Mary introduced us by email. By the time we met in person, Nora and I had pleasantly corresponded by email and spoken by phone off and on for months. We had both entered middle age and each thought we might desire a partner. Much of our conversation and correspondence centered on getting to know each other.
Our meeting took place in her home as I traveled from Philadelphia to Georgia via Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on business. With a new-rental-car-smell stuck to my clothes, and feeling a bit rumpled from the 400 miles of road, I found a smiling woman welcoming me to her home. After a pleasant visit of only two hours, I had to be back on the road. I drove feeling positive about the meeting, yet beginning to feel part of me questioning the wisdom of a long-distance relationship.
A few days later, I had to be in Chapel Hill again for a First Day afternoon meeting. I decided to arrive early to attend meeting with Nora there. Coming into meeting from being on the road again, long-distance relationships were much on my mind. Something seemed not right about the concept.
I was glad to see Nora at the meetinghouse before First Day worship. We talked awhile with others before meeting. After some Friendly introductions, I entered a crowded Chapel Hill meeting room and found a seat next to Nora. The first message surprised me: it felt too early—I could not have been in my seat more than 30 seconds when it came. The speaker asked the gathered to hold in the Light the value of our children and spoke of the young people as the meeting’s future.
With the message done, the room settled into a hanging silence. With Nora beside me, I, too, settled in and began to free-associate, touching the meeting room, and then going where the flow took me. I breathed old Friends in and out. I remembered nights during a previous summer when a group of us had danced on the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia. I thought of I-95 running parallel to the river near Penn’s Landing.
Then I was led in thought to one of my favorite stops when I go to the Philadelphia waterfront; a small park, no more than 60 feet square, perched high above I-95, which is cut 35 feet below the granite park floor in a ceilingless tunnel through Old City. Above the granite, there is a central statue. In a perimeter around the park is a low wall with names inscribed on it. As I visualized the wall and the names, the beating of my heart filled my neck, chest, and arms.
Behind my heartbeat and before the park wall, ground lights shone up in the city night of my memory and fought off the overhead street lighting parachuting down into the night. The battle of the lights was set to the sounds of flashing cars and truck tires whining in trails on the interstate below. The Delaware River, more than a quarter mile wide, was silently gliding by, 80 yards to the east.
On the wall, bathed in twin shadows of opposing lights, are the names of the men and women from Philadelphia who died as soldiers in the Vietnam War. As memories filled my meeting morning mind, I literally felt myself being lifted off the seat. I fought and returned my full weight to the bench.
In a palpable meetinghouse silence, I recalled how, whenever I go to that park, I think of a day in October 1974: my 20th birthday. For my birthday that year, well before my Quaker days, the U.S. Army gave me orders to leave for Headquarters, Saigon, South Vietnam. I received them in my hospital bed at Fort Eustis, Va.; I had just had my appendix removed.
On the occasion of the triplet events of my birthday, appendectomy, and orders for Saigon, I think I weighed 160 pounds. Because of the removal of my appendix, I was never sent to Vietnam. I have never since considered the appendix as a parenthetical or devolved organ.
Somewhere deep inside and beneath the spirit fog of the meeting room holding me, I briefly found a piece of the story of how I’d landed in the hospital. Past the memory and the brief internal chuckle it brought, I sat on the bench in the thickness of meeting wondering still, as I do each time I go to the park, why those men and women had died.
I felt my eyes filling. Breathing viscous air, I tried to center and settle in better.
A second message came out of the silence. The voice offered knowledge of a composer who had written a piece entitled "Quaker Meeting." The voice said it began with great tumult, speaking to my condition. My eyes stayed closed.
And on his saying "tumult," the tumult within me seemed to move from within me to setting upon me, then both. I became engulfed in it. As I rolled pell-mell within it, my heart turned to the young men and women now dying in Iraq. I saw myself at 20, an expert rifleman, M-16 in hand. In the melee within, I tied this wondering to the first message offered in meeting: the precious value of our children. Somewhere outside of me, the message went on.
Free-associating, I sped down paths at once long forgotten and far off in the future. I wondered if perhaps the Iraq War memorial should be overlooking I-95 instead of the Vietnam Memorial since the Iraq War seems to be over oil. Which, I wondered, is a better monument to greed: the World Trade Center Towers—or the pit where they once were? And then I sped on to thinking of the refineries lining the Schuylkill River and the Delaware Bay, making Philadelphia the third- or fourth-largest refining center in the United States.
My heart lost constructive frame and I cynically imagined a memorial at each refinery in the U.S. Again, I wiggled in my seat, trying to settle down, trying to stop the freight train carrying me from thought to memory to emotion to ideal at a breakneck breathless pace that almost hurt. Time passed. My mind slowed. I found air. The message was continuing.
The voice said the composition called "Quaker Meeting" finally mellowed out and became serene. From a deeply quiet place inside me, a gold light moved, filling the space behind my eyelids. My heart rate went up. And I saw my own use of oil in the past eight days. The silence roiled like storm clouds on wind, which dropped their load between the benches, soaking me in my own guilt. Soaked and pelted from above, from under the bench, a hand seemed to push me, telling me to speak, but I fought again, gluing myself to my bench. I began to sweat and shake.
Within that shaking, I realized that in two days I had driven 1,400 miles and had another 600 to drive. Two thousand miles at 25 miles per gallon. Shaking, I calculated. That’s 80 gallons of gasoline. At eight pounds a gallon, that’s 640 pounds of fuel. I was dumbfounded. The relentless human calculator continued. This is equal to about four times my body weight the day I received my orders for Vietnam. I wondered if my 640 pounds of fuel had cost 640 pounds of human lives. How could I even think about a long-distance romance?
I was overcome with a sense of loss. Tears came. So much for serenity. A clearing in the meetinghouse storm seemed to pull its weight from over me. I gave in to the hand that seemed to be pushing me to speak. As I gave in and allowed myself to rise, a neighbor’s hand reached for me. The hand she took was drenched. Meeting had ended.
At the rise of meeting I went to the bathroom, not wanting human contact. I was exhausted. Following the meeting, I was preoccupied with what had occurred. Somehow, that afternoon I switched into automatic mode and dealt with business. Even after that session I felt a bone-deep tiredness. When I left, I drove a short distance and then slept.
I returned home, visited the park again, and decided a long-distance relationship was not in keeping with the teaching the meeting or the park had offered me. In the year following the initial writing of this piece, my two vehicles both self-destructed. Eventually I took the hint and chose not to replace them. I now live as a telecommuter, walker, and city commuter until I am to do differently. What started in that Chapel Hill silence continued again in that park and called me to this act.
And now, a year later, the Delaware River glides past Philadelphia’s children of the ’60s and ’70s: ghosts in transparent olive drab, marine green, and navy blue, themselves gliding fitfully above engraved gray granite bearing their names. They are unhappy with being remembered in the shadowed wash of oil-fired light.
Children still die for oil, perhaps due to the same kind of resistance I practiced on the bench that day. Yet, according to the first message that day, we are to value our young and hold them in the Light. I have learned that depends on what powers the Light.
You’ll recall that the second message, about someone who had composed a piece entitled "Quaker Meeting," said it began with great tumult and finally mellowed out and became serene. It sounds a lot like seeking and clearness committee work. Those in the park sometimes serve as one of my clearness committees, posing questions that help me clarify. This is one long-distance relationship that seems to work.
The message I got that was never given that day was that some long-distance relationships can work. On that Sunday, the kids who were once my peers and had died as I lay short an appendix came the long distance from the noise of a park above a Philadelphia interstate to the quiet of a North Carolina meetinghouse bench. They asked me if, while making my daily choices, I could remember them and my son’s peers who are in Iraq now, and, sadly, those who are yet to go.
I am clear now that I am to help Philadelphia’s ghost children of the ’60s and ’70s end their haunting, fitful granite-top glide in a nighttime park bathed in a light that perpetuates death. I am clear they are not to lie in the shadow of oil-fired light, killing more children. This is why they traveled that distance to see me.
Maybe I’ll stay walking and writing until the light watching over them comes from a renewable source. Maybe I can find a way to finance wind shares for them or include solar panels in the park. I have begun these processes.
What they had wanted me to share in a message that First Day, I have written here on another First Day. After I failed to speak, it eventually became clear I was to tell the whole story, and then to give up my vehicles and walk. For how long, I don’t know. It is the first time in 33 years I have been without a vehicle.
It is simply time to walk; cheerfully.
Postscript: In the summer of 2005, two months after first writing this piece, while walking and without a vehicle, I met my life partner. She was nine blocks away from my home and I knew the minute I met her. It took her a bit longer. A clearness committee including war dead from the park helped to convince her. She is now a Friend.
Names, time frames, and places in this story have been altered to respect the privacy of others.