Friday, March 31, 2006

Home Again, Home Again

My travels back home all went well. I'm in a bit of a daze to be back. I was gone just long enough that everything looks a little odd; yet what is most remarkable is how little has changed, really.

Recovering from jet lag will be further complicated by the fact that the U.K. changed to "summer time" last weekend, and here in the U.S. we change to "daylight savings time" this weekend. So, that means I'm going through three time changes in the span of a week.

Will I be able to face the complexity of my life here again? We shall see. Certain things clarified for me while I was there, but the challenge of putting my new insights about myself and my work into action here seems a bit daunting at the moment.

But I'm only just back. I must be patient with myself. So first, I immerse myself in what I am glad to return to. I get to see a replay of the coming of spring. (The weather here is a few weeks behind what it was there in the U.K.) Catching up with friends is fun. Being able to practice music in real privacy again (without worrying about disturbing those within earshot) is fun. I am happy to be able to take pleasant walks in the country and in this quiet village again. It will be good to re-visit the particular places here that I like -- my favorite places to get cups of coffee and tea; my Meeting here; home. I'm happy to see my local newspaper again, and to listen to NPR again.

Speaking of news, I was delighted to see in the paper this morning that Jill Carroll was released! I had not heard this yesterday, since I was traveling all day, so it was a surprise to be greeted with this good news this morning!

Ok, more soon, when I get my bearings again!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Relativity of Time

Wow, life has gotten very busy again, with some trips to visit others before I return to the U.S. The visits have been very good – wonderful meaningful conversations about life, the universe, and everything. I’m a little exhausted now, though. I’ve spent about 14 hours on trains and buses the last four days. I love train travel—but sometimes trains are crowded and I don’t get to sit by the window. But I still make good use of my time – maybe too good. Maybe that’s the real reason I’m exhausted. I’ve spent a lot of time reading all of my research notes and scribbling new thoughts and ideas.

I depart to return home on Thursday. Hard to believe. Just as I expected: the first few days felt like weeks, and the last few weeks felt like days. The relativity of time. The intervals of time we say are the same lengths are not really. Time stretches or shrinks depending on the kinds of activities that happen within it. Massive, weighty activities warp spacetime, akin to how massive objects warp spacetime in Einstein’s own theory of relativity.

But tomorrow, my last full day here, I will happily stay put and just thoroughly enjoy being here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Old and New

Several people have written lately with some mixed feelings about Quaker blogging: why do we do it; is there really any value in it; because of its dependency on high technology, and because high technology can have negative environmental impacts, is it even ethical to indulge in this; etc.?

As I've buried myself in the writings of early Friends, I am astounded at what prolific writers they were. They wrote letters and tracts. They took great pains to respond to the criticisms the movement was receiving. Their writings were sometimes fiery and passionate; other times very carefully worded and argued.

Quaker blogging seems to me the contemporary version of tract writing. Yes, it uses a different medium, and a medium not accessible to everyone. But the writing of the early Quakers also had limited circulation and was not accessible to everyone. The point for them and to us is to reach who we can. I doubt that any of us bloggers only blogs. I suspect that we also talk to friends and colleagues, minister in Meeting, travel amongst Friends, and present writing through other media as well. Some also teach, give lectures, lead workshops. In all of this, we who blog share not only ideas we have developed in our own blog writing, but ideas we've read in others' blogs too. And so in all of this, we are very much following on in the spirit of the early Friends.

The questions about the ethics of high technology (its human as well as its environmental cost) are a matter of concern. But such questions are not just about computers, but about transportation, housing, the production and distribution of the food we eat and the clothes we wear, the nature of our jobs and the value of what we actually "produce" in our work, etc. We live in a complexly interdependent world. John Woolman would be racked with agony today, because it is unavoidable to rely to some extent on the products of war and environmental damage.

I console myself with the belief that it doesn't have to be this way. I can imagine a creative, thriving world that creates such possibilities without war or environmental damage. Just because this broken world has mixed seeds of pain into every human endeavor does not mean we should -- or even can -- reject it all. The loving and redemptive response is to keep looking for what yet is good, and keep drawing that forth, and keep trying to weave those shining threads into new tapestries of hope and joy and love.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Good News!

The other three members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who were kidnapped and had been held hostage are now free! Here's a good source of further information:

Christian Peacemakers Freed without a Shot Fired (from Free the Captives).

It is sad that Tom Fox is not alive and with them as well. But it is very good news that Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Sooden are alive and free and able to rejoin their families and friends at last!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Different Levels of Peacemaking

At the Quaker center where I am staying, there is a steady stream of short courses. Some, but not all, are focused on aspects of Quakerism, or on more general topics of Quakerly concern.

The experience of being here humbles me, in a good way. Back at home, I am rare for being a Quaker, and rare for being a committed pacifist who teaches about peace and nonviolence. This means that I am often regarded as a “resident expert” on such topics. I do remain keenly aware that my perspective is limited, but I don’t mind opportunities to share about “my people” because I do believe that Quakers and peacemakers have a lot to share.

But here there are serious Quaker scholars who know so much more about Quaker history than I do, and here there are people who have long been involved in peacemaking efforts in very troubled areas of the world. I am awed and grateful for this opportunity to learn from them all.

In my quiet moments between intense and fascinating conversations, I come back to the question over and over again: but who am I and what am I called to give to the world? What is my role in relation to all that others are doing?

Rather than the humility discouraging me from wanting to keep teaching about peace (“I know nothing in comparison to these people who have faced what they have faced and done what they have done”), now I recognize that that impulse (to give up because I’m not good enough) is ironically an impulse of pride. And pride is a very silly reason not to do something. The doing of peacemaking is of course crucially important, but so is sharing the stories and inspiring others, as I have been doing in my teaching.

The “short course” format here has me considering a new idea. I’ve started to craft a workshop I would like to offer to our local peace group back at home: a workshop about changing the paradigm in one’s own local community by sharing real stories about peacemaking and engaging well in conversations with others about peace-related issues to help counter the many misconceptions about peace and nonviolence that are out there.

My call may be most of all to live on the intersection between a world that has well internalized the principles of nonviolence, and a world that is convinced that nonviolence is naïve and ineffectual, and help the first connect with the second in a transformative way.

Too often, those sympathetic to nonviolence find themselves stammering to a halt when they find themselves face to face with people who are so scornful of peace and nonviolence that they either attack or attempt aggressively to shut down productive discussion across this difference. It is all too tempting to dismiss these kinds of meta-discussions about the very viability of nonviolent action as useless, and turn one’s attention and peacemaking efforts back to traditional arenas of conflict. “They just don’t know what they are talking about,” we think, “and there’s no convincing them unless they actually were to become participants in real peacemaking efforts someday. I don’t have time for them now. There are real conflicts out there that urgently require my attention.”

But this kind of meta-conflict matters too, and the world needs people willing and able to engage discussions at this level.

And so the idea of my workshop would most of all be to help those sympathetic to nonviolence to learn how to engage in effective conversations with those who disagree with them on this point. The workshop would address questions such as:

  • What are the likely objections that others have to peacemaking and nonviolence, and what are some good replies?
  • How should one respond to the person whose objections are rooted in recent pain or loss and who believe that revenge is the only response worth making?
  • What true stories can be shared that clearly and simply express the transformative power of nonviolent action?
  • How can you bolster yourself emotionally for the possibility that the other person might get upset or verbally aggressive?
  • And what are the best verbal strategies for responding to verbal aggression?
This workshop (or another in the same series) could also help participants to clarify for themselves their own peacemaking roles in their own everyday lives.

Very likely I will soon share some of my thoughts on these questions.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Jammy Scones

Today at teatime everyone was all excited about “jammy scones.” Scones are very much like what United Statesians call “biscuits” (whereas “biscuits” here refer to both “cookies” and “crackers,” and so it can get a bit confusing). And jam is sometimes a very unsweet marmalade.

So, I have to confess that I snickered a little to myself when I saw everyone getting excited about these. Excited about some jam on some biscuits?!? When someone came up apologetically for seconds while I was having a look (she said, “These are not overly sweet, so I think it should be all right to have a second…”), I decided that for my own full cultural immersion, I needed to go along and try one as well.

And it was wonderful. There was a delicacy to the scone that you don’t often find in American biscuits. And it was just a tiny bit sweet, as was the jam. It was indeed very nice.

But I have the sense that what people especially appreciated was the time someone took to put butter and jam carefully on each one. The fact that the scones were fresh-baked and delicious is just par for the course here – nothing that special about that, however good. What delighted everyone was the extra loving care of cutting them each in half and putting butter and jam on for us.

Friday, March 17, 2006

What Is Home?

Even though I’ve now been here two weeks, on my daily walks I still find myself gawking at everything and saying over and over to myself, “I’m here! I can’t believe I’m here!”

After 19 years, there’s a strange way it’s all both unfamiliar and familiar. The way the brook twists and turns and sparkles and sings. A park, preserved between the settlements of houses, to honor the brook. The narrow little footpath, hugging the brook. The cute tiny bridge, crossing the brook just to cross the brook – just for the sheer fun and delight of having the footpath cross. A bicyclist comes along the tiny little footpath, not with a kind of aggressive, “let’s intimidate the pedestrian who’s in my way” sort of energy (unfortunately all too common where I come from), but an “I love this brook and this path too!” kind of energy. He moves off the path when I see him, respectfully, but not far. Personal space is different here. People don’t mind being close to each other in physical space, because they don’t experience that as an invasion of personal space, spiritual space. People trust in each other to hold and protect that personal and spiritual space—this is what the so-called “British reserve” really is. I understand this deeply and well. I can relate. I easily adapt. This feels “home” to my own nature. But how can this be, when I didn’t actually grow up here?

Something deep in my soul resonates with the feel of this place.

Yet all of this sets up dilemmic vibrations in my soul. One morning at breakfast, when people asked me how I was liking it all, I said, “I love it. I could live like this forever.” Someone asked, “You’re not homesick?” “No,” was my immediate response. I’m living intensely in the present.

But still, was that a lie? I was perfectly honest in the moment. But if I look over my time here so far, I must confess that, to my enormous surprise, I do get brief pangs of something I could call homesickness, but this just feels healthy and normal – these brief moments of homesickness are reassurances that I won’t, after all, be devastated to go back. One big difference between home and here is that home is in a rural secluded corner of the U.S. that I also fiercely love, whereas where I am now is in the midst of a city, and I can’t say I’ve ever quite loved living in a city. Yes, the grounds and surrounding neighborhood are an oasis in that city, but still, you feel and smell and hear the press of the city’s busy energy all around. Could I be happy here forever? I would adapt to the aspects that are less than ideal. People always do.

But a more important dilemma is the one I alluded to yesterday, a dilemma between being “in the world, but not of it,” trying to have a positive transforming effect within a troubled world, and creating or sustaining an “alternative community,” set apart from its surrounding mainstream culture to some extent, showing by example that alternative ways of life are possible.

Which kind of life am I really called to? Both ways of life have value and are important. So my question is not, “which is the better approach?” but, “how am I being called?”

Is my attraction to this place because I am called to live in or replicate something like this kind of community, or is my attraction to this place because I need, right now in my life, to absorb this kind of renewing energy that it offers? That is part of the value of this kind of community: the way it offers spiritual renewal to those who stay here for shorter periods of time. Maybe that is it for me. (I keep trying to tell myself that.)

But the resonance in my soul is so deep, and the way I’ve been able to live out my “contemplative scholar” vision of my life so perfectly while I’m here (yes, perfectly), makes me wonder if there’s some deeper significance to the connection I feel to this place.

What is home really? Can we have more than one home? And what is the purpose of home -- a place of retreat and renewal, or the center of our life's giving to the world? These are some of the questions that I ponder these days.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Meeting with Alice

Alert and thorough readers of this blog may have noted that Alice had suggested that we get together while I'm in the U.K. and meet each other in person.

So, I just wanted to report that we did meet yesterday and had the most wonderful conversation. We shared a little about our respective research projects; we talked about the current state of Quakerism; we talked about the state of today's world, and tried to find ways to be hopeful. We talked about the power of prayer, and the great spiritual interconnectedness of all of life.

And, when someone marveled at our having met through the Internet, we later talked further about that, and realized that the Quaker blogging world allows us to find a kind of supportive community that gives us nurturance but allows us each to remain living in our own local areas. So instead of finding support by setting up communities that are located in specific places and may be a bit set apart from the rest of the world, we remain lightly sprinkled over all the earth, each trying to nurture the goodness in our own respective small corners of the planet. When we feel alone and isolated, we can turn to the Quaker blog world for inspiration, encouragement, and support, but then turn back to the part of the world we happen to live in and renew our efforts there to have a positive transformative effect.

Early Quakers spoke a lot about being "in the world, but not of it." The Internet provides new ways of building new kinds of community that help us to live this out.

Still, it is wonderful to have occasions to meet in person as well. I found our time together yesterday to be tremendously inspiring.

And there is still an important role for those communities that are set apart from the normal patterns of their surrounding mainstream culture. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity myself now to be in such a community. I meet wonderful people and have amazing conversations, and in all of this, I feel like I am absorbing a magical renewing energy.

Monday, March 13, 2006

On Death and the Treasuring of Life

On the morning I heard the news of Tom Fox's death, I shared about it at Meeting for Worship. Very few here had yet heard. After a little while, a man gave wonderful ministry about how lives given in the work of peace are not wasted, and how their memory and their work lives on in those who are touched by their lives and inspired to further their cause. I do agree, and I found his ministry comforting.

But, still, Tom’s being gone now is a sad and tragic loss.

The news shook me up much more than I would have expected, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Of course I realized that this outcome was a possibility. But I didn’t really think it would come out this way, because its turning out this way seems to make no sense. I realize that I feel shaken because this news makes me think: “the world is worse off than I had wanted to believe.”

I have found myself searching in new ways for hope.

I find myself appreciating my own life with heightened awareness. Instead of feeling guilty for all that I am blessed with, I feel that it is crucially important to live fully into all of the goodness around me, and use my opportunities well. Those who suffer don’t want the rest of the world to suffer too—they want desperately to believe that happiness is possible somewhere, that goodness ultimately prevails. They don’t want their own memories of happiness to be mere illusions or dreams—they want them to have been real, and they want those currently in happy situations not to be “wasting” that happiness in frivolous discontent. (This I know experientially.) They want to believe that those who are not being held captive, who have freedom, will use their freedom as an opportunity to work for positive change in the world.

And so I go through my days with sacred appreciation for every person I meet, and for all of the beauty around me. I treasure every flower I see. I treasure every bird I hear. I treasure every book I pull off the library shelf, and every elegantly printed word in those venerable old tomes. I read through George Fox’s sufferings and reflections on his own experiences of captivity with heightened appreciation.

And especially I treasure the people I come into contact with. Every life is precious. The stories people share move me deeply. “You are alive,” I think. “After all that you have been through, you keep trying to do your best, and you have brought beauty and joy and hope into the world that you have not even realized.”

Every person I meet is proof that there is still much hope.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Friday, March 10, 2006

Daily Worship

Another thing I love about being at this Quaker retreat center is having daily Meeting for Worship. In my normal life, I spend part of every day in reflection or meditation. But there is something amazing about having a daily Meeting for Worship with others.

When my life has allowed me such opportunities, I find that I go much more quickly and deeply into worship and prayer than when I only have this opportunity weekly. It’s kind of like “staying in shape” athletically, or “staying in practice” musically. If you only ran once a week, you’d find it consistently tiring. If you only practiced music once a week, you’d never develop the basic muscular skills required for mastery of your instrument. If you only practiced some form of prayer or meditation one time a week, it might feel a bit stiff and artificial, and maybe even pointless.

There are, however, lots of ways we can nurture the spirit on a daily basis. It doesn’t have to be a communal Meeting for Worship everyday. It can be personal time for reflection or prayer, spiritual reading, journaling, and can be integrated with other activities such as working out, going for walks, or having meaningful conversations with good friends.

But still, I find that I myself do greatly appreciate the opportunity for daily Meeting for Worship with others. I find that the quality of the experience becomes much more profound for me when I feel in regular “practice.”

And, more and more I believe that this kind of time is much more significant than it may “look” to others. A person who really knows how to pray is really and truly contributing to the world in an incredibly important way. I sense that this is true. I sense that it is urgent that people who feel called to this need to give themselves full permission to do this, even if they are afraid that the rest of the world regards it as “wasted time.” Time to attend, to wake up, to get in touch with what really matters, is never wasted time: on the contrary, the regular discipline of cultivating awareness helps prevent us from wasting time in the remainder of our waking hours.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Having a Daily Structure to Live By

Part of a disciplined life is having a structure to your days that works well for you. I find myself very drawn to the idea of a monastic life because I would greatly value a life in close community with others who also regard life as essentially spiritual. One of the effects of such a community would be to create a daily rhythm conducive to keeping in good touch with each other, and keeping spiritually centered.

This Quaker retreat center where I am is like this. The rhythm of the days here sustains me and nurtures me. It carries me into a good Way of Being: happy, peaceful, creatively productive. I am finding this soul-restoring.

Here is how this community structures the day:

  • 7:15 am – gentle morning exercises
  • 7:45 am – breakfast
  • 8:30 am – morning Meeting for Worship (half-hour)
  • 10:45 – morning coffee
  • 12:45 – lunch
  • 4:00 – tea
  • 6:15 – dinner
  • 9:30 – evening worship time (15 minutes)
  • 9:45 – evening cocoa

This leaves generous spans of time in-between for attending to one's work. What has evolved for me is as follows:

Before morning exercises: Catch up with e-mail. (And I must confess that sometimes -- ok, usually -- I don't actually make it to morning exercises, which are, of course, optional.) It's especially fun catching up with e-mail first thing in the morning knowing that my friends back at home receive it with time-stamps like 2:30 am because of the time difference!

Both morning spaces after breakfast (sometimes skipping morning coffee): I work on my research, usually in the library. Sometimes I pause before lunch, like now, to check the news and maybe compose a blog entry.

Right after lunch: I go for my walk (approximately an hour). Then I return to work, usually in my room at my computer, reading through notes, typing up thoughts, or continuing to read.

After tea: I’m starting to use this time for reflection time: journaling, composing possible blog entries, etc.

After dinner: I practice music, though I’ve had trouble finding a reliable place to do this. Still, I’ve been consistent, practicing in my room if all else fails. I worry about disturbing other guests, but I figure that no one is likely to be trying to sleep immediately after dinner.

Then, I allow myself to do whatever I feel like doing before evening worship time. Sometimes I read. More often I do some web-based research.

After evening cocoa: I read a bit more and go to bed.

All of the meal times and break times are opportunities to meet and chat with others. I have thrown myself into this social richness with great enthusiasm. There are so many fascinating people here, from all over the world, here for varying lengths of time. It is wonderful to meet them, hear of their experiences, and learn what they are doing.

What I like about this way of life is that you still do have a great deal of control over the bulk of your time, and can work very hard and focus very intently during those times, but then there is always soon to be an opportunity for finding someone interesting to talk to if you are excited about something you want to share, or stuck with a problem, or just needing a break.

Would I want to live this way long-term? At times I have. I’ve lived in similar community settings several times in my life, for stretches as long as a few years. It’s a question that comes back vividly for me now, while I am here and so much appreciating this rhythm.

Most elements of this kind of daily life can be created in somewhat modified form even without living in community, but not all of them. What I have found hardest to find in my normal life are: (a) places to go to reliably find someone ready to just hang out and talk a bit, and (b) daily Meeting for Worship.

The reason it is hard to find places to reliably find someone ready to just hang out and talk a bit is that, in the U.S., people are constantly busy and usually stressed out. Even “leisure time” is highly structured and programmed. So you can invite people over for dinner. But this takes coordinating schedules, and planning, and it often turns into a major production. We just don’t have a culture of gathering somewhere for tea every day at a set time and informally talking about ideas. How creative this could be! How much we could all learn from each other! Maybe we’d all work more effectively if we did this. Maybe we’d be less stressed. Maybe we would learn more from each other; maybe we’d be less inclined to keep independently re-inventing the same wheels; maybe we’d even avert a few disasters!

Time together can be sacred time. I often get the sense that many people don’t value it as such. But I don’t get that sense here, at this retreat center, which is why I love coming here so much. Is this a difference between U.S. culture and U.K. culture? Or is it a difference between Quaker culture and Western mainstream culture? Or both?

I worry a lot that the stressed-out American work-ethic has resulted in the loss of a vibrant and efficacious public conscience. We just barrel blindly ahead in frantic "productivity" not really aware of the full implications of all that we "produce." We don't have time to think about it! We must just get it done! If we don't get it done fast enough, we might lose our jobs! Besides, it's good for the economy, isn't it, if we do get it done quickly? If it has harmful consequences to other people or the environement, sorry! We are morally pure because we didn't mean it! "Collateral damage" -- not our fault -- somebody else's problem!

So few really give themselves either personal contemplative time or communal contemplative time to reflect on it all or plan for effective change. Not only would that be "wasted time," it would threaten the status quo. "It would distress us to become so aware, and we're stressed enough as it is. It would be hard to face -- harder to know what to do about it. So, get back to work instead! Others will get it all sorted out eventually!"

So, I am really glad to be here, where it's socially expected to be in touch with each other about what really matters. I am greatly encouraged to remember and re-experience that there are places where Awareness and Concern are highly valued, and where the structure of life supports the cultivation of these virtues. These are the places that are holding the world together.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

New Video of 3 of the 4 CPT Hostages

A new video of the CPT Hostages has appeared, this time showing three out of the four hostages. The one not shown is American Quaker Tom Fox. In the news articles I've read on this (a helpful starting point is the Free the Captives website), no one is sure of the significance of Tom's not being present. But an earlier video only showed two (Tom Fox and Norman Kember were present; Jim Loney and Harmeet Sooden were not -- the video released on December 8), and so I'm trying not to interpret Tom's absence from this one as a bad sign. But of course it is hard to know how to interpret this -- or the fact that they are still being held.

How much can one read between the lines? Some articles have said that the three hostages on this latest video were appealing to Gulf leaders and their own governments to help bring about their release. Another article I read, giving background information, mentioned that while the British and Canadian governments have been involved in trying to work for the hostages' release, the U.S. government has not. With this being the theme of this video then, could this be the explanation for Tom Fox's absence from the video? They knew that his own appeal to his government would not be likely to have any effect?

It is hard to know. All we can do is keep praying -- for them, for Jill Carroll, for all who are held captive.

Meanwhile, here's a link to an article I found somewhat encouraging.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Yes, I Did Make It!

Ok, I know you all have been wondering if I really made it! Yes, I did. The travels all went well, and the only reason I haven’t posted earlier is that I wanted to settle in a bit first: otherwise my posting would be filled with those jet-lagged, surreal, over-excited initial impressions, which may or may not turn out to be very relevant in the long run. Don’t worry – I still wrote these down, because they are fun and interesting, and can be illuminating to look back on.

So much has happened in these few days that I feel like I’ve been here for weeks. But by the time I go, it will feel like it has only been a few days. The relativity of time again.

It is just unbelievable how wonderful it is to return to a place you’ve been in the past that was so magical that it has turned mythical in your mind. I knew it would be great. I could sense that it would be. But it’s been better than great. (As you can probably tell, I still am a bit over-excited.)

The rhythm of life here is wonderful. I love framing the day in Meeting for Worship. I love the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, from all over the world, at meals and tea.

And one of the biggest surprises is how much I feel "at home" here among British Friends. It was rather a long time ago that I was here before, but that was such an important year for me, and I can see now how it was here that my own Quaker identity was formed. No wonder I feel like I've come back home.

There's a way that British Friends have a respect for the Christian heritage of the Religious Society of Friends that is very different from even Christocentric Friends in the U.S. I'll reflect more on this and will probably write further about it in the near future, because I find this very interesting.

But now, in respect for the wonderful rhythm of my days, I must go to the library and work on my research!