PASSAGE INTO THE QUIET

From my earliest days of practicing meditation, I’ve been aware of an invisible wall of resistance or restlessness before passing into the comforting depth on the other side. For whatever reasons, it reminds me of those early experiences of a sonic boom, when planes overhead would “break through the sound barrier” – not that we sense a loud crack of arrival, but there is a distinct change all the same. Maybe it’s an awareness that the air in the room feels different – heavier, like water, is one description. Maybe it’s not that far removed from the ancient Jewish priests who “passed through the veil” to offer sacrifice in the most holy space in the Temple.

My actual experience of meditative worship has also changed, from the initial goal of getting naturally high or stoned – of transcending out of the world – to the present centering down into the essence of life, but the wall remains. Some weeks it’s more pronounced than others; other weeks it’s quite faint. Even so, coming to that point Bill Taber referred to as “soft eyes” worship, where Friends begin removing their eyeglasses, is delicious. Even the clock stops ticking.

Frequency of practice can make a difference. Sitting in meditation twice a day, for instance, generally allows a deeper session than an every-other-week or once-a-month schedule does. Suitable physical exercise, charitable activity, or spiritual reading may also guide the experience. We speak of preparing for worship, but rarely of the unspoken flow within the hour itself. What I do know is how much easier it is to pass through that barrier when I’m sitting with others. That is, as early Friends sensed, even when two or three gathered in the Name.

AN ANNUAL PRACTICE, A SPECIAL YEAR

I don’t know how far back it started, this custom of drafting an annual memo to myself reflecting on the previous year and outlining my ambitions for the next. The practice has somehow included a review of my journal entries covering the last 12 months, the writing of my Yule letter to family, friends, and colleagues, and the revision of my monthly to-do master lists for the coming year. (You know, the one that includes “renew driver’s license,” “call for firewood,” “schedule annual physical,” and other items that too easily fall through the cracks.) The memo’s continued, even after my wife and daughters fired me from the holiday letter itself, arguing they could make it more creative or at least more interesting. Alas, many of our correspondents have agreed. And, reluctantly, so do I, even while trying to hold it to a single page, if we can. Still, I think the annual review is spiritually healthy. We have a similar practice in Quaker circles called the State of Society Report or, as I prefer, the State of the Meeting Report, and it helps us record our strengths and weaknesses. Besides, I’ve never been convinced of the value of New Year’s resolutions, which usually seem to be recipes for failure. Much of my past decade has been an extended repetition of trying to balance home and family, the office, Quaker activities, literary efforts, some kind of physical exercise and personal care, and always coming up short.  With the to-do lists, that simply meant putting off some projects for another year or two. And then 2012 hit with a vengeance.

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As I noted to myself at this time last year, 2012 was to be a time of transition. Even so, what’s unfolded was nothing like I’d mapped out. Rather than laying the foundation for a traditional plunge into retirement, I instead accepted the company’s abrupt buyout offer and quit full-time employment. This wasn’t retirement, per se, but it did liberate me from much of the escalating tension at the office while opening up more time for all those other efforts. And, as the horoscope predicted, 2012 turned out to be a year of unanticipated surprises. And yes, just before that, at the end of 2011, I leapt into a project that had been on the backburner for months – several projects, actually – beginning with the launch of this blog and extending into Quaker writings and presentations. Jnana’s Red Barn has allowed the release of much of my backlogged writing, especially on the creative non-fiction front, and led to the addition of three related blogs – As Light Is Sown, for lengthier Quaker theological work; Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, for lengthy down-to-earth chapters from book-length projects, beginning with the holistic money workbook; and the Orphan George Chronicles, for my genealogical research narratives. In essence, by the end of 2014, these will contain the equivalent of at least a dozen original books. And yes, it’s become far more time-consuming than I had envisioned.

The year began with the climax of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary and the buyout, which came about abruptly. February and March turned into a period of retreat, decompression, and release as I hunkered down without the required daily commuting. My wife was quite supportive while I indulged in a reading orgy, adapted her old laptop for my online connection (my PC on the third floor has no Internet connection), and resumed poetry submissions after a five-year hiatus. I engaged in a more balanced lifestyle and diet, with regular exercise and early-morning rising. Wednesday afternoons we walked to the Barley Pub for live jazz guitar and a microbrew. How civilized it all seemed, however briefly!

Purchasing an entry-level Kodak digital camera (seriously on sale) in April has allowed me to finally indulge in a pent-up passion for photography. After all of these years of being dependent on other photographers, I’m recording the ways I view the world in so much of its quirkiness. But by May, my goal of working one or two shifts a week as an on-call editor began escalating to three or the maximum four. The money’s helped, of course, but I found myself frustrated in my desire to establish a daily and weekly rhythm of living. Summer’s swirl included a delightful overnight trip to Rutland, Vermont, on a Groupon deal, soon followed by the week I led a five-day workshop at Friends General Conference at the University of Rhode Island and another week at New England Yearly Meeting of Friends at Bryant University, also in Rhode Island. In addition, a Christmas present finally kicked in – a season pass to an oceanfront town park in Kittery, Maine, and swimming sans lifeguard, tidepooling, basking, and photographing from its pristine shoreline. And that’s before we get to the rest of the household. The season also brought emotional closure on some lingering deep-history as I learned of the deaths of a close friend from the Baltimore years, an event more than a decade ago, at age 51; my two mentors from Indiana University, the husband-wife team of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom; a high school colleague in February; and more. Somehow, these culminated in the appearance in August of my first independently published chapbook, Harbor of Grace. The newly freed time prompted me to accept positions on Dover Friends Meeting’s Ministry and Worship committee and New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee, which I now see are going to require more attention than I’d anticipated. Still, they dovetail nicely. Autumn included a four-hour bout of Greek dancing followed, 2½ months later, by surgery. In between, we had a delightful visit with my landlords from the Yakima years, a brush with Hurricane Sandy, which was largely only stiff gusts here, and (finally!) the replacement of the roof on the kitchen and the barn. So I end the year still hoping the establish that rhythm and direction, but no doubt much closer to actually accomplishing it.

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Full retirement comes in February, and the pension conditions demand the end of any newspaper work on my part. Since I see this change as an opportunity to focus more fully on the Real Work (in Gary Snyder’s marvelous phrase), the matter of establishing a realistic system of time management is essential — I have no desire of simply drifting. I want to the newly opened 45 hours a week as being released just for more writing-revising/submissions/schmoozing but rather for time with my wife, house and garden projects, exercise and day trips, socializing, reading, meditation/prayer, Quaker work, and similar lines.

I had wondered about establishing “regular office hours,” but that pushes me back toward the writing-revising/submissions/schmoozing trap  I hope to control. What might make more sense is to slot in blocs of “project time” to be rotated as necessary among house, garden, travel and hiking, writing, reading, and related projects. Thus, I could piggyback two or three blocs, as needed, say for a day trip. And, as the year ends, that approach seems to be making great sense.

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And that’s how it goes. Perhaps this puts some of my earlier postings in perspective. Perhaps it will also encourage you to a similar personal reflection. Maybe I’ll even get around to attempting an alternative version, looking at things I did wrong or badly or failed to address at all. Hmm. Even so, what has surprised me is seeing how much actually happened in a year where I often felt put on hold. And that’s been a special blessing.

OUT OF THE AIRWAVES

Some who have traveled widely among American Quakers have reached the conclusion that the one thing we have most in common is our support for NPR. I’m not so sure how the majority of Evangelical Friends feel about National Public Radio, but I have heard someone on our end raging, “If I hear one more message in Meeting that begins, ‘As I heard on NPR this morning,’ as if what they broadcast is Gospel, I’m gonna scream!” (Let’s hope it won’t be in reaction to something one of our members put on the air in his weekly show. The screaming, that is.)

As a matter of balance, let me mention that a childhood friend of mine, now a nationally recognized broadcast industry consultant, refers to another network as “Faux News.” And, as a professional journalist myself, I’m going to stay out of that argument altogether.

Of course, where we set our radio dials does put us in the company of a lot of other people who know little or nothing about Friends. So it does nothing to mark us as a “peculiar people” – certainly not the way Plain speech and dress did in the old days. (Gee, can you imagine the elders stopping off at the house to inspect, not whether you have a radio or television, but where they’re tuned?) I am perplexed that the travelers said nothing of our faith and its practice – not even the peace testimony. Are we that invisible?

What I do return to is that fact that our faith doesn’t attempt to evade this world, but rather transform it. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Think of small groups that get together to “pray the newspaper,” taking scissors to the pages and clipping stories they’ll take up as an ongoing prayer concern. The regard for the story beneath the story, which may lead to unique responses. Think of the Friends who went to Spain during its civil war, and their labors to feed the children on both sides, raising their witness, “Armies are always fed, but not the children.”

In reality, we likely hear more in some reports than is actually presented. Sometimes we leap ahead without all of the facts, which is all-too-human and may even have sorry consequences. But other times, we make a connection that opens a larger comprehension. Sometimes a little news report, in fact, adds to the Good News. May I add, “Now let us pray”?

IS IT US OR JUST ME?

In one stream of Quakers, an individual who speaks within the silent worship also speaks on behalf of the meeting, and any “I” messages are viewed with suspicion. In another tradition, worshipers listen for the “I” as a measure of authenticity, that what is being spoken arises from experience.

I’ve attempted to honor both.

Getting here has been by a zigzag walk. When I was beginning to write poetry, I remember hearing John Logan read from his collection given that name, and it has been accurate – except, maybe, for the speed of the trajectory. Still, I wonder how much of that’s mine alone – and how much of it we hold in common.

WHEN LIVES SPEAK

The experience of editing obituaries did more than give me some new looks into contemporary society and its changes.

It brought into focus the difference between an obituary and a memorial minute, or the times I’ve appreciated our Quaker-style memorial services in contrast to what others do. Here I am, typically dealing with funeral directors who wouldn’t find Friends to be lucrative customers, and realizing we often share a bond all the same. An obituary is a news notice, not a eulogy – the emphasis is on reporting briefly that has someone died and that services or calling hours are scheduled. The eulogy, in contrast, is to praise the deceased, and truth often gets blurred along the way. Sometimes, editing one of the latter, I hear an echo of a Church of the Brethren pastor in Maryland who told me, “I’ll never again conduct a funeral for someone I didn’t know.” The obituaries we published followed strict cut-and-dry guidelines, while many families want something quite different; of course, given the option of purchasing a paid advertising format, a common practice elsewhere, most opted for the free version, however resentfully.

The memorial minute falls between the two – as, for that matter, the memorial service falls between a liturgical rite and an event with a eulogy or two. Our Quaker focus is on the spiritual growth of the individual and the resulting service to others. Our candor often leads to laughter as well as tears. I’ve read of at least one Friends school where the youths were required to write their own obituary – an assignment intended to have them to reflect on what they want to see as their life’s mission. For a genealogist like me, coming across a memorial minute provides unique insights into a person’s life – for instance, with one I learn that he used more gesticulation than other ministers employed, drew heavily on evangelical prophets for his inspiration, but as he grew older, became more repetitious and lengthy, “though well meant”; he was of medium height, approaching corpulency, staid, and dressed in primitive Carolina style. More telling, he came to his service after a long period of weeping and questioning. This is not the material of either an obituary or a eulogy, yet it gives us something more telling – qualities to remember when we draft memorial minutes for others now among us, to guide one another in growing witness.

RICH SQUARE

I do treasure an experience a few decades ago, visiting in North Carolina for quarterly meeting, and waking in the morning to find the wife of my host busy cooking. “Jnana,” she said, “when thee cooks peas, does thee skim off the surface?” (as she was doing). “Dixie,” I replied, “when I cook peas, they’re frozen!” To which she replied, after laughing, “This is Southern cooking – black-eyed peas!” And then, when she said, “I’m not from around here, I’m from …” and mentioned another part of the state, I answered, “I know where that is – my ancestors were from Centre” – a village a few miles from hers. After that, I may have talked Yankee, even had Yankee plate on my car, but I was kin. And when my traveling companion got us to his house in Virginia, he told his wife the table of food for that session “looked like the first Thanksgiving.” Then, comparing notes on what we’d eaten, we realized none of it matched – we’d gone around different sides of the table. Oh, do I digress!

IN THE NAME OF THE LAW

As a poet and novelist, I’ve long struggled with those who search Scripture for “God’s laws” – that is, something far more cut-and-dried than the drama and humanity I see in the stories. I’ve come to look for movies and operas, rather than “thou shalt not” directives or even speed limits. When I heard that John Calvin, founder of much of the Protestant movement, trained as a lawyer, suddenly that whole line of legalistic thought came into focus. Followed by the traditional story that the day he left the University of Paris, young Ignatius of Layola showed up, on his way to founding the counter-Reformation Jesuits (who, in the Spanish conquest of Latin America, became the world’s biggest slave owners). I wouldn’t be the first to wonder about the direction of Christianity had the early church continued in the direction set by the former slave Patrick in Ireland, rather than his contemporary, the Roman orator/lawyer Augustine in Africa.

If people only reacted as predictably as chemicals in an equation! Here I recall something from my training in political science, the array of reactions a person may turn to in response to a threat. (Ignore it or call it, to find out if it’s real or just a bluff; retaliate preemptively, and either win or lose; wait and defend yourself, and either win or lose; or take flight. I don’t recall negotiation being part of that calculus.) So many possible outcomes, not just one, even without a peacemaker in the mix.

Maybe that’s why I appreciate listening to unanticipated responses to open-ended questions, including those that can arise in Bible study. A text comes alive when it prompts people to talk about their own lives. Or with the teens, when they start talking about movies in relation to a Biblical text used in a religion education class, I know a lesson’s hitting home. Pretty soon we’ll be digging into daily encounters.

As a poet, I could also speak of revisiting the chapters of Isaiah and agreeing with activist Kenneth Rexroth, who declared it “the greatest religious poem ever,” while also, in the New Jerusalem translation, I’ve seen it as a series of minutes from a Peace and Social Justice committee.

Obviously, there are ways to achieve peace and social justice – and mercy and grace – outside of a legal system, as well as within in. (A legal system can even perpetuate discord and injustice, or alternatively facilitate harmony and restore justice.) To speak of “God’s laws” also reminds me that we have more scientists than police officers in our Meetings. And anarchists, too, even as we insist on pursuing our Good Order of Friends.