Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Requiem for Speech

Silence.  Or words.  ?

It may be slim pickings here for a little while.  My health scare seems to be rendering me somewhat mute.  For someone repeatedly told they talk ‘all the time’, or at the least, a lot, and who experiences themselves as only silent when asleep…this is a strange uncomfortable situation.  Too much thinking and running over possibilities that are frightening cause me to try to freeze myself to ice.  I wish to be Avon from Blake’s 7.  Cold, logical; above all calm.  I want to be the Ice Queen.  Instead, I melt, I flame, I boil over, I am…not quiet.  Except outwardly. 

I used to attend Quaker meetings, back in the early 2000’s, for a few years.  I am not going to tell you anything much about modern Quakerism (not here, anyway).  What I’ll say is: it was a monolith, a continent away from original Quakerism[1].  You do not have to be Christian to be welcomed and to become a Quaker.  Within their meetings I met atheists, agnostics, people of all the major faiths I am aware of – and I was there as a pagan, to add another.  The only place more liberal in terms of those attending in relative harmony that I have heard of, is the Universalists (of which I had a friend at the time – she used to annoy me by competing with me constantly whenever I mentioned Quakers, and saying her religion was even more liberal and accepting…Good, good, good for you.  Irrelevant.) 

The reason I mention this, is that for someone in love with words, with communication through words and their song direct to another’s consciousness…sometimes there is no comfort greater than silence, with others.

WARNING:  Deeply Subjective Recollections to follow: Do not assume I speak for anyone other than myself in what I say of my experiences

A Quaker meeting was a thing such as I have never before or since experienced.  After the going in, the being greeted, the chatting, you sit down.  There are often benches, hard wooden ones, or chairs, sometimes arranged in a semi circle or circle.  There is often a table in the middle or front of the room.  There are flowers, simple ones, sometimes, on the table.  Nothing elaborate or flashy like roses or lilies.  Often meadow flowers.  There might be a copy of Faith and Practice (the closest a modern Quaker comes to something they would carry about for reference like a Bible) on the table.  The room would likely be as unadorned as possible.  It would be as bright as possible.  Windows are important.

People file in slowly, as they are ready.  They sit, quietly.  There’s a little fiddling about, clearing of throats, till they are settled.  This carries on for about five minutes or so.  As each person settles, they get comfortable.  Some cross their legs, some sit straight and tall in their chairs.  I used to try and sit cross legged sometimes, as I can keep still in that position longer than any other.  (That was easier at retreats and such, where they seemed more ok with you sitting on the floor.)

Then comes the bit I would wait all week for.  The quiet.

There’s been much argument as to what Quakers are doing when they all sit together quietly.  I’ll tell you what they aren’t doing.  They aren’t all meditating separately, but in the same room.  Because that, whilst nice, is sitting zazen, and something else.  You are sposed to spend time and action to ‘centre yourself down’, ‘quiet down’, for the first few minutes of meeting.  But once you’ve managed this, you’re into doing what you came for. 

You’re listening.  You are trying to let your mind become as quiet as it can be whilst still being fully awake.  And then, out of that quiet…hopefully, will come, your own voice of wisdom.  Or someone else’s.  You are waiting to see whether you will hear anything worth saying to the others.  Or they to you.  Or, almost the most precious thing: if the silence itself will speak without words.

Which partly makes it sound like you are dying to speak.  The opposite is true.  If you actually do hear something in your head you imagine is worth saying or feels urgent, and it persists with you for a while (‘cos you don’t leap up straight away and start waffling – utterances are supposed to be kept shortish, succinct[2]), the idea of getting up and speaking in front of everyone, into such a Listening Silence, is…terrifying.  Even as the Quakers are the last people in the world to judge you for anything you might say.

There were always two schools of thought about the quality of meetings: one line went – there was no ‘ministry’ (the speaking) from anyone, and the silence was deep and calm between us all: something was here, in all of us, and it …but I get ahead of myself.  The other line of thought was that ministry was lovely to receive, maybe once or twice in a meeting, and to ponder, to let it fall into you and see if it spoke ‘to your condition’ at all, or if it was for someone else…

I used to like the meetings best where no one said anything.  Or where there was possibly just one or two very short ‘witnesses’.  They could be about absolutely anything.  People would sometimes get up and say a couple of lines from a poem, or a song.  They would occasionally sing.  Sometimes it would be a small anecdote, something that had happened to them.  Not complete with moral, but left bare, left ambiguous; left for you to make of it whatever you did.    Sometimes, someone told a joke.  The more Christ-centred Friends may read a verse or two from the Bible, or mention a parable.  Sometimes it felt like whatever was said, from one person, then into the silence, then later, another person standing and speaking – would feel linked.  Other times, it was as if the words came from two different universes of experience or tone.  It was all a mystery, and each person who spoke, or heard others speak, made of it whatever they did.  It was never rehearsed.  Or it should never be.  It’s supposed to be spontaneous.  What comes to you in the moment.  Or nothing.  If you don’t speak, you listen.  You listen anyway

The important thing, the everything, was that you were listening.  That if someone spoke: you really, really heard them.  I used to be of the mind that you would be listening so calmly and intently (often to the noises of cars outside, or the blood rushing in your ears, or the rustling of bags, squeaking of chairs) that someone could have gotten up and read from a phone book and it would suddenly seem extremely relevant to life, love and everything. 

The feeling of sitting, about 40 minutes into an hour’s length meeting, in a pool of deep deep awakened silence was amazing.  I would feel like the hairs on my arms were standing up, yet so peaceful.  I know for a fact that if I was in a room with anywhere from 10-160 people (meeting sizes differ everywhere) and they spoke and I with them, as normal, I would not have a good time.  I would find, everywhere, disagreement.  I would find people’s views that frightened, repelled or bored me with ignorance.  (I’m going to let my arrogance on that last comment stand, as honesty is important here.)  Yet in a room with those self same people, all sitting quietly, I felt we were all open.  That we were allowing ourselves to merge with one another slightly.  As if a corporate entity were being created, in the silence, which had pieces of all of us in it.  We allowed to pour out into the silence all the pain, the worry, the fear, and the hope, the joy, of the past week.  Without saying anything.  We listened to each other breathe.  I felt I understood people with whom I had never exchanged a word, a single word.  I felt their humanity, their flaws, their hopefulness.  Their possibilities, their limitations.  I loved them, and wanted to help.  I felt a better person.

One meeting, a man whose name I forget (which is shameful, since I loved his personality), stood up and said that he felt the experience of anything like ‘god’ that was his, was in other people.  Just other people.  Looking into their eyes, he saw divinity.  I never forgot that, because I agreed with him entirely.  He ‘spoke to my condition’. 

This is what I crave.  Right now.  Quaker meeting.  I want to go into a light room, sit on a hard bench, look at some simple flowers, hold my copy of Advices and Queries lightly and calm down.  I want to listen to everyone breathe.  I want to bear with my back pain, knowing it’s for a good reason. I want to feel that all the humans on the planet, starting with these ones, are my family.  Flawed, human, wonderfully present.  I want to sit in the quietness, and feel not alone.  I want to say nothing, and feel heard.  I want to listen to the silence and hear a hundred stories in the shuffling of an old man’s feet, as he twitches, because he has fallen asleep. 


[1] I also shan’t go into the schisms in Quakerism; the whole BIG DEAL, and it truly IS a big deal, between Non-programmed and Programmed Quakers, for example.  Look it up if you’re interested.  And if you care, my position is that Programmed Quakerism is wrong.  If it’s programmed, my friend, it ain’t Quakerism anymore; it’s something else.  Which is well and good, do that – just don’t mislabel it Quakerism.  I’m pretty sure George Fox and Isaac Pennington and others would turn in their graves.  I am being uncharacteristically strongly opinionated about this.  I DO feel very strongly about it.  But in a Quakerly way, at the time, I said nothing much about it.  (There’s a point there in my reaction then; about what’s wrong with Friends, for me, and one of the reasons I left.)
[2] …and it’s the Elders of the meeting’s job to ensure people who go off on one are gently urged that they have been heard (and for some ten minutes now), and to let us all absorb the words…This often failed of course.  It’s hard to stop someone, who is generally a bit disordered in thought – or they wouldn’t be breaking the idea of the meeting with huge far too long to be heard properly speeches – from talking if they are determined they aren’t done yet, and they aren’t being threatening in any way. (Which did also happen sometimes; anyone could come in. Anyone did.)  Sometimes people got the wrong end of the stick entirely, and stood up and evangelised their religion till they were asked to sit down.   (I was a Quaker for a while, but never a proper one, as I always wanted to stand up immediately and tell them This Is NOT What We Are Here For, when that happened…not the Quaker way, reprimanding people…)
[3] I will leave the main bit there.  Because that is where it should be left.  But it also needs to be said that I left Quakers because I had some big problems with them.  They never seemed to think poverty existed anywhere but in foreign countries (where they were eager to go help and they do good work), and members of their own meetings were sometimes in bad trouble, and not helped – in a group prizing a sense of community, I felt this hypocritical.  They had a rather Hampstead attitude to life: lots of do-gooding, social workers, teachers etc, Guardian readers – yes, I generalize something huge and hurtful.  This was how it seemed to me, me alone.  I felt their desire to be inclusive and some of their means of corporate decision making were…lazy, non rigorous, following a path of least resistance in order to avoid conflict – in terms of how it was supposed to be done, how I had read it and had it explained to me, and how it actually turned out.  It’s very difficult to explain this sort of thing.  I ended up feeling that much as I LOVED meeting, I was increasingly at odds with what many Quakers attitudes were, toward living life.  So I drifted off.  But I treasure a well done meeting, to this day, and crave it.  The way it can just happen…or be flat as a pancake…nothing like it.

ADDENDUM, 7.6.12:
Also - I was welcomed at Quakers, unlike anywhere else I have ever gone.  Don't let it escape you that me, the big Non Joiner of Things - actually JOINED Quakers, for a while.  (I'm now considered a 'Non Attender' at the 2 main meetings I was a member of, over the 5 years or so I was actively a part of things.  As in, gone, but not forgotten; welcome back at any time, no pressure.  That's what they are like.  They won't contact you if you vanish; but they'll remember you if you come back.)  Oh - and they don't evangelise - a Big Plus.  If you ask them what they're about, they'll tell you.  They will have posters outside Friends House, the main Quaker admin centre, in Euston, London...But they don't stand about trying to persuade you of anything.  There's never a single hint of damnation or anysuch unhelpful poodle, with them.  And I have rarely seen so many gay people happily accepted in one place that had a hint of Christianity about it.  A huge good thing.

I think I will always have a big fat soft spot for Quakerism.  Whether or not I ever attend another Meeting.  And I made 2 of my bestest friends there - Alias True, who has been with me through thick and thin over the ether, I met at a retreat there once.  Like me, he no longer attends, but both of us remember with fondness.  And Mr Hooting Yard himself (who has left a comment, as you see, about why he left), who is still a big presence in the BlackberryJuniper universe.  Though I had problems with Friends on some issues...perhaps a truth and proof of the pudding of it all is that I still have these 2 great friends, as a result: 2 of the truest people in my life.  Both a bit eccentric and bonkers, and both steadfast.  Hmmm.


  1. I attended meetings for about three years, and the reason I ended up disillusioned and stopped going was a sense that the Quakers seemed to think that within every person on earth there is a Guardian reader struggling to emerge, whereas I increasingly think many many people are complete wankers. That probably (definitely?) says more about me than it does about Quakers, but it's my tuppence-worth.

    1. As ever, you have a way with words. I have addendum-ed what I said yesterday, as I felt it needed leavening in some fashion. I see your point. I don't have that particular niggle. Only the ones I mentioned, I *think*.

      I don't think lots of people are wankers...I mean, I DO, when I'm irritable, which it has to be said is 98% of the time, being of a surly disposition...but I think people are inherently good. they just need a feckload of loving; and occasionally a big slap. But I'm a hermit (and so are you for the most part) so maybe we aren't best qualified to judge the outside world, in some ways???