The Quaker Art of Dying?

Hopewell Ceme­tery, Winslow Town­ship N.J. One of the many South Jer­sey Quak­er buri­al grounds on long-bypassed coun­try roads. The meet­ing­house that was here is long gone.

We’re now cast­ing about for arti­cles for a Friends Jour­nal issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life.” I’m inter­est­ed to see what we’ll get. Every so often some­one will ask me about Quak­er belief in the after­life. I’ve always found it rather remark­able that I don’t have any sat­is­fy­ing canon­i­cal answer to give them. While indi­vid­u­als Friends might have var­i­ous the­o­ries, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in ear­ly Friends the­ol­o­gy.

As extreme­ly atten­tive Chris­tians they would have signed off on the idea of eter­nal life through Christ. Since they thought of them­selves as liv­ing in end times, they total­ly emu­lat­ed New Tes­ta­ment mir­a­cles. George Fox him­self brought a man back from the dead in a town off Exit 109 of the Gar­den State Express­way. Strange things afoot at the Cir­cle K!

Fox’s biog­ra­phers quick­ly scaled back the whole mir­a­cle thing. Appar­ent­ly that was an odd­ness too far. The cut-out parts of his biog­ra­phy have been repub­lished but even the repub­lish­ing now appears out of print (nev­er fear: Ama­zon has it used for not too much).

But Friends has folk cus­toms and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t undu­ly ven­er­at­ed. They recy­cled grave plots with­out much con­cern. I can think of a cou­ple of his­toric Quak­er buri­al grounds in Philly that have been repur­posed for activ­i­ties deemed more prac­ti­cal to the liv­ing. The phi­los­o­phy of green buri­al is catch­ing up with Quak­ers’ prac­tice, a fas­ci­nat­ing coming-around.

It also seems there’s a strong old Quak­er cul­ture of face imped­ing death with equa­nim­i­ty. That makes sense given Friends’ mod­esty around indi­vid­u­al achieve­ments. There’s a prac­ti­cal­i­ty that I see in many old­er Friends as they age. I’d be curi­ous to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also care­tak­ers and fam­i­lies and hos­pice chap­lains who have accom­pa­nied Friends though death.

Writ­ing sub­mis­sions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life” are due May 8. You can learn about writ­ing for us at:

https://​www​.friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​o​ns/

How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re liv­ing longer and dying longer. How do we make deci­sions on end-of-life care for our­selves and our loved ones? Do Quak­ers have insight into what hap­pens after we die? Sub­mis­sions due 5/8/2017.

ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tra­di­tion. There are many heal­ers who have revived ideas of Quak­er heal­ing. We have a high pro­por­tion of main­stream med­ical heal­ers as well as those fol­low­ing more mys­ti­cal heal­ing paths. If that’s of inter­est to you, nev­er fear: Octo­ber 2017 will be an issue on heal­ing!).

Shitty jobs that don’t exist

I don’t think we can fully understand the appeal Trump without realizing just how shitty life has become for a lot of working class white men and their families. Stable, honest union jobs just don’t exist anymore. It wasn’t so long ago that you could graduate high school, work hard, and have a good life with a rancher and two cars in the driveway. You weren’t living large but you had enough for a Disney vacation every couple of years and a nice TV on the living room wall. For a lot of working class families, that just doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s astronomical credit card debits, defaults on mortgages, divorces from the stress. Saving for the kids’ college or for retirement is just a joke. It’s easy to get nostalgic for what’s been lost.

A few years ago I wrote about the time when I worked the night shift at the local supermarket. The older guys there had decent-enough stable jobs they had worked at for twenty years, but for the younger guys, the supermarket was just another temporary stop in a never-ending rotation of shit jobs. Sometimes it’d be pumping gas overnight hoping you wouldn’t get shot. Other times it’d be working the box store hoping some random manager didn’t fire you because he didn’t like the way you look. A lot just didn’t last at any job.

There was a small core of long-time nightshift crew members and a revolving door of new hires. Some of the new people lasted only a day before quitting and some a week or two, but few remained longer. Many of these temporary employees were poster children for the tragedies of modern twenty-something manhood (night crews were almost all male). One twenty-something white guy was just back from Iraq; he shouted to himself, shot angry looks at us, and was full of jerky, twitchy movements. We all instinctively kept our distance. Over one lunch break, he opened up enough to admit he was on probation for an unspecified offense and that loss of this job would mean a return to prison. When he disappeared after two weeks (presumably to jail), we were all visibly relieved. (Our fears weren’t entirely unfounded: a night crew member from a nearby ShopRite helped plan the 2007 Fort Dix terrorist plot.)

Another co-worker lasted a bit longer. He was older and calmer, an African American man in his late forties who biked in. I liked him and during breaks, we sometimes talked about God. One frosty morning, he asked if I could give him a lift home. As he gave directions down a particular road, I thoughtlessly said, “Oh so you live back past Ancora,” referring to a locally-notorious state psychiatric hospital. He paused a moment before quietly telling me that Ancora was our destination and that he lived in its halfway house for vets in recovery. Despite the institutional support, he too was gone after about a month.

The regulars were more stable, but even they were susceptible to the tectonic shifts of the modern workforce. There was a time not so long ago when someone could graduate high school, work hard, be dependable, and earn a decent working-class living. My shift manager was only a few years older than me, but he owned a house and a dependable car, and he had the nightshift luxury of being able to attend all of his son’s Little League games. But that kind of job was disappearing. Few new hires were offered full-time work anymore. The new jobs were part-time, short-term, and throw-away. Even the more stable “part-timers” drifted from one dreary, often dangerous, job to the next.

You can read the whole piece here:

To be clear: I don’t think Trump himself really gives a crap about these people. As I said yesterday, he’s all about himself and his fellow rich New Yorkers. The millions of people who voted for him mostly got suckered. That’s just how Trump works. He suckers, he raids, he bankrupts, then he moves on (see: Atlantic City). Eight years from now our country will be teetering in bankruptcy again, but that’s not the point, not really, not now at least. The American Dream really has disappeared for a lot of people. They’d like to see American made great again.

The Messy Work Begins

One of the take­aways of this elec­tion this is that we’ve all siloed our­selves away in our self-selected Face­book feeds. We lis­ten to most our news and hang out pri­mar­i­ly with those who think and talk like us. One piece of any heal­ing will be open­ing up those feeds and doing the messy work of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with peo­ple who have strong­ly dif­fer­ent opin­ions. That means real­ly respect­ing the world­view peo­ple are shar­ing (and that’s as hard for me as for any­one) and lis­ten­ing through to emo­tions and life expe­ri­ences that have brought peo­ple into our lives. Basic lis­ten­ing tips apply: try not to judge or accuse or name call. If some­one with less priv­i­lege tells you they’re scared, con­sid­er they might have a valid con­cern and don’t inter­rupt or tell them they’re being alarmist. 

But all this also means apol­o­giz­ing and for­giv­ing each oth­er and being okay with a high lev­el of messi­ness. It’s not easy and it won’t always work. We will not always have our opin­ion pre­vail and that’s okay. We are all in this togeth­er.

Throwback from 2005: “Aggregating Our Webs

One of the first iterations of QuakerQuaker, from January 2006.
One of the first iter­a­tions of Quak­erQuak­er, from Jan­u­ary 2006.

Look­ing back at a 2005 post that start­ed to lay out what was to become Quak­erQuak­er:

May­be the web’s form of hyper­link­ing is actu­ally supe­rior to Old Media pub­lish­ing. I love how I can put for­ward a strong vision of Quak­erism with­out offend­ing any­one – any put-off read­ers can hit the “back” but­ton. And if a blog I read posts some­thing I don’t agree with, I can sim­ply choose not to com­ment. If life’s just too busy then I just miss a few weeks of posts. With my “Sub­jec­tive Guide to Quak­er Blogs” and my “On the Web” posts I high­light the blog­gers I find par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing, even when I’m not in per­fect the­o­log­i­cal uni­ty. I like that I can have dis­cus­sions back and forth with Friends who I don’t exact­ly agree with.

Remembering it’s an honor just to be read

Strange moment this morn­ing when I checked my blog stats and real­ized that I get a fair amount of traf­fic for a movie review I wrote last year. I was check­ing the stats to see if any of the Quaker-related search terms might give clues for future con­tent on Friends Jour­nal or Quak­er­S­peak and for that pur­pose the review’s pop­u­lar­i­ty with Google (and read­ers) isn’t that use­ful.

But this blog is just my life spun out. I don’t aim for key­words and I don’t want to dom­i­nate a thought-sphere. If I see a movie and jot down some impres­sions that attract a small audi­ence, then my blog post is a suc­cess. A dozen or so ran­dom peo­ple a mon­th Google in to spend a cou­ple of min­utes read­ing my thoughts on a fifty-year-old movie. That’s cool. That’s enough. In all the talk of tar­get­ing and SEO we some­times for­get that it’s an hon­or to sim­ply be read.

The oth­er night stayed up late to cud­dled with my wife and watch good-natured but flawed Rom-Com. I read some reviews on IMDB and pon­dered the clich­es in the show­er the next morn­ing. Boil­ing the­se impres­sions down into 500 words on a train com­mute would be easy enough. I should do it more.

Up Into The Cherry Tree

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Gar­den of Vers­es

My moth­er died a few days ago. While I’m over­whelmed with the mes­sages of prayers and con­do­lences, at least at some lev­el it feels like cheat­ing to accept them too ful­ly. This isn’t a new con­di­tion. This is just the final moment of a slow-motion death.

A lit­tle over five years ago my moth­er was for­mal­ly diag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. It was quite brave of her to get the test­ing done when she did. This had always been her most-feared sce­nar­io for aging. Grow­ing up, we had befriend­ed an active elder­ly neigh­bor who had gen­tly died in her sleep after a minor slip on some ice. My mom thought that was the best exit ever. She swore Mrs. Gold­smith had come to her in a dream the next night to con­grat­u­late her­self, say­ing “See, I told you I was lucky!” For years after­wards, my moth­er con­vinced her­self that she would go in a sim­i­lar­ly ele­gant way.

My mom, Liz, must have sensed that Alzheimer’s was a pos­si­bil­i­ty when she sched­uled that doctor’s vis­it. The news didn’t come as much of a sur­prise to us fam­i­ly. I had been jok­ing for years that my mom seemed to have only twen­ty sto­ries that she kept on rota­tion. After she read a study that cross­word puz­zles keep your brain sharp as we age, she became an obses­sive cross­word puz­zler; when the Sudoku craze hit, she was right on top of it. She had brave­ly bought her first house in her late 60s. How proud she was. At the time she let us all know, repeat­ed­ly, that she would be leav­ing it “in a box.” Caulk­ing trim, replac­ing win­dows, and trou­bleshoot­ing a mud room leak that defied a dozen con­trac­tors became her occu­pa­tion, along with vol­un­teer­ing and watch­ing grand­kids. But by 2010, she must have known she wasn’t going to have Mrs. Goldsmith’s luck. It was time to adjust.

When she called to tell me the diag­no­sis, she couldn’t even use the A-word. She told me her “brain was dying” and that the doc­tor was putting her on Ari­cept. A quick Google search con­firmed this was an Alzheimer’s drug and a call with the doc­tor lat­er that after­noon helped map out the road ahead.

Alzheimer’s is a slow-motion death. She’s been dis­ap­pear­ing from us for a long while. Reg­u­lar out­ings became less fre­quent till we couldn’t even take her out to a near­by restau­rant for her birth­day. As words dis­ap­peared and speech began fal­ter­ing, I’d show her recent kid pho­tos on my phone and tell sto­ries to fill the emp­ty­ing space. Even­tu­al­ly she stopped show­ing inter­est even in this. On my last reg­u­lar vis­it with her, I brought the kids and we had lots of fun tak­ing pic­tures. Mom kept point­ing out at the phone’s dis­play as if it were a mir­ror. But con­ver­sa­tion was too dis­joint­ed and after a few min­utes, my kids start­ed wan­der­ing in ever widen­ing cir­cles look­ing for inter­est­ing but­tons and alarms to touch and pull and I had to round them up to leave.

In the past few weeks her for­get­ful­ness has extend­ed to eat­ing and swal­low­ing. Inter­ven­tion would only buy a lit­tle more time until she for­got how to breathe. Alzheimer’s is a one way trip.

On my last few vis­its she was most­ly sleep­ing. She’s was calm, preter­nat­u­ral­ly calm. Lying on her back, pale and peace­ful, she looked as if she might already be a body rest­ing in a cas­ket. Only the slight rise of sheets as she breathed gave away the news that she was still with us, if bare­ly. I felt awk­ward just sit­ting there. Some peo­ple are good in the­se kinds of sit­u­a­tions, but I self-consciously strug­gle. With lit­tle chance of inter­ac­tion, I struck on the idea of read­ing from a favorite book of poems that she had read to me on count­less nights as a child.  “Up into the cher­ry tree, who should climb but lit­tle me?” I don’t know if she heard me or pic­tured the cher­ry tree in her haze, but it was a way for us to be togeth­er.

The slow-motion nature of Alzheimer’s means she slept a lot until she didn’t. For rea­sons that go deep into biog­ra­phy, she was a won­der­ful­ly friend­ly per­son who didn’t have a lot of close friends any­more. It seems pecu­liar that one can walk upon the earth for so many decades and only have a dozen or so peo­ple notice your depar­ture. But then may­be that’s the norm for those who live deep into their eight­ies. Most of us will leave life with the same kind of qui­et rip­ples with which we entered.