The Achilles heel in Quaker culture  

When the Quaker movement swept through the English-speaking world and a bit more in the mid-1600s, it saw itself as primitive Christianity restored from before the time apostasy set upon the church – that is, sometime before the Nicene Council of 325 CE.

In theory, nothing could have been simpler or more welcoming than what they presented, an alternative Christianity for all, though in practice what emerged was often more difficult than many could follow, even before the disciplined rules of conduct set in.

I could lay out many of the obstacles to continuing the faith over the generations, even admitting that I wouldn’t have survived the lifestyle restrictions during much of that time, but more recently I’ve been seeing the most insidious impact was in the curtailment of emotion.

Yes, Friends were often seen as gentle and kind, but it came at a price. The Quaker culture that evolved, quite simply, suppressed any expression of anger – which was usually seen as leading to violence, which Friends abhorred – but only in recent decades has there been an acknowledgment that emotions don’t go away, and suppressing the expression of one curtails an open experience of the others. Burying anger, in fact, festers as depression, which can be glimpsed in the memorial minutes of many of the “weighty Quakes” of the past.

While moderation in daily life and meekness were encouraged, they could be performed thoughtfully or habitually without being deeply felt.

I’ve heard instances of old Friends’ reluctance to show emotion.

Greeting a son returned from wartime service with a handshake rather than a hug, for instance. My own family, several generations removed from its Quaker and Dunker (Brethren) roots, was similarly restrained. And, as has been said, the Hodsons didn’t know how to have fun. (When students at one Quaker school asked to have a fun activity, the elders had to withdraw to ponder the peculiar request and then came back with a proposal to paint a widow’s barn. An old Brethren, asked what he did for fun as a child, was perplexed by the very notion and finally replied he guessed it was bringing the cows in each evening.)

Then there’s the sly comment that passed among young Friends in the 1970s, asking if we knew why the old Quakers were so opposed to handholding. The answer? It might lead to premarital intercourse, not meaning sex but rather conversation.

There are also stories, usually told within families, of the individual who would never, ever, express anger only to have an offense fester, leading to deeply hurtful reactions in convolutions much later. You can guess, the baffling ex-mother-in-law, after the divorce, that sort of thing.

Not all birthright Friends, I should add, are so conflicted. Many I’ve known have been among the most loving individuals in my acquaintance.

But in looking at the decline of the faith over its history, I feel an awareness of the psychological undertow needs to be acknowledged, especially as we face the future.

Religion, as I see it, always has work to do to bring each person to a fuller experience of life.

What are your favorite Christmas hymns and carols?

Frankly, I can do without all of the secular holiday music, or at least most of it. I want something less contrived and commercial. Even Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score wears thin.

I’m not entirely insensitive, though. Here are ten I enjoy singing, especially in a choir.

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  1. People, Look East: this 1928 Advent carol by Eleanor Farjeon is a joyous accompaniment when making preparations ahead of Christmas.
  2. In the Bleak Midwinter: I want to think of this as a plaintive folksong, but the words are by Christina Rossetti and the music’s by English master Gustav Holst. It catches the blue side of the approaching winter, but also the hope and comfort to be found therein.
  3. Once in Royal David’s City: If you can, go for the fully celebrative midnight mass with a full pipe organ and all five verses sung in the Anglican style that alternates soft and loud.
  4. There Are Angels Hovering Round: It’s an old call-and-response hymn that seems to have hundreds of verses, if you want to keep going. There’s no escaping the sense of togetherness when you’re singing.
  5. Fairest and Brightest (Star of the East): I first heard this in a recording by Kentucky folksinger Jean Ritchie, but it also works in formal arrangements. The text is a protest song befitting the suffering classes of the story.
  6. Nouvelle Agreable: by Swiss composer Jean-Georges Nageli, the bouncy music almost sounds like Mozart though even Native Americans near the Arctic will sing and dance to it, too. (Check it out on YouTube.)
  7. La Valse Cadienne de Noel: words and music by Jeannette V. Aguillard. What, you don’t waltz during the Twelve Days of Christmas?
  8. Traveler’s Carol: A traditional Catalan carol of coming together for the holiday. We use English by Susan Cooper in an arrangement by George Emlen.
  9. The Coventry Carol: a haunting sense of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and of the crucifixion to come infuse this lullaby.
  10. The Old Year is Dying: a cheerful Welsh piece to welcome the New Year. Again, New Year’s Day falls in the Twelve Days.

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What are your favorites?

Hey, Figaro!

How is it the young Figaro, in “The Barber of Seville,” is so worldly-wise, especially in the ways of attracting women, while a few years later, in the “Marriage of Figaro,” he’s so confounded by the Count’s moves toward his own beloved? And, oh, yes – what happened to all that business savvy?

Well, it was a French theater comedy series originally. One obviously without a continuity editor.

I’ll give the author, Beaumarchais, some slack, since he was busy on many other fronts. And give him lots of credit for knowing how to cut satirically to the quick.

Some perspective on four years of upholding a difficult decision

After the last presidential election, I made the hard decision to refrain from posting on White House politics for the duration. Admittedly, it’s been a trial when it comes to biting my tongue.

For one thing, my degree’s in political science, with a strong dose of the Federalist Papers and the foundation of American political theory. For another, I spent most of my career in the newsroom and watched with dread as these developments gathered momentum.

What I sensed with Trump was that I could add nothing from the sidelines. The storm had to play itself out, and vital criticism would ultimately have to come from the so-called conservative side of the spectrum.

What I didn’t anticipate was how appalling the daily affronts would be, each one washing over the previous one before the impact could sink in. No blogger watching the news from afar could react in time to remain current. Well, maybe by taking a longer term view, like once a week, but it would have been a full-time job.

As you can see, I had enough else to post on, trying to maintain a life-is-normal focus, even amid the current Covid culture.

Still, drafting this confession is painful. I long to see decency and intelligence return to leadership and society in general. At this stage, it won’t happen overnight. But we can hope the tide will turn.

Looking for a word that means ‘wisdom’

I was trying to find a word in Spanish for “wisdom,” one conveying spiritual depth.

Instead, what I came across in the dictionary related to factual intelligence or knowing. All head, no heart.

Nothing even suggesting common sense or good judgment.

What I wanted went deeper, say to the kind of understanding gained through long experience and discipline. Sometimes, the kind of knowing you feel in your hands.

Better yet, what Merriam-Webster calls “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand.” To which I would add a sense of calm and patience.

If the word or phrase exists in Spanish, I’d love to know it. Perhaps even with a few other things that get lost in translation.

 

We’re coming up on what would have been the big 50th anniversary Revels Christmas production

Every December, the Boston Revels produces a new winter solstice celebration that now plays to 18 sold-out performances in Harvard’s historic Sanders Theatre. Or did, before the Covid-19 restrictions.

From their first round in 1970, the shows have grown into a unique hybrid of storytelling, theater, dance, concert, audience singalong and other participation. Each year focuses on a different corner of the world or a historical event.

Guest artists bring their traditions to the company, and the costuming and sets are always spectacular. Nobody could forget the big canoe that came flying out over the audience in a Canadian show a couple of decades back.

Well, this year’s production won’t be live in the flesh, but rather a streamed online retrospective. I don’t really know how to count it. Still, if you go to the revels.org website, you can attend a virtual show wherever you dwell. Admittedly, it won’t quite be the same.

Here are ten we’ve especially enjoyed.

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  1. Leonardo da Vinci. This was founder John Langstaff’s final appearance with the troupe, and it focused on three different cities in Renaissance Italy.    
  2. The road to Campostela. The culture of Spain’s Galatian region was featured in this homage to the pilgrimage known as The Way. Storyteller Jay O’Callahan was captivating, the flamenco was quite moving, and you wouldn’t forget those Spanish bagpipes.
  3. Wales. There’s more to the British enclave than Dylan Thomas, though it did provide the timeframe for this production.
  4. England’s Crystal Palace. How truly Victorian.
  5. Venice in the 1500s. The music wasn’t all Italian and Latin, by the way. The Croatian, Sephardic, and Turkish pieces were all hits. And the story was a delightful comedy.
  6. Acadia and Cajun. We followed the life and expulsion of this French-speaking people from Canada to New Orleans. The big tree at the back of the stage kept shifting color as needed, and the stream of immigrants into exile seemed to be endless, even though it was only the chorus of children and adults repeating their exodus toward the audience.
  7. Nordic. Six languages, including English, big slices of the Kalevala myth, and a lot of polkas. The Scandinavian fiddles are distinctive.
  8. Armenia and Georgia. I loved the economy of this one. The first act centered on a pilgrim in Armenia, where the Christian church took root at the foot of Mount Arrat, the landing place of Noah and his ark. From there, the second act followed him one locale over, to the Republic of Georgia. Though so close together, the traditions were also strikingly different. The Revels headquarters is in Watertown, a major center of Armenian population and culture, so finding a great cantor was no problem.
  9. Scotland. Langstaff had a passion for Britain, and its folk culture is deeply engrained in the Revels DNA. We didn’t get to the acclaimed Irish show, but this one included reels we still dance in New England as well as songs familiar and rare.
  10. American roots.  Last year’s show started at a rural radio station somewhere in the South and covered a lot of ground by the end.

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What live Christmas season events have become part of your tradition?

 

Are you an ebook reader?

Now that I’ve been posting about some of the ebooks I’ve been reading, I’d like to hear about your experiences in digital browsing.

Are you among those who are books sold in digital formats, which now fill a fifth of the market?

What platform do you use? Kindle, I assume, is most likely, but there are more? What do you like or dislike about the various platforms?

What are your reasons for going digital?

I have to admit I still love paper and typography, but the economy and lack of clutter in ebooks have their appeal. So, yes, how about you?