympathetic to the American soldiers than the "terrorists" and "bad guys" who are trying to kill them, but he is equally careful not to paint all Iraqis as being terrorists.

I, however, am reading him as an honest eyewitness who is willing to let the facts speak for themselves and who is observing the slaughter from a unique vantage point. He is compassionate without being mauldin, respectful of the humanity of the soldiers and civilians, and recognizes their virtues without minimizing their vices.

When I read him, I find confirmation for my conviction that this war should never have been started and that it must come to an end as soon as possible. And that the military solution has and will continue to fail in achieving that goal.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Two new features at the Friends Journal web site; and hearing restored

Check out two new features at the Friends Journal web page. The first is a multi-media presentation created by Breeze (Leutke-Stahlman) Richardson about the Quake the Rocked the Midwest in 2004. Here's her summary of the project:

I had the honor of meeting with 20 Young Friends from Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota at the "Second Annual Quake that Rocked the Midwest" to talk with them about their Quakerism and its impact on their lives. Many of these Young Friends are the only Quaker in their social circles and schools. In some cases, they are the only Young Friend in their meeting.

This project is extremely unique in that you will hear from them, in their own voices, their thoughts about Quakerism. It is the only project of its kind publicly available and offers listeners—both within the Quaker community and in society at large—the opportunity to learn about our faith from those who are our future.
The second is a reprint of a series of articles Friend Elbert Russell first had published in eleven issues of the Friends Intelligencer in 1927. The article, The Separation after a Century is an appraisal of the causes and effects of the catastrophic (is this the right word?) separation in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1827. I haven't read it yet, and so can't personally vouch for it, but given the many requests Friends Journal has received over the years for a reprint, I can hardly wait.

(I should disclose that I serve on the board of trustees of the corporation that publishes Friends Journal.)

For those who've been following the blog -- if there are any -- I'm happy to report that as of about 3 pm yesterday I have full use of both of my ears. The cure: oil and water.

So now I'm sitting here on the front porch listening to the crickets in glorious stereophonic surround sound. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. . . ."

Friday, August 19, 2005

Treading down all reasoning about religion

Elizabeth, commenting on an earlier post, said, in part:

I think this is one of the main reasons that I'm having trouble with our meeting's rather diffuse spiritual focus. By the time everyone has translated a shared experience into language that works for them, and then had their own time to process whether or not they feel antagonistic towards "God language," there's not a lot of energy left over to help me figure out what to do with my experiences of God, or how to interpret them.
I made one response to her comment as a comment. But I've been thinking about it ever since.

And then today, a day that I've spent sitting on the front porch with the cats and the laptop, doing work for the Meeting and reading the Quaker blogs, I ran across Johan Mauer's posting of a lengthy excerpt from Frances Howgill's description of what happened in the north of England about 350 years ago. Here's an excerpt from the excerpt that made me think of Elizabeth and her comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):
The Lord of Heaven and earth we found to be near at hand, and, as we waited upon him in pure silence, our minds out of all things, his heavenly presence appeared in our assemblies, when there was no language, tongue nor speech from any creature. The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land.

* * *

And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and of the bond of peace, treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion.
Wow. "Treading down under our feet all reasoning about religion." I'm afraid I wouldn't have been welcome in that crowd. Or, maybe if I was part of that crowd, I might have dropped reasoning about religion, too.

So it made me wonder about Elizabeth's concern: "Translating the shared experience into language that works" and processing "God language" isn't exactly the same as "reasoning about religion", but it's in the neighborhood. What is the problem here?

Is it the the need people seem to have to "translate" the experience in order to share it with others (particularly those who aren't there)? Or is it that too many people go in with their minds so full of language, tongues and speech that they wouldn't realize the Presence of the Living God if it bit them on the nose?

My inclination -- confession, really -- is to blame the latter: Too many Friends (i.e., me for sure, maybe thee, too?) come to worship with their filters on and tuned up. Everything they experience in the meeting is filtered (or translated) in terms of race, nationality, gender, sex, class, childhood religion, traumas, politics, this morning's newspaper, professional expertise, (dare I say it?) Quakerism, etc. ad infiinitum. With these multiple and overlapping umbrellas in the meeting place, the Living Light is kept at a safe distance, vaguely ascertained, maybe making the room a little brighter now and then, but not nearly as revealing as it could be if the umbrellas were left at the door.

To switch metaphors, I keep thinking that meeting for worship is something like making love. For one thing, no one in his or her right mind would rather talk about making love than actually making love. The only point of talking about it has to be to make the next experience more satisfying in some way.

I don't think that the different ways partners may talk about their lovemaking experience with each other afterwards -- is it like a rocket exploding or a gigantic wave washing onto the shore? -- necessarily has to affect the quality of their lovemaking. But I do know that going into the encounter with preconceived ideas about what it is supposed to be like can jinx the experience.

Rather, what we seek -- as lovers of our lovers and as lovers of God -- is to be as one with each other, "knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love." When this happens, reasoning about religion -- or sex -- simply drops away as in irrelevancy. In the future, if we want to have the ecstatic experience again, we have to leave the filters that we use to define our "selfs" at the door of the meeting room.

* * * *

That's it for now. Off to the ball game to see if the Twins can make it six in a row. . . .

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bachelor pad

The four Holly women drove off for Colorado last Saturday morning -- Lovely Wife; her sister; their mother; and our daughter -- leaving behind us two men (me and Only Son, age 14). They did a nice job of picking up after themselves and their packing before leaving, so there's a decent base-line of orderlieness that we should be able to at least maintain if not improve upon before their return in a couple of weeks.

It is very strange to have no feminine energy in the house, though. I can't describe exactly what that means, but it has something to do with the habits we've acquired in terms of who does what around the house. Like meal preparation. I prepare meals, but not regularly enough to have internalized the habit of thinking ahead about menus & necessary ingredients etc. So now I have to actually think about what we're going to eat next week and how to acquire it. Which, because it is not a habit, is an effort requiring attention, and I'm batting under .300 on the quality-of-meals index. (But I am proud of the bread pudding I made for the first time.)

But there's something more subtle about their absence -- some sense of complimentarieness that is disturbed, an open arc of the circle that is missing. Not painful, just a missing. (It was the same when Only Son was off to his 15-day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters earlier this month; we missed his part of the Family Circle, too, but enjoyed relating to each other in a new way in his absence.)

In the past, when everyone went off to Colorado during a summer and I had to stay behind to work, I told friends that I enjoyed being able to sit out on the front porch in my boxer shorts, eat tuna out of the can, drink beer, and listen to the Twins game. And I did. But now that there's two of us here, I wanted to make it a little more intentional and affirmative, but alas, his nocturnal life (awake from early afternoon to early morning) and my more-or-less diurnal one (awake from 6 to midnight) only have some overlap, but our energy levels are different and what we've mainly done together is watch movies.


And pretty good ones, too. The best was the amazing City of God, a Brazilian film about the hoodlums who live -- and kill, and die -- in the City of God slum outside of Rio de Janeiro. It is an amazing harsh yet beautiful film that still has me shaking. I just learned that most of the actors live in the slum itself and this gave it even more authenticity. The irony (oh, what a weak word -- blasphemy is probably a better one) for the name of the slum permeates the entire film. Not a movie that inspires hope, unless you can call shaking one up from middle-class complacency hopeful. But not one you'll soon forget. Not recommended for those of tender years.

A second one we watched and liked was Maria Full of Grace. It, too, tells the story of people on the margins of polite society, about a young woman from Columbia who agrees to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. (One review says it's heroin, but I don't think so.) It was gripping, and incredibly sad, but respectful of the characters. I was especially impressed with the portrayal of the two customs officers who suspect the truth; a typical movie would have demonized them as oafs or thugs, but these two were neither. The glimpse into the immigrant's life in America was enlightening. I thought the ending was a bit of a letdown, but I was relieved that it wasn't a brutal or violent one.

Finally, we've had a lot of fun watching the DVDs of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Indecision 2004. I heard from a friend a couple of years ago that the Daily Show was the best news program on TV. I hadn't actually seen it, though, except for a couple of times when staying in a hotel or with a friend who has cable, and when I did, I knew what he was talking about.

These DVDs are the Daily Show's eight half-hour programs broadcast during the 2004 Democratic & Republican conventions. These shows are smart, sharp, irreverent, and funny as hell. They hit the mark about 75% of the time. But I like that there's occasionally lame pieces; it shows that the creators are shmoes like the rest of us, working hard without any super-human talent, and doing their best under tight deadlines, and do it pretty well most of the time.

Furthermore, the show has a point of view. (Gerry Trudeau once said that the reason Doonesbury has stayed funny and relevant is that it has a point of view, the lack of which doomed the anarachic Saturday Night Live despite its brilliant start and talent.) But the point of view isn't essentialy a partisian one. It's a point of view that relentlessly points out the vacuity of most political discourse aimed at the masses in this country. As Stewart said to the idiots on Crossfire last summer, "Pleeeese, stop. You're hurting America."

Anyway, these DVDs are a hoot and give me some hope that there is someone awake in this country.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Everything is political, but not everything is politics

Here's a very interesting interview with church historian Martin Marty over at Tikkun. I enjoy and respect Marty's scholarship (he was a seminary classmate of my dad's), but I usually find him too sociological -- that is, he usually talks about religion in terms of how it manifests itself in society rather than how it manifests itself in an individual human being. But his analysis of the relationship between religious and politics is always interesting. Here's just a short excerpt; the whole interview is worth the read:

There’s a wonderful Dutch book titled Everything is Political, But Not Everything is Politics. When religions convert themselves into nothing but political forces, in the perception of the larger republic, they hurt religion and they hurt the republic. But, you cannot separate religion and politics in a neat way. In a political world—and there is no other world—not to be political is political. That is, if you are silent, if you create a spiritual, political vacuum, it will be filled. Therefore you are voting by not speaking. So, there’s no place to hide. . . .

[T]he forces of modernity reach everywhere, into Bin Laden’s caves and everywhere else, mediated mainly by mass communications, but also by global economy, by rapid transportation, etc. They reach everybody, and it means that your social and personal identity is threatened. Twenty years ago, Jerry Falwell said that in the Civil Rights era, right-wing Christians used to say it was sinful for the church to be in politics. Now it’s sinful not to be, because we used to think we could keep the world from our door, the way the Amish do, or Orthodox Jews do. But you can’t. Our kids get MTV and all these other forces by the time they’re four, five, six years old. So we have to fight back. . . .

When you do that you’ve got to have heavy ammunition, and you’re not going to do it in a mild way. I’ve long been interested in religion and sports. There are no Unitarians or reform Jews in the National Football League, but there are plenty of Pentecostals. There are plenty of people who know God’s on their side and will bash the other guy’s face in God’s name. When you’re on the front line, you must be sure you’re really loaded up with pretty heavy stuff. So you have to have an authoritative book, an authoritative teacher, an authoritative moment, and that’s the simplifier. . . .

Beyond that, I would say that liberals and moderates didn’t stress religious experience. For example, in every little town I go to in Guatemala or Bolivia, I can walk up and down the street and there are ten little evangelical or Pentecostal things going on, and they don’t wait for structure. They just start right in. They pick you
up off the street, they give you an exuberant experience, you jump up and down. You’ve got experience, and that’s a very popular thing.

I’m going to use an analogy: With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, you buy a $70 ticket. But U2 comes to town, and they have $160 tickets and it’s sold out every night. It has its own drama that pales our own drama. This is what happens with Pentecostal and exuberant forms of religion. People are starved, and this gives them an emotional high.

Monday, August 08, 2005

I'm all ears

I'm now deaf only in my left ear now; the right one cleared out after a weekend of ear drops & a morning in the clinic. But the right one is still plugged, despite the best efforts of the nurse. I was amazed as how different her touch was than the one who tried to help on Thursday afternoon. Thursday nurse was nice, but kind of rough and smelled of cigarette smoke & lavender water. Monday's nurse was kind and gentle and so confident in her touch. She asked me who helped me on Thursday, So-and-so or So-and-So. I said I didn't remember her name, but that I thought she smoked. "Oh, that was So-and-So" she said. "Yes, it's funny how smoke does that to you."

Anyway, after being very apologetic about not being able to clear the right ear, she asked the doctor to look at me. He is one of the teachers of the residents who staff the clinic. He first looked and said he couldn't dig out the was because it was right up against the ear drum & pulling it out might tear the membrane. So we'll leave it alone, he said very confidently, "It'll come out. As long as you can hear out of one ear, just continue to soften it up with drops & mineral oil and it'll come clean." It was reassuring, and I was so glad to be able to hear something that I counted the day a success.


It was very strange to not be able to hear anything at the wedding I attended on Saturday. It wasn't supposed to be so. The couple had arranged to have microphones & speakers but the plans went to naught when when no one could figure out how to connect what to what. (I put in my shift and couldn't solve the puzzle.) A Friend on the arrangements committee told me later that the lesson learned was to not let the groom bring the extension cords a half-hour before the meeting was supposed to begin.

Other than not hearing anything, it was a nice enough wedding, a hybrid UCC & Friends service. I was OK with the hymns, the reading, even the homily (which was easy to like since I couldn't hear any of it). But the "communion" of bread dipped in blueberry juice following a paraphrased reading of the Last Supper (Jesus was at a "party") required a little more ecumenism than I was mature enough to accept, despite the sincere invitation to "break the rules like Jesus did." I felt sorry I couldn't share 100%, but felt that faking it would have been worse. I'm pretty confident of the couple's understanding & forgiveness (and, though I wasn't counting heads, am pretty sure I wasn't the only Friend they will have the opportunity to forgive.) None of it diminished my love the couple and I was happy for them. It was a beautiful day, warm but breezy & clear and there was a sizable community of people from many intersecting circles to share the day.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the memorial service for my friend Lou Ann. Here, the amplified sound worked and I could hear what was said. This time, the combined secular-Jewish-Quaker elements seemed just right and in perfect balance. I was especially touched by Elizabeth's story of how, in her last day or so, she asked Lou Ann to tell her anything she really wanted her to know, and Lou Ann said, "You know, you have so many nice clothes in your closet you never wear. . . ." How Lou Ann to say it, how EB it was to tell it.


Tomorrow, I will drive up north of Ely to pick up Eldest Son from the Y camp where he's returning to after a 15-day Boundary Waters canoe trip.

It has been quite strange without him here, though living with the three generatioins of Holly women (grandmother, wife, daughter) for two weeks is really quite nice. It amazes me to see the traits cross the generations right before my eyes. Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing him at the welcome-home banquet tomorrow night, and then a long drive home Wednesday.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

If it were a crime to be a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict me?

Over at Consider the Lilies, Rob discusses "coming out" as a Quaker and compares it to coming out as gay.

A commentator cautions him not to trivialize the notion of "coming out" by using it to refer to anything other than sexual orientation. After referring to Matthew Shepard's murder, he notes:

The penalties for "coming out" as a Quaker, if there are any, strike me as relatively minor...
Alas. Relatively speaking, he's right. But is there any penalty to being a Quaker?

No one is looking to be a martyr, but if William Penn was right that with No Cross there can be No Crown, what does the cost-less-ness of being a Public Friend mean?

Is it that Society at Large has improved, become more tolerant and enlightened with the triumph of political and religious liberalism that the Quaker Witness is no longer a threat to it? (I think this is true to a greater extent that we realize.)

Or is it because our Witness has become blunted, blurred, and diluted to the point that we can't distinguish between the Kingdom of God and a Democratic Administration? (Ditto.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

I can't hear you; I've got beans in my ears

I was looking forward to a conversation with my Friend James this evening about -- well I'm not exactly sure how to say it, but something about whether and how professed Quakers can live in the same meeting when some of them deny belief in any kind of supernatural God and others perceive and testify to the Living God as the central fact of their lives. Or something like that.


But I had to postpone the conversation because I can't hear. I woke up Monday morning with my left ear stuffed up. This has happend a few times in the past, and the cause is usually a build-up of wax that has closed the ear canal. Usually, I just take a long, warm bath and let the hot water melt the wax away. If that doesn't work, I use some ear drops that fizz up and dissolve the wax. So I put in a few drops early Monday morning, but while they fizzed, the blockage didn't go away.

My right ear, too, felt a little blocked, but not entirely, and the left one could open up for a few minutes if I tugged it in just the right way, so I didn't worry much about it. But by Thursday, the left ear was completely stopped and not getting better, so I made an appointment at my clinic for this afternoon.

I explained the problem to the resident, who brought in his teacher, who said I must have jammed the wax in too far with a Q-tip and that the nurse would levage (sp?) the ear by shooting warm water into it with a high-power syringe, like power washing or sandblasting a house for painting.

She came in and started but was entirely unsuccessful with the left ear; if anything, I think she compressed it tighter and deeper. We agreed I'd use drops again & come back on Monday to try again. But then she did my right -- my good -- ear, and succeeded only in stopping it up, too. So I came home with both ears feeling as if I had thick drinking glasses clasped over them. I could hear a certain range of sound -- the newscaster on the radio, for example -- but not the engine turning over or the revving sound I depend on to know when to shift (I had to use the tachometer as a visual reminder). That was very odd, driving without being able to hear the aural cues that I depend on.

At home, a friend was here feeding my mother-in-law (my wife and daughter are out at a play) in the kitchen, and she apparently spoke to me as I came in the front door, but I didn't hear a thing and was startled to walk into the kitchen and see here sitting there!

So I had to call James to say I didn't think I could carry on a conversation like this. Now, it's almost four hours later, and I still can't hear. Or, more accurately, I feel my ears in a fog, like the glasses are still clapped around them. It's quite weird.

I did manage to have a lovely telephone call with my second-born daughter (who lives in Michigan), using my semi-good right ear (which is not my natural telephone ear, so that added an additional level of oddness ). We don't get to talk enough, so this was a very welcome call.

Then I spent some time revising a response to the posts about Friends testimonies found on The Good Raised Up, but it kept getting longer and longer and so I'm taking a break.


The heat wave has broken here and it is a lovely Minnesota summer evening again. Sitting on the front porch with the cats and my mother-in-law, I can (barely) hear the crickets' pulsating chirping. The bikers that ride past are completely silent to me tonight -- I can't hear the click-click-click of the free-wheel pawl -- they're purely visual dashes of movement and color and (now that it's dark) light.

My mother-in-law, who can no longer speak, is looking intently at Rascal the cat, an alleged descendant of a Maine Coon Cat. Rascal is looking at her now, too, with his head cocked a little, and they are in complete visual communication with each other. It's an amazing sight.


A busy weekend ahead. A wedding Saturday of a good Friend, two, actually, though I know him much better than her. It's an hour out-of-town, so that will be an effort getting the four of us there. Then another old Friend, now moved to Maryland, will visit on Sunday, after meeting. Then the memorial meeting for Lou Ann who died last week. So it goes.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Symptoms of a crippled meeting

Thanks again to Quaker Ranter for directing me to another fascinating discussion at the Quaker Renewal Forum.

I was struck by this pastor's list of symptoms of a "crippled" meeting. Sound familiar to anyone? I don't know how many symptoms make a meeting crippled, but any of these are danger signs.

I'd offer a diagnosis of my own meeting-- which I think does pretty good by this scale but does show evidence of four symptoms -- except that doing so would be a symptom of #8: being problem-oriented rather than solution oriented. So I won't.

Note that symptom #9 -- They forsake essentials and focus on non-essentials -- is another way of pressing the "core of Quakerism" discussion.

Meetings / congregations are crippled when...

1) They have unresolved conflict and division with no attempts at healing or reconciliation.

2) They lack vision, direction, goals, follow-through, and implementation.

3) They have an institutional and maintenance mindset rather then a missions mindset.

4) They fear new ideas, creative ideas, and new leadership.

5) They have a tendency to elevate "Quaker culture" over "Quaker faith" (see previous postings on this topic)

6) They don't provide adequate opportunities for people to grow spiritually or they don't provide a safe place for people to seek and ask questions.

7) They allow unhealthy emotional systems and people to prevail over healthy emotional systems and people.

8) They are problem-focused rather then solution-focused.

9) They forsake the essentials and focus on the non-essentials.

10) They have an inability to deal directly with one another in times of disagreement, change, and conflict.

Oh, to be in England

Following a link on Public Quaker's blog (via Quaker Ranter) takes you to the letters to the editor page of The Friend, an independent, weekly Quaker publication in Britian. (Subscription to the paper edition, for one year, sent to the US is at current exchange rate is $110US -- $2 a week; compare to $43/year to have the monthly Friends Journal sent to the UK.)

It's been said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language, and this letter proves the point. Plain speaking indeed.

Gobbledygook recognised. I see that The Friend now officially recognises Gobbledygook as a language for publication. The trouble is that Gobbledygookers can't understand each other, yet alone themselves. Take the first sentence of tthe fourth paragraph of 'The Gnostic Fox' (22 July). This has 76 words; we don't come to the nominative until words 29 and 30. There are at least four sub-clauses, two parenthetical phrases, a tautological '/' ('soteriological' means 'salvational') and two competing predicates. 26 words are in parenthesis in the only sentence of the 99-word first paragraph. Why could not the author simply have said something like 'Fox, like the old vilified Gnostics, held that there is a divine force in everyone which seeks re-unification with God'.

On another note, Walter Wink is hardly a 'modern author', but professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. If it was necessary to describe who Hans Jonas was, why not Wink?

It is a profound pity that the editor accepted such a badly written article, although the poor quality of this one was exceptional. But outreach is not well served by deliberate obscurity.

Frank Boulton 5 Meadowhead Road, Southampton SO16 7AD

But did you have something to say about the writer's argument? - Ed.

Perhaps Friend Boulton's letter is a bit of an outlier, even for Britian. See this response in The Friend's online comment to the letter:

Dear Editor,

I was appalled to read Frank Boulton's letter 'Gobbledygook recognised,' (the Friend, 29th July 2005). It was a pedantic and unnecessary public criticism, distasteful, and totally lacking in humility or restraint. Such a display of intellectual and educational pride is contrary to what I would like to believe Quakerism is all about.

Stuart Hartley

Monday, August 01, 2005

How can I keep from singing?

This has been a weekend of deep emotion. Our friend, Lou Ann, finally came to the end of her life last Saturday, and Friends have been sitting shiva with her partner all week; my turn was Friday morning. After which I went to Nightingales.

For 40 years or more, Friends in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa have been singing together under the name of Nightingales. Originally the singing was informal and spontaneous at scheduled Friends meetings – half-yearly, yearly meeting, etc. – but some time ago it settled into an at least three-times-a-year pattern: Spring in central Wisconsin or near Madison; summer near the Twin Cities; and autumn near Milwaukee, along with evenings at Northern and Illinois Yearly Meetings and, occasionally, at FGC Gatherings. The weekend sings are Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, with people sleeping on couches or the floor, under the stars or in tents; sharing food and chores, etc. Kind of a Brigadoon – the Kingdom of Heaven made visible on Earth for a few days a year.

The singing is ecumenical, eclectic, and enthusiastic. Listen around the table or the campfire and you could hear in any given hour: Hymns. Spirituals. Ballads. Broadway show tunes. Tin Pan Alley favorites; Folk songs; Rounds; Bawdy songs; Parodies; Camp songs; Chants; Rock-n-roll favorites; Made-up songs. Whole songs and fragments. Melodies no one can remember the words to. On-key or almost-on. With books or without them. The whole gamut. All with joy and vigor, for the love of singing, and each other.

The group is informal and fluid; several hundred on its mailing list, but perhaps 100 or so regularly attend one or more singings a year, always with new singers to replenish. There are now quite a handful of young adults in their 30s and 40s who grew up singing with Nightingales and whose children are now third-generation Nightingales.

But at the center are the Founding Mothers, or Celestial Mamas, who have for years provided the spiritual and emotional center of the group – and the logistical center in that we often met at their places.

Now, though, they are aging – some have already flown on – and this past weekend, the presence of some of them brought a bittersweet quality to the singing. One of the beloved Mothers – not yet 80 and the grandmother to a whole flock of young Nightingales – has already lost much of her strong, beautiful voice to thyroid cancer a couple of years ago. Now, the cancer has returned and the outcome is unknown. She looked strong, but had her limits. We know that she made a heroic effort to come, knowing that this might be her last time.

Another of them is well past 80, one of those wonderfully brilliant, creative, and crotchety Quaker women whose tongue is as sharp as her wit, and who is as likely to want to sing Beans in My Ears as Whispering Hope. She also came, but her physical frailty made her attendance possible only because of the faithful and extraordinary assistance of another Friend who lovingly ferried her to and from and around the farm on Saturday.

And then there was the one dearest to me, almost 81, at whose farm east of St. Paul the Nightingales have been singing for decades. She is an extraordinary woman in ways too many to note here or in a thousand pages. I hold her particularly dear because it was her offer of a job 14 years ago that brought me from my 20-year bondage in Indiana to the Promised Land of 10,000 Lakes and my true home.

For a variety of reasons, and in a variety of ways, she has let it be known that this may have been the last Nightingales weekend that will be at her farm -- the Last Homely House. She is beginning to show signs of weariness, and in our Saturday morning go-around reminded us to always live as if this was the last time you get to something – ride the John Deere mower around the trails on the farm, sing with a particular Friend, come to Nightingales at her farm.

This spring, she lost a giant box elder tree that had lived at least twice as long as it allotted two score years and ten before it succumbed to disease and the forester’s axe.

Because of her fondness of the tree, and because of our fondness for her, we collected money and purchased a 10-foot Autumn Blaze maple tree to plant near the box elder’s stump. On Saturday morning, four of us prepared the hole and that evening, after supper and before the campfire sing, we gathered in a circle around the new tree and the old stump. Our Friend told stories about the old tree, which once held a two-story treehouse, and why she loved it and hated to have it taken out (it posed a danger to the house and the electric line that ran under it).

We then sat in silent worship, said prayers, and then, as we sang songs composed for the occasion, planted the maple, each Friend shoveling in a spade-full of dirt or throwing in a handful of sawdust and shavings from the elder. By the end, the new tree stood straight and true, not yet filling the empty space, but claiming it for the future – we could all envision its mature years, though not all of us will be there to see them.

The ceremony symbolized for me the wistful, poignant character of the weekend. A time to mourn and a time to dance. Something lost, but something gained. Seeds scattered by the storm-shattered tree. So long, it’s been good to know ya. The sense was clear that some among us may not return to another sing, and that none of us may ever return to this place again, at least as a group. There were a lot of tears, more of joy than of sorrow.

But also a sharp and strong sense of rightness and presence, of joy and gratitude and contentment and the deep, deep love that binds us all together even after we have all flown home to our own nests, ready to move to the next stage.

One of the traditions that the Nightingales have is reading around the circle a particularly beautifully illustrated edition of The Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson. Near the end of the story, after the nightingale had returned to the emperor’s castle and saved him from Death, the emperor says,

“Thanks, thanks, you heavenly little bird. I know you well. I banished you from my kingdom once, and yet you have charmed away the evil faces from my bed, and banished Death from my heart, with your sweet song. How can I reward you?”

“You have already rewarded me,” said the nightingale. “I shall never forget that I drew tears from your eyes the first time I sang to you. These are the jewels that rejoice a singer’s heart.”
And so it is. Singing, particularly with others, has power to do miraculous things, like stave off Death -- for a time, at least -- and bring a strong man to tears. And the tears we tasted were indeed jewels to us all, and they make us rich beyond measure.

Singing also binds people together over time and space so that, when you sing, you can conjure up a host of kind faces to gaze back at you. For my friend, it’s the song It’s a long, long road to freedom that will always makes me think of her: The first time I ever heard it, she was standing in the cafeteria at the Carleton College FGC Gathering with a group of her neighbors who she had brought down for the day, singing it with her full alto voice, head tipped back, eyes closed, swinging her elbows in time: “But when you walk in love with the wind on your wings, and cover the earth with the songs you sing, the time flies by.” Yes it does fly, and sometimes too quickly.