Monday, June 16, 2008

The Winter of My Deep Content

During my youth I was in the habit of letting important decisions make themselves, with as little interference from me as possible. So when my wife and I left Argenta in search of gainful employment, we had a decision to make when we got to Revelstoke: go west toward Vancounver or head east toward Calgary. Both sounded appealing. We flipped a coin. The toss sent us east toward Calgary.

When we got to Calgary, the Calgary Stampede was still on, and there was hardly a bed to be found. A kind-hearted hotel clerk put us up for a night on a couple of air mattresses in a hallway near the kitchen, and the next day we headed south for Lethbridge, Alberta. Within a day, I found a job working on a dairy farm. The work was hard, and the pay was awful. It was just the sort of thing I was looking for.

The farm work lasted until December. The Canadian immigration authorities sent my wife back to the USA for medical reasons in September, so I was on my own as I faced my first Canadian winter. Work proved to be very hard to find. I headed back to Lethbridge and got a cheap apartment in a dark and depressing basement. It seemed like a perfect place to write a novel. So I did. Writing a novel proved to be just what I needed to think through the jumble of thoughts and emotions that were blowing through my heart and mind like an Alberta blizzard. The cold, the loneliness and the tedium of having no job were hard to take, so I took to drinking hard. (That, I learned, is a Canadian solution to many a problem. I've heard rumors that Canadians are not unique in seeking refuge in this particular solution.)

Fortunately, before going too far down that road, I got an unexpected call sometime in early 1968 from a man named Larry I had met briefly as he was passing through Argenta in June. He had heard I was in Lethbridge and might need a friend. He invited me to his home for a meal and told me I'd be welcome to join the handful of Quakers who met in his home for meetings for worship. A lifeline was thrown to me, and somehow I managed to catch it.

Larry knew I had too much time on my hands, so he invited me to join him as he made calls connected with his work. He worked for the John Howard Society, an organization that helps people just released from prison find suitable housing and work. By attending him on these calls I met several remarkable people who had been imprisoned for various crimes. Most of them were First Nation people, because, as I learned, native peoples make up a disproportionately large percentage of Alberta's prison population. White people tended to be given suspended sentences on first convictions. Native people tended to be sent to prison on first convictions. (There is a book entitled The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison that chronicles how social class is correlated with sentencing in the USA; the same pattern exists in Canada.) The more I saw of Larry's world, the more I saw that there is not much justice in the justice system, and the more I saw that prison does not do most people who go there much good. A few people manage to acquire skills that they can eventually use for honest work, but the majority come out worse than they were when they went in. About all that more will be said in other posts.

Living with Larry's family was an old man known only as Duke. Duke had had a stroke and could speak only with great difficulty. He read everything he could get his hands on. I got into the habit of going to Duke's room after meetings for worship, and he and I would spend hours together. He wanted me to read aloud passages from books he found inspiring. As time went on I learned that Duke considered himself a Buddhist, although he pointed out that Buddhism teaches that there is no I, and therefore it is, strictly speaking, impossible for a Buddhist to say “I am a Buddhist.” Like me, Duke had also dabbled in Communism. He fancied himself to be an artist, a painter. I fancied myself to be a novelist. We both knew we were destined to be unknown. We had a lot in common.

Another thing Duke and I had in common was that we both loved the Quakers we knew, but we both felt uneasy about their Christian roots. Larry quoted the Bible quite a lot in conversation and obviously spent much of his time reflecting on the life of Jesus. Duke and I approved of Jesus; he was, in our minds, a sort of honorary Buddhist. We liked the Quakers we knew, because they seemed to be trying hard to live as much like Jesus as they could. They helped the poor and the weak and the downtrodden. They worked in every way they could to remove the root causes of systematic violence, such as is provided by the military and the criminal justice system with quite a bit of help from taxpayers. Like Jesus, the Quakers won approval from Duke and me for being very much like Buddhists.

Conversing with Larry, spending time with Duke, and going to Quaker meetings for worship helped me shape a novel, and writing a novel helped me make sense of my life and got me started on the road to making sense of religion. Duke lent me a book on Buddhist meditation, and I taught myself to do mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation. Despite being allergic to labels, I begin to think of myself as a Buddhist. And a Quaker. A Buddhist and a Quaker. I wondered what Jesus would have to say about all that.

One night, one very cold night in the dark basement where I spent the winter of 1967–1968, I had a troubled dream. I awoke from it full of terror. I was afraid to go back to sleep, for fear of having another nightmare. As I lay there in that state of being neither fully awake nor quite asleep, I sensed a stirring in the room. I bolted upright just in time to see a man in white robes walking through the closed door of my bedroom closet. He came toward me. He placed his hand on me. He said everything would be fine. I recognized him. He was the honorary Buddhist that men call Jesus. No sooner did I recognize him than he was gone.

I can never be sure that I am not being a complete fool. Like everyone else, I take my chances. That night I took a chance on interpreting that dream, or vision, or hallucination as confirmation that Jesus took no offence at Duke and me for making him an honorary Buddhist, a bodhisattva instead of a Christ. I also took it that he thought it was just fine that I continue practicing Buddhist meditation and going to Quaker meetings for worship.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The teachers and the hippies

Argenta, British Columbia is pretty far away from almost everything that most people have heard of. One way to get there is to drive along the Trans-Canada highway until you get to Revelstoke (population 7500, located about six hours east of Vancouver and five hours west of Calgary). Head south on road 23. Argenta is 237 km (142 miles) to the south of Revelstoke. Figure on taking about four hours, averaging about 35 mph but often going quite a bit slower. Part of the journey involves taking the world-famous Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry for about three miles across a wide spot of the Columbia river.

There is a Quaker Meeting in Argenta. It was established in the 1950s by three families who had been school teachers in California during the McCarthy Era. During the height of the paranoid dread of Communism that grabbed hold of the United States, the state of California required all school teachers and other employees of the school system, including janitors and bus drivers, to swear an oath of loyalty to the United States. Quakers do not swear oaths; to know why, read the Gospel of Matthew 5:33–37. People who did not swear oaths during the McCarthy era were not allowed to work for the public school system. So John and Helen Stevenson and George and Mary Pollard and their families moved to Canada and eventually settled in a tiny settlement on glacier-fed Kootenay Lake. They were joined by four other Quaker families and eventually founded the Delta Co-operativeand a small Quaker school.

I met John and Helen Stevenson at a Yearly Meeting of Quakers in the late spring of 1967, just a few months after arriving in Canada as a draft-dodger, and somehow an invitation to visit Argenta was offered and accepted, so my newly acquired bride and I drove from Winnipeg to Argenta, via the route that involves taking the Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry. When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed and told we could stay for as long as we liked in any one of the unoccupied cabins.

Being accustomed to the ways of the world, I was uneasy about moving into a cabin before knowing who owned it and how much rent I would be expected to pay. I was stunned to learn that most of what was there did not belong to anyone in particular. Things belonged to the community as a whole. If a cabin was empty, we could stay there. Of course, it would always be appreciated if we pitched in with whatever work that needed to be done. I learned to milk the community cow and took on the responsibility of doing that twice a day, and I worked in the community garden for a couple of hours every morning. That seemed to be the only “rent” that anyone expected in return for having a place to sleep and joining the community for three meals a day, all cooked on a big wood-burning stove. As drawn as I was to theidea of radical communism, I never did get over being uneasy with the practice. I thought I needed money, even though there was no need to buy much of anything. I was used to making around $80 a week doing menial labor, and I could not adjust to the idea that the average annual income for the citizens of Argenta was around $600, about 15% of what I was used to making.

On First Day (which expression Quakers used to prefer to Sunday) we attended the unprogrammed meeting for worship in the Meetinghouse the Friends had built in the 1950s. It was roughhewn and simple, and it served several functions. It suited my tastes perfectly. The people who attended meetings for worship were delightful. When they spoke, it was always worth listening. One regular attender named George rarely spoke, but on most weeks he would stand and whistle a hymn. I had never heard anyone whistle so beautifully. George was a nudist. He wore a shirt and trousers to meetings for worship, but most of the time he walked around the wooded mountains wearing no more than he was born with. That feat amazed me, especially as I became acquainted with the thick clouds of aggressively hungry mosquitoes that drove both human beings and animals frantic. George did not mind them at all. He fed them with the same loving kindness that he manifested in everything he did.

Sometime during the summer of 1967, a van full of hippies pulled into Argenta. Like me, they were evading the draft and seeking sanity and refuge in Canada. They were lively, full of interesting conversation and open to experimenting with Quaker meetings for worship. The Quakers were every bit as hospitable to them as they had been to me—at first. It did not take long, however, to learn that the hippies also liked to smoke marijuana and use LSD, and—more alarming—that they were quite a bit more casual than the Quakers about sex. It was not long before some of the Quakers were expressing concern about the students attending the Argenta Friends School. It would not do, they reasoned, to send pregnant daughters and drug-using sons back to their parents in Philadelphia. Quaker parents, said the concerned Friends, do not send their children to Quaker schools to be turned into hippies. A crisis had emerged within the community.

A special business meeting was held to work through the crisis. Some Friends expressed the concerns outlined above. Others pointed out that Quakers have always struck mainstream society as radical, experimental, non-conformist seekers, and Quakers have a long history of landing in jail for their non-conformist ways. Hippies were not so different from the radical Quakers of the past and the present. Besides, they were in favor of making love, not war, and Quakers ought to embrace everyone who is dedicated to cultivating the virtues that are the occasion of harmony and peace rather than conflict and war.

The disagreements that arose at that meeting were expressions of deeply held convictions that seemed at first irreconcilable. And yet no tempers flared. People spoke. People listened. The atmosphere was charged not only with disagreement but with love. The love triumphed. A solution was found. Unity was reached. Now, more than forty years later, I have completely forgotten the details of the solution, but I shall never forget the love with which it emerged. The hippies continued to live nearby and to come to meetings for worship when they pleased, but somehow they were gently persuaded to keep some of their behavior to themselves, at least until the more cautious Quakers had a chance to make a more considered assessment of ways that struck them as a little too worldly and un-Quakerly.

Being in the presence of Quakers striving to reach unity on a perplexing and potentially divisive problem allowed me to witness a process that became for me a paradigm of how conflicts should be resolved. Even in years when I had almost no contact with Quakers, the Quaker process remained my model.

Turning points in one's life can be astonishingly brief. When I look back on the Argenta experience, it feels as though it had such a profound effect on me that I must have been there for years, perhaps decades. In fact, I think the stay in Argenta was not much more than six weeks. By mid-summer my bride and I were taking the Shelter Bay Galena Bay ferry in the opposite direction and heading back to Revelstoke and heading from there in the direction of Calgary. I have never been back to Argenta. There has been no need. Argenta has never left me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Comrade and the Friend

One bitter-cold night in late March 1967, I arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba by Greyhound Bus on a one-way ticket from Chicago. I had no need for a return ticket, because I had decided to stay out of the United States forever, or at least until I was no longer eligible for military service there. I checked into a hotel around midnight and thumbed through the telephone directory, not having any idea where to begin making a new life in this city I had never even visited before. My eye was caught by an entry for the Communist Party of Canada. I jotted down the address and determined to visit them the next morning. After all, I reasoned, I like the idea of Communism, and surely Communists will be sympathetic to a refugee from the United States who refuses to go to Vietnam to fight Communists there.

I never did find my way to the Canadian Communist Party. I did, however, discover a Communist bookstore in the same neighborhood. I browsed the shelves and discovered a couple of titles that looked interesting and took them to the bookshop owner, a lean and hungry-looking young man with wild hair and horn rim glasses. He looked the part. I told him I wished to purchase these two books and to have information about people who might be willing to help an American draft dodger get established in Canada. He seemed quite uninterested in my situation, but he gave me two names of people he thought might be willing to help me. He also said he thought I had chosen two interesting books, pointing out they were published in the Soviet Union and were quite authentic.

I got in touch with both of the two men. One said he was a Communist and would be willing to billet me in a spare room in his small apartment. The other said he would be happy to see me and gave me a location where I could meet him on the campus of the University of Winnipeg. I made arrangements to meet him the following day, then found my way to the billeting Communist. The Communist made me tea and introduced me to his family and his ferocious German shepherd. The dog later bit me twice, grabbing onto my knee so firmly that I limped for several days afterward, but his wife and daughter were more hospitable. Shown to my room, I read one of the books from the Communist bookstore. The contents horrified me. I began to think I might not be a Soviet-style Communist.

The next day I went to see the university professor. Right away I told him that I was a Communist of sorts and asked if he was, too. No, he said. He was a Quaker. Naturally, I was somewhat disappointed at the prospects of being aided by some kind of Christian, but at least I knew enough about Quakers to know that they were opposed to war.

There is no need to go into further details about my first encounters with a real live Communist and a real live Quaker. Suffice it so say that after a week my disillusionment with what I had seen of Canadian Communism was matched by a new fascination with the gentleness, good humor and intelligence that I was encountering in Canadian Quakers. Although my flirtation with Communism continued on and off for several more years, my attraction to Quakerism proved much deeper and more durable. About it, more will be said in subsequent posts.