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Boundaries of Storytelling (More Cat at NEYM)

I'm writing this entry from back in my dorm room, which is cool and quiet. I'm missing the scheduled worship-sharing group I was assigned to, and I certainly hope I can join them tomorrow. But I have reached the heatrash stage of energy overload, and it was time to take a break. I'm not sure if blogging is really "taking a break"--I might be wiser to go lie down under a tree. Though, if I did that, I'd probably fall asleep, and I really, really want to make the workshop I'm scheduled for in about an hour.

Anyway, there are oak trees rustling right outside my open window, and I can hear the shrilling of cicadas... and it's shady and quiet and calm here. So I think this is good.

I'm not entirely sure I will post this entry--I'm not entirely sure of the ethics of it. I'm often at a loss to tell what the boundaries are around talking about what happens in Quaker meetings. They are so intimate, that the fact that they are open seems beside the point. I understand (intellectually, at least) that minutes and epistles are written the way they are, with so little reference to individuals, in part because they are supposed to reflect, not the ideas and actions of individuals, but the movement of spirit among the whole meeting. I am confused, though, about what it's OK to talk about on the level of individuals, and what it isn't. This story is one of those confusing cases.

As I mentioned yesterday, the worship element in meeting for business has been, at least to my mind, quite deep and rich. Today, though, it seemed to me that we were less centered in our business meeting, and I think it showed in the quality of the questions and comments made from the floor. There seemed to be less deep listening and discernment, and more people speaking in what seemed like set patterns. Perhaps other people, like me, are hitting the wall in terms of energy levels. Of course, it could be that I'm tired, and so I'm not picking up on the depth that is there... but for whatever reason, it seemed that we were less centered today in our work.

Again, for the Pagans in the audience, may I just say that conducting business as what we would call ritual is an extraordinary experience? I know that there are some groups that are experimenting with things like it, having designated people who do aspecting or grounding work during a long meeting. I imagine that's something like the work of "holding" a meeting as Quakers sometimes do.

In any case, we seemed less focused and spiritually grounded today than yesterday. The meeting still went reasonably well, and there were moments that were very good, particularly when, at the end of the agenda, we reached the memorial minutes. This is another practice I think would translate well to Pagan settings. Just as, at Samhain, many groups celebrate the ancestors who have died during the year, NEYM is reading memorial minutes, written by the monthly meetings of members who have died in the past year. They have, so far, been quite moving, focusing as they have on lives lived so fully and so well. And after each minute, members settle into silence, and messages may rise relating to the minute or about the life being celebrated.

There was a good deal more here. Towards the end of the meeting, some troubling messages rose, and it seemed to me that, because the group was less centered in worship, we did less well at sitting with those messages in a helpful way. I know that at least some people did walk away hurt.

Initially, I wrote up the story with a good bit of concreteness. That's part of being a good writer--making a story real, even though of course it will remain subjective. But anything published on the web should be assumed to be about to be viewed by the very people you would least like to see it. I was troubled about the entry, feeling that it was good writing (or would be, once I'd given it a once over for copy editing), but also feeling that some of those in attendance at yesterday's meeting might be hurt by reading my words.

I get a lot out of reading other people's stories, when they are True (not just factual, but candid and coming from a deep and real place) and I don't think there are enough stories of simple experience in either the Pagan or the Quaker world. Pagans tend to write "how to" manuals, and Quakers often write in an almost disembodied way. It feels like Quakers sometimes, in an effort to transcend the merely personal, wind up writing bland and sanitized text. The exceptions are there, and they can be breathtaking. And it's not that I don't see the point of being careful with words that could hurt what are, after all, members of my community... nor of reaching for ways to express the experiences of discernment and worship that go beyond individual experience. But I _am_ a Pagan. When Liz Opp writes about placing God at the center of her expectations for Yearly Meeting, rather than herself, my mind goes blank. I just don't get that one--though I respect that it makes sense for her. For me, though, one of the implications of immanent divinity is that my own fallible, subjective, unpolished human perspective is precious, to the world as well as to myself.

I have grown a good deal over the years through stories that I've been told that named the names and left in even the embarassing stuff. Pagans can be difficult, quarrelsome people, but I also think that the Pagan tendency to tell stories--which might be called gossiping--is often a strength. People do get hurt at times--but they also grow, and grow to know one another in ways they might otherwise not.

However, as I said, I was troubled. And the cool thing about being at a gathering of 600 or so Quakers is that a number of my Quaker friends are handy to talk with. Peter and I went off and found Nancy, who agreed to come back to my room and read through what I'd written, and help me figure out whether or not it was reasonable to publish it. (OK, OK--the Quakerese is "find clearness". But sometimes I like plain English...)

She shared my concerns, actually more strongly than I did. She also suggested that, if I wanted to communicate with the people who were involved in the incident that troubled me, I should do so directly, face to face--that it would be hurtful to come across my description accidentally online, which I can't disagree with. I knew I did not feel any prompting to talk to the people involved directly on the subject. So, with some ambivalence, I decided not to go into detail on the story, leaving instead all of these probably annoying generalizations.

The story of what I observed in the meeting for business is my story... but it's not just my story. I am clear that it is valuable, and maybe vital, for humans to tell their stories. But I am not clear on where the lines ethically need to be. So I'm not giving much information here outside my subjective responses. Perhaps it makes for dull writing, which is too bad, but it's all I feel clear to do today.

My other lingering discomfort is that I probably talked poor Nancy's ear off. I hope not--good listeners deserve not to be used up by overly gabby folks like me. But that I do feel I can ask about face to face. Hoping that Nancy did not feel used or used up by the amount of her time and energy I took up with this yesterday, we will, perhaps, have created the kind of stronger bond of friendship that _good_ gossip--the kind that's really truth telling, with open hearts--can bring people sometimes.

I do know that I'm learning a lot here this week, about the reasons not to speak in worship, without carefully testing a leading to speak. Where to draw those lines outside of worship, whether in the context of the Ministry and Worship committee, or in this blog, is much more confusing to me.


Starfire said…
Hi again

The story of what I observed in the meeting for business is my story... but it's not just my story. I am clear that it is valuable, and maybe vital, for humans to tell their stories. But I am not clear on where the lines ethically need to be.

I struggle with similar issues in my LJ journal, and, for what it's worth, have come to similar conclusions. I'll go into as much detail as I want to (sometimes to the point of TMI I suspect) when it's just my own story I'm telling.

As soon as it becomes 'not my story', however, I get very nervous. Most of the time, if it's something positive, I'm happy to share it in detail to the extent that I experienced it myself. If it's negative though, I'll couch it in generalities, or avoid writing about it altogether - for the same reason your friend mentioned to you. I don't want someone to come across something about themselves online (or in a friends-locked post, hear of somethign I've written about them through a third party) before I've spoken to them directly. And if I don't feel strongly enough about it to confront them directly, then I don't believe I feel strongly enough about it to risk them hearing about it through someone else.

Just my answers, for what they're worth... other people can, and no doubt do have other answers that work for them.


zach said…
I wonder about the same thing -- the ethics of talking about Quaker meetings after the fact. I think I went a little over the line with the original version of a recent post I wrote about a NEYM worship session -- not in saying "A Friend said this; A Friend said that," but in being a bit too negative in my characterization of what some of them said in the rest of the post. Which I just toned down a little bit.

Also, I think it's probably good to not give any identifying information -- I referred to one of them as "one of the clerks," and I just removed that too.
Hi, Cat, Starfire & Zach, too!

For what it's worth, it's traditional not to give any identifying clues about which Friend said what in a session. The traditional reason is that any statement worth noting is presumed to have come not from that Friend but from the Divine Principle. For the same reason, it's also traditional not to append any judgments of one's own on what was said, but simply to report it.

If Friends think that a given comment is not coming from a good place, this way of proceeding helps to ensure that the comment will simply be gracefully forgotten, without any fuss that might hurt the commenter's feelings. Thus it works to minimize dissensions and divisions in the meeting. Without this way of proceeding, the Friends community would probably have torn itself to pieces centuries ago.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
(This comment has been slightly modified from a previous version, which has been removed.)

Hi, Marshall,
Thanks for your comments. I hope you're still stopping by from time to time, because I'd really love to hear more reflections from you on this topic.

I knew that minutes are composed as you say. It's where to draw lines outside of official documentation of Friends' meetings that has been blurry for me. There's a continuum, from official minutes through unofficial published writing (like a blog) all the way down to journal entries and personal conversations.

I think I see the advantages to the stability of Friends' institutions to keeping all discussions of what is said and done in our meetings--for worship or for business--at the level of official epistles and minutes, or at least to avoid identifying names and dissonant messages specifically. But I do feel that that is in some degree of tension with my need, as a new, convinced Friend, to hone my own sense of discernment.

One of the things I learned about myself, for instance, this week, was how much difficulty I have discerning the distinction between sincerity and a leading in a message from another. I think I learned this partly by talking out loud with Ffriends about what I was seeing and hearing, as well as by writing about it and sharing that (though only with one or two specific individuals, since a lot of this kind of thing felt inappropriate to put on the web). I think it's important for me to have learned this... And for me, writing and talking out loud to other people seems to be an important part of how I figure some things out.

So there's a tension here. Perhaps there always is, between writers and their families. As a writer, I'm drawn to try to put into words as much as I can, especially of those experiences that defy words! But as a parent, I would never knowingly tell a story that might embarrass my daughter, for instance.

It may be that the way to feel my way around these questions is to keep in mind that a Friends' meeting is a kind of family, and to try to weigh all questions of what to say and in how public an arena as if the speakers were my children. I don't mean that in the sense of knowing better than other Friends! But that feeling of tender protectiveness may be a good one to follow.

I think a piece of what I learned this week may be that the tradition you describe still has life. If it is true that a large part of the work of being in spiritual community is being in a tender, trusting relationship with one another--and I think it is--then probably that is the standard to take into communcating with the world--?

I'm going to sit with this a bit longer. But I'd very much appreciate feedback and reflections from others, too.

Thanks again for your words.
Hello again, Cat --!

You write, "I hope you're still stopping by from time to time...."

Indeed I am! I enjoy reading of the work you're engaged in here, finding bridges from one spirituality to another. I hope you keep it up!

And thank you for your invitation to address this topic further. I hope that what I say in the paragraphs below proves helpful.

In the Quaker tradition, it's not just minutes that are composed without stating which Friend said what. I've been reading old Quaker journals these last few years, and I notice that -- with the exception of the writers' reports on what they, and their traveling companions, say in a meeting -- the same anonymity is preserved there.

Often enough I can see that the writer was visiting a meeting where things were said that the writer felt were quite poorly grounded. But the writer reports no embarrassing details in her or his journal -- just some general statement like "We had close work". There is this great concern not to do harm by tale-bearing.

Like you, I'm not sure this practice is absolutely always right. Properly speaking I think it depends on specific considerations as to the conditions of the particular people involved, the present needs of the community as a whole, and the issues touched upon.

In my on-line account of my recent walk across the U.S., I posted the particular comments of the Friends I met with in called meetings along my way, even when I might have felt critical of those comments, because these comments were the business of the leading I'd been given. But I held back from judgment on those comments, and omitted details regarding which Friend said what, because I felt that such judgments and such personal details were counter-productive to the Spirit's goals in the project. If that makes sense.

When I finally addressed Baltimore Yearly Meeting at the end of the journey (and I do intend to report on that some time very soon in my journal), I felt downright commanded, driven, to get a bit more specific about who said what and about how the statements stood in relation to Truth -- still not naming names, because that would have been profoundly wrong, but talking a bit about the religious and social patterns I was seeing that seemed to be shaping how different Friends saw things in different ways.

I went into the connections between religious and social rôles, and the comments that seemed to emerge out of those rôles, because it seemed that what I needed to talk about was How Love Want Us To Work Out Our Differences, and some understanding of how our backgrounds divide us seemed very much needed in that context.

But always, as I wrote my journal and as I spoke to the yearly meeting, I felt the Guide within me -- Love, Christ -- telling me that my work was to help my brothers and sisters up, not to pull them down with my words.

And so I understood that in each given context I was free to report this part of what happened in a meeting, but not that part, in accordance with that principle: Would what I felt an urge to say, help people up? Would it nurture and heal? Would it help us work through our differences? How possible was it that it might cause hurt instead? -- and if it did cause hurt, would the hurt be a good kind or a bad one?

And always, whenever I shared any details at all, I felt the Guide in my heart and conscience reminding me that I had to trust that my listeners to be equally faithful to the Guide in their own hearts and consciences. I saw I had no choice but to trust, if I was to give myself as a servant to the community.

I feel sure that the Friends, down through the centuries, who carefully edited the personal details out of their minutes and journals, must have been following a similar directive, ultimately arising from the same Guide. They too wanted to keep the focus on that which nurtures, and that which we need to work on, rather than straying into those things that can divide us.

I struggle to rise to their level. I'm not sure I succeed!
Marshall, I deeply appreciate what you say here, and I'm especially glad of the personal context you give the central idea. With the context, what you say speaks to me far more clearly.

Though the Christ-centered language is very hard for me at times, I'm trying to do more reading from early Quakers. Hopefully, that will also work to "season" me as a Quaker writer myself.

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