Category Archives: writing & Such

Why “Passing the Torch”? And Why Now?

Quakers are often very interesting people.

And generations come and go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re invited; more details here. )

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

2. Carter Nash

3. Helena Cobban

 

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

Helena Cobban

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

Helena Cobban

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Beirut, during the civil war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answers are in these pages.

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

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

“Passing The Torch” – “Pray for Segregation!” The Authors Speak (First in a series)

Barbara Berntsen, left, with her siblings.

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.

Denzel Washington starring as Harlem crime boss and Vietnam-based heroin smuggler Frank Lucas.

(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.

You’re invited; more details here.

Peg Champney: Tribute to a quietly powerful Friend

Peg Champney, center, working/playing at Olney, with Friends Music Campers, 2008.

 

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.

Olney, on a peak sky day.

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.

One of Olney’s ghosts? I always thought so. In daylight, though, it’s four of many student handmade ceramic tiles in the boy’s dorm bathroom.

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.

From a local paper’s report on Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting. No date, but it was likely long remembered as the year when Eliza Varney preached for an hour. Not that such extensive effusions of the Spirit were unheard of in those days.

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.

Some of the downstairs benches of Stillwater Meetinghouse.

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.

Reading at FMC, 2007: it wasn’t my razzle dazzle stage presence; it was the words, the stories that held them.

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.

My spot on the FMC calendar, always came after the canoe trip.

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.

So far.

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.

On retreat: the view from the Olney swing, on an evening when the pond was a mirror.

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.

This collection of nineteen original stories is n Amazon at: “Posies for Peg”: https://tinyurl.com/y64reypk

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.)

A sign at Earlham

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.

A fracking sign, one of any around Barnesville in a recent summer. The buyers found many takers.

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.

Mary Dyer, at Earlham. (Is she brooding, or only musing . . .?)

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog

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.

Jan de Hartog, in 1984.

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.

I loved this book, it’s still a great read, and I accept de Hartog’s careful opening caveat invoking “the novelist’s prerogative of being inspired by historical facts rather than governed by them.” Continue reading Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog

Dog Days Tale: Honesty Is the Best Policy – Mostly

An Almost Entirely True Story . . .

My brother Mike picked up the ringing phone: Nonantum Times,” he said, listened a moment, then handed me the receiver.

I put my hand over it and raised an eyebrow at Mike. “Ted Epstein,” he whispered.

Ted Epstein was a lawyer in downtown Boston. He was also a board member for the Nonantum Times. It was a new low-budget suburban weekly newspaper; I was the founding editor. That is to say, he was one of my bosses.

Nonantum-Map

“Ted!” I said into the phone. “Got any good news for me?”

There was an awkward pause on the other end. Then, ”l’m afraid not, Chuck,” he said.

“Oh no,” I said, “don’t tell me our first big investigative scoop isn’t gonna happen.”

Continue reading Dog Days Tale: Honesty Is the Best Policy – Mostly

Camp stories – 2018: One: “Talking With The Trees”

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.”

Continue reading Camp stories – 2018: One: “Talking With The Trees”

A Hospice for Hope: A Quaker War (& Peace) Story

Lexie dropped the pint bottle of Ensure into her cloth bag, slung the bag over her shoulder, and held the bouquet of dyed pink daisies over it for camouflage. With her other hand, she put the phone back to her ear.

“All right,” she said to Allyson, “I’ve got it. They’ll never notice it under the flowers.”

At the top step, the big automatic doors swung open, not too fast, not too slow, and she walked through the entryway. Turning right into the big hallway, she didn’t glance at the small sign that read, “Hospice Care”; she knew the way.

“This place always gives me the creeps, ” she told her sister. Allyson was sitting safe at home in Cincinnati, more than a thousand miles away.

“Why?” Asked Allyson. “Because it’s full of dying people?”

“Maybe partly,” Lexie said, “but I think it’s more the way they kinda package the whole thing here, like everybody’s getting ready for a birthday party. I mean–

A woman’s voice interrupted. “Can you help me?” It sounded weak, but piercing. “Can you help me?” Again.

Lexie slowed and glanced to her right. In a lounge doorway a woman sat in a wheelchair. Her hair was tousled, her hands outstretched, reaching toward Lexie. Continue reading A Hospice for Hope: A Quaker War (& Peace) Story

Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!

From Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

It’s Langston Hughes’s birthday (Feb. 1, 1902- May 22, 1967). Known primarily as a poet, Hughes was a versatile writer: by his mid-twenties he had published challenging essays in national periodicals, and two books of poetry. I’m now reading his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, when he was 28.

This passage evokes a domestic scene in a small Kansas city, modeled on Lawrence, where Hughes spent several boyhood years. Hughes was proud of his humble roots, and the creativity it wrung from hardship, like the largely homemade blues songs by the itinerant laborer Jimboy. Here he has returned after a long absence seeking work. In Hughes’s prose, we can hear the poetry woven through it.

Continue reading Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes–Sing us a bit of your famous Blues!