Friendly Vitality: Diary of a Quaking FGC-er
July 2. I’m going to Friends General Conference in Grinnell, Iowa! My first in many years. As I stand here in BWI airport, the thought fills me with… well, a quaking anticipation. I’ll admit, a good bit is just chronic nervousness. I miss my Xanax! Still, I think my clearness committee on Self-Medication and Hypochondria had the right end of the peace pole.
“Friend,” said my clerk, Jane. I love Jane! She tells me she regularly holds my bitten fingernails in the Light. “Friend, you’re just too sensitive to the world. I know we Quakers strive to open our hearts to others’ pain. But there are limits. When you tremble so much, from the beginning to the end of meeting, you make visitors uncomfortable and you distract the teenagers. ”
My messages in meeting aren’t too helpful, either. I should say I have mild Turret’s, so I sometimes blurt out things I don’t mean to—which makes quake even more.
But this week, dear diary, I’m not worried. On the FGC web site, it says the Gathering strives to be a safe space for all who want to attend. That’s me, too! I am going to feel safe and welcome. Jane will be proud of me—as will you, dear diary, my companion through all these palpitations!
July 3. My first uncomfortable quakes, and I’ve only just been here an hour! Oh well. Still, these were big shivers, in the bathroom of all places—knees knocking together. What was the trigger?
Well, I should explain that FGC has a very strict ban against fragrances. Apparently, many Friends here get headaches because they’re canaries in the coal mine, alert to industrial toxins. I’m not like my atheist boyfriend, Kevin, who says everyone from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Allergy rejects fragrance sensitivities as an organic condition and views them as psychosomatic. I say--what’s to be gained by invalidating other people’s reality? My problem was much more practical, this evening: FGC provided fragrance-free soap and sold odorless shampoo in the Gathering store, but fragrance-free deodorant and aftershave were nowhere to be purchased.
So there I was, in the strictly fragrance-free bathroom. I used my official soap. I’d left my noxious aftershave, shampoo, and deodorant locked up airtight in my suitcase. But then I sprayed shaving cream on my face, and it hit me.
Oh no! Offending odor! Noxious molecules rising up from the yellow basin. Invisible, paired clumps of perilous protons! I quaked and quivered. I pulsed and vibrated. Then I threw the offending can into the garbage. I washed every last scrap of the white, fluffy, fake-plastic-poison down the drain. But I kept trembling all the way through the opening plenary, overwhelmed by guilt.
July 5. Oh. Oh. Dear diary, I can barely keep my pen still! I am much too trembly-shaky.
One. Two. Deep breaths, Friend! Try to think of calming images from Quaker history… Old, cracked leather breeches. Shaggy locks—Fox sleeping rough on the road, he was so free and strong—clouds of seventeenth century dandruff! I feel better now.
So, diary, you know I take our Quaker stewardship testimony seriously, and since watching that movie, Food, Inc. I, haven’t been able to touch factory-farmed eggs, milk, or meat. So my cafeteria options this morning were limited—but I did see tofu scramble on one of the tables.
I went to dish up. A tall, thin woman with curly hair was standing in front of me. I moved towards the scramble… delicious it looked, too, with onion, tomato, and cilantro.
“Excuse me, Friend,” asked the woman, firmly. “Are you gluten free?”
My plate, with the wholewheat toast and the dry, skinny apple on it, started moving in my hand. As my shakes got worse, the apple flew behind the counter. Then the gluten-laden toast fell down, right on Curly’s feet.
“Yes!” I blurted out. I could feel my Turret’s coming on. “I mean NO! I’d NEVER gluten! GLUE-some idea!”
The curly-haired woman looked at me as if I was crazy—understandable, I guess.
“No need to get nervous, Friend. We’re just asking that unless you’re completely gluten-free, you refrain from eating the food at this table.” She continued, “Yesterday we ran out, and you have to understand, Friend”—here she gestured at the fruits, cheeses, eggs, meats, and yoghurts on the other tables. Were these grain-based? I wasn’t sure. “If we eat the wrong foods, we’ll be at a medical risk. This is a matter of equality for us, like slavery…” I’d never thought of it that way! A justice issue in the bran flakes!
“Of course!” I managed to stumble out. “A glue-mungous problem! Didn’t mean to be so greedy—glue-ti-nous—gluttonous! S-s-sorry!”
In my anxious rush to escape, I did leave the toast lying at her feet, leaking wheat protein composites onto her toes.
July 7. Diary, things are going a little better. I’ve had some great worship experiences—I loved the FLGBTQSRDVI… damnit, I can never get that acronym right! But the silence, and community, were fantastic. I went to a fascinating reading about Quaker history. And in John Calvi’s lecture on torture I shivered—but not from anxiety.
I love this conference’s diversity. So many events! Now granted, sometimes this variety causes me problems. On Monday, I started off in a workshop about class. But I blabbered out, “These ugly college seminar rooms have no class at all! I hope we can accomplish that this week—getting this Gathering some class!” The look on the male facilitator’s face made me run away. I tried singing, but couldn’t hold a note. And then this morning, in yoga workshop, I strained my back doing a hand stand and got sent to the Healing Center to have my chakras rebalanced, which took all afternoon because apparently I have a giant black whirlpool in the middle of my aura. The healer said it moves clockwise, a bad omen in the Northern Hemisphere.
But all in all, I’ve been enjoying myself. As a Jewish Buddhist Pagan Light-Centered Quaker Universalist, I enjoy the theological range. I’ll be going to Shabat on Friday. In Kevin’s honor I’ll stop by a Non-Theist discussion.
But this morning, emerging from the dorm, I saw an old woman hugging a tree. Tree-gripping, dear diary, speaks to my every theological instinct: it combines Jewish schmoozing, Buddhist compassion, and pagan nature-love. It’s the best in the world!
So I ran up to this grandmotherly figure.
“Spiritual sister!” I cried, embracing her from behind, with all my strength. For a second she recoiled, terrified. Maybe I was overdoing it—I am, after all, male and six foot two.
But then she saw the FLGBTQSRDVI rainbow in my badge, and my Quaker Earthcare T-shirt.
“Brother!” she smiled. We hugged the tree together. On my way to breakfast I also embraced a shrub, a volleyball court pole, and a rusty metal garbage dumpster. At FGC we clasp everything!
At the cafeteria the curly-haired gluten-free woman who’d yelled at me invited me to join her table. “I’m sorry I was so tough on you with the tofu,” she said. “It’s just that when food runs out, people get defensive.”
“I’m sorry I dropped a piece of toast on your foot,” I replied. “I don’t mean to quake as badly as I do, but I can’t help it.” When I started trembling at all this emotion, Mary—for that’s her name—put her hand on mine.
“This is one place in the world,” she said, “with room for everyone.”
We exchanged phone numbers, and promised to remain friends with both small and capital F’s.
July 8. Closing worship was full of messages about peace and reconciliation, which made me think about how much I appreciated all the mistakes I’d been forgiven for this week.
What will I tell Jane and the rest of my meeting when I get back home? In the airport, I reflected there were plenty things participants like me had to forgive this Gathering’s organizers for: everything from shortages of lunch boxes, all of the way to a shower policy that was completely insensitive to transgender campers.
Still, something brings people back here, year after year, and will probably bring me back sometime, too.
Perhaps it’s what Mary said, about FGC being one place where you can hug a tree or have an exotic allergy. A place where people can quake as they like.
Perhaps it has to do with the weight of the topics Gathering addresses, from food justice to Burundi. Or with sheer community.
Or is it that Gathering is a bit like Jesus himself, who attracted eccentrics and social outcasts? Today, if Jesus wondered the Midwest prairies, would he dine with a fragrant-allergic gluten-intolerant Jewish Buddhist? Dear diary, if he stopped to talk to a quaking FGC-er like me, would he say something kind, like Mary? Would he hug a tree with me, like that like bespectacled grandmother?