Author and novelist Jessamyn West (1902-1984), best remembered for her classic The Friendly Persuasion (book and movie) was raised and shaped by a long line of Quakers. Rooted in Indiana, they wound up evangelical and Holiness-centered, as well as cousins to Richard Nixon, in southern California.
Her family left their southern Indiana Quaker homeland when Jessamyn was six. West left its Quakerism as a young woman; as her church moved in ever-more conservative directions, she wound up, not an activist, more a loyal ACLU liberal. But her Quakerism never really left her.
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→
The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.
And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.
But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.
Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.
But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?
This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.
“Heads up!” called the voice from the basement. “Here come the bags!”
When they heard the cry a hundred men and women straightened up, like ragtag soldiers jerking to attention. Spaced about three feet apart, they stood in a line that ran from the open end of a big tractor-trailer truck squeezed into the horseshoe curve of Longfellow Park, up the sidewalk and across the wide green lawn. It snaked around the corner of the meeting house, past Friends Center, up the three low steps of the meetinghouse porch, through the open double doors, made a sharp right past the small literature table. Then left again to the steep, dim stairway, and down every other step to the basement.
There it ended, at a heap of bulging black plastic trashbags. Each bag was packed full and cinched tightly shut with a strong wire twist. The bags were neatly stacked five high, eight wide, and half a dozen deep, and they seemed to fill the entire low-ceiling room.
Kevin Blackburn stood at the front of the line, wondering how he ended up facing so much hard labor on a quiet Sunday morning.
But there was really no mystery about how he got there. Louisa Cabot, the prim older woman standing next to him, glancing from the pile of bags to the waiting line of people, had asked him.
Actually, “asked” wasn’t quite accurate; “drafted” was closer. After announcements at the end of meeting for worship, she had marched straight up to him, peered at him above her wire-rimmed spectacles, and said firmly, “Kevin, I would like for thee to help me get the shipment out of the clothing room.”
Her tone was friendly enough, but it left no room for any response other than agreement. She spoke, Kevin thought, like the old-fashioned schoolteacher she had been for forty years, still in firm command of her classroom. And in her subdued flower print dress, with its square lace-trimmed collar, she looked the part, too.
Louisa gave the waiting line of Quakers a last quick glance and said, “Well, Kevin, whenever thee’s ready, I suggest thee start at the far end of the stack.”
Kevin did, pulling the top sack out by the bunched plastic neck, catching it in both hands, then passing it to the Friend behind him, who in turn passed it on up the stairs.
Fortunately, the bags weren’t as heavy as they looked; old clothes were more bulk than weight. But before long, when the bucket brigade was going full tilt and the bags were moving quickly up the steps and around the three corners to the waiting man on the truck, Kevin was sweating freely. This was hard work. He would need to go home and take a shower before the concert, or Jenny wouldn’t come near him. And Kevin wanted very much to be near to Jenny.
After hefting two rows of the bags, Kevin felt as if the pile would go on forever. Surely, he thought, there’s enough pants, shirts, sweaters, dresses, socks and underwear here to clothe every refugee in Asia, and Africa too, with plenty left over for Central America, and even a bag or two for the Goodwill downtown.
But then, suddenly, there were only three bags left, and in a flash they were behind him, disappearing up the stairs. As the final bag arrived at the truck and was tossed in, the Friends in the line gave a cheer, shook hands, and then broke up into small groups, mopping the sweat from their foreheads and talking excitedly.
Kevin collapsed in a chair to catch his breath. The basement seemed much bigger now with the bags gone. Mending tables lined one side, each bearing several oversize spools of thread and a number of old soup bowls full of every kind of button imaginable. On one a stack of newspapers for wrapping leaned precariously. Racks of dresses and suits awaiting repair stood along the opposite wall, under a row of small ground-level windows.
Here, several days a week, Louisa gathered a mixed crew of volunteers, mostly other older women, who patched and mended and talked for hours. Kevin had never seen them at it, but they were clearly an energetic and productive bunch: This was the second big shipment that had gone out since he started attending Cambridge Meeting last winter.
“Here, Kevin, thee has earned this,” Louisa said behind him. He looked around and took the glass of lemonade from her. “Thanks,” he said, still panting.
“I hope we didn’t wear thee out and spoil thy plans for the day,” Louisa said.
“Oh, that’s okay,” Kevin said. “I’m just going to a concert later. Then I’ll be back here tonight for Social Concerns Committee.”
And for the committee’s potluck, he added silently. He was a little embarrassed to admit it, but potlucks were his favorite Quaker ritual and the closest to home cooking a single Harvard grad student ever got. Sometimes he wondered if potlucks headed the list of what these Quakers called testimonies.
“Um, what sort of concert?” Louisa asked, cutting into his theological reflections. Her tone was tentative now, as if she felt she was prying.
“Oh, just a string quartet,” Kevin answered. “A woman I’m dating is playing the cello.”
At this Louisa’s eyebrows went up slightly and her expression became thoughtful. “A string quartet, eh?” she mused. “I don’t know much about music myself. English grammar and American history. Those were my subjects. Nothing against it, thee understand, I just never had much time to listen.”
She paused for a moment, while Kevin drained his lemonade. “Um, Kevin,” she inquired, “would thee do me a favor?”
“Sure,” he said, genuinely surprised now at her tone. The old sense of command was gone; she sounded anxious, almost afraid.
“After the committee meeting tonight,” Louisa continued, “I’ll be in the library. Meet me there and there’s something I want to show thee if I can. Something musical, and very peculiar.”
Kevin grinned at her. “I’ll do it,” he said dramatically, “on one condition.”
“What’s that?” Louisa asked guardedly.
“Promise me there’ll be no more heavy lifting,” he said.
Now it was her turn to grin, and smile wrinkles piled up around her eyes. Her old self again, she stuck out a hand.
“Friend,” she said firmly, “Thee has a deal.”
* * * * * * * *
The concert was fine. Jenny played well, and agreed to meet Kevin for ice cream and talk after his meeting. He was looking forward to that.
The committee meeting was a different matter, though. Ever since winter, they had been laboring over a policy statement on war tax resistance. But after months of meetings, they seemed no closer to unity than when they started.
Some Friends felt the meeting had to take a stand and not even pay the federal tax on its telephone, which went directly to support wars like the one that had recently, finally ended in Vietnam. But others felt the group ought to obey the law, and anyway tax money didn’t just pay for war. It paid for other things, too — good things like health care, and housing.
And student grants, Kevin reminded himself.
Coming out of the meeting, Kevin’s head ached a little from the arguments. His own opinion seemed to go back and forth; surely, he thought, the meeting ought to take a stand against the billions wasted on bombs and missiles. But on the other hand, he couldn’t deny that some good things were done with taxes. And how were we to tell the difference?
“How long,” he wondered aloud to Louisa as he entered the library, “will it take that committee to make up its mind about war taxes?”
But there was no answer. The lights were on, but the room was empty.
The silence surprised him. Louisa was surely punctual if she was anything. Then he was startled by a voice behind him. Louisa, was coming through the doorway with a book under her arm. “Did I hear thee complaining about war taxes?” she asked.
“It’s the committee,” he said. “We can’t agree on what to do about them.”
“Humph,” she said brusquely, “Friends have been arguing over what to do about them for more than 300 years, with no end in sight. Don’t let it bother thee.”
She set the book down on the library desk. “A waste of time, if thee asks me,” she concluded firmly. “Come along and let’s see if we can find something a little more interesting.” Turning toward the door, she motioned for him to follow.
She led him out of Friends Center, into the quiet night of Brattle Street. Stepping up to the darkened meetinghouse, she signalled silence with a finger to her lips, then quietly tried the door.
It was locked, as it always was at night.
“What–?” Kevin began, but her rising finger stopped him.
“This way,” she whispered, and tiptoed toward the far corner of the meetinghouse. There she stopped and peered cautiously around the corner, then stepped back and motioned to Kevin.
He looked past her, at nothing special: a high board fence divided the meeting’s property from the neighbors’ garage, a big old maple rustled gently at the far end, and a narrow strip of grass lay in between, dark like a carpet except where a wedge of dim light turned a patch dull turquoise.
Kevin turned back to Louisa and shrugged. She shook her head and leaned toward his ear. “The light,” she hissed.
He looked again. Now that she mentioned it, there was something peculiar about the light. It was an odd color, like a very blue fluorescent bulb, and was coming from down low — the basement, the last couple of ground level windows.
Louisa whispered again: “The music — do you hear it?”
As soon as she said it, he realized he did. The faint but unmistakable sound of strings — several strings, probably a quartet. The sound seemed to be coming from down by the maple tree.
Kevin stepped around the corner of the meetinghouse, and tiptoed forward, with Louisa rustling quietly behind him.
The farther along the meetinghouse they moved, the louder the music played. And it wasn’t coming from beyond the tree, Kevin quickly understood, but from the far end of the basement, the same place as that strange blue light.
They stopped halfway down the building and pressed themselves against the wall. The music was quite loud now.
“Does thee recognize it?” Louisa whispered.
“Sure,” he whispered back after listening another moment. “It’s Beethoven. The Razumovsky Quartet. They played it at the concert today.” It was also, he thought, either the best recording he’d ever heard, or a live performance. And a very good one, too.
“What is it?” he whispered. “Who is it?”
Now she shrugged. “Take a look,” she whispered.
“Me?” he asked, suddenly nervous. “Why don’t you look?”
She drew herself up in the darkness. “Because,” she hissed, “it frightens me. Besides, thee is the music expert.”
“Well, this frightens me, too,” he said. But despite himself he crouched down, and carefully and quietly peered in the low basement window.
There wasn’t much to see. The blue light seemed brightest right below the window, near the wall beyond his field of view. The mending tables were faintly visible, and he could make out the bowls of buttons and the stack of newspapers, but nothing out of the ordinary.
He straightened up and whispered, “Nothing.”
Louisa began edging back toward the front of the
meetinghouse, beckoning him to follow. Once there, she strode quickly across the driveway to Friends Center.
Back in the library, she sat down behind the desk and spoke firmly.
“This is the third night that music has been playing in my clothing room. I’ve worked there twenty-two years, and nothing, I repeat, nothing like this ever happened before. I don’t like it.” Her voice was severe, as if reprimanding a particularly stubborn pupil.
“Have you gone down there?” Kevin asked. “You have a key.”
“Certainly not,” she snapped. “It’s not safe. Who knows who, or what, is down there?”
“Well, will you go with me?” Kevin asked. “I’m up for a little adventure. And besides, what could be so bad about ghosts that play Beethoven?”
“Ghosts?” Louisa said, “Why, whatever can thee be thinking of?”
“I don’t know,” he answered jauntily. “But do you have a better idea? Come on!”
She glared up at him for a moment over her glasses, then said, “Very well.” She stood up resolutely and pulled a key ring from a pocket of her dress. “It’s the large brass one in the middle. But thee goes first.”
In fact, he was more than a little nervous as he stuck the large, worn key in the lock. They had paused on the way to peek around the corner, confirming that the blue light was still shining, and the music was still playing.
“Might as well get it over with,” he muttered as the doorknob turned and then moved away from him.
“All right, we’re coming down!” he shouted as he pushed past the door, fumbling with one hand for the light switches as he groped towards the stairway in the dark.
“Here,” Louisa murmured from behind; her fingers, intimate with the building, found the switches on the first try.
The entryway suddenly lit up, and there was the stairway in front of him.
“Here I am,” he called, thumping loudly down the steps, “and I don’t mean you any harm–”
He hit the light switches at the bottom, and swung through the doorway.
No one was there.
The room looked much as it had after the morning’s bag brigade; the mending tables here, the racks over there, a few stray garments hung over the odd folding chair; certainly no sign of a concert. He took a few steps into the room, looking around uncertainly.
“Is thee all right?” Louisa croaked from the stairway.
“Yes,” he called. “Come on.”
She stopped in the doorway and surveyed her small domain carefully. Knowing it better, she saw what he had missed.
“There,” she said, pointing. “Those chairs!”
Of course, he thought. He hadn’t noticed them against the dark background of the racks. Four folding chairs stood in front of the last rack near the far wall. On two of the chairs a black evening suit was draped over the back; on the others hung black dresses, formal but severe.
“Look,” Kevin said, walking over to them. “They’re set at angles, as if around a music stand.” He touched one of the hanging jackets. “Do you recognize these clothes?” he asked.
“Hmmm,” she fingered a dress. “They must be off our racks here. But I recognize this one; Bay State Costume Exchange sent it over. I’m not certain about where the others came from.”
“Aren’t these a little classy for refugee duds?” he wondered, moving to the other suit.
Louisa bristled. “Friend,” she said sternly, “does thee think that only farmers and laborers are made homeless by war? I’ll have thee know that after Vietnam we sent suits to half the former college professors in the South. Nasty, useless war that was. And there’s many an educated Palestinian–”
“All right,” he grinned, “you made your point.”
* * * * * * * *
Louisa saw him glance at his watch. “Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “I’ve gotta call Jenny. I’m late.”
“There’s a phone over there,” Louisa pointed toward a venerable black instrument on a battered desk in a corner. Kevin rushed to pick it up.
Louisa listened to him spinning the old rotary dial, then blurting breathlessly. “Jen–I know I’m late, but you won’t believe what just happened. Can I come tell you about it? I’ll bring the ice cream. Great! Be there in a flash!”
He clanked the phone down, turned on his heel and hurried heedlessly to the stairs. He had trotted halfway up them when his steps abruptly stopped, paused, and then walked slowly back down.
Louisa regarded him skeptically as he came back into the room. “I’d like to think,” she said, “thee realized thee was leaving me here alone with this — whatever — and wanted to offer to walk me to my car. But I get this feeling thee has something else on thy mind.”
Kevin felt sheepish. “As a matter of fact,” he admitted, “I was going to ask if you know where I can buy some ice cream at this hour on Sunday night. But you’re right, of course, it was thoughtless to rush off like that.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Louisa said. “I was a lovestruck youngster once myself, and in that state, forgetting thy manners is the least of thy problems.”
She smiled now, a prim but wistful, remembering smile.
“Come on,” she said, “thee can follow me to the all-night market. And on the way to my Ford, let’s consider what to do about this possible poltergeist I seem to have inherited.”
Outside, as she locked the meetinghouse door with the large brass key, she turned partway toward him and murmured, “French vanilla was a very appealing flavor in 1932. My favorite in fact.”
Kevin’s expression showed that he realized she was not really speaking to him, and was gazing past his shoulder in the night. He waited a moment, letting the older woman in the flowered dress enjoy her reverie. Then he said quietly, “You’re right. French vanilla it is.”
* * * * * * * * * *
On the way to the car, what they decided to do was to treat the strange intrusion as something of a cross between a mystery and a research project. Louisa would look into the origins of the clothes they found on the chairs. Kevin would take a music history approach, and see what he could find out about Beethoven, and his string quartets. They agreed to meet at Friends Center after dinner the next night, to see what conclusions they could draw.
* * * * * * * * * * *
But reporting to Louisa after a day of effort, all Kevin was able to draw was blanks. “I found out a little about Razumovsky,” he reported. “He was the Russian ambassador in Vienna for years, and Beethoven wrote three quartets for him. As far as I can tell, it was just a job for Beethoven. He thought all the bigwigs who hung around the emperor’s court were a flock of turkeys. I don’t think there’s anything there. What did you turn up?”
“Not very much either, I’m afraid,” Louisa said. She sat at the library desk, drumming the fingers of her right hand nervously. “Mr. O’Neill at Bay State Costume Exchange recognized the evening suit and one of the dresses, but he couldn’t remember where he got them. It could have been The Boston Symphony. So I went down to that office. But,” she sighed tiredly, “the property manager has only been there a few weeks and doesn’t know anything. All in all a wasted day,” she concluded. Her fingers kept up their restless drumming.
“Maybe you’ve been looking in the wrong places,” put in Jenny, who had come in with Kevin and had been sitting quietly beside him.
Louisa had liked her from the first. She was pretty all right, but looked serious too, and unaffected. Jenny seemed, Louisa concluded judiciously, to have the makings of a good strong Quaker wife — if that was how her romance with Kevin, and his romance with Quakerism, turned out.
Now she asked the young woman, “What does thee mean?”
“Well,” said Jenny, “suppose your musical ghost isn’t in your basement because of Beethoven, or because of an old evening dress. What if it’s here because of the meeting?”
“Hey, yeah,” echoed Kevin, brightening. “What if it’s coming back because of something that happened here? Louisa,” he asked, “have there ever been any string quartets played in the meetinghouse? The acoustics would be terrific.”
Louisa furrowed her brow. “I seem to recall something about music, but it was quite a few years ago and I didn’t hear it. As I told thee, Kevin, music was not my subject.”
Kevin thought a moment. “What about the meeting minutes?” he asked. “Would there be anything about recitals in them?”
Louisa shrugged. “Probably. They’d need permission for a concert in the meetinghouse, and that would be in the minutes. After all,” she added, “permitting the playing of music in a silent Friends meetinghouse would never have occurred to my old Wilburite grandfather, God rest his plain Quaker soul.
She pointed past the tables. “The minute books are over there, on that shelf by the window, all but the last five years or so, and there haven’t been any concerts in that time.”
Kevin stood up; he was excited now. “Okay, let’s start with the latest minutes and work our way back.” He moved toward the shelf.
“No, Kevin,” Jenny objected, “it would make more sense to start at the beginning and work forward.”
Kevin’s face showed irritation. “I don’t see what difference it makes,” he said sharply, “and I want to start with the recent minutes.”
There was a long, stiff pause, while the two young people glared at each other.
And so, Louisa thought, and sat slowly down in her folding chair. Here we are at one of those seemingly minor hurdles these new young lovers will have to get over. Do they now get lost in their little egos, or do they work this out? She crossed her arms. How well, she thought. Alas, how well I remember.
“Perhaps,” she interposed after a moment, “you could work from both ends.”
To their credit, and to Louisa’s relief, they reached out for her little olive branch.
“Of course,” Kevin said, “why not?”
“Sure,” said Jenny, “that’s a good idea.”
“And I’ll start in the middle,” Louisa said. “The meeting was organized in 1940, so halfway puts me in 1965. Fifty years is young for a Quaker meeting in New England,” she observed, “but it’s still a lot of minutes. Let’s get busy.”
So each of them pulled down a stack of the heavy bound minute books. Kevin and Jenny sat them down on the big reading table, while Louisa took hers back to the desk.
* * * * * * * * *
For the next hour and a half, as night settled over Cambridge, there was little sound in the library other than the rustling of pages being turned. Kevin, working backward, found that, yes, there had been a chamber concert series in the meetinghouse in the summer of 1973.
“Let’s see,” he said, “here’s one for 2 harpsichords, one for lute, and another for some madrigal singers.” He signed, “But no quartets. And no Beethoven, either. It’s all renaissance and baroque.”
“I haven’t found any music,” Louisa commented at another point, “but here’s Social Concerns Committee in 1969, haggling about war taxes again.” She adjusted her glasses. “Didn’t get anywhere that time either.”
“No music in the forties, or most of the fifties,” Jenny added. “But I’ll keep looking.” She turned a few more pages, then stood up and stretched. “It’s getting stuffy in here,” she said. “Can I open a window?”
“Certainly,” Louisa said. “Fresh air will do us all good.”
When Jenny opened the window, cooler air poured in. But something else came with it — the faint but unmistakable sound of a string quartet.
Jenny listened without turning around.
“Is that–?” Kevin asked.
“Yes,” Jenny answered quietly. “The third Razumovsky. We should have been expecting it, I suppose.”
“Let’s go down there,” Kevin said, standing up. But Jenny reached out to touch his sleeve, and he paused.
“Wait a minute,” she said softly. “I want to listen here for a minute. There’s something familiar about the playing.” She listened again, for a long moment, until the playing subsided, then stopped. “That was the slow movement,” she said.
“What about the playing?” Kevin asked.
“I-I’m not sure,” Jenny said. “Maybe we should go over. We’re not finding anything in these minutes.”
“I’m ready,” Louisa announced, closing a minute book with a thump. “I guess we’ve established that whoever or whatever they are, they don’t have guns.” She pulled the key ring from her pocket and headed for the door.
They paused only briefly at the corner of the meetinghouse, to peek around and be sure, once again, that the pale blue light was indeed shining from the last two basement windows, and the music had begun again. Then Louisa walked briskly up the three steps and stuck the big brass key in the lock. She was first down the steps this time, too, stepping smartly into the again-deserted basement and over toward the far end of the racks, where the four chairs stood as before, the suits and gowns draped over them.
“Nothing different here,” Kevin said, looking over the tableau.
“There most certainly is something different,” Louisa snapped.
“But what?” Kevin persisted. “Here are the chairs and the clothes, just like last night.”
“That’s precisely it,” Louisa insisted. “This morning I hung up those clothes and put the chairs back at the table before I went to the Bay State Clothing Exchange. They’ve all been moved back.”
“Wait a minute,” came Jenny’s voice from behind them. “I think I’ve found something over here!”
She was at the mending table, looking at a newspaper from the stack, spread out on it. Kevin came to her side. “What is it?” he asked.
“There,” she said. “The obituaries.” She sat down as Kevin picked up the page and began to read:
“Isidore Kominsky, principal cellist with The Boston Symphony for more than twenty years and founder of the highly-regarded New Freedom String Quartet, died at his home last week.” He broke off and looked at the top of the page. “When was this?” he mused.
“Last month,” Jenny murmured gently.
Kevin’s eye skimmed down the paragraphs. “Let’s see… `escaped from his native Czechoslovakia in 1949, after a year’s imprisonment by the Communist government….Founded the New Freedom Quartet with three other exiled musicians in 1956, to raise funds for relief of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution, after it was crushed by Soviet troops and tanks.
“`Their first concerts were highly successful. Thereafter the quartet played several concerts each year, always as refugee benefits, even after Kominsky’s retirement from The Boston Symphony in 1971. “
He took a breath, and frowned. “‘The group continued until 1976, when violist Ada Steinberg, one of its two women members, passed away, and Kominsky soon disbanded the group. He was the last surviving member of the quartet. In 1977–”
Kevin was stopped by a stifled sob beside him.
Jenny’s face was in her hands. “He was my first teacher,” she whispered. “He was old then, and had arthritis in his fingers, but he still played like an angel when the pain wasn’t too great. He had to stop after a year because of a stroke.”
She took a handkerchief Kevin was holding out to her, and wiped her eyes. “I heard the quartet play a few times before that, but I was just a kid. I didn’t know about the refugee part.”
Louisa had picked up the newspaper. “Thee missed the fine print, Kevin,” she said. He looked over her shoulder and read aloud again:
“A private memorial service is planned, and friends are asked to send donations in lieu of flowers to the Quaker Material Aids Program, care of Cambridge Friends Meeting.”
“As a matter of fact,” Louisa put in quietly, “we did receive several checks listed in his memory. But the name was strange to me because–”
“I know,” Kevin said, “music is not your subject.”
“Well music is my subject,” Jenny said firmly, wiping her eyes once more and blowing her nose. “And I know a reunion concert when I hear one. And we’re interrupting it.”
She faced Louisa. “I’ll bet if we could trace those clothes, they’d lead straight back to Mr. Kominsky, Mrs. Steinberg and the others. And they’ll be gone from here soon, in one of those trash bags, to who knows where. So while they were here together, their owners gathered with them one last time. And they didn’t get to finish, because we’re in their way.”
Jenny stood up. “I’m sorry, Mr. Kominsky,” she said softly in the direction of the chairs, “I didn’t mean to intrude.” Then she walked toward the door.
Louisa and Kevin followed, snapping the basement lights off behind them. When they reached the door upstairs, though, Louisa gestured to Kevin before she hit the switch. As the entrance became dark, Kevin reached for Jenny’s hand and led her soundlessly after Louisa into the meeting room.
There, just as they sank noiselessly onto a long, sturdy bench, they heard the music start again below, with the cello mounting a vigorous, deeply felt melody, which the viola and violins answered in turn.
Kevin leaned over toward Louisa. “It’s the finale,” he murmured, and felt, rather than saw, her slight nod.
The music moved swiftly to an impassioned climax, then died away on a final, ringing chord.
After another few moments of silence, Kevin reached over and shook Louisa’s hand, then Jenny’s.
* * * * * * * *
A little later, after the young couple had escorted her to her Ford and then driven away, Louisa got out of the car, walked up to the meetinghouse, and quietly let herself in.
Downstairs, she found what she was expecting: The chairs were again at the table, the suits and gowns hanging on the rack.
So, she thought, they are finished. And I suppose that means that after tonight, they won’t be back.
But on the other hand, she reflected, after tonight, I expect young Kevin and Jenny will be.
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 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.
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.
I owe a lot to Peg Champney, who died November 5, at 87. But I did not know her that warm day in the late 1980s when I turned off Sandy Ridge Road in the small eastern Ohio town of Barnesville, onto the campus of the Olney Friends School, where she was.
The grassy, nearly flat crest of the ridge was covered with luxuriously green grass, lined with tall, venerable trees, weathered into sturdy magnificence by decades of hard Ohio winters.
Fortunately I was never there in winter; so my memories of Olney are of the green ridge, sloping to a soccer field on the west, and to a large manmade pond on the east. Turtles sunned there, small fish leaped to snap flies, and occasional anglers swung lines like sultry lassos to drop hooks in the dark water after them.
A wide wooden porch swing was perched on the ridge crest facing the pond. In later summers I spent many hours rocking slowly on it. I rose early to watch the sun climb through the mists slowly unfurling from the reflective pond surface; or as the day’s heat receded, bask in the steel purple dusk spreading over the red barn of the farm beyond it.
Behind me were Olney’s school buildings, the “new” girls’ dorm, the older Boys’ dorm, both satellites of the larger, even older main building between them. The place looked hand-built, and much of it likely was, in a style of plain frugality and self-reliance. It embodied the Conservative Quaker ethos that created and long sustained Olney. From this small outpost, the school and its sponsors doggedly resisted the encroachments of the 20th century decade by decade, ultimately yielding almost every time, not always with good grace. Olney has ghosts too, the ones I’ve encountered were mostly friendly.
A dark red sidewalk of bricks, laid in a herringbone pattern and sometimes almost covered by the grass, stretched from the school building north across the long green, flanked by a motley handful of staff houses, to the doors of the cavernous Stillwater Meetinghouse. Stillwater could (and for years did) hold up to 2000 plain-dressed Friends for the summer sessions of Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. How they coped with the heat in their stiff plain suits, or heavy dresses and bonnets, I can scarcely imagine.
Only a relative, mostly aging handful of them were left when I arrived in the late 1980s. And on the day I’m recalling, yearly meeting was still six weeks or more away.
It was a Thursday, and with me was my son Asa, who must have been seven. I wanted him to spend the weekend there with me, just soaking up the vibes of the place. Quaker education by atmospheric osmosis? Worth a try.
Barnesville is the main crossroads of Conservative, or Wilburite Quakerism. They split from the Orthodox branch in the 1850s when that group began imbibing a new message preached by elite Quaker ministers from the home country, England. They came bearing exports of their recently-acquired evangelical theology.
They and their alien gospel were denounced by John Wilbur, an obscure, non-elite Rhode Island Friend. (I’ve found no photo or silhouette of him; likely he would not have stood for such worldly foolishness.) He followed the Anglos around, arguing their message would wreck traditional Quakerism, and lead to rule by bishops and even popery.
Wilbur was disowned for his trouble. Yet while the insurgent reformers stopped short of Rome, Wilbur’s warning was prescient: they did bring drastic changes to most American Quaker meetings: “programmed” revivalist services, fundamentalist theology, paid preachers and pastors, rule by clerical cliques and superintendents who were bishops in all but name.
Olney’s founders repudiated all that, but they no liberals. They aimed to conserve the old plain ways, in unpastored worship, silence-based but with plenty of preaching, amid a plain, mostly rural life.
But the farm towns where their yearly meeting at first flourished were soon sucked dry of the younger generations, drawn to bigger towns & cities for school, work, and more fun than was allowed at home.
With them also went much of the student base for the Olney Friends School. Financial stress ultimately obliged school officials to do what a previous generation would have abhorred: turn to outsiders, even to the infidel Liberal Quakers, renting out school space in summer.
This is where Peg Champney came in. She was from three hours and a couple light years west, the village of Yellow Springs. It was a tiny island of progressive politics and culture in Ohio’s mostly conservative sea. Part of the very liberal Yellow Springs Friends Meeting, Peg and her friend Jean Putnam had a dream of starting a summer Friends Music Camp, and renting Olney as its base.
Of course, music was one of the diabolical innovations that had provoked the Conservative Quaker schisms. But all that was in another century. Olney needed money, and had no summer program. Peg was winsome, personally respectable, and if her head was stuffed with dangerously progressive notions, her pocketbook was stocked with 100% American cash. In 1980, Friends Music Camp opened.
Its session was underway when I arrived with Asa. I had no real agenda other than for the two of us to soak up the Conservative ambiance; and no place to stay. Frankly, short on cash, I hoped to cadge a couple of spare beds.
I was directed to Peg to negotiate this. She was friendly, but with ten years of herding frisky musical Quaker cats under her belt, she also had a quiet air of command.
I explained myself, and added that I had hoped to barter for our two nights’ lodging.
“What have you got to trade?” she asked.
This was the crucial moment. In today’s paranoid world, she would have had no truck with wandering strangers, especially males. Insurance regulations alone now demand criminal background checks on anyone coming within reach of children; then there’s the proliferating scars of fear on the collective psyche left by our mass murder culture.
But Peg had had her own pre-digital career as a communitarian and camper: she had sized up hundreds of people, as she sized me up that day, and her intuition (what Quakers prefer to call discernment) had been well-honed.
Plus I had, it turned out, an ace in the hole. Besides offering to do physical work, dishes, cleaning or suchlike, I also said I had some stories, original stories I had written and read to my children, which I could share with the campers, if way opened.
Peg’s eyes brightened. “We may be in luck,” she said. The next evening ‘s program had just fallen through. A slot was vacant; storytelling could fill the bill. The deal was made.
Long story short: it wasn’t storytelling, but story reading; My tales were composed, but not memorized. And full disclosure: I was greatly relieved to escape dishwashing or floor-scrubbing.
And the next night, the campers liked my stories. A lot, it seemed; they laughed, held their breath, and applauded. For ninety minutes, I was treated like a famous writer.
Asa and I headed home well-marinated in the heirloom broth of Wilburism. And even then I understood it was a spiritual tonic best savored in small, well-spaced doses. They didn’t like talking about it with outsiders, but one of the Wilburites’ main preoccupations was turning personal grievances into theological crises & mini-schisms, which was another reason there were so few left.
But never mind that. The memory of Friends Music Camp, or FMC, stayed warm and vivid, and the next summer I sent a note to Peg — written, I believe, by hand and sent in an envelope with a stamp — offering to do it again if way opened.
Way did open; Peg said yes. I again brought Asa, who had leaped headlong into the camp’s ethos as if it were the pond on the hottest day of the year. He railed against the systemic grownup oppression that kept him from being a full-fledged camper til he was ten.
And two years led to another. I was also familiar enough with liberal Quaker culture to know that an event repeated three times at their gatherings automatically becomes a tradition. Many of the campers came back to FMC yearly til they aged out, and my stories found a place in their young memories and camp talk.
And so it has been for thirty-plus summers. Asa finally became a real camper, returned for six summers, and Peg’s mild-mannered magic did him a world of good. (Word is it did worlds of good for many campers.) It was also a welcome spur to my imagination, because while there were tales the campers wanted to hear again, they also were eager for new material. Fiction is not my main medium as a writer; but I soon set a goal of bringing a new story each year, each grandly announced as a World Premiere. So far, I’ve managed to meet it.
Olney never lost its appeal for me. Whenever I could, I’d arrange to get there a day or two early. Then I’d spend as many hours as possible on the slow swing, facing the pond and the rolling hills beyond. The whole scene became my private retreat center, quiet except for the spasms of dissonant background music from the practice rooms, or the occasional thunderstorm’s fury. All that was welcome too. After Asa’s summers there, FMC gave me modest honoraria for the visits. But I would have paid to do it.
Thirty years is a long time, though, and time brings change.
Peg was not young when FMC began: she had already raised a family with husband Ken in Yellow Springs, and they were grown and flown. More grey appeared in her black hair as the summers progressed, as it did in mine. She understood the process, and did a good job of training counselors and junior staff. And when she retired, several years ago now, the transition seemed smooth enough.
For some years she came to visit the sessions, and was dubious about her status as Honored Founder. Maybe that’s why the visits became shorter. Also, Ken Champney died in 2011.
Then the new staff heard other voices of change: Olney Friends School still needed money, and proposed to raise the camp’s rent. And Earlham College came calling.
Earlham, Quaker-founded and an hour west of Yellow Springs just over the Indiana line, needed money also. One reason was that they were finishing a new, $22 million dollar arts building, with many practice rooms and an elegant compact concert hall. Summer rentals would help pay for it.
It’s easy enough to sense the appeal to the new FMC staff. I said that the Wilburite Quaker tonic was best in small doses. The senior FMC staff had had enough of them that the charm of Olney’s picturesque plainness had mostly worn off. For some veterans, the buildings were no longer venerable and quaint, just old. The food was Midwestern bland (“Groundhog gravy” was a staple, though I liked it). And as summers got hotter, the lack of air conditioning was more onerous.
The camp moved to Earlham in 2016. I was not the only one who wept over its departure, but loyally followed it west. At that point, my stories and I were more than tradition: they became a link to lost origins.
And I needed a memento. From the swing and at other spots, I had taken many photos, trying to capture Olney’s spirit — even hoping one frame might capture a glimpse of one of its ghosts. I put a few favorites on the cover of a collection of nineteen of my FMC stories, and published it as Posies for Peg. (There was never any comment on it from Peg; no surprise. Even her liberal Quakerism retained enough traces of Wilburite plainness that it didn’t hold much with such tributes.)
I still grieve about the move. I expect Peg was heartbroken too, if resigned. I don’t think she visited FMC in its new digs.
Earlham is, it seems, everything it promised: gleaming new dorms, all climate-controlled; veggie, vegan & gluten free options every meal. Its Quaker connection is an upscale one, albeit with a life-size sculpture of Mary Dyer, a Quaker martyr hanged in Boston in 1660, to brood over it all, mostly unnoticed, from an inconspicuous concrete bench. No ghosts wander its modern halls.
Yes, I understand. But you ask me, historic colleges are a dime a dozen. There’s only one Barnesville, and one Olney, even if they now exist mainly in my mind. And of course, change has come there too: the fracking boom has surrounded and invaded the town like a foreign army, cursed by some, welcomed by many. Olney has said no to the frackers’ money, but has been taking in affluent foreign students to keep its doors open. I’m not sure I want to know much more.
Now Peg is gone, and I owe so much to her. May her memory be for a blessing. My run at FMC will also no doubt be reaching its end before long. I’m looking for a successor storyteller to recommend. This fall, for health reasons, travel to places like Earlham abruptly became more problematic. But if it weren’t that, it would soon be something else; mortality is a shapeshifter, coming in many different guises, and on its own schedule; yet amid all the change, its arrival is still a certainty.
Here’s an important Quaker writer’s birthday: Jan de Hartog, 1914-2002. Born April 22 in Holland, he became famous there as a popular novelist, dealing with the impact of World War Two on the Dutch, especially its sailors. He later emigrated to the U.S., and settled in Houston, Texas, joining Live Oak Meeting there.
De Hartog also wrote several novels about Quakers. The best-known is The Peaceable Kingdom, published in 1971. The first half of this sprawling work is set in and around Swarthmoor Hall and Lancashire, and stars none other than George Fox and Margaret Fell.
Renewing the Art and Witness of Quaker Storytelling
Let’s talk about storytelling, specifically Quaker storytelling. To do this right, I’ll also tell a couple of stories before I’m finished; that will come in due time.
While good storytelling is entertaining and fun, I believe it is also important, serious religious business. I think this is especially true for a group like the Religious Society of Friends. This goes for Friends of all ages, not just the kids in First Day School and the adults who teach them. It’s also important – very important – for our outreach, and our witness, including peace witness. The stories we create and preserve and enact and pass on are very significant parts of our personal and communal lives.
For a religious community, stories have a great deal to do with establishing and preserving their identity as a people. In the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of Exodus, for instance, when God tells Moses to paint blood on the doorposts so the angel of death will pass over the firstborn sons of the Hebrews, God also commands him to make the remembrance and telling of the Passover story a perpetual tradition among the people.
That defining story of calling and liberation is still retold by Jews, some 3000+ years later, every spring at their annual Seder ceremonies.
Many scholars and sages say that the maintenance of this tradition has had much to do with the survival of the Jewish people through their long, often difficult history, and I think they’re right. And of course for Christians a few days later there’s the story of Easter, which has at its heart the retelling of the equally defining gospel narrative about the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But why do I say storytelling is particularly important for Quakers?
To get an answer, let me tell a brief story. We’ve just seen in the case of the Passover and Easter how stories can live for hundreds and even thousands of years. But this one is about how stories can die: I found that out talking to an older Friend who had been part of a very exciting and important protest action by Conscientious Objectors during World War Two.
I was very eager to talk to him about this protest; I had seen brief secondhand accounts: a group of COs assigned to a big Cleveland mental hospital discovered widespread abusive care and management corruption there. When they blew the whistle internally, they were threatened with jail. But they stood their ground, and . . . .
These snippets were stunning. And this Friend, I learned in the early 1990s, had actually been a participant in the Cleveland action; his “testimony” would be firsthand, full –I hoped– of the kind of details that enrich retellings. I couldn’t wait.
Finally the day came to interview him. He welcomed me with a big smile, I set my tape recorder turning — and soon found he had forgotten everything about his Cleveland experience. Everything except that, in his words, “. . . it was really something.” (This was his entire account, verbatim.)
I said this was a story; but in the passage of fifty years, it had shrunk to a tantalizing, one sentence anecdote. It confirms George Fox’s early charge to us to “let your lives speak.” Lives like the one of Cleveland and those of many other exceptional Friends can speak for generations, principally through the stories we remember and tell about them. But the stories of even the bravest witness can also die.
(For many summers at my yearly meeting, Baltimore, we interspersed business with reflective reading of memorial minutes, telling of the lives of Friends who have died in the previous year; these times, when lives that are mostly otherwise unheralded can preach, have been for me some of the most moving and instructive moments of our sessions.)
It’s also important to point out that Friends are a people of limited resources: We do not have huge numbers; we do not have vast wealth; and we do not have many members in places of power to protect us with the arm of the state (and when we do, they often end up, as in the case of Richard Nixon, more a problem than an asset.)
But there is one thing with which Friends are plentifully endowed, and that is good stories. From Fox on Pendle Hill, to Mary Fisher facing the Sultan; from John Woolman visiting the Indians unarmed, to Elizabeth Fry going alone into the stinking prisons of England; even that of the defiant Cleveland COs (think of your own favorites….)
Many of these stories reflect the fact that when Friends have most faithfully been Friends, and borne our Friends’ testimonies, this faithfulness has often enough been misunderstood, or has gotten us into trouble. Even today, if we don’t face much overt persecution, our heritage and witness are typically ignored by the larger culture, and misunderstood or distorted when they are recognized. (Does anybody here remember “Popeye the Quaker Man”?)
Thus it is important for us to find and preserve and tell our own stories, because at bottom, Quaker stories are countercultural, even many based on our readings of the Bible and other ancient sources: in key respects they run across or against the grain of establishment religions and culture, and their stories.
The best Quaker stories can still be countercultural today, even if most American Friends are nondescript middle-class in our way of life, and the government isn’t currently hunting us down as abominable heretics.
The U.S. Military understands the power of stories – in Fayetteville NC, near Fort Bragg, the Army has built a large Airborne museum, to tell (and shape) stories of 80 years airborne and special forces warfare. As I have learned, this museum (and the 300+ other war museums in the U.S.) is not only, or even mainly about the past: not really. It is more about shaping how Americans think of and visualize the past – and apply what they think to the future. (Quick quiz: after 300-plus years of American Quaker peace work, how many PEACE museums are there in the U.S., telling a story that challenges those of the War Museums? Hint: the answer is less than three.)
I’m hardly the first Friend to discover the value and plentitude of our stories; and not surprisingly, there has been a long tradition of Quaker storytelling, mainly in print. Early Friends used stories of the persecution they faced in efforts to persuade kings and governors to end it, often with much success. And once the Society was accepted and settled into the quietist period, Friends used stories to pass on and reinforce Quaker values and practices to their children.
To show you what I mean about how early stories are different, I’m going to reproduce here a story from the oldest Quaker storybook I could find at the Friends Historical Library, a volume entitled, Piety Promoted. It was published in 1802, deep in the Quietist era, and some of the stories are considerably older. The 1802 volume was popular, and was followed by numerous successor volumes
This story is the first in that book, and it was meant to be read to children eight and nine years old. I ask that you listen to the story as if you were hearing it with two different ears–one the ear of a child to whom it was read, and the other the ear of a parent who wanted to read it. And ask yourselves, What were the parents saying in this story? And what were the children hearing?
Here’s the story.
(NOTE: This is the complete text, but I have broken up the original paragraphing into shorter blocks, and inserted a word in a few places for clarity. The story has no title.)
From “Piety Promoted”: Mary Post, daughter of Benjamin Post, and Elizabeth his wife, of London, was of a tender spirit, sober behavior, religiously inclined, and a lover of plainness in habit and speech, and kept to it; but a disliker of pride and finery in apparel.
When she was but about eight years of age, being at a neighbor’s house who desired her company (being solid and grave) and had a daughter about fifteen years of age, who loved her, and to whom this child said, ‘Anna, what signify these fine things thou hast on, they will not carry thee to heaven?’
To which Anna answered, ‘Pride is not in the things, it is in the heart.’
To which [Mary Post] replied, ‘But if your minds were not proud, you would not wear them.’
She also said to her mother, that she much wondered at the great pride she observed in some young ones who professed the truth, adding, ‘I hope I shall never be like them.’
Her mother thereupon said to her, ‘I hope thou wilt never be like them; but be an orderly child, that thou mayst be in favour with God.’
At which [Mary] wept, and said, ‘If I should love fine things, I must alter much: what signify fine things when folks come to die?’
Hearing some boys in the street taking God’s name in vain, she said, ‘They take God’s name in vain enough to frighten one.’ On a certain occasion she said, she should delight to go to meetings.
The day before she was taken ill, her mother sending her out on an errand, and her brother being newly come out of the country, she desired him to go with her, which he refused; at which she stood by him awhile, and then with a solid countenance said, ‘Wilt thou not go with me? It may be, the next time thou comest up, thou mayest not have a sister to go with,’ as if she had a sense of her death.
And in that sickness she often said, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, give me a little ease;’ and lifting up her hands, repeated such like expressions, and said: ‘I had rather die than live; through mercy I am not afraid to die; I shall go to rest, were I shall feel no more pain.’
Her mother, standing mourning by her, the child looking upon her said, ‘Mother, do not cry, let us be contented; the Lord can lay me low, and he can raise me again; if I were dead he can raise me again.’ Then she repeated, as before, ‘O dear Lord, if thou seest fit, or convenient, give me a little ease;’ and seemed earnest to die and go to rest.
Her mother said to her, My dear, why art thou so earnest to die? The Lord can ease thee of thy pain, and give thee life.’
She answered, ‘One must once die, and if I recover, I must, or may, be sick again; and I had rather die while I am young. If I should live til I am older, the devil may tempt me to be naught[y], and I might offend the Lord. I am no afraid to die; through mercy I shall go to my rest: If I live, I am satisfied; and if I die I am satisfied. I am willing to die; I had rather die than live.’
Her mother said, ‘I shall dearly miss thee.’
[Her daughter] replied, ‘I am willing to see my little sister and [my] brother.’
Her mother said she would send for them: ‘but,’ said her mother, ‘if any alteration should be before thy brother come, what wouldst thou say to him?’
[Mary said] she left him the little money she had, and some other things to her father, mother, and two sisters.
Her mother desiring her to take something that was prepared for her, she seemed to refuse and said, ‘What signify doctors and apothecaries, if the Lord please to take one’s life?’
A little before her end, she lamented folks taking pleasure, and not considering the love of God. The last words she was heard to speak were, ‘Dear Lord God Almighty open the door,’ and so sweetly departed this life, the 12th of the Eleventh Month, 1711, aged above eight years.
This story is worth some reflection before we pass on: What did you hear in it? A preoccupation with death and dying? A practical way of coping in a time when many childen died young? An obsessive concern with long-abandoned Quaker “peculiarities”? Middle class Victorian fastidiousness masquerading as religion? A lack of plot?
What does this story tell us about Friends in 1802, or 1711? What do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? Would you be ready to read it to a group of 8-9 year olds in a First Day School class? Why or why not?
(Incidentally, all the other stories in this edition of Piety Promoted and its successor volumes were similar in theme and “plot.”)
In the nineteenth century, John Greenleaf Whittier retold many early Quaker stories in verse. Here is a sample, from one I always liked, “The King’s Missive”:
UNDER the great hill sloping bare To cove and meadow and Common lot, In his council chamber and oaken chair, Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott. A grave, strong man, who knew no peer In the pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear Of God, not man, and for good or ill Held his trust with an iron will.
He had shorn with his sword the cross from out The flag, and cloven the May-pole down, Harried the heathen round about, And whipped the Quakers from town to town. Earnest and honest, a man at need To burn like a torch for his own harsh creed, He kept with the flaming brand of his zeal The gate of the holy common weal.
His brow was clouded, his eye was stern, With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath; ‘Woe’s me!’ he murmured: ‘at every turn The pestilent Quakers are in my path! Some we have scourged, and banished some, Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come, Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in, Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.
‘Did we count on this? Did we leave behind The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease Of our English hearths and homes, to find Troublers of Israel such as these? Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid! I will do as the prophet to Agag did They come to poison the wells of the Word, I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!’ . . .
This story tradition has continued into our own time, of which more later.
Many of these early Quaker stories reflect a worldview rather different from our own, and in some ways alien to it. Even so, there’s useful food for reflection in such stories, as well as an impetus to consider how we are doing at preserving and telling the Quaker stories of our own time.
There’s no shortage of material. Perhaps the most familiar title is The Friendly Story Caravan, published by Pendle Hill. It has been in print in various editions for more than seventy years. As I have read them, these stories were not all of equal quality; some seemed sentimental; some, I discovered, had actually falsified history in pursuit of making a pious point – not, it must be admitted, a new phenomenon in religious literature.
Even so, these books deserve credit: they told Quaker stories to several generations.
But it seems to me that there’s something of a gap since then. Our storytelling efforts seem to have dwindled in the past generation or two. Where, for instance, are the stories of COs in World War Two – I mean stories which ought to be familiar to most well-informed Friends? Or those of Quaker COs during the Vietnam War – of which I am one? Have any of us heard any of those? And most of us have been told about Lucretia Mott and the Underground Railroad; but what about the Quaker men and women who took part in the modern civil rights and feminist movements? There were plenty of them; where are their stories?
One story I heard some years ago was told by the woman who lived it, Marion Anderson, a Friend from Michigan. It was hilarious as well as audacious, because it described how she managed to walk right in on a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War and give them all antiwar leaflets, much to their surprise.
I’m not talking here only about children’s stories. Adults need these stories too, told in adult formats. Today, adults may need them even more, because we’re so fully immersed in an amnesia-inducing mass media culture. But many of these stories, I’m afraid, are at serious risk of being lost. They are not being told, or even collected. And to lose them , I submit, would be a tragedy, it would mean losing part of our Quaker identity.
I’m not surprised that this is happening; we live in a culture where mass media shout at us constantly, and draw us remorselessly into their orbits. They are designed to keep us fixated, mesmerized, long enough for the marketplace they serve to sell us more and more goods. They work constantly and effectively to drown out and shut out the still, small voices that have something different to say. (And that’s noteven to mention politics.)
Of course, you know all this, so I won’t belabor it. The result is that not only Quaker stories, but the stories and identities of a great many smaller, even somewhat countercultural communities are being eroded, ignored, lost.
The process is analogous to the way species disappear as the rain forests are cut down to make hamburger wrappings. And I believe that those non-mainstream communities which fail to act to discover their own stories, to preserve and tell them, will not long survive, except as museum pieces.
Fortunately, we have not been entirely without adult storytellers dealing fictionally with recent events; I think of Jan de Hartog’s memorable trilogy of novels (The Peaceable Kingdom, The Lamb’s War, and The Peculiar People) , Stanley Ellin’s suspense novel Stronghold, the works of Jessamyn West, Daisy Newman’s Kendal series, and mystery novels, one series by Irene Allen, set at my old stomping ground, Cambridge Meeting in Massachusetts; and Edith Maxwell, one of whose historical series is set in Whittier’s hometown, and includes the poet as a recurring character.
Feeling as I do, you will not be surprised to learn that, being a writer, I have written a number of Quaker stories, and hope to write more. Some of these stories are aimed at children; but others, including my own two Quaker mystery novels, are very much aimed at adults.
But just as war is too important to be left to the generals, Quaker storytelling is too important to be left to Quaker writers, especially novelists. Fiction writers need the true stories as raw material. And in our communities, we shouldn’t always wait until someone is dead before trying to sum up their life preaching in a memorial minute. I hope some among the Friends who might read this, as way opens, will take time to seek out and record the stories that can be found right nearby, in your own meeting community.
Capturing these stories is not really difficult; you don’t have to be a novelist or writer. Here are some suggestions:
Talk to people, especially with a tape recorder in hand. Or while taking detailed notes. Ask lots of questions. Keep listening, and keep asking. Don’t worry about how it sounds; get it down first. Transcribe the tapes if at all possible; audiotape deteriorates faster than paper.
Collect photos, documents, news clippings. Few things are as ephemeral, or as interesting.
Store these collections carefully. If your meeting doesn’t have a safe place for them (and few really do; the top shelf of your Recording Clerk’s closet does NOT count), ask the local historical society, or even your state archive. There are also several fine Quaker libraries with archival collections whose curators would probably be thrilled to have them: I am personally familiar with those at Swarthmore, Haverford, Guilford and Earlham Colleges, and there are others.
Oh yes, perhaps most important–enjoy yourself! Gathering, processing and retelling these stories can and should be fun.
While you’re having your fun, remember that you’re fulfilling a function that is crucial to the long-term health and preservation of your religious community. I hope you will not let the noise and intrusions of mass culture lead you to neglect it.
Adapted from a Workshop at the
Friends Schools Day of Peace, Philadelphia,
Fourth Month 4, 2004
Before this final camp story, a bit of background. Until 2015, Friends Music Camp gathered at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville in eastern Ohio.
Barnesville is the Mecca, the (old) Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage where all roads lead for the scattered survivors of the Conservative or Wilburite strain of quietist Quakerism. These are the Friends who “conserved,” or clung longest to the “peculiarities” of dress and speech, and worked hardest at maintaining traditional “plainness”. (NOT “Simplicity”; that’s a modern, much watered-down imitation.)
Olney’s spirit is embodied in both its main school building, which has a sturdy, handmade character, and a pervasive Quietist atmosphere at its end of Sandy Ridge; and then in the huge, echoing space of the Stillwater Meeting house, which reigns at the other end of a fetching sidewalk of red brick laid in herringbone pattern.
In its heyday, Stillwater could hold a couple thousand, and was often filled during “Yearly Meeting week” for its parent Ohio (Conservative) Yearly meeting, and where visiting ministers could (yes!) preach for an hour..
Last Friday, July 20th, 2018 I read original stories to the talented youth at Friends Music Camp, at Earlham College. I’ve been doing this for 28 years (or maybe only 27; starting to get fuzzy). Many of the stories are about Quakers, with bits of history and witness; others are autobiographical, from my pre-Quaker youth; some are strictly fiction.
I read four stories this time, and as we’re on the brink of the Dog Days of late summer, I’m going to offer these stories here, in the same sequence as at Camp.
Each year I aim to bring a new story for our session. That’s what we’ll start with. This story, like many, is essentially true. The second story will be up tomorrow (Friday, July 27).
Talking with the Trees
It was the fall of 1966, I was a teacher at a new experimental Quaker school, called Friends World College. We were based on Long Island, east of New York City, in a cluster of converted houses on an abandoned Air Force base.
The College founder believed in studying problems, like poverty and the environment, rather than traditional subjects like math and biology. He also believed in study travel, going to places where problems and subjects of current importance were alive and vivid.
I was new and young in this educational world, not long out of college, coming to it after work in the southern civil rights movement, knowing basically nothing about teaching college. But I knew how to drive, and that was enough at that point.
One exception to our trek through a basic set of worldly “problems” like war, was a presentation on the much more conventional young adult “problem” of finding some sense of direction and meaning in life. It was by an elder Quaker writer named Milton Mayer.
The morning he came, our Dean, a retired English professor named Norman Whitney, after silence and a brief introduction, turned to him and said, “Milton, Mayer why don’t thee tell us what is on thy heart, and what is on thy mind.”
Mayer looked us over, and we looked at him. Unusually for our proto-hippie setting, he was in a suit: gray, with a starched white shirt and bow tie. I now think he must have stopped with us while headed somewhere else, perhaps to a meeting at a foundation or to make a formal speech before a group of well-heeled big city liberals.
But he was in no hurry. Surveying us from under his heavy black brows and receding hair, his expression grew somber and finally he said:
“Well, Norman, as I sit here with all of you, I find that what is on my heart is different from what is on my mind.”
He rubbed his chin. “So I believe I’m going to tell you what is on my heart.”