Saturday, February 25, 2012


Over and over and over we get hung up on the questions of "who are we?" and "what kind of person am I?" When we name ourselves as a group, we seem to need to ask why some people are inside that group and others are outside. How do the outsiders get in? Will I ever be forced outside? Can I be a part of this group and of that other group over there?

Over and over and over, the cries of protest and rage by people who have felt the pain of exile—that is to say, all of us. We are afraid of being alone, angry that our people might decide that we are not their people.

Maggie Harrison's been creating the latest variation on this stir, telling blog viewers "YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one)." All the comments and responses are heartfelt, but I find myself sliding into a tiring deja vu-like state. Who is a Quaker blah blah blah, how can we all call ourselves Quakers blah blah blah, how dare you call me out as not a Quaker blah blah blah... on and on an on.

I do like the foundational idea of Maggie's work. It is to shed the clothing we have put over our spiritual nakedness: the pretense we know what we're doing, which covers the shame we feel for being imperfect.

How I long to take all the names I wear—Quaker, non-theist, Democrat, American, Cartographer, White, Male, Straight—and take them off one by one like pieces of clothing, to be able to stand there, shivering slightly because it is February in Minnesota. And be joined by others who have also taken off their name-clothes. Not so we can have some kind of nameless orgy here on the tundra, but so we can see each other a little more truly, even just for as long as it takes before our toes begin to freeze.

And then, eventually, I and my fellows will put on at least some of those name-clothes again, and go off into the world, because we homo sapiens need these labels. This is how we make ourselves into a people. This is how we say who we are.

So why do I find myself wearied? I feel like this is becoming old territory to me, and I want to stop going around in circles, coming back to the same arguments. I want to move on.

I want three simple, difficult things:

1. I want to be allowed to wear the labels that fit me. I want to be an American, a Minnesotan, a Quaker, a straight male, of European descent, a geek, a morris dancer, a cartographer, a father, a son, a husband, someone of middling economic means, a Case, a resident of Northeast Minneapolis, a beer-drinker, a lover of various musics, a song-leader, a person, a member of the species homo sapiens... I want to be able to wear any and all of these labels, and I want to be able to participate in the groups these labels imply that I belong to.

2. I want to not have outsiders to these groups assume they know what it means when I wear any label. I want people to approach unfamiliar identities with humility—either curiously, or seeking some other label they can use if they just don't have the energy to learn about the unfamiliar label.

3. I want my fellows in the groups I belong to, to recognize that identity groups are fluid. Organizations may not be: it may be necessary to keep the inside/outside relationship of the group clear. But no organization will ever be able to exactly line itself up with people who hold identities, not least because all those identities are themselves fluid, and depend on spending time and attention: I might move to St Paul, and while I would then hold Northeast Minneapolis as a dear place in my heart, I would have less say in what Northeast means, being absent.

I think this last is really important, and points to a shortcut in our name-labels we too easily take. We think that holding an identity ought to be like earning a medal, that it ought to secure a relationship to a group, permanently. If you've earned it, you can put it away in a drawer and pull it out when needed. And some relationships are like that: the conversation picks up where it left off years ago. But some don't. Most don't.

I have a recurring dream, where I go back to my old college, and I'm so out of place. I haven't checked my mailbox for months or years. I'm not sure where my stuff is: I still have a dorm room, but haven't used it for a long time, and I need to find my stuff to bring it to where I'm living now. Professors have changed, and I don't know what courses to take for that one last term I need to get my degree.

Identity labels are a shorthand for membership in a group, for belonging. If we do not act on those labels, if we do not live them out, we pull away from holding them. This is a terrifying prospect for most of us, because it means we are that much more alone. Even typing the second sentence in this paragraph, part of me was saying, "Nooooooo!"

Being a Quaker, to go back to Maggie Harrison, feels like it ought to belong to the territory of common practice, or creed (or belief anyway), or following a common teacher or guide. All these things we recognize as the hallmarks of "religious" commonality. But some of it, perversely, is just wearing the same "clothes," the very clothes Maggie urges us to cast off. We are Quakers because we choose to wear that label.

Can real nakedness be the basis of identity? Could it be that all the stuff we use to bind ourselves together is getting in the way? If we wish to utterly open ourselves to truth, to go out naked into February, do we need to shed the very name itself? Is the truest Quaker the one who accepts no common identity—no meetinghouse, no clerk, nothing? How could such a Quakerism survive? How would it avoid frostbite?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Purity test

In college, a "purity test" made the rounds. It's probably still making the rounds, 25 years later. It consisted of hundreds of "Have you ever?" questions: what kinds of sex have you had, what kinds of resticted substances have you ingested, where and with how many people... It went on and on, a litany of sins major and minor. Getting a high score gained you collegiate street cred. Either that or a trip to the emergency room.

"Purity" is closely associated with sinlessness, not just in our society but pretty much species-wide. A virgin maiden wears white to show she is spotless. Ritual cleansing before worship in a temple appears almost everywhere. And taboo foods and substances are "unclean."

Today, you'll see similar associations between "pure" and "natural" in consumer prodcuts. This is odd, because until recently, purity was clearly an unnatural phenomenon, requiring human or superhuman intervention. Mostly. Pure clear streams ran out of the rocks, of course, and pure ore was sometimes found embedded in rocks. But most of our physical purity is manufactured (think of Ivory Soap's trademark "99 44/100% Pure").

Nature is not pure, or at any rate, organic nature is not pure. Our body depends on bacteria in our gut to digest our food, and on trace elements in water to fill out our nutritional needs. We live now—and always have—in a soup of organic and inorganic ingredients, a constantly shifting mixture of bits and pieces.

What we want to avoid instinctively is pollution. We want to keep most of the infectious germs out of our respiratory and digestive systems so our immune system does not become overwhelmed. We want to keep toxic chemicals from subverting and breaking down the processes our internal chemistry is constantly churning to keep us intact and functioning. Pollution is mostly a matter of degree, not of true purity.

We like purity because it fits how our brains work. We like discrete objects and clearly delineated ideas. We like rules and laws because when we lose our sense of structure, we literally feel lost. And so when we say what exactly something is, and when we can even say that is all that it is, we feel more secure in the universe.

It's a running theme in this blog, but the trouble seems to come when we then take that categorization and reimpose it on the universe: purifying populations; purifying ourselves of sinfulness; purifying toxins, creating lethal concentrations of them. Purity—real, created purity—belongs in the world of ideas, and in the dead world of inorganic chemistry, not in our living world.