Thursday, July 25, 2013

when they built interstate 80 through iowa, back in the fifties or sixties, quakers objected because their plans led the new interstate right through the grounds of scattergood school, the old scattergood meeting house, and a cemetery that held some of nixon's ancestors. the cemetery trumped all, legally, and the highway boys reluctantly agreed to put a crook in the road (possibly the only one in the state), so that it would go past the meetinghouse but not directly through it. the meetinghouse became a bit noisy. we would put wood in the woodstove during the winter meetings, but in the crisp january air you could always hear those trucks making the curve and shifting their gears. silence, of course, is the mainstay, the foundation, of quaker meetings. we waited for god in those meetings. sometimes god did amazing things.

i actually worked there, so it was my business whether the high school students showed up, what kind of shape they were in during morning meetings (they were notorious for staying up all night), and whether they were able to keep a silence in their rebellious, teenage, anti-quaker spirit. they were typical high school students, good at heart, but relentlessly, constantly, creatively "bad." we were fighting a losing battle. some elder quakers took the roles of stoking the fire, casting stern eyes on wayward kids, counting the noses, etc. sometimes i relaxed into a deep, wood-smoked silence. the sun would be rising out the ancient paned windows. there was a wood floor, and absolutely no decoration. on some mornings it was cold enough to see your breath and the girls would wear mittens and cover their noses. then, of course, they could giggle better.

somebody recently asked what kind of ambient noise is acceptable for a quaker meeting. i almost felt like they were asking if it was acceptable to put one of those computer-generated ambient waterfalls, or ambient rainstorms, or ambient campfires. to me, no, no, no. the highway was ok, it was even good. the woodstove was good. downtown streets are ok. the occasional trains in southern illinois meeting were ok.

this is partly because i spent years travelling and i-80 more or less ruled those years. it went from iowa back to my home towns in the east, iowa to california, iowa to chicago, i was all over that road. and the trains: if they were slow enough, which they almost were in southern illinois, i'd jump on them, but, settled in silence, it was like the world was busy, the world was moving, the world was its usual self, but i was still. i found my peace in that noise. i actually became a quaker in that meeting house. there were other meeting houses in that area, there were even other places at that school where we'd meet; in town, there was this fine old one but it had its own set of elders who would move over a bit to make room. there was no place like that meeting house, though. it was the original thing, the old farm-school meeting house. it was not tarnished by the noise. it sat in its glade, stern, rectangular, peaceful. its pews made a nice sound on its old wooden floors.

it drove some of the kids crazy, though. two of them were in love once, and were suffering from stern looks from the elders. the elders knew, i think, that they were staying up nights, in love, walking out over the prairie, making out in the sod house by the old pond, or whatever. one day they were very restless in meeting; the next they were gone. they'd crawled down the bank to the road and hitchhiked off to california. of course, this was scandalous; they were in high school, we were responsible for them, etc. they showed up a little later and of course we hemmed and hawed and had to figure out some punishment or whether to let them back into the school. it was a major crisis, maybe our worst. we were lucky though. there were kids in my high school that simply didn't make it through those terrible years, at least these two made it.

nowadays those kids have grown up and rack it all up to good memories of high school days. somebody came up with enough money to build a little wall that reflected the sounds of the trucks and deadened the sound; this wall runs right behind the meeting house now and no doubt alleviates the sound, which actually irritated quite a few people. now, of course, they have to keep kids from hiding behind that wall and doing whatever kids do; back in my day, they would sneak into the meeting house as one place that was always open, and empty, not to mention quite beautiful, in the middle of the night. some of those kids became quaker, like me, though i was not a kid; others were quaker all along, and just became a little older there. quakerism is a religion that is based around people's experience with that silence, and their experience with each other that is based around it. this is what they were trying to teach those kids with that meeting. who's to know if it worked? it worked for me, incidentally, though, because they'd actually employed me to watch, they didn't even know how badly i myself needed to be watched, or how thoroughly incapable i was of watching.

it was a silent meeting like no other. the wood crackled and sometimes the teenagers would fall asleep. i imagined mice skittering around, hoping someone would bring a cookie for breakfast and drop some crumbs. sometimes people spoke on matters of a spiritual nature or on other things that were troubling them. sometimes the things that troubled teenagers would surprise you.

it brought up the question of whether, if a quaker meeting is 85 or maybe 90% teenagers, it could be called a less mature meeting, unworthy of being called a mature, true, full meeting...when the only other adults at the meeting have one eye open, or are practicing the silent tsk tsk tsk? the answer is, there's a meeting house, there's a fire, there's god, and there's whoever is listening. and off in the distance, there are these trucks, changing their gears.

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