Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Friend and colleague Richard finds himself called to be a "Gaia troubadour." He has the title, and his job is to try and figure out what that means. He seeks to live into a vision of the earth as a single living unit, an idea allied with the view of "Mother Earth" that comes from ancient earth religions and their modern revivals/reinventions—Gaia is the Greek mythological counterpart, the the female half of the dichotomy in that culture, placed in counterpoint to Uranus, the sky.

The "Gaia hypothesis," which has been seized upon by some new-age and other nature-based spiritual groups, has little to say itself about the Earth being an organism. Wikipedia's summary says:
The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis proposing that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth in a preferred homeostasis.
Basically, that the planet is a self-correcting system. So the science does not, at least in this case, go so far as to say that Earth is a single "organism."

But I do think earth-as-body is a great metaphor.

In my previous post, I talked about the problem of hierarchical submission. It seems clear to that one of the real values of a religious/spiritual approach to things, is that it gives a structure within which one can say both, "it's not about me," and, "it's not all my responsibility." Christians seek not to sin, but are forgiven their sins. "Islam" itself means "submission" to the will of Allah. And I do believe this is a very very useful thing to have in one's life. We don't "do it all" ourselves, and pretending we ought to only makes us insane.

But, the models we have for this submission in Abrahamic traditions come out of a social structure in which there are lords and there are servants. And God, in this context, is seen as "Lord of All." I would argue the model went from the human structure to the perceived divine structure; others will probably argue it went the other way. I do not believe we have the ability to view God objectively and clearly enough, beyond our own life context, to say whether God "really" is king or not. But I can say that Kings make a lot less sense to those of us who live in a democracy that overthrew kingly rule 225+ years ago, and a potentially even more twisted meaning in a Europe or Japan where the role is largely ceremonial. God is a figurehead? I don't think that's what was meant.

So. Is it possible for those of us who work within an egalitarian idea of humanity, to come up with an analagous model that also includes "egalitarian submission"?

This is why I like Gaia. One submits to Gaia not as a slave before his/her master, but as a cell before the body. We are part of this whole, not ruled from outside by it.

The only trouble is the whole Mother Nature thing. It is easy to personify Gaia, and I continue to not buy it. The analogy of ourseves as cells in a global "body" implies by analogy that there's a global cerebellum, a "mind" running the show. And while I can believe some sort of global or universal organization, the idea that it has a language center seems like projection to me.

I'll be the first to admit that it is terrifying to think about submitting to a "mindless machine" or a "mindless beast." But how much of that terror is based our the habit of thinking about all our own actions as "intentional." How much of what we human organisms do is actually cerebellum-directed? We use our cerebellums in large part as tools to get out of mindlessness's way (I had a nightmare last night about tornadoes, and finding ways to get all my elderly friends under heavy, fixed objects).

I think the biggest block is that we think of that cerebellum-self as running the show within ourselves, and we want an equivalent cerebellum running The Big Show. I would suggest that, in the egalitarian spirit that started this whole thing off, we recognize that our cerebellum is a part of us, that is provides leadership where leadership is needed, but that it doesn't have to lead like a Lord or King. What does cerebellum-as-clerk look like?

And our role in the world then doesn't have to be a choice between humanity-as-king or humanity-as-follower-of-the-World-King. What does humanity-as-clerk look like? What is our role as a species? Do species have "roles"? And what about cartographers?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Summing up [maps]

I started doing a summing-up of where I've gotten to on this blog. The mappy part I got, I think, and is below. The Quakery part, not so much.


We measure the earth.

Our measurements are a way of paying attention, but when we measure, we pay more attention to norms than to idiosyncratic instances: we see a series of things in the same category—"road" for example—rather than the peculiar ways individual houses are different. When we measure, we are finding something out about the world that is not peculiar to ourselves. Or at least, this is true when we measure using rulers and standard units of measurement

The result moves us away from a record of direct experience—and thus from a connection to that experience—and toward understanding of the world through an abstracted filter. This abstracted version of the world makes it possible to work with strangers, and so also makes possible an alienated, broadly-based, urban society. Thus measurement isn't all that different from language, which both allows us to communicate with those who do not share our direct experience, and cages our own experience.

By defining and categorizing, this measurement of the earth also makes it clear that we are different and separate from the earth. The measurer and the measured are supposed to be distinct. When we measure the earth and also when we name parts of the earth, we reinforce a sense of separation from the earth; measurement places a measuring tool between ourselves and the thing being measured. By contrast, direct repeated experience reinforces a sense of connectedness to the specific piece of ground we are experiencing. We don't need the measured version of a familiar territory, but measurements with new tools may reveal something new and unfamiliar within familiar territory.

Measuring also allows us to comprehend a scale of the earth that is outside our everyday experience. When we use the results of measurement to talk about a territory that stretches further than we can see, our a route past that bend in the road, we can talk about that route or territory not just as accumulations of places, but as entities of their own. It's no accident that small-scale maps and cosmological drawings often leach over into one another. Both describe spatial ideas that encompass, but are beyond, our moment-to-moment experience.

Daddy Played the Banjo

The more I listen to the first song on Steve Martin's album The Crow, the more impressed I get. Concealed in an utterly banal little song about tradition and learning the banjo from elders is an almost koan-like reflection on how we invent ourselves, and even such eternals as hope and love, out of whole cloth.

The first three verses are sung straight, an idyllic recollection of a youth surrounded by the sounds of the narrator's father's music:
Daddy played the banjo, ‘neath the yellow tree.
It rang across the backyard, an old time melody.
I loved to hear the music; I was only five.
I listened as his fingers made the banjo come alive.

Sometimes I’d wake up at night, and hear a distant tune.
The banjo would echo, ‘round my childhood room.
I’d sneak down the back stairs—Daddy never knew.
I’d grab a broom and make believe, I was pickin’, too.

One day Daddy put my fingers down upon his fist.
He picked it with his other hand, we made the banjo ring;
Now the music takes me back, cross the yellow day.
To the summers with my Dad, and the tunes he made.
It's absolutely standard this-music-came-down-to-me-from-my-ancestors, justify-traditional-styles lyrics. You'll hear it in any modern musical style that somehow pays homage to pre-electronic styles... heck, you'll hear it in homages to "old-time rock and roll." The lyric that came to mind for me was John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy."

Then comes a bridge and the fourth verse:
But I’m just tellin’ lies ‘bout the things I did—
See I’m that banjo player who never had a kid.
Now I sit beneath that yellow tree.
Hopin’ that a kid somewhere, is listening to me.
Now, if you'll notice, verses 1-3 didn't say anything about the adult narrator and his kids. So his saying he never had kids doesn't show the first three verses as lies. So what's the lie? If he was sweepingly lying about his childhood—and if we take this to be Mr Martin's personal narration, which is of course a risk, then yes, it is made up; he first taught himself the banjo as a teenager and has learned it from friends and collagues since then—if he is lying, then this is supposed to be the "real truth" behind his banjo playing, that it's not about the past and where he learned it, it's about the audience. He hopes a kid will be listening to him.
Daddy played the banjo, ‘neath the yellow tree.
It rang across the backyard and wove a spell on me.
Now the banjo takes me back, through the foggy haze,
With memories of what never was, become the good old days.
The narrator repeats that initial idyllic vision and then closes with a variant on how music takes us takes us back into an invented good old days. It creates nostalgia.

The whole song is performed with comforting old-time instrumentation, and a buttery, comforting vocal (not Martin's own kind of frenetic and always kind of snide vocal style). It's possible to glide right over the words. And in fact, while the words deconstruct the comforting past of folky musics, they also point to its appeal, and slide right into that appeal. The line about the performer sitting under the tree hoping a kid is listening to him, really get to the heart of this constructed fiction.

The point is, we who work in folk idioms (and as a morris dancer and sometimes singer I think of myself that way some of the time) are indeed constructing a fiction. But that fiction isn't about hagiography of country life for its own sake. It's to use comfort and selected older values as the basis for constructing our own lives and offering that to our audience. By calling up aspects of the "good old days" and bringing them into the present, we offer a gentle sort of critique. Why not dance and sing? Why not celebrate the seasons? Why not get closer to the food you eat? Why not listen to friends and family making music, and make some yourself? Here, it can be fun.

I'm reminded of Ray Bradbury's short story "The Toynbee Convector," in which a man invents a time machine, goes forward in time and comes back with a dazzling vision of the future, which the world starts getting behind, and eventually builds. As he nears the end of his life, the inventor reveals the whole thing was a fiction: no time machine, just a detailed model in his basement. But the earth bought it, and now has moved into that dazzling future anyway.

We receive some of our hope and love and Light from outside of ourselves, but we get to make some of it ourselves too. And we can do it out of whole cloth, like the kid from the suburbs who learned to play the banjo from a book and some records, and can construct a whole fictional past which we, too, buy. Mostly. The important bits, anyway.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

...Of All He Surveys

Confession time: I want to be king. Seriously. Not the elegant, modern, bespoke-suited kings of modern Europe, or the jokey Henery-the-Eighth-I-Am-I-Am king. I want trumpets blazing a fanfare as I walk down aisle of Westminster Abbey with a heavy gold crown and an orb and scepter and boy choirs singing and all that stuff.

I just don't want to have to become the sort of person that you seem to have to be, to become king. I was reading a little last night about Louis XIV, the Sun King, and I think I would have not liked him much at all. Lots of sending former friends into dungeons or to be burnt at the stake. I like the character of Prince Hal/King Henry V, but I suspect he was deeply fictionalized. Went to war over an insult, and whole bunch of folks died to give him his victory at Agincourt. Nice.

And yet, I love high church, if it feels real. I buy into very little American high church stuff, because we're a democracy dammit. It just doesn't fly. Now, Westminster Abbey... One of my favorite things to do in England is to arrive an hour early for sung services at Westminster, and get to sit in the stalls right behind the choir. It's glorious.

In high school, I wrote a short play, and a central character of that play has stayed with me. He was the son of a king, who decided he didn't want to become what he saw his father was, and what he saw his brothers becoming. So he pretended to go mad, to go deaf-and-dumb, and everyone believed him and no-one expected anything further from him. A variant of the story got put into "Tales of the Tattoo Rumba Man," which I've discussed earler:
My father was king, and I was his son. I walked the dangerous cold halls of the palace and waited for something to happen. And while I waited, I watched them, especially my father. I watched him slip into the decay of deceiving words; I watched his hands sweep out capturing only empty space.
And so, when it becomes time for the prince to take the crown, he refuses—he walks away. Kind of like The Lion King, without a pair of wiseacre pig and meerkat sidekicks.

Why does all of this come up?

I've been pushing around the concept of leadership in my head. I'm taking on co-clerking Ministry and Counsel at my home meeting for the next year, and it's weird. Clerking is not "leading" in any modern sense of the word. It's not supposed to be, anyway. And yet there is a certain deference paid to the clerk, usually, because it's the clerk's job to watch the movement of spirit in the meeting, to keep a watch on the sense of meeting, and then test an overt statement of that sense and see if Friends agree that is where in fact they are. The clerk is supposed to be separate from the committee much of the time, and this to me feels like part of what is expected of good leadership in general.

Over the last couple years, I've been going back repeatedly to a conversation I had with an older F/friend, where she reminisced over her early years in the meeting, in the 1970's. In particular, she was remembering Mumford Sibley, who was clerk of M&C when she first served on it. Mr Sibley was formidable, a person of great authority. Gravitas, maybe is a better word. But she and I observed that this gravitas is not one we see a lot of in the current crop of elders. I think this is true across the board among liberals of the last few decades, and I wonder why.

There has certainly been a dearth of authentic "gravitas" among our national political leadership, and in religious circles, it has come to be associated with pious hypocrisy, the kind of behavior that early Quakers and other anti-establishment groups railed against in the 17th century. I think it is something we suspect, as so often it seems like a mask for something sinful or just plain ignorant. Pedantry.

I think there's something deeper though, and it has to do with the disconnect between our mythic language and the real power structures in our lives. I'm talking here about the word "Lord."

The language of pretty much all religions with personified gods includes phrases like "Lord Jesus," or "Lord Krishna," or "Kingdom of Heaven." But for the last century or two, we have lived in a world where old-fashioned lord-liege relationships simply don't exist. You can see formalized remnants of them getting blown to bits in World War I, but even by then they were pretty stale.

Institutionalized slavery was gone by then too, replaced by wage-slavery. I'm reading David B Davis' Slavery and Human Progress now (thanks Marshall!), and I'll be curious what I find out about the cycle of slavery as in institution in the modern West.

In any case, we don't have kings except in church, if we go to the sort of church that still emphasizes "Lordship." Liberal Friends don't, and I'm beginning to wonder if we aren't missing something big here. Like the central point of most of the variants (Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Mormon, etc) of the Abrahamic tradition.

My question is, how to bring in this sense of submission—which historically could be described as an analogue to the liege-t0-king relationship—into a truly egalitarian world-view.

Maybe it's like clerking: submitting and allowing yourself to be submitted to, round and round.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I've had two interactions recently that put my earlier thoughts on the Grid into perspective. Both of them were about the idea of rules.

First, Jeanne Burns on her Quakers and Social Class blog posited that:
Middle and owning class people make the rules, and when working class or poor people don't follow the rules, there are dire consequences
This was followed up by some interesting comments. I'm sorry she wasn't willing to take it further, but I stand by my suggestion that (A) rules in general are something most folks desire, that they provide strcuture, and (B) that while many rules become means of maintaining position—that they are about the rich stayig rich and the powerful staying powerful—some rules are also about everyone being able to be part of the same "game," whether that game is a marketplace, a social interaction, a religious practice, or a game. And some are about keeping everyone safe and alive.

The second kind of rules are like the measuring kind of grid that has been discussed here before: rules of the marketplace say that certain kinds of contract are binding, that prices can be negotiated in these circumstances but not those, that my $10 is the same as your $10 (and yes, there are rules in many marketplaces that say the opposite, but these are the other, pernicious, keep-them-in-their-place kinds of rules).

As a parent of a seven-year-old, I am especially aware of the third kind of rule, and how easily it can be seen as the first kind ("Why can't I bungee-jump off the roof? It's not fair! All the other kids are doing it. You're just trying to keep me from having grown-up fun!" Not an actual quote, but close enough). Seatbelt laws as another means for the power elite to grab more power.

All rules feel like power-reinforcement tools when you're not in power.

And yet, we humans need some sort of internalized structure. Practices can form much of that structure, but so do rules. I'm thinking of the Rule of St Benedict, the basis for much of western Christian monastic life. It is highly structured and full of rules, but it allows those who submit to it the space to pursue a deeply spiritual path. It removes a variety of external anxieties.

Because at their best, rule systems are like a kind of group handshake. We agree when we walk onto the field that these are the rules of the game, and so we can feel confident that we are not going to have to work too hard to avoid being maimed by the other team.

The other conversation about rules was from a relatively recent arrival at meeting, who asked me via email about the unwritten rules of the meeting. Jeanne also talks about the unwritten rules as specifically enforcements of middle-class values. In her response to my comment, she wrote:
As for rules evolving from truth...there's a very good reason why Quakers have testimonies and don't consider them rules. One is that truth is always evolving; setting the truth in stone makes it that much harder to see new Light. Another is that our testimonies are evidence of our changed hearts, not guidelines to live by. First comes the changed heart. Then the new way to live life. Not the other way around.
This is all true. My response to the question about unwritten rules was:
One of the peculiar things about Friends is the weird (from the standpoint of society at large) way there appear to be unwritten rules. Often Friends chide one another for "breaking" these rules, but the rules are uncodified for a reason. In the end, there are structures and habits and usual practices, but no rules, as I understand the term.

The entirety of Quaker practice comes from the idea that the forms of worship and of living in the spirit ought to emerge out of convincement, of real spiritual feeling. Early Quakers were specifically rebelling against the falseness they saw in churchly "outward forms" and so they rejected rituals of baptism and communion, believing that inward baptism and inward communion were what was important, and that it was too easy for people to fake these sacraments, making them empty forms.

So, there are no codified "rules" as people usually use the term.

That does not mean "anything goes." It is customary, for example, to speak only once, if at all. In extraordinary circumstances, someone does speak twice, but that second spoken ministry had better be something that shakes the meeting's rafters, and it better have the sense that the speaker was given no choice but to speak twice, that he/she was PUSHED into speaking against his/her own reluctance. And that it was not self doing the pushing. If not, other many attenders will think the speaker is being self-indulgent.
The problem with rules—or forms in general—in a religious context is how easily they move from "our rules made by us meant to fill our need for structure" to "God's Law." And once something is no longer our rule, but is imposed from above, it becomes something we enforce on others. Like the Grid: I argued earlier that the real problem is not the existence of the grid as a tool for measurement and mutual understanding, but when that grid is enforced back on the earth, and the contours of the land are ignored in the Grid's favor. Same is true for rules: we need them, they are ours, and they give us limits within which to operate in a given context. When they become the Rules of the Parents/God/Ruling Class/Overseer, then they become pernicious. They then become tools of power.