All posts by 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.

Some “Advices” for Quakers & Others from “Passing the Torch”

The eleven authors in the new book, “Passing the Torch” were invited to draw on their several centuries of living and Quaker experience to offer “Advices,” informal counsel for readers.

A few made lists. Others wove such insights into their texts. Others left this part of the work implicit.

Here are some selections from these “Advices,” presented not as commandments, but more as food for thought and, perhaps, discussion.

Emma Lapsansky two advices:

Emma Lapsansky-Werner

1. Choose your perspective on life, and whenever possible, choose joy. One of my favorite parables is of two men, seated beside each other on a plane when the pilot’s voice was heard issuing news no traveler wants to hear:
“We’ve had engine failure, the plane is going down, and we don’t have enough parachutes for all of you. I suggest that your best chance for survival—and it’s a slim chance—is to kick out your window and jump.” The two passengers looked at each other, then one jumped, covered his eyes, moaned aloud about the terrible fate ahead, and sure-enough, he hit the ground and died. The second passenger—also without a parachute—jumped out of the window. But he decided to hold open his coat, like the wings of a bird, in order to slow his descent. Holding his coat open meant that he couldn’t cover his eyes. So, as he descended, he noticed the rich Fall colors on the trees. He also noticed how cute the children looked from above, as they played in the park. “Hmm,” he thought, “this must be the view that God gets, every day!” But of course, this second passenger also hit the ground, and perished. The moral of this parable is that while we do not always have control over our circumstances or outcomes, we always have a choice about our perspective.

2. Enjoy sugar cookies, cantaloupe, and home-grown tomatoes.

Barbara Berntsen:

Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Don’t fool yourself into defining what Quakerism is or how it will look for our spiritual children. You and your generation don’t own the tradition.
Don’t think you know who will pick up the torch and carry the flame into the future, however much you think you have the gift of prophecy. You run the risk of snuffing out the very spark that is the future.

Carter Nash.

Carter Nash: 1. [Since my cancer diagnosis] I have since been in a clinical trial, had radiation therapy, lots of tests on an ongoing basis. I’m up at 2am to take medications. I deal with the symptoms that women do during menopause (hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings) — so men, be nice and try to be understanding, it might be you one day.

2. [As an African-American Friend] One group that I have had to learn to forgive and try to ignore is the white saviors. I’m tired of their being offended for me (if you think I might have been offended ask me before you go complaining, I might be fine with you thinking I should have been offended by something, and if I was I can ask for help dealing with it, if I need any).
I’m tired of hearing them saying what acts are racist. I’m tired of them telling everyone else they have the solution to either racism generally or a problem they perceive. I am tired of hearing from them how people of color should deal with racism (which we do every day). In many ways I find the actions of white saviors to be saying people of color don’t have the ability, the agency to work for their own improvement, to demand their own equality to strategically plan to achieve their goals.

H. Larry Ingle.

H. Larry Ingle, historian:
1. “[The 1827 Hicksite-Orthodox schism left] Quakers so divided that it required a hundred and thirty-five years and many divisions later to overcome all the bitterness that ensued. Indeed, this animosity’s legacy still feeds an obvious distrust among Friends of different persuasions to this very day. It also makes too many Quakers averse to conflict, lest raising fundamental and basic issues among themselves might lead to other schisms. Speaking truth to power, a phrasing coined by Quakers in the 1950s when the AFSC published the seminal pacifist pamphlet Speak Truth to Power, is not something Friends do among themselves even today. They seem fearful of where honesty might lead. They need to get over that assumption.”

2. The lesson I take away from a lifetime of studying Quaker history is the one I articulated at the end of [my book] Quakers in Conflict, one often ignored . . . . True, I described and documented the high-handed unsavory tactics of [the] Orthodox [faction] but I also averred that some body has to have the authority to make judgments within Quakerdom. Authority need not become authoritarian, but neither can individualism be allowed to splinter the group into its constituent members, for then there will be no group. It is a hard path to walk this fine line between these two options, and given Quaker history nearly impossible to make much headway, but treading it is something that is certainly required.”

Chuck Fager: Quakerism is sometimes buffered from the full brunt of our own internal evildoing, not from virtue but rather by its flat decentralist structure. But make no mistake: bad Quaker things happen, and if you’re faithful enough for long enough, some will happen to you. Or maybe you’ll join in with them, if only by complicity. As the late M. Scott Peck put it in, People of the Lie: “Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself as well as from others than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.”

Jennifer Elam

Jennifer Elam (who was allotted four, because they’re very brief):

Tell the Truth (knowing the complexities of Truth).
Honor your parents (and they don’t have to know EVERYTHING you do as an adult); honor your heritage and ancestors.
Listen to your teachers (teachers are everywhere).
Laugh a lot; humor is important.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?
  4. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

 

 

 

 

“Passing the Torch”, Author Speak #6: Diane Faison Mckinzie

Diane Speas Faison McKinzie.

[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,

After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.

I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house,  finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.

I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.

In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.

Prince Edward Academy, the segregated private school organized for white students when the county’s public schools were closed to avoid integration. Local black students were left on their own. The academy still exists, renamed the Fuqua school, and has in recent decades admitted a few students of color.

They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.

Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.

Prince Edward students demanding the reopening of their public schools. The county schools were closed from 1959 to 1964.

Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.

Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.

It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.

Harriet Tubman during the time she worked as a spy and scout for the Union Army during the Civil War.

So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.

I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.

The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.

I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.

After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.

From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .

[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]

spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp NC.

When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.

Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.

This 2019 movie created powerful images of Harriet Tubman’s work.

After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.

Harriet Tubman, at left, as caregiver and advocate for elderly veterans, her family members, and others, at her home in Auburn, New York., circa 1887.

This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”

Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.

Diane as Harriet.

In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.

More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

6. Marian Rhys: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

“Passing the Torch,” Author Speak #5: “I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil . . .”

From Marian Rhys, “Life: The Great Balancing Act,” in Passing the Torch

Marian Rhys

Despite [a youthful] service-work connection with Friends, it was not until my early twenties that I became engaged with them on any regular basis. By that time, I had begun to feel the need for some spirituality in my life, and started attending Westwood Monthly Meeting in Los Angeles, where I had moved in 1968. I joined the meeting after about two years, eventually serving as treasurer and on Ministry and Oversight Committee.

But it was attending Pacific Yearly Meeting that really drew me to Friends. I experienced Yearly Meeting as a wonderful gathering of highly energized, dedicated and spiritually centered people. Worship sharing sessions seemed infused with truly meaningful discussions about important issues: what are our values? what does it mean to lead an ethical life? how do we address the suffering in the world?

I was particularly impressed with the older Friends I met, the World War II generation (and even older): in California, Lloyd and Eula McCracken, Ed and Molly Morgenroth, Russ and Mary Jorgensen, Red and Madelaine Stephenson, Bob and Marie Schutz, Earle Reynolds; and in the midwest, Louis and Nancy Neuman, and Raymond and Sarah Braddock. Howard and Anna Brinton were speakers at the first yearly meeting I attended, in 1971; Howard’s book, Friends for 300 Years, had just recently been published, and I bought a copy at the gathering and read it avidly.

The men in this generation had been conscientious objectors in World War II, and many couples had met while doing service work for the AFSC in Europe, after the war. These people were still vibrant and politically radical, even in their old age, taking part in civil rights and anti-war marches. Some of them were war tax resisters or were living deliberately ‘simple’ lives rather than — like most people in their generation — trying to acquire as many material goods as they could afford. And most of them had worked in lower-paying careers in social service work.

Earle Reynolds and his daughter Jessica, on the Phoenix, circa 1958.

Earle Reynolds has remained one of my heroes. He, along with his wife Barbara, had sailed his small ship, The Phoenix, into the atomic-weapons testing site in the South Pacific. When asked whether he was worried about the military detonating a weapon while he was in that area, he replied, “That’s their problem, not mine.” People like this were great role models for me, in my mid-twenties.

The most memorable event of my Pacific Yearly Meeting attendance, though, was the Meeting for Business in 1971, when the Peace and Social Concerns Committee, clerked by Earle, brought a minute endorsing amnesty for men who had evaded the draft by moving to Canada, but also (for balance, in a good Quaker way) for soldiers like Lieutenant Calley who had committed war crimes.

There were about 400 attenders at that Meeting for Business, and considerable discussion followed, much of it contentious. Many Friends were strongly opposed to granting amnesty for war crimes, while others argued for compassion and understanding for those (mostly young) soldiers who had, under the duress of war, committed acts that they normally would not have. Although Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not yet been identified or named, some Friends clearly grasped the concept.

Eventually, the committee was tasked with doing more research on the amnesty question and bringing back a modified minute on the following day. In those pre-internet days, research meant going to the library and poring over books.

Pardons were one thing; amnesty was another.

The committee, and Earle in particular, spent many hours at the library, returning to the next meeting with some interesting information: the president does not have the power to grant amnesty, Congress does, and amnesty cannot be granted for what are called “common crimes” such as murder, although persons who are convicted of such crimes can be granted pardons by the executive branch.

At this subsequent meeting, a modified minute was brought forward, urging amnesty for the draft evaders and pardons for the soldiers committing war crimes. The minute was approved with little discussion this time, and there was a tangible sense of spiritual unity in the meeting such as I have rarely experienced. This incident introduced me to the idea that perpetrators of evil suffer just as do victims, albeit it in a different way.

Yet I had my struggles with Friends, even in those early years. I went through a crisis of faith in 1972 when I read about the tortures being perpetrated in the South Vietnamese prisons — tortures funded by U.S. taxpayers. Although we did not have photographs of these atrocities, as we did thirty years later from Iraq, I had a good enough imagination to visualize them, and they made me sick.

I was never able, though, to get Friends, as a group, to address the issue of human evil. Although I did meet a few individuals here and there, who had experienced some struggles with the issue of evil, I did not find anyone who seemed to have been as deeply affected by it as I had, who could not get it out of their mind. When I brought up my struggles over the torture issue in a discussion group at PYM in 1972 or 1973, another Friend told about her social work with a family headed by a single mother, whose new boyfriend refused to let her daughter from her previous marriage sleep in the house at night; the child had to sleep outdoors, under the porch.

I was horrified at this tale, as were several other Friends. Yet no one seemed to really be willing to address the issue of the evil that this incident represented. One Friend proposed that we all go and rescue this child. “Sure,” I thought, “that’s really likely to happen. And even if it did, what about all the other abused and neglected children, of which there are no doubt millions, all over the world?” Other Friends simply responded by saying that we all need to perform social justice work, and eventually situations like this would get fixed.

But clearly, there was way too much evil in the world to fix. People were suffering, horribly, in many ways. Millions of people, every day, day in, day out, year after year. I was overwhelmed by it all; I thought about it constantly, for years. Yet virtually no one was willing to talk about it; I did not maintain ongoing relationships with the few people I encountered who at least admitted that it was an issue, and Friends as a whole simply refused to discuss it, most offering only useless platitudes like those put forth in that discussion group where I had first brought up the issue.

So, I stopped trying to talk with Friends about evil, and tried to find other individuals here and there in my life, who were willing to acknowledge the existence of evil, and talk about it.

My first successful step in this direction was in 1983, when I started attending self-help groups. There I met people who had suffered and survived abuse and even torture, including many who had learned to cope with the wounds. Invariably, it was spirituality, of one kind or another, that had helped them through this process. . . .

What came of Marian Rhys’s continued grappling with the issue of evil in Quaker circles (and beyond)? Her answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

5. Douglas Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling”

 

 

“Passing The Torch”, Author Doug Gwyn: “I received a distinct calling . . .”

. . . I grew up in a large, mildly liberal pastoral Friends meeting in Indianapolis.  Amiable but tepid, it gave me little to rebel against, but not much to inspire or motivate me either.  I did not attend any church or meeting during my college years.  But I had a spiritual sense that gravitated toward the natural world.  I might well have explored an Eastern spiritual discipline, had I not received a distinct calling to ministry in 1968, at age nineteen.

I had never considered ministry before (I was a zoology major).  All I knew was that my first love relationship had recently ended and I was devastated.  As they say, God meets us in our    extremity.  The subtle but clear call, “be a minister,” came as I sat alone in my dormitory room one evening.  It came as a seismic non sequitur that felt strangely hopeful.

I understood my calling to be a Christian ministry among Friends.  But I was sure it needed to be something more prophetically Christian and more seriously Quaker than what I had received in my youth.   I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1971 (though I admit it was New York that drew me most).

The professors [at Union] weren’t sure what to think of us baby-boom seminarians, many of whom had enrolled primarily to avoid military conscription.  But we were ready to learn from them – on our own generational terms.

My prophetic Christian faith grew during my Union years, ending in 1975.  But since there were no other Friends at Union, it was only afterward, during my first Friends pastorate back in Indiana, that the Quaker dimension began to develop.  The most important influence for me was Lewis Benson, two generations my senior, a high school drop-out who began studying George Fox and early Friends in the 1930s and soon became a critic of Rufus Jones and the liberal Quaker renewal – something very unpopular in those days.

. . .   I was drawn to Lewis’ outsider status and his identification of the prophetic spirituality of George Fox’s message. It was much more trenchant than anything I heard from the pastoral meetings I knew in the Midwest or the liberal unprogrammed meetings I attended in the East. . . . Often individuals from an earlier generation who had been outliers or rebels serve as forerunners and mentors to members of an emergent generation.  Lewis Benson played that role most acutely for me. . . .

Still, what I learned from my mentors had to be appropriated by way of the “fresh contact” of my own personal and generational experience.  My apocalyptic interpretation of George Fox, which was published [in book form] as Apocalypse of the Word, built on Lewis Benson’s prophetic interpretation, but took Fox’s experiential eschatology much further. 

My reading of Fox was informed by my calling to ministry during the apocalyptic year of 1968, and by the intensified registers of personal experience particular to my generation . . . .

. . .  The polarization of culture, religion, and politics since the stalemated outcome of the revolutionary sixties continues to enervate American society at large and the Society of Friends in particular.  My ministry unfolded as a series of sojourns crisscrossing that divide between liberal-progressive and traditional Christian camps of American Friends, sometimes as a Friends pastor, other times as a teacher at Pendle Hill (and at Woodbrooke among British Friends).

All the time, I continued to research and write about early Friends and attempt in various ways to present early Quaker witness as a more vital faith and practice than either liberal or evangelical Friends offer.  In Unmasking the Idols: A Journey among Friends, I suggested that there is no future for either major branch of American Friends as long as they refuse to learn from the prophetic vision of early Friends but continue to hybridize their faith and practice with evangelical and liberal-humanist streams in the wider culture.  Indeed, membership statistics since then continue to suggest that the world doesn’t need “we too” Quakers.

But sojourns among the variety of Friends have also inspired my quixotic penchant for song-writing (sometimes recorded under the name The Brothers Doug).  “A Process in the Wind” lampoons Quaker group decision-making. “Eighty-Weighty Friend” celebrates Quaker gerontocracy.  “Yonder Stands the Quaker” [ on YouTube here: ] views us from the outside as “an endangered species of spiritual life, practiced in the art of lost cause.”  “That of Odd in Everyone” explores where “oddliness and godliness intertwine” . . . . It is a sign of their spiritual health that Quaker communities enjoy laughing along with these songs. . . .

I completed a trilogy of early Quaker studies, ending with . . .  Seekers Found in 2000.  By then, I noticed that while Apocalypse of the Word (1986) had gained significant readership and discussion across the Quaker spectrum, The Covenant Crucified (1995) aroused less interest, and Seekers Found garnered very little, despite being some of my best work.

Reviews of these books were very positive, but sales kept declining. . . . In the 1980s, Friends had read and discussed books much more widely.  By the turn of the century, book conversations were declining sharply, at least in my anecdotal awareness.

I decided that more books about early Friends would be more along the lines of a personal hobby than a religious concern.  And feeling unhopeful about significant renewal among Friends in general, I turned my attention to Pendle Hill.  That Quaker educational community had profoundly renewed my spirit during my sojourns of life and work there, and I knew it had similarly affected many others.  . . .  Beginning in 2008, I began researching and writing Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill.  . . . The book turned out to be more an elegy for what had been than a call to continue a great Quaker experiment. . . .

. . . Millennials have been formed by social and technological changes as profound as those that formed my baby-boom generation.  . . .  In addition, the related rise of finance-driven capitalism – moving at light-speed in global circuits and generating perpetual crisis – has made the vocational and economic lives of millennials increasingly precarious.

Not surprisingly, there is some palpable intergenerational resentment against baby-boomers, who have so broadly contributed, or otherwise acquiesced, to the environmental decline, entrenched racism and sexism, and economic insecurity that millennials inherit today.

. . . As for me, I am still stuck writing books, which are so last century.  But they seem to be the best way to convey the richness of Quaker history and theology. . . .

I suppose you could say I have been “carrying a torch” in the sense of tending the wound of some lost or unrequited love, some unfulfilled hope.  Friends today (all generations) increasingly regard history as irrelevant to the all-consuming what’s-happening-now. . . .

Because Quaker faith is experiential rather than creedal, our theology is narrative in character.  The Quaker penchant for journals, memoirs, and histories bears this out.  . . . .We are poorer spiritually and bereft of evocative models of prophetic faith without the echo of their voices. . . .

What came of Doug Gwyn’s outsider-insider career as a Quaker thinker and writer? The (short) answer is in the pages of Passing The Torch. (The longer answer is in his own books.)

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; (more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

  1. Carter Nash
  2. Helena Cobban
  3. Why Passing the Torch? Why Now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.

And having had what some call a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.

“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And its our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”

The remains of the reputed “Ozymandias” statue in Egypt.

This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.

We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.

A Torah scroll, filled with stories, one of the oldest existing copies, in the possession of the Samaritan community.

Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual storys role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.

Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call bold” or ground-breaking.”

In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.

Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. Ive dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.

Were a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.

Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. Its a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torch tries to get at.

What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that,  Ill leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:

8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they dont.

 And 4:12:  So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.

(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here. )

Previous posts featuring Passing The Torch Authors–
1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

“Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #3: “I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. . . .”

Helena Cobban

I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.

Helena Cobban

I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .

In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)

Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .

I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.

What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.

My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.

I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.

By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.

The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.

In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)

Beirut, during the civil war.

So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.

I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.

So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.

I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .

When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .

All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.

Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.

I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .

And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?

The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

“Passing the Torch” – “I did a year in prison for that . . .” “Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #2

Carter Nash is one of the authors of the new book by and about American Quaker elders, Passing The Torch:

Carter Nash

I’m a 65-year-old gay man of African descent. I was born in Huntington, West Virginia at a time when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. The hospital I was born in was segregated and my mother being very fair skinned was placed in the white maternity ward. When I was born, mom was moved to the colored ward.. . .

I wasn’t born into a Quaker family (officially) but into an African Methodist Episcopal one. I was christened at St James A.M.E. in Ashland.

My father being in the Navy we moved around quite a bit. Neither of my parents were big church going people. . . .

As a seeker I visited different places of worship, many not Christian. After a while I felt that I wasn’t finding what I needed. Also, I still fully believed in the American two-party political system.

I was at the time a rarity, a black Republican in Philadelphia. I had joined the GOP because while they only had two at large seats on city council, those two council members were greatly under-appreciated in what they could do. They were still on city council and they could deliver services.

I was quickly asked to be the Republican committeeman for my district. This allowed me to call either of the two GOP city council members and say who was to get things done.

For instance, I was working at a public school and there was an abandoned car on the sidewalk outside the school yard. The principal tried calling for a couple of weeks to have it removed with no luck. I finally told him I would take care of it. I made a call in front of him that morning and it was gone that afternoon.

The school was a special school that was almost completely federally funded. At the end of the year I received a letter letting me know not to return the following year as a result of system-wide layoffs. I had been bumped out of my job. I made a couple of calls (including to a US Senator’s office) trying to get my job restored. I was told that I shouldn’t worry, all would be alright, and it was. An additional position was created at the school for me.

I volunteered on the campaign for governor of Richard Thornburgh. There were two reasons I supported Thornburgh: there were things I knew about his opponent, the former Philadelphia District Attorney, and Thornburgh had the support of Elsie Hillman, the Republican National Committeewoman from Pennsylvania.

Elsie Hillman (d. 2015) former Republican National Committee member from Pennsylvania, and friend of Cater Nash.

While working on the campaign my grandmother died. I was crushed. I was living in Philadelphia, she was in Kentucky and I didn’t have the money to get myself and my mom (who was in a wheelchair because of MS) there. At about midnight I was in tears and called Elsie Hillman at her house in Pittsburgh and somehow when I left my house that morning to go to work I found $1000 in my door. The Republican Party of those days no longer seems to be. There was a time when the Republicans were really caring and respectable. My great grandmother was a Republican. . . .

Later I moved to York, Pennsylvania and operated an “escort service”. This was for the most part a gay prostitution ring. This was before HIV/AIDS. It was also at a time when many gay men were afraid of being outed even more than they are now. I got into this business because a friend said he needed someone to answer his phone when he out on calls (yes it was long before cell phones), I wasn’t working, and it sounded interesting to say the least.

He had ads in some gay papers and magazines to find clients. After a while a couple of his friends were involved in going out on calls. We took Master Card, VISA and American Express. There was one older man who worked for us who was married and had two sons in high school, he had a good professional career and his wife knew he liked men. He found this a good way to hook up. He used the company car to go on calls and he refused to keep his portion of the fees (he’d give it to me). One of the best stories is about the time a priest called in with a bad credit card, that was the only bad card anyone ever tried using.

I can say that one of the best things that happened was when some jealousy arose between a couple of guys causing the police to get involved and shut us down. This was good because HIV/AIDS was just starting, and I was looking for a good way to get out of the business. It could have been a good deal more financially rewarding but that wasn’t the purpose.

When the police came, I took all the responsibility and charges as I couldn’t see others having their lives ruined. The police couldn’t get my records as they were kept on in digital form on a cassette tape (in those days people didn’t have home computers for the most part, the one I had required a TV, a cassette player and the unit that connected the two).

The district justice I appeared before the evening of my arrest was interesting in that he gave me instructions on how to operate the business within the law!!! I ended up getting 30 days and a $500 fine. While I was waiting for the final disposition of my case, I committed credit card fraud to survive, I did a year in state prison for that.

When it was time to be paroled from state prison, I needed to put in my parole plan (papers saying where I was going to live and work). Mine said that I was going to stay at a roach hotel in Carlisle along with a letter from the state unemployment office saying they would help me locate work. When the plan came back approved the state parole officer in the prison said he had never seen such a weak plan be approved. I still knew people on Governor Thornburgh’s staff, and we’d stayed in contact while I locked up, I don’t know if that helped or not.

I had a bit of trouble getting a job when I arrived in Carlisle, until one day I went to put in an application and started off by saying to the boss, named Bob, If my having just gotten out of state prison is going to keep you from hiring me tell me now and I’ll just go away.

But Bob told me to sit down. About a week later I got a call saying when I was to start. It was almost a year later when I learned my being so up front was what got me the job.

Bob was one of the best bosses/people I have ever known. It was little things that made him great. I was working in a restaurant that he had just opened (he made his real money at his body shop). I was the only African American working there. Almost all the customers were white.

Once a dance floor was put in for use on the weekends more African Americans came. When Bob overheard a waitress comment “the place is getting dark” she was let go on the spot. Bob and his wife didn’t care that I was black or gay, they were just good people. The only time I’ve been drunk in the last 44 years was the night I learned Bob had died. . . .

How did Carter Nash get from a state prison to Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

A previous Author’s post, “Pray for Segregation!” is here.