Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

MISSING IN ACTION

While I wrote this for a Quaker audience, I’m hearing it’s true in many other faith traditions.

~*~

It’s not just teenagers, first, and then small children. Where are the men? Looking at attendance patterns across denominations, one might ask if religion’s becoming a “women’s concern.” (We might contrast this to some Orthodox Jewish traditions, where the women stay home, figuring men need to do the heavy spiritual work or at least some soul-searching, so everyone will benefit; pardon me if I oversimplify in reaching for a point.) It’s bad enough we Friends now expect the teens to disappear, as well as the college-age youths. There are mornings in our worship when women outnumber men three-to-one, or more. I’m calling for some equality here, or we’ll all suffer. (I recall one researcher who pinned the decline of the Shakers to four decades before the actual collapse became apparent; the point came when the number of men joining the movement fell off sharply.)

Admittedly, there are some pretty powerful countercurrents running through American society. Many of the men are working six-day weeks to make ends meet, and Sunday’s the only day for rest – if not a second job itself. Sports has replaced religion and even politics as the male topic of discussion. Some church planners have gone as far as to suggest stadium seating in response, and Starbucks during the sermon is already customary in the trendiest congregations – especially those gathering in rented movie theaters. This doesn’t even begin to address single-parent or two-worker families, soccer leagues, the claustrophobia-inducing Saturday rounds of shopping, parties, or entertainment venues. Something’s deeply out of balance.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not calling for any return to patriarchy, and I’m grateful for many of the ways feminist theology has liberated our understanding of Scripture and early church practice. I’m even concerned that women pastors are largely confined to the smaller, lower-paying parishes – or excluded from others. I’m proud of the leadership women have provided in our Quaker Meetings.

I’m simply lamenting the fact that we’re not as diverse and vibrant as we might be. Any suggestions?

POINT NOTED

Few Friends in unprogrammed (or “silent”) Meetings of our size would admit that we need a pastor. Not for a sermon or vocal prayers, mind you, but simply to provide all the behind-the-scenes counseling and comfort, as well as some administrative oversight. But it’s true.

The job of clerk as envisioned is one of a chairman/moderator. As it turns out is something altogether different. We have no chief administrative executive, and that creates a vacuum, especially if Friends in the meeting fail to step up to do their share of community service.

As one former pastor from another denomination quipped, watching our clerk be besieged by questions in the few minutes before we settled in for worship, “You need an office manager.”

Point noted. That would be a step in a useful direction.

AUXILIARY HEAT

An electric radiator is a comforting sight in some of the chillier corners of the house.

An electric radiator is a comforting sight in some of the chillier corners of the house.

MORE GREETINGS FROM THE PAST

As I wrote to a long-lost friend at the time …

Maybe it was the James Tayler concert broadcast from Tanglewood at the end of August, as I sat in the newly accessible and lighted loft of my barn and sorted through some files that had been long packed away. Maybe it was the martini that accompanied it. Or maybe it was simply an aspect of a larger interest these days, of simply trying to figure out how I wound up here after what’s often seemed a zig-zag journey through some rather disparate circles across the continent – a route that’s included divorce, a broken engagement, and finally a second marriage approaching 10 years now.

What I felt was a keen appreciation for you, especially, and Maggie and Ise, wondering how your life has prospered and, hopefully, deepened. Glenn got in touch with me a few years back, when he and Mary moved to a cabin in the New Jersey woods … and she didn’t drive. Am not sure she does yet, either.

At any rate, thanks to the Internet, I find two versions of your name both at the same address – can’t be too many who earned their law degrees where you did or started practice in that year. So here’s hoping.

If nothing else, I ought to thank you for introducing me to The River. Or should I say the ritual of repeated returning to The River for periods of introspection and, pardon the pun, reflection? That year of the Susquehanna; later, the irrigation canal bank in the desert orchards of Washington State and then three years along the Merrimack here in New Hampshire. Or the Cocheco, with its waterfalls that drop down just before passing through a stone arch in the big brick mill in downtown Dover. These days, it’s also the Atlantic, especially when my older one’s managing the seaside motel. This has been my summer for discovering the night ocean in all of its moodiness and mystery.

And now, revisiting my journals (which didn’t even start out to be journals, as I discover) as well as letters from the period has been eye-opening, and often delightful. What I remembered as being an essentially depressed period for me was filled with a lot of wonderful encounters and growth. To say nothing of humor, especially Maggie’s. And there’s so much I had forgotten, or that turns out to be different from my memory. More than ever, I think our Hawley Street (and subsequent apartments) would have made a better sitcom than Friends. Nor could anyone have played you better than you. Maybe Cosmo Cramer would have portrayed me. As for Glenn?

Life these days is, I must admit, even fuller, but that’s a long story. My wife’s an incredible woman who’s off seeing an architect at the moment about moving a charter school to the ground floor of one of our old mills, a lovely space overlooking the bend in the river where ships used to dock. (Right now the school’s on the fifth floor next door, with some amazing views of the town.) It’s just one of her (unpaid) jobs as chairman of the board. … Such as it is.

I’m hanging on, glad to have a union card, and wondering how much longer the entire industry can continue to give away the product online. Professionally, it’s been grim all over. Without planning to do so, about 24 years ago I made the decision not to continue in the management ladder but return to the ranks – something that’s allowed me to focus instead on my own writing, Quaker practice and leadership, and a personal life, including New England contradancing and choral singing, on occasion. And homebrewing, at least until we redid the kitchen. Etc.

Well, that’s a sketch from this end. I hope you’re in good health, feeling accomplished and fulfilled, and maybe even content. I would love to hear from you, however briefly – and maybe even give my wife an independent account of our by-now ancient history.

Best regards …

ALL THE EXTRA TOUCHES ADDED UP

Another of the nation’s once-remarkable papers was the Des Moines Register. It assumed a thoroughly statewide focus, with locator maps pointing out where many of the communities were and an amazing ability to note where anyone mentioned in a national story had ever lived anywhere in Iowa. The front page had an old-fashioned, authoritative appearance with a prominent, staff-produced editorial cartoon and block-letter capital-letter banner headline. I appreciated the frequency of national and international stories that carried the byline, “Combined Wire Services,” meaning a copy editor had spent several hours comparing Associated Press, United Press International, New York Times, and other dispatches to glean details to rewrite into a more comprehensive report. All of that, of course, cost money.

Statewide newspapers began cutting back as the costs of distribution soared, combined with a recognition that nearly all of the advertisers – the principal source of revenue – were aiming at only the major metropolitan area.

It wasn’t just statewide coverage, either, that has been curtailed. Most of the biggest papers have since shuttered their foreign offices and cut back on national reporting, as well.

You can as easily say they’ve cheapened the product, but that’s a longer term issue.

~*~

For a surreal, playful, and often gallows-humor trip within one young and ambitious newsroom, pick up my novel, Hometown News.

Hometown_News

WHO’S THERE?

Overhearing a cadence of one of the littlest kids in our otherwise silent worship sounded like “Knock, knock!” – which, the mother confirmed afterward, it was.

In the room, though, the pattern led to my silent echo:

“Knock! Knock!”

“Who’s there?”

“God!”

A pause, with multiple directions:

“God who?”

Or “Go away, I’m busy!”

Or Revelation 3:20 or even Matthew 7:7 or Luke 11:9 and 13:25.

 

RESPONDING TO VOICES OF THE PAST

After a longtime friend replied with some insightful candor, I was left reeling:

So I was griping about the newspaper back then, too? And those were the golden years, when we actually had a rim of copy editors, all working around the slot editor! My frustration has been in watching an industry that’s missed so many opportunities. I got in the field as things were starting to spiral downward, managed to be in a few places that were trying to reverse the trend, had some professional successes – and everything’s still going down the toilet. What I really wanted to do all along was be a columnist – especially one covering the fine arts. My sophomore-year creative writing teacher, himself a hot shot who still shows up in the literary journals, thought I’d be the next Tom Wolfe, and I can see that track now, if the hippie/drugs/yogi scenes hadn’t pulled me in other directions. My senior year of college, I did have a three-times-a-week column in the Indiana Daily Student, a wide ranging affair of leftist politics and cultural upheaval, and had a vocal and supportive readership. in the following years, maybe if I’d put a lot of free overtime in, continuing a column on my own, it might have evolved into a paying thing … but I would have had no personal life, and I’ve seen the damage in too many other journalists’ lives. If I had accepted the Detroit management offer, for instance, I would have had the heart attack long ago. Maybe the biggest reason I didn’t do the column on the side was that in most of my moves, I was still getting a feeling for the place when I was uprooted and had to move on – I was always too much of an outsider. The poetry/fiction/essays/histories are, in the long run, more satisfying. And now, as I watch what’s happening with magazines, my other ambition and joy, when they’re on a roll – I wonder how I would have survived any of that turbulence. So here I am. Retired at last!

~*~

Hometown_NewsMany of these experiences, by the way, are reflected in my Hometown News novel.

 

THROUGH THE YARD

The cross-country skis get a workout even in an urban side yard. Here's part of my trail.

The cross-country skis get a workout even in an urban side yard. Here’s part of my trail.

AN HOUR OF RECKONING

To wake up one day and sense you’ve built whatever big projects you would – a newspaper, a house or business – from now, the focus would be shorter, more along the lines of maintenance or preservation. What we might now consider middle-age, actually, rather than elderly – and sit back, sip wine on a porch or in the garden. Grandchildren, rather than children, likely. Life, at its crown.

I keep wondering, even though I’m officially retired. For one thing, the income’s short of expectations. For another, there’s so much work remaining. What would it feel like, to finally be caught up?

 

ALL IN THE HOLY FAMILY

This was written for a Quaker audience, but I suspect it’s applicable to many other communities of faith. Translate it to your own spiritual circle (or beyond) and let me know how it fits.

~*~

Maybe today we would see it as the “extended meeting,” along the lines of an extended family. In earlier times, a few large families could fill a typical meetinghouse. The idea of being part of a Quaker Meeting without one’s spouse – much less grandparents, aunts and uncles, or an array of cousins – was as unthinkable as, well, divorce.

Today, however, Friends who come to worship as couples or families are the exception, rather than the norm, at least in our end of the Quaker spectrum. And that doesn’t begin to take into account the prevalence of singles in American society.

This points to a number of shortcomings among Friends. Foremost, the admission that our form of open worship – contrary to what the original Friends envisioned – does not speak to everyone. (In fairness, we might admit that our “unprogrammed worship” emerged as the “retired meeting,” for those who had received the Truth in those big public preaching sessions where all the quaking and weeping broke out.) Then there’s the recognition that the People of God concept, where faith would be handed down within families, has simply broken down, not that it was ever all that stable. Maybe we’re not even as friendly, welcoming, or fun to be with as we’d like to think.

I’m not proposing that we drag everyone, however reluctantly, into Meeting for Worship or for business. But I do think we need to recognize ways the rest of our families are, however indirectly, part of the Meeting. There may be means to more meaningfully engage them, apart from our worship. What would they find inviting? What would they find nurturing or challenging? What would they find relevant?

I’m open to suggestion – and reflection.

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