Bless James Mitchner. I've been cleaning up the terrible house, a year late doing so ... and there in the ruins I found a book, its cover torn, binding stained with salt water, and as I began to read it found my bloodstained fingerprints on almost ever page. I first read the book working under sail, hands torn from rough rigging and old wood ... the book I found is Chesapeake. As I have been rereading it, I found myself weeping, and it took a while to realize why. The stories of Quakers in the book remind me of my youth, but not my present in the Religious Society of Friends.
Another, older Friend and I often talk about the changes that have occurred in our community of faith, she reflects that the spirit is changed, noticeably gone is the humor, the bending towards each other. There is so much more we can't put our fingers upon. This book might help.
When I was a child there was more of a continuation of families long in our community, and so our history was a finger touch away. Grandchildren of Conductors on the Underground Railroad spoke to us directly of their grandparent's experiences, those who had resisted the World War One draft told us about times when Quakers still went to jail for refusal to fight, Quakers who were Conscientious Objectors told us of how they were subject to medical experiment, or how they carried stretchers in battle in the Pacific and that they did so because, well "... I never gave it much thought, I was a Quaker, so that is what I did."
Today, several things are changed. Like much in the city, generations flow through our streets without pausing to put down roots. I walk past neighborhoods looking at old people thinking, like me, they are left behind, and the young people crammed into subdivided flats will not miss us, or the neighborhood as they leave without a mark, a pause, a thought. Our meetings are starved for elders with a memory of our history to pass on, and many young people have no interest at all in what they have to say. In America today, history is a meaningless story.
Why is this the case? Perhaps it is because, we, their parents generations are a generation which failed. We were raised by heroic generations, who stood as Quakers against Hitler while also standing against war. They were raised by a generation who stood up to the World War One draft, and they were raised by a generation who stood against the first thrusting of American navies into the Pacific, the Spanish American War, and they were raised by the generation who stood against slavery, generations who grew to oppose slavery as their great grandparents stood with Mary Dyer on the pillory and gallows ... and now?
We inherited this huge thing, this gentle call to be heroes. And, when we were young, we thought we were. But, we also rebelled against so much we began to rebel against the gentle rooting of history in our elders. The general youth culture began to find voice in Quakerism. Add to this, the first generation of a fully closed frontier, an America with no growth, where in order to keep the lid on, thirty-five of every American is either in jail, on bail awaiting trial, or on probation. This massive internment does not include the jails in which we place our elderly, calling it elder care. We questioned the hierarchy which led us to war, and by placing it in terms of a new world we allowed our elders to be cast aside by brash youth who were adrift and unconnected to our history as Quakers. Add more to this? The constant drift of people seeking a place in the uprooted culture of America makes for meetings which are mostly made up of people who have either come to Quakerism later in life, or have come from other meetings ... adrift.
So, I am not surprised that young Friends seek an authentic Quakerism, and being distrustful of elders look to a history found in those things which inspired us in the path, articles of faith. But, the problem with articles of faith without the culture of a continuous history and elder wisdom, is that these articles of faith may be as rootless and adrift as everything else in America's present. The historical past, as conveyed by elders may be incomplete and "untrue" to the degree it is marked by perspective and marred my memory, but it is honest. Being honest, an elder can converse about history, weigh it against the histories of others, and in that, make it real and alive. Faith, however, based in myth cannot be weighed and a matter of conversation and growth. It is just as it is, and any other perspective is contrary to faith. So, like the rest of the world, we see Friends pounding tables over articles of faith. Myth becomes simply dishonest and a lie when the elements of the story become the point, rather than the meaning underling the story. The elders of my youth shared histories with us, and paid little attention to myth.
I fear that Jean Baudrillard, might be correct, that all that is real today is being replaced by things which represent reality, but are not reality. We play war games on computers, and war itself to the person sitting at a consol in Washington who flies an unmanned plane to kill experiences was as a video game. We set out, long ago to build a historical preservation at South Street, and instead it has been replaced by the Disney version, boats poorly maintained as a backdrop to a shopping district which claims to give the experience of old New York's seaport, those of us old enough to know what a frontier that was can only shake our heads. This is not the place where the eleven year old kid, who walked for miles to the piers could sit and hear the stories of sail on square riggers from an old Norwegian, while watching the antics of the Lighterage owner's Chimpanzee, buy his first sou'wester from the same chandlery that those who were off to see bought theirs, the stinking waterfront of my glorious childhood days are a cleaned up postcard, and in the end, a pure fiction, and worse, a lie.
Maybe this all is part of the sadness which makes it hard to write to dearly missed blogging friends and Friends, I know I have not spent enough time with all, I have been very sad these days, as I watch what was real become all ... oh, that wonderful commercial of the little girl standing next to the elephant explaining with wonder her little TV, "it's the mirrors!" she says breathless in wonder ... these mirrors have not left me that breathless, they have left me sad, and I fear they have left younger Americans adrift.