Sunday, March 31, 2013

*Afterthought # 15 - Halfway Point

Last week marked the halfway point in my MFA in writing program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  I’m majoring in nonfiction, but this low-residency program requires students to take some courses in other genres.  This semester I’m taking a course in the Craft of Poetry; I wrote about my tentative beginnings in the class in January, and I continue to be challenged by this “foreign language.”  Yet, as I’d hoped and expected, the poetry reading and writing I’m doing is strengthening and invigorating my prose; I’m seeing evidence of that as I also work on my thesis—a book-length spiritual memoir.

 To reward my progress, I treated myself to a couple of days on the mainland, including a stop at the award-winning Katie's Cupcakes in Bellingham, WA.  For now, I enjoyed a mini-cupcake (about half the size of a regular cupcake).  Delicious.

*Beginning in January 2012, I instituted posting an “Afterthought” on the last day of each month, fashioned after a practice in some Quaker meetings. At the end of meeting for worship, some groups continue in silence for a few more minutes during which members are invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning's worship. I’ve adopted the form here for brief reflections on headlines, quotes, comments overheard, maybe even bumper stickers.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Design Flaws

No flaws in the design of these mini-irises

On a recent New Yorker podcast, writer Tony Earley read and discussed Robert Maxwell's short story, "Love."  It’s not what you think. Well, the story is about love, the love of a young boy for his fifth-grade teacher. Even more, it’s about death, but as Earley said when talking about the story, “Who would read something with the title ‘Death’?”

At the end of the conversation, Earley, the author of the personal essay collection Somehow Form a Family, added his own commentary about death.

“I see death as a design flaw,” he said.  “And I want to write a letter to someone about that.”

When Earley figures out who the letter should go to, I’d like to report a few other design flaws. On my list of flaws I’d add infections like meningitis that nearly killed a 21-year-old and left him facing months of rehab.

Birth control that fails for a single woman and physiology that doesn’t work for a couple wanting a baby.

Surges of electricity after a power outage that spark fire and burn a house and all of its contents to the ground.

Hurricanes that wash away homes and schools anywhere, but especially those that repeatedly devastate the poorest parts of Central America.




You likely have a few you’d add to the list, too.

When I was growing up, I was taught that God knew best.  That when horrible things happen—like illness, shootings, hurricanes, fire—these were all part of God’s plan.

I don’t believe that way any more. Now, I think God views these as flaws, too, and would like nothing better than some fixes. 

Monday, March 18, 2013


Recently I wrote a letter to the editors of local media in support of a candidate for county council.  I’ve known this candidate for nearly twenty years, having met her at a Quaker Meeting for Worship even before I moved to the county. In my letter, I cited examples of her work for affordable housing and her careful and respectful listening to many perspectives and explained that I’m backing her because her life speaks to the Quaker values of peace, simplicity, integrity, equality, and community.  Another term used to describe those values is “the testimonies.”

As much as I cherish the absence of dogma in Quakerism, I’m grateful for efforts throughout our faith tradition’s history to describe our beliefs and how they shape our lives. Although early Friends didn’t refer to “the testimonies,” they’ve been a reference point for me in my thirty-plus years of being a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

In an article in the March 2013 Friends Journal, Doug Bennett quoted Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice to define testimonies:

“Testimonies bear witness to the truth as Friends in community perceive it—truth known through relationship with God. The testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light.”

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) included the same definition in its excellent pamphlet, An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies (that’s the cover in the photo), to explain the basis of that organization’s work to promote peace and overcome violence and injustice.

In this neck of the Quaker woods, we sometimes use the shorthand of SPICES to reference these “truths” of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship (or some people say sustainability). Not everyone in Quakerdom likes the acronym and some claim the classifications are simplistic and narrow our vision. I find the testimonies helpful, though, as a framework for teaching (sometimes called “advices”), followed by queries.  Here are some examples from the AFSC pamphlet for the testimonies of peace and equality:

“Peace is not the product of terror or fear…Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.”  ~ Oscar Romero, Catholic Archbishop

Query:  How can I work to settle disputes within an organization or the community with love and sensitivity for all involved?


“Until we can respect another person without justification except that he or she is a child of God, it is not really respect.”  ~ Paul Lacey, Quaker Educator

Query: How can I speak up and take action in a loving way when I see and hear injustices?

It’s those questions that have the most power for me as they prompt reflection, self-examination, and spiritually-centered discussion. As Bennett writes, “…testimonies help us pick a path through tricky terrain where simple, mechanical dos-and-don’ts won’t suffice.” And the questions are worth asking over and over, because there are no right answers, no single answer that fits everyone, and the answers may change over time.

During this local election season, the testimonies on peace, equality, and community have led me to write some letters. Next up is one in favor of the school bond.