Tag Archives: Quakers

Our Shopsitter Moved to SC

confusionToday we have guest blog from Wes and Rachael, our local shopsitter and his wife. They recently moved to South Carolina (WAAAAAHHHH!) Rachael is seated in the photo.

Regular readers may recognize us as the couple that got married in the bookstore.  We recently moved due to a job change.  It was a difficult decision to leave such a tight knit community of loving friends.  But change comes for us all and so it has come for us.

One of the most joyful things the little bookstore community brought us was our monthly Quaker meetings.  As mentioned before we chose a Quaker meeting for our wedding.  Most of our friends find it baffling that we enjoy sitting in dead silence for an hour, but we can’t think of a better way to find peace in the stressful life we lead.  So finding a Quaker meeting was top on our list for the move.  We earmarked this past weekend for a trip to the Columbia meeting 40 minutes down the road.

That morning we were raring to go, but on the drive we were wracked with doubts.  What do we really know about this meeting?  It’s in a church.  What if it’s “churchy”?  We did a quick google search for “Quakers” to get a feel for what we could expect, and found this troubling statistic: “90% of meetings are programmed worship”.  This means standing, singing … in others words “churchy”!  They probably meet in the sanctuary – pews, altar and all…we pretty well worked each other into an anxiety-ridden frenzy convinced this would be a disaster.  Were we prepared to sit through church, or worse yet walk out?

At the run-down church building, the engraved sign read “unprogrammed worship”.  A collective sigh of relief filled the car.  The first friends arrived a few moments later in their hybrid car.  The woman, wearing a comfy crocheted sweater put me in mind of Wendy who often attended still in her pajama pants and cozy slippers. NB from Wendy: I don’t remember pajama bottoms but it’s a fair cop on the slippers.

We were welcomed with open arms.

The woman told us how the building had been donated by the Methodist church, along with a hefty sum to renovate.  She was particularly proud of the energy efficient LED lighting.  A back room held a loom where salvaged fabric was being made into rugs.  You could see their lovely garden from the window.  The sanctuary had been modified too, the altar removed and the pews in concentric squares facing the center of the room.  Shortly after, a man arrived with a small vase of flowers and set it as the central focus point.

And just like that, we were home.  The Quakers began filing in – all walks of life, young, older, teenagers, some children, but all with the joy and friendliness we have come to appreciate and foster in ourselves.  It seems we haven’t left our tight knit community after all.  Rather we’ve opened the door to a world wide community that will follow us wherever we go.  We are eternally grateful to Jack and Wendy, the little bookstore, and the Big Stone Friends for that opportunity. confusion

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: SAFFRON CROSS by J. Dana Trent

saffron corssDana and I made Twitter-friends (is that a noun?) a couple of weeks before the Movable Feast of Authors run by Bookmarks, a very active lit-lovers group in North Carolina. The Feast entailed twenty tables of eight people, with authors moving in ten-minute intervals between them–a wild ride covered with online publicity, so Dana and I were in a lot of tweets together. One day I clicked on her icon and found her book was about being an ordained Baptist minister married to a Hindu who used to be a monk.

Well, that sounded intriguing….

Dana and I got a chance to chat after the event, and we traded books. (Don’t tell our publishers, ‘kay? Thanks.) She and Fred had gone on bookstore dates, and I’m fascinated by interfaith connections, so it seemed pretty natural.

More natural than the eHarmony match Dana and Fred made. Her book is less about external pressures put on them by others than personal expectations and changes. That’s what I liked most about her writing. Dana left a lot of space for others to interpret or extrapolate, by holding her narrative to “This is what happened to us; this is what I learned; this is how I understand the contentious points.” Saffron Cross is an honest description of a wife reconciling her full-on belief in Jesus with her husband’s full-on devotion to Krishna.

Early in the marriage, they decided they couldn’t take an easy road and worship separately as each saw fit; they had to share seeking God as a foundation for their shared lives. That made for some very interesting theological points not easy to reduce in a review. If I say that Dana and Fred set up a Hindu-tradition altar in their homes and included Jesus and the Bible in its objects, you might get the idea that this was an easy compromise, rather than a parsed-apart and carefully considered decision about how the two faiths work. You might think about hair-splitting, mental gymnastics, and semantic end runs around scripture.

And that would be the wrong idea, because nothing comes easy in this pragmatic narrative. Back when Sue Monk Kidd wrote about her rejection of male-centered religion, my friends and I who read her memoir were frustrated. She avoided the central question: What about Jesus? If a guy says “I’m the son of God” and you relegate him to “I’m a son of God,” then you’re worshiping someone who belongs in a lunatic asylum. If Jesus isn’t God’s son, he’s a nut case. The “all religions lead to the real God” approach is facile if the only way to make that happen is reducing Jesus’ status.

Dana and Fred don’t take that route; she addresses both anecdotally and in theological observation that she believes Jesus is God’s son. Her meshing this with Fred’s approach, finding peace that they’re both on honest paths, proves less semantic than thought-provoking.

If you’re interested in Christianity because you are a Christian; if you’re anthropologically interested in faith communities; if you’re a Hindu frustrated with Western materialism; if you find marriage stories voyeuristically interesting; or if you like the idea of a woman Baptist hospice minister, you’ll find Saffron Cross a densely packed book that keeps you up late.

And I admit to giggling, thinking of how hard it was explaining Little Bookstore in ten minutes to eight strangers, and there’s Dana sitting down to her tables: “Hi, I’m a Southern Baptist married to this nice Hindu guy…” Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

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Filed under book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, what's on your bedside table, writing

GOT POSTCARDS!!!!!

postcards 1You lovely, sweet, kind people: thank you for the postcards!

Jack and four other Quakers here in SW VA visit the federal prison once a month, seeing a few prisoners each. They use postcards a week ahead to let the prisoners know they’re coming, as required by federal regulations. And the prisoners use the postcards as windows, since their cells don’t have any.

So when I asked about two weeks ago, if you have some lying around, could you send us a couple of postcards from your area so they wouldn’t get the same ones over and over from us, you sent more than 400 post cards!

Thank you; thank you; thank you. This is so sweet.

The cards came (with such thoughtful notes about the book, our bookstore, and Jack’s willingness to visit prisoners) from Mary in Columbus; Sandra in Charlottesville; Janet in Crystal Falls, Michigan; Terry in San Francisco; Lynn in Rossland, BC (Canada); Barbara in Pawtucket, RI; from Wilmington, DE; from Gina, who not only sent cards but stamps for them; from my friends Beth of Blacksburg and Liz of Glen Antrim, Ireland, who spend half their professional life running through airports; and from the people we worked with at Hylton Arts Center this past January, doing a Burns Supper; five or six other places before that, but we threw the envelopes away before realizing we needed to write thank you notes! (I’m sorry; we are stupid; feel free to leave a comment here if you sent us cards so we can thank you properly.)postcards 2

The Quaker visitors have more than 400 postcards now, from Alaska and Montreal and Lourdes and Florida and the Midwest, boasting dogs and wildflowers and birds and moose and such pretty, pretty mountains.

“The guys are going to love these,” Jack said as we piled them on the floor to take a picture. (Please note that clump of cards is about an inch deep.) I think there was a tear in his voice. It’s wonderful to be affirmed in one’s calling; it’s lovely to have great photos to send the prisoners.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! from Jack, Elizabeth, Sue-Ella, anonymous, and Jim (the prison visitors) and Wendy (who LOVED seeing them get such support and affirmation).

PS: From the sublime to the ridiculous, if you feel inclined, scroll down a couple of blog posts to the 100,000 visits contest and leave your funniest bookstore pick-up line. Contest closes when our FB page hits 1,000 likes or the blog reaches 100,000 hits, whichever happens first. It looks like they will take place pretty close together, so Jack and I have a friendly bet on. We’re not telling you who is betting on which. ;]

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Got Postcards?

Every once in awhile I ask blog readers for something. I try not to do it often, but it seems like a good reason this time; it’s for Jack.

So…. got postcards?

Jack and my friend Elizabeth (she’s in Little Bookstore) do prison visits, along with a few other Friends from the Quaker meeting at our bookstore. Each month they sit chatting with two or three federal prisoners who don’t have visitors for some reason. The prisoners have requested someone through the Prison Visiting Service, an ecumenical group.

Jack and E go out at 8 a.m. and return home about 1 p.m., drained. It’s hard to make these visits; I don’t go; I know my limits. Two weeks in and I’d be contacting lawyers and media, mounting campaigns to improve food, ensure funeral visits, all that stuff. I’m an empathic listener, internalizing everything.

Jack is not; he’s a smart, sympathetic listener with common sense. One man Jack visits was brought to America illegally as a seven-year-old, lived his life without papers and then, at the age of 32, was the passenger in a car stopped for running a red light. He’s doing six years. The other guy Jack visits has killed two people and stolen things. He’s doing life.

About ten days before their next visit, Elizabeth and Jack send prison-required postcards to their guys, telling them they’ll be there. The prisoners decorate their cells with these cards and trade duplicates with fellow inmates.

So…. if you have some cool postcards from your area, and it wouldn’t cost you much to slip half a dozen into an envelope, Jack and E and the other Quakers doing prison visits would get new views to send, and the guys would get cool cards to post on their wall. We’re running out of Wise County postcards.

We don’t know what it would cost those of you in Korea, Britain, and some other countries to mail six unused cards, so if it’s expensive, forget it and thanks anyway. American views from anyplace would be very appreciated, and if international posting can be done, yippee! Send them to 404 Clinton Ave E, Big Stone Gap, VA 24219. And thank you, on behalf of visitors and visitees alike.

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She was HOT! He kept his cool.

Wes is our first call if we need a pinch-hitter for a day here or there in the bookshop. Those of you who read the blog regularly may remember that Wes married Rachael in a Quaker meeting at the bookstore last year.  IMG_3418He’s been invaluable while Jack’s in Scotland, because I’ve gotten tied up with some things at the college.

Today when I relieved him, a stack of J.A. Jance mysteries were sitting out of place on a counter top. Wes grinned when he saw me looking at them.

“Funny story about these,” he said, and launched.

A woman had come into the store with her daughter, who was the epitome of metrosexual beauty: lots of arm tattoos, her nose was pierced, and she wore a floral print mini-sundress.

“She was HOT!” Wes assured me, waving his hands in curves that, presumably, described the contours of her paisley pattern tattoo sleeves.

Hot Girl browsed classics while her mom surfed the mystery room. Mom emerged with the five Jance paperbacks, marked $3 each in good condition.

“That’s $15,” said Wes, smiling at the producer of Totally Hot Girl.

“What?” she shrieked. Wes, accustomed to people being impressed by our pricing, beamed, but Hot’s Mama continued, “I can get these cheaper someplace else!”

A few other customers in the store (who had also been admiring THG) began to studiously ignore what was going on. Hot Girl threw her mother an evil look.

Wes, however, has been hanging with Jack and me awhile now. With perfect dignity, he scooped the books from Hot’s Mama’s arms. “Then of course you should,” he said, bowing from the waist. “I’ll put these back for you.”

Out went Mom, back erect. Hot Girl waited until she left, then, according to Wes, “began grabbing classics randomly from the bargain bin. She bought $25 worth, and kept apologizing for her mom.”

Wes assured her it was not a problem. He invited her to come back anytime. “ANYTIME,” he emphasized, bagging her books. He probably carried them to the car for her.

It’s unusual that someone fusses about our prices–more unusual than a tattoo-wearing, flesh-piercing, breast-and-leg bearing Totally Hot Girl waking into our bookshop. Big Stone Gap isn’t as sleepy as people think.

And Wes? He’s looking forward to minding the store again tomorrow. I’ve told him my project at the college might take all week. He assures me this is not a problem.

Such a nice boy.

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Why Jack Goes to Prison Every Month

Jack’s weekly guest blog, which he wrote before heading off to Scotland for the annual tour.

I am a member of the Prison Visiting Service (PVS) and I go, once a month, to visit two inmates at Lee Federal Prison. PVS is supported by a wide variety of faith groups as well as ex-prison staff and ex-prisoners. Four of us from the Quaker group that meets in the bookstore are on the PVS team visiting our ‘local’.

When I tell folk that I do this, reactions vary. Some say they couldn’t do it while others ask what it’s like; others don’t even know there is a Federal prison nearby. As for me, I admit I had some misgivings at first. There is rigorous vetting beforehand and a formidable folder of ‘dos and don’ts’ to be absorbed. The place itself is only ten years old and pretty intimidating at first sight, growing more so as you progress past security and deeper towards the visiting room, gates and doors clang-closing behind you.

Normally you visit with your inmates sitting across from each other at a table with little restriction, but sometimes he will be in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) AKA ‘the hole’. If he’s in the hole then you talk through a plate glass window via a crackly telephone and he’s in handcuffs and leg shackles.

“Why on earth do you do it, you ask?”

Initially because it seemed a charitable thing to do. But having done it for a year now, I’ve been able to think a good deal more about it. I am only now beginning to get a sense of what it’s like to live in that environment and I cannot imagine how I would deal with it. These guys are human beings just like you and me – no, really they are! Some are sad young men who are not violent, just ‘illegal immigrants’ brought here as children, now waiting out their 5 to 8 year sentences before being dumped on the border. Others are in for much longer for serious crimes. It would be easy to categorize them as not-so-bad or very bad, but I resist that, for they are all humans who should be listened to, and that’s why I go.

Let’s call the two I regularly visit ‘Bill and ‘Bob’. Bob has been in for 33 years and (theoretically) is due out in another 14. Bill has been in ten years and has ten to go. Like many Federal prisoners Bill and Bob have no family near enough to visit and would have no-one to talk to from outside if we didn’t go. Yes, they’ve done wrong. Yes, they need to be away from people they could harm. And yes, they need to be listened to, because they’re humans.

Between us we see 8 inmates each month, but there are 11 more on the waiting list and more asking all the time if someone will visit them. Bob and Bill tell me they look forward to the visits – “you’re not staff and you’re not prisoners – you’re just ordinary folks.”

Why do I do it? Because I’m human too.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, VA

Verna’s Blanket

Jack and I hold a Society of Friends meeting (Quakers) once a month in our bookstore. The other Sundays we attend one block up the street, in a small congregation with a kind pastor, a wise church council, and a kick-butt organ-piano duo.

Last year, the church lost one of its members after a lengthy illness. Verna was married to a man who clearly adored her as much as she did him. While her ability to walk dissolved, she leaned on his arm; when it was gone, he pushed her wheelchair. We laughed and joked and talked with her as we’d done every Sunday, pretending we didn’t see. Verna was a dignified woman; always carefully dressed and coiffed, she waited in her pew ahead of everyone else once the chair was in play, so we wouldn’t see her entrance and exit.

As her motor skills slipped, she finally had to sit in the wheelchair in the aisle rather than in her pew with Bill. He moved to its outer edge. During the hymns, he would hold the book in one hand, and reach down to touch Verna’s hand or shoulder with his other. Throughout the sermon he would periodically lay his arm across the back of her chair. It looked uncomfortable.

It looked like love.

Losing weight and bundled in a thick blazer over her sweater, Verna had for the last year or so kept a fleece blanket in tasteful muted colors folded across the back of the pew she shared with Bill. When she moved into the chair, the blanket was returned at the end of each service to its accustomed spot.

Jack and I were away when Verna died, so missed the funeral. Bill was gone about a month, then came back to the pew where he’d sat for so many years with Verna. Meanwhile, her blanket, folded neatly, lay in its accustomed place across the back.

Of course we don’t need a blanket to remind us of Verna, but we like having it there. We smile and joke and touch Bill’s shoulder as we shake his hand, and invite each other over for Sunday lunches. No one in our tiny congregation ever mentions the blanket.

We don’t need to. Like Bill’s arm, like Verna’s dignity, it’s just there: quiet, unassuming, there.

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, small town USA, VA