[Trigger Warning: Quaker jargon ahead] I’m just finishing a book about the demise of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which came about in 2017 after the group’s 320 years of existence. [Watch for a book announcement soon.] That long, unQuakerly process was covered in detail in this blog as it unfolded, and the story will not be rehashed here. (But if you want to go over it, click this link.)
The book was supposed to be done by now. Yet what with the seemingly endless succession of calamities and catastrophes this year, completion was delayed until this week.
That meant there were now election results to take account of. So I just wrote an “Election Postscript” for it.
If you drove west on the Chapel Hill-Greensboro Road through Snow Camp, North Carolina on Sunday, November 1, 2020, at about eleven AM, you would have passed a white chapel-looking building on your left. A few cars were parked outside, on the grass under the big old trees, which are shedding their wrinkled brown leaves after a hot green summer.
That was Spring Friends Meeting. From the outside, it looked quiet, secluded, and almost deserted. Easy to miss amid the wooded stretches and dairy farms of southern Alamance county.
But inside, it was none of those. Yes, just a handful of Quakers, or Friends, were sitting, widely-spaced and mostly masked, on its long benches. And they weren’t loud. But a lot was going on.
English-speaking Quakers today are in dire need of some new “spiritual” books, and I have a top candidate to recommend here. It is John Calvi’s How far Have You Traveled?
Amid all the wonderful stuff that’s in it, some of what makes Calvi’s book so excellent is what’s not in it.
For example — and this fact alone made me an instant fan — in its 200 or so pages, the word “transformation” occurs only once.
Further, the bogus cliche “spice” shows up only thrice – and each time, thank goodness, it’s part of “hospice,” programs that bring comfort and peace to the often painful work of dying; in his career John has very often been a two-legged hospice. “Spiritual journey” likewise is limited to three appearances.
For that matter, “theology” is mentioned only ten times, and then mostly not from John’s pen, but in quotes by one of his elders/mentors, the late Elizabeth Watson.
But be not deceived; How Far Have You Traveled? is indeed a Quaker theological work, a substantial and serious (while often hilarious) one. For one thing, while Calvi is pretty loose on doctrine, Jesus pops up about twenty times. The book is not academic. John is an avid learner, but school academics have not been his forte.
Instead, he introduces us to what I would call “un-systematic theology,” and without argument he shows compellingly why it is so much needed. Instead of riffing on the trendy banalities of much “devotional” writing, or wandering into the mazes of academic abstractions, John’s theology grows out of reflections on decades of hands-on work as a massage therapist. Continue reading John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel→
A year ago, on October 10, 2019, I had a stroke. And I saw a vision of my future.
It started in the living room, about 7AM. I was in my battered recliner, reading newspapers on an Ipad. Across from me, on our long couch, grandson Calvin was stirring. His mom worked nights at Waffle House, so he often stayed over. It would soon be time for him to head out for the school bus.
I glanced up at him, and then something else stirred to my left: A bright metallic blue curtain had appeared, and seemed as if it was being drawn to the right, across my field of vision.
There was no pain, in fact no unusual sensation at all. But clearly something was wrong. I called out to Wendy, asleep in our bedroom. “I think I’m having a stroke!”
Calvin had to get himself up and out that morning. Shortly I was walking into the Duke ER, which is barely a mile away. And immediately I discovered one of the upsides of my condition. Having spent many bleak and painful hours in that ER waiting room, when I calmly answered the reception nurse’s “May I help you?” with, “I think I’m having a stroke,” it was like waving Harry Potter’s most potent magic wand. Continue reading A Whole Year In One Stroke→
Almost by accident, in 1997 I became a crime reporter, specializing in church-related financial frauds. My first major investigative report, called “Fleecing the Faithful,” is still online.
Michael Cohen’s book “Disloyal” brings back those years.
The crime schemes I covered were obscure, and often complicated to explain. Although they ruined many lives, they did so quietly. Cases typically lacked physical violence, dead bodies or sex. Hence few except the biggest ever got much media attention.
Yet religious based frauds were (& are) plentiful & destructive. And they didn’t have to directly involve “church” to be religious, at least for me. That’s because these crimes, like others, involve one of the central religious issues, namely the reality of evil. In fact, these cases’ lack of lurid melodrama made it easier for me to focus, at least In reflecting on them, on the underlying question:
Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:
One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me; I wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or
Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.
Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.
I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?
I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.
Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.
But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.
On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”
Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.
[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]
For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.
This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.
Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.
I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.
How did this come about? Who knew?
I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.
That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.
Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.
For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:
I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages. The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation.
Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.
I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.
By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me.
One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.
In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.
As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–
— But first, some explanation.
My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot. He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.
In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.
And I almost did.
Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.
But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)
If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.
But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.
How many of us get a chance to do that?
I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.
The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.
I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.
Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.
The retired could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.
Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”
Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”
And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.
In my experience, the work of overcoming racism and its sordid history has many aspects, and can be pursued in many ways. Some are loud and disruptive. Others are calmly persuasive. Different strokes for different folks.
Here I want to pay tribute to a current worker, a friend of mine, and fellow Quaker, Ron Osborne. On August 17, he appeared at the meeting of the Alamance County board of Commissioners, to do one small piece of this work, namely moving the tall Confederate monument from its longtime site in front of the old county courthouse in downtown Graham, the county seat.
Outside the building there were some noisy protesters, who could be heard in the background. Ron spoke quietly but clearly, The Commission sets aside up to 30 minutes for general public comments, in 3-minute segments. Ron made his three minutes count.
The Commission at this point has taken no steps toward moving the monument. But this work continues.
Ronald Osborne: I have lived in North Carolina all my life and in Alamance County for over 35 years.
My family first settled in North Carolina in the 1660s. Part of my property has been continuously owned by my family since the 1750s. My direct ancestor was a neighbor and acquaintance of the Regulator Herman Husband. Their names even appear together on some deeds. Another ancestor made muskets used at [the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of] Guilford Courthouse [in Greensboro].
My grandfather’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy, was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville and wounded at Spotsylvania. My grandmother’s great grandfather fought at the Battles of New Bern and Kinston.
My wife’s grandmother’s great uncle was killed at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. Our ancestors were also involved in other battles, including Gettysburg.
I share these scraps of family background to convey to you that I have a deep appreciation and awareness of History. My sons and I are Civil War reenactors, and I’m familiar with the inscription on the Court Square monument which appears to pay homage to those, like my ancestors, who served in the Confederacy.
I must tell you that the simple presence of this statue in the courthouse square, a place which should promote and guarantee justice for all, which should be a place which represents all citizens equally, is as much a divisive symbol of the injustices inflicted on many of our citizens, as it is a reminder of any gallantry and sacrifices of my, and perhaps your, ancestors.
History tells us that those who dedicated this monument were the very citizens who lynched Officer Wyatt Outlaw in the same square. They enshrined this statue not just as a memorial, but as a veiled threat, set in stone, to all people of color to know and keep their places as second-class citizens.
You, our elected leaders have been confronted with a choice: Do you accept as your legacy the defense of a symbol of our checkered history, where both you and our county are known for refusing to acknowledge our known shortcomings of the past? Or do you embrace this opportunity to seek our community’s redemption, to improve our reputation, improve our economy, and demonstrate that we are a county welcoming and fair to all?
Move the statue away from our house that aspires to Justice. Demonstrate that “blue lives as well as black lives matter by memorializing the travesty our community visited upon Officer Wyatt Outlaw and other citizens of color. Be known through posterity as the leaders who embraced an opportunity for positive change. For if you don’t, future leaders surely will, robbing you of this momentous honor that could have been yours.