On Residential Yearly Meeting, PYM
Residential Yearly Meeting is a time for the Quakers in my Yearly Meeting to make some decisions and also to mingle, to socialize, and maybe – though we don’t do this well yet – to plan for the future. I’m running two workshops and doing and Actor’s Way reading here, as well as just being a part of it all. It’s my first time, and what with going solo with kids (Sooz is locked into her teaching gig at People’s Light), it got off to a rocky start today.
It’s 10:30 p.m. and I’m sitting in a little prison cell of a room in a dorm at DeSales college, where Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is holding this year’s gathering. We arrived this afternoon, and Ella and Griffen are finally asleep in a bunk-bed next to me. DeSales is a small Catholic college buried in the corn fields around Allentown. The priests plunked down East German inspired brick housing units and classroom buildings in the midst of swaths of lawn the size of soccer pitches. In the sweltering summer heat, getting from one building to another feels like an act of contrition – but maybe that’s the point. Do you think I have a little thing about Catholic colleges? It might be a the framed pictures of sour old Jesuits which greeted me and my harried children when we arrived. Or maybe it was trying to make the beds with sheets that a) didn’t fit and b) slid all over the rubber mattresses the inmates sleep on here during the year. Or maybe they’re just worried about Quaker bed-wetters. After hours of driving, Griffen whining and Ella clinging like a barnacle, I freaked out. What a weird place to have a Quaker gathering. But I guess the price is right.
What a motley bunch we Quakers are. Aging hippies with pot bellies and stringy grey hair which needs a good shearing. New-agey pseudo wiccans with pentacle necklaces and extremely comfortable shoes. American Gothic types from the rural mid-state counties of Pennsylvania – the men in collarless shirts, suspenders and Captain Ahab beards, the women plump beneath blousy home-made dresses. And a wide assortment of urban and suburban liberals like me: slightly goofy looking and decidedly unstylish. Then there are the kids: gorgeous creatures in thrift shop fashion, some pierced, some dreadlocked, some eccentric to make a point, most just . . . casual.
The girls are interesting. They seem to have resisted the body image indoctrination so many young women are fall prey to. Some of these Quaker girls are – how shall I put this – healthy. They are zaftig, with roundness and substance. So many young women I meet in acting classes seem to be trying to imitate what they see in Gap ads and on sitcoms, all hip bones and insecurity. These young women are abundant and confident, and I really liked them.
Out of all these Friends something similar flows, something not sensed with sight. If you are fortunate enough to be present for our ministry, you will be able to discern God’s little joke at our visual expense. The contrast between the richness of our ministry and our homeliness – or is it simple beauty? – is God’s way of saying: it’s not the wrapping that matters, but the gift inside. And the unity we experience, even in our difficulties, seems so improbable given our various and scattered appearances. Here too God is saying: look, I can bind you together in love, no matter the color, no matter the style, no matter the persuasion. For you do not bind yourselves, but it is I sweeping through you and holding you which makes you brethren.
I read from Actor’s Way today for Quakers gathered here at Residential Yearly Meeting (RYM). I had a half an hour, and so chose one letter of Alice’s to read. It begins on page 43 of the book, and in it she covers a bunch of topics that I thought would give the small group gathered in the make-shift Quaker library here a taste of what I’m up to in it. I stood behind a small podium and read. About a paragraph or two in, I realized that I had never read Alice aloud before. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. A small wave of warm release crested and I had to stop, as my voice rose higher and higher, trying to keep ahead of the wave. I felt embarrassed, and I couldn’t look at the Friends in front me, witnessing. I kept reading, and when I got to the part where Alice describes her love for her dead father, I lost it a second time. Again, I paused, then forged ahead. When Alice describes her experience in meeting of witnessing the bird of many colors inside her, the wave crested a third time. Finally, I got to the end of the letter. I stated my own astonishment at being so emotional, then entertained some questions. I sold a few books, signed them, and left to meet up with Sooz, who was to whisk Ella away to the Cape. Sooz’s Dad has taken yet another downward turn.
Sitting in my cell writing, I think I know what happened. I think it was the fact of my reading Alice here, in the midst of my spiritual community of Quakers, and that Alice is a Quaker, and that I am to, that led to the Spirit spilling out of me in this way. I recognized that Alice is a tribute to the Way I have chosen, the Way these cheerful, motley Friends have shown me by word and deed. And so I felt such a deep connection to my witnesses today (Art Larrabee’s mother was there, an Alice archetype if there ever was one), that I was overcome.
RYM has been an eye-opening experience for me. I have felt a sense of spiritual community new to me, that I have been hungry for, that I have only begun to taste at my Monthly Meeting. RYM has widened my faith to include so many others, and deepened it by placing me in the midst of a collective seeking of spirit unlike any I have ever felt. There was an amazing speech by my friend Tom Gates, which dealt in detail about one of my concerns – vocal ministry in worship. There were new friends made over many meals in the big sunny dining hall (I’ve warmed up to this place a bit, though the sheets still SUCK). There was extraordinary ministry during business sessions, and delicate examples of the ineffable event we call “Quaker process”. There were suddenly intimate encounters with Friends which felt like small blasts of Spirit.
And I have watched my kids enjoy being here too – Griffen especially – who has bonded with other Quaker kids in a way that has made him seem suddenly grown up to me. He’s actually fallen in love for the first time with a girl named Moxie (how could he not?). Her parents and Sooz and I were in a birthing class together before Griff and Moxie were born, and now her Mom Christie is something of a Big Deal in our Yearly Meeting. When he isn’t with her, Griffen constantly asks me if we can go find Moxie so he can “chase her around”. You go, boy. Last night he said that if he didn’t marry her, he’d marry his friend Emma. I said it’s always good to have a Plan B, something my friend Annie Lamott taught me.