Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Getting Started . . .

About a month ago, my sister Rachel told me that I should write a blog about my experiences as a Quaker. I had mentioned that I was about to go to the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference and she thought that was a perfect opportunity to begin a blog about my faith.

I told her there was no way I was going to do that. Although I love to write, I don't really see myself as a blogger. And it is pretty intimidating to put my personal thoughts and feelings out there for anyone to see. But ever since the conference, I can't seem to stop writing, so I guess I will try blogging for a while and see how it goes. If it is anything like my journals, I will start strong and trail off fairly quickly.

It seems like the best place to start is with the conference. We were each required to submit a paper introducing ourselves. It was my first time attending (I missed the last one because it was the same weekend as Hood to Coast), and I had no idea what to expect. It was an amazing experience. I also ended up as co-clerk of the planning committee for the 2010 conference, so expect to see many advertisements for the conference if I keep this blog up! I thought I would start by posting my conference paper and the reflection I wrote immediately after the conference. That way, it will look like I've already written a lot. And, because these are posted elsewhere on the internets, posting them is less scary than posting something completely new. So here goes:

Conference Paper

But what do you do during all that silence? This is a question I have heard a lot recently. I only became a Quaker a few years ago and most of my friends and family do not know any Quakers other than me, so I end up talking about my faith fairly often. Those who have never been to a silent worship service have a hard time believing that a room full of people could actually just sit in silence for an hour. But if I say that it is kind of like meditating, they nod. At least that is familiar. It’s when I start using phrases like “expectant listening” or “the light within” that I really start to lose them. They want to know what kinds of things people say in meeting, how often they speak, and whether it is a dialogue or a political diatribe. I think some imagine that as Quakers we spend all of our time repeating catch phrases about ending the war and congratulating ourselves on doing our part to help end slavery.

I do my best to explain what it is that I do. Sometimes I pray in a way that is very similar to how I prayed before I became a Quaker. I am thankful for the blessings in my life, I ask for help, and I think about those I love and what they need. Other times, I have a particular issue that I need to work through and I keep that as a question while listening for an answer. More often than I would like, I try to stop the voices in my head from yelling over each other, trying to distract me with bills, work, and what I am going to have for lunch after the meeting. Sometimes it is all I can do to focus on my breath and try to be a peaceful addition to the room.

The real question is what happens when the spirit moves. I am sure this happens differently for different people. Maybe for some it is easy, but it has never been that way for me. I am quiet by nature, soft spoken and hesitant to enter into a conversation if there are more than a few people present. I can think of few things I like less than public speaking. So when I feel that I have something to share in worship, I struggle. My heart pounds and my palms sweat and I try to convince myself for several minutes that I am mistaken, it really is just a message for me. But eventually I know that I must speak, so I do. Usually I say less than I thought I would and it is not as difficult to get through the message as I imagined it would be. And it is amazing how often someone else will say something that makes me sure that I did need to speak, that what I said was what someone else needed to hear.

Recently, I have had a few conversations with other Friends about what happens during the silence. It does not seem like a topic that Quakers like to talk about much and I am not sure why. Part of me thinks that we are all self conscious about what we are doing and secretly worried that we are doing the wrong thing. And, as Quakers, one thing that we are very good at is being quiet. But I think this is holding us back. We will never become stronger communities if we feel isolated, each of us sitting in our own silence, afraid to speak. I also think we need to acknowledge that people are doing and feeling different things during silent worship and that is fine. If we trust each other enough to talk about our individual experiences in the space we share, it will be easy to let each other into our lives in other ways. Then we can grow together and support each other along the way.

Conference Reflections

By the last morning of the conference, I was done. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that exhausted, and I was ready to go home. The conference was a veritable laundry list of things that make me uncomfortable: meeting new people, being in large groups, public speaking, touching, and listening to other women talk about things that are difficult for them. The conference also brought up a lot of emotional issues for me—issues I was not at all ready to deal with because I had no idea that they even existed.

On top of that, I felt like my body was falling apart. I was recovering from a cold and still coughing and sniffling, which meant I did not sleep much. I had progressively sweat through every shirt that I packed for the conference. I depend on running and yoga to maintain my physical and emotional balance and I had not felt well enough to do much of either for weeks. I could tell that, despite the wonderful food at Menucha, I had lost weight (usually I would be thrilled about this, but at the moment I just felt fragile). And just about every time I opened my mouth over that four-day period, I started to cry. I am pretty sure that if the women there knew what a mess I really was, they would seriously reconsider giving me control over any part of the planning committee. All I wanted to do was go home, sit on my couch, and watch some mindless television with my cats.

This was probably not the best place to start silent worship.

But almost as soon as we settled into the silence, I heard a very clear message: “It’s not always going to be this easy.” I knew that this was not from me. Of all the words I could think of to describe the conference, “easy” was not one of them. I sat there rebelliously thinking, “you think this is easy?” As struggled with this message, woman after woman rose to speak, demonstrating in no uncertain terms the faith, love, support, and guidance surrounding me at the conference. As I listened to their beautiful expressions of God’s love, I heard another message: “Yes, this is the easy part. It is going to be a lot harder after this.” I felt overwhelmed. Then I heard, “But I will be there too.”

When I think about the conference, I am amazed by how each event led to the next. In the first plenary session, I sat next to Sarah P. She and I introduced ourselves and talked briefly about how we were both new to the conference and didn’t know what to expect. When someone announced that there were not enough servers for lunch, we both volunteered. That afternoon, I attended the journaling workshop. It reminded me how important writing is to me and how, though I write all the time, I had drifted away from writing anything personal. I also heard Sarah P say, “I write all the time and I want to be a writer.” This was the message I needed to hear to know I was not crazy when I felt that she and I were meant to be on the epistle committee. The next day at lunch, I happened to sit next to the woman organizing the clerking workshop. I went to that workshop and I was so impressed by the stories of the women who had taken positions of leadership in their meetings, despite their busy lives and feelings of inadequacy. Looking back, I don’t feel like I actually made any decisions at the conference. The next step was just right there in front of me when I needed it.

After I wrote the first three paragraphs of this reflection, I had to leave. As I often do when I leave a writing project, I left myself a note so that I would remember where I wanted to pick up. The note I left for myself was, “Make sure to include some good stuff about the conference or no one will ever want to go.” There were so many wonderful things that happened at the conference, it would take forever to try to list them. I do want to mention a few anecdotes that have made me smile repeatedly since I got back. One is Alivia B calling me out for being “such a lawyer” and always looking for exceptions. It is good to have friends who know you well. Another is overhearing a woman from another retreat admiring Carolann P’s beautiful quilts and informing her friend, “Well, yeah, they make quilts. Just like the Amish.” And I am smiling now as I remember Sarah H surprising everyone by breaking into her tap routine.

I am still tired and I am still a little sick, but I am so excited about working on the next conference that I can’t stop making lists about it. I know that eventually normal life will take over again, but I want to get as much done as I can before that happens. As one of my favorite hymns proclaims, it is well with my soul.


  1. Since you are my favorite storyteller, I’m ecstatic you started this blog. And you are such a wonderful representation of a Friend that putting your perspective out there just makes sense. Carry on with your awesomeness.

  2. Ash, this is amazing! Reading it upon arriving in the office (I know, I know...) has shed a beautiful light on my day! Your piece about the silence makes so much sense and really resonates with what I've done in "personal practice" for about a decade now - I feel like finally "get" it. Thank you for this! I look forward to reading more.

  3. Ashley, I'm so proud of you! It's a great start and I think it's really going to bear good fruit, both for you and for the people who read it. You are a great writer and I'm so happy you're putting yourself out there like this. It's smart and brave, and I'm excited to read your next posting.

  4. Ashley - I hope you keep up this blog because it is excellent! I have enjoyed reading all of your posts. =)

    I'm glad you had a good time at the PNWQWTC. I went in 2006 and was sad to miss it this year.


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