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.