Spark, March 2009
15 Rutherford Place
New York, NY 10003
|New York Yearly Meeting News
|The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
|Editor, Paul Busby
Spirituality and Aging
This issue of Spark is devoted to Spirituality and Aging. I invite you to consider what the Holy Spirit wants to teach you about this subject.
Two meanings come to mind when I consider Spirituality and Aging. The first is the opportunity aging presents to get serious about developing a spiritual or inner life. However much we cultivated a spiritual life before, retirement offers time and psychic space to dig deeper, do more, be serious about an inner life and develop a routine practice.
When I retired at 55 I had two things that I wanted to accomplish: make a better pie crust and find a daily rhythm for spiritual practice, and I have done both. Adding time daily for prayer and spiritual reading has led to new inner understandings and outward activities, and I am very grateful to the Holy Spirit for both.
The other meaning that arises out of Spirituality and Aging grows out of the new understandings. The added time to deeply consider spiritual issues and reflect on spiritual reading can lead to an inner peace around issues such as loss and suffering, as well as to gratitude and hope; a deepening and enrichment of the inner life that is sustaining as we age, lose loved ones, lose abilities, search for meaning in diminishment.
I have a chronic condition that involves periodic pain and when the pain comes and I have to wait and rest, if I’m able, or to work despite it, I am supported by my understanding that all of life involves suffering, for some more than others. Christ bears all our pain, all the time; when my pain comes I offer to carry it to relieve the Christ, and in particular, to ask that my pain relieve the pain of someone being tortured, if that is possible. Suffering then has meaning and purpose, is an event, almost, to be grateful for.
As Some Lights Dim, Others Brighten
I’m three score and ten, and hope that fact, plus a half century of seeking, equips me for Spark’s query: “How has being older had an impact on your spiritual life and how has your spiritual life had an impact on how you deal with being older?”The question demands a very personal answer, but that’s all right. I’m among Friends.
The short answer is above, in the title. Unquestionably, some figurative lights have dimmed, physical and mental. But, just as surely, Light has increased for me. (I’m tempted to talk about rheostats or wiping dirt from the lens; instead, I’ll get out from under this metaphor before it collapses on top of me.)
Whatever the length of my life will be, I’m far nearer its end than its beginning. In fact, given family history, I’m already on thin ice. Most male ancestors have dropped in their early seventies, pole-axed by a coronary or by a massive stroke. Of course, I’m being dosed with far better medicine than my forebears; my blood pressure and cholesterol are well in check. But I’ve been put back on a par with my kin by last year’s diagnosis: Parkinsonism.
And what’s that? Well, mine’s an old brain, long out of warranty. One part of my original equipment has been slacking off in making dopamine. That’s a brain secretion to stimulate and control bodily movement.
Dopamine loss first causes tremors, unsteadiness, and reduced motor skills. What follows is grimmer yet: spasms throughout the body, speech impairment, and reduced cognition. As one who’s lived his private and public life through communication, those last two points really haunt me.
After much close probing, a Johns Hopkins neurologist confirmed everything about our local man’s diagnosis, including his hesitancy to call the illness “Parkinson’s disease.” That’s because I’m showing some symptoms beyond those in the classic PD package (tremors, unbalance, stumble-footedness, etc.). The added symptoms (memory loss, for instance, and occasional confusion) make them both say that final diagnosis may fall elsewhere in the Parkinsonism family, a group that includes ALS, some kinds of dementia, and one chillingly named “multiple system failure.” (The last one makes me want to grab a cockpit mike and shout, “Mayday! Mayday!”)
The droll Hopkins doc said they could pinpoint the disease at once with an autopsy, but that struck him as extreme. Rather, he said, we must wait and let the symptoms “mature,” a word that, in context, somehow loses all its sunny meanings.
So: I have some progressive, degenerative, and incurable disease. How does that affect my aging and my spiritual life? It becomes the focal point for both.
I can’t presume good health ever again. Rather, what’s heading my way is steady decline, including a time when my mind may be too clouded to hold the world and myself in the Light.
But I’m past thinking that a predator has pounced on my being, and also on my active ministry of many years. The ministry has included teaching, preaching in many denominations’ pulpits, writing on matters spiritual, and prison counseling. More recently, I’ve also been a traveling Friend, visiting our programmed Friends’ meetings and sharing in their rich spiritual lives.
That’s all mostly over now. But never mind. It’s obvious that my ministry is to be a different one, and I must now discern it. For just as life and capacities for service came to me from the Father’s hands, so has Parkinsonism. It is a gift, just as surely—a redirection that will lead me to different prayer, different service. It is a different path but still leads home.
Not much study and reading now in my spiritual quest, which is reduced to what the earlier mystics call “prayer of simple attention.” I can’t do extensive reading, and trying to piece together subtle ideas often eludes me. And so I sit quiet and attentive, sometimes bolstering my attention with psalm verses.
My day’s first spoken words are, “Lord, open my lips; let my voice proclaim Thy praise.” (That for the time when my voice will no longer work.) And randomly, during the day: “So I will bless Thee as long as I am. In Thy name I will lift up my hands.” (That for the time when hands won’t answer my control.)
I am a Christian Quaker. With that said, I deeply believe that the infinite Reality in Whose presence I sit towers beyond every human thought and verbal formula. The Reality is literally inconceivable and unspeakable. It won’t fit in the dimensions of a human brain, even one in good working order. And so I sit in my inner darkness and quiet, listening.
I guess my model for this is Mother Theresa. In an interview, Mike Wallace once asked her what she said to God when she prayed. “I don’t say anything,” she answered. “I listen.”
“And what does God say to you?” asked Wallace. “Nothing,” said the old nun. “He listens to me.”
Wordless communion, like the tiny, towering old woman’s. That’s what I aim for these days.
Sitting Closer to the Front
I remember vividly the year I moved from my home near Cincinnati, Ohio, to New Jersey to start my career as an instructor at The Seeing Eye School in Morristown. It was 1964, I was 21 years old, and I was very excited about learning how to train dogs to guide blind people. I also began attending a local church, often sitting in the last pew, from where I observed that the older folks (those with the gray hair) sat nearer the front of the sanctuary while the younger people (those with the most hair) seemed to congregate in the back. 45 years later I have now joined the “gray hair club,” have a little less of it, and find myself sitting on benches closer to “the front.” I mean this literally, unfortunately, since my hearing is not what it used to be. But more importantly, my meaning is metaphorical and, for me, spiritual. Let me explain.
During my 43 years at The Seeing Eye School as Instructor and Training Manager, I worked long days and felt so utterly responsible to the people and animals under my care (not to mention my young family with three children), that I found it difficult to make time for personal spiritual growth and centering myself in the Light. I did not realize how much my thoughts were filled with my responsibilities until I retired. I now understand that God was always there for me and that it was I who was not always there for God.Perhaps I was sitting a bit too far in the back.…
Since my retirement in September 2007, F/friends have asked me how I like retirement after such a busy, fulfilling career. I find myself replying that the greatest gift I have received is time. Not just one hour tacked on to another, but time spent intentionally, joyfully, and in pursuit of deepening my family relationships and spiritual life.Without the responsibilities of work, the way has opened up for me to experience the Presence of God, the Light Within, in everyday life. Even the simplest family pleasures or duties take on or, more correctly,reveal their spiritual dimension. My wife, Jane, and I purposely keep our afternoons open so that we can meet our 11-year-old granddaughter, Miranda, at the bus stop, if her mother is running late. I now experience this time with family as a precious, spirit-nurturing gift.
One of my most intentional—and joyful—daily activities since retiring is a walk after breakfast. I usually walk about three miles in our small town, stopping at a beautiful pond with a waterfall for reflection and prayer. Some of my deepest moments and insights have come to me during this time, and I often feel that I am walking with God. It is encouraging to know that as I am growing older I am still growing spiritually. Moving up few pews, perhaps…
Meeting for worship had always been an oasis for me during my busy career, but now, in retirement, its capacity to nourish my spiritual growth is more than I ever expected. Worship and waiting have led me to action: delving into the works of Quaker “giants,” visiting among Friends’ meetings in the area, and sharing my experience of the Light—all of which have found loving support and guidance among Friends. Most recently, I have begun developing a program about Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotionand how it has affected my life and career at The Seeing Eye. It was Kelly’s spiritual classic that first brought me to Quakerism in 1966 and led me to become a member of Summit Monthly Meeting in 1971. In February this year, I will be sharing my spiritual journey with Thomas Kelly for the first time at Quakertown Meeting in Quakertown, N.J.
And did I mention gratitude? I have time now not only to express it more, but to actually feel its positive power. Gratitude for my loving family. Gratitude for my work: the dedicated staff at The Seeing Eye, the inspiration of the many blind students I have met over the years, and not least of all, the example of the amazing dogs—thousands and thousands of them—who have become devoted, loyal life companions. Gratitude for the nourishment that I have received in the Holy Silence of meeting for worship and for my anchor committee during this time of transition for me. Gratitude for the…gift of gratitude! I know that God’s presence has touched my life in many ways. I am aware of it—and thankful for it—now, more than ever.
I see now that, for me, aging is the process of moving closer to the front, sitting closer to the Light. I look forward to more precious family time, walking with God every day, growing in the Spirit and sharing the message of the Light with everyone—no matter where he or she may be sitting.
Searching for Light Later in Life
I’m a late bloomer. I was nearly 50 when I became aware of the spiritual aspect of my nature. With this new awareness I began to realize that some training and spiritual discipline would be essential. I proved to be ready and able to explore my spiritual potential when an acquaintance insisted that we attend worship at Brooklyn meetinghouse to familiarize ourselves with a community resource. During the visit the possibility of addressing an inner emptiness dawned on me.
During the next few years I was very busy with various commitments, and I had to be content with Sunday worship when not otherwise tied up. During silent worship on those First Days, with many Friends who were also searching for light, I found a path to considerable inner peace.
|Photo by Rick Jackofsky
I got to know some of those Friends and began reading journals as well as other writings to learn about Quaker faith and practices. Spiritual strength was revealed in many examples of confident reverence. I discovered and devoured sources of revelation, and they provided copious nurturing.
In my 60s more time came available to focus on spiritual concerns. With seasoning that had been happening over time, I was ripe to take on some responsibilities in the Quaker community. As a member of the Book Table Committee at Brooklyn Meeting, I became familiar with some Quaker practices in action. As bonds developed, I began to be interested in membership, but I dragged my heels about writing a request.
At a time in my life when it might have been appropriate to retire from many activities, new interests were asserting themselves. I became active with a committee of New York Quarter that was involved in myriad tasks necessary to create housing for homeless people with AIDS. There was great satisfaction in working with a team of mostly Friends intent on translating their spiritual search into benefits for some neighbors in dire need.
When I was asked to join the board at Friends’ housing project, it was important to resolve the question of membership. After many helpful chats with Friends and meeting with a clearness committee to focus beyond my persistent hesitations, I wrote a letter requesting membership and was accepted as a member of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting. As a convinced Quaker I have experienced a sense of belonging to a community unlike any I had found up till then.
Life lived in the spirit of Friends in monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings has provided spiritual strength and fulfillment. Being an active participant in projects that grow from corporate worship and that support the ministry and life of our Society addresses deep spiritual needs. The tight community focus at monthly meeting deals with day-to-day matters, while quarterly meeting deals with concerns of our broader metropolitan community. New York Yearly Meeting provides love and caring for the larger world and means of taking actions too large for local ministry. Involvement on these several levels of spirit-led activities makes for a rich old age.
Age has brought many aches and pains, and some disappointment, but living in close contact with a spiritual family provides much support and comfort for a single guy living in NYC far from family of birth. The joys of discovering spiritual potential, of growing into realization of this capacity, and of living day to day in close harmony with that which is of God has been a gift beyond my wildest dreams.
ARCH Offers Training to Volunteers
Aging Resources, Consultation, and Help (ARCH ) is a program of New York Yearly Meeting funded by Friends Foundation for the Aging, formerly the McCutchen Friends Home. First funded in March 2008 as a pilot program for Meetings and Friends within one hour of Albany, it now looks forward to training volunteers to take the program to all areas of NYYM. The goal is to have an ARCH person within an hour of every Friend.
This free training will enable volunteers who are called to this work to respond to Friends, families, and meetings about senior entitlements and resources, evaluate needs, and engage in problem solving. Volunteers will have ongoing support from program coordinators, and related expenses will be reimbursed. This training will also benefit members of M&C/M&O/Pastoral Care committees who don’t intend to volunteer but want to have a better understanding of community resources for their aging members.
During the pilot period the coordinators, Anita Paul and Barbara Spring, have assisted one person to locate a pain-management clinic and apply for SSI. Another person was visited at home to do some problem solving around where to live; it turned out that she did not need to move, but was lonely and needed to find activities to participate in. Yet another was helped to organize his retirement time in order to move beyond his sense of loss after leaving the workplace. One couple was enabled to grapple with the need to move to assisted living and to cope with all the changes and losses that entailed.
ARCH training will be offered May 1–3, 2009, at Oakwood School, meals and housing included, and June 5–7, 2009, at Rochester Meeting. For more information or an application, contact Anita Paul at 518-374-2166 or anitalouisepaul [at] juno.com. Some Friend, Meeting, or family needs you.
A Spirit-Led Journey: McCutchen to FFA
In 1950, an aging Margaret McCutchen of North Plainfield, N.J., wrote, “It has become necessary for me to leave my home at 21 Rockview Avenue and move to smaller quarters. As it has been for over 60 years a home where love and faith and peace have been the ideals, I would like it to serve some helpful purpose. Although not a member of the Society of Friends, I have such admiration for their ideals and much confidence in their administrative ability, that I have offered the property to them as a gift, to be used for such purpose as they may deem best.” And so was born the Yearly Meeting Friends Home, or McCutchen Friends Home, as it came to be called. Originally licensed as a boarding home, the home grew over the years with the addition of a nursing wing in the ’60s and apartment units in the ’70s. A dedicated all-Quaker board of trustees and loving administrators and staff assured that it continued for another nearly 60 years to be “a home where love and faith and peace” were the ideals—a community for the aging that reflected deepest Quaker values of care, that enhanced quality of life, that fostered independence, respect, dignity, and security within a framework of mutual caring and concern.
Times change. The spirit was willing, but, the body was aging—and ailing. It became increasingly evident to the Board that, in spite of our many efforts to expand, to renovate, to create new programs, our future as a viable operation was in doubt. Why? Because of the burdens and constraints imposed by being in a historic district (even minor repairs to the building could cost us as much as three times what they would have had we not been labeled “historic”); the changing demographics of the area; the perception that the area was less safe; the increasing availability of newer and intentionally designed facilities; an onerous per-bed tax imposed by the state of New Jersey; the inefficiencies inherent in our size. Our annual deficits, which had risen beyond $500,000, were clearly telling us that continuing to operate this aging facility was simply not sustainable. Oh, perhaps we could have existed for another ten years or so by depleting our endowment, but to what end? And then what? It became evident that there were better ways we could serve the aging in general, as well as the Quaker community in particular, than by operating this aging facility. We reached consensus to close.
In retrospect, it now seems as if the decision to close was obvious, an easy one to make. It was not. Most Trustees had been part of the McCutchen family longer than nearly all the residents. Many longer than most of the staff. In a sense it was our home as well. It is difficult indeed to give up one’s home. And how were we going to care for the residents, most of whom had never expected to have to move again? For the staff? When the final, painful decision was made, we were determined that no one would be “put out in the cold.” The McCutchen did not cease operations until every resident had been safely placed in another facility, approved by both their family and our staff. Yes, staff, because they had come to think of themselves as part of each resident’s family as well. Though not entirely unexpected, their continuing care for residents was extremely gratifying to us, wonderful to witness. Our continuing care of the staff involved generous severance benefits as well as all possible assistance in finding new employment.
The time had come to redirect our assets and efforts to other ways of serving: to find new opportunities; to explore more efficient and meaningful ways to support the elderly, both individually and through innovative programs and services we can help support. Thus was born Friends Foundation for the Aging (FFA). Our mission: “…to promote innovative, value-based options for seniors, collaborating with other institutions in identifying, developing and funding promising undertakings. Its work is grounded in the faith, practices and values of the Religious Society of Friends and is informed by Friends experience in providing high quality programs and services that enhance the lives of seniors, foster independence and respect the dignity of all.” The Foundation collaborates closely with other Quaker senior service providers, with institutions of higher learning, and with other not-for-profit and faith-based organizations. Our primary geographic focus is New York and the Middle Atlantic states. In recognition of our long-standing relationship with New York Yearly Meeting, FFA is committed to allocating a portion of its resources to the Yearly Meeting in support of senior-focused programs. The nature of these programs will be determined over time by NYYM. The initial venture, described elsewhere in these pages, is the ARCH program. That initiative’s spirit-led journey has just begun—as has ours. We look forward to traveling with you.
Settle into Prayer
As I age I am more contemplative and ask myself a lot more questions.
I am not afraid of death. When I was very ill about 15 years ago, I had a fever of 104°, my lymphocytes were sky-high, and all my blood work was out of kilter. I had the nurse put a DNR (Do not resuscitate) band on my wrist and gave her instructions that if she saw me passing, she was to sit and hold my hand and wish me a safe journey—and not to say anything to anyone else, because they would bring the crash cart and all that. Later that evening I became aware that I was looking down at myself and contemplating the situation—at that time our monthly meeting had lost Winifred Holt and Margallen Fichter, and it seemed to me that that was enough loss for a small meeting and I’d better stick around until we had more able youngsters. I was next aware that I was in bed and it felt like my temperature wasn’t quite so high, and I drifted off to sleep for a while.
Years later, having my husband die in my arms on Christmas morning made me realize that life and death are only one breath apart!
I still live in my own house and have a family member live with me. I know that if I do take a tumble—or die—someone will find me in a couple of hours.
I tend to take life easy, although I am interested in everything that is happening in the greater world and have written our President several times, before he was in office and tonight, applauding him for sending George Mitchell to “listen” and scolding him for permitting a drone plane to bomb Afghanis—only making more enemies and ourselves untruthful.
And so I settle into prayer.
The word spirituality has many meanings. I think of it as an energy that connects me to the universe and life. It is far greater than my being. Greater than my mind and body.
As I age, I realize I am less concerned with gathering and acquiring and more mindful of what meaning my life has now and how I can make a difference. I see the larger picture and my place in it. I am grateful for the myriad experiences I have had—especially the ones that have been difficult or painful. I have learned much from these, and now, when they come, I know they are opportunities for my growth. I welcome these challenges, not always with open arms, but at least with an expression of openness and willingness to be conscious, aware, and alert.
One of my lessons in life is to learn patience. I am reminded of this over and over again. If I am fearful and not willing to relax into the mystery that is happening, then I am not in the present and will be impatient. I acknowledge the changes I have consciously made, especially when I am frustrated or angry. I witness myself responding rather than reacting. I am not perfect at this, and each day gives me another opportunity to slow down and think before I speak or act.
Another valuable aspect of my getting older is that I speak my truth and act on my intuition. Francis Bacon defined intuition as “that which is imprinted upon the spirit of man by an inward instinct.” Mary Oliver’s poem called “The Journey” also expresses what I believe takes place as we pass through middle age. She says the voices around us that can give us “bad advice” need to be quieted so that we can listen to our own voice, “determined to do the only thing you could do—determined to save the only life you could save.” There comes a time when we have to trust and discern our inner voices. When I contemplate making a change or trying something new, I will put out a seed thought and see where it goes. If I allow the process to germinate naturally, by nurturing and being patient, I will discover whether the seed wants to grow. When life flows without major obstacles in the road, I know I am in tune and on the right track. If my higher source is present and my ego is not leading me, I have every confidence that the choices I make are good ones.
There is another part about aging that has, for me, been more difficult. It is accepting that my body has its limitations. I have always been physically active, and this adjustment has been particularly challenging. Working in the field of death and dying for almost 25 years, I know, intellectually, that I am infinitely more than my body. It is a curious aspect of aging that although our bodies decline, the spirit and feeling part of us does not grow old at all. My body, no matter what it can or cannot do, is my temple, and I honor and treat it with respect. I marvel at all the things it does and how it takes care of me every day.
Lastly, I want to mention my Mother, who is 86 years young. She has been a wonderful teacher for me in the aging process. She has an indomitable spirit, continues to engage others, and learns something new every day. She has many young friends who truly want to bask in her energy. I value the time I have with her and take every opportunity to tell her that I love her. I am determined to take nothing for granted and to value the preciousness of this life. Every day is a gift. I don’t have to be perfect or know all the answers. Now, I ask more questions and listen.
If You Are Silent
If you are silent
I don’t really like the word spirituality—it seems too vague. I think people mean too many things by it. For some it seems to mean that they are religious, and for some it seems to mean anything not of this Earth. And not only that, but that things of the Earth are lesser, evil, or at least not very good.
But let me tell you how my spiritual life has changed over the years. I grew up in England, between the World Wars, going to a British boarding school, where I worked on their farm, and spending my summers in our country home in Sussex. I spent my time there exploring the fields and woods on my pony, Tibby, with my beloved Hugan, a Norwegian Elkhound. Nature was my closest friend. Well, next to my parents. I loved my mother and my father, who gave me clues to the nature of God. So I felt early on that there was a hand holding me up. And I understood the value of thankfulness. Giving thanks for the joys in my life and feeling held through the sorrows. My language for these things was traditional—God the Father—but my thinking was eclectic. The tree outside my bedroom window was definitely magical and had much to teach me. The hills I explored and the animals I befriended taught me many things, their souls speaking to me. I was more at home worshipping outdoors than I ever was in any church. And I could not deny these things just because they did not fit into the religious structure of the time. And yet religion did fascinate me, and I read a great deal about many religions. From Sufism to Buddhism, from Roman Catholicism to the Religious Society of Friends, which I finally became a member of.
After the second World War began, I was sent to the United States, where I attended Westtown, a Quaker boarding school. My thinking changed a great deal as I recognized my need for community, especially as I found it defined by Quakerism. The Jesus I read about in our Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice became a Jesus I could believe in—a human being, like myself, who had learned to speak the Truth as he saw it, without fear.
As I got older, beliefs became more changeable. If someone were to ask me, “Do you believe in God?” I might answer, “Which one?” Or “Well, what day is this?” I became caught up in the women’s movement with a husband, a home, children to look after, and a job to go to. But I did not become a man-hater or militantly angry against the institutions of marriage and family. Instead, I stopped using the word God so much, and began to use the word Goddess, knowing that, in this world, it takes two to tango! I believed more and more deeply that I was held in the hands of both God and Goddess or, if you prefer, the feminine and masculine sides of the energy of life that surrounds us.
While I think that my body will resist dying, or will fear it in the natural instinct of the flesh, I myself am not afraid. I’m curious. Perhaps I feel ashamed of how little I seemed to have grown up, considering the number of years I’ve had to do it in….
I give special thanks to Socrates, who was asked whether he feared dying, and he replied that he did not, because he had not asked to be born, but when he was, he found himself surrounded by everything he needed to survive and live a good life. So he believed that when he died, there would be everything he needed, in the same way, to handle whatever came next, or if there was simply nothing next, he wouldn’t know, so what’s to be afraid of? Of course, he said this in a much more dignified way. But his words have often amused and strengthened me.
I feel closer than ever to the world of Spirit, however you may name it—sometimes God, sometimes Goddess, sometimes Father, sometimes Mother, sometimes the unspeakable, mysterious, wonderful presence of life, which we cannot describe. As the great Jewish teachings of Kabbalah have shown me, not all is known or should be. I will forever be grateful to the teachings of modern witchcraft and my friends therein, which are also what brought me to the study of Kabbalah and the endless affirmations, revelations, and openings found there.
Shalom and blessed be.
Aging: Authenticity, Attention,
Appreciation, Arc, and Prayer
The older we grow, the more we are called to witness and accompany those who suffer and also to rejoice wholeheartedly (and without jealousy or resentment) with those who have reason to rejoice. My spiritual life is richer for having been squeezed, like apples for cider, or grapes for wine, in this press of long life. In the process, the immature fruits I began with have become unrecognizable. I have chosen the words in the title above, not just for their alliterative quality, but for the ways in which these words capture how my spiritual life has grown and changed as a result of five plus decades on the planet
Authenticity: I rejoice that I no longer spend time worrying about who I am or how I should appear to other people. I know what I know. I have lived long enough to know that I might be wrong, but can do nothing else but be true to what I know. I have made decisions—a preference to be kind and gracious when I meet or interact with people rather than clever and witty, an attempt to not promise more than I can deliver, a sense of my own limits, tested against leadings, prayers, and a longing to know what God wants of me, not what I want to do. I’d rather rest in knowing who I am, which frees me up to be available to others.
Attention: I find it easier to pay attention to other people’s stories as I age. I used to want people to be impressed by me. I find that I am genuinely interested in other people, not in a “shopkeeper” kind of way, where I dole out my attention to their story in order to earn me attention for my story, but rather really amazed at the things people walk around with in their hearts, on their minds, and in their souls. Such courage in the face of suffering, such sustained efforts on behalf of others! When conversations are over, I no longer rehearse my performance, but instead the stories of the other person, so when I see them next, I can ask how they are doing, and remember what they shared.
Appreciation: I have always been enthusiastic and grateful. It is part of the arc of aging that I have returned to a child’s fascination with small things—a worm on the sidewalk after a rain, or a flower half-hidden under winter debris in early spring. I no longer need great swaths of excitement. I rejoice at a long walk, a good book, a day spent with my children. I cherish the ordinary.
Arc: I have lived long enough to have confidence that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” I have suffered and survived. I have watched others suffer and thrive. I have lost things I thought I couldn’t live without…and lived. As this pattern repeats itself, aging brings with it more assurances that things will turn out as they should. This often looks like an increase in faith in older people; I think often, it’s simply longer experience.
Prayer: I did try to make this essay all about words that started with “A,” but I couldn’t. Perhaps it’s best that prayer has its own letter because it is one thing that has been constant in my spiritual life, and yet changed most in character. I pray frequently, but I petition much less. In Jan Karon’s Mitford series, the priest kept talking about the one prayer that never fails. I read the books eagerly, skimming entire chapters, looking for that prayer. At the end of the book, you learn that the prayer that never fails is, “Thy will be done.”
It is taking a long time to absorb that lesson deeply, but it is time well spent. I find that I don’t ask for things to change as often as I ask for strength to bear them with grace and love. When I pray for others, I pray the same way—that their suffering may lead them to places of deeper compassion rather than hard places of bitterness and doubt. This has led to the greatest gift and the hardest place of my current aging process.
I have been asked to fulfill my covenant relationship with my husband by caring for him as he lives away from both me and our children, enduring the ravages of early-onset dementia. I have prayed to be able to fulfill my covenant in this extraordinary and difficult circumstance. Through no ability of my own, but entirely through the Grace of God, I have been given the ability to continue to love him without any hope or thought of having that love returned. This is as close as I will ever come to experiencing the sort of Love God lavishes on us with such abandon.
And so aging has brought these gifts to my Spirit. I would never have asked for them. Indeed, as a young woman I would have run in the other direction if offered any of them. Spirit, thanks be, gave me what I needed, not what I thought I wanted. It is a mark of maturity and grace to be able to recognize and embrace that.
If I Follow the Path…
|Photo by Rick Jackofsky
I was brought up to be an atheist, and my sisters and brothers are still atheists. Of the family, I am the only backslider. But from the time I was very young I was aware that there was something infinitely valuable that I was meant to pursue. I did not know what sacred meant, but I knew that there was a path I was supposed to follow, and that it led to something sacred, something luminous. I have often forgotten this path, but I always return to it as well as I can. I know it is there.
Sometimes, in meeting for worship or on vigil, I think of the words of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” It is not clear that I do this very well! “If there is doubt, let me sow faith, if there is darkness, light, if there is sadness, let me sow joy,” and many other things. I have set these lines to music of one of my favorite hymns (“Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me and Doth Know”), so I sing these words to myself, and hope I can learn from them.
I also think of some Bible verses. “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.” What does this mean?
Truth is important. I remember Kipling’s Muslim character who, on being told by a Buddhist monk that he never lied because there was no need, said “No need: O Allah, in this, thy world!” Well it’s a complex world, and truth is hard to discern. But if I follow the path, as rightly as I can, the luminous truth will be there.
IRAQ REFLECTION: What Choice Did They Have?
“What choice did they have?” A team friend recently posed this question to me. Story after story poured out of her: the litany of violence and injustice under Saddam was unrelenting. She is a Kurd and her people have suffered greatly in Iraq.
With family and friends killed in horrific ways for no reason save their existence, many resort to violence as the answer. Her question is the punctuation mark to their revenge and it is rhetorical.
This view is common in Iraq. “When it comes to violence, we are a people without choice.”
What are we to say in response? That there is always a choice? That violence begets violence? That the oppressed are as likely to exact revenge rather than justice as their oppressors?
These things are all true and I said them all. But we both knew my words were inadequate.
I am reminded of another scene with this same friend. Earlier in the day, we visited the Textile Museum in Erbil (the capital of the Kurdish north of Iraq). It is a place of quiet beauty I have previously visited. But my Kurdish friend is coming for the first time.
Standing in a room filled with the tapestries of woven woolen blankets, she walks to a corner facing away from us. Her shoulders shake with quiet sobs. I hesitate for a moment and then go to her, and we embrace. “Your grandmother?” I ask. She nods.
My friend’s grandmother was imprisoned by Saddam and died in prison. The family had to flee for their lives into Iran after the men had run to the mountains (to be a Kurdish man under Saddam was to be under constant threat).
As we stood side by side in the Textile Museum, my friend was seeing for the first time in years the beauty and peaceful life of her grandparents, an existence shattered by the vagaries of so much violence.
She can’t weave much herself; there is no one to teach her the old ways. But the memories live on. We drive home and she challenges me: “What choice did they have?”
My friend, who has been on the receiving end of so much violence, who has lived a childhood full of loss: the loss of a baby doll abandoned when they had to flee; the loss of her beloved grandmother; the loss of her father into the mountains (leaving her as a girl afraid to lose sight of him even for a moment when he finally came home), the loss of a home; the loss of her mother’s beautiful clothes . . . every thing we see in the museum reminds her of something she has lost.
But she, this beautiful friend, chooses not to kill or to hate, not to seek revenge, but to seek to forgive. When she asks me, “What choice did they have?” I say many things. What I do not say is, “They had your choice.”
Reprinted with permission from Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), www.cpt.org. CPT asks, “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”
A Friend’s Work in Indonesia
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is based on an e-mail received from Nadine in late January 2009.
All is well here. I have been staying up in the mountains in the refugee camp. We have spent a lot of time helping them to write a brief statement of their situation and hopes, to send to the UN, Global Response (international environmental network), a few people working on international carbon exchange, and others, as needed. The statement is really great, but it’s still in Indonesian, so I can’t show you yet, but it is well written, to the point, and a very nice statement of all people’s rights to have a place to live and secure rights to the fruits of their labor. Having been refugees for going on nine years now, they have begun doing long-term planting, but without any governmental recognition it is hard to provide all their own schools, healthcare, roads, electricity, etc., and they never know when they will be evicted. It is nice for them to have connections outside the local area—it means the palm company next to them can’t just run them out and take all they have built without serious repercussions. Without this connection, they are very insecure. The statement also really helps to show their commitment to protecting the forest and their ability to do so.
We’re building a house here where I can stay, bring work campers, fire rocket stoves, assemble water filters, do nonviolence and trauma-healing workshops, and hopefully do some developmental activities for young children. Translating the materials for this is going slow but well. Translating everything is quite a burden and quite an obstacle to relationships. But most of them speak numerous languages. It’s a beautiful and interesting environment. We have cut all the 2x4s, the corner posts, and the siding. We’ve collected the nails and the tin for the roof. Tomorrow we will have to take one large tree off the land (by hand!), but the plot has already been flattened and made ready for building. It’s across the street from Mislan’s house, right in the middle of his family—parents, in-laws, married children. So the security and support are significant. I’ve told them to use it for guests as well when I’m not here. It’s a nice place to work from. They have electricity only from 7 P.M. to 11 P.M. I can charge the computer battery during that time and I can then work until noon on the battery. With a generator for one hour in the afternoon, I can work all day and night, which while I’m translating is necessary, but I won’t have to do that for long.
I will be taking the tree out, building the house, and translating the rest of this week and into next week. The middle of next week Jamie and Ali will get here from Thailand and we will begin assembling filters and making rocket stoves. The women don’t think collecting wood is a big deal. They’re pretty efficient in their use of firewood (it’s too hot to use excessive wood), but they are really looking forward to getting the smoke out of the kitchen and having much cleaner kitchens and pots. I’ll then take Jamie and Ali up to Aceh to Bagok, where Al-Husni Preschool is. I’ve been worried about our relationships there, but one of the guys who is taking a leading role in the AVP workshops here is also from Bagok. His family home is there and he has fish ponds.
So we’ll go up for a few days just to visit and get to know people. That’s paid off greatly here in the refugee camp. When I take them to Medan to catch a flight out, I’ll see if I can extend my visa, then we will do a trauma-healing workshop either in Medan or back up in the refugee camp. Then we will do a workshop on developmental activities for young children in Jaring Halus with the teachers there who we have been training and sending to college. We’ll go back up to Bagok, Aceh to do a second-level Alternatives to Violence workshop (yeah—a lot of translating!). Then they’ve asked me to do an Alternatives to Violence training for facilitators at Bustanul Fakri, a boarding school for armed-conflict orphans, where my daughter Sarah did a basic workshop not long ago. If I get a visa extension, I might try to go to Pati in Central Java to do a workshop on developmental activities for young children, again where Sarah did a basic Alternatives to Violence workshop recently. Then I’ll be on my way to LA for the Friends Peace Teams meeting.
I did an event with the primary and junior high schools today on Obama. They loved it! We took pictures to send in for the 19th service day event. It was a great. Since then, whenever children walk or drive by they all yell, “Hello Nadine!” That’s new, so that’s fun.
When the house gets built, it would be a wonderful retreat place to write. I wasn’t wrong about that, but there’s just so many things I want to do! It’s so fun and rewarding. All the people I’m working with are so honest, simple, committed to taking responsibility for themselves and caring for others. It’s amazing. Too bad it takes so much hardship for us to open up so clearly to each other.
Thanks for all your love and support!
Letter to the Editor
Note: Letters to the editor are presented when space is available. Letters raise and explore topics of concern to NYYM Friends. As in any Quaker forum, views here are uncensored, should be expressed briefly and gently, and may discomfort some Friends. The Communications Committee welcomes unsolicited manuscripts of opinion or reporting and will publish material that seems provocative and timely.
I feel led to share a few points that were not addressed in the recent “arts” issue of Spark; the articles seemed to omit some of what I consider to be the critical underpinnings of Art and the creative process. First, I feel that it’s important to stress that Art is not primarily about “self-expression” (humans do that well enough), but, rather what the Self perceives; call this “Vision” (the illustrator reproduces what’s in front of them; the artist produces what they “see”). Not all “creative” acts meet the gray, shadowy definition of Art, no matter how sincere the works are. I might add that despite how much we would like it to be otherwise, everyone is not potentially an “artist” (no more than everyone is potentially a brain surgeon). There is no book, no Omega Institute weekend seminar, and no spiritual practice will make you an artist. You can learn technique, but technique does not an artist make. Art takes Vision, and that is something that cannot be taught. I’m sorry, but Art is not democratic, but nor is it elitist. Art is disciplined (the mechanics must be mastered); it is intentional, focused, ideally transcending ego, hopefully transcending mere political agitprop. The Artist—and this I believe strongly—should focus on “process,” which is distinct from technique, and leave “meaning” to the beholder.
Could it be that as “artists,” Friends have focused too much on “meaning,” relegating their work to the relatively safe, soft realm of the spiritually, politically, or ecologically sentimental? For an Artist to find their “voice” they must be willing to take risks. Art by its very nature is self-confrontational. Art is not necessarily safe, nor is it necessarily easily accessible or comfortable. Art is hard work, at times exhausting and humbling. I tend to leave my shop/studio wrung out, not knowing if I got it right: Was I able to cross that line; did I hear the Muse? It would be the height of arrogance on my part to think that all my work is “guided by the Light” (similarly, that every thought I might have during Meeting is a message; I think it best to be humble before the Lord). And yet, still there is that feeling, that urging, that maybe tomorrow I’ll “get it right.” Maybe that’s what defines an Artist, that unquenchable something (the obsession) that constantly pushes him or her forward, plus the constant doubt, the inability to sit self-satisfied, and the need to turn inward and face head-on both the Light and Dark inherent in our own natures. Yes, God leads, but, to what extent, I cannot say, but besides being led through the sweet fields of heather and lilacs, God also leads us through the “valley of the shadow of death.” I know that to some degree an Artist needs to be courageous to venture into these unknown territories of Self because beyond the veil of pretty flowers and happy meditations “here, there be monsters,” and here, there be beauty.
Derek R. Polzer, Chatham-Summit Meeting
Around Our Yearly Meeting
The New York Yearly Meeting Prisons Committee is exploring ways that we can bring our criminal-justice concerns to the planners of the upcoming White House Summit (WHS) related to criminal-justice issues. A major focus of the summit is national gang-intervention. However, the WHS will also try “to generate positive, substantial and sustainable initiatives for developing leadership, education and employment” for people returning from prison.
Eddie Ellis, a former member of one of our prison worship groups, is on the planning committee. He would like to work with the NYYM Prisons Committee in fostering communication between current and former Quaker prison worship group members and the summit planning group. If you would like to be in touch with the planning committee, please contact Helen Garay Toppins, coclerk, NYYM Prisons Committee, at office [at] nyym.org.
Inauguration trip: A group of 23 young Friends and eight adults attended the inauguration of Barack Obama January 20, 2009. Regina Haag, pastor of Adirondack Meeting, describes the event as joyful and inspiring. Regina posts details on her blog at http://quakerpastor.blogspot.com/.
Westbury Monthly Meeting is holding monthly sessions of the Quakerism 101 study group on the fourth Sunday of each month, at 12:30 P.M. Members and attenders of other meetings are welcome to attend.
On July 25, 2008, NYYM approved a Minute against Torture. A video presentation of this minute is available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMbeDd_W9AM and on Google at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=166063683352793953&hl=en.
Singing à la Nightingales will take place again April 17–19, 2009, at Mohawk Valley Meeting and at a Friend’s house. This is a joyful opportunity for Friends to join in song. See January Spark or www.nyym.org/events for details.
Reminder: Meeting for Discernment
Saturday, March 14, 2009
9:00 A.M. until 4:30 P.M.
Poughkeepsie Friends Meeting
It is already clear that these day-long meetings provide the opportunity that many Friends long for: to share what is vital in the Life of our meetings; to name what might be tenderly emerging; to worship for an extended period around queries or around that which rises in our gathered worship; to labor over issues that require greater time than is normally available in a session of meeting for worship for business; and to know one another’s meetings in that which is Eternal. All Friends are welcome.
See January Spark or the link at www.nyym.org/events for details.
AFSC China Summer Workcamp
American Friends Service Committee’s 2009 China Summer International Volunteer Summer Workcamp will take place July 27 to August 22, 2009.
The program begins in Beijing for a few days of sightseeing. Participants will then travel to Hunan province in rural central China, a beautiful and remote area. For three weeks, U.S., Chinese, Korean, and Japanese volunteers teach English and environmental studies to local children. There will be regular days off to explore a nearby city, visit the families of students, go on a hike, and shop at the local market. The Workcamp concludes with a graduation ceremony for all students.
As a participant in the Workcamp, you will directly affect the lives of young children in rural China by sharing your knowledge of English with them. You will also get to experience both urban and rural China first hand at a time when China is coming into its own as one of the most important countries in the world and continuing to experience rapid economic and cultural change.
Visit www.afsc.org to download the application and find more information about the program. Apply by March 15, 2009. Contact Anne Triest, China Summer Program Coordinator, at chinasummer [at] afsc.org or 617-504-3103, with questions or just to talk about the China Summer experience.
Mary Rothschild, clerk of the Task Group on Youth, has sent information to monthly meetings about the formation of a NYYM Youth Committee with a recommendation for the creation of a First Day School Committee. If you would like a copy of this mailing or if you would like to be in direct communication with the TGoY please contact: Mark LaRiviere, mlariviere [at] earthlink.net, for information pertaining to First Day schools or Margaret Lew, 917-539-6338, mlew1022 [at] aol.com, for information about the Youth Committee. You may also contact Mary Rothschild, mary [at] healthymediachoices.org.
This column is prepared from information about membership received from the local meeting recorders.
Nathan Taylor Kennedy—Binghamton
Jenifer Rebecca King—Flushing
Teresa Ann Morin—Flushing
Eena Carvin, member of Unadilla, on December 13, 2008.
Elizabeth Clarkson, member of Poplar Ridge, on December 17, 2008.
Rae M. Kelly, member of Unadilla, on December 27, 2008.
Helen Matlock, member of Orchard Park, on November 26, 2008.
Jonathan Alexander Rapoport-Wills, on October 22, 2008, to Katherine Lynne Rapoport and Emily Regan Wills, members of Brooklyn Meeting.
Barbara Spring, to Albany Monthly Meeting, from Missoula Monthly Meeting (NPYM).
Jenifer King and Teresa Morin, members of Flushing Meeting, on October 18, 2008, under the care of Flushing Meeting.
Everyone Invited to Spring Sessions
April 3–5, 2009
Locust Valley, N.Y.
Long Island Quarterly Meeting welcomes everyone to Spring Sessions, to do the business of the Yearly Meeting. The active participation of all is needed to expand the life and witness of our Society. This is the opportunity to bring our meeting concerns to the attention of the Yearly Meeting, and to report back the decisions of the sessions. Thus we can increase communication and fellowship among Friends.
F/friends are welcome to arrive on Friday evening, although there is no program planned. Those being met at airports will be taken to Westbury Monthly Meeting, where host families will meet you. Those arriving by car will get directions to the host family or the motel or will be directed to meet their hosts at Matinecock Meeting. The Host Committee is requesting that those requesting hospitality and/or pick-up return their registration forms no later than March 22.
Meals: Meals and snacks will be provided by Friends Academy staff, including vegetarian, non-vegetarian, and vegan items. Lunch on Saturday and Sunday will cost $10.95 and Saturday dinner will be $14.25. We ask that participants indicate their food preferences on the registration form to aid the planning for meals.
Hospitality is available with local Friends for Friday and/or Saturday nights by request on a first to ask, first assigned basis. A list of motels will be sent to anyone requesting this information on the registration form. Friends Academy is in a residential area, so that those using a motel would need their own transportation.
Registration: You may register in two ways. Either fill out the registration form, save it, and e-mail it to Carolyn Emerson at cemerson [at] suffolk.lib.ny.us. You may also electronically pay your registration fees using PayPal. If paying by PayPal, please add $3.00 to your total registration amount to cover NYYM’s PayPal expense. You may also print out your registration form and mail it to: Elaine Learnard, 122 Randall Avenue, Port Jefferson, NY 11777. The registration deadline is March 22, 2009. All checks should be made payable to NYYM.
Meeting and Display Space: Requests for committee meetings and display space should be directed to Richard Goodman, 631-271-4672; goodpeople [at] optonline.net.
Childcare: Children will be supervised in play areas during the day. Parents are responsible for their children during meals. Please note your needs on the registration form.
Airports: Local airports include La Guardia, Kennedy, and MacArthur-Islip. To arrange for pickup, please note your needs on the registration form and mail before the March 22 deadline. After this date, you can make alternate arrangements with Classic Car Service by dialing 20 from the airport courtesy phone. From JFK, you can take a L.I. Rail Road train to the Jamaica station and transfer to the Oyster Bay line to Locust Valley. Check with the Local Transportation desk for details.
Driving Directions to Friends Academy, 270 Duck Pond Road, Locust Valley, NY 11542: Take the Long Island Expressway (I-495) to exit 39, Glen Cove Road. Turn left westbound or right eastbound onto Glen Cove Road north. Continue past Northern Blvd. (Rte. 25A) to Cedar Swamp Road exit (approximately 6 miles). Bear right onto Cedar Swamp Rd. (name will change to Glen St.). At large grey stone church on right turn right onto Pearsall Ave. Stay to the right on Pearsall to railroad tracks. Turn right over tracks onto Duck Pond Road. Friends Academy is at the corner of Piping Rock Rd. on the right, approximately 1 mile.
Train: Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station via the Oyster Bay line to Locust Valley takes 1 hour 10 minutes. Friends can be met Saturday and Sunday morning. At press time the LIRR April train schedules are not available, however we expect to meet the train arriving in Locust Valley around 9:30 A.M. We will post the arrival time on the NYYM Web site www.nyym.org/events/springsess09 when it is available.
Price and schedule information is avalable at www.mta.info/lirr.
For car service or any other travel information contact the host committee.
|Registration with bagels, coffee, and tea
|Meeting for worship
|Lunch and fellowship
|Meeting for worship with a concern for business
|No Saturday evening program
|Meeting for worship with a concern for business
|Meeting for Worship
|Lunch and farewells
Agenda: The agenda is not ready at press time but will be posted on the New York Yearly Meeting Web site as soon as it is available.