Category Archives: Stories-Quaker

Thoughts on Quaker Storytelling: A Crucial Art & Witness


Renewing the 
Art and Witness
of Quaker Storytelling

Let’s talk about storytelling, specifically Quaker storytelling. To do this right, I’ll also tell a couple of stories before I’m finished; that will come in due time.

While good storytelling is entertaining and fun, I believe it is also important, serious religious business. I think this is especially true for a group like the Religious Society of Friends. This goes for Friends of all ages, not just the kids in First Day School and the adults who teach them. It’s also important – very important – for our outreach, and our witness, including peace witness. The stories we create and preserve and enact and pass on are very significant parts of our personal and communal lives.

For a religious community, stories have a great deal to do with establishing and preserving their identity as a people. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Exodus, for instance, when God tells Moses to paint blood on the doorposts so the angel of death will pass over the firstborn sons of the Hebrews, God also commands him to make the remembrance and telling of the Passover story a perpetual tradition among the people.

A Seder plate, which summarizes the story this annual ritual re-enacts.

That defining story of calling and liberation is still retold by Jews, some 3000+ years later, every spring at their annual Seder ceremonies.

Many scholars and sages say that the maintenance of this tradition has had much to do with the survival of the Jewish people through their long, often difficult history, and I think they’re right. And of course for Christians a few days later there’s the story of Easter, which has at its heart the retelling of the equally defining gospel narrative about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But why do I say storytelling is particularly important for Quakers?

A World War Two CO sketch

To get an answer, let me tell a brief story. We’ve just seen in the case of the Passover and Easter how stories can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But this one is about how stories can die: I found that out talking to an older Friend who had been part of a very exciting and important protest action by Conscientious Objectors during World War Two.

I was very eager to talk to him about this protest; I had seen brief secondhand accounts: a group of COs assigned to a big Cleveland mental hospital discovered widespread abusive care and management corruption there. When they blew the whistle internally, they were threatened with jail. But they stood their ground, and . . . .

These snippets were stunning. And this Friend, I learned in the early 1990s, had actually been a participant in the Cleveland action; his “testimony” would be firsthand, full –I hoped– of the kind of details that enrich retellings. I couldn’t wait.

Finally the day came to interview him. He welcomed me with a big smile, I set my tape recorder turning — and soon found he had forgotten everything about his Cleveland experience. Everything except that, in his words, “. . . it was really something.” (This was his entire account, verbatim.)

I said this was a story; but in the passage of fifty years, it had shrunk to a tantalizing, incomplete anecdote.  It confirms George Fox’s early charge to us to “let your lives speak.” Lives like the one of Cleveland and those of many other exceptional Friends can speak for generations, principally through the stories we remember and tell about them. But the stories of even the bravest witness can also die.

(For many summers at my yearly meeting, Baltimore, we interspersed business with reflective reading of memorial minutes, telling of the lives of Friends who have died in the previous year; these times, when lives that are mostly otherwise unheralded can preach, have been for me some of the most moving and instructive moments of our sessions.)

It’s also important to point out that Friends are a people of limited resources: We do not have huge numbers; we do not have vast wealth; and we do not have many members in places of power to protect us with the arm of the state (and when we do, they often end up, as in the case of Richard Nixon, more a problem than an asset.)

Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison

But there is one thing with which Friends are plentifully endowed, and that is good stories. From Fox on Pendle Hill, to Mary Fisher facing the Sultan; from John Woolman visiting the Indians unarmed, to Elizabeth Fry going alone into the stinking prisons of England; even that of the defiant Cleveland COs (think of your own favorites….)

“Popeye the Quaker Man” — a short-lived a short-lived promo for oatmeal; First Day school protest killed him off. Srsly.

Many of these stories reflect the fact that when Friends have most faithfully been Friends, and borne our Friends’ testimonies, this faithfulness has often enough been misunderstood, or has gotten us into trouble. Even today, if we don’t face overt persecution, our heritage and witness are typically ignored by the larger culture, and misunderstood or distorted when they are recognized. (Does anybody here remember “Popeye the Quaker Man”?)

Thus it is important for us to find and preserve and tell our own stories, because at bottom, Quaker stories are countercultural, even many based on our readings of the Bible and other ancient sources: in key respects they run across or against the grain of establishment religions and culture, and their stories.

The best Quaker stories can still be countercultural today, even if most American Friends are nondescript middle-class in our way of life, and the government isn’t currently hunting us down as abominable heretics.

The U.S. Military understands the power of stories – in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, the Army has built a large Airborne museum, to tell (and shape) stories of 80 years airborne and special forces warfare. As I have learned, this museum (and the 300+ other war museums in the U.S.) is not only, or even mainly about the past: not really. It is more about shaping how Americans think of and visualize the past – and apply what they think to the future. (Quick quiz: after 300-plus years of American Quaker peace work, how many PEACE museums are there in the U.S., telling a story that challenges those of the War Museums? Hint: the answer is less than three.)

Romance? “The dissolute Duke of Jervaulx is brilliant at both seduction and writing scientific papers — which he does with a blind Quaker mathematician. But when he’s left speechless and straitjacketed by a stroke, it’s up to the mathematician’s daughter, Maddy Timms, to see that there’s still a man inside the restraints — and to reconcile her Quaker faith with her growing love.”

I’m hardly the first Friend to discover the value and plentitude of our stories; and not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition of Quaker storytelling, mainly in print. Early Friends used stories of the persecution they faced in efforts to persuade kings and governors to end it, often with much success. And once the Society was accepted and settled into the quietist period, Friends used stories to pass on and reinforce Quaker values and practices to their children.

To show you what I mean about how early stories are different, I’m going to reproduce here a story from the oldest Quaker storybook I could find at the Friends Historical Library, a volume entitled, Piety Promoted. It was published in 1802, deep in the Quietist era, and some of the stories are considerably older. The 1802 volume was popular, and was followed by numerous successor volumes

This story is the first in that book, and it was meant to be read to children eight and nine years old. I ask that you listen to the story as if you were hearing it with two different ears–one the ear of a child to whom it was read, and the other the ear of a parent who wanted to read it. And ask yourselves, What were the parents saying in this story? And what were the children hearing?

Here’s the story.

(NOTE: This is the complete text, but I have broken up the original paragraphing into shorter blocks, and inserted a word in a few places for clarity. The story has no title.)

Mary Post, daughter of Benjamin Post, and Elizabeth his wife, of London, was of a tender spirit, sober behavior, religiously inclined, and a lover of plainness in habit and speech, and kept to it; but a disliker of pride and finery in apparel.

When she was but about eight years of age, being at a neighbor’s house who desired her company (being solid and grave) and had a daughter about fifteen years of age, who loved her, and to whom this child said, ‘Anna, what signify these fine things thou hast on, they will not carry thee to heaven?’

To which Anna answered, ‘Pride is not in the things, it is in the heart.’

To which [Mary Post] replied, ‘But if your minds were not proud, you would not wear them.’

She also said to her mother, that she much wondered at the great pride she observed in some young ones who professed the truth, adding, ‘I hope I shall never be like them.’

Her mother thereupon said to her, ‘I hope thou wilt never be like them; but be an orderly child, that thou mayst be in favour with God.’

At which [Mary] wept, and said, ‘If I should love fine things, I must alter much: what signify fine things when folks come to die?’

Hearing some boys in the street taking God’s name in vain, she said, ‘They take God’s name in vain enough to frighten one.’ On a certain occasion she said, she should delight to go to meetings.

The day before she was taken ill, her mother sending her out on an errand, and her brother being newly come out of the country, she desired him to go with her, which he refused; at which she stood by him awhile, and then with a solid countenance said, ‘Wilt thou not go with me? It may be, the next time thou comest up, thou mayest not have a sister to go with,’ as if she had a sense of her death.

And in that sickness she often said, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, give me a little ease;’ and lifting up her hands, repeated such like expressions, and said: ‘I had rather die than live; through mercy I am not afraid to die; I shall go to rest, were I shall feel no more pain.’

Her mother, standing mourning by her, the child looking upon her said, ‘Mother, do not cry, let us be contented; the Lord can lay me low, and he can raise me again; if I were dead he can raise me again.’ Then she repeated, as before, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, or convenient, give me a little ease;’ and seemed earnest to die and go to rest.

Her mother said to her, My dear, why art thou so earnest to die? The Lord can ease thee of thy pain, and give thee life.’

She answered, ‘One must once die, and if I recover, I must, or may, be sick again; and I had rather die while I am young. If I should live til I am older, the devil may tempt me to be naught[y], and I might offend the Lord. I am no afraid to die; through mercy I shall go to my rest: If I live, I am satisfied; and if I die I am satisfied. I am willing to die; I had rather die than live.’

Her mother said, ‘I shall dearly miss thee.’

[Her daughter] replied, ‘I am willing to see my little sister and [my] brother.’

Her mother said she would send for them: ‘but,’ said her mother, ‘if any alteration should be before thy brother come, what wouldst thou say to him?’

[Mary said] she left him the little money she had, and some other things to her father, mother, and two sisters.

Her mother desiring her to take something that was prepared for her, she seemed to refuse and said, ‘What signify doctors and apothecaries, if the Lord please to take one’s life?’

A little before her end, she lamented folks taking pleasure, and not considering the love of God. The last words she was heard to speak were, ‘Dear Lord God Almighty open the door,’ and so sweetly departed this life, the 12th of the Eleventh Month, 1711, aged above eight years.

This story is worth some reflection before we pass on: What did you hear in it? A preoccupation with death and dying? A practical way of coping in a time when many childen died young? An obsessive concern with long-abandoned Quaker “peculiarities”? Middle class Victorian fastidiousness masquerading as religion? A lack of plot?

What does this story tell us about Friends in 1802, or 1711? What do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? Would you be ready to read it to a group of 8-9 year olds in a First Day School class? Why or why not?

(Incidentally, all the other stories in this edition of Piety Promoted and its successor volumes were similar in theme and “plot.”)

In the nineteenth century, John Greenleaf Whittier retold many early Quaker stories in verse. Here is a sample, from one I always liked, “The King’s Missive”:

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

UNDER the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer
In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.

He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag, and cloven the May-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about,
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
Earnest and honest, a man at need
To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed,
He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal
The gate of the holy common weal.

His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.

‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’ . . .

This story tradition has continued into our own time, of which more later.

Many of these early Quaker stories reflect a worldview rather different from our own, and in some ways alien to it. I believe we can find useful food for reflection in such stories, as well as an impetus to consider how we are doing at preserving and telling the Quaker stories of our own time.

There’s no shortage of material. Perhaps the most familiar title is The Friendly Story Caravan, published by Pendle Hill. It has been in print in various editions for more than seventy years. As I have read them, these stories were not all of equal quality; some seemed sentimental; some, I discovered, had actually falsified history in pursuit of making a pious point – not, it must be admitted, a new phenomenon in religious literature.

Even so, these books deserve credit: they told Quaker stories to several generations.

But it seems to me that there’s something of a gap since then. Our storytelling efforts seem to have dwindled in the past generation or two. Where, for instance, are the stories of COs in World War Two – I mean stories which ought to be familiar to most well-informed Friends? Or those of Quaker COs during the Vietnam War – of which I am one? Have any of us heard any of those? And most of us have been told about Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad; but what about the Quaker men and women who took part in the modern civil rights and feminist movements? There were plenty of them; where are their stories?

One story I heard some years ago was told by the woman who lived it, Marion Anderson, a Friend from Michigan. It was hilarious as well as audacious, because it described how she managed to walk right in on a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and give them all antiwar leaflets, much to their surprise.

I’m not talking here only about children’s stories. Adults need these stories too, told in adult formats. Today, adults may need them even more, because we’re so fully immersed in an amnesia-inducing mass media culture. But many of these stories, I’m afraid, are at serious risk of being lost. They are not being told, or even collected. And to lose them , I submit, would be a tragedy, it would mean losing part of our Quaker identity.

I’m not surprised that this is happening; we live in a culture where mass media shout at us constantly, and draw us remorselessly into their orbits. They are designed to keep us fixated, mesmerized, long enough for the marketplace they serve to sell us more and more goods. They work constantly and effectively to drown out and shut out the still, small voices that have something different to say. (And that’s not  even to mention politics.)

Of course, you know all this, so I won’t belabor it. The result is that not only Quaker stories, but the stories and identities of a great many smaller, even somewhat countercultural communities are being eroded, ignored, lost.

The process is analogous to the way species disappear as the rain forests are cut down to make hamburger wrappings. And I believe that those non-mainstream communities which fail to act to discover their own stories, to preserve and tell them, will not long survive, except as museum pieces.

One of several memoirs by Jessamyn West: a classic, in my view.

Fortunately, we have not been entirely without adult storytellers dealing fictionally with recent events; I think of Jan de Hartog’s memorable  trilogy of novels (The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, and The Peculiar People) , Stanley Ellin’s suspense novel Stronghold, the works of Jessamyn West, Daisy Newman’s Kendal series, and mystery novels, one series by Irene Allen, set at my old stomping ground, Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts; and Edith Maxwell, one of whose historical series is set in Whittier’s hometown, and includes the poet as a recurring character.

Feeling as I do, you will not be surprised to learn that, being a writer, I have written a number of Quaker stories, and hope to write more. Some of these stories are aimed at children; but others, including my own two Quaker mystery novels, are very much aimed at adults.

Volume 3 of Edith Maxwell’s historical Quaker mysteries.

But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, Quaker storytelling is too important to be left to Quaker writers, especially novelists. Fiction writers need the true stories as raw material. And in our communities, we shouldn’t always wait until someone is dead before trying to sum up their life preaching in a memorial minute. I hope some among the Friends who might read this, as way opens, will take time to seek out and record the stories that can be found right nearby, in your own meeting community.

Capturing these stories is not really difficult; you don’t have to be a novelist or writer. Here are some suggestions:

Talk to people, especially with a tape recorder in hand. Or while taking detailed notes. Ask lots of questions. Keep listening, and keep asking. Don’t worry about how it sounds; get it down first. Transcribe the tapes if at all possible; audiotape deteriorates faster than paper.

Collect photos, documents, news clippings. Few things are as ephemeral, or as interesting.

Store these collections carefully. If your meeting doesn’t have a safe place for them (and few really do; the top shelf of your Recording Clerk’s closet does NOT count), ask the local historical society, or even your state archive. There are also several fine Quaker libraries with archival collections whose curators would probably be thrilled to have them: I am personally familiar with those at Swarthmore, Haverford, Guilford and Earlham Colleges, and there are others.

Oh yes, perhaps most important–enjoy yourself! Gathering, processing and retelling these stories can and should be fun.

While you’re having your fun, remember that you’re fulfilling a function that is crucial to the long-term health and preservation of your religious community. I hope you will not let the noise and intrusions of mass culture lead you to neglect it.

Adapted from a Workshop at the
Friends Schools Day of Peace, Philadelphia,
Fourth Month 4, 2004

Friends Music Camp Stories #4: Old Plain Peter – The Ghost of Elders Past

Prelude

Before this final camp story, a bit of background. Until 2015, Friends Music Camp gathered at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville in eastern Ohio.

Barnesville is the Mecca, the (old) Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage where all roads lead for the scattered survivors of the Conservative or Wilburite strain of quietist Quakerism.  These are the Friends who “conserved,” or clung longest to the “peculiarities” of dress and speech, and worked hardest at maintaining traditional “plainness”. (NOT “Simplicity”; that’s a modern, much watered-down imitation.)

Olney’s spirit is embodied in both its main school building, which has a  sturdy, handmade character, and a pervasive Quietist atmosphere at its end of Sandy Ridge; and then in the huge, echoing space of the Stillwater Meeting house, which reigns at the other end of a fetching sidewalk of red brick laid in herringbone pattern.

In its heyday, Stillwater could hold a couple thousand, and was often filled during “Yearly Meeting week” for its parent Ohio (Conservative) Yearly meeting, and where visiting ministers could (yes!) preach for an hour..

Continue reading Friends Music Camp Stories #4: Old Plain Peter – The Ghost of Elders Past

Camp stories – 2018: One: “Talking With The Trees”

Last Friday, July 20th, 2018 I read original stories to the talented youth at Friends Music Camp, at Earlham College. I’ve been doing this for 28 years (or maybe only 27; starting to get fuzzy). Many of the stories are about Quakers, with bits of history and witness; others are  autobiographical, from my pre-Quaker youth; some are strictly fiction.

I read four stories this time, and as we’re on the brink of the Dog Days of late summer, I’m going to offer these stories here, in the same sequence as at Camp.

Each year I aim to bring a new story for our session. That’s what we’ll start with. This story, like many, is essentially true. The second story will be up tomorrow (Friday, July 27).

                            Talking with the Trees

It was the fall of 1966, I was a teacher at a new experimental Quaker school, called Friends World College. We were based on Long Island, east of New York City, in a cluster of converted houses on an abandoned Air Force base.

The College founder believed in studying problems, like poverty and the environment, rather than traditional subjects like math and biology. He also believed in study travel, going to places where problems and subjects of current importance were alive and vivid.

I was new and young in this educational world, not long out of college, coming to it after work in the southern civil rights movement, knowing basically nothing about teaching college. But I knew how to drive, and that was enough at that point.

One exception to our trek through a basic set of worldly “problems” like war, was a presentation on the much more conventional young adult “problem” of finding some sense of direction and meaning in life. It was by an elder Quaker writer named Milton Mayer.

The morning he came, our Dean, a retired English professor named Norman Whitney, after silence and a brief introduction, turned to him and said, “Milton, Mayer why don’t thee tell us what is on thy heart, and what is on thy mind.”

Mayer looked us over, and we looked at him. Unusually for our proto-hippie setting, he was in a suit: gray, with a starched white shirt and bow tie. I now think he must have stopped with us while headed somewhere else, perhaps to a meeting at a foundation or to make a formal speech before a group of well-heeled big city liberals.

But he was in no hurry. Surveying us from under his heavy black brows and receding hair, his expression grew somber and finally he said:

“Well, Norman, as I sit here with all of you, I find that what is on my heart is different from what is on my mind.”

He rubbed his chin. “So I believe I’m going to tell you what is on my heart.”

Continue reading Camp stories – 2018: One: “Talking With The Trees”

A Hospice for Hope: A Quaker War (& Peace) Story

Lexie dropped the pint bottle of Ensure into her cloth bag, slung the bag over her shoulder, and held the bouquet of dyed pink daisies over it for camouflage. With her other hand, she put the phone back to her ear.

“All right,” she said to Allyson, “I’ve got it. They’ll never notice it under the flowers.”

At the top step, the big automatic doors swung open, not too fast, not too slow, and she walked through the entryway. Turning right into the big hallway, she didn’t glance at the small sign that read, “Hospice Care”; she knew the way.

“This place always gives me the creeps, ” she told her sister. Allyson was sitting safe at home in Cincinnati, more than a thousand miles away.

“Why?” Asked Allyson. “Because it’s full of dying people?”

“Maybe partly,” Lexie said, “but I think it’s more the way they kinda package the whole thing here, like everybody’s getting ready for a birthday party. I mean–

A woman’s voice interrupted. “Can you help me?” It sounded weak, but piercing. “Can you help me?” Again.

Lexie slowed and glanced to her right. In a lounge doorway a woman sat in a wheelchair. Her hair was tousled, her hands outstretched, reaching toward Lexie. Continue reading A Hospice for Hope: A Quaker War (& Peace) Story

Preparing for Life – A Quaker Story

Place: A Friends School

Time: Now

Note: This story is fiction. It is also true.

The door to Matthew’s office was open a few inches, but Teacher Ellen still knocked tentatively. The door was big, the oak was heavy and dark, but not ornate. The sign that read “Matthew Evans, Head of School,” was small and visually unimposing. But no matter how modest, to her it still meant “The Boss.” 

Matthew was an open-minded and friendly boss, to be sure. And encouraging to junior teachers with lots of ideas. 

But still, the boss. His office where Ellen’s future as a Quaker private school teacher would probably be decided. It was also where the buck stopped, where the school’s most unpleasant tasks got done.

Like this one, Ellen thought, when she heard him say, “Come in.” She glanced back at the two students behind her. The girl, thin, her dark hair still tousled, was trying for an air of defiance. The boy, an entitled preppy if there ever was one, didn’t need to work for an insolent expression; it came with the pedigree. 

Yes, Ellen, she thought, waving them in ahead of her, admit it: you’re prejudiced against seniors who drive their own Beamers. She admitted it.

They took their places in front of the broad, dark desk, The students in front, Ellen behind and to their left. She noted again that, no matter how affable Matthew could be in faculty meetings or bantering with students over lunch, he was also master of a dead-serious poker-face. 

She had only seen it once before, when a student drug dealer was expelled. But that once made clear it was one of the tools of his trade as school head. The stern poker face was as necessary as his ability to charm donations out of wealthy parents for new programs and raises in teacher pay. 

Matthew was examining a sheet of paper in an open folder. His jacket was off, but his tie was a solid navy blue and his demeanor entirely businesslike. He let them stand there in uncomfortable silence for a long moment. 

Then he dropped the paper, glanced up and said, “Teacher Ellen?”

“It’s just as you see there,” Ellen said. “I went into the drama building last night, to get a book I’d left in a classroom, and on the way out I heard noises from the auditorium. I went in quietly, and, um, found Kevin and Connie on the mattress behind the stage. They were, um, unclothed, and apparently having sex.”

Matthew shifted a stony gaze to the students. “You knew this was completely against the behavior code?” He said.

Connie stared at the floor and nodded. Kevin’s response was something between a nod and a shrug.

“And you also understand,” Matthew went on, “this infraction is eligible for immediate expulsion?”

More nods, but from the corner of her eye, Ellen caught the hint of a curl to Kevin’s lip, which she took to mean, “You wouldn’t dare.”

“Connie,” Matthew intoned, “I’m sending you home for a month. Report to the Counseling Office, and they’ll escort you to your room to pick up your things. You may go.”

Connie started to sniffle, then put a hand to her face and shuffled out.

Matthew waited another long moment. It seemed to Ellen he didn’t even blink.

“Kevin,” he said, “This is your second incident. You were lucky there was a different head of school that time. I’m sending you home til after Christmas.”

“But I’ll miss finals,” Kevin protested.

“Not if you want to graduate,” Matthew said coldly. “You’ll make arrangements with the teachers by email, and your return is subject to their certifying that all the work is up to date.” 

Matthew picked up the folder. “Report to the Counseling office, and you are not to speak to Connie there, or anywhere else on campus.

When Kevin’s footsteps had faded down the long old hallway, Ellen realized she felt as if she had been holding her breath through the whole ordeal.

Matthew shook his head and the poker face dissolved into a tight smile. “That’s definitely not the fun part of my job,” he said, “but sometimes –” he opened his palms, left the rest of the sentence hanging.

Then he stood up from the desk, stepped to a hanging file drawer, and slipped the folder in a slot. “Enough of that!” He said, as if he’d opened a window to banish an unpleasant odor.

“Now,” he was settling back into his chair, “I’ve got lots to do, but tell me a bit about your sophomore field trip.”

Ellen was relieved; the encouraging boss was back. “It was great,” she said. “The Old Roadside Friends Cemetery is a goldmine. It’s got gobs of Quaker and antislavery history, and the kids seemed to love cleaning it up. There’s lots more work to do, though.”

“What about the neighborhood?” 

“It’s pretty rough,” she said, “but we had no trouble. We visited the Baptist church across from it, and the pastor was welcoming. Said he was glad to see Quakers taking some responsibility for what’s still their property. He invited us to visit a service, and I set that up for this Friday.”

“Excellent.” Matthew was beaming now. 

A bell clanged, echoing up and down the hallway outside.

“Time for my class,” Ellen said, and turned to go.

“Keep it up,” Matthew said. “Your history & heritage program is great. I wish I’d had a history teacher like you when I was here.”

Matthew had only a couple minutes of quiet before Victor Washington, the Development Director, was in the doorway, a thick folder under one arm. “You wanted the latest on the fundraising campaign,” he said. He tapped the folder. “Got it right here.”

Of course, Matthew knew most of what was in Victor’s spreadsheets and charts. As head of school, he had to deal with more than student misbehavior; teaching, and teachers; campus sports, boards and committees. Besides all that, every day, maybe every hour, he thought about raising money. 

From the outside, the school might look timeless and solid after almost two centuries in its wooded campus. But from inside, every single year, so much had to be paid for: buildings built, painted, trimmed, fixed, rebuilt, replaced. Teachers were underpaid, but their paychecks still added up. Tuition and fees kept going higher, but never quite caught up with expenses. 

So Matthew, like every head of school, thought about fundraising every day. A head who didn’t was soon out of a job.

Matthew nodded reflexively as Victor said the money for a new swimming pool was on track; and the historic meetinghouse restoration was almost funded.  These were places the alumni remembered, and things they had had fun doing: easy to raise money for. 

“But where it’s still heavy lifting,” Victor was saying, “is the NIT.”

Matthew sighed. The NIT–or New Initiatives in Teaching. His favorite, and it was tougher. Computers were obsolete as soon as you turned them on. Software  needed updates almost every week. And if something was focused on the past–like Teacher Ellen’s history & heritage plans– or you wanted more scholarships for poor or non-rich Quaker students–the first question behind closed doors was, “How will it help my kid (or grand-kid) get into Harvard?”

Like pulling teeth, and it never stopped. 

These scholarships were also close to Matthew’s heart. Victor’s too: a scholarship student who finished top of his class. Now he looked over the newest report, frowning. “We need some new ideas for this,” he said, “some way to put it across better.”

Matthew shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Yeah,” he said,”you’re right.”

He turned toward the window behind his desk. An old clock was on a mantel next to it. Across the grass, he could see the corner of the meetinghouse. Beyond it cars were parked along the road to the campus entrance. 

As he watched, two white campus vans drove down the road. Matthew shook his head at them. From this distance, they looked shiny and new. 

“You see those vans, Victor?” He pointed. “We had to put a new transmission in one last month. And the U-joint in the other one could go any day. Several thousand bucks in all.”

He turned back to Victor. “But without them we have no field trips, for Teacher Ellen’s program. The kids like those trips. And getting their hands into American and Quaker history is–“

A discreet tap at the door. Doris, his secretary. “Excuse me, Matthew,” she said. “You’d want to see this.” She handed him an oversize yellow post-it note.

Doris understood how things worked, so Matthew frowned down at the note as Doris retreated. At a signal from him, She shut the door quietly behind her.

“Victor,” he said quietly. “It’s Mrs. Mickleson.”

Victor’s eyes widened. But he looked confused. This should be good news. Yet he could hear alarm in the way Matthew spoke the name of the school’s biggest donor.

“What–?” Victor asked.

Matthew read from the note. “She’s here, outside.” He glanced up. “No,” he added, “we were not expecting her. She told Doris she was in the city for a board meeting of the Mickelson Charitable Foundation, and asked her driver to stop here before they went back to Washington. She said she has something urgent to show me.”

He considered the note again. “Doris has very good radar about this sort of thing,” he said. “It sounds like a problem.”

Victor hurried the reports back into their folder. “You want me to go?” He asked.

Matthew hesitated. It might be wiser to see her by himself. But in Victor and his work,  Matthew thought he glimpsed a future head of school, either here or another Quaker school. So maybe he should see this too, whatever it was. 

Matthew shook his head. “You’ve been working with her,” He said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Met with her twice at the Foundation office,” Victor said. He checked his phone calendar. “Have an appointment in Washington next week.” He paused. “Did have, anyway.”

“Better stay,” Matthew said. “We’ll see what it’s about. If I need one-on-one with her, I’ll say so.”

A moment later, the three of them had finished a round of hearty greetings, and Doris had asked if anyone needed coffee or juice, which was declined with forced cheer.

Mrs. Mickleson was near sixty, dressed in a subdued but well-tailored pantsuit, a single string of pearls, and a black leather portfolio.  Matthew knew she was not typically condescending or imperious. But he could sense she was all business today. Curiously, though, she also had gloves on.

She launched right in. “Matthew, I won’t take much of your time. There’s another board meeting in Bethesda at four o’clock, that I mustn’t miss.”

“How can we help?” Matthew asked.

Instead of answering directly, Mrs. Mickleson said, “My granddaughter Amy Singleton spent the weekend with us, and she talked nonstop about the school. She loves it here.”

“Glad to hear that,” Matthew said, though he had a definite sense there was a “But” coming.

“And she had some of her chums over for a swim, and that night I heard them out on the patio talking and carrying on about a field trip her class took into the city.”

Matthew wanted to smile and nod; something kept him from it.

“They thought I’d gone to bed,” she said. “But I peeked out when they went off to the kitchen for snacks, and there on a table was this–“

She flipped open a silver-tipped latch on the black portfolio, dipped two gloved fingers into it, and lifted out a thick plastic zip-lock bag. She held it up for them to see. 

Matthew was struck by how out of place the bag looked. The plastic was thick but translucent, with white patches at the top as labels.

It looked like something from a police evidence locker, or a hospital morgue, somehow mislaid in the gloved hand of a model from Tiffany’s. The juxtaposition was so visually absurd it was almost funny.

Mrs. Mickelson was not the least bit amused. “These are some of the souvenirs Amy and her class secretly brought back from that field trip, which I gather was to an abandoned cemetery in the inner city.”

She pointed at it with her other hand, highlighting a thin cylinder. “That tube, Matthew, is a drug addict’s syringe, complete with a used and bloodstained needle.”

The pointer finger moved down past a round beige lump. “And this,” she grimaced, “this is a used condom, evidently left behind by one of the prostitutes who ply their trade there.”

She turned a withering gaze on Victor. “Mr. Washington, was this, er, excursion part of the new program you told me about? What’s it called–??”

Victor cleared his throat. “Uh, history and heritage, Mrs. Mickelson,” he said softly.

Matthew couldn’t let him take the rap here. “We think very highly of the program,” he said. “It often serves to bring together critical issues of the past and present in vivid, concrete ways.” 

As soon as the word “vivid” was out of his mouth, Matthew regretted it.

“‘Vivid,'” Mrs. Mickleson repeated for emphasis. “I’ll say.” She waved the bag for emphasis, then dropped it back into the portfolio. Clicking the clasp, she looked from Victor to Matthew. Her lips were tight.

“Matthew,” she said flatly, “One of Amy’s classmates claimed she found bullet shell casings from some sort of pistol, but a teacher took them.”

She stifled a shudder. “I believe you know, Matthew, that I am no reactionary. The long  record of progressive Quaker values is a big part of this school’s appeal. And both the Foundation and I have long supported research and advocacy for forward-looking and humane drug and social policies.” An eyebrow arched. “The Foundation director testified before the Senate just last year. 

“But this–” she gestured toward the portfolio — “Amy and her chums treated them like carnival prizes. But do you realize how dangerous those — those objects are? Bloody needles? Germ and virus-infested debris from commercial sex? Bullets?”

She leaned forward. “Do I have to spell it out?” 

Her eyes were wide, as the memory of Amy and her chums in close proximity to any of those objects closed in.

“No,” Matthew shook his head, a hollow feeling settling in his gut. “No, you don’t.”

Mrs. Mickelson sat back stiffly in her chair. “Amy’s sister Bethany is In Eighth grade in Bethesda. We’ve looked at Westtown and Sidwell, but she wants to follow her big sister here. And they have cousins in Baltimore who say the same thing.”

She tightened her grip on the portfolio, and stood up abruptly. “But Matthew, I couldn’t possibly support anything like this.” She raised a hand for emphasis. “If they need field trips, Washington is within reach, and so is New York. I’m sure they would be received by the most progressive and responsible policy groups in these fields, and there are model programs they can also visit. Safely. I–“

The hallway class bell clanged and cut her off. Mrs. Mickelson took it as a signal. Giving each of the men a single pump handshake, she turned to the door. 

“Matthew,” she said, lifting the portfolio, “I truly respect the enthusiasm and spirit of adventure you bring to your work here. But I must remind you that those adventures involve some of the most precious parts of my life–and that of others like me.” She pulled the door open. “Amy and your other students are here to prepare for life, not to risk it.”

“I’ll see to it right away,” Matthew said. But she was gone. 

Victor closed the door, leaned against it, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Whoa,” he murmured. “That was, um, vivid.”

“Yeah,” Matthew chuckled, and realized he was sweating too. “Victor,” he said, “we need some time to decompress and absorb this, but we’ll talk again after classes are done this afternoon.”

“Decompress,” Victor repeated, and gave a low whistle. “Totally.” He opened the door.

“Oh, and on your way,” Matthew said, “can you stop by the History room, and ask Teacher Ellen to come down?”

“Check,” Victor said. The door clicked behind him.

Matthew turned again to the window, his fingers moving reflexively to loosen his tie and unbutton his collar.

One of the campus vans was now parked next to the meetinghouse, while the driver carried in some cardboard boxes.

Another field trip. Friday, which was tomorrow. He sighed. Not a chance for that now.

Matthew dropped his hands. No. The tie and collar had to stay tight.

He crossed the office to a coat closet. A mirror hung on the back side of its door. He looked into it, wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, and arranged his features into the disciplinary poker face. Yes, he practiced. 

It wasn’t quite right for this next encounter. But he couldn’t think of how to add a note of compassion without undermining the hard necessity of what had to be done.

The tap came on the office door.

He took the chair behind  his desk. “Come in.” 

Ellen entered, smiling.

Matthew opened a folder on the desk, and looked down without seeing what was in it.

Compared to what he had to do now, he thought, dealing with Connie and Kevin for writhing around on an old mattress — was it really only a couple of hours ago? — that was a piece of cake.

 

 

More about some actual events that helped inspire this story here, here & here.

A “Carpet of Light” for a New Year

Here is an array of candles, lit during worship at Chapel Hill Friends meeting in North Carolina, on the night called Christmas Eve, 2017.

I first took part in such a ceremony at State College Friends meeting in Pennsylvania. The event was quite simple; it began after dusk, with the meeting room unlit except for a single candle on a large table, covered with highly reflective aluminum foil.

Out of the silence,  as moved, Friends came to the table in ones or twos or family groups, and each lit another candle, which they placed on the table; they spoke if moved, then sat again in the silence.

From the first time I experienced it, the way the whole room was progressively illuminated, seemed in fact to glow, as the number of flickering flames increased, was very moving to me.

In a way it was a visible, wordless, yet eloquent evocation of Quakerism at its best: a motley, seemingly haphazard collection of candles of witness, more diverse than we outwardly seem, mainly anonymous and individual, somehow joining together to become more than the sum of the parts. 

This time, at the end of 2017, a year which for me has been very heavily shadowed, often deeply gloomy, and yes, dark, the full array became something of an encouraging signal for the year ahead. (Let’s hope!)

At State College Meeting, we were told that this custom had originated in Berlin, shortly after the end of World War Two, when the city was still devastated in the wake of bombing and and combat. I pass on the story we were told below, knowing it mainly as an oral tradition:

How the Christmas Candlelight Meeting Began

Berlin in 1945 was a devastated city, bombs had destroyed most of the homes and buildings and things were in terrible disarray – children without parents and homes, shortage of food and shelter — all of the terrible consequences that accompany war.

Ilse and Gerhardt were a Quaker couple with three small children who suffered terrible hardships during the war — she (a school teacher) because she defied the authorities ‘speaking truth’ and Gerhardt because he had a Jewish father.

They were homeless and spent many months searching for shelter for their family. While doing so, they were willing to have other homeless orphans join them simply out of compassion, but with the knowledge that with each additional child, there would be less to share among their own family.

They eventually found a bombed-out building that gave them some shelter from the cold winter days and nights. The children slept in Army blankets in the clothes that they wore during the day. Taking turns, Ilse and Gerhardt would search for food to feed the always-hungry children that grew daily in numbers.

Once in returning with a loaf of bread, a hungry soldier asked Ilse for a piece. With reluctance, she shared the bread, only to find upon returning to the children that a Quaker care package had arrived with nuts, dried fruit and chocolates.

On Christmas Eve, Ilse and Gerhardt felt terribly sad about having so little to share with their extended family, but they were determined to make the Eve of Christmas a joyful event for themselves and their children. It was then when they and the Berlin Quaker Meeting conceived of the idea of a candlelight service as we now know it.

By that time, the meeting had been assigned space in a mansion that had been confiscated during the war. Their large room had little furniture and, have course, no Christmas tree. However, nearby was a stand of fir trees and from these, they cut branches and carpeted the floor with green cuttings. They had a good supply of candles and gave one to each child.

They began the meeting for worship with a single candle illuminating the darkness of the winter night. One by one, after lighting the candle from each other, the children gave the best and only present that they could — they shared their talents that God had given them.

One little girl had just learned to whistle and tried her best at ‘Joy to the World’. An older child had composed a poem thanking Isle and Gerhardt for their compassion. Many shared memories of their own families, making everyone a bit sad and happy at the same time.

As more children lit their candles, Ilse said the room was turned into a carpet of light (licht teppich in German). After everyone shared their talents, they sang the wonderful Christmas songs that we still sing about God’s gift to us and the hope of Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward everyone.

That sharing became a tradition in the Berlin Quaker meeting that continues today. Years later, an American family visiting Berlin experienced it while living in Berlin and also introduced it to the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, TX. It has migrated to some other meetings from there.

 

 

“Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom”

Been hearing & reading a lot lately about “cultural appropriation” & how awful & widespread it is.
I’ve been musing about this all week, while sitting in on rehearsals for “Pathway to Freedom,” out in the woods of Alamance County NC.
Here, at the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre, an interracial cast is preparing to perform the only ongoing play about the Underground Railroad. On July 13, “Pathway” will open its 23rd season. The cast has been working hard every day,

Continue reading “Cultural Appropriation” & “Pathway to Freedom”

New Resistance Reading: “Our Society. Our Future: Resist!”

“To every thing there is a season,” says the biblical sage Ecclesiastes,

A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away . . .
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak,”

and I would add,
A time to endure, and a time to resist.

As I write, in early 2017,  in the United States, such a time of resistance is upon us.


This new collection (now available in paperback and on Kindle) is for those who have been through “a time to lose” — losses that, as I write, are far from over. Some of these losses will have to be endured for a time, perhaps a long time.

Yet if so, they are not to be endured in passive, compliant silence. Continue reading New Resistance Reading: “Our Society. Our Future: Resist!”

Dog Days True Quaker Stories: The Party That Went On Too Long

The Party That Went On Too Long
A True Story for the Anniversary of Richard Nixon’s Resignation

Seat belts were only for airplanes when I was nine, in 1951. So one day I leaned forward over the back of the front seat, to ask a question of my mother, who was driving.

The radio was on, and a news report had just finished. The announcer had said something about the Communist Party. 

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This party had been mentioned before, in other news reports I had begun, just barely, to notice. We had no TV yet, so it was all scattered words without pictures, which gave rise to my question:

“Mommy,” I said, “how can a party go on so long? Continue reading Dog Days True Quaker Stories: The Party That Went On Too Long