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.
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:
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!).
It’s been a long-running debate in editorial circles: whether to capitalize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print publications when referring to groups of people. I remember discussions about it in the early 1990s when I worked as a graphic designer at a (largely White) progressive publishing house. My official, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been consistent in every publication I’ve worked for since then: lowercase. But I remain unsatisfied.
Capitalization has lots of built-in quirks. In general, we capitalize only when names come from proper nouns and don’t concern ourselves about mismatches. We can write about “frogs and salamanders and Fowler’s toads” or “diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.” Religious terms are even trickier: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quaker work, it’s surprising how often I have to go into a exegesis of intent over whether the writer is talking about a capital-L divine Light or a more generic lower-case lightness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clearly lowercased when they refer to colors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.
But seriously? We’re talking about more than color when we use it as a racial designation. This is also identity. Does it really make sense to write about South Central L.A. and talk about its “Koreans, Latinos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if capitalize Black, what then with White. Consistency is good and they should presumably match, except for the reality check: Whiteness in America has historically been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Different groups are considered white in different circumstances; many of the most-proudly White ethnicities now were colored a century ago. Much of the swampier side of American politics has been reinforcing racial identity so that out-of-work Whites (codename: “working class”) will vote for the interests of White billionaires rather than out-of-work people of color (codename: “poor”) who share everything but their melatonin level. All identities are incomplete and surprisingly fluid when applied at the individual level, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial designation.
Back in the 1990s we could dodge the question a bit. The style guide for my current publication notes “lc, but substitute ‘African American’ in most contexts.” Many progressive style sheets back in the day gave similar advice. In the ebb and flow of preferred identity nomenclature, African American was trending as the more politically correct designation, helped along by a strong endorsement from Jesse Jackson. Black wasn’t quite following the way of Negro into obsolescence, but the availability of an clearly capitalized alternative gave white progressives an easy dodge. The terms also perhaps subtly distinguished between those good African Americans who worked within in the system from those dangerous radicals talking about Black Power and reparations.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought Black back as the politically bolder word. Today it feels sharper and less coy than African American. It’s the better punch line for a thousand voices shouting rising up outside the governor’s mansion. We’ve arrived at the point where African American feels kind of stilted. It’s as if we’ve been trying a bit too hard to normalize centuries of slavery. We’ve got our Irish Americans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Italian Americans with their pasta and the African Americans with their music and… oh yes, that unfortunate slavery thing, “oh wasn’t that terrible but you know there were Irish slaves too”). All of these identities scan the same in the big old melting pot of America. It’s fine for the broad sweep of history of a museum’s name but feels coldly inadequate when we’re watching a hashtag trend for yet another Black person shot on the street. When the megaphone crackles out “Whose lives matter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Matter!” and you know everyone in the crowd is shouting the first word with a capital B.
I haven't posted anything on the horrific mass shooting because like most of you, I've been in shock, trying to learn and trying to make sense of something that will never make any sense. I don't have any profound insights on the shooting. I don't want to claim I know the real reason this happened and I don't want to mansplain a list of fixes that will keep it from ever happening again. I'm grieving for the victims and their families.
I ache for my LGBTQI family who are too used to random violence, both mass and personal. I worry for the way the shooter's ethnicity and allegiance will only be used to justify more bigotry and violence. I'm sick of living in a world where ISIL thinks mass shootings are a justifiable political statement and I'm sick of living in a country where the NRA and its politicians think it's okay to sell military-grade assault weapons. I pray for simple things: love, healing, consolation. And I cry inside and out. Life and love will win out.
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.
On Twitter earlier today, Jay T asked “Didn’t u or someone once write about how Q’s behave on blogs & other soc. media? Can’t find it on Qranter or via Google. Thx!” Jay subsequently found a great piece from Robin Mohr circa 2008 but I kept remembering an description of blogging I had written in the earliest days of the blogosphere. It didn’t show up on my blog or via a Google search and then I hit up the wonderful Internet Archive.org Wayback Machine. The original two paragraph description of QuakerQuaker is not easily accessible outside of Archive.org but it’s nice to uncover it again and give it a little sunlight:
Quakerism is an experiential religion: we believe we should “let our lives speak” and we stay away from creeds and doctrinal statements. The best way to learn what Quakers believe is through listening in on our conversations.
In the last few years, dozens of Quakers have begun sharing stories, frustrations, hopes and dreams for our religious society through blogs. The conversations have been amazing. There’s a palpable sense of renewal and excitement. QuakerQuaker is a daily index to that conversation.
I still like it as a distinctly Quaker philosophy of outreach.
President Obama’s been attributing some of his so-called “evolution” on same-sex marriage to his daughters. As he told ABC’s Robin Roberts:
You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table, and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.
So where do Obama’s daughter’s independent friends come from? Like most tweens the likeliest answer is school – in their case, Sidwell Friends. It’s not unlikely that the “evolution” owed something to the Quaker environment there.
Most élite Quaker schools have only a token base of Quaker students and teachers, so we can’t assume that Malia and Sasha’s friends are Friends. Like many outward-facing Quaker institutions, modern Friends schools’ strongest claim to Quakerism is the values and discernment techniques they share with the wider world. They consciously transmit a style and pedagogy and create an environment of openness and diversity. Of course the Obama kids are going to rub up against non-traditional marriages at a East Coast Quaker school. And no one should be surprised if they bring a little of that back home when the school bus drops them off at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As I've used G+ more the last week, I've realized the service that feels the most redundant is my Tumblr account (on the custom domain http://www.quackquack.org). I started the Tumblr because I wanted something more "mine" than Facebook, a place where my photos and links would live independently. But how silly--Tumblr is just a hosted service that I ultimately have no control over.
So what's different with G+ and Facebook? I think it's the sense that Google will archive things. It feels like everything disappears after it ages off of the FB feed. #blog
People sometimes get pretty worked up about convincing each other of an matter of pressing importance. We think we have The Answer about The Issue and that if we just repeat ourselves loud enough and often enough the obviousness of our position will win out. It becomes our duty, in fact, to repeat it loud and often. If we happen to wear down the opposition so much that they withdraw from our companionship or fellowship, all the better, as we’ve achieved a patina of unity. Religious liberals are just as prone to this as the conservatives.
These are not the values we hold when talking about the natural world. There we talk about biodiversity. We don’t cheer when a species maladapted to the human-driven Anthropocene disappears into extinction. Just because a plant or animal from the other side of the world has no natural predators doesn’t mean our local species should be superseded.
Scientists tell us that biodiversity is not just a kind of do-unto-others value that satisfies our sense of nostalgia; having wide gene pools comes in handy when near-instant adaptation is needed in response to massive habitat stress. Monocrops are good for the annual harvest but leave us especially vulnerable when phytophthora infestans comes ashore.
It’s a good thing for different religious groups to have different values, both from us us and from one another. There are pressures in today’s culture to level all of our distinctives down so that we have no unique identity. Some cheer this monocropping of spirituality, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for human race. If our religious values are somehow truer or more valuable than those of other people, then they will eventually spread themselves – not by pushing other bodies to be like us, but by attracting the members of the other bodies to join with us.
God may have purpose in fellowships that act differently that ours. Let us not get too smug about our own inevitability that we forget to share ourselves with those with whom we differ.