Sunday, January 31, 2010


A friend commented on Facebook on my last post, (which was about Quakers and plain dress).  "But clothing is alive!!" 

No response could have pleased me more.  I have a vaguely articulated theory that any art form--and I include human adornment--is like a vessel which the artist lifts up, up, up to try to scoop something of eternal weight from the sky.

The imagination and the spiritual paddle their fingers in the alive-ness of non-tangible things.  Religion comments on the morality of the non-tangible.  The realm of the imagination is like the old myth of the American Wild West--shocking things, even horrifying things can happen there, but different versions of that myth are embedded, for better or worse, in the American heart.

When I was a child, reading fiction was not consciously encouraged. It was viewed more like bread, as a non-tangible but essential kind of food. My brother and I walked home from the bus stop after school with noses in our books, half-aware of the cars speeding alongside.

My favorite books were fanstasies: The wonderful stories of E. Nesbit. A gem called A Traveller in Time, about a contemporary young girl who has an adventure with Mary Queen of Scots.  Harriet the Spy wasn't a fantasy, but Harriet goes around Manhatten spying on people and writing their imagined stories in her notebook. A fictional character generates fictions about other fictional characters, stoking my desire to be as daring as she is.  Is that so different from time-travel? 

I believed in what I called "magic."  An Amazon reviewer of A Traveller in Time writes: "It's hard to believe that the author has not actually visited the 16th century in person."  When I was ten and we visited Westminster Abbey in England, I decided that the sixpence in my pocket was magical.  It helped that the Abbey was a spooky, dark place.  Lagging behind my family, I touched the coin and wished with all my might to go back in history, somewhere, anywhere--and, in order to give the magic all the leeway it might require, I humbly granted that it would be fine even I returned to the ordinary world a split second after I vanished, with no memory of where I'd been.

Maybe it was jet lag.  But I knew--I knew--that in the next moment, I was not standing as close to an old stone tomb as I had been half a breath ago.  I couldn't see my family. I felt dizzy, disoriented. 

Then elated. It had been granted to me, and I kept the journey secret. Even now, in the rare moments when I can slip into my old, child's mind, I'm ready to believe that animals can talk (C.S. Lewis), that time is elastic (Garcia Marquez), and that yes, even clothing might be alive.  Which means that metaphors aren't really "like" something else. They are as real as I am, as real as the mind.

(If I knew how to post clean, short links to these books, I would.  Otherwise my friend Mr. Google can help you out.)

Monday, January 25, 2010


The early Quakers (17th Century) didn't necessarily decide ahead of time to look like the guy on the Quaker Oats box, but they emphasised equality among the classes, shunned personal vanity for spiritual benefit, and tried to live simply.  This led to a pare-down of color and ornamentation.  Over time, fashions changed and Quaker clothing became more distinctive by contrast.  Until, for a while, plain dress was more or less a requirement for  faithful Friends.
I've always loved the nuances of brown and grey. 

Marguerite d'Angeli's sweet book, Thee, Hannah, is the story of a little girl in early Philadelphia who inwardly rebels against her odd, dull Quaker clothes. She's jealous of her her friend next door who dresses in bright silks and wears flowers on her bonnet. Hannah's epiphany comes when an escaped slave woman with a sick child sees Hannah and calls softly for help from her hiding place--she has identified the little girl as a "Friend" by the bonnet she wears.  The story conveys the urgency and danger of the rescue operation as Hannah's parents take the woman in, nurse her child, and see them smuggled on their final journey to freedom.  In the last scene, Hannah's bonnet feels "light and beautiful...She looked up at Mother with the Inner Light shining through her eyes." 

There are still some Quakers today who wear plain dress--in some cases they have developed an up-to-date interpretation so they don't appear to be in costume.  Others consciously look like old--fashioned Quakers.  Probably there's no better illustration of the concept 'fashion statement' than you get from perusing Jane's links!  When you consider the realities of economic injustice, it makes sense to pay attention to whether or not your clothing was created in a sweatshop-or worse. 

In my Quaker childhood in Philadelphia, traditional plain dress was a dim, quaint memory.  The bonnet I keep in a box on my closet shelf was handed down from a great-Aunt to my mother, and from her to me...It's a relic. You couldn't sweat or chase kids in it without wrecking it, and even though it was a special 'dress' bonnet, I think dressy occasions today are more strenuous than they were in 1840. For one thing, we dance at weddings.

But like Hannah, as a Quaker child, I was jealous of another little girl.  However, Ruthie was a Quaker.  She was a black girl with long, wavy hair, a doctor father, and an elegant mother who wore red suits and bright lipstick.  I put on my good coat and gloves for meeting, but Ruthie wore outfits--her hats matched her coats, she had enviable patent leather shoes, and dressy dresses. She snapped into a whole that eluded me.  If she went to First Day meeting looking so special, why couldn't I? 

Ruth's mother had grown up going to church, my mother told me, and in that culture, dressing up was part of the package.  We were Quakers of longstanding.  End of story. 

Damn.  But Quakerism is nothing if it's not flexible. My Quaker school dropped its dress code when I was in 7th grade--no more mandatory skirts.  We favored hiking boots, Indian cotton tops, and for dress, minis and platform shoes.  My untrimmed hair looked chewed. I paired hiking boots with an Indian cotton dress; thrift shopping was in vogue.  My father was horrified to see me in denim overalls--where he came from, a sign of abject poverty. But this was the early 70's--we privileged white kids wanted to look poor...and I at least believed that the revolution in fashion was part of the wave of change that would make society less hidebound, more just, more equal...forever.

Now you can buy ripped jeans at Nordstrom, and the kids at my daughter's Quaker school sometimes pair Ugg boots with Ed Hardy handbags that borrow imagery from graffitti artists and the Grateful Dead.  It's an age of Everything-Everywhere, pop culture a purple haze in the air we breathe.

And yes, I love clothes.  I enjoying pairing color, textures, layers. One of my favorite websites:   He celebrates clothing as an expression of the humanity behind it. 

In my fondest dreams, clothing would be alive: We'd don it as an extension of ourselves  rich with communication and personality in a way our mere physical features could never be: who cares whether one's legs are long or short, how tall we are...--But the print on that scarf  moves and whispers with invisible presences!

Maybe, even though my wardrobe is varied and brightly colored, in saying this I am not terribly far off from what the early Quakers believed...that a flame of silk could be, in an ideal world, a flame of Spirit.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Racism, it seems, is a Sleeping Monster.

An excerpt from a interview with Shankar Vedantam. Vedantam, science writer for the Washington Post, speaks about his book The Hidden Brain.

Thomas Rogers:  You spend a considerable amount of the book explaining how the hidden brain affects the way we think about race -- and suggests that racism is deeply embedded in many people's brains.

I don't think racism is hard-wired into the brain; that would suggest we are always bound to be racist. In many cases this mechanism is very functional. If you are persuaded by evolutionary biology, there are strong reasons why we would want to form quick associations. If you were to see one tiger in the wild, it would make sense that you would not want to have repeat encounters with tigers. The brain is very good at extrapolating and generalizing. This may have carried survival value at one point, but now we operate in a more complex world where the quick judgments that once aided us may now imperil us.

I think the brain does have that unconscious mechanism, but what those associations end up being are shaped by culture, personal histories and whom we choose to associate with. The fact that many Americans have a race bias against Africans and African-Americans isn't because of biology. It's because of culture...

...the hidden brain doesn't always learn what it's taught to learn. We can consciously teach people that certain attitudes are right or wrong, but that does little to alter the hidden brain. It's a much dumber system that learns much more through repetition and blind argument and making associations. When you're watching television, for example, the hidden brain is watching who is being shown in positions of authority. It's not something you need to think about on a conscious level. By the time a child is 1 or 2 or 3 or 4, he or she has seen thousands of these kinds of associations.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"The Sermon We Ignore"

My friend John Timpane wrote a terrific op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  He says it better than I could:

I was in sixth grade at a Quaker school in Philadelphia when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were shot.  I had never heard of Dr. King. I had seen Kennedy on TV and had a notion that he was running for President, but I thought his more famous brother was better-looking.  My teacher, Mr. Miller, put up a photo of each man in the classroom. I thought Dr. King was better looking than Bobby Kennedy.  Maybe I had gazed too long at the photos of the Beatles in my bedroom--same full-on, life-sized faces as these--and this is why I responded to these as celebrity photos, or maybe the fact that the men had been murdered was simply incomprehensible.  I don't remember Mr. Miller talking about the assassinations, but he must have, because after that I thought I knew about Dr. King.

One Friday afternoon after we were dismissed, I ran back into the empty classroom to get something out of my desk. Mr. Miller was still there.  I remember him sitting at his desk with his chin in his hand, thinking deeply. The photos of King and Kennedy looked down on him.  I tiptoed in, feeling I had interrupted an adult almost naked in his vulnerability.  Mr. Miller told me to get what I needed, but he looked tired, and he didn't smile.

I was sure his demeanor had to do with the killing of two men whose importance I sensed but could not articulate.  Later I told my friends, "Mr. Miller was PRAYING."  

One thing this tells you is that Quaker families do not necessarily talk about social issues.  Mine didn't.  Quakers have a reputation for being at the forefront of social change, and those of us who weren't probably enjoy sharing the Light (so to speak) with those who were.  Of course we do.  It feels good to think of oneself as on the side of morality.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


I read James Baldwin's novel Go Tell It On the Mountain when I was maybe 12 or 13, still tied to my mother and father. Did I have to read it for school? I think not--I automatically hated most required books. I don't remember much of it, except that Baldwin's portrayal of the inner life of a sensitive kid dominated by a preacher father made me feel less alone with my aloneness in my own family, which was in most respects very different. The other thing I remember was the ending. I may have put a gloss on the story that isn't there, but I recall feeling relieved when the boy, John, finally succumbs to the pressure his father has been exerting; at the end of a protracted war with this powerhouse of a preacher man, John gives in, falls in, fits in, and rises up in his father's image as a boy preacher--Hallelujah!

This was a relief.  In my 12-year-old mind I assumed that John's boat had at last landed on  a sheltered familial shore, where he would dance in Pentecostal fervor for the rest of his life. Then I guess I moved on to some other book. A year or two later I jumped off the family cliff into my own massive rebellion, but at that time, I still craved safety.

Now I am reading Baldwin's wonderful short story collection, Going to Meet the Man. Oh, there's so much I realize I didn't know. Consider this from a black character: "All the white people Louisa has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted; could not, could not, afford to hear a truth which would shatter, irrevocably, their image of themselves. It is astonishing the lengths to which a person...will go in order to avoid a truthful mirror."

A healthy 12-year-old needs simple moral categories: The world in Black and White, if you will.  The truth is that adults, families, entire cultures, will go to 'astonishing lengths' to maintain a comforting image of who they are, morally speaking.  For example, I think that for my family, having books by James Baldwin and Malcolm X lying around the house shed a liberal aura that 'proved' our own racial attitudes were just fine, thank you.

This description of white people as needing to be 'consoled' by black people was probably not new to most of Baldwin's black readers. For me, it's a new light on something I have sensed but never consciously noticed.  Slavery Was Awful, Jim Crow Almost as Bad, and we whites are hyper-anxious about being pegged as any kind of racist.  We are so sensitive about it, in fact, that a lot of us will more or less avoid black people, except in controlled situations such as work environments. This is ironic, considering that most of us don't believe in segregation. My contention is that in order to really come to terms with what it means to be white in America, we have to be willing to make dumb mistakes.  I myself have said truly idiotic things to black friends in the process of grappling with the whole mess of American racial history...(Perhaps the most stinging discomfort is to feel like a fool).

"Hi, I'm Helen.  You don't think I'm racist, do you? By the way, can you wash your hair when it's all braided like that?"  No, I never said that.  But I might as well have. 

You gotta laugh.  I hope James Baldwin would find me amusing.