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.

Silent Fury and Solidarity

 

lightI feel compelled to write about the January 21 women’s marches even though I experienced them second-hand through stories and images. While hundreds of thousands of people around the world marched, I held them in my awareness at an annual Quaker silent retreat. As twenty-five of us gathered at Huston Retreat Center on the banks of the Skykomish River, many of us spoke of carrying the intention to hold space in the silence for the marchers. We burned candles in solidarity, and I wasn’t the only one who felt the presence of those in the streets. How can this be, in the silence of the woods, before the quiet crackle of a woodstove, in the act of cooking without speaking? That’s part of the mystery for me of the silence; I can’t explain it, but I know it to be true.

The retreat, a part of my spiritual cycle for nearly twenty-five years, was one of the few things that could have kept me from joining those who took to the roadways to stand for environmental justice, health care, and the rights of immigrants, people of color, LGBTQIA, and women. That’s where my heart is and those are the issues I’m committed to. There’s much work to do, and I’m grateful for the way the marches mobilized and energized people at the same time they sent a clear message that we’re not alone.

170123100348-womens-march-washington-large-teasePart of the work is to realize that change happens slowly and at times will seem that it’s standing still, just like the pace at many marches as people tried to move forward along packed streets. At times, it also will feel that we’re being re-routed, as happened during at least one march when the planned course was overwhelmed by the massive turnout.

labyrinthI’m learning about my particular path even as I take hesitant steps. Much like walking a labyrinth, I labor to proceed with trust, to let go of the fear of taking a wrong turn. You can’t in a labyrinth, but I can—and will—as I try new actions and roles.

Perhaps a mistake I made was to not march, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It’s more apparent to me each day that there’s a long struggle ahead. Unlike the marathon I’ve never run, or the climb to the summit of Mt. Rainier I’ve never made, I’m in training for this challenge, strengthening muscles of resistance and compassion and grounding myself in the light and wisdom that is always present.

One thing the 2016 election taught me is that despite past efforts for justice, health care, the economy, and the environment, much as been ignored for many administrations. One thing Mr. Trump got right is that parts of our government are broken and have been for decades. I’ve denied that truth for far too long. But where this country’s new president and I (and obviously millions of others) diverge, is about what needs to be fixed and how.

p1010442The Silent Retreat helped shore me up. In the woods and in the rustic cabins, metaphors abounded about the power of small actions—pencil-thin roots scrawling across the trail to support cedars stretched toward the sky; snowflakes collecting on peaks to p1010466feed waterfalls, pools, creeks, and rivers; coals and kindling in the wood stove igniting larger logs.

 

Last Monday I returned to my morning snatches of quiet reflection and composed a prayer poem (a “proem” as my writer friend Brian Doyle calls it), and I offer it to us all.

 

As we raise our voices in fury

and solidarity, let us open

our hearts and spread wide

our arms

to embrace all

that is hurting.

 

 

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.

 

tn-linked-arms

Contemplate the Blank Page

orchard-lodgeI don’t remember if orange and yellow flamed in the woodstove of Quaker Center’s Orchard Lodge the first night seventeen of us gathered there for a Journaling as Meditation workshop. 2016-journaling-as-meditation-flyer-draft-v3-2But I do recall the warmth and enthusiasm during introductions as participants revealed to me and my co-leader, Deborah Nedelman, their desire to begin—or resume—a spiritual journaling practice. Some admitted past “failed” attempts to sustain a writing routine; some described a yearning for new avenues to encounter the Divine; others sought the time and support to return to a familiar, but neglected, discipline.

bonefolders

Most looked forward to creating their own handbound journals, but several acknowledged worry that their musings and reflections wouldn’t be worthy of the handcrafted container we proposed we’d make. We started simply, using bone folders— tongue depressor-shaped bookbinding tools—to crease creamy, linen paper in half. Once ten sheets were folded and nested inside each other, it was time to write.

Anyone who trembles at the sight of a blank piece of paper can imagine the anxiety of facing a pristine stack of pages. I reminded the prospective journalers that there’s no rule that requires starting on the first sheet of a new journal and encouraged them to leave it blank; later they could return to it and add an epigraph, a dedication, an image, a poem, or a title. I also suggested saving some empty pages to create a table of contents as their journals evolved. I more insistently advised writing contact information in the back in case, as has happened far too often, any of them left their creations on a bus, at a coffee shop, or beside a mountain trail. Fortunately, there are many “left-behind journal” stories with happy endings because a phone number or email address was written inside.

Perhaps the most useful advice we offered—many times over the course of the workshop­­—is that there’s no “wrong” way to journal. For that first reminder, I quoted G. Lynn Nelson’s Writing and Being:

“…the more I let go of concerns about form and arriving at answers, the more energy I have just to follow the river of my own being.”

Then we settled into silence, following the river of our own beings, to think back over the previous 24 hours and write in response to these questions:

Where has God been present in your life?

            How did you meet the Spirit today?

            How were you drawn to the Light today?

            Have you learned anything about God and God’s ways of working in your life?

papers

The next morning, we gathered in silence, examining colorful papers laid out on tables in the Casa de Luz.casadeluz

 

By the time we broke for lunch, we’d glued the papers to book board and placed them under weights to dry overnight.

And we’d written/collaged/sketched some more, this time in response to a prompt adapted from Writing and Being:

Look back over yesterday for acts of love. List kindnesses you received from others that day. Next, list kindnesses you did for others yesterday, and then at least one kindness you did for yourself.

 After lunch (just one of the delicious, nutritious, beautiful, vegetarian meals prepared by Quaker Center chef Tod Nysether), we welcomed a couple hours of free time, dodging downpours in this redwood rain forest. I found the Center’s labyrinth especially restorative.

We gathered again later in the afternoon and after dinner for times to share about the workshop experience, to poke holes in the pages to prepare them for binding, and for more journaling. Mary Morrison’sPendle Hill pamphlet, Live the Questions, Write into the Answers, served as a source for reflection:

Write, identifying the most important questions in your life right now. Don’t try to come up with the answers, but let the questions flow and let yourself list questions that are really on your mind. Then choose one of your questions and write about it, identifying and exploring as many aspects of it as you can uncover.

Open your eyes, heart, mind, to catch the significant moments, the moments of meaning, moments of being, and try to write them down in all their heightened significance. What are some of these moments?

For our final workshop session on Sunday morning, we again gathered silently, ringing the table that held the weighted book covers. In the quiet, we admired the transformation of cardboard and paper into colorful sanctuaries for words and images.

journalsAfter poking holes in the covers to match those of the interior, we secured the pages with waxed linen thread. Our final prompt was an invitation to write about dreams—or anything that was calling to us for reflection. Finally, I gave these instructions:

 Thumb through your journal. Breathe. Smile.

journal-1

I don’t know how many (or if any) of the participants have continued to journal, as a meditative practice or in any other way. I do know that I left with fewer blank pages in my own journal and feeling spiritually nourished.