Sunday, June 29, 2008

Immersion in Quaker History, and Reflections on Language

The joint conference of the Quaker Studies Research Association and the Quaker Historians and Archivists here at Woodbrooke has been going well. Not only was I already immersed in Quaker history from my own reading, but now this weekend I've been surrounded by historians talking about other dimensions of Quaker history as well. As I read some very old books from the library, I cannot help but wonder which early Friends may have themselves touched these books!

The version of the Bible that is common here is the New Revised Standard Version, Anglicized Edition. Intrigued, I read the Preface that explains why an "Anglicized Version" is needed. Short answer: British English and American English are diverging! I have been trying to notice the divergences, but I do not pick up on them too easily. I have spent enough time in the British Isles in the past that I adjust to the differences fairly easily. But there have been enough Americans around for these two conferences that I do notice the differences when I see them get confused. Last night, for example, the Friends in Residence offered us "torches" if we wanted to go into Bournville to watch the fireworks (they were having some kind of festival there). The Americans in the room suddenly imagined us all trekking through the night carrying flaming branches of wood, while the British and Australians were just thinking of (what Americans call) flashlights!

Besides, I have been reading lots of 17th century English, which confuses all the more any sense I have of what "normal" English should be like! Now I have a habit of suspending belief about what any word or phrase I read or hear is supposed to mean! (For example: "Is that use of 'want' supposed to mean 'desire' or 'lack'?")

In the preface to a new "old" version of Barclay's Apology, the editor explains why it is better not to translate 17th century English into contemporary English. The English back then was very close to English now, he insists. If you try, you can get used to it. And I have found this to be true.

I cannot help but wonder how someone from back then would hear our use of English now. Can we imagine how much English will change in the future?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


The rest of the FAHE conference went very well. I thought I would be blue when that conference ended and most people left; while I was a little sad to see friends go, I was also simultaneously happy that I did not have to leave so soon myself.

I have been working further on my research, using the excellent Quaker library here. The rhythm of the days, and the wonderful spirit here, make for a very supportive and inspiring atmosphere. I would add that the beautiful gardens help as well, but instead they are quite distracting, really! When I go for my daily walk, it's hard not to spend hours and hours out there! But I'm not really complaining, and, to tell the truth, this does add to the supportive and inspiring atmosphere, of course.

On Thursday, those who went on the 1652 Quaker tour will come back through, and it will be fun to see them again. On Friday, the joint conference of the Quaker Studies Research Association and the Quaker Historians and Archivists begins. I chose not to present my work to these groups, because sometimes historians think that the way philosophers work with history is strange! Instead, I will talk informally with people about what I am working on and ask for suggestions and advice. And I will attend the presentations of others to get a feel for the world of high-level academic Quaker Studies.

So far, I have been getting good encouragement about how I am bringing my philosophical and my Quaker interests together directly in my research. It is very exciting to me to be doing this. And to find that others find this interesting too and are encouraging me is just wonderful. I feel like I am finally more directly moving into the kind of academic identity I really want -- one that includes my Quaker self integrally.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Conference Observations

The conference is going very well so far. Some of the sessions really feel like "gathered Meetings."

A theme that I keep noticing both in sessions and in my conversations with people is "living with creative tensions." Don't try to force resolution. Or, more importantly, don't berate yourself for not being able to force resolution.

Yet, funnily enough (as they say here), this bit of advice itself stands in creative tension with another theme I notice: the quest for the integrated life (in contrast to the divided life).

Do creative tensions mark a divided life? If we should not try to find resolution, how then do we find our way to the integrated life?

The conference theme is "Where Faith and Practice Meet." The tension we talk about as Quaker academics is the tension we often feel between our Quakerness and some of the demands of the academic life.

One suggestion that emerged yesterday that I found especially helpful: "Where do faith and practice meet? Answer: Love. Or: Grace, the highest form of Love."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Happy to Have Arrived!

I made it to Woodbrooke for my conferences and research!

My travels all went well. I departed on Monday evening. The flight was nice. While the sun did set, it never got completely dark. There was a band of orange twilight fading to a brilliant deep blue stretching from the north-northwest to the north-northeast, and I had a lovely view from my window seat. At 12:45 am (according to the time zone I was leaving), the sun rose again!

Trying unsuccessfully to sleep, I engaged in mental computations and realized that, flying east as we were on this plane, the combination of our speed and our crossing through time zones meant that each hour we traversed was only taking 35 minutes. Thus we managed to cover 12 hours in only 7 hours! (I like putting it this way. It shows a human-experiential form of the strange relativity of time and distance.)

Because I got so little sleep on the flight, it was hard not to doze off on the train ride to Birmingham, even though I was so happy to be here and loved looking out the window! From the train station, I took the bus to Woodbrooke. Even though it was more than two years ago that I had come before, it all felt so familiar again, and I was unbelievably happy to arrive. Even on the hair-raising bus ride, I found myself smiling uncontrollably, and at times laughing. I didn't care that the people around me might have been wondering about my sanity. "How and why could this scruffy traveler be so happy?" they may have wondered.

And then was the magical moment of walking up to and into the entrance of Woodbrooke. I felt like I was coming home again, back to a very important spiritual home for me.

I know it is the kind of place that a lot of people regard as an important spiritual home. We are very fortunate, those of us who find places like this in our lives!

I quickly got settled in. All traces of fatigue had evaporated -- my happiness blasted all the fatigue away. A few other early arrivals were happy to see me, and I was happy to see them. And I was delighted to greet again those who work at Woodbrooke who remember me from my visit from 2 years ago (and one who had been a resident with me during the year I was here a while back!).

Even though normally in life I am an introvert, some extrovert side of me emerges at times and in places like this! I chatted happily with people during tea, for the rest of the afternoon, over dinner, and after dinner.

At 9:00 pm local time, I did finally make it to bed (reluctantly skipping Epilogue -- just this once!) and had a pretty good night's sleep. At one point I woke up in the middle of the night at first thinking, "oh, it was just a dream -- I'm not really at Woodbrooke ... am I? Oh, wait, I am!" Amazed awe.

Thus begins my new journey...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Soon to Depart

My next adventure begins soon. I depart tomorrow for Woodbrooke for the FAHE conference. I will arrive in the morning on Tuesday.

Lately, I have found myself unusually emotional and anxious. (Ok, once upon a time, anxiety was a way of life for me. It's actually kind of nice to find myself experiencing it as an unwelcome intrusion again: that suggests that I actually have become mostly not-anxious in life in general, which is good!) I think the reason I am so worked up ironically is because I am so looking forward to this trip! I can hardly believe I am really going. You see, Woodbrooke is one of my very favorite places of all. It means so much to me because of the year I spent there way back when. This was such an important year for me.

I had dropped out of college. I was transitioning from thinking of myself as an aspiring scientist to thinking of myself as an aspiring philosopher and theologian, although I did not fully realize this then. Woodbrooke at that time had a year-long program of informal studies (divided into three terms), and I was fortunate enough to be able to piece together the means to stay for the year, with the help of scholarship assistance and work-study assistance from Woodbrooke. I did, in a leap of faith, pour in every penny of my own remaining savings, as the final step that made this possible. Looking back, I admire that I was brave enough to trust my own intuitions this much, because it really was the right decision. That year at Woodbrooke was spiritually formative for me.

I studied Quaker Studies. I did a lot of writing that helped me to shift my intellectual identity into philosophy and theology. I met a number of people who kept encouraging me to continue my formal studies, and to do so at a Quaker college, such as Earlham (which is in fact what I did next in life). I loved the daily discipline of two times of worship per day (in the morning and the evening). I met people from all over the world. I played a lot of music with a small chamber group we formed. The community and the structure of daily life were wonderfully supportive to me.

When I went back two years ago to spend a month there when I was on sabbatical, I found it wonderful all over again. A lot had changed, but the same supportive spirit was there. I've written about that experience here (March 2006).

This time I will be there two weeks, framed by two conferences, with a little time in-between for research.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hard at Work on Research

Structure of My Summer Days

This year, I did not go into free fall in the transition from the busy pace of the academic year to the highly unstructured summer. This past semester, I actually adopted a pretty workable pace of life and so I didn't end the year gasping for breath and exhausted, and didn't feel the ground fall out from under me as the year ended. Instead, I had the foresight to put a plan into place -- a disciplined structure for my summer life -- and just kept going.

First we had some faculty development workshops which I attended. Initially, faculty complain about this happening right at the end of the academic year, but we always end up enjoying it and feeling somewhat inspired by it, and this year was no exception. Then after that, I just stepped into my new pattern of life without even thinking about it.

Here's how it works. I get up, have breakfast, and head into work as usual, except that instead of going to my office, I go to my library carrel. Then I work all morning on my research and writing. Usually I find it so much fun that it's hard to tear myself away for lunch, but I make myself do so at a reasonable time anyway, because I have learned that overenthusiasm is the first stage of burnout! It is really important to pace oneself. I have a tendency to push myself really really hard -- which is part of why I got so severely burned out to begin with! Now I'm trying to stop just before I really feel ready. That way, I am always eager to get back to work!

After lunch, I do go into my office to deal with administrative matters in my life as chair, and to attend to the one summer independent study project I took on this year. If I finish what I need to finish in time, I go back to my carrel and resume work on research. If the afternoon's tasks take all afternoon, then I call it a day when dinner time draws near.

In the evenings, I go for my walk, practice music, and maybe do some more reading related to my research.

Throughout the day, if I run into friends over lunch or when taking short breaks to get a cup of tea, I go ahead and take time to chat and catch up.

It's a very nice life!

My Research

I am really excited about my current research project. I have been focusing on a paper I am presenting at this year's Friends Association for Higher Education (FAHE) conference, to be held at one of my favorite places of all, the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre! Some of you may have guessed that this was where I spent a month during my sabbatical a couple of years back. I also had spent a year there once upon a time, a long time ago. So it is very exciting to me that we are having our FAHE conference there this year! I will be staying on after the conference to continue my research, and then will also attend the joint conference of the Quaker Studies Research Association (QSRA) and the Quaker Historians and Archivists (CQHA), also being held at Woodbrooke.

My project requires me to be reading some of the writings of the early Friends, and I always love reading these early writings. I am especially thankful to the Digital Quaker Collection at the Earlham School of Religion for providing access to many of these early writings.

I have been trying to track down something obscure and difficult, that is not easy to track down using typical academic search techniques, but I've been making good progress and so I am very pleased at how this is coming along. I feel like a detective. Initially I had an intuition about something, but finding the historical evidence to support my theory was harder than I expected. Still, one clue leads to another, and slowly I've been piecing together a story that I think has not really been told in the way I am telling it. So I am eager to receive feedback from learned Quaker scholars and philosophers, to find out if I really am on the right track. If so, I plan to develop this into an article I will send off for publication.

I'll share more about this as it develops.