Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mary Oliver on knowing and not-knowing

I originally considered entitling this blog “Mary Oliver and epistemology,” but I decided that perhaps no one would bother to read it. “Epistemology” is one of those long words that pedantic people like to throw into a conversation. For years, every time I ran across it in a book, I had to look it up. Somehow the meaning just didn’t stick in my mind. Most of my friends don’t use words like that.
It’s finally sticking, and I actually like the sound of it. Epistemology. I like its meaning even more. It refers to the science of knowledge, the study of how we know, of how we discover what is true and what is just opinion. (I’m making this definition up as I go, but I think I’m close to the mark.)
Mary Oliver and the sound of the word epistemology don’t go together. Her poems are rich but simple in their word choice. No showing off or pedantry here. But the meaning of the word comes up frequently in her work. The theme of knowing, or even more frequently, not-knowing, swims beneath the surface of her nature poems.
This trip to Bolivia is all about epistemology. We’re researching the history of the Bolivian Friends Church, interviewing the old people, scrounging around in the archives, trying to come up with the truth behind the people and events that have formed this church. We are trying to sort fact from mythology, especially about the early years. We are trying to come to a right knowledge, being careful to document all the bits and pieces.
In the spaces between the tasks, I turn these days to Mary Oliver’s poems. I have only one volume on my Kindle, Why I Wake Early. Oliver’s poetic epistemology brings balance to my wrestling with so many facts. Here are just a few excerpts.
In the poem “Bone,” Oliver writes about discovering the ear bone of a pilot whale on the beach and compares its mystery to the mystery of the human soul:
Beside me 
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors, 
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar; 
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare; 
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom, 
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it 
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts— 
and what the soul is, also 
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing, 
truly I know
our part is not knowing, 
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on, softly, 
through the pale-pink morning light.
Oliver begins the poem, "Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?," with these lines:
There are things you can’t reach. But 
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
Later in the poem she says,
I look; morning to night I am never done with looking. 
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open…. 
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world 
At least closer….
In the poem, “Trout Lilies,” Oliver arrives at knowledge, not through books but through memory and intuition as she recalls an experience with trout lilies as a young girl:
It happened I couldn’t find in all my books 
more than a picture and a few words concerning
the trout lily, 
so I shut my eyes.
And let the darkness come in 
and roll me back….
If she spoke to them, I don’t remember what she said, 
and if they kindly answered, it’s a gift that can’t be broken
by giving it away. 
All I know is, there was a light that lingered, for hours,
under her eyelids—that made a difference 
when she went back to a difficult house, at the end of the day.
The poem “Breakage” takes place in the morning on a beach, where broken shells and barnacles litter the sand. I read into this an epistemology for this history project we’re working on:
…It’s like a schoolhouse 
of little words,
thousands of words. 
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop 
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
“The Dovekie” gives this insight on knowing our world:
once again,
as again, and again, 
we are given
this single wisdom: 
to know
our world 
is to be busy
all day long 
with happiness….
In “Something,” Oliver finds “something” on the beach, and brings it home to study and identify:
…I brought it home 
out of the uncombed morning and consulted
among my books. I do not know 
what to call this sharpest desire
to discover a name, 
but there it is, suddenly, clearly
illustrated on the page, offering my heart 
another singular
moment of happiness: to know that it is 
the egg case of an ocean shell,
the whelk…one more 
sweet-as-honey answer for the wanderer
whole tongue is agile, whose mind, 
in the world’s riotous plenty,
wants syntax, connections, lists, 
and most of all names to set beside the multitudinous
stars, flowers, sea creatures, rocks, trees…
 Sometimes I dream
that everything in the world is here, in my room, 
in a great closet, named and orderly,
and I am here too, in front of it, 
hardly able to see for the flash and the brightness—
and sometimes I am that madcap person clapping my hands and singing; 
and sometimes I am that quiet person down on my knees.
The poem, “Mindful,” is one of my favorites. I’m tempted to quote the whole poem, but I won’t. Oliver says that every day she finds something in the natural world that “leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.” She writes that she was born to look and listen, “to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.” She ends the poem with a question to herself as a knower:
 Oh, good scholar, 
I say to myself,
how can you help 
but grow wise
with such teachings 
as these—
the untrimmable light 
of the world,
the ocean’s shine, 
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
In “Daisies,” Oliver is crossing a field in the summer and
…the mockingbird is mocking me, as one who either 
knows enough already or knows enough to be
perfectly content not knowing. Song being born 
of quest he knows this: he must turn silent
were he suddenly assaulted with answers….
There it is. Epistemology, from the perspective of the poet. Somehow I now feel clean, clear-headed, and better able to get back to those dusty archives. May truth prevail!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

My day as a Bolivian Quaker baker

On Sunday Hal, I and other members of our investigative team went to the Laja Friends Church just outside of the upper city of La Paz (El Alto) on the Bolivian altiplano. This is one of the older churches of the yearly meeting, founded sometime between 1940 and 1945. Some of the second, third and fourth generations of the founding family still participate in the life of this congregation, and we wanted to interview them.
We traveled several hours on public transportation to get there, and upon arrival were impressed by the new temple (what Bolivian Quakers call their meeting houses), the third in this congregation’s history, built to meet the demands of a growing church. The worship service was moving as district leaders had come to position the new local leadership for 2014. As members of the church council, and women’s and youth leadership councils joined the pastor in the front of the platform, I was struck with the high level of participation in this local body. This Quaker value meshes with Aymara cultural values where leadership is shared on a horizontal level. The greater the participation, the more natural it feels.
After the meeting we went  to the Tazola family compound, a series of adobe rooms around a large open area. Aymara hospitality combined with Christian fellowship to present us and the extended family with a marvelous roast chicken lunch, prepared in the family’s adobe oven. Hal and I interviewed two family members, especially asking about their memories of the founding grandparents and the story of the early church. Then out in the yard, Felix and Hal gathered the old ones in a circle, and Felix interviewed and filmed for two hours.
In the meantime, I learned how to bake “pan de Laja.” Laja’s fame lies in its special flatbread, sought after on the altiplano and in all La Paz for its unique flavor and texture. Although the town is not large, it has 106 bakeries. Bread is the town’s sole industry.
The Tazolas, as Christians, do not bake on Sunday. But, in anticipation of our visit, they decided to make an exception so that we could enter into this particular cultural experience. They had prepared the dough ahead of time, so that when the consistency was right, those of us not involved in the filming and interviewing could participate in all the steps. It was fun, as well as educational, and it took most of the afternoon.
Kids as well as adults, we went through all the steps: rolling the dough into thin lines; forming balls and placing them on large trays; letting them rise slightly for about a half an hour (the dough has very little yeast); forming the balls into flat circles; putting them into the adobe oven, turning them and removing them all within about seven minutes (Victor Tazola did this part); dusting off the excess flour; and tossing them into the baskets to take to the market. Of course we got to sample what we had just baked. Nothing tastes better than hot “pan de Laja.”
We said our goodbyes in the late afternoon and headed to the central plaza to find transportation, loaded down with bags of fresh bread, historical information, and the sense that God is at work as His people in this place make bread and disciples.
Forming the dough into balls
Letting the bread rise
Forming the flatbread
Into the oven
 Dusting off excess flour
Ready for market!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bolivian Friends’ 40th Yearly Meeting: highlights

Bolivian Friends (INELA) concluded their 40th yearly representative meetings on Sunday of this week with celebration, food and the commissioning of a group of eight young people on a missions trip to the interior of the country. More than 280 people, representing all of the 14 districts of the church gathered in La Paz for these annual meetings. Here are some of the highlights of the four very intense days of reports, deliberations and worship.
--The high level of participation in the sessions illustrates the wide horizontal level of leadership throughout the yearly meeting. In addition to reports by the president, the two regional superintendents, the secretaries of education and mission, the presidents of the women’s and youth organizations, and the leaders of various commissions, each of the presidents of the 14 districts of the national church presented their annual report. Each report was followed by questions and discussion, often heated. That’s a lot of reports. But careful listening yields a good overview of what is happening on the ground level of the church.
--Outgoing president, Daniel Limachi, reported on his trip last year to visit Quakers in Indiana and Pennsylvania. One thing that impressed him was that meetings started on time and strictly followed the agenda. He referred to this at least once every day, admonishing, “Hermanos! We need to be like them! We must start on time!” Every day the doors were closed and locked ten minutes after the meeting started (usually late) and late comers were made to wait outside 15 more minutes. When the doors opened, the tardy ones had to march down to the front to be scolded, then pay a penalty by singing a song to the rest of us. Fortunately, most people, including the time-criminals, thought the whole thing funny. I don’t think Daniel did, but he made his point.
--I learned that three new congregations had been planted in the Cordillera District, and three more in the Santa Cruz Department in 2013.
--Two controversial items involved financial mismanagement in one area, the details of which I won’t go into, and the difficulties of bringing the yearly meeting constitution up to date with new government requirements being imposed on all religious institutions. Again I won’t go into detail. People wrestled with both issues and came to some good decisions about how to move forward. The church is not perfect, nor are her leaders. But God is faithful.
--Hal gave the first annual report of the new commission for the history project. Many questions and comments followed, with a good sense of support and enthusiasm.
--For me the great highlight of the meetings was what I consider to be a move of the Spirit toward a new emphasis on missions. Not that missions is something new; it’s been building for many years. But it feels like this may be the kairos moment for a new expansion with a wider support base. The secretary of missions reported on the four missionaries the church is currently supporting, people who are planting new churches in different areas of Bolivia. José Sosa from Argentina came and spoke about the new church plant in Buenos Aires among Bolivian emigrants, begun by visits from Bolivian Friends. Many expressed interest in supporting this new work by sending an INELA missionary. More energy was generated around INELA’s future in missions than any other subject presented during the sessions.
The representative meetings are over for this year. New INELA president Timoteo Choque is gathering his team and making plans. As a favorite hymn here affirms, “The church keeps walking forward” (“La iglesia sigue caminando”).
                            Silver threads among the black!

 Pascual Quispe responds to a long report (as I did, several times).

José Sosa speaks about the new congregation in Buenos Aires.

National missionary Eugenio Poma in a celebratory mood

Commissioning the young people for their short-term mission trip

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Beginning the new year with grace: more sightings

The fact that I have adopted gratitude as the value I most want to characterize who I am as a person doesn't mean that achieving that reality is natural or easy. I have not yet arrived. But where I have arrived is—La Paz, Bolivia. Once again. We dedicated most of the first week just to adapting to the altitude, not letting the headaches, nose bleeds, and sleepless nights surprise us. When I’m in a situation like this, I often forget to be on the lookout for grace. I forget to be grateful. Exercises like concentrating on grace sightings help get me back on track. Here are the latest:
--Good friends to meet us at the airport: We arrived in La Paz the morning of January 1. After the first greetings and hugs, Dionisio and Julia Lucasi sat us down right in the airport and served us cups of hot coca tea. Such a nice way to begin our month here. Hospitality is the mark of the Aymara.
--Julia Lucasi’s assessment of Bolivian president Evo Morales, part of our conversation in the back of the jeep as we headed into the city: She says that Aymara women are all in favor of him because, not only has the sense of dignity of the Aymara race risen by having an Aymara president, women also have a new sense that they are valued. There are currently more Aymara women in government and other leadership positions than ever in this country’s history.
--A hotel room with a view of the city (Linda La Paz!) and a shower with hot water (not something we take for granted in Bolivia). The hotel management remembers us from our last two stays and treats us like friends.
--A couple of free days to just rest and adjust to the 12,500 feet altitude.
--Fresh mangos, warm battle-bread right from the baker, and café con leche for breakfast.
--A visit last night from Benjamin Huarina, so excited as he told us of his trip to Buenos Aires to visit the new Friends Church in that city. We hear of possibilities in other Latin American cities as Bolivian Quakers emigrate and bring their faith with them.
--G.K. Chesterton’s winsome murder mysteries: I’m speaking, of course, of Father Brown. The fact
that I have the complete Father Brown series on my Kindle is grace upon grace (not to mention the fact that it cost me $.99). I love Father Brown because his brilliance as a detective is totally hidden under his mien as a bumbling country priest. He seems the least likely one to solve the mystery. But he always comes through. More than anything, it’s Chesterton’s dry humor that keeps me reading. For example, in the story, “The Secret Garden,” a mysterious beheading breaks up a party and is quickly followed by another severed head discovered outside the walls of the estate. Valentin, the self-celebrated police officer muses: “As a soldier, he loathed all this secretive carnage; where were these extravagant amputations going to stop? First one head was hacked off, and then another; in this case (he told himself bitterly) it was not true that two heads are better than one.” I could go on, but I won’t. A good book is always a grace, especially on a long trip.