A Thank You to Cookie Caldwell
We make most of the really momentous decisions in our lives one‐millimeter at a time: one small decision after another until the outcome is a foregone decision. I propose that you make a decision that is conscious and deliberate and life changing. Choose things to do that could change your life. — Cookie Caldwell
These are words I live by, from a man who coordinated and ran the Quaker Young Friends gatherings I attended in my teens. Cookie Caldwell ran Young Friends weekend retreats for 34 years before retiring from his position as Program Coordinator at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting this December, 2012.
Young Friends was, and continues to be, a safe space for unprogrammed Quaker youth from the Philadelphia region. The first gatherings I attended were held once a month in various meeting houses in Northeast Pennsylvania, until we obtained our own space and began holding each gathering at Burlington Meeting House. Young Friends Gatherings were weekend retreats where I went to reconnect with myself, escape public high school, and meet other teens with similar beliefs. What I remember most from my time at gatherings was the game Wink, service projects such as painting a massive, celebratory mural in the basement of Burlington Meeting House, and visiting soup kitchens in the early fall. Worship Sharing was also important to me. While I can’t recall specific queries, I remember that, as teens, we were allowed to hold our own space and worship around often difficult topics.
When I think of the effect that Cookie has had on my life, I am always reminded of one particular game of Wink played in my ninth grade year. It started slowly, during free time before dinner with the laying out of rules, and grew into an all out free‐for‐all.
If you’ve never played, here’s how it works: A group of young people pairs off and sits in two circles, one inside the other. Except for The Winker, who finds him or herself alone. The pairs face the center of the circle towards the Winker. The Winker then begins the game by choosing three (or more, depending on the size of the group) inside players. It is the inside player’s job to get to the Winker first and plant a kiss. The outer partner’s job is to stop the inside player from getting to the Winker first. The member of the inner circle that lands the first kiss becomes the current Winker’s partner, making their outer circle partner the Winker for the next round. And so it goes for hours on end, as partners swap out, and kisses plant on arms, legs, shoulders, cheeks, lips or anywhere that is easily accessible and available.
In my memory from my ninth grade year, there was one player that stood out from the rest. He was tall, broad shouldered, and larger than the rest of us. He had long blond hair, and for that game was fondly dubbed “Strong Silent.” He sat on the outside and hardly said a word. If his partner was picked, Strong Silent was quick for his size, and would hug his partner tight. They never moved. At first, we hardly noticed, wrapped up in the game, but slowly it became a delight to see how Strong Silent’s partner reacted to his hold. On the rare occasion that they’d escape, he’d whip out a muscled arm and grab their leg and pull them right back without a moment’s hesitation. I think only one small girl was able to slip his grasp to kiss the Winker, and the group—as well as Strong Silent—let out a whooping cheer.
When I think of Cookie Caldwell, our youth leader for so many years, I always liken his overarching presence and the lasting affect his guidance has had on me to the way Strong Silent played Wink.
Cookie Caldwell has been an exceptional Youth leader, a staple in my memory as the backbone of Young Friend gatherings. His respect for process has stayed with me, and whether he was in the room or not, his spirit lingered. When, as teens, we strayed or pushed boundaries, he was always there to wrap his arms around us and hold tight. At gatherings, he knew when to step back and when to lead, and he never condescended to us; he just listened and let us explore, play, and develop queries applicable to young, unprogrammed Quakers. Gatherings always held a space for reacquaintance, introduction, group games, meeting, worship sharing, and plenty of free time. The structure was something I relied upon, and when I was faced with a difficult choice, I learned to turn inward to find a strong, silent presence that held faith in me, that would wrap me in its arms should I need it. My relationship with God truly began at those gatherings, in the guidance and support of Cookie Caldwell. He was a mentor then, and his spirit continues in my memory as a reflection of leadership, encouragement, and silent strength.