Succession to the Clerkship

I am learning to clerk. Meetings give their clerks the power and authority necessary to function. This is something we don’t much like to admit, but I can get my mind around it if I think of it as giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s: God gets the God stuff, and even Quakers need a little hierarchy. But the only bumper sticker I ever wanted was the one that says, "Question Authority." You see where I am. If I were to arch my neck to try to see the top of my learning curve, I’d fall off backwards. And if I ever get to the top, I don’t think I’ll see a level plateau; there will be a jagged peak, and then the abyss. Our former clerk says I should consider sliding down the learning curve.

Most of what I’ve read about good clerking tells me what it looks like from the outside. And though our former clerk gave me the inside scoop (telling me that you are naked, every nerve exposed, so that simple sharpness in a comment feels like deep hurt), I didn’t believe him. It was like someone describing death or puberty. All the details are clear, but it’s clearly never going to happen to me.

Nor did I believe what he implied: sharpness in myself is also amplified. But here it is, red, bloody, messy. (There are dry bones, too, but that’s another chapter.) All the business meetings when I sat neatly stitching, thinking that the needlework kept impatience at bay, it was actually anger, seething, waiting to emerge the second I got my hands on some real power. Run over our time limit while my children are needing a change of pace from the baby sitter downstairs? Not on my watch! Spend half an hour trying to finish improperly done committee work? Not without a fight from me! Spend half an hour picking apart properly done committee work? Just watch me flex my muscle against that mistrust.

I misused my power with that needlework. Our former clerk told me something else that I heard intellectually but only now know: everyone present shares in the failure or success of the meeting. I should have been clerking all along. And I have stored the anger from those years of my misuse of my power, so that now I sometimes refuse to use the power I now know I have.

For instance, last business meeting we talked about our current practice and guidelines for minute-taking: are our minutes records of action taken by the meeting (the will of God for the meeting) and/or are they records of discussions? It turns out we had talked about this before and that there were minutes recording the results of the discussions on minutes. Somehow, the committee looking into minutes had not looked at these previous minutes (despite my excellent leadership in pointing them out). And I had ignored hints of this oversight because I was disappointed—which I hid, and called the hiding, "going with the flow." So we were having difficulty coming to unity on and editing our new minute. I said unclerkly, opinionated things. And when an alert person pointed out that the minute currently being written did not fall into any of the three categories of minutes we were minuting, I completely missed the delicious absurdity. I was too mad.

I can write myself a bunch of prescriptions; you can too. For instance, I should have calmly said, as soon as I admitted to myself what had happened in the committee, "I think we would be more enlightened by this discussion if we were having it in the light of the previous minutes on this subject. Let’s let the committee bring it back to us next month." But oh, too reasonable! Much more fun to be mad.

I don’t like to see this much anger in myself. I particularly dislike seeing it in myself when a large portion of my religious community is seeing it at the same time. At least while I was quietly stitching, I imagine I seemed saintly.

I look at our former clerk. He is slicing apart seams on a pair of jean shorts that were once mine. (One of his last requests as clerk was for our old jeans; he is looking forward to having the time to make them into a rag rug.) John has earned his rag rug. It’s his turn to sew; mine, to be taken apart.

Lucinda Atrim

Lucinda Atrim, a member of Scarsdale (N.Y.) Meeting, serves on the Board of Friends Journal. She wrote this article "with lots of help, in this as in all clerkly things, from John Randall."