Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003

Reviews --Continued

A Stone Bridge North, Kate Maloy. Counterpoint, Washington DC: 336 pages.
Driving By Moonlight,
Kristin Henderson. Seal Press, New York: 302 pages.
Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Living out a faith is the substance of narrative theology, and memoir is one of the best forms through which we can glimpse this theology taking shape, with all the accompanying struggle and exaltation.

Two recent memoirs by Quaker women name and present this process superbly, and, as might be expected, very differently. They also, by the accident of timing, show the impact of history on faith and life.

The earlier of the two, A Stone Bridge North, by Kate Maloy is a pre-9-11 narrative. Unconsciously so, of course, though a note in the acknowledgments shows that Maloy finished her writing on the cusp of the attacks, and then decided, rightly I think, not to revise it to attempt to take in their impact. Her life, her story and the theology it is creating–these are not done, of course, and the shock of the attacks and their aftermath was sure to add important chapters. But her book and its story were finished, and she let them stand.

Kate Maloy’s story here, when put in a nutshell, sounds too good to be true:

A disenchanted, spiritually impoverished, professionally burned-out middle-aged Quaker woman kicks over the traces and sets out to make a new life. She escapes her arid marriage, quits a soul-deadening job, prepares to leave the big city and starts looking for a soulmate.

And damn if she doesn’t find him, via the internet no less, and on practically the first try. Soon she’s moving with him and her adloescent son Adam to a charmingly bucolic Vermont fixer-upper homestead, determined to garden, walk in the woods, write, knit, quilt, and generally live happily ever after. And as if all this weren’t enough, in the bargain she recovers her Quaker faith and settles gratefully into a rustic new Meeting, then proceeds to tell the whole tale in this handsome and often elegantly written memoir.

But this all has to be true, and not simply because no fiction editor would buy the plotline of A Stone Bridge North as a novel. I speak with a certain degree of knowledge here, because after reading the book, it wasn’t enough simply to review it; I had to check. So off and on ever since, I’ve been asking nosey email questions of her, the sum and substance of which are: You’re not kidding, right?? and How’s it going – really?

The result: no she wasn’t kidding. Sure, there were glitches, some minor, some major – among the minor were that the fixer-upper process took more time, labor and money than expected (surprise, surprise); paid writing gigs have sometimes been tough to come by; life in the new Friends Meeting occasionally turned out to be, well, a pain; there’s teenage angst to cope with – and did I mention Vermont’s ol’ Debbil Winter?

But the bulletins from the north had the ring of truth, which I suppose is what I was looking to hear, and part of what kept me putting more pressing business aside to go on reading this book. That and her writing, which was often eloquent, but more often personal, and serious about her surprising spiritual renewal.

As ballast, there are occasional slips into predictable rhetoric – when she looks beyond the Green Mountains at the outside world, the standard National Public Radio Quaker cliches and commonplaces leap from her pen. But these were almost comforting in their familiarity, and she wisely keeps them short.

So this is a book for the bedsides of most of us, I think. For many, it can strengthen hope. I even bought an extra copy of A Stone Bridge North (almost unheard of among us cheapskate book reviewers who get most of our tomes for free) to send to a dear midlife F/friend who was also carving out a creative life in the North Woods, complete with everything except the soulmate: See, was the clumsy message; hang in there– it’ll happen. And indeed, it has since done so; though this woman opted to do her prospecting not on the internet but in the more familiar confines of Quaker summer gatherings.

Yet the book should be just as interesting to those whose lives are finally coming together: Amazing grace, how sweet is still the sound.

All that was the minor part. At last report, in the autumn of 2003, life had intervened in a major way: health problems had forced Kate and her husband to let go of their labor-intensive Vermont home and head west to his old haunts, in hopes of a friendlier climate – repeating, by the way, one of the oldest stories in Vermont history.

"I knew this book would be about miracles," Maloy writes, "but I did not know that writing it would enrich my knowledge and experience of faith." (ix)

But it is also valuable raw material for those who strive to make sense of this peculiar faith community. Memoir is a bearing witness, and Kate Maloy is often at her most eloquent when she speaks of her journey with (and against) Friends:

Conversing with God is difficult. Everything else must drop away. The voice within is faint and small and sometimes speaks in a language we don’t recognize. Our disbelief, our personal will, and our habits of literal mind are powerful. Distraction insists, intrudes–grabs us by the face the way Adam did at two if I tried to talk to someone else while holding him on my hip. Sometimes that distraction can lead us to exactly what we seek; sometimes it impedes. How to know?

These puzzles are why a reliance on the light in ourselves and others is not an invitation to invent our own religion but a strenuous discipline forged in the midst of human uncertainty, pettiness, and judgments. It is tempting to resist the truth when it is delivered by someone whose personality rankles or opinions offend. It is difficult to know when a prompting is from God and not an expression of ego, denial, selfishness, or sanctimony, in the self or other people. The ministry of Friends ranges widely in content and quality. It can be self-serving, shallow, and annoying, or it can be wise and moving. The same ministry that changes one listener’s whole world view can seem tedious or self-evident to another.

I did not understand any of this when I first began attending Friends Meetings, which I did sporadically in the years after I learned about Friends . . . . I went to Meetings in Toronto, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in Berkeley and San Francisco before landing in Pittsburgh for two decades. Now and then I would see the oddest behavior. . . .

In various Meetings I attended, I knew there were half-mad people, homeless people, angry people, lonely people, childish people. I came to see that because Quakers were known for tolerance, simplicity, social action, and caring, they attracted waifs and refugees from the fringes of American culture and a few others. This was the obvious difficulty–dealing compassionately with disruptive or deeply needy people without also disturbing the foundation of a Meeting, its silences, its testimonies, its processes.

Less obvious to me, before I joined Pittsburgh Meeting and came to know it over many years, was how hard it could be to deal with stable, responsible. well-established Friends. Often, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. I have heard Friends use Meeting for Worship as their soapboxes and sounding boards. I have beard longtime Quakers defiantly ramble on with self-indulgent complaints just because they wanted to create a disturbance. I have seen one or two people hold up a decision in Meeting for Business just because they felt resentment or needed to exert their influence, knowing no action could be taken without the necessary unity.

In other words, I have seen Friends be just as selfish and cantankerous as any other group of human beings.

I have also seen tenderness and compassionate action carried out quietly and competently, without calling attention to itself. I have seen wounds healed, have heard inspired ministry delivered by some of the half-mad and injured, have been moved to tears by simple naked truths spoken by a woman in her eighties, afraid to die. I have learned that a danced, ranted, sung, or babbled message can be true and profound even if I can’t understand it. I know I have heard messages from God, some straightforward and others in code. I know I have felt the presence of God when the silence has descended and have found in my own spirit a calm intensity that is not of this world.

Hearing what other Friends are led to say, and seeing the examples set by them–both good and bad–is a kind of spiritual apprenticeship through which the powers of discernment can grow. Above all, group worship draws upon the light of everyone present, illuminating more truth, love, and wisdom than one person’s share of the light can ever do. Time and again I experience directly and with poignant power the fact that we are all part of the same larger, timeless whole. Together we embody the truth. (141-43)

Kate Maloy was greatly favored, in the old Quaker term, to be able to write this in a time of what was called peace. A Stone Bridge North would have been utterly different, I suspect, if she had started it after Ninth Month of 2001 – if, indeed, she could have written it at all. This fact does not lessen its value, but urges the reader forward to the second, newer book, Driving By Moonlight to turn that corner and see where it can lead.

Kristin Henderson begins with the image of the Twin Towers blasted on her brain, and the smoke of the damaged Pentagon literally in her nostrils.    

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