Western Lessons

I have crossed the American West, particularly Montana, several times in the last two years. The first time was by car, via Interstates 90 and 84, when some friends and I were traveling from Seattle to Friends General Conference (FGC). After that, I started visiting my beloved, Adrian, in Chicago. The trips, and what I’ve learned subsequently, have taught me vital lessons about what Friends—and indeed, all humans—are now called to do.

The friends I traveled with to FGC are dedicated environmentalists. One is the founder of the Seattle chapter of 350.org, and the other is her daughter, who planned and led a protest against climate change at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle before she left for college this fall. As we crossed the western plains we saw hundreds of windmills, generating electricity with no carbon required, and we were cheered to see them. But as we drove we reflected on the emissions we were pumping out, for even though we were driving a Prius, we were still burning oil. Continue reading

Options, Part Two

One of my more common failings, friends, is getting something started and then forgetting to finish it. And such was the case with this. My apologies for the delay in posting part two of this essay. Part One can be found here—or, if you’re looking at this on the main screen, just scroll down.

Now to the communal options! I’ll list these in ascending order of audacity. Continue reading

Options, Part One

A Friend came to the Spirit and asked, “Spirit, how may I achieve perfect peace?”

The Spirit said, “Follow the testimonies, follow my leadings, subscribe to Friends Journal, and love your neighbors as yourself.”

The Friend said, “I have done all of that for years.”

Then there is one more thing to do,” the Spirit said.

Tell me.”

Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend waited expectantly, and, after a few minutes, said, “Please, Spirit. What is the one thing I have to do?”

The Spirit said, “I just told you. Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.”

The Friend was becoming agitated. “Spirit, why won’t you answer me? I’m listening.”

Sell. Everything. Give. The money. To. The poor. …Is this thing on?”

The Friend was by now distraught, and wandered away wailing, “Spirit, where are you? I feel so lost; I cannot find the Light! I don’t know what to do…”

(Later…)

And that’s how the Quakers died out?”

Of course. They had exactly one thing going for them: listening to Me. Have you seen their business meetings? They never would have survived so long if I hadn’t been helping out. When they stopped hearing Me they were doomed. But money talks louder than I do… and fear talks louder still.”

~~~

Or…

We could do something different. Continue reading

Mysterious Ways

This has been a year of lessons for me. They have often been painful; they have always been powerful. So this one is going deep, folks.

Still here? All right, then.

The first lesson came from a debate on Facebook. I don’t get in debates on the Internet, but until recently I made an exception for friends, with the higher level of respect. One incident this spring, however, proved me wrong. The debate was on Catholicism and sex, so I was asking for trouble from the start. The limitations of the Facebook medium swiftly became apparent when the person on the other side of the debate misunderstood one of my points entirely, and launched onto a line of argument countering something she thought I had said, rather than what I’d meant. I thought of Woody Allen’s story “The Gossage-Vardabedian Papers,” in which a chess-by-mail match gradually turns into two entirely different games. Miscommunication aside, both my opponents and I were making good points, and I still feel mine are correct. However, as the argument grew more heated—and divergent—I apologized to my opponents and conceded defeat. Continue reading

“Ten Thousand Hours”

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint,
The greats were great because they paint a lot.”

—Macklemore, “Ten Thousand Hours”

Some of you know Macklemore because of “Thrift Shop.” Some know him because of “Same Love,” his ballad in support of gay marriage. I fell in love with his work some years ago when I encountered his early song “White Privilege.” In the quote above, he’s not saying anything new—the title of the song and other lyrics make his debt to Malcolm Gladwell plain. The point is that if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice it a long, long time, and due to his long hours of work, Macklemore figured out a way to say it well—so well that the words grip me and refuse to let go.

In his book Outliers: the Story of Success (2008), Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to truly master anything. To put that in perspective, if you started on January 1st, 2014, and worked at one single skill for ten hours a day, seven days a week, you’d be a true master of the skill on October 7th, 2016. Gladwell invented his number, of course, and everyone varies, but Gladwell has his reasons, and his central point is entirely sound. There are vanishingly few Mozarts in the world, child prodigies—and even Mozart reached the pinnacle of his genius because he took his talents and used them constantly. Macklemore works eighty-hour weeks.

So, Friends, let’s consider: if it would take nearly three years to master a skill while working at it non-stop, how long do you think it would take to master a skill only practicing it once a week? For an hour on Sunday mornings, say? Continue reading

Love and Potatoes

This evening I started making potato salad. Since this is for a Young Adult Quaker potluck on Labor Day weekend, I thought it would be clever to procure the eggs and potatoes from Young Adult Quakers. So I went out to Secret Spring Farm and did a little shopping.

I took some time to meditate today, as I do when I’m being good, and I emerged from the silence to work on the potatoes and eggs, trying to keep centered as I washed and cut and boiled and mashed. Perhaps that is why a thought came to me, as I rinsed an egg: this is life.

To one degree it was because an egg is such a potent symbol of potential. But a second aspect followed quickly after: this is real food. I was there when Felix pulled the potatoes out of the ground and handed them up to me. It’s food that he feeds to his own daughter. I know it’s clean and safe and rich and tasty. Then a third facet came into the light: this is a great example of the Economy of Love.

So, here’s a quick explanation of what that economy looks like, at least for me:

It looks like coming home from my part-time job (part-time so that I can keep body and soul together while spending most of my time on other, better things) to cook with food my farmer friends have grown right up from the seed, for which I paid a fair price. It means reusing the water from boiling the eggs to then boil the potatoes. It means frying up the potato peelings so that as little as possible is wasted. It means taking the food I’ve made to a potluck and sharing it with all the Young Adult Friends who attend, including the farmers in question, as all the other Young Adult Friends in turn feed me. It means praying over boiling eggs and laughing with my friends and building community one potluck at a time. And it means looking for the voice of God and the total interconnection of God’s creation in the smallest, most mundane moments.

I don’t mean to make too much of this. It’s a small thing, and not for everyone, and farm life isn’t the answer to all things… but to care for each other in this way, I think, is the soul and center of the economy of love. Find your own examples and make your own way.

~~~

Blogger’s Note: things have been quiet around here — the summer has kept me quite busy. Look for more activity in coming weeks, however. A lot has happened since last we spoke, my friends!

The Economy of Love

Trust and Abundance

Some years ago, I lived in a house with several other young Quakers, and we often pooled our resources for buying food. This meant that people often thought whatever was in the fridge was up for grabs. Once I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and discovered that the loaf of bread that I’d been planning on using had vanished.

At first, I was irked. If anyone had asked me for the bread I would have gladly given it to them, I thought, but this was going too far. I had plans for that bread, after all, plans which were now ruined. But as I calmed myself down, I realized how ridiculous this was. For starters, there was plenty of food that I was welcome to eat, and before long I was munching on leftovers. Secondly, it occurred to me that a lot of my irritation was from having my plans thwarted, despite the fact that the food I was eating now was probably rather healthier and tastier than what I’d intended to eat. And finally, I remembered that it was just bread: not worth arguing about.

That lesson has come back to me recently. Last week I was eying my rather minuscule paycheck before I tried to settle into my daily worship. My mind would not let go of financial worries until I heard, “Don’t worry about the money. All will be attended to.” Later that day, an unexpected check from my grandmother turned up in the mail.

That was plain enough… but soon thereafter, I stumbled on the video of a TED talk given by the musician Amanda Palmer. It’s worth watching in its entirety, but briefly, she makes two points about our modern-day economy: one, there is more value in the world than capitalism has measured with money, and two, there is an astonishing power in asking for money rather than charging, relying on love and generosity.

Then I visited the new-grown farm of some friends—including two Quakers who had lived with me in the house I mentioned earlier—and again got the sense that the universe was telling me something. Though I hadn’t planned on staying so long, they persuaded me to linger three days, with abundant hospitality. I initially demurred because I didn’t want to be a drain on their resources, but I earned my keep by helping with a few chores and with the spring planting—and by simply being a friendly face from outside the small and busy world they now inhabit.

There are two ways we can interpret all this: either I have figured out a high-concept way to justify my mooching, or the Spirit has just handed down a clear and lovely reminder of an old lesson: “You cannot serve both God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6.24b-25).

Or, to put it another way: let go of that loaf of bread, and let yourself be fed. Continue reading

An Example

Once there was a good Quaker. She subscribed to Friends Journal and read all the FCNL action emails. She served as clerk of Coffee and Oversight Committee when asked to, and gave regularly to AFSC. She had raised all her children as Quakers, and one still even went to meeting! In short she was an exemplary Friend. And the Light came to her and gave her a powerful leading to wear a bright-orange traffic cone on her head as a hat. Continue reading

These Women

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph. And for all the times in between, I just want to be able to look them in the eye. […] I want to be with my friends, my family, and—these women.”

—Josh Lyman in “The West Wing” (Aaron Sorkin, 1999)

The question came up lately: why are we Quaker? What drew us in, and what keeps us here? I should have been ready; I was the one raising it, after all. But I only realized my own answer in the silence that followed asking the question: I’m Quaker because of the women.

To a great extent, this is just as self-serving as it sounds. Through my adolescent years, as others my age started to stop coming to meeting, I kept showing up to worship because of someone else who kept coming, too, named Elisabeth. All the women I’ve been seriously interested in romantically since college have been Quaker. Moreover I find competence immensely attractive, and Quaker women run pretty strong. So while the number of dating prospects are few, their quality is high.

As I began to unwind the thought, however, I realized there was more in it. Continue reading

Conviction

The election is done; but it has not solved all our problems. Martin King said, in his classic speech “A Time to Break Silence,” “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Going by Dr. King’s formula, the United States is still dying. President Obama is treating symptoms of that illness (such as abuses of health and some legal rights) while not treating causes (abuses of wealth and power). It would dismay Dr. King to see the first Black president doing so, but it might not surprise him.

In fact the whole political left is largely focused on symptoms, and each group has picked one and made it their hill to die on. There is little agreement about what should take priority (other than beating Republicans). In fact the left—or liberals—or progressives—can’t even agree on what to call themselves. And in such tight financial times, the left plunges into what I call “liberal cannibalism”—fighting over who gets the last crumbs of the pie, rather than asking what happened the pie as a whole. The result, as W. B. Yeats put it, is that “The falcon cannot find the falconer./Things fall apart; the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, and the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.”

Quakers are far from immune. I have watched Friends leave meetings, and the Society, because of divisions over which worthy cause is worthiest. The result, in my part of Quakerism, at least, is that Friends have embraced a wide range of causes, but generally those causes are lifted up by individual Friends, or by individual meetings. This is to be expected: one of the most central Quaker tenets is “What canst thou say?” We are a faith that puts great faith in individuals. But the down side of “What canst thou say?” is that there has been less of “What can we say?” Meetings and Yearly Meetings are slower to take action. And may I point out that while minutes do indeed say something, they do not by themselves do anything? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers minuted opposition to slavery in 1688. A century later, Philadelphia finally banned slavery among its members.

So even we Friends can lack all conviction.

But while virtually all liberals wail and moan and wring their hands over priorities, we Quakers have an alternative. We know where to go to find the answers: George Fox called it “Living in the life and power.” We have over us the ultimate authority. When it comes to authority we accept no substitutes; only the Spirit will do. We do not even always listen to each other, after all. Sometimes we do need to stand aside and let the Meeting go a way we wouldn’t choose, but this is acceptable as long as we do find and follow the leadings of the Light.

When we do… ah, what we can do then!

So we do not need to stand in bafflement at all the different threats and causes, trying to triage an entire civilization. We can instead discern what the Spirit says we should do, and then move with true conviction towards the holy goal.

I don’t think this would mean abandoning any causes near to our hearts. There is so much overlap, after all: gay rights matter for immigrants because some immigrants are gay, and environmental damage so often follows poverty and war, and so on. After all, don’t our testimonies overlap? There’s no real line between Peace and Equality, is there? And to truly live up to Integrity we have to be both peaceful and equal. Moreover, everywhere I look, I see one core problem: abuse of power. Confront abuse of power in every form, and that’s the first step to social justice, no matter which form of abuse is dealt with first. But I also suspect that we may not be called to a particular agenda, but to a particular way. A deep way, a difficult way, even a dangerous way, but a way sure and true. The manner of Friends may come to mean not what we all do, but how we all do it. If we all lived so deep in the Spirit, that might well be enough.

This is just my guess, though. After all, we must come together and discern our way. But we can do this. To come back to Yeats’ poem again, we are the falcons who know how to find the falconer. To return to King’s speech, it is our time to break our silence. We may not see the path clearly, but we can follow the Light in faith, and trust that we are well on our way.