Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

All Sacred

After speculating about the “what if’s” of war prevention last week, I’m now focused on a different kind of what if—the averted tragedy. While sitting at the dining room table with my daughter yesterday afternoon, I literally watched a huge tree limb peel off of the trunk like a band-aid. It stretched from our neighbor’s yard, across our garden fence diagonally, also filling the ally that runs behind the houses and the yard of the third house in the row. It just missed the car of the fourth neighbor. More importantly, there were no kids playing in the ally, as is often the case in summer. There were no cars driving down the ally, no one doing yard work. In short, we were all very lucky. In fact, I had been just about to open our kitchen windows, which would have been sliced off had I not gotten distracted by my daughter’s craft project. As it is, the tree tips are pressed up against the kitchen window like a green shade.

There is something about this sort of surprise that brings life into sharp focus. I could feel my adrenaline as I called the phone and electric companies to figure out which lines were down. Only one neighbor’s phone line is out, and the phone company seems in no hurry to fix it, overwhelmed as they are by all the other phone lines that have been downed by trees this summer. On the bright side, the neighbors have come together, offering help to the woman without a phone. The owners of the tree happen to be away, but that too is a blessing. Had they been here, our kids and theirs would likely have been in the ally.

The spiritual challenge for me this morning is to be present without getting anxious when more things to do suddenly get added to my list. For example, before getting the kids out the door to camp this morning, I was trying to figure out how to get the pictures from my camera onto my computer and then up to a web site that I couldn’t remember my user name for so that they could be seen by my vacationing neighbors. In the midst of it, my daughter wanted a bit of my attention, and my son wanted to discuss the DS games he’d like to own, which was the thing that made me snap at both of them to leave me alone. Afterwards I thought of the play Our Town, which Tom and I saw this summer. In the third act, a woman who has just died gets to come back and observe a day of her life. The other deceased of the town warn her not to do it, but she goes and observes her 12th birthday. She realizes how hurried her mother is, how even in doing the birthday preparations, she isn’t really seeing and appreciating her daughter, who (as the audience knows) won’t be there forever. I bawled through the whole scene; it was much too close to home. So as I speak to the insurance company on the phone tonight—something that really does need to be done—the trick will be to be present to all the needs around me. I’m finding it helpful to remember an interaction this weekend at Pendle Hill, where I was leading an Inquirer’s Weekend (a very good experience, by the way). I needed help with some equipment on Sunday morning, and a staff member went to take care of it right before worship. When I later apologized because she missed worship to help me, she replied, “It’s all sacred.” It was clear she really meant it, and we later talked about the importance of caring for other people with attention and love, even in the mundane details.

I tend to forget that the mundane details are sacred too, but the fallen tree reminds me that appreciating the fragility of life and taking care of life’s little details are both important and need to be integrated.

Monday, July 21, 2008


After promoting my friend Signe Wilkinson last blog post, she repaid the favor by sending me this challenge from New York Post writer Ralph Peters:
Please, educate me: In over 5,000 years of more or less recorded history, how many tyrannies have been overthrown by noble sentiments? How many genocides have been averted by reasonable discussions? How many wars have been prevented by Quakers?
“Maybe your blogger fan base would like to mull on this one,” wrote Signe, who later said that most of the other Quakers she sent this to “reacted as if I'd dropped radio active waste on their toes.”

Well, I’m on a plane that was just diverted from Philadelphia to Raleigh/Durham, so I have a few spare minutes to ponder Peters’ questions. I couldn’t find the full article online, but in this quote the author seems to imply two assumptions: Quakers and other peace activists must not have prevented any wars if Peters doesn’t know about them; and if wars have not been prevented in the past, then peace work is pointless or worse. Let’s take these one at a time before acknowledging the valid challenge behind the author’s questions.

First, wars that never happened don’t make headlines, so it’s hard to count them. Still, there have been plenty of times when violent conflict was avoided by wise leaders who did not assume that violence was inevitable. I recently heard a wonderful account of an Archbishop in Sri Lanka who prevented an inter-religious massacre by sending his priests to sit quietly in front of the shops of the people who were about to be attacked. The angry mob, unwilling to attack the motionless priests, turned around and went home. (Citations for this story would be welcome.) In terms of Quaker history, William Penn comes to mind for successfully avoiding war with the Native Americans for seventy years, something no other American colony managed. Penn’s “Holy Experiment,” Pennsylvania, was also spared the witch trials that plagued Massachusetts, as well as the hanging of people of minority faiths that occurred in New England. Many of Penn’s ideas (though not his attitude toward Native Americans) later influenced the US Constitution. Had the value of religious liberty and tolerance not been established by Quakers in Pennsylvania, might our new nation have ended up more like Europe, where much blood has been shed over religion? Who is to say how many wars Penn avoided? There is no way to count what didn’t happen. We can only imagine.

Here are a few other unanswerable questions: What if Gandhi had not lived? What kind of bloodbath might the Indian War for Independence have been? Although it’s impossible to prove, it’s easy to imagine that the alternative to the Gandhi-influenced Indian National Congress would have been something more like the Irish Republican Army or the Mau Mau. For that matter, how much more violence would have occurred during the US civil rights struggle without the influence of Gandhi’s ideas via Quaker Bayard Rustin?

Speaking of the Indian National Congress leads me to its cousin, the African National Congress—an organization that used non-violent tactics from 1913 to 1960, partly influenced by Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa. The fact that the ANC eventually gave up peaceful protest might at first seem to support Ralph Peters’ implication that non-violence is futile, but I disagree. In the end, what saved South Africa from full-scale, bloody civil war was the fact that Mandela and de Klerk both recognized the futility of all the violence that had gone before and chose a different course. Although Quakers were not the major players, their involvement was significant enough to merit a book.

The length of the struggle in South Africa could also be used to argue for the pointlessness of peace work, but again I disagree. Susan B. Anthony never cast a single vote. Does that make her work for suffrage pointless? Were the seventeenth century abolitionists wrong, just because they didn’t live to see slavery’s end? Perhaps future generations will admire the foresight and faithfulness of today’s peace makers the way we admire those abolitionists. Or maybe not.

Despite my belief in being faithful in the face of short-term failure, I have to admit that Ralph Peters does have a point, which may explain the radioactive reaction Signe received when she forwarded his questions. Our many vigils and letters to the editor did not stop George Bush’s reckless plunge into Iraq, and the consequences have been horrendous. So we peacemakers are left with clever bumper stickers and a troubling question: does what we are doing today matter? Or put another way, isn’t it a bad sign that I had to dust off William Penn to find a concrete example of a Quaker who prevented war?

Yes, it is a bad sign, and yes our work still matters, or at least some of it does. I would argue that some of our projects are more effective than others, and that effectiveness is important when the stakes are so high. (See a previous blog post for more on effectiveness.) In general, I am proud of our Quaker organizations, like FCNL, which has been involved in direct discussions with religious leaders in Iran, and AFSC, which continues to use the Eyes Wide Open exhibit to bring home the human cost of war. I’m sure there are also many individuals and meetings doing good work, though from my perspective we average Quakers look pretty demoralized, as if we’ve given up on the hope of being effective and have instead put our hope in a new president (though neither of the major candidates are pacifists). One bumper sticker symbolizes the problem: “Wake me up on 01-20-2009,” says the sticker in large print, with a small, faint qualifier beneath, “if there is anyone left alive.” I don’t know how many Quakers are sporting these, but it doesn’t seem that far off from how many of us feel, myself included. I recall having a button in the eighties that said “Wearing buttons is not enough.” It’s still true, though I can’t quite imagine what would be enough at this point.

Perhaps a failure of imagination is our main problem, both for peace activists and for columnists such as Peters. I often think of the resources that the US government puts into West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy, institutions devoted to training future military leaders. Imagine if the US government devoted equivalent resources to training young people in diplomacy and international conflict resolution. How many wars might such leaders prevent? We can only imagine.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Supporting Each Other

I am basking in the warm glow of community and friendship this week. In the aftermath of Gathering, it has been nice connecting (online and in person) with people I met there. Natural Mom—an online friend who came to my parenting interest group—wrote a wonderful post about how supported she felt there with two children, one of whom had to visit the emergency room. There is nothing like community.

My good feeling about community has continued through the week. Tuesday night I had the second meeting of my support/anchor committee. (This is a Quaker tradition for people who often travel or lead workshops to make sure they are grounded, supported, and held accountable.) I was touched by the effort it took for five women who live in far-flung neighborhoods to meet on a week night, especially for the host and cook. I felt encouraged to offer my skills a little more assertively, rather than just waiting for work to come to me, which is what I have been doing. Stepping out of my comfort zone feels right for where I am right now.

During the course of the evening, someone mentioned that one of our group members, political cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, recently won a prestigious award, but everyone was too discreet to say which one. (She’s already the first woman cartoonist to win a Pulitzer.) Then it came out that Signe is going to be a speaker at a comics convention in San Diego this month where she is billed as “edgy middle-aged white woman humor!” I don’t know how many of you may be in San Diego July 24-25, but any chance to hear Signe is a treat. The fact that this news was slipped into the conversation by someone else made me think about how awkward many of us (women especially?) feel announcing our accomplishments, even to those who would want to hear about them. So for the rest of this post I am going to shamelessly promote my artistic friends, in the conviction that community is about supporting one another and that in a world where crappy creations are often well advertised, it is actually a community service to tell readers about the cool stuff my friends are doing.

My writers group is always a source of inspiration. In the last few months, Lori Tharps (our foundress and “cruise director”) has published her memoir Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain about being a Black American who finds love and some interesting history in Spain; Eleanor Stanford has published The Book of Sleep, a collection of poetry about motherhood and other adventures; Miriam Peskowitz has come out with her sequel The Pocket Daring Book for Girls: Things to Do and Jude Ray has premiered her film Traces of the Trade a documentary about the descendants of the largest slave trading family in the United States and their attempts to grapple with their family’s legacy. In a few months, child psychologist Tamar Chansky's book will be out, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness, and there is more on the way from this amazing and prolific group of women!

Although finding all those links has worn me out and used up much of my writing time for today, I want to add a few things about my writer’s group. First, we are not a group that gets together to critique each other’s writing, though those types of groups can be very helpful, especially to people starting out. We get together about once a month to support, encourage, and learn from one another. Some nights we just go around the table “checking in” which has been known to take hours. Other nights we have a guest speaker or one of us designated to cover a particular topic of interest to professional writers. Sometimes just hearing other people’s experiences with the publishing world can be helpful and encouraging. And that’s another thing—we are really encouraging of one another, despite a wide range in the kind of work we do and the kind of remuneration we’ve received for it. I’m very grateful to Lori for finding us all and getting us together, though I know some self-interest was at work in it, which is the final point I’d like to make about supporting each other. We each have need of community, as well as something to contribute. If Lori hadn’t realized that being new to town and an extrovert she needed to find other writers to connect with, none of us would have been up to 11:30 last night talking and laughing at Miriam’s house. As Natural Mom implied in her blog post about Gathering, sometimes putting our needs out there helps us to build community.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


For those of you who don’t know, FGC Gathering is an annual week of Quaker worship, fun and learning that takes place in a different spot every summer. This year it was in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a very reasonable train ride from Philadelphia, which my son and I took, along with scores of other Quakers, while my daughter spent her first week at sleep over camp and my husband stayed home with the dog. My son and I arrived home last night after a very full week of multigenerational community. It’s hard to know where to start to blog about it—I heard so many interesting speakers and had so many experiences, so I’ll just share a few that stand out.

One highlight was the Tribe1 performance on Tuesday night. As some of you know, I taught a course on race in the United States last semester that really drained me emotionally. This concert refilled my cup and renewed my commitment to work that brings people together across the lines that divide us. It also reminded me that sometimes music and joy can help us see our oneness much more effectively than lectures or academic articles. Not sure what that means for my future teaching, but the sight of a multi-racial group of Quaker kids on the stage while adults were doing the conga in the aisle filled me with hope and renewed energy.

Another highlight was meeting several bloggers in person. A few organized a blogger dinner, and Chris M took a wonderful picture, which I have been shamelessly and unsuccessfully trying to copy for half an hour on the assumption that he would forgive me as long as I credited him. He also posted links to the blogs of people he met at Gathering, which is helpful because I’m eager to read how everyone else’s week went, especially after meeting them in person.

I also enjoyed leading an interest group on Parenting as a Spiritual Path. Carolyn Schodt from my meeting came as an elder and companion, something I had never asked for before, and I appreciated her loving presence, as well as the perspective of someone whose children are long grown. Some of the parents were in the thick of baby and toddler care, with the same questions I was asking a few years ago, like, “Is this ever going to get easier?” It was good for me to realize that, at least for me, it really has gotten easier. Still, it is always good to connect with other parents and share about our spiritual lives. I had promised the group that I would end early, since everyone had to go pick up kids from Junior Gathering, but after our closing prayer circle, people sat and talked another fifteen minutes, which I took as confirmation that parents appreciate the chance to talk about their struggles with one another. Not sure where this will go from here, but it was a good experience.

One of the most moving parts of Gathering this year for me was the story told by Amanda Kemp during the final performances of the storytelling workshop. She brought to life the famous (to Quakers) story of John Woolman's troubled conscience when, as a young white sales clerk in the seventeenth century, he was asked to write up a bill of sale for a slave. Amanda told the story from the perspective of the slave, Hannah, who prayed for young John during her own sale. Knowing that Woolman went on to become an important abolitionist made the story hopeful and inspiring, rather than depressing. Rereading my description now, I realize I can't quite convey the feeling of it, which is another reminder that art is sometimes more powerful than words.

On a personal level, it was great to see old friends and make a few new ones, including Amanda. My son had a blast as well and wants us to go again next year, which sounds good to me.

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