In praise of an editor past

Frances William Browin from the Sep­tem­ber 15, 1968 Friends Journal.

When I became an edi­tor at Friends Jour­nal in 2011, I inher­it­ed an insti­tu­tion with some rather strong opin­ions. Some of them are sourced from the pre­dictable well­springs: William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s foun­da­tion­al mid-century style guide and the edi­to­r­i­al offices of the Chica­go Man­u­al of Style. But some is all our own, log­i­cal­ly test­ed for con­sis­ten­cy with Chica­go but adapt­ed to Quak­er idiosyncrasies.

One of our most invari­able (and con­test­ed) for­mats comes from the way we list con­gre­ga­tions. Quick aside for non-Quakers: you will often see a Quak­er meet­ing list­ed as  Town Month­ly Meet­ing, Town Friends Meet­ing, Town Quak­er Meet­ing, etc. Peo­ple often have strong opin­ions about the cor­rect ways to write them out. Occa­sion­al­ly an author will insist to me that their meet­ing has an offi­cial name that use con­sis­tent­ly across their pub­li­ca­tions, busi­ness min­utes, Face­book pages etc., but after a few min­utes with Google I can usu­al­ly find enough counter-examples to prove inconsistency.

To cut through this, Friends Jour­nal uses “Town (State) Meet­ing” every­where and always, with spe­cif­ic excep­tions only for cas­es where that doesn’t work (meet­ing is named after a street or a tree, etc.). Town/state abbre­vi­a­tion in parentheses/capital-M-meet­ing. This for­mat­ting is unique to Friends Jour­nal—even oth­er Philadelphia-based Quak­er style sheets don’t fol­low it. We’ve been doing it this dis­tinc­tive­ly and this con­sis­tent­ly for as long as I’ve been read­ing the magazine.

For­tu­nate­ly we have dig­i­tal archives going back to the mid-1950s thanks to Haver­ford College’s Quak­er and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. So a few months ago I dug into our archives and used key­word search­es to see how far back the for­mat goes. Trav­el­ing the years back it time it’s held remark­ably steady as “Town (State) Meet­ing” until we get back to the fall of 1962. The Octo­ber 15 issue doesn’t have con­sis­tent meet­ing list­ings. But it does announce that long­time Friends Jour­nal edi­tor William Hubben was to begin a six-month sab­bat­i­cal, with Frances Williams Browin to fill in as act­ing editor.

It didn’t take her long. The next issue sees a few paren­the­ses uneven­ly applied. But by the Novem­ber 15th issue, nine­teen meet­ings are ref­er­enced using our famil­iar for­mat! There’s the “mem­ber of Berke­ley (Calif.) Meet­ing” who had just pub­lished a pam­phlet of Christ­mas songs for chil­dren, an FCNL event fea­tur­ing skits and a covered-dish sup­per at “Swarth­more (Pa.) Meet­ing” and the announce­ment of a promi­nent arti­cle by “Ken­neth E. Bould­ing, a mem­ber of Ann Arbor (Michi­gan) Meeting.”

I’ve tried to imag­ine the scene… Browin sit­u­at­ed in her new tem­po­rary office… going back and forth, forth and back on some list­ing… then final­ly sur­pris­ing her­self by shout­ing “enough!” so loud­ly she had to apol­o­gize to near­by col­leagues. At the end of the six months, Hubben came back, but only as a con­tribut­ing edi­tor, and Browin was named edi­tor. Friends Jour­nal board mem­ber Eliz­a­beth B Wells wrote a pro­file of her upon her retire­ment from that posi­tion in 1968:

Her remarks usu­al­ly made sparks, whether she was express­ing an opin­ion (always pos­i­tive), exert­ing pres­sure (not always gen­tle), or mak­ing a humor­ous aside (often dis­turb­ing). For in her ami­able way she can be tart, unex­pect­ed, even prej­u­diced (in the right direc­tion), then as sud­den­ly dis­arm­ing­ly warm and sensitive.

This sounds like the kind of per­son who would stan­dard­ize a for­mat with such resolve it would be going strong 55 years later:

She was so entire­ly com­mit­ted to putting out the best pos­si­ble mag­a­zine, such a per­fec­tion­ist, even such a dri­ver, that her clos­est col­leagues often felt that we knew the spir­it­ed edi­tor far bet­ter than the Quak­er lady.

It’s a neat pro­file. And today, every time an author rewrites their meeting’s name on a copy­edit­ed man­u­script I’ve sent them for review, I say a qui­et thanks to the dri­ven per­fec­tion­ist who gives me per­mis­sion to be prej­u­diced in the right direc­tion. Wells’s pro­file is a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into a smart woman of a dif­fer­ent era and well worth a read.

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don't mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Baby name popularity trendsetters?

The most pop­u­lar post on my blog, year after year (and now decade after decade), is a 2005 piece on baby names: Unpop­u­lar Baby Names: Avoid­ing the Jacobs, Emilys and Madis­ons. We used the tech­niques list­ed to aid in our attempt to give our own kids clas­sic names that wouldn’t be overused among their peers. The 2015 num­bers are out from the Social Secu­ri­ty Admin­is­tra­tion. How did we do? The charts below shows the respec­tive rank­ings from 2015 to the year they were born.

theodore

francis

gregory

laura

The names of our two “babies” — Gre­go­ry, 5, and Lau­ra, 4, are both less pop­u­lar now than they were the year we named them. Yea! They’re both in the low 300s – viable names but far from overused.

Fran­cis, now 10, was drop­ping in pop­u­lar­i­ty and drop­ping into the low 600s. With that trend, we actu­al­ly wor­ried about the name becom­ing too unpop­u­lar. But an uptick start­ed in 2010 and became pro­nounced in 2013 when an Argen­tin­ian named Jorge Mario Bergoglio decid­ed to start call­ing him­self Fran­cis. The name is now in the high 400s.

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of our eldest son’s name, Theodore (“I’m Theo!, don’t call me Theodore!”), start­ed off in the low 300s was hold­ing steady with­in a 20-point range for years until around 2009. In 2015 it cracked the top 100. It’s only at 99 but clear­ly something’s hap­pen­ing. Equal­ly dis­turb­ing, “Theo” wasn’t even on the top 1000 until 2010, when it snuck in at posi­tion 918. Since then it’s leap 100 spots a year. It’s cur­rent­ly at 408 with no sign of slowing.

And for those of you look­ing to spot trends: did we just call our names ear­ly? Maybe “Fran­cis” isn’t a slow climb but is about the go shoot­ing for the top 100 in two years time. Maybe “Gre­go­ry” and “Lau­ra” will be all the rage for moth­ers come 2020. Yikes!

Liz (Betsy) Klein(top) aka Mom

My mom Liz just passed away tonight. It’s not unex­pect­ed. And sad­ly, giv­en her health, it’s per­haps not even so trag­ic; she’s been declin­ing for years from Alzheimer’s and all but stopped eat­ing in recent weeks. I’m sure I’ll find voice to tell some sto­ries in the months ahead, but for now I’ll share some pic­tures. She would have turned 85 next month.

A note about names: she was born in late sum­mer 1930 as Eliz­a­beth Ann Klein­top. In her adult life she went as Bet­sy and took the last names of her part­ners. In her late 60s she decid­ed to take back a vari­a­tion of her last name and overnight Bet­sy Kel­ley became Liz Klein.

A modern-day Commonplace Book?

From a post by Jamie Todd Rubin, \"Going Paperless: How Penultimate and Evernote Have Replaced My Pocket Notebook,\" I\'ve learned the concept of the \"Commonplace Book,\" which he attributes it to Jefferson:

The notion for the “commonplace book” comes from Thomas Jefferson, who used just such a book to capture pretty much anything: passages from books he was reading, notes, sketches, you name it.

Wikipedia takes it further back in its entry on Commonplace books. The name comes from the latin locus communis and the form got its start in a new form of fifteen-century bound journal:

Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator\'s particular interests.

I really like this idea. I\'ve been thinking a lot about workflows recently (and listening to way too many geek podcasts on my commute). I\'ve been muddling my way toward something like this. I\'m currently using Evernote to log a lot of my life but there\'s scraps of interesting tidbits that have no home. An example from half an hour ago: I was listening to Pandora the train when along came an unfamiliar song I wanted to remember for later. A Commonplace book would be a natural place to record this information (First Aid Kit\'s Lion\'s Roar if you must know, think Bonnie Raitt steps out with Townes van Zandt for a secret assignation at a Stockholm open mic night.)

Of course, being a twenty-first century digital native, my workflow would be electronic. What I imagine is a single Evernote page that holds a month\'s worth of the bits that come along. I have something similar with a log, a single file with one line entries (lots of Ifttt automations like logged Foursquare check-ins, along with notes-to-self of milestones like issues sent to press, etc.). I\'ll start setting this up.