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?


Clarence Mercer said...

Nearly a quarter century ago, I was a member of a nudist community. It was a life that held no lurid moments and was open to having a prayer group on Sundays. We experienced the joy of birth and grieved death and loss. Eventually, people moved on and the community died of neglect.

One thing that seems to be a commonality among Quakers is that we are all individually radical and our meetings reflect a sort of homogeneous pocket of radicality. Meetings may fade away but Quakers will always find one another and bless the world.

Dan S Wang said...

I think it is interesting for a cartographer to be grappling with social location, since social location (as represented by what you call labels) and physical location bleed into each other. So when you speak of labels being fluid, identities never being static, and so forth, I would like to hear you reflect more on how that truth finds shape in space. In other words, if labels represent groupings that are almost always to degrees porous around the edges, and we all wear different labels at once all the time, then how are the physical places that correspond (more and less?) to those labels also connected, related, or bleeding into each other? And what are the implications for our responsibilities to those places?

natcase said...

Dan: Actually, I disagree with your initial premise, that social location is reprersented by labels. Labels (generic terms that apply to members of a group) represent presence within a social territory. To use a cartographic analogy, it's the difference between point and area objects.

Identities are fluid because there is no such thing as a pure, impermeable territory. But by identity here, I am referring to generically labeled identity elements, not the aspects of ourselves that are bound up in our unique individuality.

I hope this all makes sense...

Anonymous said...

There were Quakers before this label was attached to them and they accepted it. The same is true for the first Christians. We start with a group of people and by the very fact that they accept or agree on a name they recognise that they are different in some way from others. When did our species become human? When it(actually a mother and her daughters) started using language to name one another and everything in the world about them because of their special self-awareness. Communion is also uniquely human. Our most distant ancestorsa collected, prepared and shared food and drink at communal meals and knew how to say thank you. Whether this has anything to do with a bit of hocus pokus performed by a priest is another question but language is already a form of symbolism. We can coimmunicate by sign or sound language. All this began in groups living from hand to mouth when survival was fron day to day so they had to be real communities or go under. Of course there were failures and as life got nore comfortable in bigger and bigger populations things got more and more complicated and very often for the worse. The trick is to keep the caring sharing nature of basic human communities while adapting to greater numbers and being open to newcomers. I honestly think that the Quaker way, when and if undeerstood and practised (by keeping Qarterly Meetings for example), does this and could do it on a far wider scale. I refer to
the way we start with small local communities and link them to larger ones covering larger areas without forming little empires with top-down leadership. ( I am saying that Quakers could be wholly human, and that is so rare as to be very special indeed. Those who join us have to make some difficult choices and adaptations that threaten their immature ideas of self-hood: "He who would save his life will lose it". It is all there in the teaching of Jesus but who is listening? I feel that we are over-using and therefore abusing the label "Quaker£ at the moment by applying it to all kinds of axtivities that are worthwhile but not special to us. "We cannot make the name a legal patent or prevent anyone from taking it. We just have to give a convincing demonstration og what it means in the life of al our Leetings, starting with he dmallest and most local.

Liz Opp said...

Well, it is about 13 months since you wrote this post, and I have just now come across it--and the related posts by others about Quakers and "nakedness."

Your post reminded me of the phrase "refiner's fire" as it relates to Quakerism. For one thing, what Maggie and other young Friends are writing about are not new ideas--well, they are new to these Friends, I suppose, and that's exciting!

But the "foundation" of Maggie's work exists among early Friends, which is what got me searching for where I came across the phrase "refiner's fire." Maybe you've come across that phrase as well...?

Here are three links related to the concept of the "refiner's fire" as it relates to early and contemporary Quakerism:

A recent pamphlet by Friend Marty Grundy, Early Friends and Ministry.

From Friend Marcelle Martin's current blog A Whole Heart, a post written just last month: The Refiner's Fire

And from my own blog The Good Raised Up, in which I address the refiner's fire and Marty's pamphlet a few times: search results for "refiner's fire"

Like you, Nat, I have many thoughts, musings, and questions about identity, membership, etc. I'm glad to read you here from time to time.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up