The Conduits

Images by Cristina Conti

Listen to the author read this story, part of the Podcast episode “Quakers and Fiction

The first time Maggie saw the conduits she was nine years old; sitting in meeting for worship; bored by the stillness and the silence, as always; and idly counting the flowers printed on her mother’s skirt. Vera Penny stood up.L

“Dear Friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God,” the old woman said, her thin hand making a gesture as if she were scattering a handful of birdseed.

Maggie blinked at the glowing ripple that spread through the air where Vera’s fingers traced their arc. She stared as the conduits came into focus: glowing lines spreading from Vera’s hands, face, and powder-blue cardigan toward everyone else in the meetingroom.

“Who has seen the wind?” Vera went on, “Neither you nor I. But when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by. So with the Divine. We know God is there not because we see God, but because we see the effects of Love moving through the world like wind.”

Maggie looked down at her own chest and saw the light touching her. She felt an unexpected warmth as she realized that there were more lines: channels between her and her parents sitting beside her; her friend Sora across the room; and Mr. Price, who always asked what book she was reading—and really listened to the answer. The harder Maggie looked, the more lines she saw, until there were lines connecting each person with every other person: heart to heart to heart. Then she noticed John Barlow sitting on a bench by himself. He sat in a shadow, none of the threads of light quite reaching him, as if a hole were torn in the web.

Maggie’s focus sharpened, and she saw not just glowing threads but streams of light flowing through clear conduits toward John. But just before the light reached the man, something hard and jagged blocked the flow, so that he seemed tense with cold in his walled-off hollow where the light couldn’t reach. Maggie didn’t know John well—he wasn’t a friendly man— but seeing that darkness around him, her heart went out to him. In that moment, she saw the metaphor made real and palpable, as a pulse of stronger light surged out from her own heart along the conduit toward the lonely man. The pulse hit the obstruction, flared brighter, and then faded. But its strength had widened the channel just enough that a thinner thread of light could flow through, wavering the last few inches to connect John Barlow at last with the great glowing web all around him. Maggie watched his eyebrows rise in surprise, and then his shoulders lowered just a fraction and the set of his mouth relaxed.

After the rise of meeting, Maggie asked her mother what she’d seen. Her mother shook her head, puzzled.

“When Vera Penny spoke,” Maggie insisted.

Her mother agreed that she’d found Vera’s message helpful, but clearly she had seen no magical glowing threads. So Maggie hoisted up her courage, marched over to Vera Penny and said, “I want to know how to do that. Please.”

“How to do what?”

“Make those lines, those tubes of light. I want to be able to make those tubes like you do.”

Vera smiled and cocked her head at Maggie. “Ahh, you see them, too? Those are the conduits. But I don’t make them, you know. That’s God. They’re always there.”

“But I only see them when you . . .” Maggie made a little gesture of her own, unable to explain. “That’s magic. I want to be able to do that.”

Vera nodded. “Knowing they’re there: that’s faith. Feeling them, that’s being centered in the Divine. To see them takes imagination as well. And perhaps a little magic.”

“And making it so I can see them, too?”

“That’s God again. I share what I’m given to share. And that’s obedience.”

Maggie frowned. Obedience didn’t sound nearly as appealing as magic. “But you did do something.”

“Yes, but not to make them. What I did was believe in the love, imagine the love, and center myself in the love. And if you saw the conduits, you can do all that, too, which is a blessing. It’s hard enough to feel them, and most people never see them at all. You’ve been given a special gift, Maggie. Practice it. And come back and tell me how it goes.”

So Maggie set herself to practice, just as she had practiced learning to ride her bicycle, doggedly picking herself up, brushing off her palms, and trying again. At first she could seldom find the conduits no matter how hard she tried. Sometimes she could just feel their flow, humming between people like high-voltage electric wires or gurgling pipes. But every once in a while they flared into view, revealing every connection, every care, every struggle, every impulse of love streaming through the world.

She could see where conduits were narrow or blocked, and she practiced sending her own sympathy through those channels to expand them until light could reach past the obstructions. She practiced dismantling, piece by miserable piece, the places where the conduits from her own heart were choked by prejudices and fears. It was like standing in a stream and lifting out boulders one by one to break down a dam. Some of those stones were so heavy she could hardly lift them, some so sharp that even to touch them made her heart curl up in pain. But then sometimes as she sat there in meeting, wondering whether she’d be able to lift one more stone or whether it was even worth the effort to keep trying, along came a sudden rush of love from someone or somewhere else, loosening the jam just enough that she could take a deep breath and keep working.

She practiced week after week, year after year, until in time she could see the conduits whenever she tried. When people spoke in meeting for worship, Maggie could see the light carrying their words. When others spoke, all the people she met in school and throughout the rest of the week, Maggie could see when their words spread light and when they shut it off. She could see, too, when something in herself slammed down a barrier in front of a stream of light. Then slowly, carefully, she practiced letting the barrier relax, soften, and wash away in the rush of love that was always waiting to flow inexhaustibly through any opening.

It was magic. It was a superpower. When she was angry, a glimpse of a clear, shining conduit reminded Maggie to take a breath and shift that anger aside just enough to let the light flow past so that she could speak to people without hurting them. When she grieved, the sound of the thrumming conduits reminded her to relax enough to accept the comforting flow of love so that she could stand up and keep walking. When conflict arose, she saw where to direct her own love so that conduits could swell and blocked connections could be reopened. And the more she practiced, the easier it was to see the lines, weaving their web between everyone she encountered. When she told Vera Penny how it was going, the older woman nodded and said with a wink, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Maggie went away to college, graduated and got a job, and attended meeting for worship in a new city, the conduits knitting her together with the world wherever she went. In all her work, she let her actions follow the flow of the conduits, and wherever she went she left people more open to love than they had been. It was on a visit home when she was 24 years old that she saw the conduits for the last time.

Vera Penny was using a walker now, and she remained seated when she began to speak out of the silence of meeting for worship. But the light pouring down upon her and overflowing through her was as strong and bright and warm as ever.

“Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed,” she said, and she turned toward Maggie and nodded her head with deep sympathy. And the conduits were gone.

Maggie gasped, shocked as a child whose security blanket has been ripped away. The absence of glowing conduits was a blind spot in her eyes, and she felt as if the love they carried was gone. She could not shift her anger, nor ease her grief at the gift that had been taken away as suddenly as it had been given. In the following week, she struggled desperately to regain her magic, practicing waving her hands, and focusing and refocusing her eyes until she gave herself a blinding headache. She snapped at her parents, scowled at the strangers whose connections she could no longer see, and railed at the emptiness that surrounded her until the second Sunday of her visit home.

Sitting in meeting for worship was now neither the boredom of her childhood nor the golden glow of the past 15 years. It was a furious tirade at the unfairness of it all. She was shut off from everyone now that she was shut off from the conduits. And then she felt the tiniest thread of love reaching toward her heart. She raised her head from staring angrily at her hands, and her eyes met John Barlow’s. His face was suffused with light as he stared around the meetingroom in utter wonder, and he looked at Maggie with a sympathy and care she had never seen in him during all her childhood. John Barlow, the unfriendly, was feeling care and sympathy for Maggie. She was a cold, shadowed spot in the meetingroom, and the tiny trickle of light that had reached her had come from him. Her surprise at receiving love from that source was equalled by her surprise at realizing that she was now the one who needed it as much as he had all those years ago. She sat in the darkness, the emptiness, the blindness, and tried desperately to hold onto the thin stream of warmth that was all that remained of the all-embracing light she had seen.

At the rise of meeting, Maggie marched straight over to Vera. Before she said a word Vera patted the bench beside herself. “Sit down, Maggie.”

Maggie sat.

“It feels cruel when you lose it, but consider instead how blessed you were to have it.”

“But why? Why give me a superpower only to take it away again?”

“I certainly can’t explain it. But I knew when the message came to me last week that it was for you. I think the gift was taken away because you don’t need it any more.”

“Of course I need it! I don’t even know how to live without it!”

“But you don’t need it. The conduits are still there. The magic may have moved on, but you’ve still seen the proof that most people never see at all, and you can still use the power. You know they’re always there: that’s faith. And you’ll still be able to feel them when you’re centered in the Divine.”

“How come you still have the magic?”

“I don’t.” Vera smiled at Maggie’s astonishment. “I stopped seeing the conduits almost ten years ago now, and I still miss that magic.”

“Then how can you give the magic to John Barlow? You did, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t do that. God did. I’m just the messenger: the witness. But I tell you this, Maggie, if you could feel that John Barlow saw the conduits for the first time this morning, then I’m quite sure you’ll learn to feel them just as well as you ever saw them. When you lose your sight, you learn to use your other senses. Practice it. And come back and tell me how it goes.”

Anne E.G. Nydam

Anne E.G. Nydam makes relief block prints celebrating the wonders of worlds both real and imaginary and also writes books about magic in many forms. She believes that art can open our hearts, and fantasy just might save the world. She’s serious about joy. Anne is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. More:

1 thought on “The Conduits

  1. Lovely! Thank you for this story. Growing up Quaker, as a kid I imagined the connections within a Meeting for Worship as threads on a loom, warp and weft, interweaving. I couldn’t see the pattern, but I could feel it. The first thing I ever had published was an essay in Friends Journal about it. The title was, “The Magic of Meeting.”

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