She was truly one of a kind

In reflecting recently on the Quaker tradition of creating memorial minutes for “weighty Friends,” I was surprised that one example I had never posted was of another clerk of our Dover Meeting. She was struck down by a particularly virulent, fast-moving cancer, and it’s hard to me to see that nearly five years have gone by since her passing.

There’s much more that I could tell, but the approved minute will give you a good sense of her vibrant character.

Jean V. Blickensderfer

November 11, 1946 – June 16, 2017

Among Dover Friends, Jean was the flash of gold in the morning, a welcoming soul others naturally confided in, a faithful worker who eventually filled nearly every organizational position – from children’s teacher and treasurer, to co-clerk and finally presiding clerk.

Raised Unitarian-Universalist in Methuen, Massachusetts, she came to Friends in the early ‘80s after she and her first husband, Dean L. Davis, had settled in Eliot, Maine, and were seeking the right church for a family that included daughters Thaedra May and Sarah Joy. They were quickly entrenched among us.

Jean was twice widowed.

She married Dean the day after his graduation from the Maine Maritime Academy in 1967, and then managed their home during his long assignments at sea. During his interludes ashore, they built their own post-and-beam house on the banks of the Piscataqua River and could often be found boating, sometimes to visit other Quakers upstream, or on his motorcycle, which they rode to Meeting in good weather. He died in a freak automobile collision in 1992, an accident his wife and daughters survived unscathed.

In 1998 she married Del Blickensderfer and worked as his partner at Del’s Service Station until his passing of lupus in 2006.

Deeply grateful for the mentoring she received from seasoned Friends, Jean was a stickler for Quaker process and, over time, became the memory of the Meeting’s business itself. She sought to walk a line between holding her tongue and being direct, when needed. A witness to the movement of Christ in our midst, Jean’s infrequent vocal ministry could be powerful. Her skills as a professional typist assured the Meeting’s minutes were of archival quality and, combined with her business-school training, led to the Blue Books for committees and their clerks detailing their responsibilities. She was particularly fond of drawing on the Advices and Queries from London Yearly Meeting’s 1994 edition of Quaker Faith and Practice as guideposts for our own action. An avid knitter, she took comfort in seeing others do needlework during our business deliberations, their patience reflecting the work before us. In time, a midweek knitting circle became what she called a “wicked good” time of refreshment, nurture, and fellowship.

More pressing obligations had precluded her attending yearly meeting sessions, a “bucket list” item she resolved to achieve. All along, she warmly welcomed the wider world of Friends to Dover.

Other delights in her life were yoga, visiting with neighbors, shopping and dining with dear friends, walking the beach, doting on her Pomeranian Sumi, and especially being with her grandson Jonah. His living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did not prevent her from accompanying much of his childhood and youth, from celebrating birthdays and holidays to attending his piano recitals to cheering him on in mountain bicycle races, whenever she could.

In all, her presence, generosity, and deep and lively spirit were a gift.

With loved ones at her bedside through the final days of her cancer, she passed at age 70, peace and grace abundant.

APPROVED by Dover Monthly Meeting July 16, 2017, Charles Cox, clerk

 ENDORSED by Dover Quarterly Meeting July 31, 2017, at North Sandwich, Erik Cleven, clerk

 

Remembering a dear Friend

One of the cherished traditions among Quakers is the creation of memorial minutes for members who have served the Meeting faithfully.

The minute is a unique document. It’s neither an obituary nor a eulogy. Rather, it attempts to candidly reflect the movement of the Divine Spirit in the individual’s life.

Here is a recent example.

Earl ‘Chip’ Neal

(December 9, 1945-June 25, 2021)

When Chip Neal brought his family to Dover from Maryland in 1978, they loved everything about their new home except the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in nearby Seabrook.

He had been hired by New Hampshire Public Television to do a nightly news show, having worked his way up from entry-level floorman in a pioneering community college television station to cameraman at WETA in Washington and then director/producer at Maryland Public Television.

Across the Granite State he became known for the segments he produced and hosted on “New Hampshire Crossroads,” where spent many years traveling every corner of the state bringing unique New Hampshire features and people to a statewide audience. It was in one of those stories that he coined the phrase “Yankee yard.” His curiosity was sweet-tempered and non-judgmental. He also produced segments for the popular weekly “Windows to the Wild” outdoors adventures series featuring Willem Lange.

Although he attended the University of Illinois during the Vietnam era, he did not earn a degree until he worked at the University of New Hampshire for NHPTV. He graduated from college the same year his daughter, Amanda, graduated from high school.

He never aspired to go into management. Rather, he always preferred to be hands-on, something son James inherited.

That was reflected in the family’s old farmhouse near the Cochecho River, where they began rearing a few chickens, sheep, and honeybees. After aligning with the Clamshell Alliance opposing the Seabrook Station, he realized the activists he admired the most were all Quakers, and soon he, too, was worshiping in the old meetinghouse, along with children Jamie and Amanda, while his wife Nell continued at First Parish just down the street. Over time, as she felt her spiritual growth being nurtured more through connections with Friends, she, too, became part of the Meeting.

Their social life included visits by boat with other Quaker families living downstream or around Great Bay. Inspired by what he had read about the Amish and a “why not” attitude, Chip determined to try a barn-raising of his own, resulting in a merry one-day celebration that did, indeed, accomplish the task.

Chip was commissioned to create a private documentary profiling Silas Weeks, who had been instrumental in the reopening of the Dover Friends meetinghouse. The interviews, now available on YouTube, remain a touching intersection of the faithful lives of both Silas and Chip.

Many of the qualities of Chip’s spiritual life also infused his professional career. A fellow producer noted that Chip possessed a brilliant communication talent in short-form and long-form storytelling. He not only saw the heart of a story, he let it speak for itself, time and time again. Where most producers tended to interpret meaning for the viewer, Chip had the unending patience – and absolute stubbornness – to never let that happen in his work. Thanks to his relentless focus, firm discipline, and above all a fabulous sense of humor, time and time again he would dig down until he found the light of truth hiding inside the most humble to the most exalted story, and to let it shine like a diamond in the wide open, all on its own, available and meaningful to the viewer.

As he grew and matured, he more and more thought deeply and broadly about events and phenomena, all with a spiritual bent. Often, this led to rising in the middle of the night to write down his ideas and insights, sometimes as haiku with a snap.

He emphasized the necessity of being centered in the present, explaining, “Life is that thing you’re doing right now.” From that, he had an ability to view difficulties from the side and then provide helpful alternatives to the knot before us.

During his terms as clerk of Dover Friends Meeting, Chip would stand after the closing of worship with the shaking of hands and then, gazing around the room, say simply, “Thank you for sharing your spiritual journey with us this morning – whether spoken or unspoken.”

He loved serving as clerk and treasured Quaker process, especially taking sufficient time in our labors together.

The advance of Parkinson’s interrupted his service to family, Friends, and the wider world, but not his presence. He had often reminded us that in trying to reach a destination while sailing, one had to constantly make adjustments – tacking.

He was also fond of a Navajo prayer:

All above me peaceful,
all below me peaceful,
all beside me peaceful,
all around me peaceful.

He passed over peacefully on June 25, 2021, in the comfort of his wife, Nell.

Memorial minute approved by Dover Monthly Meeting, November 21, 2021

How flimsy are all those social media stats?

I know that everywhere you go, everybody seems to have their nose stuck in their cell phone, oblivious to just about everything going on around them. You know, the bubble people.

Or, where I’m now living, they have those phones up in the air taking pictures so they can look at what’s in front of them later.

Oh, my. What a world.

As a writer, I’m supposed to be active on all platforms as a matter of marketing , but as many others are discovering, those venues rarely lead to book sales or loyal readers. Let’s be honest.

I’ve toyed with some of them, but drifted away, even Twitter.

My primary social medium is here at WordPress, blogging. I know how to manage my posts easily. The Reader feels to me like a real mailbox, with dispatches from around the world – postcards, letters, clippings. As for you?

For that matter, I’ve never quite “got” Facebook. It’s cumbersome to navigate, most of the content feels like gossip cluttered with advertising, and I don’t like having to sign in to see what should be public information for local retailers, schools, or public events.

Still, living in a small town, I’m finding that’s where the local “party line” is, and checking in regularly is essential. I still have qualms about the bigger corporate picture, with its shadowy agendas.

Recently renewing contacts with folks from my ancient past has also had me turning to FB.

What’s surprising me, though, is the gap between those who are active in a social medium and those who are “members” but rarely or even never check in.

It’s not just FB. Even email accounts. I suspect many of my contacts are that way, too. Hello! Anybody there? Did you get my message? When was the last time they posted or commented? Take that as a clue to their presence … or absence.

The numbers, then, might not be nearly as big or influential as they’re boasted.

Meanwhile, I keep falling down these Internet rabbit holes, pursuing arcane information.

Where are you spending your time online? Or even elsewhere?

Remembering Nosmo

I’ve never been a dog person, but we did have cats when I was growing up and again in my first marriage. These days, it’s been household rabbits, a whole different story.

But my all-time favorite cat was an all-black, marvelously sleek male tommy who was half-Siamese. He’s the inspiration for Gobi in my latest fiction. Our dog-loving neighbors even gave him the compliment of saying he was more like a dog than a cat, and their own German shepherd was one dog I came to enjoy.

The naming came about in one of my flights of imagination. I was sitting in a classroom looking at a NO SMOKING sign and wondered about shifting the space. That led to NOSMO KING, which was soon bestowed on our kitty.

I thought I was being pretty clever, but a few years later my in-laws sent us a newspaper clipping where a human named Nosmo King was mentioned. I don’t remember if he had a different last name or whether King was it. Drat!

Yes, sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. And sometimes it just leads to some strange fiction.

Trying to deal with a foreign language

When we have foreign guests staying with us, I have to watch is the need to speak slower and more distinctly. (Well, that’s obviously on hold during the Covid outbreak, though we have heard from one back in China assuring us she’s fine.) The exchanges can start to sound comical, even before I face the difficult challenge of using smaller words. Me? Smaller words? Look, we have more than 200,000 in the English language for a reason!

You can imagine our situation when they’re Chinese students here for a month or so as they volunteer at ono-profits internships. Somehow, shorter visits just don’t seem to rise to the more complex communications.

~*~

My daily Spanish lessons raise the translation issues from an opposite direction, but I think I’ve crossed an important threshold there, one that goes beyond vocabulary.

Have you noticed how a spoken language becomes a musical line rather than individual words? My wife remembers her shock learning that “come on” was two words, not one, as in “cumon.”

When the Duolingo voice tells me, “Type what you hear,” I know to write what I’m supposed to hear rather than what I actually encounter at fast speed.

You could say that in common usage our sentences lose all of the spaces between words. In Spanish I sometimes notice this more as a rhythm across where a word should be between two other words rather than hearing that word or even a letter itself.

Somethinglikethispoorexample.

Rather. Than. Some. Thing. Like. This.

I’m also noticing that the endings of some words are vanishing, as they do in so much French, especially a final “s.”

Must happen in English, too, ‘cept we just take it for granted and naturally fill in the meaning.

Now, as for all of those hearing-aid solicitations I keep getting in the mail? I doubt they’d help my Spanish any.

What do you have to say here? (Please type slowly and distinctly.)

As one friend said

It’s like we’re living with no destination. We can go out for a walk but can’t stop casually at the store or the library or café. Maybe wave to neighbors through a window.

To call what we’re doing “monastic” misses the mark. After all, monks live in communities, working and praying together. And being single, as he is, still doesn’t mean monkish.

We can’t hug or even touch anybody outside of our household, not if we’re maintaining quarantine.

Humans are social animals, after all.

At the moment, the one thing that makes sense doing is prayer.

Don’t call me ‘Sir’

OK, we had an international student living with us and I understood that Jnana might be a difficult way to address me.

But being called “Sir” always came as a jolt.

It had me thinking of the cartoon strip – wait, you mean there’s a REAL Breathitt County in Kentucky? – where? Oh, it’s Bloom County! Who was that girl, anyway, the militant one?

Or was it Doonesbury?

Reminded me of the time at the library when I helped a high school student find the right LP of the “1812 Overture” and she called me “Sir” by way of thanking me. Made me feel old, indeed. And that must have been nearly 30 years ago.

At least she learned the piece in a performance with cannons. Hope it impressed the rest of her music appreciation class.

Well, let’s get back on focus.

Isn’t “Sir” what some men are called by their mistress? Or would want to be? Frankly, I find even that somewhat creepy.

Or the way soldiers address their officers? Still creepy.

The other day, though, someone was in the situation of trying to address me by something other than my name, and it rang right.

“Dude,” he said.

Yeah, I’ll puff up my chest at that and put a little gusto in my stride. Even at my age. Besides, it brings out the hippie in me, all these years later.

Even makes me start singing that Beatles tune. Wait, it’s not “Hey, Dude”? It’s “Hey, Jude”?

It doesn’t have cannons, does it? No siree bob!

Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

That feeling when she realizes the scope of her project

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia practically moves into her father’s studio during her teenage years. Her goal is to discover just who he really was before he vanished in that avalanche. More critically, she hopes to see just how important she was in his eyes and his heart.

~*~

Here’s a moment that was cut out of the finished novel. It’s more succinctly presented in the published version:

There, I’ve said it. My Baba, the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been constructing. Or missing pieces, more accurately, is at once revealed by everything he touches – and everything that touches him. What I’ve been pursing as a negative shape on a visual field instantly turns positive before my eyes. So amid all of our outward chaos, what he more and more perceived in our family was this potential in all of its give-and-take connectivity – and that hopeful impression was his reason for whole-heartedly leaping in with us. Maybe we’re all icons – mandalas and tankas, too – in that holy mountain, which in our small way we rebuild in something we’ve called Olympus.

If this is, as I now presume, the direction to a breakthrough where all of his life’s work is about to converge and proclaim, I’ll need to reassemble the parts I’ve already collected. Reevaluate all of the memories, bits of writing (probably leaving the published volumes for other scholars). The photos, especially – the world seen through his more than his eyes alone.

On the material plane, Baba was never facilely sociable … not like Dimitri, for sure … but he managed.

~*~

I can think of a few daughters who are their talented fathers’ best champions. Cassia would be among them.

Maybe because I’ve done extensive genealogy research, I see some of these influences going much further back than a single generation. Until his youngest sister told me, for example, that my father had once dreamed of being a sportswriter had I connected his father’s collecting all the local newspapers during World War II (“They’ll be important someday”) with Dad’s grandmother’s detailed reading of the daily papers and then linking it to my own career as a daily newspaper editor. Not that anybody ever said a word to me that they were proud of what I’d chosen to do.

I can look to many other similar streams of unseen, even unknown, influence.

If you had a chance to meet one of your ancestors – a little bit of time travel – which one would it be? What would you want to ask? Or would you rather want to tell them off?