I’m not much of a Quaker. I grew up Methodist, spent fifteen years hardly thinking about religion, and for about twenty years have been a not too conspicuously fervent or involved member of the Religious Society of Friends. But I was gut-pummeled in 2016 by the death of three authoritative or “weighty” Friends, members of our meeting in central Connecticut. Everyone else felt the same. So sustaining for us had these three Quakers been that their passing inspired grave consideration of how our community could keep going without them.
Connie was the first loss to knock the wind out of us. As a young Jewish girl she had escaped Nazi Germany in a Kindertransport. Finding refuge in Britain, she took up again her earnest study of the violin. Later, as a Quaker convert in America, she taught an extraordinary number of music students, while she was also an activist and homemaker. Her house was flowered and bowered and fragrant with cooking; the winsome low hallways and curious windows of old rural New England glowed with restoration and cleanliness. But she wasn’t about material things. She’d gone to jail during the Vietnam era. She’d been at the center of all the meeting’s charities, all of its peace lobbying.
Our second great loss was Mary Connie, who had a bewilderingly long list of achievements but was most celebrated for having founded the first Planned Parenthood in the region; this seemed to all of us a natural modern Quaker witness, as no religious sect has been more strongly feminist over the centuries than ours. We also grieved for Mary Connie’s husband Wistar, a mathematics professor and an extremely fine person, but one I regarded mainly as Mary’s companion and advocate. He was given a conventional service in the chapel of Wesleyan University, where he’d taught; friends, family and colleagues delivered prepared tributes. But Connie and Mary Connie’s services were the traditional Quaker kind, with seats all on one level and facing inward, and an appreciative outpouring from anyone who was moved to offer one.
It was hard to do the two women justice. They both always reminded me of what had impressed me about the Quakers years before, when I found myself living among them as a young adult, jobless, nearly homeless, dangling between continents, damning institutions, atomizing my bridges. Connie’s and Mary Connie’s was a Quakerism embodied as service, as defense of civilization, whether through arts and culture, business and nonprofit administration, politics and intellectualism, spiritual exploration, or whatever other effort seemed important. For those of us in the generation that is burying them, these things are more or less only about us. Responses I understand to being raised as a Quaker nowadays include joining the Marines and fighting in Iraq, converting local Quaker organizations into a sprawling (but then soon vanishing) New Age spa, and becoming a Catholic. Young-adult “birthright Friends,” who come from Quaker households and have stuck to the religion, are practically unknown, probably because they understand how immense and intense it has to be to continue as anything like what it was.
Mary Connie and Connie had labored every day for harmony. Where Connie is concerned, of course, you can take that literally as well as figuratively. The exalted tedium when a large crowd celebrates the life of a music teacher is hard to appreciate for anyone who hasn’t been there: the long, concert-style contributions, the anecdotes about her deep honesty and inexhaustibly high standards as a teacher. I couldn’t resist contributing something myself, remembering that one of the few things she had approved of in me was that I can carry a tune and have a good memory for lyrics, no matter how quaint. But for this occasion I did gender-adapt the famous boast (later put to music) of Valiant-for-Truth in The Pilgrim’s Progress (and I confined myself to the first verse):
Who would true valor see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make her once relent
Her first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.
I’m a professional translator of sacred literature, so the appropriateness of such an adaptation is the kind of issue I spend my days headaching about. In this case I must insist on my edition, because of who Connie was, and because Quaker women have been the soul of the sect. At the very start, in the mid-seventeenth century, they were the bourgeois supporters without whom the working-class charismatics would have fizzled out in obscurity and jail. But unlike Jesus and Paul’s female acolytes, or the women active in nearly all other religious movements in history, Quaker women had independent authority as a matter of course; they went on their own missions, on their own terms, wherever they were inspired to go. They swarmed Britain and its colonies as traveling preachers, and some were martyred for attesting to their direct, personal relationships with God. In their home meetings, they were suffered to turn to male fellow worshipers and marvel that these could show up Sunday after Sunday to no evident purpose, as there was no improvement in them.
As the sect developed, they made sure that women in it would be comfortable and fulfilled: there would be no clergy telling them what to do, no creeds, set prayers or rituals telling them what to think and how to express it; only a “meeting” of “Friends,” among whom individuals might speak out of the silence if the Holy Spirit prompted them. (Individuals could be “eldered,” or gently corrected, in private, and if that didn’t work, sanctioned in public for unkind, untrue or otherwise disruptive statements.) There would be no intimidating and exclusive administration, but only a public “meeting for worship with a purpose for business,” presided over by a clerk, who could be a woman; separate women-only meetings did exist, but it was often women who founded them, in order to act more independently. The clerk, male or female, was never to bully or even lead: the proper role was to “gather the sense” of the meeting’s participants. No wall of the meetinghouse could be painted, no prisoner could be relieved out of meeting funds, no letter with the meeting’s imprimatur could be written, no couple could be married, except by consensus; failing it, the meeting would simply do nothing.
Quakers of the original, “unprogrammed”—or silently worshiping, clergy-less type—are not populous in the modern world. Evangelical Quakerism, which took its modern form in the mid-twentieth century, is bigger, but is hard to distinguish from other evangelical movements. Once, Friends crowded England and New England and sent out missionaries; now someone can easily lead quite a cosmopolitan life without ever meeting a Friend. (I was a member of Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, which had about a hundred active members, about fifty of whom were active enough to travel to a yearly gathering.) This, to my mind, owes a lot to the disappearance of the old sort of female discipline, the “as much as it takes” endurance of that era, an endurance into which women were forced by—particularly—childbirth without anesthetics or the option of a caesarian, or by trying marriages or numerous children in a society merely insisting wives and mothers do their duty. Quakers now might limit the length of business meetings, so that their lobbying, aid and development organizations fall into corruption and frivolity from lack of supervision; or—and this is more common—the meeting might pull back from its traditional activities and devolve into a mere series of meditation and discussion sessions.
Particularly before the twentieth century, material simplicity went naturally with practices meant to promote equality (an idea embedded in Quakerism from day one, when the founder George Fox became convinced that whatever was required for a transcendent human life, being “bred at Oxford” was not included in it). Competitiveness must not express itself in showy clothing, furniture or vehicles—or even in performances as basic as hymn singing. The Quakers used to be more self-denying than the Amish in this way—and in others. The Amish feast on doughy, fruity desserts and work them off. In Growing Up Plain, Wilmer A. Cooper recalls his Quaker mother sending him upstairs to examine his conscience in prayer each week before allowing himself a supreme treat: an ice-cream cone bought with his tiny allowance, which he earned through chores.
I think of the old Quaker regime as the way the general run of authoritative women in previous generations—housewives, mothers, schoolteachers, respected spinsters—would have set up a community if they could have their own way. There would, first of all, be no hitting; people would get along or be nonviolently excluded. They would not whine and shout and perform for attention, but instead shut up if they had nothing helpful to contribute. But real problems needed serious consideration. If something was the matter, not facing it would mean only that it would inevitably come back and bite you in the fanny. Quakers did not sublimate difficulties through ritual or theology; they did not look to solutions in an afterlife but said rather that the kingdom of God was here and now; whatever did not yield to the earnest application of all hearts and minds must be meant not to yield, or not yet. Commonsensically, everyone must find something useful to do; the “high leisure preference” anthropologists ascribe to men in many societies was not countenanced among Quakers. The community must also make material sacrifices for its own long-term well-being and good relations with other communities—most urgently, by sharing to avoid hitting.
Quite a lot of these ethics have endured. When I was a newly “convinced Friend,” or convert, I heard about a Quaker sex-abuse scandal of a few years before, in another meeting—though scandal may not be the right word, because the Quakers themselves acknowledged and dealt with the problem before outsiders could be scandalized. A Quaker father was reported to be climbing into his young daughters’ beds and doing things that distressed them; asked about this by other members of the meeting, he gave suspicious answers. At this point in the story, I expected to hear that he’d managed, in the usual ways, to temporize, to silence the girls, or to drive them from the community if they insisted on their rights. The plea of “judge not,” invoked (in defiance of the Bible) in favor of the powerful against the weak, can turn churches into molesters’ paradises.
The father did try, but he had not counted on the “weighty” women. The meeting told him to move out of his home; he refused; the meeting helped convict him and send him to jail, where members duly visited him. At a Quaker event, I met one of his daughters, who appeared to be growing up happily without him.
In this still-visible way, Quaker women—raising from the stony, muddy, bloody griefs of womanhood the Bethel of their disciplined, waking thoughts and making it reality—have led movements for humane treatment of the poor, prisoners and the insane, for abolition, and, of course, for women’s rights. Charity is a very old tradition, but Quaker humanitarian relief has had a revolutionary tinge, ramming up against religious boundaries, nationalism and the other usual obstacles; this relief can be an effort not just to defy but also to deconstruct rancor and revenge. Many older Germans, for example, recall that Quakers sent food packages in the aftermath of World War II, because others wouldn’t.
Blind alleys and dead ends, however, were built in. Wearing a regulation gray dress and a bonnet that did nothing but cover the simplest possible hairstyle did away with much trouble and distraction and disposed a Quaker woman’s mind and body wonderfully for smuggling escaped slaves to Canada. But the whole point of the exercise was that, once there, the escapees could do as they liked. They and their descendants could concentrate their time, money and energy on dressing up if they felt like it. Liberalism means, literally, what conduces to freedom. Liberalism’s various beneficiaries might not choose to help others as they’ve been helped, or even to defend their own most vital gifts received from a previous generation.
One way to quantify the ominous loss of these gifts is by observing the proportion of Quaker funerals (lots of them) to Quaker weddings (hardly any) nowadays. The memorial service is a celebration of duties fulfilled; marriage “under care of meeting” is a pledge to fulfill them. Quakers recognize no right to have a marriage solemnized by themselves, even if the petitioning couple are Quakers in good standing. Instead, a “clearness committee” questions the couple at length. Their compatibility and their seriousness about matrimony are at issue, but also their intention to stick around, to be active in the meeting. They are likely to need some service credentials to make a case for that. If one of them is not a Quaker, he or she must pledge at least to support the other’s Quaker involvement.
And then, the Quaker wedding—a further test of self-forgetfulness. Fanciful clothes are okay, if they’re second-hand or homemade or at least very cheap. But any media-derived fantasies urging weight loss, the purchase of pearls and designer heels, the hiring of a professional makeup sprayer, and so on need to be put aside. And forget about catering or even having family pitch in to cook what you choose; this is not a hospitable spread, but a chance for your fellow Quakers to express their values. There will be organic hummus and homegrown squash in the potluck. You may provide a fluffily frosted cake of modest proportions if you make sure that there’s an alternative dessert for those the cake outrages. Your vows are one sentence long, and they’re the only words Quakers prescribe, so you can’t modify them. The rest of the time, you have to sit through whatever the attendees—you can’t choose them, anybody can show up—say about the two of you, marriage in general, families, nature, love, dogs, locusts (I’m not kidding), Quakerism, any or all other religions. Only one thing is guaranteed: that the poetry quoted will suck.
I declined to be married “under care of meeting.” My reason wasn’t taste; it was that I intended my husband, my marriage and my home to be mine only, not for sharing with a religious organization, or with anyone or anything for that matter. My motivations became uncomfortably hard to deny when my engagement became known to a fellow Quaker who worked at the New Haven city hall, where we got our marriage license. With all the funerals these days, who could blame her for being excited that there was apparently going to be a Quaker wedding? But she was puzzled, as the New Haven meeting (which I had been sporadically attending) had heard nothing about it. I had to confess to her that I was getting married in the Yale Divinity School chapel.
My own self-expressive life began when I was sixteen and still liked trashy writing. I saw the title Mrs. Dalloway on a high shelf in a crammed, dusty secondhand bookstore, pulled the book down and opened it, and for the next fifteen years Virginia Woolf owned me. She was not only mesmerizing in her use of words, but she nailed the opening arguments, the cross-examinations, the summation. Society was guilty: no one was listening to women and girls; everyone ought to listen. They ought to be able to shape their own lives and, even more importantly, literature about their own point of view. It’s weird when I spell it out like that; but her actual zinger in A Room of One’s Own is that Shakespeare’s equally talented sister would have died without writing anything—apparently the greatest tragedy in millennia of women’s oppression. By the time I read that, I was translating Virgil’s Eclogues and experimenting with traditional English forms in my own poems, so I ate it up.
My religious revelations came much later and were much milder. I lived in Boston’s Beacon Hill Friends House (you didn’t have to be a Quaker, or an anything, to do so) while my first marriage was ending and I was finishing my classics dissertation at Harvard. I was at heart merely an adherent of belles lettres, so I certainly didn’t get Quakerism. But I was pretty good about my rotating chores. One evening, while I was washing stairs two other residents stood at the bottom and exclaimed how the painted wood shone; they had never seen it so clean.
Under the shock of their appreciation for such a simple task, I started to attend meeting for worship and explore the idea of a Being who created only the good, who loved us and whose will was for us to love each other. The Quakers have always accepted me as I am, including my extensive withholdings and half-measures. Such is, increasingly, the situation in which the rigorously enforced open-heartedness of their tradition has landed them. There’s a story in Faith and Practice, our collection of most precious testimonies, about a young woman who goes to plead with a weighty Friend that she just can’t manage an office for which she’s been chosen, she can’t do this and that, has the wrong attitude, and on and on. The old woman waits until the end and states that sometimes the Quakers just have to make do with what they have. But that doesn’t help my bafflement as to what a church all but defining itself through service can do with me. General usefulness like Connie’s or Mary Connie’s isn’t something I ever even aimed for. Worse, my selfishness (to use the crude term) seems built in, like that of Woolf herself, who, on the day of her suicide, was given some dusting to do. Her housekeeper had thought the chore would restore her failing concentration and raise her mood. Big mistake. To a woman like Woolf, conventional female duties could feel like self-annihilation.
When my mother had heart failure this summer, I managed to take part in her care, but only after a degree of conflict with my other relatives that you would not believe, so I’m not going to tell you about it. But I will tell you about the most interesting thing to me: the decisiveness with which my body and mind shut down for a few days after I proved I could be a calm, self-sacrificing daughter, tuned in to nothing but that my mother had nearly died and still could lose everything if she didn’t improve on the double after surgery. Back at my own house, I didn’t feel really better until I had published something. Then my plans for my mother’s next emergency formed in my mind without any effort: I would work harder than ever at my profession, make a lot of money, and hire as many professional helpers as it took for her to stay in her home safely and remain in charge of her dog, garden and woods. I would repeat only those attentions that worried or strained neither of us, such as helping her select DVDs, ordering them and watching them with her. In other words, I would be a good son.
But it shamed me to think of the aplomb with which the recently departed women Friends would, at my age, have pulled off a few weeks of care for an invalid. I was beyond the spirit of fresh emulation or the old rationalizations. Among other hard facts now rooted in front of me was that I and people like me would have to become the substance of my church; but the substance of my church was nitty-gritty service. My church would soon be gone.
At the beginning of the summer, I got an email from the chief American fundraiser for my favorite charity. A few years ago, in exasperation with what passed as “upliftment” in South Africa (slick, quite cryptic “AIDS awareness” billboards along suburban commuter routes, for example, as I knew from my own long residence), I had hunted up an older Quaker couple in neighboring Zimbabwe who imported truckloads of grain from Botswana and distributed it to starving villagers in their district. Repeated droughts and the collapse of the national economy would have decimated the villages otherwise. John and Kelitha’s operation had, for charitable work in sub-Saharan Africa, a head-spinning record of effectiveness, because of their dedication and their local and international expertise. This was their full-time work, but they took no compensation (they had modest independent means to live on); they hired no administrators, but ran everything themselves, out of their home; they paid local men at local rates for the loading, unloading and driving. With the help of registered charities on four continents and the judicious use of foreign banking (the fees were their main expense, which they were always trying to reduce), they managed to operate productively and with clean books within a despotically run country that sported hyper-inflation and hyper-corruption; a country from which nearly every international aid organization had been chased.
But now, the email reported, John and Kelitha were too old and sick to go on. They had canvassed widely but could not find replacements for themselves, so they had sorrowfully decided to “lay the work down.” This couldn’t have come at a worse time; a land grab had just rendered many villagers unable even to try for a crop this year, and they were going to start dying in large numbers. This time, it wouldn’t just be the children, the old people and the sick; images of past breadwinners now dull, dusty and emaciated went around with me all summer. After the last grain distribution in August, they also would wait to die.
I cast around, in my American way, for an improbable rescue. What about some internship out of a religious college or a progressive secular one, or an outreach of another nonprofit? But how would that be done for a country so dangerous, and so hard to get into for aid work in the first place? How could it be justified to the Zimbabwean government, when the district of the starving was an opposition stronghold? And how could a couple of kids handle it all anyway—the language, the physical hardships, the scams tried on every foreigner in every business transaction? Suppose that some institution could be induced to send viable volunteers. They would be there for a summer, at most a year, a meaningless stint in proportion to local needs.
Was there really nobody who could step in, nobody with deep local knowledge and long-term residence rights? I knew I was fooling myself: almost all decent people with an education and other prerequisites for running an aid organization had fled Zimbabwe long ago. One certified Quaker, who was connected to the Mugabe government, had published in our church magazine an essay proposing that the farm invasions were staged for the media, and that the filmed and photographed wounds and mutilations of the farm workers were in reality nothing but Hollywood special effects.
I suggested to the American fundraiser that I might publish an article or two about the crisis, spread the news, and then maybe someone would emerge with advice or help. We both knew that I was whistling in the wind. Zimbabwean expatriates and their connections are a small though far-flung town. Who was I going to find, if John and Kelitha could find no one, to take an interest? I came to a dead end even for “raising awareness,” the pursuit of a CV line for shooting off your mouth when something actually needs to be done. Nobody wants to read an article about what’s perfectly hopeless, what money (John was accepting no more donations) or lobbying (where does Zimbabwe rank in U.S. foreign relations?) won’t help. People want—demand—to see some hope.
The chances of the Zimbabwean villagers had vanished before I was born. I (or somebody else of my generation) would have needed to go abroad (or be raised abroad, but in as privileged a home as mine in America) with the will to serve, not to build a literary reputation, a media platform and a private lifestyle. That will would have had to be the sort that endures for a lifetime, and connects with similar wills in other people. Then I could do something against one of the die-backs looming now: in Zimbabwe, in the Sudan, in Myanmar, or in any of the other places where one more natural disaster or coup or war or ethnic cleansing could start a great vanishing, so fragile are conditions. I would be part of the church militant and triumphant, the standard-bearer of the Lord of Life. But that would be in a different life than this one.
Art credit: Jennifer Garza-Cuen. All images from the “Eden” series.