Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"What Quakers Believe: Easy Essays"

I'm looking forward to Patrick Nugent's project, What Quakers Believe: Easy Essays. Here's an excerpt from his Introduction that explains what he's about to do, and why:

I am writing these essays because I believe the early Quakers had it right, and because I would like to see large sections of the Religious Society of Friends take those ideas seriously again—not just the ideas they already agree with, but the ones that may be new and challenging to them. I am writing this book because I believe that the Holy Spirit can bring a period of renewal and revival to Friends, if we open ourselves to the transforming power which he gave to the early Friends. As John Punshon taught us in his book, Reasons for Hope: The Faith and Future of the Friends Church, the key to renewal and revival among Friends is to become more Quaker, not less Quaker. I am very worried that many Quakers today have been blown away by various winds of fashion: superficial pentecostalism; mass-market, high-tech evangelicalism; new age fads; political movements without spiritual grounding; rural community religion.
I share Patrick's worry and his belief that the way out of the prediciment is to become more authentically who we say we are, to reclaim our birthright instead of selling it cheap.

(Thanks, as usual, to Quaker Ranter for making the link.)

* * * * *

I also look forward to getting on the train tomorrow night for the trip to Tacoma and the Gathering. The name of the train is the Empire Builder. The irony isn't lost on me.

I hope to meet many of you there.

(The Empire Builder.)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

It's been almost a year. . .

. . . since I started writing this blog. I remember my first post was from this same front porch, a few days before we left for the FGC Gathering in Virginia. Today, Lovely Wife and her mother flew to Seattle for a professional conference and week at her sister's before the Gathering, so our family is in the preparing-to-go stage.

Tonight, I'm alone on the porch on a muggy Minnesota night, the string of Christmas-tree-lights-in-plastic-tubes giving just enough illumination for me to feel not entirely in the dark, but dark enough for me to feel contemplative.

The other night, I attended a reading by my friend Mary Rose O'Reilley, my favorite Quaker writer. She has just published a book called The Love of Impermanent Things. I haven't read this one yet, but I'm sure it is as good -- as insightful and funny -- as the last one I read and loved, The Barn at the End of the World.

Mary Rose has a disarming way of writing, and speaking that accomplishes what she says was her goal as a teacher, i.e., to turn your attention away from her as author or teacher and to learn to live your one wild and precious life. She does this in a lot of ways, but the way I like the best is by paying fearless attention to the details of her own life and describing them with love and humor.

But she did say one thing at the reading that stuck and brings me round to reminiscing about Showers of Blessings after a year. A questioner (who happens to be a Friend and a writer herself) asked Mary Rose how she maintains a spiritual state of mind when she revises her writing. Mary Rose's replied to the effect that she spends a lot of time revising, and she loves it as much as the initial writing. She looks for the common threads, the coherent themes that run through her writing that she may not have known existed when she wrote it. When this works, it reveals her life to her as a coherent whole in a way she couldn't have possibly imagined in advance, and that this process or reviewing and discovering what was already there was as profoundly spiritual as the writing was in the first place. Or that's what I think she said.

I can't claim anything quite so high flautin', but I have enjoyed over the past week or two re-reading the past year's work here and realizing that there are, indeed, some themes that keep coming through, a point of view that I would never have been able to identify when I started but which make a lot of sense to me in retrospect.

When I re-read it, it's not like I wrote it, but I recognize the guy who did. He keeps showing up at places I go to, but I don't really know him all that well and am not sure what to make of him. He embarasses me sometimes with his pretentiousness, and I roll my eyes and am glad I'm not him just then. This usually happens when he's tring an idea out for size, something he doesn't really know from the inside out but wants to run up the flagpole and see who shoots at it. (And I hate it when he can't keept his metaphors straight.)

And I often feel he's pulling his punches, holding back what he really thinks, but I'm not sure why. Is he just being polite? Or does he really care and doesn't want to hurt other's feelings or make anyone mad at him? Is he afraid? (Is there a difference?) Or is he so warped by his legal training that he can see all sides to a question and can't make a commitment to any of them?

Or is he just trying to figure it out and wants to use his words carefully?

Whatever, I kind of like him and am beginning to think he actually has a voice that is uniquely his own, if only he'll keep at it and have fun.

So, what have I learned over the past year?
  • Just enough html (if that's what it is) to get barely by, like knowing enough of a language to order a sandwich or find the hotel, but not enough to do anything creative.
  • Writing in a forum that is accessible by anyone is hard work and takes a lot of time, even to do it half assed, and that it's only sometimes worth it.
  • It is a challenge to write in this medium where no one is really interested in what you're saying just because it's you saying it, so if you want your blog to be anything more than self-indulgence and really communiate with anyone you've got to grab 'em and make it interesting and worthwhile in the first second or two, and if you don't, they're back to Quaker Ranter to see what else is worth reading. (I actually learned this back in journalism class, but dropped out of it before I got enough practice.)

  • If you innocently title your blog "Showers of Blessings" and mention even once mention he phrase "sex toy" (as in, "my wife's friend whose husband made a small fortune for inventing a sex toy") a ton of the hits on you blog will be from perverts (mainly from Kuwait, Iraq, and New York) who are looking for "sex in the shower" or "wife sex in the shower."

  • I really love a lot more people than I knew a year ago -- some of whom I knew and love more, and others who I didn't know or love before but I do now.Then it's off to meeting.

  • It's late now and we're getting up early so I can take Only Son and Youngest Daughter here for breakfast, something we try to do each year around birthday time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

It's been busy

I haven't written for awhile, but not because things haven't been happening. Perhaps too many.

Eldest Daughter called a couple of weeks ago to tell me that she and her young man are "engaged." Well, as far as I'm concerned they've been "engaged" since they began sharing an apartment (his) a couple of years ago, but she meant that they've decided to marry.

I was elated and relieved. I am very fond of her fellow; we first met when she arranged for him and me to meet for a ballgame in Minneapolis when he was in town on business. I liked him right away. Quiet; smart; perceptive; gentle; good; funny; solid; a musician as well as an MBA. But also a guy who loves his large screen TV, sports teams, a good laugh, and, it appears, my daughter. Both of them have parents who divorced, and I'm glad that they see enough value in marriage to take their own chances on it. It feels very right, to me.

He was at work in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and was evacuating down the stairwell when the second plane hit his building. We haven't talked at length about the experience, but it seems to have marked him in a subtle way, in the way I imagine a veteran of Gettysburg might feel, like a member of an invisible brotherhood, accessible only to one who was there. I cetainly think of him that way, at least.

I'm very pleased and am looking forward to whatever plans they make.

The weekend called "Memorial Day" found me at Northern Yearly Meeting at a Lions Club camp in east central Wisconsin. For reasons I don't yet understand, this year was a more blah year for me than in recent years, despite the glorious weather and beautiful surroundings. OK, but nothing memorable (except for one afternoon when we sang Sacred Harp with seven basses, not counting me who was doubling up with a competent but unassertive tenor. We ended up with another alto and a treble or two, but seven basses across the table from me . . . wow!)

One reason for my lack of elation was a large chunk of time spent in a workshop aimed at identifying and eradicating racism within the yearly meeting. Those in certain leadership positions were required to attend, and that caused some hurt feelings from others who wanted to attend but couldn't due to the limited size of the group, but was done anyway to demonstrate the YM's commitment to the concern.

Because of the short yearly meeting session (Friday evening - Monday noon), we had only two days for the workshop. The first day was spent exposing examples from Friends' history of how white Friends acquiesced to the social segregation of the time and designated certain "colored" benches in some meetings. This was done in part to puncture our Quaker hubris and smug holier-than-thou self-image. I found this helpful and valuable.

Then, the leaders elicited stories of incidents racism in our own meetings. Or tried to. This is where the workshop began to break down. Perhaps due to the very small number of black Friends in the workshop who might have been able to reflect some real truth, the anectotes that were shared were strained, abstract and conclusory rather than concrete and illuminating. When I left that session, I was unable to remember a single example of racism in the YM that was concretely identified, other than acknowledgement of a lack of black members and attenders at our meetings and a sense that this was our problem to solve.

On the second day, we were encouraged to name concrete things we'd do to eradicate racism from our meetings, presumably the cause of the symptoms we identified the day before. This session seemed very forced to me because of the lack of examples of racist behavior confessed the day before; so instead of "eradicating racism" which was the stated goal we brainstormed ideas on how to "increase diversity" as if they were the same thing. (My commitment? To place advertisements for our meetings in community and ethnic newspapers.)

All in all, the workshop was a disappointment, perhaps because I had higher hopes. Perhaps because of the need to cram it into two two-hour afternoon sessions. Perhaps because it seemd to me to confuse the disease (racism) with the symptoms (lack of racial diversity).

It did lead me to one insight, however. I remembered the press reports and radio programs about the 100th anniversary of Pentacostalism and how almost every report noted in its lead or second paragraph the astonishing (to the reporter, at least) racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of those who took part in the observances. It seemed obvious to me that the Pentacostalists' message had some kind of drawing power that cut across and transcended the superficial social separations of American society, not only today, but a hundred years ago.

This led me to wonder: Are black people not finding their way to Friends meetings in larger numbers because our overwhelmingly white meetings aren't welcoming (which was the premise of the workshop)? Or is it because our message has become drained of spiritual power and authority?

Perhaps this is why our meetings more resemble amiable social clubs with unspoken membership requirements that that reflect the racially stratified dominent culture rather than religious movements that transcend and subvert it. We don't have a sociological problem, we have a religious problem.

This was brought home by one Friend (African American, it happens) who told about meeting and falling in love with two Catholic nuns who took a language class with him in Mexico. He said they had some sort of magnetic power in their calm centeredness and presence, so much so that he said, "I wanted whatever it was that they had."

That, I realize, is what I want: I want people -- all people -- to see Friends and say "I want some of what they've got." It's what drew me to Quakers in the first place.


More mundane things have also kept me from posting.

Like plumbing.

And clearing out the basement of 15 years of accumulated storage so our ancient, asbestos-laden furnace could be removed and replaced with a modern one (giving us an acre or two of new space as well as natural gas savings).

And then installing a radiant barrier in our attic crawlspace. That was a lousy, dirty job, I'll tell you; fortunately, the temperature dipped over the weekend to mid-50s or lower at night so I could work up there without getting heat stroke. But there was only 5' of headroom and the top of my head hovers at about 9 inches above that and I ended up with aches and pain in joints I didn't know I had. . . . But that job is done, and I hope it'll cool things off this summer.

There's also a lot of getting ready to do for the Gathering. We have a complicated two weeks with Lovely Wife and her Holly Mother flying to Seattle next Saturday where LW will attend a conference and Sister Holly will care for HM (who is disabled and needs frequent attention) in their new home on one of the San Juan islands ; Only Son and Youngest Daughter and I will take Amtrak to Tacoma (36 hours) and meet up with LW on the 30th. Then a few days on the island before coming home on the 11th. Only yesterday did I realize that I hadn't made any plans to connect between the train station, Gathering, and Island and back. But I think I have that straightened out.

I've also been preparing for the workshop; 36 have signed up, (for workshop #36 -- a good omen?) a good number for a singing, especially since there are a many in it who have taken the workshop before or are otherwise experienced in Sacred Harp singing and will help bring the new singers along. I am getting very excited about this.

Not to mention two birthdays (15th and12th) and a wedding anniversary (17th) and the End of School and driver permit tests and summer baseball Gathering 2007 planning and gardening and so on.

So there you have it. I'll be back when I can.