Announcement in Friends Journal
Very Excited to announce that, with ReadersMagnet, I am publishing
a major upgrade to a book I wrote early in my writing career.
Please give this brief entry a good look!
Presence and Practices of
JERRY MAY, ROSE MARY DOUGHERTY
and TILDEN EDWARDS-Infused
Writing for Change
in Challenging Times
An Online Day-Retreat
Spirituality & Practice
July 25, 2020
Although Shalem’s founders could not have envisioned 104 seekers gathered in one virtual Zoom room, they would have recognized the underlying spirit of unity, love and group spiritual direction that anchored the event. Some folks signed in early: I asked them to post hopes and expectations in the Chat section. I followed Jerry’s example by inviting participants to dedicate their retreat to someone they hold dear. I lit a candle and dedicated the day to IRA PROGOFF, whose journal workshops provided the chalice where my contemplative – activist soul came to awareness. Progoff was my first spiritual director, though neither of us called it that in the early 1970s.
I sensed Tilden’s spirit when I designed our Sabbath-rhythm sessions to include short teaching stories, queries and shared stillness. Rose Mary’s wisdom shaped guidelines for triads to listen contemplatively, not conversationally. S&P’s MARY ANN BRUSSAT suggested the pattern of two hours for guided writing and reflection, two hours of unstructured time to ease Zoom fatigue, followed by two more hours of writing and reflection. KEZIAH GRINDELAND posted photos to support participants’ interactions with nature during the break. Twice during the day, S&P used the Zoom feature to divide people into breakout groups. I asked the person with the longest hair to speak first, a quick visual way for polite strangers to establish speaking order when sharing delights, difficulties and discoveries, or reading short excerpts from their journals. 18 folks chose to keep silence during the triads, and I held all participants in tender care.
I also prayed for 99 women and 5 men while they responded to writing prompts on themes including Cracked & Broken, Faith & Doubt, Not Listening, Injustices, Reaching, and Endings. On-screen Zoom images permitted me to peek into participants’ faces and homes while they journaled. I adapted Tilden’s icon-gazing practice to rest my eyes on folks hunched over desks, stretched on couches or gazing skyward. Tenderness washed over me. The sweetest surprise was how natural it felt to prayerfully embrace people in separate physical spaces. The Beloved infused each and every one of us.
I owe great gratitude to MARY ANN and FREDERIC BRUSSAT, who co-founded Spirituality & Practice, following decades of work providing resources for spiritual journeys through their newsletters. Their prophetic work has offered spiritual literacy and interfaith wisdom to seekers around the globe through online interaction. Following their path, Spiritual Directors International and Stillpoint have instituted similar programs. I can hear Jerry May’s hearty laughter rocking the room as spiritual leaders collaborate across traditions, enriched by expansive new technologies. I celebrate the inclusive, low-cost spiritual outreach that is emerging from Covid-19 restrictions.
Online retreats offer unexpected depth
and intimacy for soul companioning,
especially among contemplative writers.
To join the circle of
AS IT IS: Spiritual Journaling 2020
click on this link:
JUDITH FAVOR completed Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance program in 1986.
She is retired from UCC ministry (San Francisco),
teaching at the Claremont School of Theology,
and guiding Stillpoint Ghost Ranch programs.
Judith remains active in soul companioning, retreat guidance,
Quaker service and her personal ministry of writing for publication.
A recently widowed great-grandmother,
she resides at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA.
In September 2020,
Readers Magnet will release her
Sabbath Economics: A Spiritual Guide Linking Love and Money.
Learn more at www.JudithFavor.com and Facebook.
This post has been contributed by Judith L. Favor, who is rooted and grounded in Quaker tradition and contemplative practice. She is retired from pastoral UCC ministry in San Francisco and teaching at the Claremont School of Theology. She created the “As It Is: Spiritual Journaling” e-course for S&P.
This year I’ve found myself reflecting in my journal about the meaning of democracy to me. I have turned to some traditional Quaker queries and crafted some of my own as I have explored my feelings about and experiences with my country and its leadership. One query that I suggested in my last blog post is: Which persons or events helped to shape your democratic values? How? It led me to both memories and reflections about what I call “Big-Hearted Democracy.”
Big-Hearted Democracy became real for me on the day We, The People elected Dwight D. Eisenhower as 34th President of the United States. On November 4, 1952 — through the miracle of television — democracy became visible and audible to me for the first time. My school principal placed a small, boxy television at the edge of the stage in the auditorium. It was the size of a Shredded Wheat box and had a tiny twelve-inch screen. Each class had thirty minutes to crowd in and watch. We, the sixth graders of Richmond Elementary in Portland, Oregon, got to see Democracy at work across the nation, in living black and white. Rowdy boys stopped their fart contests and spitball wars to stare at crowds cheering for political candidates in the streets of the United States. Gawky girls stopped whispering secrets to each other and fussing with their hair to watch voters emerging from polling places with big grins and expansive gestures.
At home, Big-Hearted Democracy played triumphantly on a brand-new television console, purchased by parents who usually had to work on Tuesdays. Mom was a file clerk and Dad was a milkman, but their bosses gave them paid time off on Election Day. (In the Fifties, Oregon employers supported workers’ voting rights.) After casting ballots, my folks celebrated by buying a TV set, and installing it while we were at school. The new television was a total surprise to my brothers and me. We were so proud to be the first on the block to own a TV that we quickly spread the news to our neighbors. Chinese, Cuban and Irish families on our dead-end street arrived bearing snacks, and we invited everyone in to watch the returns.
In my 12-year-old memory, Big-Hearted Democracy became permanently imprinted with Attention, Connection, Enthusiasm, Hospitality and Zeal on Election Day 1952, sixty-plus years before I met the authors of Spiritual Literacy!
In college, I was startled to learn The Constitution of the United States — as originally written and ratified — does not grant American citizens the right to vote! Individual state laws determine voter eligibility. Did Mr. Hill, my sixth-grade teacher, emphasize this fact? If so, it didn’t stick. I am uneasy knowing that for more than 100 years (!) there was no federal ruling to eliminate race or gender voting barriers in the United States of America. Systemic disenfranchisements were later eased by passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (in 1870) and the Nineteenth Amendment (in 1920.)
I recorded these Practicing Democracy memories and reflections on August 6, 2020, the centennial of the passage of the constitutional amendment ensuring women’s right to vote. In California, however, women won the vote in 1911, (four years before my parents were born) and nine years before American women gained universal suffrage. California efforts began in 1908 (the year my Dad’s parents were married), when bold determined women in San Francisco linked arms for what is believed to be the first equal-vote demonstration in America.
On August 27 at 6 p.m. Pacific Time, we can watch history unfold at the San Francisco Public Library website:
Undocumented History: America’s First Suffrage March and the San Francisco Women Who Led It
Early-morning pages, written before my responsible self comes on duty,
take me into deep, dark places and a few bright, clear ones.
My fifty-four-year-old son is dying of cancer,
complicated by meth addiction.
Mary’s question to the angel echoes within me: How can this be?
The answer, according to the Beatles:
Mother Mary said to me, Let it be. Let it be.
“What are you seeing?”
Ray’s last words were raspy,
yet powered by the curiosity that propelled his entire life.
“I see you filled with light,” I said, “and surrounded by light.
I see you loved and loving, forgiven and forgiving.”
With that, he slipped into stillness. No sign of pain.
No sign he knew I was there, yet I knew it was the
absolutely right place to be. I just knew.
How long can a mother gaze upon her comatose son,
seeing that of God in his wasted body and paralyzed limbs?
One can live infinitely into a single moment, says Philip C.
When my oldest son phoned to take me to lunch,
I said, “No thanks. I’m right where I need to be.”
I declined Michael’s invitation to dinner, too, because I was beginning
to feel something so unexpected, so far off the deathbed emotional charts,
that I could barely name it to myself,
let alone speak it aloud. It felt strangely like joy.
Joy? How could this be? I was losing my youngest son
to cancer after decades of shared adventures, epic struggles
and occasional unitive experiences in nature. Why joy?
Later it came to me: Holy obedience. Surrender to Love.
All through Ray’s final day, I sat where Christ guided me to
sit. Kept silent until prompted. Spoke what Spirit directed
me to say. Personal needs, even hunger, evaporated into
the mystery of grace.
How can a son’s tragedy become a mother’s grace?
How could Ray’s passing engender a joy huge enough to encompass
all of his pain, all of my pain, and perhaps your pain, too?
Holding a loving, prayerful vigil with my dying boy lifted
me through sorrow and beyond it to an astonishing fullness
of joy. But even robust joy is fragile and fleeting.
Ten days later, grief yanked me down, pulled me deep
beneath the strong dam of capability I had constructed to
care for my husband as he weakens with Parkinson’s Disease.
Triple sorrows smashed my carefully constructed dam.
Loss of son. Loss of Partnering Pete. Loss of mobility and freedom.
The combination brought me to my knees.
I cried and cried and cried and cried.
How is it even possible to sob for so many hours?
Pete, helpless to comfort me, called the grief midwives.
Friends Connie and Charleen came and knelt beside me on the floor.
Time collapsed beneath floods of tears.
Losing a child is unspeakably difficult.
I can manage only silence.
Lifting Heart Lines from my messy morning pages buoys
me through the grief-bursts.
I swim infinity loops in the community pool,
and dive deeper into stillness.
Sometimes I find a Heart Line in another’s words.
Sacred Veil lyricist Tony Silvestri: “Giving myself permission to write
these texts allowed me to revisit my grief in a very powerful way.
I understood I hadn’t fully grieved, because I hadn’t processed it in art.”
Eric Whitacre’s music and Los Angeles Master Chorale lyrics convey Silvestri’s
intimate expression of his young wife’s death.
Primagravida. Retroperitoneal cystic. Adenocarcinoma. Adnexal cysts…
How do they manage to sing complex medical terms so tenderly,
without choking up?
I sat at the threshold with my son, at the open door of Mystery,
until Ray was ready to pass through it.
He crossed a horizon as wondrous as the one we crossed together
when I gave birth to him 54 years earlier in this same hospital.
In his end is my beginning.
Those words came in meditation. I wonder what they mean…
I travel to Quaker Center to renew body and spirit in the redwoods,
to commune with Friends and place rocks of personal heartbreak
in a communal griefbowl of clear water.
I seek a weekend of contemplation for strength to tend Pete
as his health and memory fail.
I awaken at 1:40am to a delicious melting-chocolate sensation,
as if I had melted into God. If I had stayed in bed to savor it,
I’d still be ambulatory today…
but I rose to go to the bathroom. Fainted. Fell.
Heard my rifle-shot tibia fracture,
saw ragged bone protruding through flesh and foot twisted at right angles.
“Uh-oh, compound,” said the first EMT.
“Not prepared for that,” said the
In Trauma ICU,
a nurse drew red balloons and wrote Happy Birthday on the whiteboard.
My decidedly unhappy 79th birthday was brightened by my daughter’s visit
followed by assurance from two female orthopedic surgeons
that their repair efforts were successful.
Trouble called me by name one Sunday afternoon at California Central
Women’s Facility. I had just finished co-leading a weekend Alternatives
to Violence Project workshop with three Quaker volunteers and had
walked with them from the cellblock to the exit gate. The moment I
passed through the Xray detector into the visitor’s room, the watch
sergeant called my name. His tone was stern. When I turned, an even
sterner voice added, “Miz Favor, I need to talk to you. In my office.” He
jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Lieutenant and sergeant gave me hard looks as I stepped around the
end of the counter and followed them. Why did each man keep a hand
on the holstered pistols at his hip? Why address me with harsh eyes and
clipped voices? What was so threatening about a sixty-year-old
“What’s the problem, officer?”
“You broke the rules.”
“Department of Corrections rules. You are prohibited from doing
volunteer work in the same prison where you visit an inmate.”
“I didn’t know there was a rule against that.”
“There is. We’re telling you. You cannot volunteer and also visit a Death
Row prisoner, or write to her. That is against the rules.”
“I’m trying see your point of view,” I began, thinking it wise to start off
diplomatically, “but I’ve been leading AVP workshops with the general
population for two years with no fuss. I know about the rule prohibiting
women on Death Row from participating in programs. Rosie is not
involved in the AVP program, so I don’t see the problem. Why can’t I
The men shook their heads in unison. They folded arms across chests.
I tried another tack. “Getting to know Rosie was what inspired me to
train for AVP leadership. I want to show inmates how to solve
interpersonal problems nonviolently, because violence is what landed
Rosie behind bars.” More hard looks. I could tell they were not
“It is against department policy,” said the lieutenant.
“You can’t do both.”
I sensed it was fruitless to ask for an exception, but did it anyway.
“Could you grant me an exception to the rule? Everyone comes out
ahead when you give me permission to do both. Can you do that?”
Denied, of course. This conversation was not endearing me to the
lieutenant. I knew better than to insist on speaking to his supervisor, but
did it anyway. The sergeant punched a phone and summoned the watch
captain. Both guards kept arms crossed over their hearts. A stony
silence prevailed until the captain arrived. His furrowed brow showed
he was not happy to be here. I repeated my plea. He insistently repeated
“No, you cannot do both.”
“But that’s not logical,” I protested. “Your policy doesn’t make sense in this situation.”
“NO,” repeated the captain. “Absolutely not!”
He gestured toward black binders labeled DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.
“Well, you’re giving me a tough choice,” I said. “I’ll need some time to think about it.”
“No.” He gave me another hard look. “You can’t leave until you decide.”
I pictured my friends waiting in the parking lot. I met the captain’s stare. His jaw was set.
“Which is it? Decide now.” His eyes drilled into mine.
The pulse in my throat pounded so hard I thought my voice would shake,
but it came out steady and clear. ““Rosie. If I must choose now, I choose my friend Rosie.”
“Why?” The lieutenant sounded genuinely puzzled.
The other two exhaled noisily and shook their heads. One muttered something.
“Because she comes first for me. If you won’t let me facilitate workshops
here, other Quakers will do it. I can contribute at other California
prisons. Rosie is my friend. I will not abandon her.”
“Murderer.” The sergeant’s face twisted into a mocking sneer.
“You can all go.” The captain dismissed us and quickly left the room.
I felt discouraged as I drove away from Central California Women’s
Facility, where prison administrators and guards acted as if murderers
were monsters. They acted as if women on The Row could not be
redeemed. Their frozen faces seemed oblivious to my reasonable
questions, hardened against inquiry. Their scowling brows seemed
allergic to reflection. Their hard voices refused to consider any point of
view but Departmental Policy. Their hands on pistol butts conveyed
power and domination. The combination made mutual understanding
impossible. Compromise was totally off the table.
Soon after three armed men forced me to choose, I discovered “The
Abnormal Is Not Courage,” a poem by Jack Gilbert. His words about
World War II reminded me that Quaker volunteer service is not
accomplished with tanks or horses. Work for justice does not take place
on stallions, with sabers in hand. Witnessing to ‘the spark of God’ in
people occurs through everyday interactions. Sometimes it happens in
prisons, sometimes in homes, schools, retreat centers and cafes.
Sometimes it takes place in sunlight, usually in conversations that most
folks will never hear. Witnessing to “the spark of God” in myself, friends
behind bars (and you) comes through small moments of faithfulness and
simple actions that few will ever see. These days, for me, many faithful
actions take place on the pages of my forthcoming book titled
FRIENDING ROSIE: LIFE ON DEATH ROW.
At age seventy-nine, I lack the strength and energy to visit CCWF as
often as I once did, or as often as I would like, but my commitment to
Rosie remains steady and clear. My invitation to readers, to you, to hear,
see, correspond with and visit incarcerated persons is grounded in the
“normal excellence, of long accomplishment.” Twenty years after I first
ventured behind bars to meet Rosie, Gilbert’s poem reminds me that the
work of advocating for free people to befriend imprisoned ones is made
up of the “beauty of many days.”
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2019
“In prayer, as in many other areas of life, we ‘learn by going where we have to go.’” I was delighted to see a line from Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” as Marilyn McEntyre’s opening words in When Poets Pray because this was the first poem I ever memorized. The author’s writing captivated me from beginning to end: “Pray in dialogue with a poem,” she concludes, “in ‘call and response’ fashion, pausing after each line or two to speak or write a prayer that the poem evokes or allows.”
I experienced an animated, almost visceral quality in the pages of When Poets Pray. I like McEntyre’s genuine warmth in sharing personal gifts she receives from poets who pray. I like her quiet, unassuming way of weaving prayerful human yearnings into poetic scholarship. I especially like her choice of “Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, who invites us into nonverbal ways of praying “in languages that aren’t always sound but / Circles of motion/ True circles of motion / like eagle rounding out the morning / Inside us.”
When Poets Pray sweeps from the medieval worldview of Hildegard of Bingen to contemporary poets Lucille Clifton, Francisco X. Alarcon, Anna Kamienska and Wendell Berry. I found the author’s poetry selections as emotionally potent as they are illustrative. John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God…” dives down into the dark mysteries of prayer. George Herbert and Thomas Merton penned overtly biblical prayer-poems. Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov and Galway Kinnell remind us how prayer can overlap with our own interior self-talk. “When the disciples ask Jesus, ‘’Teach us to pray,’ writes McEntyre, “they seem to be aware that prayer involves practice – even a learning curve—and some serious retraining in habits of the heart.” I laughed at the author’s playful interpretation of Scott Cairns, whose poetry “offers a wry, timely look at a few of the varieties of self-deception that those who pray are prey to.”
My only critique is that the author, a retired educator, did not include any Quaker poets. I do see McEntyre creating a pioneering archive here, one that links prayer with poetry, and hope she continues in this direction. Friends who treasure Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead (Introduction by Parker Palmer) will want to invest in a hardbound edition of When Poets Pray, not only to have and to hold but also as a resource in guiding spiritual practice groups.
Judith Favor of Claremont Meeting in Southern California values true prayer and true poetry. Both are essential nutrients for her contemplative soul.
by Eleanor Scott Meyers
ESMeyersPRESS, Claremont CA, 2018
Paperback, 282 pages, $18.95
Available online through Powells Bookstore and Amazon
Ruth meets Cassandra early in her marriage to Ed and gradually becomes central to a quietly piercing, entirely credible three-way love story that sustains an unwanted child, a large extended family, a small Midwestern town – and the reader – until death do us part.
Beloved lesbian commitment is not the book’s only, or even principal subject. One of the pleasures of The Compromise is how sturdily it takes shape in a rural Kansas community during the Depression and how carefully it skirts the high drama to which same-sex-advocate storytellers often resort. Readers will find no treachery in this novel, only delicately nuanced restraint as two women and one man bond in friendship through the hurts, doubts, joys and challenges of a permanently lopsided relationship. Son Taylor eventually “unriddles” his unconventional upbringing to uncover the legacy of being parented by a threesome. His wife Margaret, firmly rooted in the author’s own experience, speaks potently to the questions of generational pain that haunt our times. Her wise, calm voice testifies to the faith, hard work and enduring love that bring grace into the present.
This tri-fold romance unfolds at a deliberate clip with a sharp eye for peripheral detail. Meyers writes in muted, controlled images; she likes to show us the rooms her characters inhabit, the implements they use and the aprons they wear. Many scenes take place in dining rooms and kitchens; the story opens in a cemetery and closes after a funeral. Latter chapters detail the complexities of aging as Margaret helps Ruth and Ed wrestle with decisions about where to live, what to discard and how to manage their final years.
The Compromise is clearly the work of an artist who loves her subjects. In her first novel, Eleanor Scott Meyers gifts us with generational hope, faith and love conveyed in subdued, emotionally layered prose. Her sturdy characters comforted me as I kept vigil at my son’s deathbed. They will speak to Friends facing old age, a testimony to what love can do in complex personal relationships warmed by simplicity, truth, peace, integrity and community. Book discussion groups will find this novel rich in meaning.
Judith Favor is grateful for this loving glimpse into a rural Midwestern household upheld by Quaker values. She is a member of Claremont Meeting in California.
QUAKER CARES AND CONCERNS:
WILLIAM DOLPHIN in conversation with Judith Favor
As we settled into expectant silence, I noticed attentiveness written into the muscles of Williamʼs body. Cyclist, writer and teacher, his ineffable sense of alignment with Spirit was palpable to me, but hard to name. Words came later. William Dolphinʼs presence reminds me of William Wordsworthʼs definition of Light, “a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.”
Tell us about some of the cares and concerns you have carried throughout your life as a Friend.
Oh boy. This phrase, ‘cares and concerns,ʼ strikes a deep chord in me. From a young age, certainly by the time I was ten years old, my place in the world, my responsibilities and the degree to which I was meeting them, became real concerns. I grew up in an emotionally reserved family with academic parents who valued service but showed few feelings. I had neighborhood friends as a child, but our yearly summer routine created challenges for developing normal childhood friendships. Every summer from ages one to 15, my parents took me and my younger sister to southern Indiana where they ran a camp for kids with physical disabilities. The campers would come and go, but we stayed all summer. No radio, no television, roaming the woods. Naptime was mandatory for campers and my sister and I, but when I was about eight or nine, my mother said I could read instead. The camp library was limited, but I started with the Hardy Boys mysteries and then moved on to the science fiction classics of Asimov and Heinlein. The reading began as boredom, but I soon got very caught up in the storytelling and the transport to other worlds. I quickly became a voracious reader, consuming a book a day for the next many years.
As my tastes matured, I came to appreciate the achievement of literary writers and started writing poetry and short stories, but literature seemed elusive and out of reach. Art was not something that particularly appealed to my parents. They’re both readers but more pragmatic ones. When I shared with them the writing I was doing, they seemed confused by it. I recall my mother saying after reading one story that she didn’t understand it, so it must be good. I asked myself: who am I in relationship to their values? As much as I cared about books and writing, I never considered being a writer as a profession. It wasn’t a practical way to make a living.
Reading may not have given me career ideas, but it did give me a distorted sense of the importance of heroic action — some version of the Great Man Theory of history. The idea that the trajectory of the world is set by the efforts of a few extraordinary people fit all too well a naïve view of my family history in which everything worth doing seemed to have already been done. Since some of that history stretches to the 11th century, and the American part goes 14 generations from the Mayflower to settling New Hampshire and a winter at Valley Forge, I wasn’t wrong. More immediately, my parents and grandparents were serious people of diverse accomplishment — educated white-collar on mom’s side, self-made blue-collar on dad’s – all with unimpeachable integrity. And dad’s life story was made for Hallmark. Champion wrestler, almost killed by polio at 19, left paralyzed in both arms and told his life was over but persevered to have a family and become a college president and small-town mayor. How could I measure up to any of them, much less all of them?
How did you wrestle with these expectations?
“I became focused on finding ways to accomplish something exceptional, but that backfired early and spectacularly. Fifth grade, to be exact. It was my first book report, and I took it a little too seriously. My reading habit meant I spent a lot of time in the public library, so when I got this assignment, I went wandering the stacks looking for a worthy subject. I ended up in the philosophy section, probably because I had some sense that it occupied the top spot in the intellectual hierarchy of academia. Sickness Unto Death jumped out at me simply for the title, then I found out Soren Kierkegaard was a religious philosopher, which connected him to my cousin, Rufus Jones, and the fact that he wrote all his books anonymously astonished me. Who would risk the penalties of heresy for no glory? Just the sake of ideas? My “book” report ended up more like a ‘Meet Sorenʼ mini-bio, complete with pencil portrait I drew. As best I can recall, my classmates were baffled by the presentation.
Afterward, the teacher took me aside. “Do you know what plagiarism is?” she asked. I didn’t. “You have an older sibling in college who helped you?” I didn’t. “Well, you found this in a book somewhere.” There she had me. Yes, I got my ideas from books. I didn’t know anything about him before I checked out that stack of books. She assured me she wouldn’t tell my parents but wanted me to understand I had done something very bad. I believed her completely, but I had no idea what went wrong.
Suddenly, I was often too “sick” to go to school because of chronic headaches and other maladies, both real and pretended. My perfect school attendance went down to 50%. They tried valium and muscle relaxants, but at 12, that was not a good solution. The doctor hospitalized me for medical tests, including an awful lumbar puncture. After everything came back negative, they sent me to the child psychologist, who determined it seemed to have something to do with school and recommended a change.
The private school was a fresh start, where I turned my attention to science. They let me and a couple of the fifth graders I roped in sign up for the sophomore physics class. We were in so far over our heads, having to learn the math to go with it on our own, but I was proud of the C I earned. Sadly, I had to go back to public schools for junior high. The lack of challenges meant I was a disruptive, back-of-the-class smart-aleck, so they had me do eighth and ninth at once to move me up a grade. That helped keep me occupied, but it also meant more disconnect from the kids my age. At least I felt like I was on a path of achievement, which seemed to be confirmed by standardized testing, but that went sour, too. When I qualified to be a National Merit Scholar with the highest score the school had ever seen, 13th in the state of Ohio, I thought I really had made it. But my mother’s only comment was “Too bad it’s not good enough,” and the school principal refused to recommend me for the award because of my history of troublemaking.
Ouch. Tell us more about that…
“Well, I gave up on academics. I was 15 then. Years later, at the start of what would be years of therapy, I asked my mother about her comment, what she meant and why she said it. She told me she hadn’t meant anything cruel but was just reflecting what she thought it meant for my aspirations, which at the time was studying solid-state physics at CalTech or MIT. She had a point, as language aptitude registered a bit stronger than math, but she also explained that she and my dad shared a Quakerly concern that I not decide I was better than anyone else because of my skills, so they went out of their way to remind me at moments of accomplishment. Unfortunately, that strategy dovetailed too well with my book-report experience, leaving me feeling like an intellectual imposter. That contributed to a very dark time in my teens, and I turned to alcohol with a vengeance. Drank myself into a stupor for a few years, culminating in three car wrecks in blackout during one month. After the third, I realized I risked taking innocent others with me, and I had just enough moral compass left for that to be too much. Went into rehab at age nineteen and lost my old coping mechanisms but had to find basic meaning in something. That’s when I returned to literature, to poetry — my own writing and others – as a way to transform the horrible into something useful or even beautiful.
What did this period of suffering open in you?
A return to roots, I suppose, which turned me toward the political. In 1983, with one year sober, I went with my parents to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for Intermountain Yearly Meeting. I was doing better with a new regimen of physical exercise, and time among Friends fit with my need for purpose. There I met a Salvadoran professor and poet who fled the death squads and had not seen his family for two years. He was at Ghost Ranch under the care of the Quaker- Jesuit underground railroad that smuggled political refugees from Central America into the U.S. because the State Department denied political problems from which anyone would need asylum. At the end of a long heartfelt talk that started with the poetry of Neruda and became the story of his flight, he asked, “So, what do you think of your country’s policies toward my country?”
I had to say I knew nothing about them. It was embarrassing to admit, and I felt a deep shame at the suggestion that what was happening in El Salvador, what had happened to him and his family, was done in my name. This changed how I read the news. I began paying attention to what was going on in Central America, and soon saw stories implicating the CIA’s School of the Americas in atrocities in Guatemala and elsewhere. As a teenager in the 1970s, I had adopted what was then my father’s fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican politics, but now I had reason to question what “governing” meant in practice. I became more and more sensitive to human rights, social justice, and the global scope of my country’s influence, all animated by nagging questions: What else is being hidden? When do I only know part of the story?
Youʼd been through a dark time. What brought you into the Light?
I experienced a conversion of sorts when the Salvadoran poet confronted me, a political awakening. His problems became my responsibility. Our conversation reconnected me spiritually to caring for others. At the same time, I was reconnecting with my physical self as I became a serious athlete. I started cycling as transportation, but my ambitious bent meant I challenged myself to ride farther and farther, and then faster and faster. In the process, it saved me, biochemically. Alcohol cravings disappeared. I suspect that as a younger person I experienced pain – both physical and emotional – more acutely than many do, but endurance sports train you to tolerate suffering. I also found a meditative space in the long hours alone on the road.
I did not attend Meeting during my first marriage because hardcore evangelical Christianity had damaged my wife. She was allergic to religion, but I held to Friends’ values. When describing my ethics and politics, I often concluded with the thumbnail summary: “You know, Quaker.” I began to wonder why, if I identified with Friends, I didn’t hang out with them.
After my marriage ended in 2000, I took myself to Berkeley Meeting. It was so powerful! The physical space reminded me of the Bloomington, Indiana Meeting which my grandparents had founded. I felt such a powerful sense of homecoming that when I stood to introduce myself, I could barely choke it out through the tears.
What led you to stay with Berkeley Meeting?
Well, it’s certainly one of the more entertaining meetings you’ll ever attend! You never knew what was going to happen – profound poetic ministry, spontaneous song, the occasional person off the street who would share visions or voices. I enjoyed that, and I felt a sense of belonging. I was given a role in the Meeting right away, recruited to serve on committees, of course. I served as Berkeley Meeting’s representative to Friends Committee on Legislation-CA, which felt meaningful. Most significantly, we had to decide whether to support proposed legislation to make gay marriage legal in California. All the representatives on the committee were in favor, but several were unsure of the sense of their meetings. Whittier Friends were not ready to offer same-sex marriage under their care. After many tearful testimonials, we appeared to be at an impasse. The clerk gave up and moved to table the issue, but I could not let it go. My emotions were running high because two of my dearest friends could not marry their beloveds. I was sure there was a way forward. I pointed out that we were not being asked to conduct samesex weddings. This was civil legislation that would simply confer the same rights on gay and lesbian people that straight folks already enjoyed, and our position on discrimination could not be more clear. They were separable issues.
Everyone nodded. Affirmation came easily. FCL-CA endorsed Mark Leno’s bill. It didn’t make it through the legislature, but helping bring Friends to unity on right action was a powerful example for me of the rewards of service. And tactful negotiation!”
A powerful example of your care and concern…
Yes, whether despite or because of a life of privilege, I’m present with the pain of injustice daily, and when I hold a big concern I feel compelled to act, to find explanations and solutions. It’s a way of doing something with problems rather than letting them destroy me, as they almost did. By the way, I am now in a serene place with alcohol. Thirty-four years since I was given three years of life expectancy, alcohol use is alien to my identity.
You researched medical cannabis for many years. How did this concern lead you to right action?
My dear friend Fausto, after whom one of my sons is named, was sick with HIV and hepatitis, a bad combination because the drugs that help one hurt the other. He ended up on palliative care, but the opioid pain killers made him feel dead to the world. He confided that a puff on a joint relieved his pain as much as a Percocet, but he was worried about losing his disability if he got caught. I offered to look into it for him, and my research was like peeling back layers of an onion that was both horrible and wonderful. The government warnings of my youth about the dangers of marijuana turned out to be totally wrong. Not only that, but the medical uses were astonishingly broad. It was another moment of revelation. My government lied to us about this, too? Why?
Eager to find out more, I talked my way into doing press relations for the high-profile federal trial of Ed Rosenthal in San Francisco and wrote a public daily trial diary. That experience opened my eyes to how criminal justice actually works, as I saw the prosecutor and judge both use procedural gymnastics to keep the jury from hearing testimony on the full facts. No information was allowed in court about state medical cannabis law, or Oakland’s official city program for distributing it to patients, or how the city had deputized Rosenthal as an officer of the city in an attempt to give him federal immunity. All the jury heard was that he owned a warehouse in which he grew marijuana plants; they convicted Rosenthal on three felony counts. After jurors left the courtroom and discovered the full facts, nine of the twelve publicly recanted in the next 24 hours. They appeared on Dateline and CNN, then sat behind Rosenthal at his sentencing wearing pins that said “Ed is a Hero.” By the end, there were more than 200 media stories about his case, including two editorials from The New York Times, and I was asked to do similar work for a then-new patient advocacy group that is now the leading national organization. Sixteen years later, I still write their monthly newsletters.
You were faithful to a powerful leading, William.
I suppose so. I don’t think about it that way, but I do try to be faithful to the truth and to act with compassion. My advocacy work gave me the opportunity to meet a remarkable range of heroic people who, like my father, just want to live with dignity as comfortably as they can. The writing I’ve done on this topic — articles, lobby sheets, white papers, op-ed pieces, informational pamphlets on using cannabis to treat various conditions — has made a difference for many of them, and over time we’ve changed the conversation. The scare-quotes around “medical” marijuana have disappeared. 46 states now have some sort of medical cannabis law and the first drug derived from the plant has just been approved by the FDA.
That work has yielded other rewards. I met Michelle Newhart because of the Ed Rosenthal case. After contributing to a dozen books together, she is now my wife and co-author. She did the research for the book while completing her PhD, while my work provided the background for the medical science and policy developments. We share a commitment to correcting one of the biggest mistakes of the last century.
What do you sense yourself becoming now?
Hopefully even more of a writer. I enjoy teaching college students, but Michelle and I have plans for articles and have started another book project, the dramatic story of the science side of medical cannabis, written for a general audience. I’ve let go of worrying about Pulitzers and the like, though we both care deeply about doing good work. I’m not sure if it’s humility or a form of confidence, but I no longer feel compelled to be the best ever. Ambition still burns bright, but it’s focused on making a difference in how people understand things, helping others achieve clarity. That said, the early reception for our book has been strong enough that I can’t help but wonder: What’s it going to mean? What comes next? How big can I dream? Is it really okay to care about this?
Has this leading taken you anywhere else?
Teaching is certainly part of it. My parents and sister are educators, as many others in my family have been. My academic work dovetails with Quaker testimonies. I try to convey the respect I feel for each student in my teaching. I try to help them see clearly and be more effective agents of change, to feel their place and power in the world. Distractions and dishonesty can trick us into misperceiving the facts of a matter and the right action we need to take. I’ve always felt teaching to entail a radical obligation, but recently I’ve come to realize my orientation to it is rooted in the way Quakers worship and operate, sometimes explicitly so. When I was in grad school and pondering pedagogy, I latched onto consensus decision making as a task to organize writing. So for 30-odd years, I’ve started my academic writing courses with an extended series of writing exercises that culminate in the students deciding the grading policy for the class.
Worship with Claremont Friends is incredibly powerful for me. Sitting still for an hour is an intensely physical experience. It takes a lot of practice to settle into quiet – decades in my case — but I’ve found remarkable emotional support in it. Worship with Friends is like being held in a cocoon of Light, both calming and energizing. As a boy, I was always tense and on guard, not sure I was loved or lovable. Here I feel loved by the Meeting and have the daily experience of love in my marriage, with my children and among Friends. Claremont Meeting takes children’s religious education seriously, and I want my sons to have Quaker faith and practice as a touchstone, as it has been for me. Hopefully they don’t have to journey quite so far afield to claim its power.