Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Quaker Child Can't Escape the Silence

Silence was what drew me back to Quakerism after a long time away from meeting.

Quakerism as I've experienced it is about as no-frills as it gets.  "Friends" as they call themselves (as in Religious Society of...) sit in silence and wait.  When the Spirit moves someone to speak, she or he stands and talks. That's it. Occasionally a whole Meeting for Worship will pass in which no one is prompted to speak.  At the end, a key person shakes hands with the person next to him, and the handshake spreads around the room.  Now let's go get some coffee.

The process is hard to write about, because waiting in active silence involves no stuff-- no liturgy, music, ceremony, ritual--though the format being the same, week after week, is a kind of ritual--instead it involves a deep, corporate listening.  When I started writing fiction, I realized that my words and stories came from the same inner silence that, despite the tedium, must have impressed something on me in those First Day (Sunday) meetings as a child, and in mid-week meetings at school.

Though meeting at school tended to be more lively.  In high school, for weeks my friends and I discussed the possibility of one of us sitting next to the Head of School, and at the handshake, offering him a rubber severed hand complete with bloody stump.  Then there was the laughing fit that seized my friend L. and me in 7th grade. We were ushered out of meeting and made to hang out on the porch, which turned out to be boringer than the meeting.

Apparently, the word mystic derives from a Greek word that carries a meaning of silence.  If nothing else, mystics hunger for God, and they tend to do it in quiet.  As for me, the more words I accumulated in writing, the more I began to hunger for silence.  George Fox, the original Quaker, is reported to have held a silence  at a meeting where he was presumably the main event, "for some famish them from words."

To some people it may seem pointless.  That's fine.  But the mind is deeper than the rational part that chooses words and arguments. That's my experience, anyway.

Here's a book about it., by Brent Bill. Which I admit I haven't read. But the cover is nice.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quakers and modesty: Hustle, hustle? Horrors!

For years, I had trouble saying my own name.  If anyone asked me, I hid behind my untrimmed teenage  hair as if I'd forgotten it.  They had to tease "Helen" out of me, or, sometimes, new acquaintances just gave up.

I'm not saying that being raised Quaker caused me to stumble over what felt like announcing myself in flashing neon lights.  But the Quaker emphasis on modesty, while praiseworthy in itself--who likes arrogantly religious people?--bears looking into.

Having lived in Philadelphia all my life, I'm no longer surprised by how little even Philadelphia natives know about Quakerism.  "Do the women wear those little net caps?" No.  "Aren't they terribly conservative?" Well, yes and no.  Not politically, anyway. Not in Philadelphia.

Why is it that in the American Vatican City of Quakerism, so few people know about us?  My subjective feeling is that it's due to Quaker modesty: Quakers are very uncomfortable with anything that smacks of 'self-promotion,' and they keep an incredibly low profile.  They founded the first humane mental hospitals and prisons, they pioneered progressive education.  But beware advertising that fact.

--No wonder there are so few Quakers, my cynical side carps.

Or maybe my snarky attitude is merely a reflection of my Quaker family of origin.  We were so proud of our modesty: I remember a close family member huffing about the "hubris" that my father-in-law exhibited by putting a so-called 'vanity' plate on his car that showed the name of the company where he happened to be president.  Who was more prideful, really?

The truth is, you can't escape hubris.  At least one well-regarded Quaker school refuses to put 'honorifics' in its family address book: No "Dr." or "Rev.", etc. Just first and last names of the parents. But--in the faculty section, you can read where everyone went to college and where who got their PhD. In the very competitive realm of college-prep-school-admissions, prospective parents who get hold of the address book will surely check out which teachers went to Harvard.

Eileen Flanagan is the Quaker author of a wonderful book about the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference.  I have read the book twice.  I don't generally like self-help books, but this one has sparked some significant and wonderful changes in my life. I highly recommend it.

In her blog, Eileen talks about the tension between the need to promote the book and the Quaker value of modesty: I've been giving many talks lately, and I can't help but notice that most Quaker meetings haven't bothered to post my coming event on their websites. I haven't complained about this because I don't want to seem overly interested in self-promotion, though I see promoting my talk as an opportunity to tell people in the community that there is a Quaker meeting doing something that at least some people will find interesting. Almost every community has at least one website or Twitter group that announces local events, but Quakers rarely seem to make use of these, let alone submit information about themselves to the newspaper, which is usually quite easy.

In my view, this is a little sad.  People could be helped by this book. Potentially, lives could change.  And we're hiding the information?

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Here's a poem from Bone China, my poetry chapbook:


Where a thousand shadows fell
on a great scourged stone
forgotten, tongues whisper
oh, all the sorrow--
spent cartridges, rain, bruises
a hand in a ditch, silence,
the year after, feathers,
thoughts of sinking, the hard
decisions of small children--
from shadow mouths
grow flowers
white roots in rock

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Race: Not a Level Playing Field

Recently I was talking with another white person about race. I mentioned the study discussed in my last post, which demonstrates that white prejudice against black males is a factor in job hiring in New York City.  That part of the conversation went fine.  But we went on to discuss prejudice in our own neighborhood. In us.

Immediately, my friend got defensive.  "People of color do that, too," she insisted.  "They can be just as racist as anyone."  That argument is called "Parallelism".   Parallelism suggests that the playing field is level. The blue team can commit a foul, so can the red team.  I think it's erroneous.  Here's how the blog Resist Racism puts it: "An experience you have as a white person that you think is similar to an experience related by a person of color is not a valid proof that racism doesn't exist."

Here's an extreme example of parallelism:  In Germany in the late 1930s and early 40's, Jews didn't trust Germans.  Germans didn't trust the Jews, either.  But in those days, Europe was hardly a level playing field.

No, I am not saying that for people of color, America today might as well be Nazi Germany. And I'm not saying that people of color can't be prejudiced against white people.

But if we're willing to admit that "racism against people of color still exists out there in our society"--and most white people are--we also must take an additional step. Where is it in my life? In my neighborhood? In my heart?  My white friend's defensive attitude posed the question:  Are you accusing ME of being racist?  No. But we need to talk about race.  We need to examine our attitudes, because to avoid the race issue proves my point.  Who can afford to ignore racism against people of color?  Who can pretend it doesn't exist?  Only those who aren't affected by it.  It's called white privilege.