Friday, November 27, 2009


We're working our way through the Harry Potter series; a few nights ago we reached the climax of book 6, the battle on top of the tallest tower in Hogwarts, with its unexpected conclusion. Our son has been very anxious about what happens next, who dies, who lives... and he is a kid who is pretty good about fact and fiction (I expect, when the time comes, that he'll take the unmasking of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy pretty well). And he really gets riled up—and so do we all, when we let ourselves be taken over by a fiction.

A month or so ago, I picked up a great coffee-table book at a used bookstore in Duluth. It's called Faces of Fantasy, and the most fascinating thing about it, I think, is the degree to which some of the authors admit having magic invade their world, after having spent so much of their lives honing the craft of describing magic in fiction. Not all the writers; some are pretty blasé about what they write, if gracious at having been allowed to make a living having so much fun. And some are so into the sheer Gothicness of writing fantasy as to be laugh-out-loud funny ("Worship me, mere mortals, for I am the Bride of Jim Morrison!" Seriously.). But the authors whose books I most enjoy are thoughtful about the ways that their storytelling work remakes the world, unmasks secrets inside readers, tells stories about the heart of the universe.

As a child, I loved fantasy, and I never totally outgrew it. I think I've mentioned this before. As I grew up, I found ways to get "serious" about my interest, to justify it somehow, but... I recently re-read one of my early favorites, The Summer Birds by Penelope Farmer. I think I can finally admit that plain and simple I loved those stories for the vicarious experience of magic—a kind of hair-tingling, heart-pumping exhilaration. Just the idea that a kid could learn to fly. As I said a couple weeks ago in meeting, these were my miracle stories.

I wrote a couple of years ago about my time in the world of fantasy fiction as a young adult, and how I was kind of surprised to find the creators of these stories not to actually be wizards or Illuminati or whatever. But in reading Faces of Fantasy I see a sentiment among the writers I respect most that is a little like the Quaker line I keep coming back to, about how we abolished not the clergy but the laity. The point is that these writers are not trying to gather magical knowledge in order to empower themselves over others—they are trying to spread a sense of magic diffusely, to reintroduce it back into a culture that frankly doesn't know what to do with miracle stories. Which in turn reminds me of the interesting discussion on the Sheffield Quakers blog which eventually turned to the idea of magic in Quakerism.

Again, as I said in meeting, we Friends don't do miracle stories much. We try to be reasonable, and we try to speak truly from our experience. And I venture to say none of us has had experiences identical to the ones in miracle stories, old or new: literally walking on water, literally flying like a bird, literally returning from the dead.

When I've tried in the past to look critically at fantasy stories, I've tried to figure out what magic means in modern kids' fantasy fiction. Creativity, or aliveness to the world, maybe. Power, in some books. But what I'm seeing in revisiting the topic after some time away, is that fantasy books are, at heart, about Amazing Things Happening. How do Amazing Things change us? How do they pull us away from those who haven't experienced them? How do they push us to attempt Amazing Feats ourselves? How do they clarify the world, and how do they make it more confusing? And so on.

And here I go back to a line of questions I started asking when I first becoming a cartographer. At the time, I asked "Can a map be an independent work of fiction?" My conclusion is that while they can be used as part of a fictional game, or as an illustration to a work of fiction, maps can't stand on their own as works of fiction, because they don't stand on their own as works of fact. They need to refer to the real world in order to fulfill their purpose.

What about miracle maps? What would a miracle map be? I ask without a clear answer. But it's an interesting question.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Healing the Lowry Gash

I spoke in meeting today, about how places heal. In particular, I was thinking about the great gash in the ground in Minneapolis around the Lowry Tunnel. When looking at old maps of Minneapolis (here's one from 1900, and another from 1929), it seems like the city moved naturally from downtown into the Lowry Hill residential area. The Hennepin Avenue-Lyndale Avenue intersection was apparently simply known as "the bottleneck" (see Jack El-Hai's wonderful Lost Minnesota for a piece on the Plaza Hotel that once stood between Loring Park and what is now the Sculpture Garden)—it was an annoying part of town, but you couldn't really tell where downtown started and south Minneapolis began.

Then the interstate came through. I-94 was completed from St Paul through to Hennepin Avenue in 1968 (see a photo of construction at Blaisdell Ave, near Nicollet Ave here). There actually aren't many pictures of the construction in progress, but what there is, isn't especially exciting to anyone who has seen interstate highways under construction. There's an interesting piece about the tunnel here. The point is, the continuity was broken. It's especially dramatic if you look out from Hennepin Avenue south of the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church, at the big gash in the ground that was dug to bring the highway down to tunnel-level.

So here's what the area looks like today, 28 years after the tunnel opened. And the thing I've noticed, over the 19 years I've been mapping the area, is how it's healed over. It's not that the gash is gone, but it's been built around. It was created in the midst of a city that was never designed for it, but as each new project and plan in the area was built, it was built with the knowledge that the big roaring river of traffic was there. And so the interruption to the city became part of what the city was.

All without a Master Plan To Heal the Gash.

What I said in meeting, was that, as I've been worrying over this and that discontent and conflict and trouble within meeting over the last few weeks, I've been thinking along the lines of "what can we do?" I've been hoping for some sort of Master Plan. I've been thinking about Liz's continued pain over the meeting not uniting easily to give the boot to a visitor who was preaching anti-gay bile, and the sense of a few commenters in that thread of "why can't we just..." And about pain around theist vs non-theists in our meeting.

But... we don't want a gash through our meeting. And there's the rub. Because we have theists and non-theists in meeting. And many on either side of that divide do feel strongly about their path to where they are, and while we at least say we are open to convincement, neither are we interested in being untrue to our personal experiences.

What can be healed then, is the pain around the divide. And it happens the same way the Minneapolis healed: one block at a time, one project at a time, one member and one friendship at a time. Now, we perhaps can build a Master Plan-type framework within which that healing can occur, and I'd argue we do that already, but we also just need time, and a long-term, low-level commitment to make that divide not a gash but just part of our city.

I want to say one more thing before I sign off, and it goes back to discussions last year about "the Grid," referring to the measured squares we impose on the landscape. As I said then, my conclusion is that the problem with this grid is not in is use as a tool for measuring, but in its imposition back upon the world being measured. It's when the ruler lines are cut back on the landscape with little regard for the shape of the land itself.

But what I'm saying here I think applies as well: once the cut is made, we can't go back and entirely un-cut it. What we can do (and sometimes have done) is to take this scarred land and make choices that heal around it. Like the mounds that dot the central part of the continent, we can let the grid become part of the land—because it is part of the land, however uncomfortable that makes us.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

All in favor

This is, I think, version seven of my response post to the comments on the last post—not because they were hurtful, painful, or otherwise Bad. There was just a lot of there there in those comparatively simple responses, and it's hard to know where to start.

My earlier versions include ruminations on granfalloons and foma, on divine will, and on community. I will probably try these on as separate posts later, but Ingrid and I had a good discussion a little bit ago that got down to what to me is an even more nubby question:

Why is it hard to create a statement endorsing a fact that already exists on the ground?

To wit, our Friends Meeting already includes a number of non-theists, myself included, and has been welcoming to us since I've been around (and I know some of the others have been around for a lot longer). We also have a bunch of other "hyphenated" Quakers in our midst, from Episco-Quakes to Pagan Friends; Buddhists, Jews... we are a very welcoming place. SO (and I know this sounds like a rhetorical question, but it's not): why is it so hard for us to actually say that that is part of what we are, when it is in fact part of what we are?

Similarly, we care for our members. In the case of members with chemical sensitivities, we have agreed as a meeting to bend over backwards to make the recent meetinghouse renovation as clean of volatile compounds as possible. We have a standing statement asking people to not wear fragrance into the meetinghouse. So what is that makes codifying, issuing a minute to this effect, so hard? Seriously.

I have a few ideas.

One is our aversion to codification. Given the Friends' historic problems with credal statements, we feel the need to be really clear, extra super clear, about anything that says, "this is what we are."

Another is personal vs group differences. We are each willing to put forward the effort we feel we can make to support our Friends, to listen to them and accept them on their own merits. But group stuff? That is harder work, because we are submitting then to the will of the group...

And this gets to the heart of several of the comments on the last post: Quakerism is not bound up in submitting to the will of the group. It is bound up in the group submitting to the will of God. And we have a hard enough time getting ourselves around submitting to the will of God as individuals.

We educated liberal moderns deeply deeply distrust anything that puts itself up between us and the Truth. Echoes of Nuremburg rallies, lynch mobs, and blacklists come up when something does. It's like being afraid to swim (I can testify to this): the fear of not being able to find the bottom with your feet. It is a deep and systemic distrust of mediation of any kind. And going from individual care through a group to submission is really really scary, even more than simply submitting oneself to that will.

And I will add that Divine Will is an even harder thing to deal with when some of your membership doesn't believe in a God that possesses "will." I think it's not impossible (yet another upcoming post, sheesh), but definitely challenging.

And when am I going to get back to talking about maps?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

We have met them, and they are us

Say you identify with a condition or a characteristic. You are blond, or left-handed, or have Schadenfreude's disease. This identity wasn't gathered lightly, and since you claimed it as your own, it has given you difficulty—plain old ostracism and nasty looks at the bus stop; doctors saying it's not a disease, it's a feature; grandparents saying left-handed people are the devil's spawn and making a big red X through your name in their wills and pointedly disinviting you to Thanksgiving. And sometimes worse.

But, you also feel a relief at knowing that this quality is really you and not a construct you've erected for the benefit of others. Just being able to say, "there's a word for what I am: blond" gives you a deep feeling of groundedness and, well, reality.

So, eventually you find a group who is accepting of you as you are, mostly. They believe you have Schadenfreude's disease. They think it's natural to be left-handed. A bunch of them have blond friends. Thank God, you think. I'm home.

It turns out this group has its own pre-existing culture. You adapt to it. You can live with this. In fact, after a while of living with this, you see just how much sense this culture makes. All decently-structured, several-generations-deep cultures make sense when you live with them for a while, and this one is no exception.

And there are a bunch of folks in this community with a similar sense to yours. Half the group is blond, actually; there's a Schadenfreude support group; community rituals have been adapted so the left-handed can participate equally. Mostly.

But there's a couple members of the old guard who, in fact, don't believe Schadenfreude's disease exists. One of them doesn't like blonds—a blond killed his red-head uncle in the war. One has real issues about the scriptural implications of left-handedness. They are willing to welcome you and your kind in, but with some hope and prayer for change...

Are these people the enemy? No, they are part of the community—in fact, they were members of the community before you were born. They are deeply learned in the heritage of this community—your community... Or is it your community? What makes it your community? Are they wrong? Are you wrong?

So you feel unsure. You want the group to say "Yes, blond people, left-handed people, even people with SD, all are welcome!" And there's resistance. Weird, surprising resistance. What the hey?

In a nutshell, the group welcomed you (and folks in your condition), but this is not a group for people like you. The group identity isn't the same as this identity you bring forward. That was never the community's purpose. You are welcome, but you do not speak for the group.


And that, Friends, is where a lot of liberal Quakers find themselves on a variety of fronts. Our meeting has, anyway. All are welcome, but that doesn't mean we're going to follow your lead. And it doesn't guarantee that all of us are going to like you as you are. Except that there are enough of us who have made the journey I described above, that it has in fact become part of who we are.

And if that in fact becomes a core of the meeting, being a refuge for the excluded and exiled, then doesn't it exclude those who haven't made that journey? The straight, Anglo, middle-class, raised-as-church-going folk?

As someone who feels somewhat like an outsider who found refuge (as a deeply agnostic rationalist with a strong, ornery taste for magical fiction), but also someone who inherited a fair amount of being-part-of-the-establishment, I am torn.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Guest post: Tom Stoffregen

Tom's a fellow Friend at Twin Cities Friends Meeting, and he emailed me separately about something I said in meeting that pretty closely corresponds to a post I made here last month. He said it was OK for me to post that email here, so here it is:


from your blog:
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.
This is (as best I can recall) what got my attention in Meeting for Worship. As political animals, we now reject the authority hierarchies that kingship exemplifies. But as religious animals we continue to embrace (or aim to embrace) these same authority hierarchies.

Friends rely on the "light within", which might suggest Quakerism is compatible with an egalitarian model. Yet most Friends theologians (i.e., the few I've read) emphasize that the light within shines from a source that is not the self, the ego. So, is Friends' theology egalitarian, or is it ain't?

My main concern, however, is with some implications of your spoken comments for how we view our relationship with any/everything that is alleged to be "other". If God is outside us, then we are in an authority hierarchy in which God is above and we are below; the classical Abrahamic view of the situation.

I'm increasingly dissatisfied with this view, and I no longer regard it as the only view. I'm not an animist, but I am increasingly interested in some ideas from animism, to wit, the idea that there is not a simple, in-vs-out dichotomy between "self" and "other", whether it be "self vs. God", "self vs. other people", or "self vs physical world".

There are other types of hierarchies, ones in which a given "unit" can operate (simultaneously) at multiple levels in the hierarchy. Example: I act as an individual, call it level 1. But I also act as part of a marital unit (level 2), which does (can do) things that can never be done at level 1 (e.g., reproduce). Level 2 consists of interactions among people; the interactions are things-in-themselves that differ qualitatively from the individuals that engage in the interactions. I also act at levels 3, 4, etc., where I act as part of larger and larger social units. Baseball is a nice example; the team does things that individual team members cannot do (e.g., turn a double play, or simply play a regular game). The actions of higher level units are irreducible.

My point is that we exist and operate (simultaneously) at multiple levels of a really big hierarchy; this is a fact of life. Most religious traditions simply ignore this fact. Animism is, more or less, an exeption, in that it refers to causal interactions (rather than isolated causation).

Quakers offer a really good example of this idea as it pertains to religion. Friends believe that Jesus shows up "whenever two or more are gathered together in His name". In other words, Jesus keys into Level 2 (or higher), and disdains Level 1.

I see the up-down hierarchy of Abrahamic religion as being deeply related to western concepts of reductionism (e.g., pre-Christian Greeks); the idea that the Whole is equal to the sum of the Parts. This idea, as a description of the world and our living in it, is wrong. If we toss the reductionist tradition and look into non-reductionist views of how the world works, we may get a very different view of religion.

Its not so much "god is king, or else I am king". Rather, it may be "I participate in God without myself being God". This view seems to be pretty compatible with Quakerism.