The poem below, written in Spanish with an explanatory English translation, describes a “mystical experience” that I had some forty years ago. The event in question—a hiking trip in Big Bend National Park—was not as dramatic as the poem; but it did change my life. I became a spiritual seeker and eventually ended up with the Quakers, eventually here in Old Chatham Monthly Meeting.
Subía in el guijarro del sendero
I climbed over the trail gravel
mientras el sudor corría por la nariz
while sweat ran down my nose
Y saltaba a la boca salada.
and sprang into my salty mouth.
Oía los zumbidos explosivos
I heard sudden explosions of sound
cuando los bichos volaban cerca del oído
when insects hummed and flew near my ear
Y sentía el ritmo de la cantimplora
and I felt the rhythm of the canteen
meciéndose a mi lado.
swinging at my side.
A veces me paraba para recobrar el aliento
Sometimes I stopped to catch my breath
pero seguía trepando a paso lento
but I kept climbing slowly
Y por fin llegué a la cima de los Chisos.
and arrived at last on the Chisos summit.
Un viento me azotaba y me hipnotizaba
A wind whipped and hypnotized me
con su música celestial.
with its celestial music.
De mi risco alto las montañas se marchaban
From my place on high the mountains marched away
en fila parda
in khaki files
Y las nubes ensombrecían la tierra
And clouds shadowed the earth
con manchas de azul.
with splotches of blue.
Un halcón solitario giraba,
A solitary hawk circled
Y me invadía la paz profunda,
And a profound peace subdued me--
inesperada, tan deseada.
a peace hoped for, a peace desired.
Hubo silencio y gozo.
There was silence and joy.
Hubo tranquilidad y luz.
There was calm and light.
El cuerpo se esfumó.
My body vanished like smoke.
El peso se levantó.
Its weight lifted away.
No hubo pecado.
There was no sin.
No hubo culpa.
There was no blame.
No hubo ansiedad.
There was no fear.
Y todo nada,
And all nothing,
Y yo todo,
And all me,
Y yo nada,
And me nothing,
Y yo todo nada,
And me all nothing,
Y todo uno,
And all one,
Todo el océano de luz.
All the ocean of light.
De repente el ave zambullió
Suddenly the bird dove
en busca de su presa.
in search of its prey.
Mientras se caía, una ráfaga del viento
While it fell, a gust of wind
me apuñaló violento.
violently knifed through me.
Me desperté y regresé.
I woke up and returned.
Acepté el peso del cuerpo.
I accepted the weight of the body.
Abracé el dolor del alma.
I embraced the pain of the soul.
Mareado, descansé un rato.
Dizzy, I rested a little.
Rendido, empecé el descenso,
Exhausted, I began the descent,
el retorno terrenal.
the return to earth.
Tarde llegué al pie de los Chisos
I arrived late at the foot of the Chisos,
Que tenían los picos iluminados
peaks shining bright
por los rayos del sol.
in the rays of the sun.
Y la tranquilidad del la naturaleza
And nature’s tranquility
Me llenaba y me pacificó.
filled me and won my soul.
That’s the title of a book of jokes by Chuck Fager. While the jokes are all ostensibly about Quakers, many of them are generic. Often the word “Quaker” could easily be replaced by “Baptist,” “Catholic,” or some non-religious identifier. Still, most of the humor does depend upon a specifically Quaker context.
The book is not really “hilarious,” however. The humor is very gentle, usually ironic or satiric. If you want belly laughs, this is not the book for you. In fact, I originally intended to make this a negative review; but, as I re-read the book after initially skimming the material, I found myself rather enjoying it.
The text is divided into nine chapters as follows:
Meeting for Worship, Business, and Other Friendly Amusement
Commerce, Politics, and Suchlike Worldly Distractions
Inner Faith and Interfaith
Testimonies, Old and New, Real, and Imaginary
Quaker Children, and Other Peculiar People
A Friends’ Miscellany Including Some Verse
Golden Oldies—The Top 30 (Or So) Classic Quaker Chuckles
Quakers, Sex, and Marriage: The Naked Truth?
Here are two entries somewhat representative of the humor:
Hast thee heard about the new Twelve-Step group for Friends who talk too much and too often in Meeting for worship? It’s called On-Anon. And on. And on.
(A Wilburite Friend argued) …with a Quaker pastor over the merits of programmed versus unprogrammed worship, but to no avail. When both had talked themselves out, the Wilburite concluded in a tolerant tone, “Well, Friend, I guess we are both trying to worship the Lord—thee in thy way, and I in His.”
The book costs $9.95 in paperback or $4.99 at Amazon’s Kindle bookstore.
The “Look Inside” feature at the link above contains almost 15% of the whole
and should be the deciding factor as to whether one wants to buy the other 85%.
Many in Old Chatham Meeting are probably already familiar with Friendly Persuasion, a 1956 movie based on Jessamyn West’s book of (almost) the same name. Starring Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards. Nevertheless, Friendly Persuasion is no great work of art, suffering from melodrama and a broad humor that sometimes verges on slapstick.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t entertaining; and it’s especially interesting for Friends who are curious about the lifestyle of rural, 19th Century Quakers. Set in the lush countryside of Indiana (the San Fernando Valley), this picturesque film is complemented by Dmitri Tiomkin’s musical score and the song “Thee I Love.” And while the film is syrupy sweet and overemotional, I admit that I personally enjoyed those qualities. Relevant enough to hold the attention of adults, Persuasion is also an ideal children’s film. Kids will enjoy Little Jess’s battle with Samantha the Goose and his rivalry with an older sister. Teens who are not jaded by our consumer culture will be charmed by the tender romance between Mattie and a dashing cavalry officer.
The main motif of the film deals with Quaker pacifism in the time of the Civil War, when Rebel raiders were attacking peaceful Indiana farmers. Will Jess the father or Josh the elder son defend the family with arms? Will the mother, Eliza, remain uncorrupted by the violence erupting around her? Will principle or expediency prevail? And what role will love play in all this chaos?
Whatever its shortcomings, I highly recommend Friendly Persuasion, which is rated a respectable 7.3 by IMDb. The film may be rented from Amazon Prime for a mere $2.99.
“There’s always hope.” That was the phrase I said repeatedly during interminable phone conversations with “Gwyn.” Gwyn hesitated to even leave her house and could barely move from room to room because of overweight, bad knees, and the physical lethargy of depression. Three times she went to a hospital emergency room because she couldn’t stop crying. Suicide was always discussed when we talked on the phone.
In years past, antidepressants had given her some relief, but they no longer worked. I suggested electroconvulsive (“shock”) therapy, but Gwyn was afraid of the possible memory loss. As I’m mildly addicted to surfing the internet, I had read about a novel treatment for severe depression. Infusions of ketamine, a common anesthetic, have provided partial or complete relief of treatment-resistant depression in 60 to 70 per cent of patients. Gwyn tried ketamine. It worked. Literally within hours of her first infusion, people noticed a more normal tone of voice as she talked with them. Today, she is completely free of depression, has lost 120 pounds, and is active in a local church. She does receive a maintenance dose of ketamine every six weeks, but that’s a small inconvenience for a remarkable recovery.
I also trotted out my “always hope” phrase with “Rose,” an elderly friend who had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Radiation and hormonal treatment led to a remission of the cancer, but Rose’s sister and I noticed a slurring of her speech as she underwent the cancer treatment. At first, we attributed the speech problem to her pain medication. We were distressed to learn that the indistinct articulation was a first symptom of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This neuromuscular disorder results in complete paralysis and subsequent death. In about a year, Rose was skin and bone, covered with ugly lumps of muscle that looked like jellyfish sending tentacles all over her body. Suddenly she was gone. Realistically, there had never been any hope.
In the real world, people get sick and die. In the real world, people fail to realize their personal potential. In the real world, love is often displaced by indifference or hate. In the real world of contingency, it’s simply not true that “there’s always hope.”
Jesus once admonished His disciples not to be anxious about food, drink, or clothing. God, he said, would take care of them just as he took care of the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Such a naïve hope is literally untrue, but there is a spiritual sense in which there’s always hope. This Inner Hope is based on faith, is—in fact—the same thing as faith.
We may suffer from a wave of despair that hides God and destroys hopeful feelings; but God is always there, always ready to appear as Grace, always ready to restore Inner Hope. The apostle Paul tells us that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love, and sometimes we experience a mystical epiphany of that love. In Quaker terms, we become aware of an Inner Light, sometimes faint, sometimes blinding, always leading us through our soul’s dark night.
Yes, faith may be eclipsed by circumstances. We may sometimes feel hopeless; but because our hope is God, because God IS, that hope returns to us in feelings of faith and joy. Admittedly, we do have to be open to God’s grace if we are to experience this return; and there are individuals who, for whatever reason, do not feel God’s Presence. I do believe that non-theistic Friends, despite their religious skepticism, can feel that Presence. They may not use “God” or any of the circumlocutions for God, but they may nevertheless experience the Inner Light and the hopefulness that it reveals.
Isaac Penington says as much. He tells us that we may come to believe in a principle of life by “…feeling its nature, in waiting to feel somewhat begotten by it, in this its light springs, its life springs, its love springs, its hidden power appears….” Adversity and suffering are ripples, sometimes great waves in life, but those waves happen on the surface of the Eternal. Deep within the Deep we encounter an Inner Hope impervious to the storm.
I first became aware of Quakers back in the 1960’s when I was trying to escape the military and the Vietnam War. However, as a pathologically shy and extremely serious student at UT Austin, I avoided Friends, Students for a Democratic Society, and Hippies. Now, in my old age, trying—I guess—to expiate my guilt at not having risked anything in that conflict, I’m writing a short history of the Counterculture at UT. I’m still not an activist in the sense of chaining myself to fences at nuclear sites, but I hope my writing will be a kind of vicarious activism that serves some larger purpose. As T.S. Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
I vaguely recall walking on the UT Mall, seeing Gentle Thursday activities, and thinking that it was all a waste of time. The words below—as well as my belated participation in the Society of Friends—are an effort to come to terms with a less-than-courageous past.
These days students walk on pebbled concrete as they hurry to class along the West Mall, but in 1966 the Mall consisted of grassy rectangles bordered by sidewalks. Students were forced to press together four or five at a time to stay on the sidewalks and avoid stepping on the grass. Clearly today’s paved West Mall is an improvement from a practical point of view; and yet there’s something to be said for grass.
On November 3, 1966, students were able to sit and even dance on the grass. A time traveler to UT on that day would have seen college kids picnicking on the Mall and sharing sandwiches, cigarettes, and conversation. Children played on the lawn while balloons bounced along the ground. Amateur artists with colored chalk drew flowers and a Mickey Mouse face on the limestone buildings and their identifying signs. Slogans like “Kiss Someone” and “Why Love?” were chalked onto signposts. “Love was the universal thought of the day, with guitar music and poetry reading in the background. Bubbles filled the air, dogs slept, and the tower chimes gently moved the afternoon on.”
It was the very first Gentle Thursday. The day had been planned by members of the Students for a Democratic Society. In an SDS meeting at the beginning of the Fall Semester, Jeff Nightbyrd proposed the event after reflecting on German revolutionaries who wouldn’t walk on the grass. Although blowing soap bubbles and playing with balloons seems innocent enough, these and other fun activities were a veiled criticism of the University community, whose administrators were serious people dedicated to making UT “a university of the first class.” According to Nightbyrd, “The idea of Gentle Thursday was to create a counter-mentality manifested in action. We didn’t just think the revolution—we lived it.”
Nightbyrd’s counter-mentality consisted of two quite different philosophies, one held by “peace-and-love hippies,” the other espoused by more conventional political radicals. For the radicals, a better world could only come through political action and unremitting hard work. For the hippies, the new world came first. Just live by spiritual values, by love and togetherness, by truthfulness and simplicity. When enough people had embraced this way of life, this culture, this “consciousness,” then—and only then—would power politics complete a revolutionary transformation of the whole society.
Gentle Thursday with its music and childhood games was a symbolic preview of New Age consciousness, certainly with elements of political confrontation. The very fact that SDS planned or sponsored four of five Gentle Thursdays alarmed UT administrators, who saw SDS as a threat to the social order. Drawing chalk peace signs was a challenge to U.S. policy in Vietnam, if not the government itself.
But the peace sign was also used by hippies as a symbol for a life at peace with nature and other human beings—a life lived outside the competitive American rat race. One purpose of a UT education is to prepare students for victory in that very competition. Thus, UT officials also disliked the hippie elements of Gentle Thursday. Balloons and soap bubbles recall the innocence of childhood that many hippies idealized and that savvy college students were supposed to have long outgrown. And so, the five Gentle Thursdays at UT became annual struggles between American capitalism and countercultural values.
Locked wheels scraped on gravel shoulder
and skidded to a sudden stop.
Clouds of dust billowed all around,
and a hard rebound of door on leg
tore flapping trousers--
no protection for a tender shin.
The man’s wife followed as best she could,
her skirt a concave sail,
her arms an awkward cradle
that almost dropped the babe within.
Golden fields of wheat rose and fell in the wind
and sometimes flattened before a sudden gale.
A broom of rain swept ever nearer,
and lightning danced to thunderous applause.
A thin black funnel hung in distant view
and puffed from whirlwind tip
a cloud of dust and dark debris.
Man and wife stood transfixed,
awed by the tempest’s power.
The child squirmed and kicked,
but somehow slept in weathered arms.
Squashed flat to earth like a punctured ball,
the sun spread laggard rays beneath the storm.
In this last light the infant’s hair flamed radiant white,
angelic halo in the gathering night.
Man and wife = The Founders
Tornado = Donald Trump
Child = Joe Biden
(other, more spiritual interpretations are possible)
our little hour whistled by a bird
kept within a year a promise in a pocket
a stone we turn worrying its corners
into rounds we lean forward to each week
and look backward upon for strength
Friends gathered around a certain fire
the spark of love that cannot be contained
stills and refreshes with its lulling refrain
As we approach election day, we might be thinking ahead on how we will deal with the past four years if we get a new president.
On thinking about this, I looked back upon the lies we were fed by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction, rendition, torture, and so many other human rights abuses all in the service of "freedom." Lies get wrapped in the red, white and blue because they sell much better, but they are still lies.
Obama chose, with Biden as VP, to close that chapter without any accountability. I think that was a mistake because it paved the way for the degradation of the public discourse that devolved into 20,000 lies during the Trump era not to mention the wholesale destruction of the gains it took decades to achieve in race relations, voting rights, immigration and many other areas.
From a Quaker perspective, in my humble opinion, I don't think there can be any moving forward without integrity. And by integrity what I mean is this: taking a hard look at what was done that violated not just our constitution, but the norms of decency we assumed were in place in our government and in our society.
As things stand now, all bets are off. Next presidents, democrat or republican, can do whatever they like, unless it is specifically prohibited. We need to put some rules in place to limit the power of the presidency. The notion of the unitary executive needs to be hobbled if we are to maintain co-equal branches of government and not slip into dictatorship. We learned exactly how fragile our institutions were over the past four years.
To forgive is appropriate, but we must not simply gloss over and forget. There has to be accountability. A presidential crimes commission would be a good start. Not because we want to punish Trump, but because a fair and just society demands it. Such a commission may not even choose to levy a penalty other than the indictment of history, but it needs to happen.
Some say it will further divide an already divided country, but there can be no true healing without a full accounting. A form of restorative justice would be not only to roll back the draconian rules that were put into place, but uplift those who got left behind. If we look back on the civil war and reconstruction, the process of restorative justice was truncated by Andrew Johnson and we saw the rise of lynchings, jim crow laws, red lining and so much more physical and economic violence. We can't let that happen again.
It is time that America comes to terms with our past and passes through the eye of this needle whole on the other side.
Some queries that are with me on the eve of the election are:
It has been snowing for a half hour while still dark
I shined a flashlight out the window and it was falling
in a slant the scant leaves told no wind so I ruled
out rain, and not hail nor sleet either at the end
of October after a day of soaking rain to bring the wells
up and now it is light and despite my lamp’s reflection
in the window I can see the flakes falling between
our houses filling the space to the trees backed
by the fence the second raking not yet done
leaves sodden give up pressed to the ground
their colors traded for browns including the cherry’s
and now the storm is thickening and the trees
beyond the fence are blurred cedar, pine and spruce
with respect to their distances and the bush
that still retains its leaves is being coated
on which the birds perch now flocking to the feeders
and the leaves are bedding down the snow
that the gravel driveway still melts so it has made
one friend again but who can replace Ann who
died this week in her son’s arms my Quaker
friend for years we drove each other and talked
along the way set up for the pot lucked movies
I took her to the classical concerts in Kinderhook
she’d buy me lunch in the café down from the church
Mozart Beethoven Hummel Handel Bach and Haydn
where Vicky’s husband conducted the orchestra
and Sandy, Vicky and Noah sang in the chorus
she had a piano in her house and played a wind
instrument and bridge we worked on book sales
fundraisers for our meetinghouse she lifting
boxes my back could not and sorting them into
categories other Quakers would dispute, the same
book moving among disciplines over several days
she’d give me pens after I started writing poems
in meeting for worship and a sweater she’d knitted
one night in the dark and snow she fell on the stone
steps huge slate they’d lifted all together on her hands
and knees somehow still holding her dish it had snowed
then too and it was slippery and dangerous just the two
of us always arriving early she was quite prompt
we worked the jazz concerts together she at the door
collecting money and presold tickets which had got printed
she made many arrangements for our county fair
exhibit of the solitary confinement cell replica two
years running and sat with me to explain to passersby
why the hearts of men and women deadened in that hole
she had a fine sense of humor and the prettiest face
with a warm smile her daughter and granddaughter shared
attended national Quaker conferences and would speak
of a gathered meeting always brought the bagels
helped families in need without asking questions
she was kind and a good listener with great stories
taught me words to long for me to have remember
we talked of flowers and bushes that bloom in spring
she loved to read both heavy and light and she’d give
me Jack Reacher novels we would sit in the car before
taking her home and she’d look out into the field behind
the meeting house the wheels of hay rolled up
on the almost drumlin trees behind fine in any
season and exclaim the beauty of the view
now the snow is weighing down my yew
roofs have whitened and I’m frightened all alone
my throat constricted I wished I’d called her more
but many times we talked just on the phone
the rain in my eyes I wish would change to snow
so I could blink and see where I’m to go
Never had trouble with the plant before, the north
held enough light for its vine led flowers on porch
or tree its potted green foliage blew blooms to scorch
my tracing fingers. But summer could not bring forth
a single replacement after the florist shop’s shorn
to the ground limp reds that cooled their torch.
Draped maples had spread spared no shadow scored
each tendrilled leaf with unkindled umbrage, southern
sun playing favorites among the other baskets.
Water and fertilizer were of no effect. I moved
it next to its fecund twin and I asked it
to learn the theorems the other had proved
with such cones dangling that I want my casket
to trail them saying I loved and in return was loved.
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