Friday, 3 March 2017

Quaker Work and Quaker Play

This is Tim Herrick's 'Inner Quest' talk at Sheffield Central Meeting in January.

My themes today are Quaker work, and Quaker play; and the personal examples I will explore are my paid employment at the University, and my family life with Jayne and Isaac.  These are both areas of work - teaching as paid work, and the effort that goes into constructing a functional, let alone happy, family life - and play - doing fun things with lively people, whether in the walls of the University or at home.  I present them here as examples of playing and working, and want to explore how my Quaker identity - the things I try to be, do, and say - underpins them both.  They may not speak to you as examples, which is entirely fine; and I hope here to start a conversation about work and play where your own stories can be told.

One reason for thinking about working and playing in a Quaker way is that in both of the main activities of my life - teaching, and being a husband and father - I am frequently required to improvise.  Neither area is definite, fixed, or certain; a student’s question might take a class off in an entirely different direction; Isaac might decide today is the day he wants to jump in puddles rather than walk to the cornershop.  I need to be able to respond no matter what, and address the emerging needs of others as well as myself. In the necessary absence of definite things to do next, it’s useful to have a bigger sense of what I would like to happen - the shape of an outcome, not a clear picture.  So as a parent and a teacher I am regularly confronted by new situations where I don’t know what to do, and my Quaker faith and practice helps in several ways.  Firstly, it reminds me that I’m not alone in carrying my troubles, nor am I the first to feel lost among life’s way.  Secondly, it offers a still point of deeper belief by which to orientate myself.  Thirdly, it offers wisdom, experience, and a sense of loving care.  And lastly, for me, it encourages playfulness and experimentation - those two words, “Live adventurously”, resonated deep within me when I first came into contact with Quakers.  So even when hard at work, I try to retain a light sense of playfulness; and when playing, an awareness of the heavier burdens that play might be carrying.

As a Quaker and a teacher, there is a rich point of inspiration in the work, thought, and writing of Parker Palmer.  His book, The Courage to Teach, is one of my favourite about the slippery business of learning and teaching, and I am lucky enough to be in a position to recommend it to others.  In this book, he talks about teachers reconnecting with their heart, the emotional drive to make the world even a tiny degree better, that is likely to have pulled them into teaching in the first place.  He also emphasises the importance of wholeness in a teacher’s life - sustained by community, and interactions with loved ones, but ultimately, a version of yourself that is the same showboating in front of 200 students on Thursday afternoon, as it is sitting silently in Meeting on Sunday morning.  The integrity developed here - and reinforced above all by the discipline of a Meeting for Worship - comes across to learners, and enables them to feel supported and secure in turn.  It also helps with the vision of teaching to which I hold, the primary component of which being listening; listening to the learners, to the materials that we share, and to myself seeking a deep sense of what feels right.  The integrity that Parker Palmer emphasises holds me still in this act of careful, tender listening; my heart an anchor keeping me tethered to the needs of others.

My work, and the work of any teacher, is also grounded in hope: a belief that people can and will change, and become better through engagement with the world outside their heads.  A passage from Quaker Faith and Practice pinned in my office reads:

To pray about any day’s work does not mean to ask success in it. It means, first to realise my own inability to do even a familiar job, as it truly should be done, unless I am in touch with eternity, unless I do it ‘unto God’, unless I have the Father with me. It means to see ‘my’ work as part of a whole, to see ‘myself’ as not mattering much, but my faith, the energy, will and striving, which I put into the work, as mattering a great deal. My faith is the point in me at which God comes into my work; through faith the work is given dignity and value. And if, through some weakness of mine, or fault of others, or just ‘unavoidable circumstances’, the work seems a failure, yet prayer is not wasted when it is unanswered, any more than love is wasted when it is unreturned.
(QFP, 20.08)

This passage speaks to me because of the balance it finds: my work, and my self, do not matter much by themselves, but the things I put into the work, and the energy that I channel through it, matter a great deal.  This, for me, encapsulates something critical about the work of teaching, which is using yourself as a bridge to enable the understanding of others.  If it’s only you as the bridge, then within no time it will be fractured and adrift.  But if it’s you, and your faith, and the spirit that moves through the Meeting - then it can withstand almost any amount of pressure.  Instead of a rigid iron bridge, it becomes something light and, flexible, responsive to the dance of the wind and the pressures of travelling feet.  This not only helps it last for much longer, it also makes it a more pleasurable experience to travel over; and, just as trying to present your wholeness and integrity can help learners find their own still small voice, it can demonstrate that to enable others to learn, all you need is a little flexibility.

The other area I am exploring in this talk is family life, and the pleasures and perils this offers.  I feel I can do this here, in the room where Jayne and I were married and where Isaac first visited when he was six days old, amongst friends, with large and small Fs alike.  One of the many delights of spending time with Isaac is the development of little games and activities where we each have certain parts to play and variation, within strict limits, is encouraged.  The term that fits them best is “routines” - following the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, this seeks to capture both their rule-bound nature, and their comedic intent.  An example may help.  After bath, either Jayne and I will sit with a towel-wrapped Isaac, and play “The clapping game”.  This is essentially a game of imitation with Isaac leading - clapping might have been the initial action, but now, when he puffs out his cheeks, we puff out ours; if he shakes his head from side to side, we follow suit; and if, as he is wont, he shouts “PIRATES!”, then we are obliged to do the same.  The core intent, it seems to me, of the clapping game and related routines, is for Isaac to be sure that we are listening to him and responding in ways that he appreciates.  Quaker Faith and Practice 22.62 might help us take this further:

There is little question that if as a parent we have not taken the time really to listen to children when they are young, listened not only to their words but to their feelings behind the words, they are unlikely to want to come with their sharings in later life.

Sometimes, Isaac is so keen on us listening, he will compel us - placing his favourite snuggly, Baa Lamb, over mine or Jayne’s mouth, he will repeatedly ask “Can you talk?”  The appropriate response here is a combination of expressive eyebrow movements and “Mmm mmm”, until Isaac chooses to remove the gag and carry on with a two-way conversation.  But most other times he is very happy to listen to us, and us to him, without the need for compulsion.  He will recite and act convoluted stories that put the myths of Babylon to shame, as the dolls from his dolls house fly to the moon, get trapped in a tunnel, or go for days out (with plenty of telling each other to “hurry up”).  Listening to these is a pure pleasure as we enter into his imaginative world, laying aside adult cares and taking time to be still.  As the passage quoted earlier from Quaker Faith and Practice goes on, “Learning to listen to each other in families can help to make us better listeners to others and to the Inner Guide”.

Another routine Isaac has developed is called “Scary monsters”, and it comes from a dark place.  It was developed after two very raw arguments between Isaac and I, when hurt, frustration, and anger were what we shared as we were locked in combat.  The details of these arguments matter so little I can’t recall them; but they both pulled hard at the threads of our love, and I am (amongst other things) enormously proud of Isaac for having the resilience to find his own way to handle conflict.  “Scary monsters” involves putting your face very close to your partner’s, almost nose to nose; and shouting, loudly, and at length.  Turns are taken, at least initially, and it ends with a hug, or a wrestle that is also a hug.  A passage from Quaker Faith and Practice perhaps helps explain “Scary monsters”, and the work that Isaac has realised it does.  The passage reads:

I have heard some Friends deny their anger in a silent ‘peace’ where there is no understanding of each other. Such Friends are angry but by their silence the progress of world peace has stood still. If we are angry we know how wars develop. It does not matter who’s wrong. What matters is that we care enough to talk to each other.

How do we become reconciled to each other if we are asunder? All I can say is to go up to that person and say what is in your heart; that their ways are hurting but you still love them. But this takes time and not many people like to look in a person’s face and find out who they are. So we miss the reconciliation and do not have the experience – that we cared. Given that, then we will know who we are and find relief in tears we all should share. This is where peace starts.
(QFP 20.68)

As a family, we do many things.  We argue, and we care.  We make each other laugh, and we make each other cry.  We play, and we work with, on, and for each other.  An image I sometimes have in mind is Jayne, Isaac, and I as enmeshed cogs within a machine, each of us supporting each other by turns; but also sometimes catching on each other, and wearing each other away.  The outcome is that we fit together very well, but perhaps slightly less well with other people, other parts of the machine.  This is one reason why Meeting is so important; it offers surrounding parts that support and work with what we’re doing, while also offering differences and things that we can imitate. Within the larger family of the Meeting, our little family can be grown with love, as we continue to work and play together.

     How does your Quaker identity come out in the work you do for love, and/or the work you do for pay?
     Where, for you, does playfulness meet Quaker-ness?

In the discussion that followed, the ideas outlined here were given much more richness and depth by the contributions of others.  The point was beautifully made that as adults, we all have experiences of being children, and these experiences will be shaped by our families and other immediate influences.  Our memories and experiences are not all going to be happy, which means that there are likely to be hurts we are carrying around; these may come out when confronted with other people’s, including children’s, hurts.  We also discussed how adults have forms of play - routines of their own - which give them opportunities for creativity and joy, from sport to drama and the wonderful-sounding “silliness therapy”.  Lastly, there was a good discussion of some of the differences between parenting and grandparenting - which could perhaps provide the starting-point for another Inner Quest in future.

Tim Herrick