Jew Visits the Quaker House

Sunday morning. I am far from serene, adrift in my life, trying simultaneously to get a grip and to let go.

Chronometrically impaired and chronically tardy, I am running late as usual. Light traffic: everyone else is sleeping in, eating romantic brunch, or at church. Then I see that the red-and-white striped railroad crossing gate is coming down like a guillotine.

Directionally impaired, with a faulty internal compass, almost phobic about getting lost, I swerve anyway into a blind detour. I must not be late for the Quaker meeting, where everybody else has surely been punctual, responsible, respectful, social and silent.

Quite by chance, I arrive at the destination, only four minutes late (as opposed to my usual six). I park and see several cottages surrounding a courtyard. Which building contains the meeting?

At my second guess, I see through a glass door nice people sitting very still in an informal semi-circle. I stealthily try to turn the doorknob: the door is locked. I stand there. Finally, a thoughtful woman comes and opens the door for me. I plop myself down onto the seat nearest the door.

Silence. Big collective silence.

Their chairs are silent. The shoes are silent. The faces are silent. At peace. Here resides an easy tranquility.

I panic: what if my phone is not turned off? Its Marseillaise ringtone would disrupt the group meditation. It is bad enough that I am five minutes late, and that I’d had to beg for the door to be opened. I weigh my options. If I stay put and open my bag to silence the darn phone, its velcro fastener will rip through the room’s god-seeking quiet. Its male hooks would tear away from its female loops, throwing everyone off center as they try not to glare at me. It is bad enough that I am a latecomer.

I worry about the other what-ifs. What if I stand up, turn that squeaky doorknob, step outside to turn the phone off, keeping my big foot in the door so I don’t have to beg for entrance again? Would that be a larger transgressive interruption than the velcro option?

I step outside and ascertain that my stupid phone is in its silent mode. I slip back in. Half the calm congregants, in their sensible sandals and cotton socks, have their eyes closed; I worry that those with eyes slightly open might glance at me, trying not to communicate their disapproval.

I settle into my chair again. Silence still. Not a hiccup, a sneeze, a stomach gurgle. Even the sound of my soundless breath worries me. But, if I hold my breath I might pass out, with a most disruptive improper thunk.

I try to stay in my chair. I have ants in my pants. I don’t dare make a peep. Mum’s the word. Keep my trap shut. Button my lip. Keep the lid on it. Stay quiet as a mouse. Do not let a mental pin drop. Pipe down. Put a sock in it. I meditate on colloquialism.

It occurs to me to scribble notes about this impossible silence, to keep from screaming. Even a silent scream would be audible here. Again the velcro issue: to get my writing implements, I need to open the bag.

I pray for somebody, anybody, to stand and speak their mind already. As one does, I simultaneously open my bag. He sits down and I pray my pen makes no noise on my paper.

Another latecomer stands at the door and is let in, giving me a chance to sigh and shift in my chair, creaking. I try not to swallow or gulp.

I came here to shut up my internal monkeys — but they are swinging and screeching their impolite chimpanzee calls between my well-showered ears. I hope nobody can hear them.

Finally, somebody coughs, so that I can turn this page, praying that the paper does not crinkle while rubbing up and over its metal spiral binding. I feel like a loud anxious Jew among these well-mannered Mayflower descendants.

My very presence feels loud. I clash with these white walls with their white spiritual noise. This is truly a peace beyond my understanding.

A few Quakers stand and talk slowly from deep places within themselves, in this nice but too close room. What air there is here is shared air. These individuals speak of springtime sprouting up into our world, as their fellow friends attend with calm attention. I listen as well as I can, over the racket in my head.

I thank Yahweh for this poem sprouting onto the cacophony of the hopelessly blank page of my mind. Writing here slightly stills the nerves crackling, electricity shorting out in my nervous system.

I settle into the possibilities of what can arise from this silence. I wonder what snacks will be shared after the meeting. Will they be silent snacks? Yogurt maybe. Or hushpuppies. No tortilla chips.

I scribble onto my tortured little pages. I feel the irony of my verbosity in this wordlessness. I hope it is okay that this poem insists on sprouting up like spring’s green surprise.