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Relying on the Silence of Strangers: A reflection on meeting Quakers abroad

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Established in 2016 with generous support from our community, the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF) supports our faculty with transformative professional development experiences at key moments in their careers. Encouraged to think beyond workshops and conferences, teachers submit an application seeking support for a professional development experience that will enrich future programs, our school culture and greater community.

In 2016, humanities teacher Jodi Pickering sat down with former Head of School Cathy Hunter to brainstorm on how to make her 25th year of teaching “transformative.” Deciding to set aside time to study writing and publishing while also teaching, Jodi developed a better writing practice that culminated in a reflective journey to England and France, where she visited Quaker sites and joined Meeting For Worship abroad. Below is just a piece of her writing from that experience.

A Quaker meetinghouse in France.

Relying on the Silence of Strangers

After an hour of driving, we turn onto the Avenue des Quakers. It is the second-to-last day of our journey, and my plan to have my family attend Meeting for Worship here, the day before we tackle ten hours of driving and two flights, does not seem as wise as it had when I was mapping out our travels months ago.

It is hot, around 95 degrees, and we are early. With no town center in sight, we wander into the graveyard. As my husband reads words on the gravestones, my daughter and I walk briskly around, moving our legs in anticipation of the 60 minutes of sitting that await us.

Sweaty now, we enter the gate of the Quaker House to look for the Meeting Room. An older woman is bent over a browning end-of-season garden and, without looking up, she says to us, in English, “It’s through there,” as if people come through looking for the Meeting Room with some frequency. The room has the feel of a conference room, with books on the shelves, pamphlets on the table, and a door leading to the kitchen. About 15 chairs form a circle, many occupied by quiet, older people. In an effort to seat us together, my husband approaches two chairs that have been stacked, one on top of the other, and begins to separate them. A woman leans forward, smiles and shakes her head, asking him not to, whispering that that chair (or set of chairs) is for their friend with the extra long legs. She shifts her seat so that three chairs might be open side by side.

And so we join them.

There is no fan, but the door is open and in a few minutes, the gardener enters and, after her, a couple joins them. They too try to separate the chairs and are told of the not-yet-arrived man of long legs.

I often have trouble settling into the silence, and that day is no different. My curiosity is peaked and my stomach is rumbling an embarrassingly loud rumble, a rumble which everyone save my daughter pretends not to notice. Desperate to settle, I focus my energy on conquering the growl, but my stomach roars and my sweat is now a nervous sweat.

The friend of the lengthy legs arrives. His legs indeed are long and his hair is surprisingly red; he shuffles his way to the stacked chairs and settles in. Watching him, I have given up trying to control my stomach grumblings and they stop. We settled into the silence together. Strangers bound by tradition.

For me, it is not silent long. The voice of my inner teacher begins to make itself heard. Slowly at first, a reassuring soft voice quietly reassuring me that I will find my way after I send my daughter off to college. There is more to me than mother and wife, the voice reminds me. My daughter will depart soon after we arrive back home, and my thoughts shift to reviewing our two-week trip, and soon a cacophony of inner teachers are shouting, each urging me to examine a truth. One urges me to go ahead and call myself a writer, another pushes me to find ways to teach the stories of those behind the scenes, and yet another yells at me for not being present.

I turn my attention to the possibility of a new identity. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’ve been ashamed of my lack of ambition. If you read, you’re a reader. If you write and get published (I thought), then you’re a writer. I wrote my first children’s book, Larry the Land Shark, when I was 18, and since then I’ve written essays, short stories, and a young-adult novel, but I have never called myself a writer. Until this past year, no one but close friends or family had ever seen my words. With a week-long conference and four workshops and dedicated time set aside for writing, I worked diligently to transform from caterpillar to butterfly, and there, listening to the silence, I realize that I have my wings. One of my teachers had started her course by lauding us all for being there, encouraging us all to shed the scales of insecurity we carried with us. She asked how many of us considered ourselves readers, and all of our hands shot up. Shifting the question to ask how many of us considered ourselves writers, a smaller number of hands raised, many of them with trepidation. “If you read, you’re a reader,” she said, “and if you write, you’re a writer.” And with that sentence, I was free to love my writing for the joy it gives me and not carry the weight of responsibility to publish or even to share if I didn’t want to.

I think about how this freedom opened the door to sharing. I shared Larry the Landshark with second graders to get their feedback; I shared short stories with friends and bosses who are friends. I pushed myself to write seven short stories for the seven sins, and though I may never share “Lust” with anyone, I think I can share “Wrath” with my seventh graders next year as they tackle their own short stories.

I reflect on how, when traveling this summer, I wrote daily, most often first thing. I remember most fondly the Gulf of Poets in Italy, chosen because I wanted to write where D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley had written years ago, and it was immediately evident what made the place so fruitful for them. The light, the boats, the cliff hugging homes—they all slowed life down. I rose early and wrote, and there the words flew more quickly.

I flush with pride at the memory of easily reaching my daily goal of 1,000 words and how, with extra time before the family awoke, I added to my morning routine a swim. Across the empty plaza, chairs stacked up at the restaurants that had been so lively before. I had walked down to the harbor to a spot on the rocks where four old women in bikinis were socializing. Presumably a swim was also in their future, but their day began together. They welcomed me with a nod and “Bongiorno” and smiled as I gasped a bit, sliding into the water to began my swim.

I remember how this idyllic scene at the harbor had been tainted when I learned that, in the 16th century, the Jews of this picturesque town were locked in a ghetto, blamed for the plague that had struck the city. The quaint gate I had passed was no longer quaint. The inner teacher reminding me that we have to learn the stories of those behind the scenes begins to clamor for my attention.

I shift in my chair and wonder if anyone else’s mind is racing. I see one man’s chest rising up and down, up and down. He’s going to speak soon, I think, and sure enough he begins. He speaks slowly and sadly, and it is all in French. I hear something that sounds like civilization and then Egypt? Did he just say Egypt?

History teachers are often drawn to must-sees, must-knows. At the beginning of our trip, when we were headed to London, I was eager to go to Westminster Abbey, the site of all coronations since William the Conqueror in 1066. However, my husband, ten years older than I, had not set his alarm clock for 4:30 in the morning on July 29th, 1981; had not sat mesmerized watching Diana walk down the red carpet, long train trailing behind her, on her way to becoming Princess Di. And though my daughter could capably demonstrate her Friends School learning, remembering Henry the VIII and some other medieval facts, she, too, wondered what the fascination with royalty was. With their help, I ditched the sites of those whose stories are often told and saw instead the Roman walls, the rocks and those who had put them there and the Museum of Fashion, filled with one woman’s story of realizing a dream to incorporate history into textile and send it down a runway for the world to see while she stayed behind the scenes.

I find myself wondering how anyone ever decides what history to teach. In the midst of a city that had literally thousands of years of tales to tell, how did the Brits build their curriculum? What was it about that monument that we stumbled upon as we walked along the Thames—a monument to a group of low ranking fliers who fought for twenty days during WWII to protect London from Germany— that was so captivating to all of us?

And then, my small voice reminds me, there was the Pont du Gard, a Roman Aqueduct, a site we almost skipped because we were tired of touring and had already seen Roman arenas and crypts. Yet again we were all entranced. Yes, there was appeal in the grand expanse, its golden color and the cool swimming waters underneath, but what awed us was its functionality. The idea that an instrument of engendering could transform a few river-sided cities into a connected empire. When we later saw pipes that were used to continue the path of the water over valleys, we wondered how they did not get lead poisoning; it was the power of the engineer, not the emperor, that was the story we wanted to hear.

The man in the Quaker meeting room standing finishes talking and sits down. I have missed most of what he has said, but he looks up at my three-person family and asks if we would like him to restate it in English. He had spoken for a while.  My husband, without looking up, shakes his head no. The implication that we speak French hangs there for a moment, and I feel the three of us stifle a laugh. We are bonded in a way that we weren’t before this trip.

I enjoy the rest of the silence, feeling the wisdom of the voice telling me to be present, to notice and appreciate the way a member of the group stands and retreats into the kitchen, returning through the swinging door with a tray carrying a pitcher of water and a stack of glasses. I am not brave enough to reach forward to take one; I consider that lack of courage.

The meeting ends, and instinctively I want to run. The end of meeting always makes me feel that way, and the feeling is intensified by the awkwardness I feel in having shared an intimate moment with strangers.

Be present. Okay, I will, and I wait for someone else to leave first. Not quite present, but a start. Only no one leaves.

Instead, one woman suggests, in English, that we introduce ourselves. When it is my turn to speak, I reveal that we do not speak French. This is not news. The man with the long legs claims to be the most Quaker of all: his Parkinson’s a testament.

One member remarks to the others that we should let our visitors know that an ancestor of the original Quakers is with us, and all eyes turn to a woman who does not smile. She is French and does not speak English; we learn the story of those before her from others that seem to know the story well. We learn that that the English had come and pillaged Congenies, and that a man had regretted the actions and written the townsfolk explaining that, as a Quaker, their actions did not reflect their beliefs. We learn that someone wrote him back and told him that they weren’t Quakers but that they were interested in meeting a man of such integrity and would he like to come visit?

They tell the history without speaking over each other, and without the awkward pauses that come when people wish they could interrupt but are too polite to do so.

And, the man with the long legs adds, this is how these Quakers also came to leave the door open because it is the English Quakers who do that. When Quakers have had to hide, they met behind closed doors, but true Quakers leave the door open to new truths.

It is still awkward when we leave, but less so than it would have been had we run out immediately after. I feel giddy as we make our way to car. Our trip is over tomorrow, but I no longer look at the travel day as just a day to get through. Tomorrow, as all days, will be a day to leave the door open and to be present. By doing this, I might get lucky and learn some hidden history. And, once having learned it, I’ll do my best to write it down.