We're less than two weeks from the deadline for writing about "Race and Anti-Racism" for Friends Journal and I'd love to see more submissions. It was two years ago that we put out the much-talked-about issue on Experiences of Friends of Color. That felt like a really-needed issue: no triumphalism about how white Friends sometimes did the right thing as Abolitionists or posturing about how great we are, forgetting the ways we sometimes aren't: just a collection of modern Friends talking about what they've experienced first-hand.
I think it's a good time to talk now about how Friends are organizing to unlearn and subvert institutional racism. It was an important issue before November--ongoing mass incarceration, Standing Rock, and the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans was all taking place before the election. But with racial backlashes, talk of a religious or nationality-based registries, and the coziness of "alt-right" white nationalists with members of the Trump campaign it all seems time to go into overdrive.
My choice, from an early age, has been to engage in social change from the ground up, using the power of organized nonviolence. A distrust of the political process was firmly in place by the time I was 15. As a daughter of Quakers I pledged my allegiance not to a flag or a nation state but to humankind, the two often having little to do with each other.
I was ambushed while leaving the Elmer Swim Club today by a guy I’ve never met who told me never to return, then told me he’s a vice president of the governing association, and then told me he had papers inside to back him up. Although it was meant to look like an accidental run-in as we were walking out, it was clear it was staged with the manager on duty.
The problem is the behavior of our soon-to-be 10 yo Francis. He is difficult. He gets overwhelmed easily and doesn’t respond well to threats by authority figures. We know. He’s autistic. We deal with it every day. There’s no excusing his behavior sometimes. But there’s also no missing that he’s a deeply sweet human who has troubles relating and is making heroic strides toward learning his emotions. We driven the extra distance to this swim club for years because it’s been a place that has accepted us.
People at Elmer — well most of them — haven’t dismissed Francis as our problem, but have come together as an extended family to work through hard times to help mold him. He’s made friends and we’ve made friends. The swim club’s motto is that it’s the place “Where Everyone is Family” and we found this was the rare case where a cheesy tag line captured something real. Family. You don’t just throw up your hands when someone in the family is difficult and gets disrespectful when they get socially overwhelmed.
The VP was a control-your-kids kind of guy, clearly unaware of the challenges of raising an autistic kid — and clearly unwilling to use this parking lot moment as a learning opportunity. I tried to stay human with him and explain why this particular community was so special. The swim coaches always cheered our kids on despite always coming in dead last — not only that, but even put Francis in relay races! There have always been lots of extra eyes watching him and willing to redirect him when he started melting down. Most of the time he needs a drink, a snack, or some quiet sensory time. To be in a community that understood this is beyond miraculous for autism families. The worst thing is to start to scream or threaten, which unfortunately is some people’s default. Some authority figures know how to earn Francis’s trust; others just make things worse over and over again. At Elmer the latter finally won out.
We first started coming to this pool for swim lessons in 2009. After six years becoming more involved in this deeply welcoming community, I had started to allow myself to think we had found a home. I’d daydream of the day when Francis would be 18, graduating from the swim team and people would give him an extra rousing cheer when his name was called at the end-of-season banquet. We’d all tell stories with tears in our eyes of just how far he had come from that 9yo who couldn’t control his emotions. And we were at the point where I imagined this as a central identity for the family – the place where his older brother would sneak his first kiss on the overnight campout, or where his younger siblings would take their first courageous jumps off the high dive.
Julie’s making calls but I’m not holding my breath. What happened is an breathtakingly overt violation of the club association’s bylaws. But would we even feel safe returning? Francis is easily manipulated. It only takes a few hardened hearts at the top who believe autism is a parenting issue — or who just don’t care to do the extra work to accommodate a difficult child.
Fortunately for us, for a while we had a place that was special. The Elmer Swim Club and Elmer Swim Team will always have a special place in our hearts. Our thanks to all the wonderful people there. Here’s some memories:
Movie night at Elmer Swim Club the other week — Francis relaxes and self-soothes in the water.
Gregory gets his first end-of-season Elmer Swim Club participation award for swim team
Francis would sometimes leave early for relays so Elmer Swim Team Coach T. stood with him to help him understand when to go.
Gregory learning the kickboard on the Elmer Swim Team.
Francis at the Elmer pool in 2014.
Gregory’s first meet on the Elmer Swim Team, 2014. This meet was at home at the Elmer Swim Club pool.
Theo taking Elmer Swim Club-sponsored lessons in 2009.
For Laura and Gregory, summer means the Elmer pool.
Update: Our post shedding light on the Elmer Swim Club’s trustee misbehavior and the board’s violation of its own bylaws has now had over 1800 Facebook interactions (shares, likes, comments) and the blog post itself has been read 9,970 times. Terms like “autism elmer pool” are trending on our incoming Google searches and the post looks like it will be a permanent top-five search result for the pool. Although our family will never set foot in its waters again, our absence will be a remain a presence. Discussions over what happened will continue for years.
I share these stats to encourage people to talk about misbehavior in the public sphere. It doesn’t help civil society to bury conflict in the tones of hushed gossip. Just as we as parents work every day to help our autistic son make better decisions, all of us can insist that our community organizations follow best practices in self-governance and abide by their own rules. Bylaws matter. Parking lot civility matter. Kids should be held responsible for their actions. So should trustees.
There are a lot of good conversations happening around Rachel Held Evans’s latest piece on the CNN Belief Blog, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” One centers on the relationship between Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants. As is often the case, the place of Quakers in this is complicated.
Some historians categorize the original Quaker movement as a “third way” between Catholicism and Protestantantism, combining the mysticism of the former and the search for perfection of the latter. It’s a convenient thesis, as it provides a way to try to explain the oddities of our lack of priests and liturgies.
But Quakers traded much of our peculiarity for a place setting at the Mainline Protestant table a long time ago. The “Quaker values” taught in First-day schools aren’t really all that different than the liberal post-Christian values you’d find posted on the bulletin board in the basement of any progressive Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian church. We share a focus on the social gospel with other Mainline denominations.
In a follow-up post, Evans re-shares a piece called The Mainline and Me that tries to honestly explain why she finds these churches admirable but boring. The lack of articulation of the why of beliefs is a big reason, as is the the fire-in-the belly of many younger Evangelicals and a culture adverse to stepping on toes.
One of the people she cites in this article is Robert E. Webber, a religious Evangelical of another generation whose spiritual travels brought him back to Mainline Protestantism. I first discovered him ten summers ago. The cross-polination of that book helped me bridge the Quaker movement with the progressive Evangelical subculture that was starting to grow and I wrote about it in the Younger Quakers and the Younger Evangelicals.
I suppose I should find it heartening that many of the threads of GenX loss and rediscovery we were talking about ten years ago are showing up in a popular religion blog today (with the substitution of Millenials). But I wonder if Friends are any more able to welcome in progressive seekers now than we were in 2003? I still see a lot of the kind of leadership that Webber identified with the “pragmatic” 1975 – 2000 generation (see chart at the end of my “Younger Quakers” post).
Webber might not have been right, of course, and Evans may be wrong. But if they’re on to something and there’s a progressive wave just waiting for a Mainline denomination to catch a little of the Evangelical’s fire and articulate a clear message of liberal progressive faith, then Friends still have some internal work to do.
Over on Mobtownblues, Kevin Griffin Moreno cops to being George Zimmerman. Thankfully, he’s not: when feeling threatened in a recent situation with racial overtones, he chose to walk away, but it is worth asking how different we are from the characters of this tragedy.
I never had much expectation that the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer would find him guilty. A good team of lawyers can conjure up reasonable doubt over most anything. As as Alafair Burke writes on Huffington, much of what Zimmerman did was protected by Florida’s insanely-crazy “stand your ground” laws.
But even without that, high-profile court cases get so politicized so quickly that they rarely provide any kind of catharsis, let alone justice, when stacked against hundreds of years of racial injustices. And just as Zimmerman’s judgement was colored by his racial history and biases, so too are ours: our opinions about what happened that evening in Sanford, Florida, are much more a reaction to where we fall in the continuums of privileges than we might care to admit.
Privilege is unearned opportunities conferred by how closely we fit a particular stereotype. When I was in my early 20s, I was once pulled over by a policeman when I was driving aimlessly through a sleepy town at 3 am (no good story I’m afraid: I was simply bored, with insomnia). He visibly eased up when he saw I was white, and he got almost avuncular a minute later when he saw the Irish name on my drivers license. I know that almost-forgettable instant could have played out quite differently if I had been black, with a Muslim name, perhaps, and a chip on my shoulder because this was the fifth time that month I had gotten detained for no good reason.
No matter what I do to educate myself, I will always be George Zimmerman to (many) strangers on the street, just as Trayvon Martin will always be a suspicious house burgler for being a black stranger in a hoodie.
The work that needs to be done – or continued, for we need to remember the many times people have done the right thing – couldn’t be answered by a criminal trial anyway. What’s needed is the education of society at large.
One step is all of the conversations taking place on Facebook and around water coolers this week. Let’s talk about the fears that subconsciously drive us. For Zimmerman’s gun was only one of the triggers that killed Martin. It was fear that gave us Sanford’s gated community and its town watch, along with our nation’s permissive gun laws and draconian legal concepts like “standing one’s ground.” It was that potent mix of suspicion that set in motion a situation that left a seventeen year old kid with a pocketful of Skittles lying dead face down in the grass.
Can we learn to understand the ways we live in fear? Can we get to know one another more deeply in that place that breaks down the gates in our hearts?
It’s probably not a good idea to be use bleeding-edge betas. That’s especially true for a tool used daily, like a cellphone. But I’ll freely admit that Apple’s iOS 7, announced Monday, has been itching at me. CultofMac told readers straight-out not to install it. But commenters there and elsewhere have been reporting few problems and apparently it is possible to go back to 6 if problems arise.
So this evening I took the plunge. I used the method outlined here and signed up at imzdl.com. It all worked pretty well. And so far, so good. The battery looks like it’s draining a bit faster than before, but that’s to be expected of a first beta and it’s not the half-battery that the Chicken Littles claim. A few apps have bombed on me, but only sporadically. Skype didn’t open at first, but a quick look at their support forums found you just needed to delete and reinstall the app.
Is it worth it? I don’t know. The new icons are still a bit rough, as reported, but more than that, their flatness looks out of place next to the 3-D icons that most iPhone apps still use. The new quick-settings bar is cool and the parallax effect for backgrounds is cooler still (it shifts the background as the accelerometer moves about, giving it all a feeling a depth). We’re told that multi-tasking is more robust, but that’s not something one notices immediately (besides, Android’s had it for years). I’ll update as I explore more. Guesses are that the second beta will come in about ten days — I’ll see if I can live with the first beta’s battery hit until then.
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\'sLion\'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.
“What do you think of this?” It was probably the twentieth time my brother or I had asked this question in the last hour. Our mother had downsized to a one-bedroom apartment in an Alzheimer’s unit just six days earlier. Visiting her there she admitted she couldn’t even remember her old apartment. We were cleaning it out.
The object of the question this time was an antique teapot. White china with a blue design. It wasn’t in great shape. The top was cracked and missing that handle that lets you take the lid off without burning your fingers. It had a folksy charm, but as a teapot it was neither practical nor astonishingly attractive, and neither of us really wanted it. It was headed for the oversized trash bin outside her room.
I turned it over in my hands. There, on the bottom, was a strip of dried-out and cracked masking tape. On it, barely legible and in the kind of cursive script that is no longer taught, were the words “Recovered from ruins of fire 6/29/23 at 7. 1067 Hazard Rd.”
We scratched our heads. We didn’t know where Hazard Road might be (Google later revealed it’s in the blink-and-you-miss-it railroad stop of Hazard, Pennsylvania, a crossroads only technically within the boundary of our mother’s home town of Palmerton). The date would place the fire seven years before her birth.
We can only guess to fill in the details. A catastrophic fire must have taken out the family home. Imagine the grim solace of pulling out a family heirloom. Perhaps some grandparent had brought it carefully packed in a small suitcase on the journey to America. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it had no sentimental value and it had landed with our mother because no one else cared. We’ll never know. No amount of research could tell us more than that masking tape. Our mother wasn’t the only one losing her memory. We were too. We were losing the family memory of a generation that had lived, loved, and made it through a tragedy one mid-summer day.
I stood there and looked at the teapot once again. It had survived a fire ninety years ago. I would give it a reprieve from our snap judgement and the dump. Stripped of all meaning save three inches of masking tape, it now sits on a top shelf of my cupboard. It will rest there, gathering back the dust I just cleaned off, until some spring afternoon forty years from now, when one of my kids will turn to another. “What do you think of this?”
Update March 2017
Beyond all odds, there’s actually more information. Someone has put up obituaries from the Morning Call newspaper. It includes the May 1922 notice for Alvin H. Noll, my mother’s great grandfather.
Alvin H. Noll, a well known resident of Palmerton, died at his home, at that place, on Sunday morning, aged 66 years. He was a member of St. John’s church, Towamensing, and also a prominent member of Lodge, No. 440, I.O. of A., Bowmanstown. He is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Lewis Sauerwine, Slatington, and Mrs. Fred Parry, this city; three sons, Purietta Noll, Samuel Noll and Thomas Noll, Palmerton. Two sisters, Mrs. Mary Schultz, Lehighton; Miss Amanda Noll, Bowmanstown; two brothers, Aaron Noll, Bowmanstown, and William Noll, Lehighton. Ten grandchildren also survive. Funeral services will be held at the home of his son, Purietta (sic) Noll, 1067 Hazard Road, Palmerton, on Wednesday at 1.30 p.m., daylight saving time. Further services will be held in St. John’s church, Towamensing. Interment will be made in Towamensing cemetery.
And there it is: 1067 Hazard Road, home of my mother’s grandfather Puriette Franklin Noll one year before the fire. So I’ll add a picture of Puriette and his wife Elizabeth with my Mom eighter years after the fire, at what the photo says is their Columbia Avenue home. Wow!