Friday, December 21, 2007

La Natividad: Year 2

Last year, I wrote about participating in La Natividad, the Christmas show of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater. This year, I am reprising my role as the Star of the East. The critics have been generous: "Brilliant!" "A leading role." "A rising star." "If you're wise, you'll go see it, too."

We're doing six shows this year -- all sold out before Dec. 1 -- after so many people were disappointed that they couldn't get into last year's. It is essentially the same show as last year, with the addition of one more stop on the Posada: Just after leaving the theater on our way to St. Paul's, José goes to the door of a neighbor of the theater to ask for shelter as the choir (and audience) sings the Posada song. She comes out and in her best old lady scolding voice says "No! No! I haven't any room" as a choir member sings (in English), "You cannot stay here, this is not an inn. There is no room, your story is thin. You will rob me, then you'll run away. You cannot stay here. Go away, go away, go away!"

The most touching part for me happens at St. Paul's when, through a nice bit of stagecraft, the masked
José y Maria are replaced with a flesh-and-blood couple holding a real baby. The switcheroo can't be seen by the audience until the right moment when the adoring animals and wise men part, and when they realize what's happened and see the living actors and baby there's a spontaneous "ohhhh" that fills the church. I tear up every time. I realized tonight that this is what happens whenever we are able to break through the masquerade of religion and illusion and encounter the Living God on the other side.

We have one more show tomorrow (Dec. 22), and then we're done. I've gotten to know some of the other performers better, having so many more times to hang around together.

There are some very nice photos here. (This is to the Star Tribune's site and I don't know how long this link will work.)

I hope everyone reading this will have a happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears. . . .

On Oct. 17, Lovely Wife's mother, Barbara, died in her bed, here in our home, shortly before sunrise. She was a few days past her 86 1/2 birthday.

Her death was not unexpected, but we didn't expect it that Wednesday morning. This once vibrant, energetic, astute, intelligent woman had been in a steady state of physical and mental decline for perhaps 15 years, being confined to a wheelchair and bed for more than half that time. Although early on it looked as if she had Alzheimer's disease, her doctor eventually diagnosed her with Lewy's Body Disease, which has similar symptoms. The main difference, in her case, was that she never got the zombie-like, nobody's-at-home consciousness that most Alzheimer's patients develop. Right up to the end she was able to communicate fluently with her eyes, expressing delight, distress, humor, and other emotions, which made living with her and her disability much less burdensome than it might have otherwise been.

She had lived with us since Christmas 1999, meaning for most of our children's lives. They each had a special and loving relationship with here that was a blessing to everyone.

While Lovely Wife took on the main caregiving responsibilities, her sister visited several times a year to let us go to Yearly Meeting or FGC Gathering, professional conferences, and occasional weekends away. Her two brothers were also generous in their help. This, plus a thousand small favors from friends and neighbors over the years helped us feel connected and supported.

While Barbara's health had been in long slow decline for years, she was remarkably durable. She must have had a sturdy constitution, but we also think that her steady diet of applesauce and Spirutein (at least five bowls a day) had a lot to do with it. So did the social engagement she had to endure as we schlepped her to meeting, card games, concerts and plays, school events, and other parts of our busy social lives. Whatever it was, she just kept on kicking, though always in a long, slow slide.

Earlier this year, she did develop a pressure sore that was life-threatening, and in July began to get help from a hospice program. Having this extra help in our home was very welcome, but as these things go her supposedly un-healable and fatal sore began to get better, resulting in her being removed from hospice a week or so before her death.

I need to say that, for all of my sometimes petulant criticism of modern-day Quakers, our Meeting sure came through with what we needed, and we feel deeply grateful. One dear Friend, Elizabeth, happened by our home the morning Barbara died to pick up a book, and she stayed a while and was wonderfully helpful in practical ways. Always a steady presence, Elizabeth reminded us we needn't hurry to notify the police of the death and encouraged us to just sit for a while. So we did. And we sang a little, watching the sun shine on her face through the window and reflect off the blue blanket that covered her body. (Blue was always Barbara's color.) As we did, we noticed that Barbara's wrinkles seemed to smooth out and she became more beautiful and at peace. Elizabeth also helped me do a little electrical task in the basement before leaving. After she left, a neighbor brought over meat-and-cheese sandwiches and apple pie. Never underestimate the power of simple, practical help.

Once we set a date for the memorial meeting (a month out due to one brother being in Australia and needing time to make travel arrangements) a representative of Ministry and Counsel came over and helped us with planning details. It is amazing how many small decisions and things need to be done even for a very simple and straightforward Quaker memorial meeting, and it was helpful to be guided through them efficiently and without pressure.

The memorial meeting was held on a Saturday morning, and it couldn't have been more powerful. We were so grateful that such a large number of Friends from the meeting came to it -- about 70 -- considering that except for one Friend who knew here from the 1980s in Ann Arbor, my parents, and her immediate family, no one in the Meeting knew Barbara as a fully functioning person, but only as a disabled, non-verbal old woman. But the presence of so many Friends confirmed for us visibly the feeling we had had over the years that Barbara had, indeed, connected with others, that her beauty and light and grace shone through her diminishment and touched others in a deep place. We also understood and felt the love of those who recognized and honored Lovely Wife's extraordinary caregiving. The vocal ministry, which included messages from each of her four children and one grandchild, was rooted and strong.

It was also exciting to have a house full of relatives for a long weekend -- fourteen of us in all, in a house not built for that many. But it was cozy and informal and lively and exactly like Barbara would have wanted it to be. It seemed very quiet after everyone left.

Although Barbara usually loved music, and especially when Lovely Wife and I would sing to her, she was never very fond of Sacred Harp music. I could tell. Nevertheless, we invited 14 Quaker Sacred Harp singers over two nights after her death to sing, and it was wonderfully healing, to me at least. One of my favorite songs is Northfield (155), which is a simple but powerful fuging tune. The Cooper revision of the Sacred Harp has a verse (from Revelation 21:4) that I always like to sing to Northfield which is not in the Denson revision:

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears from every weeping eye,
And pains and groans and griefs and fears,
And Death itself shall die; and Death itself shall die.

I was also reminded of the wisdom of the line from Odem 340:

Give me the roses while I live,
Something to cheer me on,
Useless the flowers you may give,
After the soul is gone.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I am so angry.

First, read this.

Then read this.

PSALM 5—A Paraphrase


Hear my words, Oh Lord, give ear to my groanings.
Listen to my protest.
For you are not a God who is friendly with oppressors,
nor do you support their devious ways,
nor are you influenced by their propaganda,
nor are you a cohort with gangsters.

One cannot believe anything they say,
nor have any confidence in their official pronouncements.
They talk of peace while they increase their production of arms.
They make gestures toward understanding at the Peace Conferences,
but in secret they prepare for war.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Punish them, Oh God,
bring to naught their machinations.
—Ernesto Cardenal (Managua)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

. . . in whom I am well pleased.

Fooling around this morning with the new iPhoto application (on the new computer. . . ) I was finally able to do things with the wedding pictures from May. This one is my favorite.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bring out those lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer

I've been in a slump for a couple of weeks now, coincident with if not caused by the persistent heat and drought of this summer. I was pretty high during and after FGC Gathering, and then the excitement with Lovely Wife's return from Europe and her mother's return and changed condition kept thing exciting. (Mother-in-law is doing fine, by the way; she's getting good care and is not in any immediate danger or unusual discomfort.) And three trips to the country -- two to northern Minnesota and one to Wisconsin -- were welcomed and unburdensome.

But now I'm drooping, like the tomatoes and coneflowers, and the Minnesota Twins. And I'm dry, with little energy to do anything.

Last wekend, when I was up north at friends' cabin on Birch Lake, near Babbitt, Minnesota, I picked up and began to re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What a delight.

I've read Tom Sawyer probably a dozen or more times in my life since the first time at age 11 -- at least four times aloud, to each of the children -- but I've managed Huck Finn only three times as I can remember, and have never attempted to read it aloud.

For one thing, the dialect is more pervasive and difficult than in Tom Sawyer, and it cannot be scanned -- you miss most of the jokes and half of the story if you don't read carefully, for one thing. For another, despite the author's Notice warning "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot," Huck Finn is a more obviously piece of social criticism and moral philosophy than its companion, and as such it begs to be read for more than the outward story.

But a fast read or not, I'm greatly enjoying it. I'd forgotten many of the details, and most of the jokes, and when I run across a new one it feels like a discovered treasure. I also think that just reading about floating down the river on a raft, mostly at night, fits with my energy level at the moment.

Huck himself is an amazing character, a true stranger in a strange land, someone who has not and simply cannot seem to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick world. His famous battle with his conscience has helped me understand better the distinction Quakers make between the infallible guidance of the pure Inward Light (which is represented by Huck's pure and innocent nature) and the potentially erroneous guidance of conscience which is susceptible to social conditioning. The most famous scene occurs when Huck falsely tells two slave chasers that the man he has on his raft is white, and that he has the small pox, effectively deterring them from checking for themselves and implicating him once and for all in Jim's flight.

I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little, ain't got no show -- when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up and keep him to his work, and so he gets beat. Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on -- spose you'd done right and give Jim up; would you felt better than what you do now? No, says I. I'd feel bad -- I'd feel just the same way I do now. Well then, says I, what's the use of you learning to do right, when it's troublesome to do right and ain't no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn't answer that.

* * * *

Although it isn't keeping me out of this lazy funk, I am enjoying participating in a show called Hill of Zion. It is part of something called Manna Fest, which itself is a descendent of something called the Spiritual Fringe Festival, which was once part of the Minneapolis Fringe Festival, a 10-day long festival of dozens of small plays and shows held in several multiple venues around town. Fringe plays run the gamut in quality and subject matter and can be great fun or tremendous bore-fests, depending.

Manna Fest shows are all being held at Augsburg College, just a few blocks from here, and are all plays on religious or spiritual themes, serious and not. One, for example, is entitled Martin Luther -- The Musical; another, by my friend Elizabeth, is called Witnessing to a Murder, about her experience witnessing a woman be murdered years ago; another is entiteld Jesus at Guantanamo.

Hill of Zion has a narrator, two actors, and a square of about nine or ten Sacred Harp singers. The story line, if you can call it that, has a travelling spatula and kitchenware salesman stumbling drunkenly into the annual Hill of Zion singing in a chapel near a cemetary somewhere in Iowa. There, he meets an interrent singing teacher, and they engage in a dialog that is broken up every few minutes by the group singing a Sacred Harp song that has some bearing on the conversation. (For example, after the salesman tells the teacher that the caterwailing of the Sacred Harp singers is as good as a strong cup of black coffee in sobering him up, we sing Soar Away, with its lyrics, "I want a sober mind, and all-discerning eye. . . .) It is surprisingly coherent and subtle, given that the playwright is an amateur, but he got most of it just right, as do the actors.

There was some disagreement among some local singers as to whether it was OK to put on a performance like this, but enough of us agreed that it was a good way to expose others to the singing and possibly recruit new singers that it was OK. We have yet to have an audience that has equalled the number of performers, but we're having great fun, and I am enjoying seeing the two amateur actor-singers get into their roles, and in getting to know some singers better.

* * * *

Adding to the funk is the fact that the display in our 5 year-old iMac computer has gone out, and we are struggling to figure out whether to spend more than $600 to replace it, get a cheaper minotor to hook up to the otherwise servicable computer, or to get a new computer altogether. With today's announcement of the new iMac, there is considerable multi-generational lobbying for a new computer. Resistance is nominal with no visible cracks in the facade, but probably futile. We shall see.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

We're OK

Perhaps this is as good a way as any to let you all know that we are all OK and weren't hurt by the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi last evening. (The last person in my office who we knew might have been on it just called; he passed over it five minutes before it fell.) We live less than two miles from the bridge, though, and often bike or drive under it on the River Road, especially when we go to Twins' games, so it is not an entirely remote or abstract thing to us. But last night we were eating dinner at 6:05 with some friends and learned about the collapse about an hour later when a friend of Youngest Daughter called. We were just a little startled because three of us are planning to drive to northern Minnesota today and would have been crossing the bridge this evening almost exactly 24 hours after it collapsed.

Almost certainly, the death toll will rise from the seven confirmed (five, says the newspaper) as divers are able to get under the collapsed roadway sitting in the river. The Mississippi has been very low because of the terrible drought -- barely at the nine foot minimum necessary for barge traffic -- and it is likely that the roadway deck that looks like it's floating on the river is in fact resting on the river-bottom on its trusses, and there are probably some cars trapped under there. The real miracle is that there weren't more deaths or serious injuries, considering how some people fell 40 or more feet.

The mood in the city is one of shock, as far as I can tell. A woman on the radio last night said she went immediatly in to "do"-mode and I think that captures it. Everyone just seemed to take up whatever task at hand needed to be done, from swimming out to help people out of their cars to redirecting traffic away from the rush hour snarl. I was most impressed at how many people, many of them U of M students, came out and helped people get out of their cars, out of the water. Eventually, the number of volunteers (supplemented by curious gawkers, I suppose) became a problem, interfering with the professional ambulance and other first responder work. We resisted the temptation to bike down because of this.

Thanks to those of you who have already written or called asking; it's nice to know that there is a web of friends around the world who think of each other at times like this.

Photos from StarTribune

Monday, July 30, 2007

3d Annual Pearson Homestead Singing

On Friday, four of us drove to our friends' homestead near Ogema, Wisconsin (about 180 miles east of here) for the 3d Annual Pearson Homestead Singing weekend. 

I wrote about last year's singing here , and the first year's here. I'm glad I checked the previous years' reports, because I was about to begin this one with "What a weekend!" just as I did last year's. And reading about the beauty of the place, the joy of singing in the outdoor screened building, the mountains of delicious food, and the deep and interesting conversations driving there and back (and stopping for ice cream on the way home) tells me that I really may not have much left to say that would be new.

This year, we had 16 or 17 singers in all, a little fewer than past years. Most of them Quakers from the Twin Cities and Eastern Wisconsin, with a handful of singers from the Twin Cities and Madison singing groups to boot. Only one singer was entirely new to Sacred Harp, but she is an experienced and well-trained musician who understood perfectly how to read the shapes and how to sing, and so the singing school didn't last even a full hour and she was ready. We stopped singing separate parts shortly after lunch on Saturday.

We were showered with a blessing of basses [did I just coin a new aggregation term? In addition to a blessing of basses, may there be a treasure of trebles? an aggravation of altos? a trophy of tenors?]: six of the 16 were natural basses, and if we had each stayed in the bass section we would have blasted out all of the other parts. So, just like last year, I spent most of Saturday singing as the second alto, and just like last year I found it exhausting learning a new part, even to familiar songs. Later in the day when a versatile Twin Cities singer (herself normally a tenor) arrived and was able to replace me in the alto section, I went home to sing bass. That made five of us singing out of our regular sections in order to balance out the group -- two natural basses sang tenor; a tenor sang treble; and another tenor and I sang alto

Even with so many of us singing off part, the quality of the singing was extraordinary. The parts were balanced. The acoustics were amazing -- even though the walls are screened, the wood roof and floor provided enough resonance to make it easy to sing and be heard without straining. Once again, we roused an echo off the surrounding hills with David's Lamentation (#268), much to the delight of LeVerne. But we got it from other songs too, particularly later on Saturday. 

After she retired from singing on Saturday evening, Elizabeth came back to the singers and urged us to go outside and walk around the hill behind the screened room to the camping area and listen to the singing from there. I did, the next morning, and was as stunned as she was. I don't know if it was the filtering effect of the trees between the hill and the singing, or the effect of the sound off the water of the lake, or what, but from this distance (which might have been 100 yards or so) the music was extraordinarily clear and beautiful. The edges were smoothed just a little to make the blend particularly pleasing.  With the smaller number of Sunday morning singers (about 8 at the time) the articulation of the words was especially sharp and I could hear each word clearly. It was easy to imagine being on a ramble in the woods and hearing this sound come from who-knows-where and stopping dead in my tracks. You would have gotten no argument from me if you said it was an angel choir. Is this heaven? No, it's Sacred Harp singing

God also gave us three of those spectacular midwestern summer days he is so famous for. Radiantly warm -- mid-80's, I'd say -- but low humidity. Just warm enough to be happy to be in the shaded screened building, but comfortable enough to be happy sitting around the dinner table outdoors, or on the porch. Swimming was also just the right thing for later in the afternoon. Bright blue sky; puffy white clouds. An almost-full moon rising early in the evening. A night cool enough to appreciate having brought the sleeping bag. 

On Saturday, especially in the afternoon and evening, we sang more challenging songs -- challenging to me who was unfamiliar with many of them (even after having returned home to the bass section), at least, and songs that don't get sung so often. We sang a whole string of Christmas songs and then Easter Anthem (#236). We sang Sawyer's Exit (#338) [to the tune of Rosin the Beau], Plenary (#162) [to the tune of Auld Lang Syne], the temperance hymn Oh, Come Away (#334) ["Heav'n's blessing on your plans, we pray! Ye come our sinking friends to save, And rescue from a drunkard's grave; We welcome you here!"], and two songs with words in them that don't come up in everyday conversation, The Last Words of Copernicus (#112) ["And thou refulgent orb of day in brighter flames arrayed. . ."] and Kingwood (#266) ("Unthinking man, remember this, Though fond of sublunary bliss, That you must groan and die"]. On Sunday we struggled through the sublime Rose of Sharon (#254) -- twice! (Though we didn't do it a lot, one of the nice things about an unofficial singing like this is that we can decide to sing a song over again, or work on a difficult part, if we want to without anyone getting all huffy about it. I understand and accept why we don't do this as a matter of course, but it is nice to have places where we can

Also on Saturday, Carol led a song in memory of our friend Minja Lausevic, a delightful woman and singer who died two weeks ago at the age of 41. It made me remember that it was two years ago that we remembered the similarly premature death of Elizabeth's partner, Lou Ann, and last year of Hibbard Thatcher

On Sunday, we sang for an hour, then had meeting for worship, and then sang some more. We stopped at noon, and then ate our last dinner together. There was still lots of good food, and apparently lots of good conversation left, too, because we just sat around and talked and talked, with some nice long moments of silence, too. It was so peaceful and relaxing. I'd been reading the final Harry Potter book, and at one point I said, "I feel that, if I had a wand, I'd just wave it and have all these dishes wash themselves and put the food away. But wait! I have ten of them," and so began to finish up our time together. 

I also greatly enjoyed the conversation I had on the way home with my friend, Frank. We've known each other for years, but only recently have had the opportunity to talk at length. (I had a similar pleasure driving his wife to yearly meeting in May.) We have a lot of common interests, and viewpoints as it turns out, and it made the long drive home seem effortless.

Of course, it was effortless for me -- Gerry did all the driving in his 25-year old VW Vanagon. Despite his giving us all of the necessary disclaimers befitting a vehicle of that age and era, the old thing drove flawlessly. (The four of us in the bus were in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, respectively; I don't know why, but I found that interesting.)

Now, back on the front porch with the full moon high over head, it is warm and the crickets are cricketing. It's time for bed. "I lay my body down to sleep, peace is the pillow for my head, while well-appointed angels keep a watchful station round my head." (Hebron, #566)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

To be stuck inside of Amsterdam with the Minnesota blues again. . . .

Lovely Wife was supposed to be home Monday afternoon from her conference followed by Quaker study course on European government in Brussels, where she's been for two weeks. Then came the e-mail that her flight turned around over England and returned to Amsterdam because of mechanical problems. She'll be home Tuesday afternoon.

Then the e-mail on Tuesday (today) that, no, she won't be able to be on that flight either, but to expect her around noon on Wednesday, to be followed later by her luggage (which is on a plane headed first to Detroit. . .).

This has been particularly hard for her, being away two additional days (so far) knowing that her mother has begun to receive hospice care in anticipation of the life-ending illness I wrote about earlier, but it has given her some alone time in what sounds like a very nice airport hotel (if that isn't an oxymoron) to do some writing and thinking about her mother and father, all at the expense of Northwestern and KLM airlines. And it sounds like the food is pretty good, too.

I do hope she's home tomorrow.

When forgiveness makes a headline

Thank you to Peggy Senger Parsons for finding another example of the Gospel in action (post date: 7-15-07) , and for the most brilliant nutty proposal for a new national holiday, Scooter Libby Annual Pardon Day. A sign of a prophet is the ability to read the signs of the times and relate them to the Big Story.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Introduction to a Quaker wedding

A couple in our meeting is getting married tomorrow morning. The woman attends our meeting with great regularity and takes an active part in it, though she has not applied for membership. The man also attends, with her, but more regularly worships at an ELCA Lutheran congregation near here. The wedding will be held in that that congregation's building, and it will includesome very Lutheran elements, including organ music, two hymns, an invocation and scripture reading by the pastor. I was asked to welcome the attenders and introduce the Quaker elements of the wedding.

Here is what I plan to say:

I've been asked to say a few words about a Quaker wedding because it is likely to be unfamiliar to many of you. Just as with all true worship, the aim of a Quaker meeting for worship is to experience the presence of God among the assembly of believers, to offer prayer, praise and thanksgiving, and to be taught.

Our Quaker forebears discovered and practiced a radically simple formof worship consisting of regularly meeting together in quiet contemplation without human direction or pre-arranged programming, confident that God is indeed present wherever two or three believers are and will teach them what they need to learn directly and inwardly, often without words at all. We continue to worship in the same way today.

Often, God’s spirit will move one or more of us to minister to the meeting; this ministry, at its best, comes from God, but through the Friend who is called to speak. Ministry may take the form of a vocal prayer, sharing of a personal experience or spiritual insight, a song, a reading of scripture or recital of poetry, or other form of expression. Our conviction and experience is that any worshiper may be called to minister. A message is usually brief. It is not expected to be polished or conventionally eloquent, but should be sincere and intended for the entire meeting.

Today’s wedding will take place in the midst of an otherwise ordinary meeting for worship after the manner of Friends, though with the special purpose of witnessing K and A make their marriage covenant with each other before God. After these opening words, a hymn, and an invocation by pastor B of this congregation, we will settle into a reverent silence. Each of us will then, in our own way, call the Living God to be among us, to witness the promises K and A will make, and to pray that they be given the strength necessary to keep them. When they feel the time is right, they will stand, take each other by the hand, and make their promises aloud in the presence of God and these their family and friends.

They will then sign the certificate of marriage, certifying in writing the promises they have just made. They will return to their seats, and the certificate will be read aloud to the meeting. You are invited to sign it as witnesses to these promises, after the meeting is over. This document is often displayed in a Quaker home as a daily reminder of this happy day and the promises that were made.

We will then continue in free, open worship. During this time, if any of you are moved to offer a message to K and A and the rest of the meeting, please stand if your are able (or raise your hand if you are not) and wait for a microphone to be brought to you so that you can be heard. Please try to leave adequate space after the message of a previous speaker before rising so that we have time to fully appreciate what was said.

When the time seems right, I will signal the transition to the final stage of the wedding by shaking the hand of a person next to me, and you are invited to do the same. We will then conclude with a hymn, after which K and A will leave the room with their families to form a receiving line over yonder. You are then invited to meet them and proceed for refreshments, signing the certificate before doing so.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

At the doctor's

We took my mother-in-law to see the doctor this morning, "we" being Lovely Wife's Elder Sister, and Elder Brother who flew in this morning on his way to a business meeting in Houston. The visit was to get advice and information about a pressure sore on Barbara's buttock that has gotten much larger and deeper.

The doctor wasn't Barbara's regular doctor, but his wife, and she was familiar with with our situation. She listened very attentively as we explained about Barbara's recent visit to Washington and her return last night and our concern with how the sore was getting worse.

Before doing anything else, God bless her, the doctor said, "The first thing you need to know is that this is is not your fault. It is what happens when you are elderly, immobile and incontinent, and it cannot be helped. It is not the result of bad care giving. The fact that this hasn't happened much sooner is because of the exceptionally good care you have given. I want you to understand that." She said this with such sincerity, and dare I say love, that it put us at ease and made us feel we were all in good hands.

She then examined the wound by very gently pulling back the dressing. She talked constantly to Barbara, apologizing for any pain caused by removing the dressing, noting a wince pressure was applied to a particular place. She quietly pointed out something or another to the pre-medical student who accompanied her, estimated the size of the wound, and then covered it up again.

She then explained the difficult truth. This sore is not going to heal. It will become infected, and that will be a "life-ending event" (the only euphemism used during the visit). It may not happen for some time, but it will happen. We cannot fix the wound, she said, but we can and will provide care to keep her comfortable and free from pain. We will get help in our home from a wound team in dressing the wound and keeping it clean, and from the hospice team who will visit and provide other services.

All of this was delivered in a perfectly sincere, respectful, sympathetic manner. she looked us in the eye. There was no question that she understood the import and gravity of the information she was giving us, or that she felt for us.

This confirmed what the hospice nurse in Washington had told us, and it now feels as if we've moved into some new stage of our lives, where the end isn't just theoretical any more but within sight, and approaching. It feels right somehow to be here, now. There is a kind of holiness about it.


We are now sitting on the front porch, the three of us, in the cool and dark of the evening. The birds have mostly stopped singing, and it’s either too cool or too early for crickets (maybe both). Barbara is sleeping in her chair, and there is a glass of good red wine nearby. The leaves of the trees are whispering in the breeze. Somewhere to the north a dog is barking, and to the south a train is crossing the bridge over the Mississippi. I feel so incredibly in love at the moment, not in love with something or someone, but simply in love. As one of my favorite Sacred Harp songs, Aiken, goes,

Within thy circling power I stand,
On every side I feel thy hand.
Awake, asleep, at home, abroad,
I am surrounded still with God.

Blow that whistle, tell the truth

Here is one courageous man.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Safe at home

We got our tents and gear packed up and all got home at about 2 pm. It was a blessing that we lived so closely. I'm not as seriously tired as Only Son, but I would not have looked forward to a long drive home. The house was quiet, with Lovely Wife in Brussels. Her sister and mother are coming here on Tuesday, with a visit to the doctor set for Wednesday; we may learn more then.

Our Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop concluded on Friday morning. It was a sweet and tender time as it usually is. Participants were very generous in their gratitude, and Carol and I were genuinely pleased. This was the most successful of the four times I've led this workshop in terms of the strength of the singing, which started strong and got stronger each day. No one seemed to be frustrated or left behind, mainly because we listened to the two or three participants last year who felt we moved too fast and we kept things at a very steady but slower pace. We taught each part separately, for example, all the way to the end, until I led Northfield (#155), which is relatively easy and a lot of fun to sing, and which the class sang without review of the individual parts. Otherwise, we were happy to teach each part, and as the week went on it got better and better.

We ended the workshop by singing Parting Hand (#62). This is often used to close a convention, but is difficult because the practice is, after the notes are sung, to set down your book and walk around the square shaking hands with the singers as you sing the first verse or two. It's awkward to carry your book with you, glancing into it as you are supposed to be looking into the eyes and shaking the hand of your friends at the same time. So we taught the song earlier in the week, and for the closing sang the notes and first verse, and then la-la-la'd the music as we walked around shaking hands, after which we returned to our books to sing the second verse.

It worked well. The melody is a dance tune with a kind of lilt to it that leaves one with a different, perhaps happier feeling than the closer I usually use, Raymond Hamrick's incomparable Christian's Farewell (#347) which always brings the tears.

The afternoon shape note singing also had its best session on Friday. A few experienced singers who hadn't been with us earlier joined the group, and those who were learning were far enough along to make a strong class. Good choices in songs were made, mostly ones that we had done earlier in the week so newer singers weren't starting each song from scratch.

And the intonation was extraordinary. It is a funny thing about Sacred Harp singing that I've never understood that some singings are consistently out of tune and others involving the same singers seem to hit it right on. Among the variables I've noticed is pitching and the nature of the room. A pitcher who consistently pitches too high or too low invites singers to bend the pitch to a more natural key, which is usually done inconsistently and results in a muddy sound. An insufficiently resonate room also makes singers over-sing in order to be heard, and this tends to make them go flat. Since we were singing in the same outdoor space as we had each of the other afternoons, the pitchers much have been more accurate. Whatever the reason, the singing was very strong and I was proud to be there.

The evening plenary with George Watson was also an extraordinary experience.

Prior to the program proper, the Nightingales led the Gathering in singing. There were a number of details with how this would happen -- would we sit or stand? on the stage or on the floor? what songs? what verses? -- some of which weren't resolved until we were ready to begin. One detail that I am so happy did get worked out was to delay singing our closing song, There are Angels Hovering 'Round, until after the pre-speech business of introducing next year's Gathering clerks and an FGC Development Committee skit. Angels is a lovely song that also creates a kind of tender feeling that would have been lost if we hadn't waited. My thanks to Jeanne B for noticing the problem and solving it.

At any rate, after the first songs, the introductions, the skit, and Angels, Bruce Birchard introduced George Watson. George is a 92-year old Quaker elder who is best known, besides his own considerable work as an able administrator and clerk, as the husband of Elizabeth Watson. The two of them formed a team for seventy years, speaking, writing, traveling, and otherwise working with and among Friends. They are exemplars of the kind of liberal Protestant point of view that has characterized our branch of Quakerism for the last century or so, and they are the kind of people that gave it a good name.

George, who is nearly blind, spoke for two hours. His daughter, Carol, who accompanied him on the stage and throughout the week said he arrived on campus with four hours worth of material.

To a disinterested observer, George essentially reminisced about his life with Elizabeth. I can imagine that some found it tedious. But to me and many hundreds of others, it was fascinating to hear how these two people worked as a team to serve the Society of Friends and beyond during perhaps its most vibrant times during the last two-thirds of the 20th Century. The audience listened with a lot of love as he told the story, long though it was.

He was reminded to dismiss those who had to care for children or others who had to leave at 8:45, and then continued a full 45 minutes before he finished. And then, after two hours of essentially historical and personal information, he concluded something to this effect: I have something to thank Marcus Borg for besides speaking as the Elizabeth Watson memorial lecturer. At the age of 92, and having read as much as I have, I seldom find anything new in my reading. But I did find something new in one of Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity, the idea of the "thin place" where the border between the spiritual and material worlds is thin. Jesus represented a thin place, as did Mohandas K Gandhi. I now realize that I was privileged to live my entire adult life in a thin place as the husband of Elizabeth Watson.

He stopped with that. Bruce came to the stage and stood quietly behind the podium. Given the time, it seemed certain that he would not entertain Q&A, but it also seemed that he didn't know quite what to do. The room sat in rapt silence. And then a woman started to sing in a thin voice, "There are angels hov'ring 'round. . ." and the entire crowd arose and joined her, singing strong and in harmony. It was amazing. A good friend was in tears afterwards after seeing the many elders standing there who will soon be hovering around us, unseen.

I was stunned. I had worried that George's talk would be exactly what it was, a mere reminiscence without challenge to the Gathering or relate to our theme (". . . but who is my neighbor?"). But what I hadn't reckoned was how inspiring it was to hear it. As a friend who knows the Watsons well told me, "I love the Watsons, but I am not a Watson worshiper; I know their flaws all too well. But what well-spent lives."

I realize that these have been lengthy posts, and yet they convey only a sliver of all the things that happend at the Gathering this year. They're only a sliver of the things that I experienced at the Gathering. But I wanted for my own reasons to write as much as I could remember contemporaneously, without post-hoc perspective and before the tricks that memory plays on me. All I can say now is that I am very happy to have had a part in organizing it and to have attended it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Marcus Borg

July 6
FGC Gathering, River Fall, Wisconsin

Marcus Borg was the plenary speaker last night. I have mixed feelings about the event, so I'll start with the positive.

He is a very engaging human being -- friendly, funny, gracious, generous. He seemed genuinely happy to be here among us, even though he has achieved a kind of rock star status in certain circles and makes a lot of talks to groups like ours. And his talk was lucid, well organized, logical, and a joy to hear. He took questions gracefully and answered them directly. And he wore bright red socks, which endears him to me.

And he has a message to deliver. I won't try to summarize his work as a biblical scholar other than to note that the is one of great renown, and that the is a leading light of the Jesus Seminar. Of course, among the liberal Quakers at this Gathering, his scholarship and authority is accepted fairly uncritically. (A participant in the historic Jesus workshop said that the leader noted that Borg and the Jesus Seminar scholars' scholarship is not universally accepted as accurate, but didn't go deeply into the nature of the controversy. Something of that controversy can be found here. (Thank to Marshall Massey for this lead, which he gave in comment elsewhere.)

But here are some concerns I have. First, I'm disappointed that the largest audience at a plenary, by far, was for an address by a non-Quaker. Even discounting the fact that part of the crown were non-Gathering people from the nearby community who were invited to attend, the number of Quakers attending far exceeded that for the first two evenings where we had Quaker speakers. Perhaps there is something about a prophet being without honor in his own land that makes an outsider look more attractive, but we do have thinkers and writers and dare I say theologians within our own family that have something to say to us.

(Borg's address was the second Elizabeth Watson lecture, paid for by the Quaker Universalists group from a legacy for that purpose. John Shelby Spong was the first speaker in the series two years ago. It appears that this group thinks it's somehow important to have liberal Protestants address us.)

Second, I am not sure I could cite chapter and verse to support this statement, but what I heard Borg say sounded to me an awful like early Quakerism, starting with Barclay. Examples include his interpretation of the doctrine of original sin (this refers to the fact that all human beings sin, not a statement about their inherent nature), salvation (it's a liberation from sin, not an insurance policy to some kind of afterlife), and the meaning of the resurrection (it has meaning only if Jesus lives in you, regardless of his historicity). I kept looking for some new insight, something I didn't already know from my study of and experience in Quakerism, and I'm not sure I found very much. It was much more coherently presented in modern language than is often the case, but I'm not sure what of the content was new.

[Gathering moment: A man who is sharing my table just brought a cup of coffee to the table. He must have seen me looking at it with desire -- maybe I look as weary as I feel -- and he offered to give it to me, which I accepted. What a lovely man.]

Except for this, which I liked: He ended his talk by saying that, when asked by an evangelical Christian whether Jesus is his personal savior, Borg says, "Yes, I can say that, but only if I can also say that Jesus is my political savior, too." By this, he means recognizing Jesus as Lord in its political sense, not only as an savior of me as an individual. This seemed to me to also be a perfectly orthodox Quaker statement. Again, I can't cite to a source as I sit here in the cafetria, but I remember statements of George Fox to the extent that the king of England is subject to the Soverign God, and that the king's authority is legitimate only to the extent to which he acts in accord with God's will, and that the Day of the Lord consisted in large part of when earthly rules exercised their power in accord with God's design and abandoned their own selfish aggrandizement.


Well, I've finished my coffee and need to get to the final Sacred Harp singing at 3:15. The workshop ended this morning with good feeling and gratitude. More later, I hope.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

4th of July at the Gathering

July 4, 11:15 pm, in the tent.

Let’s see far how much I can report before I drop.

Tuesday was the first day of rain in these parts in several weeks. It came around three o’clock in the afternoon, a little before the afternoon Sacred Harp singing was to take place, outdoors, under a large overhang of a building. It was dark, and though it wasn’t raining particularly hard, it looked threatening. We sang only one or two songs when a siren went on. We all assumed that that meant a tornado warning – meaning one had been sited – and everyone dutifully went indoors, except for Robin, Jerry and me who like watching storms and are probably irresponsible. It didn’t seem to us that it was likely that anything was going to happen immediately, so we stayed outside and sang tenor-treble-bass trios for a few minutes. The rest of the group, went to an interior bathroom as instructed, and started singing there, wowed by the resonance.

It turned out the siren was merely a severe weather alert, not a tornado warning, and the rain and storm passed within 15 or 20 minutes, and we resumed singing. The group was a bit smaller – maybe 25 average at any one time – but it was plenty strong. We are still having trouble getting everything out of the altos that we need -- they're all singing the right notes, in tune, but they're holding back. (The morning class did better after Carol gave them the "alto talk".)


Tuesday evening has interest groups, which are two hour sessions on a wide variety of topics. I hadn’t taken time to carefully read the impressively long list in advance, so when I did, I of course was drawn to more than one, but I eventually chose to go to one because (in part) I knew where the room was. The announced topic was “Intrafaith work among the various branches of Quakerism.” It was led by Andrew Esser-Haines and Erin McDougall, two young Friends currently studying at Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion, respectively. They are visiting yearly meetings and conferences of Quakers in various branches to hold similar conversations. Each comes from a FGC background but have gained appreciation for the other branches and their Quaker bona fides in recent years.

I was fascinated by them and their plans and wished they had said a lot more. Instead, they had us do various exercises on the topic. There were only about fifteen who attended, and it seemed that nearly half of them were there in a support role for Andres and Erin. The remaining adults, with the exception of a young mother and her baby, were my age (53) or older, I think. Some were members of yearly or monthly meetings that are affiliated with Friends United Meeting or one of its constituent yearly meetings, and they have a vital interest in fostering better communication with FUM Friends.

While I would have loved to hear more about what they are planning to do this summer, I didn’t feel that I connected very well in my small group and left a little disappointed. But I did learn one great conversation ice-breaker: Name three dead Quakers you’d like to invite dinner, and why. (My answer: Bayard Rustin, Lewis Benson, and Margaret Fell. I didn’t have much of a “why” to it.)


We had our Wednesday morning rebellion in the workshop, but it was of the good kind. Carol had gone a little past the 10 o’clock break time and was in the middle of teaching a song, Parting Friends (#267) when she noticed it. She finished teaching each of the four parts, and then announced the break without singing the words. Ixnay on the ake-bray, said the class, emphatically. They wanted to finish the lesson and sing the song, which they did beautifully. (Carol taught the song using the Dorian mode, with the raised sixth step in the minor scale, and did it beautifully. I’d never sung it in that mode before – or never heard it if we did, since only the tenor part has the raised sixth.)

Tomorrow we’ll hold a memorial lesson for our worship sharing. Among others, we will remember the step-mother of one of our participants who died earlier today. He has left the Gathering and won't be with us.

The evening plenary this year was a performance prepared and produced by children and adults in the Junior Gathering with the assistance of two artists from In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. On Wednesday night, the Gathering has an intergenerational event, usually professional performing artist perform, people like John McCutcheon, Si Kahn, Pete Seeger, Troutfishing in America, Robin and Linda Williams, etc. This year, though, we decided that there was enough talent within the Gathering community that we could produce, rather than merely consume, an entertaining and educational intergenerational event. So we asked HOTB to do a residency with the Junior Gathering, mainly 5-6 graders with some assistance with 7-8 graders, and adult volunteers.

Starting on Sunday, the HOBT artists helped the children develop a play, design and paint props and cardboard puppet characters. The story they came up with was a visit to a town on the Mississippi River by an unusual woman. The river fell in love with her, and though she was unusual, the elder of the town counseled treating her with respect, but the other townspeople didn’t agree, and eventually drove her from town. But the children intervened and brought her back. Or something like that – I was part of the shape note singing group that provided incidental music for it and couldn’t see the whole thing. But it had all of the elements of a HOBT production: an assortment of colorful fish, animals, and insects, the sun (played brilliantly by my friend Jeanne), and a river. The children seemed happy and delighted and were delightful. The audience also seemed to love it and were amazed at how much could be done in such a short period of time. Liz Opp predicted this might be the sleeper event of the Gathering, and she may be right.

Afterwards, I had a good conservation with Chris M and his friend John Harting about membership in a Quaker meeting. It was more interesting and complex and subtle than I can relate here, but I wanted to note it because I haven’t had very many such conversations here, mainly because of the various work I have to do. I enjoyed this one very much.

I enjoyed eating dinner with some of the Quaker bloggers who are here. It was especially nice that some non-bloggers were there who wanted to learn more about blogs and blogging. But it was hard for me to have a very satisfying conversation around a big table in a noisy dining room.

I finally got to go contra dancing tonight. I only stayed for two dances because I needed a shower before the locker room closed, but I got to dance with the one woman who is not Lovely Wife who I always try to make a point of dancing with. She is an old friend who I met years ago at Illinois Yearly Meeting and with whom I have special affection. Her daughter is one of the six (!) who are having a sleepover in the big tent next to mine with Younger Daughter in honor of he 4th of July.

July 5
I got a nice, long e-mail from Lovely Wife this morning from Brussels. It was wonderful to hear from her and to think of her in this lovely old city. Hi, sweetie!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Blogging from the Gathering: Kody Hersh & Joanna Hoyt

Monday night,

I attended the Bible half-hour led by my friend Christopher Sammond. He’s using the book of Esther – the only book in the Bible in which the name of God is not mentioned – and tying it into the theme of the Gathering, “. . . . but who is my neighbor?” He’s taking a big risk, in my opinion, by having it be interactive where he asks questions & gets answers from the attenders, but it worked fine; I think he got his points across. It will be interesting to see how he develops the theme during the week.

Our Singing from the Sacred Harp workshop went very well this morning. Carol taught the first hour, warming up our voices and bodies by stretching, worked a bit with intervals and the scales, and then taught Old Hundred. I led the second hour, and then she led a very productive worship sharing. Of the many wonderful things that were said, the one that sticks with me now at the end of the day (I’m writing this at 10:30 pm from my tent) was the woman who said she had learned to let go of her need to understand it all before singing and to let those from the past who are singing over her shoulder to help her learn. I’ve had that same experience myself. Carol then did a very good thing by reviewing and leading again each of the songs we learned that day.

Our impression of the class is that it is exceptionally good. The altos need to sing more confidently and strongly – which shouldn’t be hard because they seem to be getting the notes right. Carol will have the “alto talk” with them tomorrow, I think.

I didn’t have to attend the Gathering Oversight Committee meeting this afternoon since my fellow co-clerk was going, but I had left my water bottle there and went to the room to retrieve it. As soon as I came in the door, someone opened the circle and added a chair for me, so how could I leave? It was remarkable that the rest of the hour was filled with the most mundane, almost trivial matters; things are going so smoothly and happily that there wasn’t much to do.

Besides my water bottle, I had misplaced a file with the lyrics of the hymns I’m leading on Thursday night, and of a “statement” written by the Nightengales about how they want people to sing on Friday. I was in a near panic; I’d looked everywhere in the tent, the car, my pack, and my book bag, and nothing. I was certain I’d brought it, but I was now doubting. I called Lovely Wife and asked her to look on the dining room table, the only other place it might be, and no luck. I was almost resigned to the tedious job of retyping it all after lunch (during the time of the Oversight Committee meeting) when I looked for a place to put my backpack before entering the lunchroom. To my annoyance, every cubby already had pack in it, as did the top of each cabinet. So I had to look for a cubby that wasn’t completely filled, and found one with a very small purse/pack like thing in it. I moved it to one side so I could put my pack in it, and there was my file, stuck in the back, right where I’d left it at an earlier meal. Whenever this happens, I’m reminded of the parables of the lost coin and lost sheep and the joy and relief at finding that which has been lost.

I got to spend just a few minutes at the Lemonade Art Gallery opening and saw a number of paintings and other pieces that I liked a lot. I was especially taken with some self-portraits by one friend who essentially sketched herself while looking in a mirror – and not on the paper – and then did oil paintings based on the sketches. Each one had a bizarre distortion of her otherwise recognizable face – elongated lips in one, a funny looking nose in another, and so on. Liz Opp also displayed a very fine ink drawing of a northern woods scene she did for her partner a few years ago.

The afternoon Sacred Harp singing was amazing. I counted fifty singers at one point, and we averaged about 30 – 35 consistently all afternoon (well, 3:15 – 4:45). Leaders started with good warm up songs and we built up to more complicated ones. Especially later in the afternoon, we had an awesome bass section of ten that was very, very strong. We’re singing outside again, and one of my delights is to watch the reactions of others as they pass by. Some smile and keep going; others seem to be stopped dead in their tracks, and then they smile. Several people joined the group just out of curiosity. The 14 loaner books I brought were not enough. I’m going to encourage more people to buy their own at the bookstore.

After the singing, I had a wonderful conversation with Christopher M of Tables, Chairs, and Oaken Chests, about a lot of things, actually. I appreciated his reaching out and asking about the state of my meeting and of the conversation that followed. (I just noticed that he, too, is blogging from here, and he has put together a good list of other Quaker bloggers present on campus. Hi, Chris!)

But after all of the wonderful things of the day, the highlight was the evening plenary address by two young Friends, Joanna Hoyt and Kody Hersh. They had asked for, and we had helped prepare, that the entire program be considered worship, with people entering silently and refraining from conversation before the speakers began. The volunteer ushers who showed up did a wonderful job of conveying that message to Friends as they entered the room, and except for perhaps some conversation in the lobby that bothered some it was a very quiet, reverent atmosphere.

Zachary Moon, a member of our evening program committee who had agreed to invite and help support young Friends to address the Gathering, introduced them. Although I wished at times during the past year that he would have been a more communicative with the rest of the committee who had to take it on faith that he was doing what we had asked him to do, he lived up to his reputation as a man with a ministry and did everything we wanted and more.

The two young people were . . . . I can’t think of adequate adjectives: amazing; articulate; intelligent; funny; grounded; prophetic; observant; humble; earnest. Perhaps the word “faithful to the Truth” is the most all-encompassing. As one Friend testified in the worship that followed the talks, parents try to raise their children the right way, to show them the way to live, and then one day, their children call to them and show them the way to live.

I did take some notes during their talks, but won’t try to summarize what they said in detail – the program was recorded and should be available from FGC soon, and I urge everyone reading this to listen. I suspect, and hope, that some form of their address will also be published in Friends Journal. It felt at the moment like it might be a watershed moment of some sort; time will tell about that.

I will say only that they spoke to the need for radical authenticity, for letting go of all of the things we accrue to protect us from authentic living and relationship, and not just material things, but the more precious social and psychological defenses and protection we use to insulate us from Truth.

Joanna spoke of needing to reunite the false dichotomy between the love of righteousness (the love of God) and the love of fellowship (the love of our neighbor). She pointed out how too many Friends – and others – seem to practice the latter with too little attention to the former.

Kody, began by singing beautifully the first verse of Sidney Carter’s “Were you there?” (“When I needed a neighbor, were you? And the creed and the color and the name doesn’t matter, were you there?”).He observed that what the parable of the Good Samaritan does is transform the question from, “What am I obliged to do” to a more fundamental question, “Who is in need?”

The vocal ministry that followed was uncommonly rich and pertinent, and the fellowship time afterwards, where the speakers had a conversation with a smaller group of Friends was also affirming. Those who were there will never forget it. Whether any of us live up to the challenges they posed is another question.

I called Lovely Wife tonight after the program and told her how well it is all going. She reminded me that I was not at all sure how strong the evening plenary sessions would be this year; I know that the process by which we came up with it was spirit led and that we did not take certain easy ways out of some problems we had, but as we approached I was not sure that I – or others – would see the fruit of that labor turn out as well as we’d hoped. But so far, so good.

L.W. leaves for a professional conference in Brussels tomorrow morning, and then is participating in a Quaker study program on European government immediately afterwards. I will miss her as I always do when she’s gone, but this is a long trip in both distance and time, and I suppose it will be a little harder than other shorter trips. For now, though, I’m happy and ready for a good night’s sleep, which can begin as soon as Youngest Daughter and her friends come back from the dance, which should be in a few minutes.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Blogging from the Gathering: Cecile Nyramana

Cecile's Nyrimana's address was beautiful and powerful.

There was some concern when she arrived on campus that a combination of long-distance travel and family concerns may have left her exhausted and depressed. But when she met Ellen, a woman who acted as her translator and companion when she visited Northern YM in 2005 and who is playing a similar role this year, Cecile perked right up and seemed at home.

Her talk was preceded by drumming by about a dozen Friends. That, too, was remarkable and beautiful. The drummers covered a range of ages, from high school to 60-something adults, and they created a gentle, complex, and persistent beat. One drummer had a metal drum, resembling a hand-held steel drum, that sounded subtle musical notes underneath the drumming. We took a little risk, I think, in having something so unusual as the preplenary welcoming activity, but it worked.

Cecile spoke in English this year, it being her third language (the others being French and her native Rwandan language whose name I can't recall). She had a straightforward speaking style. She began with a historical and geographic background of Rwanda, then discussed the facts around the 1994 genocide, and then what she and others in Rwanda YM are doing to reconcile Tutsi and Hutu survivors. Cecile is Tutsi, and her husband is Hutu; she survived because he had found another Hutu family who permitted her to hide underneath a bed for several months -- when she was pregnant with her first child.

What struck me was how Cecile related her story of taking an Alternatives to Violence (AVP) workshop with Hutu women and how this developed into several program or reconciliation sponsored by Rwanda YM. (She directs the women's section of the YM and is now its assistant clerk.) She told this story in such a plain, straightforward way, free of rhetorical ornament save for repeating the question, "But who is my neighbor?"

Her talk was relatively short and ended about 45 minutes before we had to be dismissed. It was followed by about 10 minutes of silence. Of course, a couple of Friends felt compelled to stand up and ask in one way or another, "What can we do?" to which no answer was given. Then the plenary was dismissed, and Cecile took some questions from those who remained. Once again, at least one Friend seemed to be unable to connect with what she said except on a political level, but nearly all of the other Friends asked genuine, human questions, and it appeared as if the experience was good for her as well as the others.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The All-Gathering meeting for worship this morning was hard for me. The new man that the hot shower had created an hour or two earlier had reverted to the sleepy, irritable man he was when he woke up. The ministry was pertinent, but not inspiring, to me, at least. But it was measured and not popcornish, which was a relief.

Then the moment of truth. I had been carrying some anxiety, too, about the fact that there were no chairs in the room where our workshop was to take place. I checked out the workshop room -- we were given the stage of the performing arts auditorium -- at 8 o'clock in the morning, and there were no chairs. I did some checking, and was assured they'd be there, and by golly they were, all arranged, too.

The first workshop session went well. Lots of familiar faces and voices, and some new ones. As we introduced ourselves the one high school student in the class said, "I took this workshop last year, and it's the first time I ever had any fun in one."

Now, later in the day: The first Gathering oversight committee meeting after it opened was held this afternoon, and it was remarkable for how little there was to say. People have been non-complaining, self-helping and problem-solving, and generally finding their way without complaint. Of course, no one has been here long enough to have real problems develop yet, but it was a good sign.

The afternoon Sacred Harp singing, outdoors again, under a shaded projection of a building, went very well. Again, the chairs showed up in abundance and on time. And so did the singers. It was a strong group with some new singers from the morning workshop and a lot of returning singers from past ones. We sang steady for about 90 minutes when one of us called it a day, which was about the right time.

I'm about to go to the plenary session to hear Cecile Nariyama of Rwanda Yearly Meeting at the first plenary. She spoke at Northern YM two years ago, and was profoundly moving. She is a delightful, strong woman. We're having twenty minutes of drumming immediately prior to her talk, and I'd better get there to hear it.

A sleepless night

The welcoming evening plenary is over. I had two very small bits in it, singing and playing my banjo. I did the first OK; blew the second, but it wasn’t too bad. I felt a lot of anxiety about it before hand because it hadn’t seemed well prepared; the parts were more-or-less ready, but how it fit together seemed ragged and uncertain as we went into it, especially after the rehearsal. I realize now that I kept a lot of tension in my trying to steer a program that was totally out of my control and for which I had no responsibility. As it turned out, it was lovely. Funny, friendly, low-key. The Prairie Home Companion parody was fun and more-or-less held it together. My very favorite act was Frank Wood and the Earth Quakers singing"My Quaker Lover" parody of the "The Frozen Logger." Frank had great presence and absolutely brilliant timing. The only problem was that it went on too long, which backed up some 9 o’clock activities (mainly Junior Gathering & High School parent meetings) but not too seriously.

I was also nervous about the workshop. Carol, my co-leader, and I wanted to start teaching a song other than Old Hundred (49 on the top), partly because we were a little tired of it and partly because we wanted a more traditional (read: Southern) sounding song to begin. We’d agreed on one (Primrose, 47t), and then later that evening she said she really wanted to start a new one (Devotion 48t), to which I agreed. But when I went to look at it, I realized that I didn’t know Devotion well enough to teach it (the alto and treble parts, that is), and even though it had more hopeful and positive poetry.

So for these and perhaps other reasons, I didn’t sleep well, even though Lovely Wife was there for the night. I finally got up at 5:45 and went hunting for a shower. I found a dorm but the doors were locked, not to open until 7. With my agitated state of mind, this was a blow. But soon someone came out and let me in, and I learned a great lesson. There is hardly any bad attitude that can’t be made better by a powerful, hot shower. (One reason I didn’t sleep well was that I hadn’t had one for a couple of days.) I felt like a new man.

Then to breakfast and meeting for worship, and then the first workshop session.

The best laid plans

Saturday afternoon, about 3:30

I had it all planned. I’d meet Lovely Wife and the children at the high school registration table at about 15 minutes before it opened at 2 pm. I’d already registered Youngest Daughter & her friend and all I needed to do was get Only Son signed in; the High School group doesn’t let anyone register early, or in abstentia. So I planned to be as early in the H.S. line as possible.

The first part worked; we were there before 2, and there weren’t more than a handful in line when it officially opened. But then, for reasons inexplicable to me even in hindsight, the line moved slooowly. Like molasses in the other part of the year. It took 40 minutes before we were done. The request to fill out a form that I had already filled out but had gotten lost was only a minute or two of that time. Otherwise, I can’t explain the rest of it, unless it was the one-person-one-job organization of the tasks.

All of which is of no great consequence, other than to take a half hour out of my afternoon to spend time with Lovely Wife and the other children before I had to get to the 3:15 workshop leader meeting, where I am now.

The clerk just did a very fine thing by reading the Purpose of FGC’s Gathering, a very nice statement approved by the Long Range Conference Planning Committee. As it reads from the chart on the wall:

The purpose of the Gathering is to help Friends

  • Know and deepen their relationship with the Spirit and with each other;
  • Strengthen their identification as Friends a among other Friends; and
  • Testify to the presence of unprogrammed Friends as a vital and unique faith community.
I like this. I wish it were more prominently publicized; it would put a lot of the things we do here in perspective.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Strangers in the Night

11:45 pm 6-29-2007

In my tent, reading the Gathering information. This is my tenth or eleventh Gathering (my first was 1983, Slippery Rock), so I know the routine pretty well. And I am on the planning (and now oversight) committee, so I felt pretty well-informed about what is going to happen this week. But then something strange happened.

Usually, as I remember, there are three afternoon periods of activities, usually 75 minutes long with 15 minutes pass time in between. Usually something like 1-2:15, 2:2:30 – 3:45, and 4 – 5:15. I remember this because last year we asked for and got two afternoon slots for shape note singing, and that was part of the success. We sang from 2:30 til 5 or 5:15, and that was a good long time to draw in enough people to give it critical mass. It was awesome, actually.

But this year it changed. There are activities scheduled at 1:30, and the next at 3:15, and the next at 4:30. One very long session and then two short ones. And shape note singing is scheduled at 3:15. This is odd and I don’t understand. We can certainly continue to sing past 4:30, I presume, but there’s no indication when the third session is supposed to end, and supper starts at 5. . . . It looks to me as if we’re losing an hour of afternoon singing, but we’ll have to see. Remember the poem about Sacred Harp singers from the music clerk at past Gatherings:

Shape Note/Sacred Harp.
They need to stand in a square and have good live sound.
They like a space with lots of resonance, not drapes and carpet,
where they can be loud.
If they don't like where you put them, they'll find their own space
and leave you a note.
They are very self sufficient.
They do not need a piano.

Note to self: Do not pitch your tent near a campground bathhouse that keeps its lights on all night. I thought it’d be nice, especially for the two thirteen year old girls who will be joining me tomorrow, to be near the bathroom. And it is, of course. Except I didn’t remember that it is kept illuminated all night. So there’s a nice yellow glow at the head-end of my tent and it’s 11 pm.

A few minutes ago, I was dozing off and heard voices. “Is this it?” “It looks a little small.” “There’s the REI logo.” “Is there anyone in it?” “Should we ask?”

“Excuse me, is there anyone in this tent?”


“Are you Paul?”


“Are waiting for a wife?”

I thought a moment. “Yes.”

“Well, she’s looking for you.”

I was obviously confused. Or some one was.

“I don’t understand.”

“There’s a woman here whose husband, Paul, pitched their tent and she can’t find him. She says it has an REI log on it.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t think she’s looking for me; my wife isn’t coming until tomorrow.”

“OK. Sorry to disturb you.”

Then they left. Not long afterwards, though, I felt someone’s eyes looking in through the little triangular window in the rain tarp. I opened my eyes, and even without my glasses on I could recognize a face peering in at me.

“Yes?” I said.

“Oh hi. Is this Paul?”

A subtle pattern emerges. “Yes. Who is this?”

“This is Becky.” Finally, a recognizable fact. A Friend from my Yearly Meeting. “Oh, hi, Becky. This is Paul L.”

“Hi, Paul. I’m looking for my husband. He set up the tent and my meeting went on longer than I thought and now I can’t find him.”

“Sorry.” Then I added, “The other tent is empty; it’s for my daughter and her friend who will arrive tomorrow. You’re welcome to stay there if you can’t find your Paul.”

“That’s OK. I have a blanket in the car and I can stay there. Sweet dreams.”

Sure. So that’s why I’m sitting up in my tent, typing on my iBook, instead of sleeping.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Here at the Gathering

I drove here to River Falls with a Friend early this afternoon. I pitched two tents for me, Youngest Daughter and her friend, got registered, and am getting settled. One treat was seeing fellow-bloggers Chris and Robin M and Linda waiting outside the registration hall. And then other old Friends, too. It felt a little like a gathering of wizards in a Harry Potter story.

I've been itching to get here for several days. I've done all the preparation I can do for my workshop and for the evening plenary sessions (I'm co-clerk of the evening program committee) and now I want to do it. Getting the tents pitched was big. We're in almost exactly the same spot we camped in 1998 when, after arriving a day early in the expectation of getting settled in before the Big Day, a tremendous storm hit, 4 or 5 inches of rain in as many hours, with thunder, lightening, and wind all night long, the four of us huddled in our large but tight L.L. Bean tent and our three friends next to us. The next morning, we were dry, if tired, but the people who were camping where they were supposed to be (we'd squatted where we were used to camping at Northern YM instead of going to the official FGC campsites) were under 3 inches of water. Our cars were flooded to the floorboards, the south branch of the Kinnikinick River having swollen from romantic creek to raging river through the parking lot. It was a wonderful adventure, but tonight I'd be happy with a quiet, boring sleep.

My heart has a new heaviness that is coloring my mood. Lovely Wife's mother, who has lived with us since 1999 has been on Lummi Island in Washington with L.W.'s sister since mid-May. A call came last night reporting that it appears that she is developing what may be a fatal infection. Lovely Wife and sister Holly have been on the phone, discussing travel arrangements, which are complicated by three of us being at FGC and L.W. going to Brussels, Belgium, for a conference for two weeks and another brother and his family on their way to Australia in a few days for six months. . . .

But all that is uncertain for now. At the moment, I'm watching Quakers trickle into the student center with that first-night bewildered look they'll have until they're oriented and situated. I love them all.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

It's been a longer, stranger trip that we may have realized

The Friend to whom I gave a ride to Northern Yearly Meeting mentioned to me that the recent edition of Quaker History had two articles she thought would interest me. One, by Mitchell Santine Gould, was entitled "Walt Whitman's Quaker paradox" and discussed Whitman's closeness to, but non-membership in, Quakers. The short of it is that, in Whitman's own words, "I was never made to live inside a fence."

The article discussed four aspects of Quakerism, of the Hicksite flavor especially, that Whitman shared:

1. Like Whitman, many radical reformers were culturally recognized as "Quaker" without being members. This trend reflects a general diffusion and secularization of Quaker testimonies in society.
2. Like Whitman, Quakers could sometimes be sexual liberals.
3. Like Whitman, Quakers based their liberality upon "liberty of conscience."
4. Like Whitman, the Hicksite schism itself defended the sanctity of human "passions or propensities."
Though there was little new or surprising in the article, it does tie things together and make connections that I hadn't made before, and I enjoyed it.

But the article that really caught my eye was by Mary K. Matossian and entitled, "Why the Quakers Quaked: The Influence of Climatic Change on Quaker Health, 1647-1659." Not what I'd call a snappy, engaging title, but the topic was fascinating.

In sum, the author conjectures that much of the quaking and other unusual mental, physical, and behavioral states exhibited by Quakers in the mid-17th Century were symptoms of a central nervous system disease called ergotism, a form of fungal poisoning from a fungus that grows on rye grain and flour. Because of generally cooler winters and warmer summers and adequate rainfall during this time period (caused in part by reforestation and a decline in population), rye flour was particularly susceptible to ergot, and this being the primary grain in the areas of England and classes from which Quakers were drawn, the author's hypothesis is that many of these early Quakers were affected by ergotism and thus exhibited the strange behavior often observed during that time.

When I first heard of the article, a whole series of light bulbs went off in my head. I had often thought that many of the descriptions of early Friends meetings sounded to me an awful like LSD and mescaline experiences I have had, and how much the massive social (and political and religious) upheaval in Britan 1650s and '60s reminded me in general of the 1960s in the US and elsewhere. And here's the explanation that puts the two together: The Early Quakes were on low-level doses of LSD (which, of course, is derived from rye ergot) and this enabled them to break through the prevailing paradigm to a radically different quality of life and experience, just as it did for millions of my generation in the 1960s.

The article doesn't fit my hypothesis precisely; the author focuses more on the quaking, epileptic-type symptoms of ergotism than on the integrative, peaceful, insightful ones experienced with psychedelics. But there is enough data here to persuade me to keep my mind open at least that there may have been a psycho-chemical aspect to the Quaker movement that explains not only their radical vision but also their gradual (though incomplete) assimilation into the fabric of English Protestantism.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Show your talent

I went to a marvelous 40th birthday party for a Friend on Saturday evening. She hosted a benefit talent show at the meetinghouse for her birthday party that was simply a gas.

She started it off, singing One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man from Wonderful Town, and then Make our Garden Grow from Candide. G. has a wonderfully strong voice, Mermanesque in its purity and power but sweeter, and was perfect for singing Bernstein. (She also has a mellow, sexy voice suitable to a Minnesota Public Radio classical music announcer and host, which she also is.)

Lovely Wife was sitting elsewhere in the meeting room, and I didn't have to turn around to know that she was tearing up during Make our Garden Grow. I knew this not only because of the raw beauty of how G was singing the song, but also because I know that LW was thinking what I was thinking, which was that our first formal date was to Candide at the Indiana University Opera in 1987, and that that opera and that song have had special meaning to us ever since.

G. was followed by T., a 9-or-so year old girl who played a half dozen traditional American fiddle tunes on her half-sized violin. Her teacher uses the Suzuki method but is teaching fiddle and dance tunes instead of the more classical oriented tunes used by most Suzuki teachers. Little T ended each of her tunes with the familiar shave-and-a-haircut. . .two-bits tag. She did beautifully and had great poise and presence.

I followed by reading Billy Collins' poem Forgetfulness and then singing Mike Cross's The Scotsman, a kind of a novelty, jokey song that immediately came to my head when G asked me to participate, and which I couldn't shake.

Then came M who played a beautiful piece for flute by Claude Debussy on her alto saxophone.

Finally was the most novel and entertaining act I've ever seen that didn't involve a chainsaw or lighter fluid: A man played a Sousaphone and tap danced. At the same time. (When I saw him come to front of the room, I was reminded of the George Booth cartoon in The New Yorker showing a one-man band -- a fellow with a bass drum, cymbals, washboard, kazoo, etc. -- standing in a library, looking at a book. One librarian is saying to another one, "Well, so far his behavior has been exemplary.)

He then played Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (which he said he thought should have been either "Gee-su joy. . ." or "Yay-su yoy . . ."), playing the base line on the tuba while simultaneously humming or singing the tune to the soprano line. It had the effect not unlike the throat singing Tibetan monks who sing two notes at once. He ended his part with a similarly wonderfully funny version of Stars and Stripes Forever with the tuba doing the oom-pah and his voice approximating the piccolo part. Amazing.

Following the performances, we heard from another Friend who gave a brief presentation about Rainbow Rumpus, an on-line magazine she founded "For Kids with GLBT parents." I've been reading Rainbow Rumpus with infrequent frequency over the past year and have been impressed at its range and quality. I hope you'll check it out, and refer your friends to it.

G said her idea for this kind of a party came from one I did for my 48th birthday a few years back, which was in turn based on Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Community Readings project when he was poet laureate of the US. Another Friend is hosting a similar event this coming Saturday for his 80th birthday. This is a very simple kind of event to organize, people love them, and it builds community and stories for years to come.

Larry Miller

It was a blow to get the e-mail yesterday telling that Larry Miller had suffered a massive, probably fatal stroke on Sunday, and again to learn that he had died earlier today.

I know Larry through serving with him on the Friends Journal board for he past four years. Larry had first joined the board of the Friends Publishing Corporation in 1955 shortly after The Friend and The Friends Intelligencer, the publications of the Orthodox and Hicksite traditions respectively, merged, contemporaneously with the reunification of the two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings and has served several stints over the next fifty years. He also frequently had articles and letters published in the Journal.

I loved Larry, as did everyone on the board. He had a youthful, almost child-like energy and spirit that belied his age. My picture of him is with his head cocked slightly (favoring a good ear, perhaps), stooping a bit to look me in the eye and listening intently, with genuine interest, to whatever answer I was giving to his question. He was the one who could be counted on always to ask the most pertinent (and occasionally impertinent) question during the publisher's report, and often to give words of praise or encouragement.

Every time I saw Larry, he delighted in telling me about his latest project, often involving historical research and writing. He also was one of the funniest persons I've ever known, in part because he was able and willing to laugh at his own foibles. I am grateful to have gotten to know him even a little bit, and that he lived a life so full of love and vitality.

Here is Larry's brief biography from the Friends Journal web site.

Larry Miller, a convinced Friend, lives in New Britain, Pa., with his wife, Carol. A graduate of Antioch College and Chicago Theological Seminary, he was a conscientious objector in civilian public service camps during World War II. He served as the general secretary of Friends General Conference for 17 years. In later years, he served the American Friends Service Committee in India, on the Middle East and Asia desks, and as chairperson of the Quaker United Nations Program. He chaired the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of FGC and was the only FGC delegate to the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya. He has published a biography of Clarence E. Pickett, Witness for Humanity.