the first quaker..?

I stood at a crossroads…literally…outside Costa at Warwick Uni campus, having just arrived at YMG. It was Thursday and I had come for respite and recuperation ‘among friends’. YMG had been weighing up questions and paths about how we live our lives in the world today all week. And while I was standing there, my friend, Debbie, appeared and gave me a hug. Then, another friend, Mervyn, walked towards me without noticing and I made towards him and greeted him, smiling. As we caught up, Richard appeared out of the doorway, both a real friend and a friend on facebook. ‘It’s not the same as meeting in person, is it?’, he asked. And we hugged too. I waved to someone else, and noticed still another dear friend across the plaza. Seemingly, all I had to do was stand still and I would meet all my friends. ‘Yes, great, isn’t it…like family…’

But I still wanted to take part in some of the serious and fun things on offer at YMG, so that’s how I found myself singing…especially for two friends who could not be here this time and for whom we offered dear 20 second hugs and this song, if you have time to listen…’we hold you in our circle’.

Thirty years ago (was it really that long…yes, 1987), I found myself in my first and up to then only Turning the Tide workshop, which I thought was brilliant. TtT raise awareness and train people in non-violent direct action campaigning…and I’ve done absolutely nothing, well, very little since, as a result of that workshop. ‘It’s the group thing’, I told Maureen. I joined avpb (alternatives to violence Britain) as a facilitator as it’s more one-to-one or small groups. Large crowds have often made me feel anxious, a legacy perhaps of supporting Everton in the 1970s and ‘80s. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be great if avpb and TtT could work more closely together..? Being here made me ask what had I done with my life..? I stopped myself quickly and reminded myself that because I had been born, I had already changed the world, so just needed to get on with stuff, which I had. I breathed again.

And YMG was exploring faith and action through head, heart, hands and feet motifs. And I had arrived at the feet. We explored the campaign to abolish the Slave Trade in its stages over a significant period of time (decades). How it begins, who picks it up, supporters and opponents, successes and set backs…and ongoing support? We were asked to commit to one act of social action. I chose to replace my plastic drinking flask with a sustainable metal one, taking care it doesn’t end up in landfill or worse in the sea, and explain why to people.

I wish I could join in great marches and campaigning more. Still, just the other day, a young stranger asked me as we drank coffee at a pavement café, do you mind if I smoke? When I wasn’t sure, she decided to smoke a little distance away and when she returned, we started to discuss our mutual interest in education, as it turned out. She asked me if I’d heard of ‘subtle activism’? ‘It’s about making individual choices to help bring about positive change for the good.’. ‘That’s me! I’m a subtle activist!’ What a relief! Finally, I had my label.

And it was three days spent without ‘WiFi’, as I couldn’t automatically connect and couldn’t follow the guest instructions, so found myself making do with following swans in right ordering and geese, definitely or is that defiantly not so; marvelling at trees and a pin while also finding time for visiting Anna and her family to see how they were and receive their bounty without so many words needing saying. Gosh, it is hard to be without WiFi for three days!

I also attended a reunion of my Equipping for Ministry group. While Jan tried to interest us in a game (we played along…), each of us spoke in turn and without hurry of the stories in our lives now in a way and with such love and feeling that comes with prolonged, shared companionship. We spoke about the politics of the middle east and witness, speaking truth to power, of being an Agony Aunt in a journal, of writing another novel, of teachings and publications about the labyrinth, on simply being a Quaker, keeping our meetings; of prison chaplaincy and trusteeship and holding a wake for laying down a concern on ‘dying and death’ now that it has been incorporated into Quaker Life. Wow, do you think I can claim a vicarious connection with all of these gifts, lovingly given? And we chatted in the Woodbrooke tent, appropriately, drinking fizzy soft drinks and munching on stoned dates. I look forward to the next time we meet, dear friends, and don’t forget to share your news and good works…like this gift from Jan…

Praise song for Epping Forest

This I can affirm: I am not owner of my soul

but am part of that great garden of which Gaia holds the whole:

and in nurturing the Spirit, I did, and weed, and sow,

I garden – and am gardened, to help the Spirit grow:

I garden and am gardened, and I help the Spirit grow.

 

In the glory of the forest, trees breathe out – and I breathe in;

The seed burrs on my jacket show the places I have been.

I travel – and am travelled; the seeds will drop and grow;

the squirrel plants an acorn for a future I won’t know.

The squirrel plants an acorn for the future. That, I know.

 

It takes a million years to form this pebble on the path;

It takes a month, or three, before a baby learns to laugh.

The pebble and the laughter, the people and the tree,

the breath within the forest – a holy harmony:

the breath within the forest, a holy harmony.

Jan Sellars, Wanstead Quaker Meeting – within Epping Forest

While sharing together in the Woodbrooke tent, I noticed that the poet, Jill Slee Blackadder was sitting at the next table, so I started reading her moving poem, The Rainbow, out loud (I’d taken a photograph of it to take with me to YMG as my gift). And, do you know what..? She joined in, turn-taking. I read half a line and she spoke the other from memory and we read aloud together to everyone’s delight, especially mine.

‘I’m knackered already’, I told Keith, heading towards the Quaky Duck for fish and chips and a pint for tea. What next..? Keith was going to see the drama performance by Three Acres and a Cow, so named because this is all we need to live well on the planet, apparently. They retold hundreds of years of Quaker and English history, setting it in context to music and text. And I nearly missed it. It was brilliant, starting with John Ball, I noticed. After each contribution, they pegged an A4 sheet onto a washing line, strung across the stage. As I left to go to epilogue, it was the 1880s.

Epilogue is a quiet 15 minute space at the end of the day where people meet to listen to a story or song or silence and think about the day. At the previous epilogue the night before, my friend, as she became, Thuli, had shared a story about an young woman accusing her mother. You have taken everything and left us with nothing. And the mother looked at her daughter before replying, ‘Yes, you are right. When we were young, we had so much. We played out all day, running and climbing and eating fishpaste butties for lunch, running back to our friends and walking for miles… We were very lucky. We had everything.’ And so it goes…

At the last epilogue, the elder read out a poem, ‘Do not be dismayed… , which led to ministry from a young teenager. He had received some bad news earlier in the week about his leukaemia, which was not good. In hospital, he’d experienced the silence of being alone and afraid. But here, he said he felt the gathered stillness and felt held and supported by everyone in the silence. I returned to Three Acres and a Cow, which had by now reached the 1950s.

There was a ceilidh still to go to. I love ceilidhs but they are not always easy to get into, especially if you arrive in full swing, as this one was. I’d experienced the misery at Canterbury YMG of not being able to join in, feeling like ‘Billy No Mates’. I tried to breathe. Standing by the door at the far end of the packed room watching 70, 80 or more Quakers , young and old, whirling round the floor, I thought ‘I’m not going to get in. Oh, well, it has been a great day and I’m ready for bed anyway.’ There were two ways I could leave the room. Straight out of the nearest door and along the corridor, avoiding most people. I went that way last time. The other was to go along inside the room…and I chose this way and what a difference it made!

‘Do you want to dance..?’ I was asked almost straightaway, but then two men came and joined the group. ‘Never mind, I’ll find another set’ but I didn’t. I got to the far door and paused next to Rachel. Just one last look, I thought. Everyone is having such a good time! Rachel said, ‘You off? Not stopping for a dance?’ ‘I can’t get in, Rachel. I’d like to but I can’t get in. I don’t know how.’ ‘It’s easy. You just put you hand up and people come and join you. Look!’ And I could see, funny how I’d never noticed it before, people with their arms in the air, indicating they needed dancers. ‘I can’t do that, Rachel. I’d like to but I can’t.’ ‘I can,’ she said. ‘Come with me. We’ll dance with Roger. He knows what he’s doing.’ And we did. And we danced all night to the fiddle and the banjo…

Quakers joke about 10pm being ‘Quaker midnight’. Everyone is usually in bed by then at Woodbrooke and other places. But when I turned the lights out to go to sleep, it was actually midnight. And the words of the‘Young Owl’ (early teenagers), at her first YMG returned to me, ‘I hope that every person in this room feels loved.’ Ah, that’s nice, I thought.

And then it was time to go home. Well, I was ready to. I shared a coffee with my good friend, Maureen, outside in the fresh air. You know, she told me, John Ball was the first Quaker.’ ‘Really..?’ How do you know that?’ ‘Because of the song, you know the one Three Acres and a Cow sang last night…do you know it?’ ‘Something snagged at me but I could only think of John Bull and that that couldn’t be right, surely?’ ‘I’ll sing it to you.’ And she did and I knew it instantly…one of my favourite songs…and while she sang the verses, I joined in, my eyes closed, with the chorus.

And we brought Thuli back to Liverpool to visit our meeting to say thank you for the financial support we have given to The Cape Town Peace Centre work for many years.

In meeting for worship that Sunday, the clerk read out the epistle from YMG. And it seemed it would be a quiet meeting after that. Till I thought I should sing the chorus from John Ball. Why not..? Why so..? Absolutely not, no way, am I singing. My voice is terrible. I’ve had a cold. I’ll forget the words. I waited three times for the feeling to go away. It had gone or so I thought. Suddenly, I had an image of Barbara Whitehead, who used to sing all the time in ministry well into her 80s. She stood before me…I was on my feet and singing…

Sing John Ball

And tell it to them all.

Long be the day that is dawning.

You crow like a cock and carol like a lark

For the light that’s coming in the morning…

For the light that is coming in the morning…

…for the light that’s coming…

Phew, thank goodness it is three more years till the next YMG. I think I will just go for the day next time..!

Our community

One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.

If we are sensitive, we find that everything that happens to us, good or bad, can help us to build a vision of the meaning of life. We can be helped to be sensitive by reading the Bible and being open to experience of nature, music, books, painting, sport or whatever our particular interest may be. It is in and through all things that we hear God speaking to us. But I do not think I am alone in my certainty that it’s in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.

George Gorman, 1982, Quaker Faith and Practice 20.10

 

The White Snake

One time, not in my time, and not in your time but in someone’s time, there lived a young man with clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart. And because of those qualities, so remarkable yet so little valued, he came to work as a servant for the king. The king treated him like a …servant but came to depend on his judgement and hard work, to the extent that over time, the young man rose to be head of the royal household.

One day, the queen reported her golden ring stolen and because the steward had access to the privy chambers, they accused him of stealing it. ‘Return it by morning or die’, the king told him. But as he hadn’t taken it and had no idea where it was, he sighed, tidied his affairs, such as they were, and went out for one last walk in the forest.

He’d not been walking for long when he came to a sunlit glade, with beautiful purple-headed fritillaries spreading out before him. Suddenly, across and along the path in front of him moved a white snake towards him. Now, snakes being snakes, most people are afraid of them and would lift up a stick and to bash it on its head. But the young man simply looked at the snake and smiled. The snake’s golden eyes stared back, its long green tongue flickering out towards him. Suddenly, it smiled before shimmering into the long grass.

Strange, thought the young man and stranger still, for when the nightingale started singing overhead, he could understand every word. And when he returned to the palace, he could hear the sparrows giggling, talking about the queen who dropped her ring carelessly out of the window, only for the white duck to swallow it. The young man had the duck arrested  and squeezed it hard until it to give up its prize.

The next morning, the king was so happy with the young man who had gotten the ring back, perhaps also feeling a little sheepish, though not enough to say sorry, that he offered the young man the pick of the palace jobs for life. But the young man with the clear eyes, the quiet mind and warm heart had decided it was time to move on. And he asked the king for a horse, some food and a little money. The king resisted at first till, reluctantly, he agreed to the request and so off set the young man along the track and into the forest on a great adventure.

The light shone dimly through the dense oak and lime trees, which lined the forest trail. With night falling, he tethered his horse and climbed up into the branches of a tall tree to sleep for safety’s sake. He marvelled at the wisdom of bats, the exploits of owls, the endless sexual problems of nightjars and the homely tales of the hundreds of insects, sharing their home that night.

The next morning, he travelled on and soon the trail descended through alders and willows towards the lake. He heard splashing and wailing coming from within the reed bed. Three young salmon were thrashing about amid the reeds in the shallow water, stuck. The young man took pity on them and picked them up one by one and threw them into the deeper waters. The salmon raised their heads out of the water and called out, ‘We thank you. We thank you. We salmon remember the river our mothers swam in, the very gravel where we were spawned and we will not forget your bright eyes, your gentle heart and kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on uphill through scrubwood forest of rowan and pine. The ground grew sandier till he was suddenly shook from his reverie on horseback. He could hear a shrill, sharp voice coming from the top of an anthill in the middle of the track. The ant queen was commanding her army of ants beneath, berating him for coming too close to her nest. The man dismounted and bowed before the queen, apologising for his inattention. Next, he spent a good hour reworking the path so that it wound round the anthill. Afterwards, the queen of the ants called out to him, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ants remember. We solve complex problems by ingenuity and team work and we will not forget your bright eyes, your courteous heart and your kindly mind. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on, higher into the upper reaches of the forest where birches and scrubby juniper grew out of craggy rocks. There was a commotion up above and three black shapes flopped downwards, bumping onto the mossy floor ahead. The parents of these three young ravens had dumped their dementing offspring out of the nest to fend for themselves. They would die for lack of food, they complained and the young man, perhaps, remembering his own treatment by the king, jumped off his horse and hacked off the horse’s head. The ravens fell straight away on the big fleshy eyes and, after gorging themselves, called out to the young man, ‘Thank you, thank you. We ravens remember. We apply intelligence and strength and travel long distances and we will not forget your bright eyes, your generous mind and your warm heart. One day, we will repay you.’

He travelled on on foot till he came to a luscious, green valley, where woods of oaks and holly stretched ahead on either side, passed through orchards plump with apples and cherries and on through pastures filled with fat cattle, knee high in the long grass, resting from the sun under elms and ash. The path brought him to a great city, where the noise of the people and traffic and chaos drowned out all the sounds of the birds and wildlife. He could barely hear himself think but it was here that he fell in love with the Princess.

You think he would have had enough of royalty but he saw the Princess’s loveliness and loneliness through the shield of indifference she protected herself by. He took her pride and haughtiness, her snobbery as a guard against the exceeding flattery of suitors and indulgence of the king. And it was here he decided to go a’courting in the springtime to seek her hand in marriage, even though it may cost him dear, his life. For the Princess set each suitor a challenge and if they failed, they died the next day.

The following morning, the Princess took him to the sea shore and threw a golden ring into the sea.   Well, he knew he had no chance of finding it, so he smiled to himself, sat down on his haunches but then heard three voices in unison. He looked up and there were three full grown red salmon, surfing towards him on a big blue wave. The middle one dropped a white clam at his foot, just as the retreating wave carried them back to the sea. The young man opened the clam and inside lay the ring. He laughed happily and gave it to the young Princess.

But she didn’t want to marry a servant and so demanded another challenge, a second proof. She took him into the palace orchard and opened the contents of ten sacks of millet seed, spraying them all over the ground. ‘Pick up every single one and put them back in the sacks.’

The young man sighed, looking around him, then up at the fluffy clouds shifting across the blue sky. What could he do? Then, there was a ruffle in the grass. It grew like whisperings and there he saw the elegant ant queen riding at the head of her army. She gave orders to her ants and, by morning, they had filled all ten sacks.

Still, the Princess was not satisfied. She did not want to marry a servant and so demanded another task, a third proof. ‘Bring me back an apple from the Tree of Life’, she demanded. How, what…where..? The young man had no idea where to find the Tree of Life and realised he would die the next day. So, he tidied up his affairs, paid up his small bills and wandered into the forest one last time, till he came to a green linden tree and sat down under its canopy for a rest. The bright sun dazzled his eyes but he could just make out three dark shapes flying in the sky, diving and soaring, dipping on the warm breeze. Then, one of them let an object fall out of the sky. The young man with the clear eyes, the calm mind and the caring heart held out his palm and caught the apple from the Tree of Life. He laughed and ran back to the city.

He cut the apple in two and gave one half to the Princess and ate the other himself. She fell in love with him at once with his clear eyes, his quiet mind and kind heart and they lived happily ever after.

 

Things may not always be what they seem. This story starts with a snake and ends with an apple and yet paradise is not lost. It is found. And for many people, salmon are cold and slippery; ants destroy everything in their path and ravens come as messengers of 

death and doom. They say that a young man with clear eyes, a calm mind and a warm heart can win no fair lady. But it need not be so…

Never underestimate the joy that a man or woman can gain if they have clear eyes, a quiet mind and a gentle heart.

 

 

With thanks to The Brothers Grimm and, particularly, to Sara Maitland for her retelling of the story of The White Snake in her wonderful book, Gossip from the Forest.

The Dull Door Story

It was a lovely warm late afternoon in June. I was visiting the local Quaker Meeting House to observe a new tutor, teaching her second course for the WEA on ‘Overthinking’. I thought I saw someone go into the building, as I approached, but when I pressed the ‘Push Me to Open’ button, nothing happened. Through the glass door, I could see Lisa, the assistant warden, eating pasta out of a bowl. One time, the warden used to lock the doors between 5 and 6pm to get a break but I didn’t think they still did this. They double staff the sessions now. And there was Ella next to Lisa, tucking into her pasta dish too. I smiled at them, pressing the button again and still nothing happened.

Lisa started waving her fork about and mouthing words at me from behind the reception desk. It seemed to me she was saying, ‘Sling yer hook, mate! We’re having our dinner.’ Charming, I thought. Definitely, the Bad Quaker welcome I’d heard of! Still, make the best of it and I smiled back at them, mouthing, ‘It’s ok. I’ll use the side door. I’ve me fob.’ I’m a sometimes Openupper on Sundays, you see. And in I went.

Ella met me in the corridor. ‘I didn’t know you were a warden!’ ‘Oh, yeah, been a few months now.’ ‘Good stuff!’ And then we got to Lisa at the front desk. ‘I was trying to say, “Pull the door. The button’s broke but you can still get in, if you pull the door.”’

Oh, how we laughed!

And this is how I came into Quakers, through the side door.

This conjectural map covers several Historical Periods to illustrate “A popular excursion through Ancient Leverpoole.” Joseph P. Pearce

a precious habitation

“The place of prayer is a precious habitation; for I now saw that the prayers of the saints were precious incense; and a trumpet was given to me that I might sound forth this language; that the children might hear it and be invited together to this precious habitation, where the prayers of the saints, as sweet incense, arise before the throne of God and the Lamb. I saw this habitation to be safe,—to be inwardly quiet when there were great stirrings and commotions in the world.”

John Woolman, 1770

I’m nearer to the end of my service at Rep Council than the start and I want to try and get over some of my experience of being here for two reasons. Firstly, it is important for our Area Meeting to have a representative to reflect on the richness of Quaker Life. The second is to give a flavour of exploring deepening questions and themes, raised here, and how they influence the individuals present and the wider circles of friends with whom they connect.

Being an Area Meeting Rep means a commitment of two weekends per year, one in April, the other in October, fully funded by the Area Meeting. The theme of this latest one is how new people find us and, once they do, are we worth the finding!

In our home groups, we were asked to think of our own first coming to meeting. And about what had stopped us coming before, perhaps, a lack of familiarity with Quakers or imagining them to be something else, like the Masons, or simply being unaware there was a meeting nearby? Many of us said we first came along with a friend. So, why is it in all other respects but this one, I feel I am a Quaker, but always bite my tongue, when the opportunity occurs to invite a friend or colleague, a fellow seeker, to come to meeting with me? Put like this, it doesn’t seem so hard and I am minded to ask the next friend, who shows any interest in Quakers, to go with me.

And what if we can get a fingerpost put up, directing visitors to the Quaker meeting house or simply alerting them there is one? How about organising open days,   displays of art and other stuff and cream teas in our meeting houses, where there’s  a quiet corner for prayer or a space for curious conversation..? You may be able to offer a labyrinth walk on the beach in summer..? What lovely ‘inreach’’ too!

Digressing a little, have you ever thought of going to Woodbrooke in Birmingham? If not, I wonder what stops you? Could it be the cost? Or the time involved..? Bursary support may be available from both Woodbrooke and your Local or Area Meetings, and there are offers for first timers, young people and new members. There is even a Sunday night special, something I take advantage of after a hefty Rep Council to experience the peace of the place.

Well, nearly 100 representatives from over 90 Area Meetings from Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) met for the weekend, supported by staff from Quaker Life from Friends’ House. And we were also well looked after by volunteer Friends in Residence (FIRS) as well as the centre’s admin and catering staff. 

Woodbrooke is a study centre near Bourneville and it’s also a ‘thin space’, where we open ourselves up to God’s grace, however we experience it. Did you know you can volunteer for full board and accommodation as a FIR for stays from three weeks up to three months? Or, perhaps, you prefer working in the grounds as the Gardening Friend or volunteer, no previous gardening experience necessary.

On Sunday afternoon after most of the Reps had left to go home, I walked around the lake and the grounds, remembering the stories connecting me to different parts. Here, the three gifts of the apple tree; over there, the questions and responses of the labyrinth; now, sitting on the bench overlooking the lake, realising with surprise and relief that I can be my own father; sitting deep in the forest, singing and telling  stories around the bonfire; down the path, where two dragons lay sleeping, waiting…; learning to nettle strip in autumn drizzle and, then, back out into the sunshine, cloudwalking in bare feet over the cool summer grass. 

I notice the cowslip patch, where I sobbed farewell to my lovely mum is growing again. Over a decade, so many stories in this place for me and for everyone, who comes here. And what a sharing we have…

Our concern  this weekend is how we welcome strangers coming to our meetings for the first time. We also spoke of how we still welcome those, who are still coming after many years. One friend said he loved his welcoming pack from Friends’ House, and yet it took him another two years before he went to his first meeting. He walked up and down outside so many times before going in. What stops him..?

On one of the optional Saturday afternoon workshops, we drew pictures and made collages of how a bad and good Quaker welcome looks. Have you met any of our friends below?

Under green trees, we talked seriously and with humour at times about the way we organise ourselves. Is it possible we focus too much on the ‘plumbing’ in our buildings and less on why we’re Quakers? On the other hand, this is a difficult matter for friends, especially with seemingly fewer people around to deal with such practical matters. The danger is that friends can lose heart, even burn out.

In Ben Pink Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker,  he talks of one meeting finding itself in dire straits, then discovering it needed only three committees to keep it going – the committees of us, them and stuff. Maybe, this may not seem relevant to your meeting but it did lead one friend in our home group to offer this helpful formula, used to calculate the realistic number of roles per member (rpm) they can reasonably be expected  to take on – up to five, apparently. How many are you doing..?

But change ‘m’, member, for ‘w’, worshipper, and we include more people. We asked how many more worshippers are there, willing to offer service, when it’s time to lay yours down? And what are the ways in for new worshippers? Are they clearly ‘signposted’? And what part does the work of Nominations committee play in all of this?

During Rep Councils, we share our experiences of our Meetings, of how we tackle the big and little questions.  Anf Friends are happy to share their experiences. And we also have Quaker Life (QL), which provides marvellous support and resources for meetings. But not everybody agrees with me. In the Cadbury room on Friday night, we watched a playlet, mapped out by Alistair Fuller, Head of Ministry and Outreach at QL. In it, five friends quizzed Helen Drewery, Head of Worship and Witness, about what on earth does Quaker Life do…and, oh, yes, that big question, whetecdo they spend all our money?

I have been often unaware I am drawing on resources and knowledge, provided by QL. It helps with worship, with nurturing meetings and looking after archives. It offers information and support on good employment practice, on Quaker roles, such as Treasurer, on Eldership and Oversight. It publishes leaflets and posters and other publications, including my favourite, Quaker Voices. And it organises events, for example,  the forthcoming Family Learning Day. It supports various cluster groups, such as Clerks and Mental Health.

There are times when being or becoming a friend/Quaker seems full on with tasks, projects and exciting events. Do we still need times for quiet reflection and contemplation? I think we do, whether we’re new or old to the Religious Society of Friends. If we don’t make time for prayer in our daily lives, we won’t find ways for our meetings to be a spiritual and prophetic community, as Joannie Harrison challenges us to be? One of the key note speakers, her talk on her hospital chaplaincy work inspired, nurtured and challenged us to look outwards.

I hope you’re now getting a taste of what Rep C is all about. My time is ending sooner than I thought – just one more to go for me. Six years has flown by and soon my Area Meeting will appoint a new Rep and, hopefully, a deputy too. What a team! Might you be one of them, I wonder, discovering and sharing your gifts, friends, tenderly nudging and leading your meeting? Consider it possible. Indeed, who are you not to..?

Helping Seekers Find Quakers – Being Worth the Finding

Quaker Life Representative Council – April 2017

Report for Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting

Religious Society of Friends

Our Feathered Friends

It was a time of war. When is it never? The Americans were fighting the British. The French were fighting the British and then there were the First Americans, fighting everyone and no-one. And in the midst of this troubled land lived a community of Quakers or Friends. They had long cleared an area in the woodland to build their houses. First, the Brits came to tell them to leave, ‘We cannot guarantee your safety, if you stay.’ And the Americans too. ‘There will be trouble, grave trouble. Best leave.’ And some of the families did go but most of them stayed for they were peaceful people, they reckoned…and they’d planted their homes in this woodland. Who would hurt them?

One Sunday morning on a lovely summer’s day, most of the families were gathered together as usual in meeting for worship. The meeting house was made out of timber. With no glass in the windows, just unshuttered and open to the breeze, in flittered a curious bee and two playful butterflies, dancing in the beam of sunlight falling across the centre table. A young girl watched all this with drooping eyelids. On the window ledge, a young robin sang for a few moments before flying through the room and out the opposite window in search of berries and insects.

Holes in the wood let the light in and through them, she could see the greenery outside, the bushes and trees. Three elders sat together on a bench, eyes closed in prayer. Meeting could go on like this for several hours in those days and the little girl, sleepy, leant against her mum, trying to stay awake. It was hard for her. The warm air lifted. Was that a blue flash passing through a bush, left quivering? She listened to the steady, slow breathing of her mother next to her, her warm body rising and falling gently. Through a knothole, she saw a second flash, red this time and rubbed her eyes. And when she peered again, all was quiet and still…

She was just falling asleep when something made her look up. In the open doorway stood a dozen First Americans, arrows drawn in their bows, dircted towards them. She noticed the long knives hanging from their belts and something else too…was that hair..? And now, all the friends in the room watched with eyes wide open and waited.

One of the elders stood and, speaking in French, palms upwards, welcomed the visitors and invited them to join them. One of the First Americans interpreted for the chief, who stared at them. He relaxed and, saying through the interpreter, told them that he and his men also worshipped their spirits in peace and would gladly join with them. They made to come in but the elder raised his hand. ‘Please, your weapons…leave them outside. The men looked at their Chief but when he took off his bow and arrows and knives and placed them by the door, they all followed. The Quakers made space for them on the benches and, together, they fell into a gathered stillness inside the meeting house in the clearing in the wood.

At the end of meeting, the elder shook the hand of the Chief and invited them all to join them for food. And they did. Much later, when they were ready to leave, the Chief took a white feather, he said, as a token of peace, and pinned it above the door to the meeting house. ‘Everyone seeing this  knows you are our friends and will not harm you.’

Or so the story goes…I’ve been in touch with Easton Meeting in New York State. They told me that the old timbered meeting house of that time is long gone, replaced by a new, shiny modern one. But they still hold their summer meetings there. And they told me the First Americans in that area didn’t wear feathers in their head gear. It’s more likely that the Chief cracked an arrow in half and pinned that above the door as a sign of friendship.

Easton South Meeting House

Every September, the friends of Easton South Meeting gather together to retell this story and think about what truth it holds in the world today.

What a sad country we live in

What a sad country we live in, I texted my friend, going home on the bus. He’d seen it two nights previously. Id just watched ‘My Country’, a National Theatre production at the Liverpool Playhouse, which had recorded the stories and voices of over 70 people after the vote to leave the EU. None of them had felt listened to. They distrusted their leaders. If people had seen just the part Britannia played in reading our leaders’ words during the campaign– all lobster and honour and where was Jeremy..? – perhaps, they would have made different decisions. I thought it a shame this exercise, the listening project, had not happened before the referendum. Regardless of the result, we seem such a sad, cruel island, where people feel imperilled, not necessarily by the EU but ground down by life and its rapid change. Our politicians were decried and I thought of Jo Cox and all the other local, national and EU politicians I’ve met who put in such dedicated unsocial hours to help people. And not a single bullet was fired…

I believe there is to be a film made of ‘My Country’. It deserves a wider audience. It stops you. But catch it best in theatre. It’s off to Manchester next. It takes a needle to your stomach and presses. Maybe, it’s the system that needs changing, not the people in power? And it left me wondering what have we done? And if we have more of this, it could be better.

Borg version 2

I am Borg. I live in a cupboard in a big house. And when I smell a child, I come out, unseen by adults but the children sense me…and smell me…and hear me, dragging my folds of drooping flesh along the floor to get them.

Many people come to the big house, where I live. They bring many children. Their families won’t miss one, a juicy tiddler. I have to live after all and I love to suck the marrow out of the inside a long leg bone.

Listen…there’s one now, coming into the room, all alone. And through the keyhole, I spy her, drawing nearer. What is she searching for…most likely her smart phone? ‘I’m bored!’, she says. Not for much longer, little one. I have your phone. Just a few more steps…come on, yes, open the cupboard…open the door…to let me out…Aghh!

Ella turns on her heels and flies screaming out of the room, back along the corridor and down the stairs. Her three friends rush to her, while I trail after. I am slow, I know, but every bit of this big old house is familiar to me and they can hide but I will find them. And when I do, they will become Borg too. That’s just how it is.

Ella points back to the upstairs room, unable to find her words. What can she tell them? And the other children follow her finger. From the top of the banister, my dark red eyes glow fiercely at them. They scramble in wails and leg it. Slowly, savouring the meal which will soon be mine, I follow them, leaving behind a trail of fresh orange flesh scales, rubbed onto the carpet. Something else the children will have to answer for…

As I descend the stairs, all has gone quiet. Adults pass freely by me and through me, without notice. They’re not in the game, not any more. They escaped. Only the children…only the blood and meat of the children keep me going. I raise my snout in the air. They think they are clever, that they can outrun me. What fools they are! No-one escapes Borg. No-one!

I enter the library. At the back, there is a cupboard. All is still but I know they’re here, all four of them, silent, eyes popping out at each other in the darkness.. I hear their hearts bopping, their breath racing. Soon, I will eat one of them.

I crawl to the door of the cupboard and fling it open, belching my rotten breath to numb them. Ella emerges instantly, brushing my side before I can grab her and runs off, shrieking. A grown up, distracted by the noise, comes into the room. I hate these adults. I wish I could eat them too.

While I’m looking back, two more dash past me. They scream too. You are safe…for now…but one day, I will tear you apart and eat your heart.

There is one more. A boy. A boy is in here in the dark inside the cupboard, stacked with chairs. For a moment, I hesitate. Maybe, I’m mistaken. Could the boy have hidden somewhere else?  Just then, he squeezes out and I’m caught unawares. He is too quick for me and rushes past before I can grab him.

Then, they are outside on the grass on a kind of maze, etched onto the lawn. It only has one way in. One way in means…One way out! Go in, go in, my lovely bones. Go in…and I will follow you and make you all Borg.

And they go into the labyrinth.

I reach the entrance.  There is a traffic light on red. I wait. It stays on red for a long time. I can hear the children, talking and shouting, then, suddenly, the light changes to green and all I hear are the chill wind at my back and the cry of a solitary crow. I rumble in.

Further along the path,, there is a notice, ‘Think’. A lot of good that does anyone and I press on. I am hungry. It is weeks since I have tasted meat and these four will not escape me again. I am almost at the centre…another notice, ‘Feel’. Who puts this nonsense here?

I reach the opening to the centre of the labyrinth. And there’s the girl, Ella with her friends, huddled together and squealing under a notice, ‘Hold’, when they see me coming. I spit on the floor to slaver my throat and wet my teeth. But suddenly, the lights change at the entrance from green to amber to red and I must wait. I feel as if I can almost reach them. No hurry!

The children are holding something. What is it? It looks like an…anchor? What have they got an anchor for? Where..? And they rise into the air beneath the anchor. The fresh wind blows, helping the four holding onto its long chain to take off. Ella’s foot dangles over me, as they sway and she nearly falls off. I open my slimey jaws to catch her but they pull her back in before I can bite and are gone. Red-Amber-Green – I walk into an empty chamber.

There is nothing for it but to return to my cupboard and lick my toes. I’ll not forget them, Ella and her three silent companions. Borgs live in cupboards for a very long time. I have never seen a dead one, though there may be one in your kitchen cupboard. All I can say is ‘Don’t prod.’

And, in time, I turned into human form and worked as the house manager. Some years pass before Ella and her three friends return to the house. I watch them. I greet them. I know them. I shake hands with each of them in turn and lick my lips. And they know me. ‘Welcome back’, Ella and friends. You are all Borg now and their eyes begin to glow amber red in the gloaming!

‘We are not Borg! My name is Ella and these are my friends.’ Startled, I take half a step back. It is enough to let Ella brush past me and when she turns, her eyes are shining a deep brown. She should be Borg..? She calls out to her friends, ‘Here now, come now…Now!’ And the charm is broken and they burst past me and out into the garden. And I gasp…