Monday, December 31, 2012

Afterthought #12 – Spiritual Memoir

When people ask what I write, I usually reply:  nonfiction, personal essays, and memoir. When I describe my current project, I say I’m writing a memoir that braids leadings about my work with the story of the two years my family and I lived in a remote mountain village. 

Lately, I’ve been reading a craft book by Elizabeth J. Andrew - Writing the Sacred Journey - The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir.  My copy looks a little ragged. I’ve turned down corners of about half of the pages with exercises I’ll use in my writing practice.  I’ve underlined sections that speak to me, such as Andrew’s belief that “spiritual memoir is a form unto itself…a genre in which one’s life is written with particular attention paid to its mysteries.”  She also describes well my experience that “…the writing itself becomes a means for spiritual growth.”

After a break from MFA classes and my job, plus a renewing family vacation, I’m eager to resume work on my own spiritual memoir.  Writing the Sacred Journey will be a good companion.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving Up the Life You Have

A couple inches of dust coat my grandmother’s cherry writing desk in the corner of my bedroom; I haven’t yet replaced the dead battery in the clock that sits next to my journal; lint litters the brown sheepskin in the rocker where I usually sit. Since starting my MFA in writing program, I’ve shortened—or many days skipped—my morning writing meditation.

A poetry reading a few weeks ago, though, nudged me back.  More specifically, poet Holly Hughes spurred me with meditations and exercises in The Bell and the Pen, the book that she co-authored with Brenda Miller. Thumbing through it at Holly’s reading, I knew I had found kindred spirits in its authors:

            As writers who have incorporated spirituality as a part of our lives,
             we have found that writing, in and of itself, can be a powerful form
            of contemplation…we also believe that contemplative practice can
            strengthen one’s writing; the two work synergistically to support
            and reinforce each other.

Those lines, and others in The Bell and the Pen, have sent me again to that corner in my bedroom. Today, after I blew off dust on the votive candle and lit it, I noticed something tucked under the stack of books teetering on the desk.  It’s a tiny accordion book that I made in 2007 while a student at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center.

Its folds, twists, and turns symbolize the way leadings have unfolded for me. The hand-written text includes some of the new understandings I came to during the Pendle Hill course, “Discerning Our Calls.”  On one page I printed a quote by James Hillman, a Jungian psychologist:

You have to give up the life you have 
to get the life that’s waiting for you.

Those words had greeted me one afternoon when I entered a room for a time of worship-sharing. I can still remember the burn in my belly when I read them. Just as I had thought – to be faithful, I have to give up all of the good and beautiful things in my life.   My stomach churning as I tried to settle into the quiet of the room, another sensation prickled. What IS the world that is waiting for me?

I no longer can recall any of the sharing by others in the group that day. But at some point in that hour of expectant listening, the churning in my gut eased, and I heard what I was to give up. The life I have to give up is a life lived in fear.

Fear of loss, of failure, of disappointing others. Fear of making mistakes, being wrong.

I also heard that the life that is waiting for me­—the life that Spirit wants for me (and all of us)—is one of joy.

I’ve made some progress giving up worry and anxiety about those things I can’t control. I’ve gotten more clear about the dangers of trying to please everyone. And I remain certain of God’s desire for us to experience joy. But just like the dust on my writing desk, fear creeps in when I allow the busyness of life to keep me from regular times of contemplation. I’m grateful for being pulled back to my pen, my hand-bound journal, the flicker of a candle, and the quiet. I have more giving up to do, more life that is waiting for me.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Afterthought #11 - Praying Through an MRI

I’ve known a few people lately who’ve had MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) of the head. I’m just claustrophobic enough that even thinking about my body sliding into one of those cylinder-shaped tubes makes me sweat. One friend from Philadelphia wrote to tell me about advice she’d received before her recent test:  Use that half hour to pray for all the people you like to pray for.

So, while listening to classical music, that’s just what my friend did. She started with her “best beloveds on the West coast,” picturing everyone as she thanked God for their presence in her life and asking blessings for each.  Then she worked her way east and prayed for everyone she could think of who she feels connected to.  “It was a terrific way to spend the time and a good distraction from all the banging that is part of the MRI process,” my friend reported. “It took up the whole half hour, and I even thought of a few folks on my way home that I had overlooked.”

I’ll pass this suggestion on the next time I hear of someone having an MRI. And for now, I’m praying that my friend’s report comes back negative.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


“Happy Birthday,” I croaked to friends being honored at a party recently. Four days earlier, my head cold had turned into laryngitis. My throat burned from days of coughing, and when I tried to talk, all that came out was a squeak.  But I didn’t want to miss this celebration to honor three friends with November birthdays, so I went to the potluck and uttered few words.

There’s nothing like laryngitis to give you a lesson in listening.

Conversations swirled around me. I knew that I couldn’t respond or interject my thoughts and opinions, so I just listened.  For once, my mind wasn’t doing double duty of processing others’ words while formulating my own. Well, OK, I did think of some snappy retorts I would have made if I’d had a voice. But all I could do was nod, shake my head, or smile.

I remained silent. And listened.  I realized that I was hearing the voices of several of my friends who often are less talkative. And because I wasn’t planning replies, I heard them in some new ways.

Image from Yardley (PA) Friends Meeting 
“Listening is at the core of Quaker faith and practice,” writes Michael Wajda in the Pendle Hill pamphlet, Expectant Listening. In the silence of worship, we gather together to listen for the “still small voice” of God. It’s my chance to listen to the Divine with no requirement that I reply. To take in that Presence in silence—kind of like being at a dinner party with laryngitis.

Caroline Stephen, a 19th Century Quaker (and the aunt of Virginia Woolf), writes, “The silence we value is not the mere outward silence of the lips.”  Losing my voice after my cold took care of that part.

But, as Stephen reminds, “…in order to hear the divine voice thus speaking to us we need to be still.” Whether at Quaker meeting or in my daily practice of “expectant listening,” the silencing of the lips is just the first step toward the stillness that opens me to God’s voice. There’s often plenty of internal noise that continues—lists of tasks to do, worries about friends or family, self-criticism. 

Now, if I could just have laryngitis of the voice in my head. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reinventing Work

Work. It’s occupied my thinking and my writing for a long time. Disillusionment with my work as a nurse, work I had seen as a calling, spurred me to a family sabbatical in 1994. Photographs of hands engaged in work inspired me to put into words the satisfaction that can come with manual labor and resulted in my first book, Hands at Work. Now, as I write my memoir, I’m uncovering even more about the meaning of work in my spiritual journey.

I’ve been re-reading journals from the two years my family and I lived in the isolated village of Stehekin in Washington’s North Cascades. Those years of 1994-96 frame my memoir, Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. One of the books I took with me to Stehekin was The Reinvention of Work by Matthew Fox. Published just months before I acknowledged my burnout and quit my job as a public health nurse, The Reinvention of Work was a timely guide in my search for “soul work.”

In his book, Fox, a theologian and Episcopal priest, considered that we were in a radical and creative moment to redefine work itself. I believe we still are. Fox recounted the impact of the historical shifts of the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, shifts that pushed us to focus on productivity and consumption. He called readers to attend to our inner work, “…that large world within our souls or selves,” in order to change the ways we define, compensate, and create work.

Health care was one of the areas of work that Fox believed needed reinventing, and I couldn’t have agreed more. Even though my nursing education in the 1970s and 80s acknowledged the connections between mind, body, and spirit, I worked in systems shaped by the industrial revolution’s emphasis on technology and its view of the body as a machine. Five years into my nursing career, I witnessed the beginnings of health care becoming privatized and for-profit. This shift wasn’t doing anything to assure access to health care, and public health seemed the safety net best equipped to catch those who would fall through the inevitable cracks.  I viewed public health nursing as a way to promote justice, especially for the poor and underserved, and I embraced it. Eventually, public health, too, was undermined by the breakdown of the entire health care system. 

I’d broken down, too, from not attending to my inner work. So, in 1994, instead of just vacationing in Stehekin, my family and I moved there. My husband and children welcomed the adventure of living in a community to which no roads led, just a ferry stop at the end of 55-mile long Lake Chelan; the wonder of bear cubs digging for grubs outside the cabin; the drama of being at the mercy of a finicky hydroelectric plant, a river flooding its banks, and forest fires. I embraced adventure, too, but even more, I sought escape. In Stehekin, there would be no newspapers, radio, or TV newscasts to link me to the rest of the world.  No phone service for updates about families I had worked with or the latest communicable disease outbreak. And no doctor or public health clinic. I took a job kneading dough into loaves at the local bakery.  I also delved into Fox’s book and filled the blank pages of four journals with questions about what work I was called to do.

Nearly twenty years after first reading Fox’s vision that “…work is an expression of the Spirit at work in the world through us,” I continue to experiment with my own vision. I have gotten clear that writing is at least a part of it. So, each day, I light a candle, grasp a pen or place my fingers on the keyboard, and go to work.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Afterthought #10

Here’s another of my last-day-of-the-month afterthoughts (a hybrid drawn from my writing and Quaker communities as a form for brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers).

Sometimes my “Bum Glue” (see Oct. 29 post) needs a little reinforcement.  Today I turned to a new book by Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer - Noble Truths of the Writing Life. 

Moore has come to understand that his “… lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity has helped to open me to the path of Buddhism.” Specifically, writing has taught him about the power of releasing control.  His new book offers quotations and reflections on how writing and mindfulness can intersect.  The following two especially spoke to me right now:

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”  ~ Barbara Kingsolver

“There are significant moments in everyone’s day that can make literature. That’s what you ought to write about.”  ~ Raymond Carver

Time to get back in my writing chair.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bum Glue

Several years ago I picked up a valuable tool at a writing conference. The familiar Elmer’s bottle sits on my desk; reading its modified label always makes me smile:

to seat
of pants.

Many days, getting my bum into my desk chair is the most difficult part of writing. In my home office, I'm easily distracted by the phone, e-mail, and household chores. Then there’s Buddy, my yellow lab/German Shepherd, his tail tapping a rhythm like Morse code: W-A-L-K, W-A-L-K.

A dozen years ago I made a commitment to myself to schedule writing time on my calendar just as I’d always done for my jobs. It was one of the techniques I used to convince myself that, although writing doesn’t provide a paycheck, it is my work.  I came to this decision after a time of discernment about what God calls me to. For nearly twenty-five years I was clear that I was called to nursing, and I still feel led to that work part-time.  But now, I balance nursing with writing and am nearly halfway through a low-residency MFA in writing program.

Even with this clarity and commitment, I regularly dawdle when it comes time to turn on my laptop and open a blank document, or return to the memoir I’m drafting and revising. Even knowing the joy of discovery and the pleasure of crafting sentences and paragraphs into essays and chapters, I hesitate.

My stalling to get to my desk reminds me of when I postpone times of silent worship. Both writing and worship challenge my obsession with being productive, my desire to have something to show for my time. Evidence that I’m doing something. Results.

Hard as it can be, though, I keep putting my bum in my chair. At my writing desk. In my meditation rocking chair. Among Friends at Quaker worship. For when I do, I eventually get to that centered place where I open to the presence of the Divine.  And that’s always “productive.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

Book Review - Staying True

As far as I’m concerned, the world could use a few more spiritual memoirs. A lot more people of faith writing about their spiritual journeys.  Fortunately, lifelong Quaker Lynn Waddington did just that during the final two years of her life. And her partner, Margaret Sorrel, labored through her own grief after Lynn’s death to bring this story to print in Staying True­—Musings of an Odd-duck Quaker Lesbian Approaching Death.

The title should be the first clue that this isn’t your average memoir. Bruce Birchard, former General Secretary of Friends General Conference, calls it “a spiritual memoir for the twenty-first century,” and I couldn’t agree more.  Lynn took her spirituality seriously (though with a great deal of humor), explored it deeply, and shared it honestly. 

For Lynn, life was about constantly discerning her true leadings, and she generously takes her readers along on that journey.  I’ve turned down the corners of many pages to be able to return to her stories and experiences that speak to me.  Here’s one example:

We are seekers, not finders. For every profound experience I’ve had, I’ve been left with deep questions.

Lynn also wrote eloquently about something that often is beyond words, that experience of the presence of the Divine. She did find the vocabulary, though, when she wrote about one day in early adolescence when she took her questions of her identity with her to a favorite spot along the Delaware River:

I felt the calm seep into me as it usually did. And then I was wrenched open. . . I realized I was trembling and crying. Sweat was running down my sides. I was seen through and through. . . . Every flaw of my being was visible, but the fear that brought was dissolved by the sweetest, most tender love I had ever known. . .This was God—who saw me uniquely and bent down to touch me alone.

In Staying True, we have not only an account of the path of Lynn’s spiritual journey through young adulthood, her professional life, her role as a parent, and her relationships, but she also invited us in to her deep seeking near the end of her life.  Although she continued to ask questions about what she was meant to do, she also shared the peace she felt from her knowledge of being held in God’s love. 

Staying True is a source of wisdom, comfort, challenge, and more than a few belly laughs as well as tears.

To find out more about Staying True, visit Plain Speech Press.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Afterthought #9 - National Quaker Week

Just discovered that we’re two days into the sixth national Quaker Week (28 September to 7 October).

Alistair Fuller, Head of Outreach Development for Quakers in Britain says: “Every year we hold Quaker Week to encourage Quakers to talk about how their faith shapes their daily life and witness in the world.”

Throughout England this week, Quakers are wearing badges stating “I’m a Quaker – Ask Me Why.”  The Quaker Week website explains people wearing the buttons “…will be keen to share their personal faith journey and will be ready to say how they put their faith into action to work for social and political change.”   

British Friends have a theme for the week, too—Looking for a Spiritual Home­—focusing on their meetings as “communities where individuals can connect deeply with one another and with the Divine and are free to become most fully themselves and can explore together what it means to be a Quaker today.”

I don’t have one of these badges, but this seems like a good week to wear a T-shirt made by folks at Salmon Bay (Seattle, WA) Monthly Meeting. It’s my way to celebrate the spiritual home I’ve found among Quakers. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Revealing the Bones of Truth

A new edition of Juliet Barker’s 1994 biography, The Brontës, tells a story about Branwell, the brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
In 1834, Branwell began to study painting with a member of the Royal Academy of Art. The student painter sketched a portrait of his sisters and penciled his face in among theirs. When it came time to paint, he brought color to the faces of his sisters, but rubbed out his own, blending it into the background.

Eventually, the painting ended up in London's National Portrait Gallery, and now visitors can see that Branwell’s teacher failed to instruct his pupil how to mix the pigments properly. They shone for a while, but became transparent with age. Now, the delicate pencil sketches beneath, including the artist’s own face that he’d erased, are gradually re-emerging.

One review of the updated Brontë family biography used Branwell’s story as an analogy to praise the book. The reviewer compared Barker to a skilled restorer working on a family portrait,gently rubbing off the lurid colors of myth and gossip, and revealing the bones of truth underneath.”

Revealing the bones of truth underneath. That’s what happens for me in my writing, at least when I silence the critic that sits on my shoulder and follow where the words lead me. As I strive to sketch portraits in words, I bring color to places I’ve been and people I’ve known. I work to tell some of the untold stories of struggle, of faithfulness, of hope, of fear. Mine and others. Sometimes, though, my words cover up more than they reveal. Unlike Branwell, I have a writing teacher who nudges me to peel away the pigments that hide the full story.

And when I remember that Spirit is with me when I work, I’m strengthened to let the stories emerge, revealing the bones of truth underneath.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Largest Clearness Committee in the History of Quakerism

The subject line of a recent e-mail from my friend, Jon Watts, caught my attention:  Can I Continue to Be A Musician? 

This Quaker singer and songwriter explained he’s at a crossroads after four years of ministry through music and the success of his latest album, “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness.”  Even more than any of his previous works, Jon’s latest explores faithful Quaker practice and serious transformation.  He’s had great turnouts at concerts and good sales of his music.  Equally gratifying for him is hearing that the music and words are affecting the way that Friends think about their faith, culture, and identity.

But, while spiritually nourishing, Jon’s music making is not financially sustainable. He’s given up his apartment, his car, his health insurance. He figures he has enough money to get through the autumn, but he needs to make some choices about the future.

“As a Quaker,” Jon wrote, “I’m trying to make this decision in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, the way forward that I can’t arrive at just through reasoning.”

Quakers’ term for this way of deciding is spiritual discernment, a practice grounded in the central Quaker belief that the experience and guidance of God is available to every person, that each of us has an “Inner Teacher” who can lead us to the answers we seek. As Patricia Loring wrote in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment, it’s how we “…discriminate the course to which we are personally led by God from our other impulses.”

Jon and I learned a lot about spiritual discernment in Marcelle Martin’s 2007 Pendle Hill course, “Discerning Your Call.” In addition to reading Loring’s pamphlet and Callings by Gregg Levoy, we practiced discernment with clearness committees.

Clearness Committees are a long held Quaker practice in which a group of Friends meets with a person confronting a dilemma in life. In the Pendle Hill class, many of us were seeking clarity about work. Other times the process is used for those facing marriage/divorce adjustments or decisions, family/parenting difficulties or other major life changes. I’ve requested Clearness Committees over the years when my family contemplated moves and when I considered applying for graduate studies in writing.  I’ve also served on committees with Friends seeking clarity about work and calling.

Here’s how they operate in many Quaker meetings.

The person with a concern (focus person) will request formation of a Clearness Committee, usually under the direction of a committee in the Meeting.  The focus person gives the committee a written description of the issue needing discernment, and together they identify a small group of people who might best work with the focus person to access that Inner Teacher.  They all meet, usually several times, to discern together.  Unlike many decision-making processes, though, the central role of the Clearness Committee is to ask questions of the focus person. Their job is not to give answers.  

Suzanne Farnham’s book, Listening Hearts:  Discerning Call in Community, gives helpful direction about such evoking questions, questions that only the focus person can know the answers to. Some examples include:

What hints, messages, or signs have you received about this?
Where do you sense the most Life, or Spirit?
When you imagine God looking at you and your choices, how do you imagine God seeing or responding to them?

The “listening hearts” role of the committee is most powerful when committee members set aside personal opinions and listen deeply to the focus person’s responses.

At least, that’s how Clearness Committees typically operate. But Jon is using contemporary tools for his discernment process and is creating a virtual Clearness Committee. A big one. Perhaps The Largest Clearness Committee in the History of Quakerism.

I can just picture Friends dismissing Jon’s approach to this valued Quaker process. Until a couple of years ago, I would have, too. But, as I wrote in one of my first blog posts (I'm Not a Birthright Blogger), I’ve been convinced that this electronic media age offers some tools to nurture and connect us in our spiritual journeys.

Before you write off Jon’s invitation, take a look at his State of the Art Report. It’s a fine example of that important first step in the discernment process.

I’m going to accept Jon’s invitation. I look forward to trying it and hearing how it works for him. I expect I’ll learn some new ways to listen.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Afterthought #8 - Healed by Our Stories

Sometimes, often times, I question why I write. The volume usually rises when I’m writing those tender places - fear, loss – and when I doubt that my story has anything to say to the world.  That’s when I turn to the file of quotations in my laptop; here’s some wisdom I found there this morning.

“ I have felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations.  It is this tenderness born out of a connection to place that fuels my writing.  Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering.  But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free.  This is the sorcery of literature.  We are healed by our stories.”  

                                          ~ Terry Tempest Williams 
                                          from “Undressing the Bear”  in An Unspoken Hunger

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Worship-Sharing Through Song

Early Quakers likely would have been shaking their heads if they’d attended meeting with me last week.  Some present-day Friends might find my meeting’s last-Sunday-of-the-month practice peculiar, too. That’s when, instead of an hour of unprogrammed worship, people of all ages in our group worship through song.

Singer and song-writer Peter Blood understands singing and worship. He and his partner, Annie Patterson, are active members of the Society of Friends who consider their performing and songleading to be a form of music ministry and social activism. They co-created Rise Up Singing, a spiral-bound collection of words, guitar chords, and sources to 1200 songs that reflect Quaker testimonies of peace, community, and equality.

Blood also knows the history of singing among Friends. He explained in a 2002 Friends Journal article that Quakers in the mid-19th century viewed instrumental and choral music as forms of frivolous "worldly" recreation that led them away from God.  Fortunately, many Friends abandoned this belief by the beginning of the 20th century. Today, Quakerism is blessed with a rich variety of Quaker musicians such as Blood and Patterson. Their website lists many by name as well as by region and also links to those who have been interviewed on Mark Judkins Helpsmeet’s program “Song of the Soul” at Northern Spirit Radio.
Still, many Quakers in the unprogrammed (some call it the “liberal”) tradition remain ambivalent about singing during worship and are uncomfortable with the idea of group singing as worship. As Blood wrote in Friends Journal,

“Friends may acknowledge the possibility that an individual Friend may be
led by the Spirit to sing a song during Meeting for Worship—and feel moved
and uplifted when this breaks into the life of a meeting. Questions begin to be
raised when other Friends join in a song during Meeting. And probably most
un-programmed Friends would have real problems with calling out
hymn numbers—even spontaneously—during Meeting for Worship.”

Yet this is exactly what happens at my meeting on “Singing Sunday.” For several years now, we’ve reserved that day for a full hour of singing. Our “hymnal” is a photo-copied collection of favorite songs from a wide range of spiritual, social, and musical traditions, including a number from Rise Up Singing (we’re probably breaking copyright rules, but we always identify the source).

Recently, we modified our practice to include worship-sharing interwoven with song, similar to the style Blood and Patterson teach at workshops at Ben Lomond Quaker Center and Friends General Conference.  After fifteen minutes of silence, we pass out our “hymnals” and encourage people to "offer up" to the group the name of a song that they feel led to request.  We ask for a period of silence before and after the song when the requester and others present can reflect on and speak about what the song resonates within them.

Last week, we began our worship-sharing through song with a request for "Lean on Me" (by Bill Withers).

As we sang of pain and sorrow, problems, and heavy loads to carry, the lyrics spoke to the care and mutual support we find in our Quaker community.

Other requests included Simple Gifts, I Dreamed of Rain, Somos El Barco, Morning Has Broken, A Song of Peace, and a rousing rendition of George Fox. Friends’ sharing, sometimes accompanied by tears, spoke to the ways that Spirit can touch us through music. 

Whenever I’m at Singing Sunday, my Lutheran heritage takes over, and I ask that we close with a doxology.  The one in our meeting hymnal is different from what I sang as a child, though. The version we sing was a gift from Paul Tinkerhess who shared it one year at Friends General Conference:

            Praise bogs from whom all waters flow.
            Praise bugs above and frogs below.
            Praise lily pads and all by luck
            who thrive while seated in the muck.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Writing Community

A couple sat in the lobby of the Captain Whidbey Inn, thumbing through materials describing the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA in Creative Writing. I was among the students there for the August residency, a ten-day intensive of classes that kicks off the Fall semester. I chatted with these prospective students about how my studies there are helping me to become a better writer. One of their questions has stuck with me.

Directed Reading Class, August Residency
photo by Dave Beach
“What does it mean that this is a writing community?”

Community is a term that people use a lot today.  Many talk of it as a sense of belonging, a desire to be known and supported by those who live near them or by people who share common interests.  The phenomenal growth of Facebook, Yahoo groups, Linked In, and a host of other Internet services is evidence of the yearning to connect with others. But what is this writing community that the Whidbey program tries to foster?

I look to my own understanding of community shaped largely by my experiences among Quakers.  We place a high value on community, including it along with simplicity, peace, integrity, and equality as the principles that guide our lives (what we call testimonies).  Here’s how Moorestown (New Jersey) Friends School describes the testimony of community:

Community means that we are responsible for the human beings that
share the planet with us. This means we must work together to help each
other become the best people possible. Quakers examine their own attitudes
and practices to test whether they contribute as much as they can to the
needs of the wider community; including addressing issues of social, political
and economic justice. In school this means that we all must work to
demonstrate respect for others and a willingness to listen to other points
of view, as well as serving the broader community. 

Quaker writer and teacher, Parker Palmer, describes community this way:

Community is a place where the connections felt in the heart make
themselves known in bonds between people, and where the tuggings
and pullings of those bonds keep opening up our hearts.

I heard myself using similar language with the prospective students in response to their questions about Whidbey’s “writing community.” 

The bonds among the students are strong. During the August residency we felt many connections in our hearts as we supported each other through news of the death of one classmate’s brother and a cancer diagnosis for the best friend of another student. When I learned mid-way through the residency of the death of my dear friend, Greg Ewert (see Sept. 9, 2010 post), I was comforted by several in this writing community.

At the Whidbey graduation ceremony, student speaker Mandy Manning reminded us of the many personal “tuggings and pullings” that she and her classmates had endured and how they had supported each other.

In workshops, craft classes, and at student readings, we work together to help each other become the best writers possible. Like the Moorestown Friends School, we do this with “respect for others and a willingness to listen to other points of view.” Probably helps us become better people, too.

Finally, just like the Quaker testimony of community, the writing program advocates serving the broader community. At Whidbey, we call it literary citizenship, and it’s evident in the efforts of students, faculty, and guest faculty who work to promote literacy, give voice to those rarely heard, and cheer on other writers at all stages of development.

I’m not claiming that my MFA program is a religious organization (Quaker or any other).  But since writing is so intertwined with my spiritual journey, I’m grateful to have a writing community that shares and reflects the values of my Quaker community. If that’s what those prospective students are seeking, they’ll fit in well at the Whidbey Writers’ Workshop.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Afterthought #7

At the recent North Pacific Yearly Meeting Annual Session, Ann Stever (University Friends Meeting) introduced Friend-in-Residence Benigno Sánchez-Eppler. 

“Benigno wears his connection with Spirit on his sleeve,” she said.

I do, too, but sometimes my sleeve is rolled up, my connection with Spirit tucked out of sight, for fear of being misunderstood, or of assumptions being made about my beliefs.  I’m grateful for times of deep sharing and open listening, when I can unroll my sleeve and fearlessly embrace the Spirit that is always with me.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Closer to Each Other Than Language Allows

Photo by Claire Phipps -

People think of Quakers as loving, peaceful, friendly types (our full name is, after all, the Religious Society of Friends).  And we are all of those things. We’re also human—full of imperfections, confusion, and fear. We don’t all see things in the same way, and our history shows that sometimes those differing views have torn us apart. This week, one branch of the diverse tree of Quakerism—Indiana Yearly Meeting—is considering such a break. For those Friends, the issue that is dividing them is homosexuality.

I’ve just returned from my own North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM) annual gathering. For five days, Quakers from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana worshiped, sang, and played; remembered Friends who died last year and welcomed newcomers; learned about local, national, and international Quaker efforts to promote peace and justice; and reconnected with old friends and made some new ones.

For many, these annual gatherings are a time to take a break from life’s daily demands and to renew spiritually. With the theme of “Listening in Tongues,” we were encouraged to “prepare ourselves for seeing, feeling and hearing unaccustomed perspectives with the tenderness we would wish for our own.” Our Friend-in-Residence, Benigno Sánchez-Eppler, urged us to listen beyond words, beyond the “limited monolingual comfort of our own monthly meetings,” for the similarities of our common Quaker ancestry. We heard from Friends in Pullman-Moscow Meeting that listening in that way can be healing. They reported that as they’ve dealt with conflicts in their meeting, “We are closer to each other than language allows.”

We faced our own challenges with language that separates us as we considered whether to affiliate with Friends General Conference (FGC). After a year of examination of what “affiliation” would both require and offer, we still stumble over that word as well as what it means to be an “independent” yearly meeting.  We decided to discern further over this next year, setting aside the idea of affiliation and instead exploring what kind of  “relationship” we want with the varied branches of Quakerism, including FGC.

As we left our gathering last Sunday, another branch of Quakers in the West, Northwest Yearly Meeting, began its annual session. Their agenda was to include consideration of the current state of affairs in their Yearly Meeting in the area of sexual ethics and same-sex relationships. As with Indiana Yearly Meeting, these conversations likely were fraught with conflict, just as they were twenty-five years ago in North Pacific Yearly Meeting. It took us eight years, but in 1993 we came to unity to revise our Faith and Practice to state that Quaker meetings could take the relationships of same-sex couples under their care (translation of Quaker-ese: same-sex couples could get married) following the same processes as for heterosexual couples.

This week, Indiana Yearly Meeting (IYM) has been considering a split as a way to deal with its members’ differences regarding not only same-sex relationships but also the full participation of gays and lesbians in the life of their monthly meetings and churches.  I first learned of IYM’s proposal to separate into two groups in an article by Stephen Angell in the June/July 2012 issue of Friends Journal. Angell outlines the timeline of the “Indiana Yearly Meeting Schism” there as well as in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Quaker Theology - The Impending Split in Indiana Yearly Meeting.  From my reading, it appears that differing views on homosexuality are being cloaked in questions about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over individual meetings.

I’m holding these Friends from Indiana Yearly Meeting this week as they meet to discern how God is leading them.  I hope they can, as Benigno suggested, listen to differing perspectives with the tenderness they would wish for our own.

And I hope that NPYM can do the same as we explore the nature of our relationships with the wider world of Friends.