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Under the Maple Tree

I'm finding myself craving a Pagan gathering lately.

Pagans, for those who are not Pagan, like to gather in groups of 40--2000 people for camping, bonfires, drumming, rituals, and workshops. Some of these gatherings are like family reunions, or compared to the magically-reappearing village of Brigadoon. Others are wild and frenetic affairs, with three-story-tall bonfires, all-night drumming and dancing, and appearances of Pagan celebrities (BNPs, or Big Name Pagans, if you're feeling polite; Big-Nosed Pagans if you're feeling a little satirical) and festival-wide radio stations making weather reports and announcements.

I haven't yet been to FGC (Friends' General Conference--the Quaker equivalent of a gathering, for those of the non-Quaker persuasion) so I can't really say how like or unlike a Pagan gathering that is. Perhaps very--perhaps not. I do know that when Young Friends hold their annual camping weekend at our local meeting, the afterglow they bring into meeting for worship the next day feels very familiar: it's the loving intimacy I've felt in Pagan community at countless small gatherings. The one occasion that always comes to mind for me, sitting with Young Friends in their marvelous interconnectedness, is of a micro-gathering in the hills of Vermont that I used to attend regularly, near a locally-famous pancake house. We would always gather for a big pancake breakfast on the second day--perhaps a dozen of us, tired, bramble-scratched, and smelling of woodsmoke, around a single enormous table. I vividly remember the year that, towards the end of our maple syrup feast, a woman from a nearby table came up to us and asked, hesitantly, if we were Pagans--? Since the conversation had been on topics like the best way to start a woodfire, or our favorite family pets, and since we were all of us clad in the generic Pagan camping uniform of jeans and tye-died t-shirts--scarcely a pentacle in sight--it had to have been the vibe that clued her in: the sense of a loving community.

I've always treasured that memory. To be so happy in one another's company that a stranger can see that you are members of a spiritually connected community... that's quite a compliment.

That's what I miss. Yeah, I like the sound of a good drum circle, and yeah, a workshop on magickal technique can still teach me something new (it doesn't seem like that long ago that I was getting my first "Renegade Reiki" attunement at Freespirit Festival, for instance). But what I'm really feeling sad about is the time that has lapsed since I last sat under the silver maple tree there, gazing up at the clouds from between brightly-colored leaves, while friends and found-family ebbed and swirled around me.

Over the years, it seems like my husband and I have planted a lot of seeds, but seen very few come to harvest. Dear friends I'd hoped to grow old with have moved far away, or changed past recognition. Children I held in my arms only a few days old have somehow turned into young adults while I was looking in another direction, and the village of loving family I believed I was building with my friends always seems to be just behind me, or just ahead of me. Day to day life is very wearing on community ties. And my career change, to teaching, has been very hard on them, too, both because I've felt (foolishly or wisely) afraid of being visibly Pagan for the first time ever, and because of the sheer weight of time committed to learning to teach. (Anyone who believes that teaching gives you lots of time off is not a teacher--or, at least, not a novice English teacher!)

Ironically, I'm feeling this especially today because last night, my wonderful friends Kevin and Beth, and their three kids, all went out to the movies with us. It is a wonderful thing, to watch children grow up when you were there for their parents' earliest days together. In fact, Kevin and Beth married back when I was first starting out as Wiccan clergy, and I performed their wedding. In a way, I feel like their kids' grandmother, or aunt, at least. A friendship that has lasted a dozen years and included four childhoods (since my own daughter was younger than their oldest when we became friends) is a wonderful thing.

But I've got the blues for all the friends who have drifted away. The small-group center of Pagan worship (gatherings being the exception, and not the rule) takes a lot of energy to maintain. Look away, and it evanesces.

Maybe that's a human thing. All things pass... nothing lasts forever. Maybe it's only newness that makes my own Quaker meeting feel timeless. I do know--intellectually, at least--that some of the members that feel most like they must have been members of our meeting since the 60s, actually moved to the Valley more recently than I did. White hair lends a feeling of permanence, but in our culture, people move so much that looks can be very deceiving.

Still, it's one of the things I love about my meeting. Unlike a coven or a grove, always so dependent on the energies of every individual member to keep its heart beating, I can look away from Mt. Toby and it will be there when I look back. There is a whole as well as all of us as parts, and it is a whole that can survive my absence.

What my Quaker meeting lacks, though, is the skinless intimacy that my Pagan communities excel in. I don't mean that Quakers are not good at intimacy, and I'm not overidealizing Pagan community. Pagan groups are small, intensely connected, and often wildly unstable--the line between intimacy and boundarylessness is crossed over and over again, and Pagan groups can blow up in the most amazing, destructive way. It takes longer to get on a hugging basis in a Quaker group... but that isn't always a bad thing.

Today, after meeting, R-- came up to me after meeting. He's a fFriend, and it felt completely natural, musing as I had been on community and intimacy, to hug him hello. He'd actually come up to me to ask quietly if he'd been intrusive the other week. It had been an intense meeting, and I'd been crying, he said, and he had touched my face with his hand. I don't even remember the moment, truthfully. It must have been so completely appropriate to the energy of the moment that I did not even record it as significant... there was nothing forced or awkward in it at all. We talked about that for a bit, and about how Quakers shake hands at the end of the meeting, but whenever Peter and I arrange a meeting for worship at a Pagan gathering, the attenders always embrace.

There are strengths to both ways of being. The Quaker practice is a one-at-a-time bonding and acknowledgement with individuals, and the gentleness of it helps ease me back from the depths of meeting. On the other hand, the Pagan practice seems to acknowledge more truly the depth and intimacy of what has just transpired. Both these ways of being in community are precious to me, and I would not choose one over the other.

But I do long for a feeling of ongoing connection, of cycles that return and return.

This may be why it is so good, today, that the warm weather has come back, and that I've returned to my fair-weather practice of lying out on the grass at the end of meeting. Peter and I went outside, where the grass is getting long. (Peter is itching to return to his Ministry of the Lawnmower again this year--as teachers, we tend to try and work in a whole year's worth of service to the meeting in three short months.) Anyway, we were lying out under a tree-a small sugar maple, as it happens, rather than the giant silver maple of Freespirit-when our fFriends J-- and D--... and eventually R-- and P-- joined us.

The conversation sometimes had the power of worship-sharing, and sometimes just of chat. We spoke of peak oil, labor unions, carpooling, and the need to reestablish ties with both land and community. We chewed on blades of grass, brushed tiny spiders from one another's shoulders, and built small piles of fallen twigs as we spoke.

We wound up hugging one another as we wrapped up our talk. And if it's not a silver maple, and if it is, indeed, another seed planted of community and not the harvest I keep dreaming of, it was still a nice bookend to last night's trip to the movies. I guess we're all longing for communities that deepen and last. At least one challenge, though, for me if not for everyone, is not to spend so much time mourning what passes that I miss the moment I'm in.


Absolutely lovely. Thank you so much for sharing this. I was just discussing this difference in community with my on-going clearness group on Monday. I have been going to meeting for a year and a half now (and have been a member almost a year) and while I love it I feel myself longing for the intimacy of pagan style ritual again where, yes, we wait upon the Spirit, but then we move, express, praise and share in really soul-baring and bonding ways. Yet, you've hit the nail on the head with the wonderful pluses of Quaker community too.

Maybe its just the season of green, it brings all the pagan feeling and longing to the surface. (I've been a practicing pagan for 16 years now.)
The Zero Boss said…
Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing. Your points about Pagan community being both wildly energetic and wildly unstable are well taken.

It's great to see other Pagans combining elements of other faiths and traditions in unique ways.
Carol Maltby said…
Some times we get the rhythm of the ebbs and flows of relationships (or think we do), but other times it is harder see the bigger picture of where we are in the cycles, and trust in where we are.

A dear online friend, an Episcopalian priest, once made me weep with the words in his email, "The gods' timing is not the same as ours." Not weeping from sadness, but from the bigness of it, and the way he touched me with that thought.

This being a long-winded way of giving you a big hug, since I haven't seen you in a while. :)

Carol M of the town of the Wiggly Bridge
Lorcan said…
Me wife is Catholic, I've always been Quaker... I used to play the Uilleann pipes for me wife's church's mass. One day the nun in charge of the choir was going to miss a week and asked if I would organise things... no problem, says I... what hymm would you sing for the offortory she asks...

Oh ye must'na tell the priest
for the priest would think it a sin
but we've been out in the woods all night
to conjure the new year in...
be oak and ash and thorn
all on a midsummer's morn
surely we sing of no little thing
in oak and ash and thorne...

Sister Joan laughed and said...
any other ideas?


Wow--what great feedback. It's wonderful to hear from old Pagan friends like Carol of the Wiggly Bridge--I can feel so cut off from our Pagan community at times, and it's nice to be reminded that that's at least partially an illusion. Not to mention that marvelously speaking quote: "The gods' timing is not the same as ours." That resonates!

It's good also to know that my feelings around communities, Pagan and Quaker, "speak to the condition" of other both/ands and Pagans. And trust Lorcan to quote exactly the song to get me laughing--"oak and ash and thorn," indeed!

I can't help but wonder if Matthew Fox would have laughed at such a choice, too... ;>
Anonymous said…
Hello, Cat --

I've never been a pagan & have never felt any interest in being one. However, I did go through Hinduism & Buddhism on the way to Quakerism, and I can see some similarities between your newcomer's take, coming to Friends from a pagan background, and the take I myself had as a newcomer coming to Friends from Hinduism and Buddhism.

Yes, Friends are slower to open up, more careful, harder to get close to, than people on some other spiritual paths. This is connected, I believe, to the fact that painstakingly careful discernment of what is right and what is wrong, what is healthful and what is hurtful, is the practice that sits at the very heart of Quakerism. As a young man I used to puzzle over the fact that Zen masters "knew" immediately what to do in response to a challenge, whereas seasoned Friends might take months to puzzle out a response. But I eventually figured out that the reason for the difference is that Zen masters are interested in letting what comes naturally come out without the slightest inhibition, whereas seasoned Friends want to find the wisest, most helpful, least harmful thing to do, & know that finding it can take some time.

There are Friends in England who believe that when J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings epic, he had Friends in mind when he created the Ents. If you've read Tolkien's books you know already what I'm talking about: the Ents are not only tree-shepherds, protectors of green nature, but also very, very slow to sort things out and make up their minds, because they want to understand and do what is right.

To come to terms with the slowness of Quakerism, one has to slow down oneself, and slowing down is itself a slow process. I've been working at it for 36 years, ever since I first encountered Friends in college, and the process is still not complete in me!

But it's a good process, and one of the nicer results is that one finds one can enter into that very physical, very total intimacy with other Friends, the sort of intimacy you were talking about in your posting, without needing to do so much as speak a word. Such an intimacy arises naturally as the fruit of living long years of our lives in the same, identical, kind and nurturing, totally trustworthy Spirit.

Indeed, nowadays, when I come as a Friend with several decades' seasoning into a room of other Friends, I often find that they all feel like life-long personal friends, even if we've never met before. It's happened to me all over the country -- and it just feels wonderful.

Another nice thing I find is that the old closenesses don't get lost. Because those closenesses have grown up easily and unforced, in ways that were never permitted to go down hurtful or wrong-feeling paths, they are living, healthy connections and they endure. I can think of any number of people I met twenty or thirty-odd years ago, when I was relatively new to the Society of Friends, that I can still count as friends, small-f, today. It really makes me feel grounded in a community.

Thinking back to an earlier posting you made, I'm very sorry you got kicked out of that "Quaker web ring" -- but I'll guess that the people who kicked you out were not well oriented in the true life of Quakerism, or they'd not have behaved in such a way. They may perhaps have been "Quakers" in some abstract intellectual sense without ever having taken root in the soil of lovingkindness that Quakerism actually springs from. They may never have gotten involved enough in any physical face-to-face Friends meeting or church long enough or deeply enough to see that the lovingkindness is of the essence of our faith. I don't know that this was the case, but it does happen.

I think that, to be truly "Quaker", one has to do more than decide that one is a Quaker, or call oneself one, or even join a meeting -- one has to work, day after day, at living up to the identity, letting go of one's own weaknesses and responding to every person and situation in the very best & most loving way.

Not every "Quaker" figures out that this kind of work is what it's all about. But the point I want to make is that is what it's all about -- and it's the thing that is going on in Quakerism, instead of drumming or dancing, ritual or bonfires, to build the closeness that ties Friends together.

So back to your present posting. Yes, the coolness of true Quakerism can take some getting used to. But I'd call it a life-friendly coolness, not an unfeeling coldness.

It's slow like the life in a green tree is slow. And like the life in a tree, one has to stop in front of it, linger with it, and listen patiently to it, to understand it. But the real thing is enduring like the tree. As you say, it won't disappear the moment your back is turned. And it won't let you down the way the Web ring did.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Another intensely thought-provoking comment... Thanks, Marshall Massey for your reflections on my post.

A number of things stand out for me in what you have said. You wrote, "Yes, the coolness of true Quakerism can take some getting used to. But I'd call it a life-friendly coolness, not an unfeeling coldness.

It's slow like the life in a green tree is slow..."

It is interesting that you should write this.Peter and I have often compared the feeling of a gathered meeting of Quakers to that of a living tree. It may be slow, but it's also intensely living and real...

You also wrote, "I think that, to be truly "Quaker", one has to do more than decide that one is a Quaker, or call oneself one, or even join a meeting -- one has to work, day after day, at living up to the identity, letting go of one's own weaknesses and responding to every person and situation in the very best & most loving way."

This made me think about how much of my distress over the incident with the web ring had to do with my "right" to call myself Quaker. As a newcomer, I have felt some insecurities there. However, the whole business of turf wars over words is hardly unique to Quakers. I keenly remember being told by one self-appointed doorkeeper of the Pagan community that I "wasn't a real Witch; I wasn't a real Wiccan.... I was... a WICCAZOID!" (Insert apalled gasping here.)

My Pagan bona-fides were even then well enough established that this hostility didn't wound me much. Indeed, one of the names I've called myself among Pagans, ever since, has been Wiccazoid Cat, in a somewhat defiant, somewhat humorous gesture. Whatever else, there's a root experience there that won't be washed away by mere words.

After reflecting further, and coming out of your comments today, I think that the next time someone explains to me that I can't possibly be a "real Quaker," I'll let it go. Because whether or not I'm "a Quaker," _I_ know my experience:

I _Quake_.

What the heck. It makes more sense as a verb than a noun, anyway. If I stop doing that thing that Quakers do, a word won't make up for that fact.
Anonymous said…
Cat, what a nice reply to my comment! Thank you!

I agree with you. Technically, no one is a "Quaker" unless they have membership in some Quaker body. That's the dictionary definition, old and established.

But I don't doubt you Quake, and I too feel that living Quaking's more important than static membership.

I also think that being the best possible Cat (or the best possible Marshall) is probably the most important thing of all. Seeing you labor at that is what attracted me to your blog from the beginning. I value the example you set, for my own growth's sake.
Anonymous said…
I have nothing terribly deep to add to this wonderful conversation, but Marshall (if you ever see this), I must object to the idea that a Quaker must be a member of an established Quaker meeting: for one thing there were Quakers before there were established meetings, and meetings out west that were established in unconventional ways. It's one thing to emphasize the essential communality of Quakerism, but another thing to say that a formal procedure like membership is necessary for being a Quaker.

Anonymous said…
Hi, Zach --

Just briefly: You write, "there were Quakers before there were established meetings." That is true, but definitions change over time. Check modern dictionary definitions. Hint: You can use Google to save time, if you like -- entering "define: Quaker" at the Google prompt will get you a whole bunch of definitions. You probably won't like the definitions it gets you; but the fact that one doesn't like a particular fact or actuality, doesn't stop it from being a fact or actuality.

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