All posts by Chuck Fager

Ken Bradstock, Edward Hicks & Me

Ken Bradstock had something valuable to say. A lot, actually. Enough to fill a book.

I hope he got it down, on paper or on disk, whatever, before he died on January 22.

If I remember right, I first noticed Ken during the bad days of turmoil among North Carolina pastoral Quakers. Ken had been a pastor among them for awhile, and seemed to fit the profile: no city slicker,  a former marine, deputy sheriff turned PhD’d therapist and  hospice worker, from the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Hardly a radical. But somewhere along the line he read some Buddhism and also climbed off the “Christian” homophobia train, and the combination put him and the small group he then clerked in the crosshairs when the troubles came to North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

Ken Bradstock

But that’s not what I want to recall about him here. After that whirlwind passed, he and I corresponded  many times, via emails and Facebook. Struck by his vivid writing, I soon recruited him to write an essay for what was a called the “Narrative Theology” rubric in the journal Quaker Theology. Called “The Land” (online in full here)  I urged him to regard it as the first chapter of a book: memoir, autobiography, whatever. That became a standard, drill sergeant-style closing to my emails: “Write the damn book!”

He often replied: “I’m writing the damn book!” I hope he got enough of it finished to be a testament.

Here’s an example of why my hopes have been so high. An email exchange from 2017, which began when I sent him a photo of one of the “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings by Edward Hicks, along with a special message from Hicks.

A print of the painting had sat for some weeks on a chair at the rear of Spring Friends Meeting, where I attend. Usually my phone (and its built-in camera) come to meeting with me, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the happenstance display.

The “special message” from Hicks was from a few years after his death in 1849. It came through a Progressive Quaker who was also a spiritualist medium, Isaac Post of Rochester, New York. It too is online, here.

Ken enjoyed the peculiar “spirit post.” But there was more to say:

From: Ken Bradstock
To: Chuck Fager
Sent: Mon, Nov 20, 2017
Subject: Re: Hicks’ Paper

I got interested in Hicks and the paintings after seeing one in Reynolda Manor in Winston-Salem. It’s not my favorite but I was awed.

One short story about the power of the paintings: I was leading a therapy group in the Child and Adolescent Psych unit at Baptist. We had a 13 year old kid who had severely sexually abused his sister and he was a hard case. They’d had him for months with no break-through. One of the kid’s defenses was to use is considerable intelligence to evade and attack with sarcasm. He was cold and they thought he might be a sociopath.

Edward Hicks was deeply affected by the Orthodox-Hicksite schism in 1827. He painted more than sixty versions of this biblically-based image of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” presumably to visualize his hopes for its repair. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the paintings became celebrated favorites of devotees of folk art.

I was doing a session with color copies of the Peaceable Kingdoms where in they picked the animal that they thought described them the best and then explain why to the group. Then they were asked to draw their own Peaceable Kingdom.

He suddenly got up and left the group with his drawing in hand and sought out a resident. Two hours later, I saw him in what looked like an intense conversation with the resident. The next day, the resident approached me quietly and asked what I did to the kid.

Edward Hicks, a self-portrait

Of course I didn’t do a thing, the painting reached his soul. The team asked me to describe the technique using the paintings. They said that he’s had a complete break-through, realizing what he’d done to his sister and had opened up to the resident for almost three hours. They finally could work out a discharge and follow-up plan with his treatment.

This was the most dramatic result I had with the paintings but there are many more in more subtle ways and more incremental steps toward healing. The tone of the groups working with the paintings were fairly identical. On one extreme, there would be a stunned quiet and on the other a sort of focused curiosity.  . . .

No wonder I kept shouting at him, “Write the damn book!”

A bonus: Here’s a snippet from “The Land,” about the family farm where he spent much of his childhood:

As far back as age 5, I loved that farm. Aunt Myrtle taught flannel graph Bible stories for kids in her front room around the large coal stove and our knees lined up on the sofa that smelled of farm animals and my unwashed Uncle Joe. She led me to Christ in that living room the year I was 5 and it is an event firmly ensconced in my mind to this day. It always amazes me as to how those salvation events are so entrenched in the minds of people who experience them.

They call it “Salvation” but in my life-long study of religion and its psychology, it is very similar to almost every significant religious awakening. I have a very clear picture of her, the living room, the kids on the sofa and the act of raising my hand. She asked if anybody wanted the “New Man” to run their lives instead of the “Old Man.” It was a teaching from St Paul and is a piece of good solid Evangelical Orthodoxy.

I loved Aunt Myrtle, but over the years, I realized that this was more than the family tie of being my paternal grandmother’s sister. It was her close bond to something that I loved far more but took years of excavating to identify. No relative in my family livery aside from my father held my esteem more strongly. It has also come to me that I associate my love for her with my love for the land.

I hesitate to begin a description of her here because of my temptation to become romantically entangled with my love for both. Snapshots will do for now: her at the churn, or with the bell that brought the hands in from the field for dinner, or the burdened table piled with her produce cooked all morning, and her stained apron and long white hair tied in a bun. These shots capture her sweet demeanor, but they also peek at the shadow of a woman who spent a life-time with a drunken, abusive husband. The chickens were hers; the kitchen garden was hers along with the rhubarb and the apples. The tomatoes Uncle Joe grew in perfect red and green rows out of black soil also ended up somewhere in the symphony of her table.

Aunt Myrtle knew the history of the farm and would tell stories about the part it played as she cared for the flowers she always planted around the huge grindstone in the front yard. It was there I learned about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, not in a classroom. She could show a kid the gun ports in the logs used to fight the French and Indians, and tell the story of the stone safe room under the house she used for a root cellar.

That damp room encased in stone would be filled with family and livestock when an Indian attack was anticipated. The house could be burned to the ground and those in the stony vault would be protected. Her work and her life were tied to the land, and my love for the land and the farm were teamed with a child’s awe for her.

Her eyes would light up when I and my cousin Don helped collect eggs or pick up apples over near the barn for a pie or two or three. She had a look of pleasure when she made us take over the churning while she checked on something. It was fun for her to tease us when a few minutes of pumping would have both of us panting and sweating compared to her ease and rhythm.

I wasn’t aware that the land was sick where we lived. I was less than a year old in late October of 1948 when the Donora Steel mills, American Steel and Wire Works and Carnegie Steel poured sulfuric acid, soluble sulphants, and fluorides into the air. . . .

(Full text of the essay is here.)

 

 

 

Nuggets from a Mystery Reading Binge

Here are three  great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”

Yeah, they’re that good.

#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:

Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio. 

“What’s it all about, Crabbie?” 

He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?” 

“Aye.” 

“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly. 

“And if there is no God?” 

“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.” 

I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos. 

Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”

 – – – – 

#2- Tickling the Ivories

Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:

Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?” 

“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.” 

“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein. 

“Go on, then,” Patrick said. 

I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.” 

The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank. 

“You play very well, you know,” he said. 

“I’m rusty.” 

“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .

I looked at my watch. It was 11:45. 

“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked. 

“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said. 

“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.” 

I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?” 

“Why?” 

“Because he was Haydn.” 

“Get out of my shop!”

– – – – – 

#3- The Big Belly Laugh:

Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway.  When she gets in his car:

She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference. 

“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.

“OK.” 

“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Because all proper tea is theft.” 

“You should put your seat belt on.”

[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]


McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,”  a post in his blog:

” .  . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.

But this is not my way.


I see things differently.


For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.

. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.  

Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.


So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“

 

 

 

 

The Hungarian Religious Resistance: a Mirror & a Beacon to Our Own

A report in The Guardian on December 28 compellingly describes the small, marginalized religious resistance to the self-described ”Christian” authoritarianism of the current Hungarian regime. In this sketch there is much to learn and reflect on for those Americans who feel called to a similar path.

The anti-democratic drive of the Viktor Orban government to undermine Hungary’s independent courts, media and other democratic processes is well-known. So is its unremitting hostility to the homeless poor, refugees, immigrants & LGBT persons, and incitement of anti-semitism.

What was less known, at least to me, is how much this burgeoning tyranny has been wrapped and sanctified in religious terms, as an expression of “Christian liberty,” intended to protect a version of “Christian culture.”  Also new to me is how similar its rationale is to reactionary evangelical/fundamentalist movements in other countries.

The Advent Statement logo.

Early in December a band of Hungarian religious dissenters responded by issuing what they call “The Advent Statement.” As I read it I noted that, if one replaced “Hungary” with the “US administration” & its cronies, much or most of its text could be an “American Advent Statement.” See if you agree:

We are calling,” it says, “for resistance to an arrogance of power that makes the concept of “Christian Liberty” a slogan for exclusionary, hate-filled and corrosive policy; a power that destroys the social fabric and eliminates useful social institutions; a power that systematically threatens democracy and the rule of law. We are concerned about the arrogance of power that mixes the language of national identity with the language of Christian identity in a manipulative way. We cannot let our freedom, given to us by grace in baptism, be taken away.

We are concerned by the narrow political usage of the concept of “Christian Liberty”. Our goal is to restore the dignity of this biblical and theological concept. Christian liberty includes freedom from causing harm to the other person and to ourselves, freedom from abuse, exploitation, ignorance and freedom for protecting the other person’s dignity and rights, as well as our own. In this light, we cannot be indifferent to the current state of affairs we experience in Hungarian society. . . .”

Their bill of particulars should also sound familiar to American ears:

Orban & the flag.

The authoritarian exercise of power is spreading around the world but especially before our eyes in Hungary. We are witnessing manipulation of electoral law and the use oflegislative and executive power in order to provide legislative protection for the corruption inspired by the state. This is a strategy of power that deliberately eliminates political differences of opinion through the eradication of independent media, spreading fake news, discrediting and character assassination, and harassment by authorities.
Because of this, in the name of Christian liberty we would like to be prepared to speak up and act unambiguously. . . . ”

One major difference between the two countries is that in Hungary (as in some other European nations), many churches are subsidized by the government, through allocations from taxes. These payments become an ongoing form of hush money:

Alexander Faludy, a vicar who spent years in forced exile during the time of Communist rule, acknowledges that “The state funding is important of course, acting as both a carrot and a stick” . . . . [Something like that is happening here too, see: “How Mike Pence’s Office Meddled in Foreign Aid to Reroute Money to Favored Christian Groups,”  For that matter, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush pushed through increases in federal aid to churches.]

But as a beleaguered Job noted in the Bible, “the Lord giveth & the Lord taketh away” (Job 1:21). He wasn’t talking about government funding, but the sentiment applies: the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, whose President, Pastor Gábor Iványi was instrumental in drafting The Advent Statement, saw its state funding withdrawn after the Orban regime consolidated its power. And maybe that’s why the larger Protestant groups in Hungary have not signed on to it.

Beyond direct funding, Vicar Faludy added, “there has also been a  comprehensive instrumentalisation of the churches [by Orban] through the power of prestige. The idea of participation in public life, for people who grew up under communism, when churches were systematically placed at a civil disadvantage, was very tempting. I think that in 2010 [when Orbán was re-elected prime minister] there was a sense of hope in the churches. Church leaders thought: ‘This government may be far from perfect but it’s a way of getting things done, for example of making sure there’s a Christian ethos in the schools.’ From speaking to people in the churches, I think they thought they could ride the tiger.”

Pastor Ivanyi speaks out in Hungary.

After 10 years in which Orbán’s grip on civil society has been relentlessly strengthened, Faludy says: “At best, the churches have chosen quietism rather than prophetic vocation.”

Of course, In the U. S., many prominent evangelical leaders are definitely not “quietist.” Rather, they clearly ARE “riding the tiger,” galloping, they believe, straight toward a promised land where their kind of “religious liberty” will be exercised to ban abortion, roll back LGBT rights, gain government support for their “Christian” schools & much more, so (with the rare exception of, say, editors of Christianity Today magazine), they show no inclination to get off.

Similarly, there’s as yet been no stampede among Hungarian churchgoers to join the Advent Declaration’s public dissent. And this should be no surprise to its authors:

“[Orban] is turning the Christian message on its head,” says Iványi. “Is there any other Christian country in the world where it is written in the constitution that you can be jailed for being homeless? Is it a Christian country where asylum seekers are not given the basic resources they need to survive? Is it Christian to use power to abolish media freedoms, the independence of judges and academic autonomy?

“In ancient Israel, the prophets spoke out against corruption and wickedness. We are now compelled to speak out. We might not be Isaiahs or Jeremiahs. But we take courage from their example.”

Yes, courage. Iványi and his cohorts will need it. The prophets they cite may now loom large in the Bible and the gospels. But in life, theirs was a lonely and frequently fatal career path.

It was also the path Jesus took, frequently denouncing the tiger-riding religious bigwigs of his day as the spawn of those who killed the prophets. And you see where that message got him.

I salute Pastor Iványi and The Advent Statement. And beyond courage, I wish them (& their American counterparts) stamina and determination:  the stories of the prophets also show that it took time, often lifetimes, of endurance, protest and lamentation for their prophecies of greater justice even to begin to come to pass.

Mayor Pete & his notorious (Christmas) Tweet

So how offensive is this?

“Today I join millions around the world in celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

That’s mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Xmas tweet, complete & unexpurgated.

Personally, I thought it was pretty cool, if one is into such things: respectfully restrained, but clear about his own stance. His being “out” about his faith, but not obnoxious or triumphalist, I find an appealing feature of his presence on the political scene.

But it’s blowing up the evangelical internet.

Rev. Dr. Darrell Scott of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for instance, didn’t put too fine a point on it: “When did you come up with that load of crap?” he explained.

One objection that’s been raised has some merit: it’s not likely that Mary & Joseph were “poor” in first century terms: they could afford to make the trip that took them thru Bethlehem, and likely had the shekels to pay for a bunk in the inn, if it hadn’t been sold out.

OTOH the cries that Jesus didn’t arrive as a refugee are more shaky. First off, he was “homeless” when he landed; staying in a stable was definitely not Doubletree. A lot of things have changed since then, yet stable smells abide . . . .

Then, when the angels quit singing and the three wise guys were gone, there were, you know, diapers, or whatever they called Pampers then. (Jesus may have had a virgin birth, but the prophets hadn’t said squat about a poopless parturition.)

Even worse was the news that King Herod had launched a massacre of male babies, aimed directly at him. I mean, how would he get into the right Betsy DeVos Christian preschool with a price on his head (and no security detail)?

So the parents swaddled the babe & high-tailed it to Egypt, where they were definitely refugees, for a good (if textually unspecified) while. And if they weren’t poor when they started, this long unplanned side trip — several hundred miles, on a donkey, thru hills and across desert, and the roads! (wait, what roads?) –had to bring them close to the edge. (For evidence, check the pictures of homeless camps in your state.)

Okay, whatever: SCOTT and a bunch of other preachers aren’t having it. Still, having their obnoxious “gospel” thus exposed, while it isn’t fun, could be valuable over time: if we’re going to have religion in public life, Mayor Pete’s way of showing it is much more appealing & manageable than that of the prattling theocrats who now cluster & preen around their golden(haired) calf in The Oval Office.

BTW I like Mayor Pete, but this post is not an endorsement.  Too soon for that, and I like others as well. But I do endorse his tweet.

As for Rev. Dr. Scott and his chorus, I can offer but an echo: When did you come up with that load of crap?

Wanna Call John Dingell? Don’t Ring Through Hell

One day in 1980, I was at my desk on an upper floor of a  way-past-its-prime hotel that had become a staff office annex for the U. S. House of Representatives.

The onetime hotel that had been turned into the House Annex where I worked in 1980.

My boss — Congressman Pete McCloskey of California, wanted some information about an obscure part of a not-so-well-known energy bill: say, Section 227D of the 1979 Energy Act Amendments, something like that, and the request had been bounced down the office status ladder to me.

I knew nothing about the Energy Act or the amendments, and Google hadn’t been invented yet.

But I knew who did know: Rep. John Dingell, of Michigan; or someone in his office. I think maybe Dingell even wrote the amendments. So I picked up the phone and dialed his office number.

By 1980, Dingell had been in Congress for 25 years; he would stay in Congress for almost 35 more.

John Dingell is sworn in as a Congressman by the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in 1955. (But Rayburn served a mere 48 years.)

Dingell was a tough, tenacious Democrat, who was already high up in the House hierarchy. That meant he had lots of staff assistants like me, only likely better-informed, with more political hustle, who could set me straight, if they bothered to take the call from a Republican nobody. (My boss, McCloskey was a Republican, and this was the time when Ronald Reagan was eating Jimmy Carter’s lunch.)

The phone rang once, maybe twice, then was scooped up with a pre-cellphone rattle that meant the receiver was grabbed with alacrity, not reluctance.

“John Dingell.” said a voice.

What?? Err, uh, I, uh–”

If I was a coffee drinker, this was a java-spewing-from-my-nostrils moment. It wasn’t a receptionist. Nor an intern. Not even the assistant chief of staff.

The Boss. Himself.

When I recovered, I identified myself and my office and stumbled through my query.

“Sure,” Dingell said, and then reeled off the answer, clearly and concisely, as if I was calling from the White House, or maybe the New York Times (or the Detroit Free Press?)

I scribbled a couple of notes, and asked for clarification of one point, which he patiently offered. I thanked him, he said I was welcome and then it was done.

The call only lasted about three minutes. It took me awhile longer to recover my balance. Thirty-nine years later, I still have questions.

Why was Dingell picking up cold calls to his office phone? And why was he taking time to answer a rookie question from a minor league staffer from across the aisle?

And how, with hundreds of bills and laws and amendments streaming across his desk, day after day, week after week, was he up to the minute even on Section 227D?

(Would he have known Section 227C as well?? Probably.)

After much pondering, I’ve come to a simple answer: Dingell was a mensch, and a natural. He also didn’t have an inflated view of himself; he could, and did, speak to me as one colleague to another, from out of the blue.

It’s no wonder he was re-elected to Congress more times than anyone else in that body’s history.

Rep. Paul “Pete ” McCloskey. A war hero, but an anti-Vietnam war campaigner, and a fine public servant. But his is another story.

Now my boss, McCloskey was a fine guy. But if there’s a special gallery in heaven reserved for the best of Congress, I bet John Dingell has a seat in it.

I know that’s an iffy notion; Mark Twain concluded long ago that “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress,” and we have recently heard much corroboration for that view, especially from one side of the aisle.

For that matter, my boss McCloskey argued, even before he left Washington three years later, that “Congressmen are like diapers. You need to change them often, and for the same reason.”

Your humble blogger, in a sketch from around this time, with daughters Molly (left) and Annika (right)

But still; I say IF.

I gather that some fatuous pretender recently spoke of John Dingell as being in hell.

It only took me about two minutes to learn, but I’m pretty sure I know otherwise.

More like vice versa.

There’s Still Time! (But not much.)

 Yes! You can still order the most interesting, readable new Quaker book of the year, “Passing the Torch,” on Amazon and have it delivered in time for Christmas. But the clock is ticking. Get it here:

The link:
https://tinyurl.com/s6sbhaz

In “Passing the Torch,” eleven varied & always interesting Quakers  share their spiritual lives, and reflect on the wisdom to be gleaned from them. Their stories are concise, compelling, and often provocative. Get it, share it  Here’s a link: https://tinyurl.com/s6sbhaz

 

 

 

A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven in the Basement

Cambridge, Massachusetts, late 1970s

“Heads up!” called the voice from the basement. “Here come the bags!”

This story is fiction. But the setting, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Massachusetts, is real.

When they heard the cry a hundred men and women straightened up, like ragtag soldiers jerking to attention. Spaced about three feet apart, they stood in a line that ran from the open end of a big tractor-trailer truck squeezed into the horseshoe curve of Longfellow Park, up the sidewalk and across the wide green lawn. It snaked around the corner of the meeting house, past Friends Center, up the three low steps of the meetinghouse porch, through the open double doors, made a sharp right past the small literature table. Then left again to the steep, dim stairway, and down every other step to the basement.

There it ended, at a heap of bulging black plastic trashbags. Each bag was packed full and cinched tightly shut with a strong wire twist. The bags were neatly stacked five high, eight wide, and half a dozen deep, and they seemed to fill the entire low-ceiling room.

Kevin Blackburn stood at the front of the line, wondering how he ended up facing so much hard labor on a quiet Sunday morning.
But there was really no mystery about how he got there. Louisa Cabot, the prim older woman standing next to him, glancing from the pile of bags to the waiting line of people, had asked him.

Actually, “asked” wasn’t quite accurate; “drafted” was closer. After announcements at the end of meeting for worship, she had marched straight up to him, peered at him above her wire-rimmed spectacles, and said firmly, “Kevin, I would like for thee to help me get the shipment out of the clothing room.”

Her tone was friendly enough, but it left no room for any response other than agreement. She spoke, Kevin thought, like the old-fashioned schoolteacher she had been for forty years, still in firm command of her classroom. And in her subdued flower print dress, with its square lace-trimmed collar, she looked the part, too.

Louisa gave the waiting line of Quakers a last quick glance and said, “Well, Kevin, whenever thee’s ready, I suggest thee start at the far end of the stack.”

Kevin did, pulling the top sack out by the bunched plastic neck, catching it in both hands, then passing it to the Friend behind him, who in turn passed it on up the stairs.

Fortunately, the bags weren’t as heavy as they looked; old clothes were more bulk than weight. But before long, when the bucket brigade was going full tilt and the bags were moving quickly up the steps and around the three corners to the waiting man on the truck, Kevin was sweating freely. This was hard work. He would need to go home and take a shower before the concert, or Jenny wouldn’t come near him. And Kevin wanted very much to be near to Jenny.

After hefting two rows of the bags, Kevin felt as if the pile would go on forever. Surely, he thought, there’s enough pants, shirts, sweaters, dresses, socks and underwear here to clothe every refugee in Asia, and Africa too, with plenty left over for Central America, and even a bag or two for the Goodwill downtown.

But then, suddenly, there were only three bags left, and in a flash they were behind him, disappearing up the stairs. As the final bag arrived at the truck and was tossed in, the Friends in the line gave a cheer, shook hands, and then broke up into small groups, mopping the sweat from their foreheads and talking excitedly.

Kevin collapsed in a chair to catch his breath. The basement seemed much bigger now with the bags gone. Mending tables lined one side, each bearing several oversize spools of thread and a number of old soup bowls full of every kind of button imaginable. On one a stack of newspapers for wrapping leaned precariously. Racks of dresses and suits awaiting repair stood along the opposite wall, under a row of small ground-level windows.

Here, several days a week, Louisa gathered a mixed crew of volunteers, mostly other older women, who patched and mended and talked for hours. Kevin had never seen them at it, but they were clearly an energetic and productive bunch: This was the second big shipment that had gone out since he started attending Cambridge Meeting last winter.

“Here, Kevin, thee has earned this,” Louisa said behind him. He looked around and took the glass of lemonade from her. “Thanks,” he said, still panting.

“I hope we didn’t wear thee out and spoil thy plans for the day,” Louisa said.

“Oh, that’s okay,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to a concert later. Then I’ll be back here tonight for Social Concerns Committee.”

And for the committee’s potluck, he added silently. He was a little embarrassed to admit it, but potlucks were his favorite Quaker ritual and the closest to home cooking a single Harvard grad student ever got. Sometimes he wondered if potlucks headed the list of what these Quakers called testimonies.

“Um, what sort of concert?” Louisa asked, cutting into his theological reflections. Her tone was tentative now, as if she felt she was prying.
“Oh, just a string quartet,” Kevin answered. “A woman I’m dating is playing the cello.”

At this Louisa’s eyebrows went up slightly and her expression became thoughtful. “A string quartet, eh?” she mused. “I don’t know much about music myself. English grammar and American history. Those were my subjects. Nothing against it, thee understand, I just never had much time to listen.”

She paused for a moment, while Kevin drained his lemonade. “Um, Kevin,” she inquired, “would thee do me a favor?”

“Sure,” he said, genuinely surprised now at her tone. The old sense of command was gone; she sounded anxious, almost afraid.

“After the committee meeting tonight,” Louisa continued, “I’ll be in the library. Meet me there and there’s something I want to show thee if I can. Something musical, and very peculiar.”

Kevin grinned at her. “I’ll do it,” he said dramatically, “on one condition.”

“What’s that?” Louisa asked guardedly.

“Promise me there’ll be no more heavy lifting,” he said.

Now it was her turn to grin, and smile wrinkles piled up around her eyes. Her old self again, she stuck out a hand.

“Friend,” she said firmly, “Thee has a deal.”

* * * * * * * *
The concert was fine. Jenny played well, and agreed to meet Kevin for ice cream and talk after his meeting. He was looking forward to that.

The committee meeting was a different matter, though. Ever since winter, they had been laboring over a policy statement on war tax resistance. But after months of meetings, they seemed no closer to unity than when they started.

Some Friends felt the meeting had to take a stand and not even pay the federal tax on its telephone, which went directly to support wars like the one that had recently, finally ended in Vietnam. But others felt the group ought to obey the law, and anyway tax money didn’t just pay for war. It paid for other things, too — good things like health care, and housing.

And student grants, Kevin reminded himself.

The meeting room, Cambridge. The clothing room, still in operation in 2019, is below it.

Coming out of the meeting, Kevin’s head ached a little from the arguments. His own opinion seemed to go back and forth; surely, he thought, the meeting ought to take a stand against the billions wasted on bombs and missiles. But on the other hand, he couldn’t deny that some good things were done with taxes. And how were we to tell the difference?

“How long,” he wondered aloud to Louisa as he entered the library, “will it take that committee to make up its mind about war taxes?”
But there was no answer. The lights were on, but the room was empty.

The silence surprised him. Louisa was surely punctual if she was anything. Then he was startled by a voice behind him. Louisa, was coming through the doorway with a book under her arm. “Did I hear thee complaining about war taxes?” she asked.

“It’s the committee,” he said. “We can’t agree on what to do about them.”

“Humph,” she said brusquely, “Friends have been arguing over what to do about them for more than 300 years, with no end in sight. Don’t let it bother thee.”

She set the book down on the library desk. “A waste of time, if thee asks me,” she concluded firmly. “Come along and let’s see if we can find something a little more interesting.” Turning toward the door, she motioned for him to follow.

She led him out of Friends Center, into the quiet night of Brattle Street. Stepping up to the darkened meetinghouse, she signalled silence with a finger to her lips, then quietly tried the door.
It was locked, as it always was at night.

“What–?” Kevin began, but her rising finger stopped him.

“This way,” she whispered, and tiptoed toward the far corner of the meetinghouse. There she stopped and peered cautiously around the corner, then stepped back and motioned to Kevin.

He looked past her, at nothing special: a high board fence divided the meeting’s property from the neighbors’ garage, a big old maple rustled gently at the far end, and a narrow strip of grass lay in between, dark like a carpet except where a wedge of dim light turned a patch dull turquoise.

Kevin turned back to Louisa and shrugged. She shook her head and leaned toward his ear. “The light,” she hissed.

He looked again. Now that she mentioned it, there was something peculiar about the light. It was an odd color, like a very blue fluorescent bulb, and was coming from down low — the basement, the last couple of ground level windows.

Louisa whispered again: “The music — do you hear it?”

As soon as she said it, he realized he did. The faint but unmistakable sound of strings — several strings, probably a quartet. The sound seemed to be coming from down by the maple tree.

Kevin stepped around the corner of the meetinghouse, and tiptoed forward, with Louisa rustling quietly behind him.
The farther along the meetinghouse they moved, the louder the music played. And it wasn’t coming from beyond the tree, Kevin quickly understood, but from the far end of the basement, the same place as that strange blue light.

They stopped halfway down the building and pressed themselves against the wall. The music was quite loud now.

“Does thee recognize it?” Louisa whispered.

“Sure,” he whispered back after listening another moment. “It’s Beethoven. The Razumovsky Quartet. They played it at the concert today.” It was also, he thought, either the best recording he’d ever heard, or a live performance. And a very good one, too.

“What is it?” he whispered. “Who is it?”

Now she shrugged. “Take a look,” she whispered.

“Me?” he asked, suddenly nervous. “Why don’t you look?”

She drew herself up in the darkness. “Because,” she hissed, “it frightens me. Besides, thee is the music expert.”

“Well, this frightens me, too,” he said. But despite himself he crouched down, and carefully and quietly peered in the low basement window.

There wasn’t much to see. The blue light seemed brightest right below the window, near the wall beyond his field of view. The mending tables were faintly visible, and he could make out the bowls of buttons and the stack of newspapers, but nothing out of the ordinary.

He straightened up and whispered, “Nothing.”

Louisa began edging back toward the front of the
meetinghouse, beckoning him to follow. Once there, she strode quickly across the driveway to Friends Center.

Back in the library, she sat down behind the desk and spoke firmly.

“This is the third night that music has been playing in my clothing room. I’ve worked there twenty-two years, and nothing, I repeat, nothing like this ever happened before. I don’t like it.” Her voice was severe, as if reprimanding a particularly stubborn pupil.

“Have you gone down there?” Kevin asked. “You have a key.”

“Certainly not,” she snapped. “It’s not safe. Who knows who, or what, is down there?”

“Well, will you go with me?” Kevin asked. “I’m up for a little adventure. And besides, what could be so bad about ghosts that play Beethoven?”

“Ghosts?” Louisa said, “Why, whatever can thee be thinking of?”

“I don’t know,” he answered jauntily. “But do you have a better idea? Come on!”

She glared up at him for a moment over her glasses, then said, “Very well.” She stood up resolutely and pulled a key ring from a pocket of her dress. “It’s the large brass one in the middle. But thee goes first.”

In fact, he was more than a little nervous as he stuck the large, worn key in the lock. They had paused on the way to peek around the corner, confirming that the blue light was still shining, and the music was still playing.

“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered as the doorknob turned and then moved away from him.

“All right, we’re coming down!” he shouted as he pushed past the door, fumbling with one hand for the light switches as he groped towards the stairway in the dark.

“Here,” Louisa murmured from behind; her fingers, intimate with the building, found the switches on the first try.

The entryway suddenly lit up, and there was the stairway in front of him.

“Here I am,” he called, thumping loudly down the steps, “and I don’t mean you any harm–”

He hit the light switches at the bottom, and swung through the doorway.

No one was there.

The room looked much as it had after the morning’s bag brigade; the mending tables here, the racks over there, a few stray garments hung over the odd folding chair; certainly no sign of a concert. He took a few steps into the room, looking around uncertainly.

“Is thee all right?” Louisa croaked from the stairway.

“Yes,” he called. “Come on.”

She stopped in the doorway and surveyed her small domain carefully. Knowing it better, she saw what he had missed.

“There,” she said, pointing. “Those chairs!”

Of course, he thought. He hadn’t noticed them against the dark background of the racks. Four folding chairs stood in front of the last rack near the far wall. On two of the chairs a black evening suit was draped over the back; on the others hung black dresses, formal but severe.

“Look,” Kevin said, walking over to them. “They’re set at angles, as if around a music stand.” He touched one of the hanging jackets. “Do you recognize these clothes?” he asked.

“Hmmm,” she fingered a dress. “They must be off our racks here. But I recognize this one; Bay State Costume Exchange sent it over. I’m not certain about where the others came from.”

“Aren’t these a little classy for refugee duds?” he wondered, moving to the other suit.

Louisa bristled. “Friend,” she said sternly, “does thee think that only farmers and laborers are made homeless by war? I’ll have thee know that after Vietnam we sent suits to half the former college professors in the South. Nasty, useless war that was. And there’s many an educated Palestinian–”

“All right,” he grinned, “you made your point.”

* * * * * * * *
Louisa saw him glance at his watch. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “I’ve gotta call Jenny. I’m late.”

“There’s a phone over there,” Louisa pointed toward a venerable black instrument on a battered desk in a corner. Kevin rushed to pick it up.

Louisa listened to him spinning the old rotary dial, then blurting breathlessly. “Jen–I know I’m late, but you won’t believe what just happened. Can I come tell you about it? I’ll bring the ice cream. Great! Be there in a flash!”

He clanked the phone down, turned on his heel and hurried heedlessly to the stairs. He had trotted halfway up them when his steps abruptly stopped, paused, and then walked slowly back down.

Louisa regarded him skeptically as he came back into the room. “I’d like to think,” she said, “thee realized thee was leaving me here alone with this — whatever — and wanted to offer to walk me to my car. But I get this feeling thee has something else on thy mind.”

Kevin felt sheepish. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I was going to ask if you know where I can buy some ice cream at this hour on Sunday night. But you’re right, of course, it was thoughtless to rush off like that.”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Louisa said. “I was a lovestruck youngster once myself, and in that state, forgetting thy manners is the least of thy problems.”

She smiled now, a prim but wistful, remembering smile.

“Come on,” she said, “thee can follow me to the all-night market. And on the way to my Ford, let’s consider what to do about this possible poltergeist I seem to have inherited.”

Outside, as she locked the meetinghouse door with the large brass key, she turned partway toward him and murmured, “French vanilla was a very appealing flavor in 1932. My favorite in fact.”

Kevin’s expression showed that he realized she was not really speaking to him, and was gazing past his shoulder in the night. He waited a moment, letting the older woman in the flowered dress enjoy her reverie. Then he said quietly, “You’re right. French vanilla it is.”

* * * * * * * * * *
On the way to the car, what they decided to do was to treat the strange intrusion as something of a cross between a mystery and a research project. Louisa would look into the origins of the clothes they found on the chairs. Kevin would take a music history approach, and see what he could find out about Beethoven, and his string quartets. They agreed to meet at Friends Center after dinner the next night, to see what conclusions they could draw.

* * * * * * * * * * *
But reporting to Louisa after a day of effort, all Kevin was able to draw was blanks. “I found out a little about Razumovsky,” he reported. “He was the Russian ambassador in Vienna for years, and Beethoven wrote three quartets for him. As far as I can tell, it was just a job for Beethoven. He thought all the bigwigs who hung around the emperor’s court were a flock of turkeys. I don’t think there’s anything there. What did you turn up?”

“Not very much either, I’m afraid,” Louisa said. She sat at the library desk, drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously. “Mr. O’Neill at Bay State Costume Exchange recognized the evening suit and one of the dresses, but he couldn’t remember where he got them. It could have been The Boston Symphony. So I went down to that office. But,” she sighed tiredly, “the property manager has only been there a few weeks and doesn’t know anything. All in all a wasted day,” she concluded. Her fingers kept up their restless drumming.

“Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong places,” put in Jenny, who had come in with Kevin and had been sitting quietly beside him.

Louisa had liked her from the first. She was pretty all right, but looked serious too, and unaffected. Jenny seemed, Louisa concluded judiciously, to have the makings of a good strong Quaker wife — if that was how her romance with Kevin, and his romance with Quakerism, turned out.

Now she asked the young woman, “What does thee mean?”

“Well,” said Jenny, “suppose your musical ghost isn’t in your basement because of Beethoven, or because of an old evening dress. What if it’s here because of the meeting?”

“Hey, yeah,” echoed Kevin, brightening. “What if it’s coming back because of something that happened here? Louisa,” he asked, “have there ever been any string quartets played in the meetinghouse? The acoustics would be terrific.”

Louisa furrowed her brow. “I seem to recall something about music, but it was quite a few years ago and I didn’t hear it. As I told thee, Kevin, music was not my subject.”

Kevin thought a moment. “What about the meeting minutes?” he asked. “Would there be anything about recitals in them?”

Louisa shrugged. “Probably. They’d need permission for a concert in the meetinghouse, and that would be in the minutes. After all,” she added, “permitting the playing of music in a silent Friends meetinghouse would never have occurred to my old Wilburite grandfather, God rest his plain Quaker soul.

She pointed past the tables. “The minute books are over there, on that shelf by the window, all but the last five years or so, and there haven’t been any concerts in that time.”

Kevin stood up; he was excited now. “Okay, let’s start with the latest minutes and work our way back.” He moved toward the shelf.

“No, Kevin,” Jenny objected, “it would make more sense to start at the beginning and work forward.”

Kevin’s face showed irritation. “I don’t see what difference it makes,” he said sharply, “and I want to start with the recent minutes.”

There was a long, stiff pause, while the two young people glared at each other.

And so, Louisa thought, and sat slowly down  in her folding chair. Here we are at one of those seemingly minor hurdles these new young lovers will have to get over. Do they now get lost in their little egos, or do they work this out? She crossed her arms. How well, she thought. Alas, how well I remember.

“Perhaps,” she interposed after a moment, “you could work from both ends.”

To their credit, and to Louisa’s relief, they reached out for her little olive branch.

“Of course,” Kevin said, “why not?”

“Sure,” said Jenny, “that’s a good idea.”

“And I’ll start in the middle,” Louisa said. “The meeting was organized in 1940, so halfway puts me in 1965. Fifty years is young for a Quaker meeting in New England,” she observed, “but it’s still a lot of minutes. Let’s get busy.”

So each of them pulled down a stack of the heavy bound minute books. Kevin and Jenny sat them down on the big reading table, while Louisa took hers back to the desk.

Beethoven

* * * * * * * * *
For the next hour and a half, as night settled over Cambridge, there was little sound in the library other than the rustling of pages being turned. Kevin, working backward, found that, yes, there had been a chamber concert series in the meetinghouse in the summer of 1973.

“Let’s see,” he said, “here’s one for 2 harpsichords, one for lute, and another for some madrigal singers.” He signed, “But no quartets. And no Beethoven, either. It’s all renaissance and baroque.”

“I haven’t found any music,” Louisa commented at another point, “but here’s Social Concerns Committee in 1969, haggling about war taxes again.” She adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t get anywhere that time either.”

“No music in the forties, or most of the fifties,” Jenny added. “But I’ll keep looking.” She turned a few more pages, then stood up and stretched. “It’s getting stuffy in here,” she said. “Can I open a window?”

“Certainly,” Louisa said. “Fresh air will do us all good.”

When Jenny opened the window, cooler air poured in. But something else came with it — the faint but unmistakable sound of a string quartet.

Jenny listened without turning around.

“Is that–?” Kevin asked.

“Yes,” Jenny answered quietly. “The third Razumovsky. We should have been expecting it, I suppose.”

“Let’s go down there,” Kevin said, standing up. But Jenny reached out to touch his sleeve, and he paused.

“Wait a minute,” she said softly. “I want to listen here for a minute. There’s something familiar about the playing.” She listened again, for a long moment, until the playing subsided, then stopped. “That was the slow movement,” she said.

“What about the playing?” Kevin asked.

“I-I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “Maybe we should go over. We’re not finding anything in these minutes.”

“I’m ready,” Louisa announced, closing a minute book with a thump. “I guess we’ve established that whoever or whatever they are, they don’t have guns.” She pulled the key ring from her pocket and headed for the door.

They paused only briefly at the corner of the meetinghouse, to peek around and be sure, once again, that the pale blue light was indeed shining from the last two basement windows, and the music had begun again. Then Louisa walked briskly up the three steps and stuck the big brass key in the lock. She was first down the steps this time, too, stepping smartly into the again-deserted basement and over toward the far end of the racks, where the four chairs stood as before, the suits and gowns draped over them.

“Nothing different here,” Kevin said, looking over the tableau.

“There most certainly is something different,” Louisa snapped.

“But what?” Kevin persisted. “Here are the chairs and the clothes, just like last night.”

“That’s precisely it,” Louisa insisted. “This morning I hung up those clothes and put the chairs back at the table before I went to the Bay State Clothing Exchange. They’ve all been moved back.”

“Wait a minute,” came Jenny’s voice from behind them. “I think I’ve found something over here!”

She was at the mending table, looking at a newspaper from the stack, spread out on it. Kevin came to her side. “What is it?” he asked.

“There,” she said. “The obituaries.” She sat down as Kevin picked up the page and began to read:

“Isidore Kominsky, principal cellist with The Boston Symphony for more than twenty years and founder of the highly-regarded New Freedom String Quartet, died at his home last week.” He broke off and looked at the top of the page. “When was this?” he mused.

“Last month,” Jenny murmured gently.

Kevin’s eye skimmed down the paragraphs. “Let’s see… `escaped from his native Czechoslovakia in 1949, after a year’s imprisonment by the Communist government….Founded the New Freedom Quartet with three other exiled musicians in 1956, to raise funds for relief of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, after it was crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.

This photo is reportedly of a young Hungarian refugee somewhere in Europe, after the 1956 revolution was crushed.

“`Their first concerts were highly successful. Thereafter the quartet played several concerts each year, always as refugee benefits, even after Kominsky’s retirement from The Boston Symphony in 1971. “

He took a breath, and frowned.  “‘The group continued until 1976, when violist Ada Steinberg, one of its two women members, passed away, and Kominsky soon disbanded the group. He was the last surviving member of the quartet. In 1977–”

Kevin was stopped by a stifled sob beside him.

Jenny’s face was in her hands. “He was my first teacher,” she whispered. “He was old then, and had arthritis in his fingers, but he still played like an angel when the pain wasn’t too great. He had to stop after a year because of a stroke.”

She took a handkerchief Kevin was holding out to her, and wiped her eyes. “I heard the quartet play a few times before that, but I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the refugee part.”

Louisa had picked up the newspaper. “Thee missed the fine print, Kevin,” she said. He looked over her shoulder and read aloud again:

“A private memorial service is planned, and friends are asked to send donations in lieu of flowers to the Quaker Material Aids Program, care of Cambridge Friends Meeting.”

“As a matter of fact,” Louisa put in quietly, “we did receive several checks listed in his memory. But the name was strange to me because–”

“I know,” Kevin said, “music is not your subject.”

“Well music is my subject,” Jenny said firmly, wiping her eyes once more and blowing her nose. “And I know a reunion concert when I hear one. And we’re interrupting it.”

She faced Louisa. “I’ll bet if we could trace those clothes, they’d lead straight back to Mr. Kominsky, Mrs. Steinberg and the others. And they’ll be gone from here soon, in one of those trash bags, to who knows where. So while they were here together, their owners gathered with them one last time. And they didn’t get to finish, because we’re in their way.”

Jenny stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kominsky,” she said softly in the direction of the chairs, “I didn’t mean to intrude.” Then she walked toward the door.

Louisa and Kevin followed, snapping the basement lights off behind them. When they reached the door upstairs, though, Louisa gestured to Kevin before she hit the switch. As the entrance became dark, Kevin reached for Jenny’s hand and led her soundlessly after Louisa into the meeting room.

There, just as they sank noiselessly onto a long, sturdy bench, they heard the music start again below, with the cello mounting a vigorous, deeply felt melody, which the viola and violins answered in turn.

Kevin leaned over toward Louisa. “It’s the finale,” he murmured, and felt, rather than saw, her slight nod.

The music moved swiftly to an impassioned climax, then died away on a final, ringing chord.

After another few moments of silence, Kevin reached over and shook Louisa’s hand, then Jenny’s.

* * * * * * * *
A little later, after the young couple had escorted her to her Ford and then driven away, Louisa got out of the car, walked up to the meetinghouse, and quietly let herself in.

Downstairs, she found what she was expecting: The chairs were again at the table, the suits and gowns hanging on the rack.

So, she thought, they are finished. And I suppose that means that after tonight, they won’t be back.

But on the other hand, she reflected, after tonight, I expect young Kevin and Jenny will be.

 

Previous Quaker Holiday Stories:
#1 A Hospice for Hope

#2 How I got so Lucky

#3 Candles in the Window

**A Quaker Holiday Story Extra: Beethoven In the Basement


If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. This story is

FMC-Cover-Clip-4-Web

 

 

part of a collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, which is available here, and on Amazon and Kindle. It makes a fine gift.

Copyright © Chuck Fager

 

A Visit to Debbie’s House

This is a Megabus, seen from the upper deck pretty far back. It’s heading from Fayetteville, NC to Durham NC, just after dark Saturday December 7, 2019. This ride finished up a long and full day for me.

The day started with a chilly sunny gathering at the cemetery of the VA hospital in Fayetteville.  I joined in with nine other stalwarts huddled around the grave marker for Beryl Mitchell, for the 12th in a series of annual outdoor gatherings.

Beryl Mitchell, has been here since 1974. That December she was murdered by her Army Green Beret husband on Fort Bragg, and she lay here in an unmarked grave until 2007. (More about Beryl Mitchell & her magic end  here.

Christine Horne, at Quaker House

That autumn, Beryl’s daughter, Christine Horne, called me at Quaker House in Fayetteville, asking for help with planning a proper memorial for her mother, including the placement of a formal marker. In turn, I asked for help from the kick-butt feminists of the Fayetteville Chapter of National Organization for Women, and we did help. They are a remarkable group, and have been for decades, (They were social justice warriors long before SJW was cool.)

At the conclusion of the memorial, a group of us gathered at the new marker with a wreath and released a bunch of lavender helium balloons.

The whole experience, while very solemn at one level, was also exhilarating for us all. And we decided that those of us who could, would regather there yearly and remember Beryl, and the many other victims of domestic violence against women, both generally and especially in connection with the military.

I missed this meetup the last two years, and was determined to be there this time. It was a bigger deal for me to get there now, due to health problems which prevent me from driving, along with the general complications of life. But I made it. (That’s me holding the round NOW sign.)

Also there, with other old friends it was wonderful to see again, was my particular buddy Debbie. (She’s in the middle, in the black tee shirt with the peace sign, and the windblown hair. It was cold.)

From the cemetery we went to a leisurely lunch, and then Debbie took me to her house to chill for awhile until the Durham bus was due. On the way, though, she made a detour to a friend’s place where  an acquaintance had rescued a possum with pups, and asked Debbie to add it to a menagerie in her mini-wildlife preserve/backyard, which she was glad to do.

Debbie has lived on the outskirts of Fayetteville for decades, on a sprawling lot with many trees, with her husband Chuck (that’s Chuck Liebers, not to be confused with Chuck Fager). They’ve raised several kids there, who are all out of the house now.

Debbie is relieved to have the children elsewhere, but she’s hardly finishing raising things . Besides a flock of chickens, a couple of dogs, cats here & there), there’s now the brood of possums (their preferred cuisine, even the little ones, she tells me, is raw chicken wings, of which they eat every bit).

Debbie has also raised considerable hell hereabouts: domestic violence is but one of her many issues. We’ve already seen her concern about domestic violence, and there’s lots more; we’ll mention a couple presently.

Indeed, one appeared not long after my arrival, when I looked up at a TV screen as we settled in what she calls the Daddy Shack, and saw this brand new report:

I thought at first I might be hallucinating, but others (and my camera) confirmed that it  was for real.

Well, with politics out of the bag, and those of us remaining confirmed liberals, I also showed them this new ad, the first “Liz-mas Carol,” which is rapidly going viral, and, regardless of candidate preference, I think is hilarious:

In fact, by Saturday night, there was a second “Lizmas Carol” up, which you can see here  to the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” if you want additional guffaws.  (Speaking of Saturday Night, the highly paid SNL crew will be very hard-pressed to produce more laughs in its cold open than 45 and the Lizmas Carolers did today, likely both for free. UPDATE: They flunked.)

Anyway, if there was any doubt, finding a new occupant for the White House is tops on Debbie’s agenda; there’s no getting around it, but we won’t dwell on it here.

As the clock swept toward time to go, I strolled around Debbie’s back yard to get ready.  And I kept seeing very interesting stuff.  Like this sign & shrine, with its cat-headed Buddha turning his back on a ringing endorsement of science. Debbie used to be a churchgoer, but she quit a few years back, and says she feels “much more spiritual” now.

Debbie’s place is something of a hoarder’s stronghold, but one which includes a developed, if freewheeling sense of design. The camera came out again when I spied an old wringer washer posing amid a copse of bamboo, it joined the lineup.

When I turned, Debbie’s board fence was revealed to be home for a display for loads of more or less antique tools.

Then a section of the back wall . . .

. . . caught my eye, as it had been made another shrine of sorts, melding sun gods with a slogan tree.

There was lots more, but no more time; Megabus called. I’m sorry I missed the sign at the end of the driveway advertising eggs for $3 a dozen hard-gathered from Debbie’s pampered poultry flock. I need to ride the bus back soon and get another array of photos. I puttered over these most of the way back on the bus, shown here passing under the neon bridge that marks entry to downtown Durham . . . .

. . .  All this kaleidoscope seemed to flow together naturally somehow, a day beginning with death, segueing into conviviality, which showed up politics as having crazy comedic aspects, and down-home art all around. Hope your weekend turns out as well.

A recipe for calming parental panic about the military draft

I just read a long thread on a Quaker Facebook page, filled with semi-hysterical advice-giving about elaborate steps for paranoid parents/grandparents to take NOW to keep their precious sons  out of the iron clutches of the military draft, and smooth their path into the safety of C. O, (Conscientious Objector) status.

Threads like this pop up regularly. And this one, like most, was so full of misinformation and  irrelevant rehashings of what various folks did in the Vietnam years (which were about another war, in another century, in a different millennium), that it moved me to dash off this post as a public service, in hopes of helping quell the spreading panic.

First of all, There is NO draft today.

That means there is no law authorizing a draft. That also means there are NO legal provisions or procedures for males authorized by such a law,  even those who are “registered” on the list for Selective Service, to get themselves classified as C. O.s. None.

To get new rules about C.O.s, Congress would have to pass a new draft law & have it signed by the president, like any other law.

But what would such new rules look like?

NOBODY KNOWS. And NOT ALL “drafts” are or were the same.

In my day, for awhile they didn’t draft married men; then they did. They didn’t draft people preparing to be clergy. The draft age also changed. During the Civil War, a draftee could pay $300 and be legally exempted.

I won’t talk about what happened to me with the draft in 1965. It is not relevant to today, because the draft law I faced expired decades ago. Kaput.

To repeat my query, what would a new draft look like? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. There are some “model” draft plans around, but they are just ideas. The big question is what would Congress want a new draft to be? That’s the group that counts, but there’s no clarity about that.

The draft is not a “hot issue” in Congress. It isn’t like Republicans
want a draft that is all vanilla, and Democrats want it to be all chocolate. Or raspberry. It’s been more than 40 years since a Member of Congress had to deal with a real draft. The few members that old likely have largely forgotten it.

So if there was a new draft, it would come out of a political debate that’s not simple to predict. Libertarian Republicans say they hate the idea. Antiwar Democrats should oppose it too. Strange bedfellows. But events like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor can create an almost instant stampede. In fact, such a new draft might have no provisions for C. O. status at all.

That’s right, there’s no guarantee.

But chill out, people. The present law calling on 18 year-old males to register with Selective Service was passed almost 40 years ago. All it amounts to is putting their names on a list.  And of all the millions of American males who have registered under that law, not one — exactly ZERO, ZIP, NONE — has been drafted, C. O. or not.

Why not? Because, to repeat, there is no law permitting men on that list to be drafted. The list sits there, and every day some more men on it age out of eligibility for the nonexistent draft.

So the time to worry about this is IF or when a new draft law starts moving through Congress.

When will that be? Quien sabe?? But it can be said that nobody important is pushing for it now.

So how can you, if you are a young person of anti-killing-or-dying-in-war convictions, prepare now to escape this potential unwritten future draft?

Some well-intentioned folks have prepared elaborate To-Do lists, involving certified letters from Friends Meetings or other Worthy Sources, all notarized & mailed to themselves & kept in  vaults, etc.

Hey — worth a try.

I suppose these testimonials won’t do any harm. But for my money they’re no more valuable insurance than spending an evening each month baying  at the full moon. Or drinking lots of  chamomile tea.

Because there’s no draft, and no C. O. rules, there’s no assurance that any paper (or used teabags, or recordings of your lunar serenades) will be of any use.

There’s only one exception to the situation I’ve described above. If a young American (or their paranoid parents/grandparents) is/are really TRULY DETERMINED to become legally, officially classified & certified as a C. O., today, there is still ONE  official, legal way to do it.

I know what that way is, and if you want to know it too, as a public service, I’ll tell you.

No charge.

Are you ready?

Okay, here it is, and I’m not kidding:

Join the Army.
Or the Navy, Marines or Air Force.

Then apply for C. O. Status.

Yes, join the military. Because all the military services (and only they) DO have established, approved, legal regulations and procedures for granting official C. O.  Status. (Do you doubt me? If so, here are the Army’s  regs, to read for yourself. )

Before I retired, I helped many soldiers prepare C. O.  applications under those regs. And some of them succeeded. Others are now carrying on such preparation assistance.

But there’s a catch: not all such applications succeed. The military evaluates claims. Only about one in every seven or eight is accepted. But those troops whose claims succeed do become the only truly official legally certified C. O.s in America today, just like I said.

The only ones.

Now, if you think it’s a crazy idea to join the army to be able to apply for official C. O. Status — you’re absolutely right. It would be totally nuts. I said that’s the only legal way to do it, and it is. I didn’t urge anyone to do it.

But I also say again it’s the only available legal path to C. O.  status today. And so I repeat to young anti-war Americans (& their paranoid parents/grandparents), who don’t plan to enlist, and who do not face a draft today, or in the foreseeable future — CHILL OUT & worry about something real, like global warming.

If a serious move for a new draft starts in Congress someday, you’ll soon hear about it from reputable groups like Quaker House (quakerhouse.org) or other peace organizations. 

Until then, keep cool, have a cuppa, then maybe practice singing “Hey Jude” to the Cheshire Cat on the horizon. (Doing it under your breath is okay too.)

You’re  welcome.

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, You Old Anti-Imperialist!

Mark Twain born Samuel Clemens November 30, 1835

Hat tip today to Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac reminded me that today (November 30) is the birthday of Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain (born 1835).

Garrison sent me in search of some Mark Twain quotes, of which there are of course many. Here are a few, mostly new to me, followed by a brief discussion of his views on imperialism, which are another reason I admire him.

A Few Mark Twain quotes:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”

God created war so that Americans would learn geography

The absence of money is the root of all evil

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect

(To a missionary): You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?

In his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those.”

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself

If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man

And for special attention:
I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.

Twain’s anti-imperialist attitudes developed and took up much of his writing in the last decade of his  life, which overlapped with the U.S. government’s decision to join the club of imperial nations which was carving up the globe. The brief sketch of this period is taken from an article by a left-wing periodical, The Internationalist: “Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period Imperialist Period’ (full text here):

Excerpts:

“Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?—the “white race” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. . . .

When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers.

The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February[1898].

The ill-fated U.S.S. Maine

Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.

The U.S. now had an empire—almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared:

“The Philippines are ours forever…. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.”
— quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992)

. . . Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted.

“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
New York Herald, 15 October 1900

The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie.

The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.

The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. . . .

In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world. The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”—concentration camps–for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.)

A concentration camp, invented and run by the British, in South Africa during the Boer Wars.

At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion–the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet—it had the widest circulation of any League publication—League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. . . .

Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life [he died in 1910], raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 –the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg — the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. . . .

Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed— he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States.”

So Happy 184th birthday, Mark Twain, wherever you are (another of his quips: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company . . . .”) We need more such voices of such clarity and wit today.

The essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain, 1901 is online as a Full text FREE download from: Internet Archive, here.