To Cherish the Silence

In my last post, I confessed to not knowing enough about history. But one historical event I learned a fair bit about returned to me as I watched “Profound Silence”— a recent episode of QuakerSpeak—featuring Jane Fernandes, President of Guilford College. Guilford, in Greensboro, NC, is a liberal arts college guided by Quaker testimonies. FernandesWhen Jane, who is deaf, became Guilford’s ninth president in 2014, she had the distinction of being the first woman to hold the post. She also was the first deaf woman to lead an American college or university.

In the interview, Jane speaks and signs about her introduction to Quakerism. Although she was raised a Catholic, when she attended an unprogrammed Quaker meeting for the first time, she loved it. “For me, as a deaf person,” Jane says, “it’s rare when a group of people wants to cherish silence. It is rare.”

Jane was born deaf, to a mother who was also deaf, so she knows a great deal about silence. But her encounters with Quaker worship led to new awareness about her experience of being silent with others. “I’ve not been in a group of people that understands that, and a group of hearing people who strive to be in that state that I was born in.”

There’s a great deal that hearing people don’t understand about deafness, and that’s where Jane’s story and my history lesson intersect.

My husband is a sign language interpreter and has worked for over twenty years with children and adults who are deaf. He first started in the field at Seattle Central Community College’s Interpreter Training Program in 1981. Between his studies and work, he became friends with many people in Seattle’s large deaf community. I tagged along to social gatherings, fumbling with limited signing skills and relying on him to interpret. Along the way, I learned about some of the civil rights struggles of people who are deaf. One of them centered on a renowned school for deaf students, Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.Gallaudet

In March 1988, when the University’s Board of Trustees announced that a hearing person had been selected as Gallaudet’s seventh president, many Gallaudet students, alumni, staff, and faculty organized a protest. Their “Deaf President Now” campaign shut down the campus and raised awareness about the injustice of selecting the lone hearing candidate, Elisabeth A. Zinser, from a field of three finalists, two of whom were deaf. The protesters also presented four demands to the Board of Trustees:

  1. Elisabeth Zinser must resign and a deaf person selected president;
  2. Jane Spilman must step down as chairperson of the Board of Trustees;
  3. Deaf people must constitute a 51% majority on the Board; and
  4. There would no reprisals against any student or employee involved in the protest.

By the end of the week, the students ended their protest; all their demands had been met, Dr. I. King Jordan was named Gallaudet’s eighth- and first-deaf president, and Philip Bravin was selected at the Board of Trustees’ first deaf chairperson. Since Jordan’s selection, all subsequent presidents have been deaf. Incidentally, prior to her appointment at Guilford, Jane Fernandes was found to be “not deaf enough” to serve at Gallaudet. She was raised orally and didn’t learn sign language until she was in graduate school.

And here’s another interesting twist in history’s cycle. Gallaudet’s current president, Roberta J. Cordano, assumed her position January 1, 2016, making her Gallaudet’s first deaf woman president—and likely the second deaf woman (after Jane Fernandes) to lead an American university or college.

I’m grateful that I can hear and that I haven’t suffered the same effects of being silenced that deaf folks have (though I know something of the ways women continue to be muted). But when I quiet myself and sit with others doing the same, I’m most open to the Divine. Along with Jane, I cherish the silence.

*Afterthought #63: Quakers in Politics

As a newly-elected public official, I’m reflecting on the long history of Quakers involved in politics. As Marge Abbott explains in a recent QuakerSpeak episode,

Friends have always been very active in addressing our government and its rule. They had started out in the earliest days having to try and change laws that were affecting them directly. As time went by a century later they were among the most active lobbyists to end slavery, active in women’s suffrage, in temperance movements… many, many places where they were lobbying over the centuries.”

Quakers in the World is another source about Friends’ “long tradition of being active in, and seeking to make a difference to, the world in which they find themselves. In their actions they seek to put Quaker testimonies such as equality, peace and integrity into practice, as best they can.” The site’s overview of Quakers in Politics is good grounding for me as I serve my community as a commissioner for our new Public Hospital District.

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Suffragist Alice Paul is one of those Quakers who worked diligently for equal rights for women. I don’t expect my entry into politics to be anywhere as demanding as Alice Paul’s efforts, but I look to her as an example of service.

 

 

*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.

*Afterthought #60 – Snow Day

The next-to-the-last day of this month, snow fell once again on Lopez Island. It was 36° outside, yet the morning rain gradually turned to soggy flakes, then to sleet. Most of it melted as soon as it hit the ground, but for a place that typically sees snow only once a winter, this fourth round of snowfall stunned me.

In honor of our unusual weather, I’m ending this month with a link to a YouTube video from Moses Brown School­—a Quaker school in Providence, RI. Just as they did a year ago, they’ve made a new video, Can’t Stop the Feeling – School is Closed! The parody of Justin Timberlake’s hit song to announce a snow day will make you grin—and maybe wish for some flurries.

 

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

Suffering – What It Takes, What It Gives

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Image – NY Times
 “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then the entire world would be wise since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”         ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1973

The couch’s middle cushion dipped as I settled into it at Quaker Meeting. It was the first Sunday of the month, so I anticipated just ten minutes of silence before we’d be directed into worship-sharing. This practice is much like silent meeting for worship, except that the leader poses queries, or questions, for participants to respond to. Out of the quiet, we speak from our own experience, listen deeply and lovingly without commenting, and allow silence between sharings. That day, the worship-sharing leader invited us to respond to any or all of the following queries:

  • How and when do we differentiate between alleviating suffering of others and/or empowering them to find their own way?
  • Is being present or bearing witness enough?
  • What is your experience with suffering? What has it taken from you and what has it given you?

I closed my eyes, resumed my centering breaths, and focused on suffering. As typically happens when I ponder such themes, my thoughts bounced like kernels in a popcorn popper. I quieted them as others spoke, nearly every message resonating. I nodded as someone talked of the importance of being present to those who are suffering, and another suggested we can’t take others’ suffering away. One spoke of awareness that her lifestyle, even as simple as she tries to keep it, contributes to the suffering of other people. More sharing rang true to my own experience: there are ways to give physical help that will ease the suffering of others; our thoughts also affect suffering; recognition of suffering among other species; and the burden of thinking we’re responsible for others’ suffering.

I thought of my own experience with suffering, reflecting on the premature deaths of my father, stepfather, and several close friends. I thought back to other losses, times of uncertainty about my work, and feelings of failure. Those memories led me to explore the questions about what suffering has taken from me and what it has given me. I breathed in, cleared my throat, and spoke of how suffering crumbled my naiveté and eroded my trust that everything would be okay. And once I became aware that my choices about where I live, how I spend, and what I eat often bring suffering to other people, species, and the planet, I couldn’t return to denying my privilege or my complicity.

And there have been gifts. My own hardships, plus awareness of others’ distress, have fostered compassion. When compassion arises, I can open myself to Spirit and to what it is I’m to do. I strive to eliminate the goal of doing “enough.” I know I can never do enough, that I can’t bring an end to the suffering I witness. Instead, I seek clarity about what it is I can bring to a situanorwegian-angel-abstract-digital-art-fractal-circletion or a person and then endeavor to be faithful to that, rather than to an outcome.

As I shared these thoughts, I recognized that these experiences of adversity create a circle—when I act with compassion, I enter into others’ suffering, which in turn fosters compassion. I’m grateful for that, even though many days I wish this cycle didn’t work this way.

But it seems to be the way it is. And it’s why I value my spiritual community, because none of us can do this alone.

 

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