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→
Today, April 30, 2020, is Annie Dillard’s birthday.
Among the many authors who interest me, she might be the one I would most like to be email & text message-buddies with, so I could have a chance to keep up with her laser sharp thoughts and squibs on, whatever.
I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me. . . . (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)
Here are three great snippets from Rain Dogs,the latest mystery by Adrian McKinty I just read, a terrific tale set in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s Book #5 in a series I started just a week ago, and have binge read in seven days. Like I said in a blurb: Catholic & Protestant, war & peace: their yesterday (and our tomorrow?) —a fine writer spins compelling crime fiction from Northern Ireland’s time of “The Troubles.”
Yeah, they’re that good.
#1- Theology, in a Hibernian Nutshell Two northern Irish cops, Sean & McCrabbin, aka “Crabbie,” are on the way back to the station:
Heavy rain. Floods on the top road. Slow movement from the Seventh on the radio.
“What’s it all about, Crabbie?”
He stared at me with alarm. “What? Life, you mean?”
“Endeavour to discover the will of God,” he said firmly.
“And if there is no God?”
“If there is no God, well, I don’t know, Sean. I just don’t know.”
I looked at him. As stolid a Ballymena Presbyterian as you could ask for. He’d do the right thing even if you could prove to him that there was no yGod. While the rest of us gave in to the inevitable, he’d be the last good peeler attempting to impose a little bit of local order in a universe of chaos.
Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry. . . .”
– – – –
#2- Tickling the Ivories
Sean the cop visits his friend Patrick’s piano store, where he frequently browses, but never buys. This time he asks to see a smoke-damaged privately-discounted model:
Patrick eyed me suspiciously. “Are you sure this isn’t some sort of police investigation?”
“I’m hurt, Patrick. Seriously. I thought we were friends.”
“I’m sorry, Sean . . . of course you wouldn’t . . . look, come over here, out the back.” He took me to a storage room out the back and set me down in front of a gorgeous pre-war Bechstein.
“Go on, then,” Patrick said.
I played Liszt’s “La Campanella” and, just to annoy myself, Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor.”
The piano had a beautiful tone and wasn’t damaged in the least. When I played the last bar of the “Prelude,” Patrick thought I was money in the bank.
“You play very well, you know,” he said.
“No, Sean, you’re really good.” . . .
I looked at my watch. It was 11:45.
“Well? Will I put it aside for you?” Pat asked.
“Nah, I’ll have to think about it, mate,” I said.
“I knew it!” Patrick groaned again. “I fall for it every bloody time.”
I walked to the door. “Hey, Pat, why could Beethoven never find his music teacher?”
“Because he was Haydn.”
“Get out of my shop!”
– – – – –
#3- The Big Belly Laugh:
Beth, Sean’s ex-girlfriend comes back. She’s pregnant; his. She wants him to take her to an abortion clinic in Liverpool. Sean’s a (bad) Catholic who hates the idea, but he takes her anyway. When she gets in his car:
She lit a cigarette. Camel. Unfiltered. Should you be smoking that? You know, what with you up the spout and everything, — that is a line I don’t use. This time tomorrow, it won’t make any difference.
“Got one for you, Duffy,” she says.
“Why do anarchists only drink herbal tea?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because all proper tea is theft.”
“You should put your seat belt on.”
[TEASER: Does she go through with it? Do they have a future? Read the series.]
McKinty labored in productive but penurious obscurity for years, turning out novels that won numerous awards, while he scuffled at everything from Uber driving to teaching and went broke. Just this year he was “discovered” and hit the big-time. I hope he makes a bundle and keeps on turning out more new un-put-downable books.
And I also like his attitude, summed up here, From “”Why I Write,” a post in his blog:
” . . . Writers write. Writers sit down at the typewriter, legal pad or computer and they write. All the writers who are popular and successful see writing as a no nonsense job and they just bloody get on with it. I like these people and I like this school of thought. I’ve met a lot of these writers and they are cool.
But this is not my way.
I see things differently.
For me writing is nothing to do with deadlines and word counts and getting the job done. For me a writer is a shaman. A holy man. A holy woman. A witch. A writer has been given a staff made from meteor iron and with that stick she scratches a message into clay tablets and the tablets are baked and they are put in a library and the river moves and the city fails and the library’s pillars fall and the clay tablets lie buried in the sand for four thousand years until someone finds them and reads them and understands. You are telling them a story about life and death and the meaning of life. You are talking to them across the centuries.
. . . Look, look at this! The writer says. I am gone. We are gone. But we were here and we saw and we loved and laughed and we dreamed. We saw beauty and we experienced pain. And we were given a task by the ones who died next to us in the lifeboat: tell them about us.
Yeah, I know, I just write hack crime novels who am I to talk? But that’s the whole point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter what you write about, it’s your attitude. Your words could be smuggled on toilet paper out of prison to one old friend or they could be texted to a million followers as you ride the subway car. It’s what you think about the words that counts. An audience of one is still an audience.
So I don’t see writing as just another job. I don’t write to fill my word count. I am on a sacred fucking mission. I’m waiting for the goddess. Because I believe in the goddess. I believe in ghosts. The ghosts of the ones who went before and the ones who have not yet come. And I will witness against the beast. And I will defy the darkness and I will tell our story.“
“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.
Hat tip today to Garrison Keillor, whose Writer’s Almanac reminded me that today (November 30) is the birthday of Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain (born 1835).
Garrison sent me in search of some Mark Twain quotes, of which there are of course many. Here are a few, mostly new to me, followed by a brief discussion of his views on imperialism, which are another reason I admire him.
A Few Mark Twain quotes:
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
“Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”
God created war so that Americans would learn geography
The absence of money is the root of all evil
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect
(To a missionary): You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?
In his unfinished novel, The Mysterious Stranger, he wrote, “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination. No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those.”
Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself
If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed
If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man
And for special attention: I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.
Twain’s anti-imperialist attitudes developed and took up much of his writing in the last decade of his life, which overlapped with the U.S. government’s decision to join the club of imperial nations which was carving up the globe. The brief sketch of this period is taken from an article by a left-wing periodical, The Internationalist: “Mark Twain and the Onset of the Imperialist Period Imperialist Period’ (full text here):
“Mark Twain faced the onset of European and American imperialism at the end of the 19th century with an acute understanding that white racism denied the very humanity of people of darker skin. He was aware that vile theories were then either being generated or revived by the educated hirelings of the European and American ruling classes, to justify their piratical conquests in Africa and Asia. These depraved bourgeois scientists posited that the single human race was actually comprised of several different “races,” and that these “races” could be ranked in a hierarchy based upon intelligence and culture. Not surprisingly, they placed their own “race”?—the “white race” at the top of the hierarchy and therefore deserving of world domination. . . .
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Mark Twain was living in Austria, and was only able to summon a fuzzy picture of its causes. He was painfully aware of the imperialism of the European powers, which were just then engaging in a frenzy of world conquest. Since sentiment in Austrian ruling circles ran in favor of Spain, Mark Twain initially supported the United States, which he thought might bring democracy to Cuba and the Philippines. However, he soon changed his views, as events revealed the true aims of the American rulers.
The war provoked by the McKinley administration was a one-sided slaughter designed to make the United States a world imperial power. The U.S. rulers found immediate cause for the war they wanted in the suspicious explosion of the U.S. warship Maine in Havana harbor on 15 February.
Two hundred sixty-two sailors were killed, but while the navy’s own commission of inquiry found no evidence that Spain was culpable for the disaster, the jingoist newspapers, with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in the lead, took up the battle-cry, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” McKinley presented a list of demands to Spain, which quickly acceded to every one. The U.S. imperialists declared war anyway, and in a few short months destroyed Spain’s decrepit navy and seized much of its tottering empire, occupying Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Manila in the Philippines.
The U.S. now had an empire—almost. In anticipation, Senator Albert Beveridge triumphally declared:
“The Philippines are ours forever…. And just beyond the Philippines are China’s illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either. We will not repudiate our duty in the archipelago. We will not abandon our opportunity in the Orient. We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world.” — quoted in Jim Zwick, Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (Syracuse University Press, 1992)
. . . Mark Twain arrived in New York in October 1900, and at once announced his anti-imperialism in several newspaper interviews, which were widely reprinted.
“I have read carefully the treaty of Paris [between the United States and Spain], and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” —New York Herald, 15 October 1900
The author’s powerful statements at once came to the attention of the “Anti-Imperialist League” (1898-1920), a politically heterogeneous organization founded in Boston to oppose the American seizure of Spain’s empire. Its officers included former abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Mark Twain’s best friend, novelist and self-described socialist William Dean Howells; reformist labor leader Samuel Gompers, and capitalist Andrew Carnegie.
The league’s liberal founders sought to use the names of prominent Americans to influence the foreign policy of the McKinley administration; however, the organization soon burgeoned into a nationwide mass movement with a half-million members, and its literature included articles by socialists as well as African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass Jr. and Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois.
The League invited Mark Twain to become a vice-president in 1901; he accepted, and would hold this office for the remainder of his life. He consistently opposed any compromise with imperialism, an attitude not shared by many of the league’s leaders. . . .
In the February 1901 North American Review, Mark Twain published “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” perhaps his most popular and influential anti-imperialist essay. It was an acid indictment of the brutalities the British, French, German, Russian and American capitalist governments were committing all over the world. The “Person Sitting in Darkness” is Mark Twain’s ironic term, borrowed from the Gospel According to Matthew and used by the Christian missionaries when referring to the “savage,” “heathen,” “uncivilized” populations of the lands the imperialists were conquering. The author condemned the casual atrocities of Lord Kitchener’s British troops in South Africa, who routinely bayoneted unarmed surrendering Boers, as well as those committed by the American forces in the Philippines, which did the same to the Filipinos. He also pointed out that the Americans had openly proclaimed they were adopting “Kitchener’s Plan”—concentration camps–for their opponents. (Tens of thousands of Boer women and children and black Africans had perished in these camps.)
At the same time, Mark Twain denounced the multinational plundering and dismemberment of China, which had provoked the Boxer Rebellion–the mismatched attempt of the Chinese people to drive the imperialist murderers, who introduced mass opium production and trafficking, out of their country. (In a November 1900 speech he had already proclaimed “I am a Boxer.”) The author charged the American Board of Foreign Missions with looting pauper peasants in China, and condemned the missionaries as part of the “Blessings-of-Civilization-Trust,” that deals in “Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion).” At the end of his essay, Mark Twain proposes a flag for the United States’ new “Philippine Province”: “we can just have our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”
“To the Person Sitting in Darkness” attracted a good deal of attention, and eventually set off a storm of controversy. Even within the Anti-Imperialist League, reaction to Mark Twain’s essay was mixed. Though the League reprinted it as a pamphlet—it had the widest circulation of any League publication—League censors excised significant passages, included the author’s quotation from the New York Sun on the prevailing squalor in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, as well as his bitter condemnation of the activities of Christian missionaries in China. . . .
Mark Twain remained a “traitor” to imperialism for the rest of his life [he died in 1910], raising his voice and his pen to oppose American and European savagery frequently and with unwavering resolve. He was an open advocate of the overthrow of the Tsar in Russia, and took heart at Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. In the aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905 –the protest in which the Tsar’s troops massacred perhaps 500 peaceful demonstrators in St. Petersburg — the author published “The Tsar’s Soliloquy,” a powerful condemnation of the fatuous brutality of the regime of Nikolai II. . . .
Mark Twain struggled against powerful opponents on behalf of humanity and justice, as he understood them. He was not entirely consistent in the views he expressed— he remained mainly insensitive to the oppression of American Indians throughout his life and occasionally expressed discomfort at the rising tide of immigrant workers. Though his criticisms of American capitalism were often astute, he never seriously examined socialism. Nevertheless, in his regard for the humanity of the millions upon millions of Asians and Africans who were just then being victimized by imperialism, he eclipsed even most socialists of his day, owing in part to his profound understanding of racism in America. The brutal realities of colonial subjugation inevitably recalled for him the legacy of slavery in the United States.”
So Happy 184th birthday, Mark Twain, wherever you are (another of his quips: “Heaven for the climate, hell for the company . . . .”) We need more such voices of such clarity and wit today.
The essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” Mark Twain, 1901 is online as a Full text FREE download from: Internet Archive, here.
[In midlife, Diane Faison and her family faced multiple traumas while living in Richmond, Virginia., including the murder of her mother-in-law and family conflict over her estate.] Diane writes,
After all this, it was no surprise that my husband said he wanted to leave Richmond. I don’t want the children living in this atmosphere, he said. I said OK. Now out of the Navy, he said he wanted to find a teaching job somewhere quiet in the country. Before long he found a position in Farmville Virginia, about fifty miles away. I was teaching in Richmond, so soon he was driving from Richmond to Farmville and back every day, 50 miles each way.
I finished up my contract in Richmond and found a position in Brookville, about 5 miles from Farmville. . . . Soon we bought 70 acres that was mostly wooded. On it we built our dream house, finished in 1987. We were also both very involved with the schools there in and around Farmville, which was in Prince Edward County.
I guess I need to say something about Prince Edward County. By the time we got there many years had passed since the days of lunch counter sit-ins and Dr. King’s big march. But major civil rights history was not far away.
In 1959, when a federal court ordered Prince Edward County to desegregate its schools, the county reacted by closing them all. White students were issued vouchers to pay tuition at a new private “segregation academy.” Black students were left to fend for themselves. Their schools stayed closed til 1964.
They reopened just about the time I started teaching after college. So in one way it was all over. But the memories were still fresh. And one of them was particularly meaningful to me: Late in 1959, the American Friends Service Committee started work in Prince Edward County, with an office in Farmville for what in 1960 became its Emergency Placement Program.
Through it families in non-segregated areas volunteered to take in black students from Prince Edward to attend school there. That program lasted four years, til the schools reopened. It enabled many black students to complete their disrupted high school work.
Friends = Quakers. The connection stayed with me. I learned about their tradition of quiet worship, without a church hierarchy. I liked that idea too. I often spent time on our land in silent meditation. My husband, now out of the military, sometimes talked reflectively about all the killing in war. About the time our house was finished, a gentleman who lived nearby decided to start a Quaker worship group, under the auspices of a regional association called Baltimore Yearly Meeting. We began to gather at his barn for meeting, alternating with our house.
Those were good years. The children grew, moved on through school, into college and out into adult life. Both my husband and I were honored for our work in the schools. And each February, when Black History Month came along, we joined in eagerly.
It was in 1988, when I started thinking about the coming February, that I got a bit restless. I liked to do things with my students that were different. But in Black History Month, very often the observance came down to students reading something and writing a report. Suddenly that sounded too dry. I wanted something unique.
So I went to the library. This was still the old days, when libraries had shelves full of books and barely any computers. I had to touch the books, lift them and open them. And when I came to the Black history shelf, my hand brushed a book and it fell to the floor.
I picked it up. The title was, The Life of Harriet Tubman. Of course, I knew about her. Or so I thought. But I turned the pages anyway.
As I read about her this time, something came over me. I felt as though, this is me. I felt I was being encouraged to be Harriet’s vessel to tell her story, to embody it. (Quakers call this a leading; for me, that’s what it was.) I felt I had to show the students who this woman was. Such a small person, but with such a huge courage.
The idea began to grow in my mind. I had older relatives, who didn’t have much schooling, who still talked in something like the old slave dialect; I had heard it all my life. So I felt that’s how Harriet talked. And it came naturally to me as her voice. I didn’t have to study that part.
I never wrote a script. After all these years, I’ve never had one. I read it, I felt it, and I spoke it. I was following the tradition of my people: I didn’t have to read it. Storytellers of my people don’t have scripts. But I keep learning about Harriet. Every year I find out something new about her, and I might add it to the performance, and I might not.
After that first performance in 1989, I began to get requests to perform at other schools. And those were very fulfilling too.
Yet in time, big changes came. One morning in 1997, my husband tugged me awake. When I saw him I screamed: his chest and groin were covered with blood. It was an advanced case of cancer, which he had not told anyone about.
From there I had more than a year of caregiving as he went through surgery and chemo and experimental therapies, and got weaker and weaker. When he died in 1999, I was more than devastated; we had been married thirty-one years. . . .
[In 2015, Diane married Crawford McKinzie, and moved with him to Gibsonville, North Carolina. . . .]
When I moved to Gibsonville, I felt an overwhelming need to find another Friends meeting to be part of, and I started searching for one. I finally found Spring Friends Meeting in Snow Camp, NC, where I do feel like I belong. Spring had an unexplainable spiritual atmosphere that felt like a warm hug. Maybe that was partly due to the fact that the Meeting has been in that spot since the late 1700s; so many Quakers have lived there, and many are buried nearby.
Mack had been career army, twenty-two years, and was a Vietnam veteran too. He had been in field units there, often under fire in combat areas, sleeping on the ground with rats and taking baths mainly in the rain, — and both the rain and the ground were running with toxic Agent Orange. Even now, sometimes he has flashback nightmares, muttering “They’re coming, they’re coming” in his sleep, and striking out, even at me.
After four good years together, Mack fell ill, and as this is written, he is contending with a number of very serious conditions. I’m again being a caregiver, essentially fulltime, juggling doctors’ appointments, tests and procedures, savoring his good days, and weathering the others.
This routine, I confess, wears me out. And I remember that Harriet too was a longtime caregiver. She built a house in Auburn, New York, where she cared for the poor, including Civil War veterans who were afflicted with what we would name PTSD, but then was called “soldier’s heart.”
Later she took care of her second husband and her aged parents there. She did this work for almost as many years as she was active in the Underground, and then the Civil War. Learning this strengthens my identification with her; besides my second husband, I too took care of my aging parents. She did this caregiving until her own health failed; she lived until 1913.
In my situation, I often get tired, and frustrated. Times of relief and release are sparse. I know that in Harriet’s years of caregiving, she found support in her religious faith and her church community. And at Spring, with Friends, when I lead the meeting, or sit and listen in the meeting, it gives me the same renewal like I feel also came to Harriet. And I have to add that the most renewing moments are when I’m performing as Harriet. . . . Even after thirty years, and several hundred appearances, speaking Harriet Tubman’s words and evoking her spirit refreshes and renews my heart and soul.
More of Diane’s story, of growing up in the time of segregation, and being a military wife during and after the Vietnam War, is in the pages of Passing The Torch.
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
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.
These are the modest theses behind the new book, Passing the Torch. In fifty-plus years among The Religious Society of Friends (our rather pompous official name), its members, attenders, hangers-on and even antagonists, I have kept bumping into and hearing about interesting people. And many very interesting people.
And having had what some call “a good run,” my generation (beginning, as I did, in the depths of World War Two, and extending, with a stretch, to the early 1960s), is now on its way out.
“Generations come and go,” is how the Preacher of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites) dryly put it. And it’s our turn. Then the Preacher rubs our noses in the fetid fact of evanescence: “in future generations no one will remember what we have done here.”
This last, I think, many of us don’t yet believe. After all, we were told, from many quarters, for a long time, that we were a critical, historic vanguard. Now some voices are condemning us as the heralds of decadence, decay and disaster, which seemed to be running amok in our culture as these pages took shape and the curtain begins descending over us.
We’re also not the first ones to think we can escape this descent into the abyss of the forgotten. Indeed, attempts to defy this fate are among the oldest recorded human activities. Such efforts come in many forms, prominently monuments, stories, and books or other writings.
Of these, stories are the most weightless, typically composed and carried in memory and words. Yet they are the most durable; though they too can die. The biblical Exodus saga is one of the oldest such stories, at least in the Jewish-Christian world. The retelling of key passages at annual Seders includes elements that are likely 3000 years old or more. And that ritual story’s role in the persistence of Jewish culture and religion is inarguable.
Have we, this gaggle of eleven authors, elder (mainly American) Quakers done anything to elbow our way into the species memory? Usually this query is rhetorical, a set-up for some ambitious, maybe even landmark argument, which favorable critics will be tempted to call “bold” or “ground-breaking.”
In Passing the Torch, I was firmly resolved to resist this urge to grandiosity. Here there is no carefully representative group, honed to tick all the boxes. Nor is this a manifesto or a mea culpa, though it reflects our feelings and opinions.
Instead, I wrote to some interesting people, a varied bunch of a certain age, who are Quakers, and invited them to tell their stories, and offer some summary counsel, what we call Advices, to those coming up. I’ve dropped a few of my own, I hope sparingly enough to be palatable.
We’re a motley crew, few of us famous, but we are varied and in my view all have done interesting things. In these pages you will find Friends in the thick of wars, behind bars, facing dire disease, murder, raising families and — since all are Americans – confronting racism and prejudice in many forms and some unexpected guises. Yet they also took time to settle in Friends worship and business, making their own diverse way amid its highs and lows.
Eleven lives, now moving into the sunset. Among us are several centuries of Quaker experience and thought. It’s a longstanding Quaker tradition that, whatever we say or write, it is above all our lives that speak, across the world, and beyond our generation. That’s what Passing The Torchtries to get at.
What does it all add up to? Some good reading, that much I know. (Now available on Amazon.) Beyond that, I’ll leave it to others with more degrees; or defer again to that ancient Preacher in Ecclesiastes:
8:16-17: Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.
And 4:12: So I realized that all we can do is be happy and do the best we can while we are still alive. 13 All of us should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. It is God’s gift.
(And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.
I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.
I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .
In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)
Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .
I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.
What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.
My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.
Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.
I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.
By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.
The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.
In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)
So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.
I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.
So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.
I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .
When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .
All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.
Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.
I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .
And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?
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 went looking for interesting Quakers with interesting lives and stories for the new book Passing the Torch, which is now out.
Barbara Bernsten certainly qualifies. She has lived in Norway for many years. But she’s American born, and I first heard of and from her more than ten years ago, in an email to Quaker House, where I was then Director:
Subject: Quaker House alumni checking in
I was only 18 years old when I married a young GI stationed at Fort Bragg and we spent a lot of time at Quaker House back in the day! Quaker House changed the course of both of our lives. . . .
. . . In about May of 1972 we were living at Quaker House. I think Kenn and Ellen [Arning], a young Quaker couple from New Jersey, were running the place then. I was about as sick as I ever have been in my life with genuine influensa, in bed in the back bedroom.
In the middle of the night, there were literally rifle butts thumping at the front door. My husband answered the door and there were armed, masked men there, asking questions about me. I had heard about the bodies [of dead U.S. soldiers in Vietnam] being stuffed with heroin [before being shipped back to Bragg] from a GI and had said so right in the middle of my on-base Psychology Class at Bragg only days before. The masked men told my husband to get control over his wife’s mouth.
(NOTE: Although disputed and unproven, the heroin-smuggled-in-dead-solders’ bodies story has had a long life around Fayetteville, and even figured in the plot of the 2007 feature film, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington. What is beyond doubt is that the illicit drug trade thrived in those years and has not disappeared since.)
Barbara: I am now 55 years old, with streaks of white in my hair and my three kids are all grown ups. I have lived in Norway for more than 30 years. I am a historian at The National Archives of Norway and have taught archival science at the University of Oslo .
I was in Palestine during the 2006 war, and returned from Cairo 10 days ago, where people are being murdered in bread lines and most of the candidates and their lawyers were in jail for the recent elections.
No doubt about it, Quaker House alumni most definitely had the course of their lives changed! If the garage is still there, you will find my PX ID tucked under one of the shingles. My name back then was Barbara Black. Bet I look a LOT younger on the picture!
(NOTE alas, no such ID has turned up.)
But as soon as I read this email, I wanted to know more. Passing the Torch was finally the chance.
In the book, Barbara added: I had never been inside homes like those Quakers lived in. Bookcases full, grandfather clocks, four-post beds, inherited furniture, hardwood floors and Chinese rugs seemed like out of this world — desirable, but unattainable, unless there was some secret to it. I decided I ought to look into that.
She got to Fort Bragg (and then eventually to Norway) from Montana, where she was raised in, to put it mildly, spartan conditions:
When I was eight months old my parents sold all their furniture and bought an eight-by-ten camping trailer. I don’t think they thought they’d live in trailers for the next twenty years. In 1953 not many people lived with a baby in a camping trailer with no running water and no bathroom.
My father got sent to the Korean war, and Mom and I tried to live by ourselves in that trailer, across the alley from newly widowed grandpa Ben and the not yet grown uncles. Nobody told her she could shop at the base PX or go to the doctor at the nearest military base, even if that was forty miles away. It wasn’t like she could legally drive or anything like that, of course.
My first memories are of moving out of that trailer into a bigger one after my father came home from Korea in August of 1955, when I was almost three. Until that khaki-dressed stranger that smelled like cinnamon bears turned up, I had ruled the roost. I could hold my breath until I fainted and Mom, Grandpa and the uncles all fell in line. My father was not impressed and told Mom she had a brat. The next time I held my breath I got whacked good. When I recovered my dignity, I told him to go back to Korea.
My mother’s people were of the religious sort, having come to Puritan America in 1632. The Puritan streak — or at least the tendency to go for the extreme — seemed to have survived right up to my Grandmother’s generation. From my observation post under the kitchen table I would hear stories of how Grandma’s Christian Science sisters — who wouldn’t take medicines — had died horrible screaming deaths, firmly believing their faith would eventually alleviate the pains and heal them.
I was pretty sure that kind of faith had died with them, but in 2013 I learned from the then grown grandchildren themselves that there had been several children in the extended family that were denied antibiotics when they had rheumatic fever, due to the religious convictions of their mothers.
In the 1950s Mom was of a mind to find a suitable church to attend, so the little family went church-shopping. It didn’t go well at the Lutheran Sunday school when I cussed like my father always did and got sent to the naughty corner. I did much better at the Baptist Sunday school, and we were settling in nicely, when one Sunday the Baptist preacher yelled out loud, “Pray for segregation!”
I was napping nicely on the floor under Mom’s chair when she just got up, told me to get out from under that chair right now and then with baby David in her arms, grabbed my little sister Nancy by the hand and walked out right in the middle of services.
Strange as it may seem, little kids in Montana might never have actually seen a Black person in those days. Grandpa Ben had a TV but that was only for watching ‘Fight of the Week’ on Friday night. I knew very well what Indians and Hutterites were, but wondered to myself ‘What is this segregation?’
When we got home the shit hit the fan. Something really serious was obviously happening. Mom called Dad a hillbilly, and she didn’t mean it nice. They both grew up in Montana, but in different worlds. After the mines stopped paying their workers during the great depression, Mom’s family had to survive as best they could, and Grandpa took work with The Bureau of Indian Affairs. So, Mom had actually sat in the back seat of her Dad’s car with an Elder with braids and stuff that had calmly reassured her by saying, ‘Little girl, don’t be afraid. I am not going to hurt you. We don’t scalp people anymore.’
She had visited many homes out on “the Res”, and she had eaten puppy stew, so I figured Mom was the one to trust on these issues . . . .
How did Barbara Berntsen get from a trailer in Montana, through Fort Bragg, to Norway and Quakerism (and live to tell about it)? The answers are in these pages.
And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.