Take to the streets — or to the woods?

We Quakers, seeking to live up to our history of spiritually rooted activism, often feel called to lend our voices to social or political causes. At the same time, with our tradition of spiritual seeking in silence, many of us have a strong desire to retreat from the fray into the natural world. How to balance those? For myself, I’m not sure what exactly the proportions are, but recently I’ve become aware I need more quiet, more connection to the earth, if I am to take to the streets with a clear sense of why I am there.

In my family when I was growing up, Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, a memoir of her family’s escape to rural Maine, was something of a holy writ. Our family summer holidays were invariably to either the woods or the seashore — never to the city. I don’t remember any childhood  outings to a symphony, a theatrical performance, or even an art museum. Shopping was an embarrassing necessity to be undertaken with as much thrift and as little fuss as possible. If my mother could’ve clothed her family entirely from the Sears Roebuck catalog, I’m sure she’d’ve done so — and some years probably did. I remember being taken to the movies two or three times by my parents. Ever. Not exactly the urban cultural elite.

My first year out of college, living in Washington, D.C., was  revelation of the pleasures of city life. My roommate and I sampled open-air farmers markets, an assortment of national museums, even *gasp* restaurants — a species of enterprise my family had furtively investigated once a year, if that. In that first flush of independence, I went shopping, visited monuments, went to the movies. It was heady stuff. I also worked as an intern for the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobbying organization, continuing the study of politics and government I’d begun in college.

Then, August 1983 — on the twentieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I Have A Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr. — I took to the streets for the anniversary march, and my mother joined me! I was so happy to be with her, in that place, at that time. The march was in sunshine, and our spirits were high. Splashy floats, exuberant people in rainbow garb, the march was made up of all races, ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Though we had not yet achieved the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., in that moment we believed the tide was turning: the movement to make his birthday a national holiday had gathered steam, and a few months after the march, it was signed into law.

Last year, I took to the streets more than once. The Women’s March, the March for Science, the Mother’s Day March for Peace. This year, my husband and my eldest child joined me at the Women’s March. There are times when taking to the streets is the right thing to do. To put your body where your principles are. To show up and be counted.

But as Rich wrote, “One of the most important parts of education is learning to get along with other people.” In these politically polarized times, when even just reading the news can get overwhelming, and viewing the welter of opinions on social media even moreso — when the “civil” discourse becomes ever less so —  sometimes I need to take to the woods or the water. Learning to get along with other people is not, ideally, by shaking signs at the opposition across the street. Nor entering the Twitter-fray with barbed wit and opinions foremost. But even with the most diplomatic intentions, engaging people of differing points of view takes equanimity. That, in my experience, is rare on the streets.

The more I seek time alone in contemplation of the irreducible reality of the sky above Bellingham Bay, of tree branches in moonlight, of wind-tossed seagulls, or frost on muddy ground, the better I understand that humans are not separate. Not from one another, not from the rest of the planet.

Best known for his work in the mid-1700s to bring the Society of Friends away from the practice of keeping slaves, Quaker minister John Woolman discovered this truth. He wrote that there was a divine order to the planet, which he experienced as a sense of connection and empathy with all living creatures. He felt that being in harmony with that order meant taking only what one needed and avoiding greed and excess. Anyone who violated that order, he believed, was — albeit often without realizing it — inexorably involved in oppression of some other part of creation.

Woolman’s journal of his time traveling from one Quaker Meeting to another, records his efforts to persuade Friends to free their slaves and take a stand against the institution of slavery. He entered into this work with a spirit of deep humility. Aware of his own failings, he defused much of the conflict his otherwise uncomfortable opinions might’ve engendered. He was soft-spoken, gentle, empathetic — and persistent. For some thirty years he traveled throughout the eastern United States, often on foot, to bring his message to the Society of Friends. Not until after his death did the Quakers as a group disavow the practice of slavery. In the century after he was gone, Friends (including my great, great, great-grandfather) became active in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.

As I take to the woods or the water these windy days of early spring in the Pacific Northwest, I think of Woolman’s long trek, and wonder how he found the patience and resilience for his long, apparently (from his point of view) fruitless labor.  I wonder how much he — like me and Rich — found his spirit replenished by time walking in nature, as it endlessly “fills the shadows and windy places with lisp of leaves and ripple of rain.”

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