In the summer of 2018, I began an 18-month program offered by The School of the Spirit, a ministry “rooted in the Quaker contemplative tradition of the living silence.”
My application to this program, which was called On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, can be found here. During that year and a half, we were to write three “reflection papers,” on themes that were largely self-chosen. This two-part post is my first paper.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…”
Two strands of what might be called destiny have shaped my life. Both have been with me since birth. One is from my father’s side of the family and concerns the Religious Society of Friends. The other is from my mother’s side. It pertains to a visionary community called Light Morning, which has been my home for the past forty-five years. These two roads have sometimes intertwined. More recently, they’ve been pulling me in opposite directions. But whether conjoined or in opposition, the Quaker and Light Morning force fields generate deep undercurrents of uneasiness whenever I consider just how strongly family, genes, and/or fate have determined the trajectory of my life.
My father’s mother was Eleanor Tyson Cope Foote, an old-school thee-and-thou Philadelphia Quaker. Her Cope forebears fled persecution in England, crossing the Atlantic with William Penn to help establish his Holy Experiment. As was her occasional custom with children and grandchildren, Granny celebrated my birth by composing an acrostic.
To Robert Foote
Born May 29, 1945
San Francisco, California
Round this sad war torn earth, again the gentle dove
Of peace lies dead, while countless mothers voice their pain
Bowed down in childbirth, with this universal prayer:
Eternal, changeless Spirit, moving everywhere
Reveal to each new life that truth must win again
Teach now my son anew the quickless power of Love!
For thee thy fathers’ fathers labored year by year
Out of the harsh New England soil to rear a shrine
Of liberty and law – freedom to follow truth.
Taught by their patient zeal that task shall still be thine
Eternal as the heritage from age to youth.
My Quaker grandmother wasn’t the only grandparent to take note of my birth. My mother’s father was Don Stephens. In 1900, when Don was ten, his father Frank co-founded an experimental community called Arden. Located midway between Wilmington and Philadelphia, Arden was inspired by the teachings of Henry George, an economic and social philosopher whose book Progress and Poverty became an international best-seller in 1879. Frank Stephens, also known as Patro, became a fervent apostle of the Georgist philosophy.
Patro died in 1935. His son Don, wanting the village to stay true to its founding vision over subsequent generations, became an Arden trustee. When neither of his grown daughters demonstrated any gravitational attraction to Arden, however, Don shifted gears. Shortly before I was born in San Francisco, I received a Western Union telegram. “Dear He-She,” it read. “Welcome to the world.” The telegram was from Don, whose anticipatory interest in me would continue for the rest of his life.
The Lansdowne Draft Board
In the autumn of 1968, I hitchhiked across the country to meet with my local draft board in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. At the beginning of that year I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English to lovely Filipino grade school kids on one of archipelago’s larger islands. But gnawing questions soon arose. Why teach school in English rather than Tagalog? What about the Catholic church and the Protestant missionaries? Or the waves of planes taking off from a nearby Air Force base, heading for the Vietnam war zone? Why did the United States annex the Philippines in 1898? What is imperialism? What is colonialism? What am I doing here?
So I took early termination from the Peace Corps and returned home to the San Francisco Bay area to join the anti-war movement. Our efforts were focused on the upcoming California presidential primary in June. The goal was to build strong enough support for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy that President Johnson wouldn’t be able to run for reelection. In that, we were successful. The election night assassination of Bobby Kennedy, however, coming right after the killing of Martin Luther King and the earlier assassination of John F. Kennedy, catapulted me out of political activism.
My draft board had classified me 1A when I left the Philippines. That made me eligible for immediate boot camp and a rapid deployment to the killing fields of Vietnam. They had also turned down my application for conscientious objector status. So I came east to appeal their decision. Six coat-and-tie businessmen were now seated around a table with one long-haired hippie, who they observed with a mixture of disapproval, curiosity, and skepticism.
I told them that my Quaker Granny had taught me that the Bible not only says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but also, “Love your enemy.” Just before the U.S. entered WWII, I said, my father spent a month at Pendle Hill, a Quaker study and retreat center. It marked a turning point in his life. He became a radical pacifist and later served two prison terms as a conscientious objector. My mother’s father Don had likewise been imprisoned for refusing to participate in WWI.
The draft board members listened attentively, then asked me to leave the room while they considered my appeal. A short time later they brought me back in to tell me that my C.O. status had been approved and that I was to do two years of alternative service at a hospital. That was better than my only other options – going to prison or going to Canada. So I told them that I would look for a hospital job in Wilmington.
Don was overjoyed. I was finally coming to Arden.
I was actually returning to Arden. We had moved there when I was three, after my father’s second prison term. Arden was a magical place to spend part of my childhood: large fields and forests, the Arden stream, many friends. We stayed until my father got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and was offered a teaching job at the University of Nebraska.
When I moved back to Arden as a young man, Don wasted no time. It was the fruition of his long-held dream. He set me up in a room at the Craft Shop, gave me an old car, took me to town meetings. I had supper each evening with Don and Mimi at The Old Homestead, just across the Arden Green.
Then a beautiful young woman came to town to visit her father. Joyce and I had gone to the Arden School together as kids. We became re-acquainted, and were later married. Don’s delight was now complete. I had married an Arden girl and was settling in. Soon I would help steward the community his father had founded into another generation.
Alas for misplaced dreams. As Paul Simon once sang, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Three years after I came to Arden, Joyce and I left. Something vital was missing. Something spiritual, or religious, or numinous. Something the early Quakers had in spades. We were unable to discern in Arden anything resembling a shared fire in the belly. So we went searching.
Don, thankfully, had no intimation that we would ever leave. During my second year in Arden, he had a crippling stroke. I helped care for him during the last year of his life. It was a poignant, powerful time for both of us. I was also with him when he died – at home, in his own room, still believing he was leaving Arden in good hands.
Tongues of Fire
Light Morning’s 1973 inception came during tumultuous times. The Vietnam War had just ended in defeat. The Watergate hearings were closing in on President Nixon. In October, the first OPEC oil embargo caused long gas lines and prolonged food shortages. Countless young people were on the road. Disillusioned with the conventional culture, we were seeking alternatives.
Some of us found our way to Virginia Beach. The transcribed readings of the clairvoyant Edgar Cayce were there, as was a large metaphysical library. Eight new-found friends soon coalesced around a woman who had developed gifts similar to Cayce’s. We raised an ardent prayer to understand, to be of service, to be quickened. In response, a stream of prophetic guidance cascaded down like tongues of fire. Live close to the Earth, we were told, in small communities of cooperation. Practice dream-work, meditation, and prayer. Become willing participants in the unfolding drama of these opportune times.
The guidance we received turned into a book, Season of Changes: Ways of Response. Late that autumn, having known each other for less than a year, we pooled our life savings and bought an abandoned farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The following spring, lured by the sweet alchemy of a shared vision, four of us moved to the mountains to put the guidance into practice.
Once again the Don and Granny force fields were close at hand. For here I was, co-founding an experimental community, just as Don’s father Patro had done. And it was Don who first introduced me to Edgar Cayce! He had helped friends get Cayce readings before I was born, and was about to get one himself when Cayce died in 1945. Granny’s Quakerly presence was also felt, especially in the mystical Christian language of our guidance. Granny died while we were in Virginia Beach. She left me a small inheritance. It helped pay for the land that would soon become Light Morning.
What was it like for Granny’s ancestors to encounter the wilderness of Penn’s Sylvania? Or for Don’s father Patro and his fellow Georgists to leave the comforts of the City of Brotherly Love and homestead an old 150-acre farm that became Arden? This is what it was like for Ron, Marlene, Joyce, and I to arrive at the 150-acre Appalachian farm that became Light Morning:
“The transition was abrupt. One week we were immersed in the warm womb of those creature comforts to which we had become thoroughly accustomed–light and heat at the touch of a switch; a washer-dryer in the garage; hot showers in the morning; TV or music in the evening; a phone and a newspaper to keep in touch with current events; and a supermarket just down the road.
“The next week it was as if all our former amenities had been an elaborate illusion, fashioned out of clouds, and that a strong wind had suddenly arisen, scattering them into pleasant memories. In their place was a wood cook stove and kerosene lamps; a hand pump beneath the willow tree; small tents for sleeping in (they had to be kept free of snow in the winter or they’d collapse); and a drafty, 10 x 12 granary shed, from which the rats had to be evicted, which served as our “community shelter.” We knew no one. Almost every point of contact with the outside world had been severed.”2
The Second Coming
The parallels between the early pioneers of Pennsylvania, Arden, and Light Morning run deeper than the hardships that were endured. It wasn’t just how they adapted to strange and sometimes hostile environments, but why. What does make some people willing to sacrifice comforts, conveniences, and occasionally their lives for something greater? Where lie the wellsprings of human motivation?
Patro was a self-described apostle of Henry George. William Penn engaged in a holy experiment. Many early Quakers believed they were living in the end times and that the Second Coming was at hand.3 Light Morning’s founding members held identical expectations. The inspired guidance in Virginia Beach was explicit. One passage in particular stands out. It begins with the reminder that we had come together, “to build an example of family living, of cooperation, of child and adult education on the many different levels, and the expression of the greater perfection and love within you, that you know man may become.” Then the guidance jumps octaves.
“But the greatest ideal, the greatest purpose for your coming together rests on one idea, one ideal, one principle; and your whole community must hinge on this. And that is to be a vehicle, a vessel by which the Christ Consciousness, by which the Christ may again enter into the earth. For He shall not come except for those who build to make this possible, that are also already within the earth plane.”
Having been raised in a thoroughly secular, humanist household, with no religious grounding whatsoever, this passage was hard to digest. “This is not to say,” the session continued, “that this is the only group that would do such a thing, that would help with such a vibration and such a purpose.”
“But it is important that you add your power and love and dignity to such a matter. This is your greatest desire and purpose, and this is why those people, those groups of Carmel – the Essenes – were given as example to you. For this, you see, is what they had done.”4
Here was another hard saying. Most of the little I knew about the Essenes grew out of casual reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now our guidance was saying that some obscure Jewish sect from the time of Jesus was to be a model for our community? And that our “greatest desire and purpose” was to do what they had done? Talk about deep undercurrents of uneasiness! What is guidance? Where does it come from? Did the guidance know me better than I knew myself? Had the trajectory of my life been largely shaped by family, genes, and/or fate?
These questions were swirling through my mind as we prepared to spend the first night on the newly-purchased land. Our tents were set up. It was the eve of Saint Valentine’s Day. Snow was expected. Taken into the sleep of that night was an ardent desire to understand why we were about to move to this desolate place. In the snow-blanketed morning, I recalled a brief but evocative dream.
The setting for the dream was the Field Theater in Arden. For over a century, Arden residents have performed Shakespearean plays at a small outdoor theater near the Old and New Homesteads, where Patro and Don spent most of their lives. The backdrop for the stage is a massive glacial boulder. I had buried Don’s ashes beneath one edge of this boulder, close to where his father’s had been interred. Both men had played countless roles on this stage.
I am sitting with friends in a small outdoor theater. Someone shows me a tiny sculpture, carved out of wax and fastened to a piece of copper wire. Looking more closely, I see that the sculpture is two miniature statues of Jesus, standing back to back.
In one representation his right hand is uplifted, the first two fingers raised, the others folded into the palm of his hand. The second statue shows Jesus with his arms crossed over his chest, as though in a gesture of surrender. Given its small size, the sculpture is surprisingly detailed. The workmanship is exquisite.
The scene dissolves into someone passing me a grapefruit. Then I see a vendor at a fair, standing intently over his machine, making cotton candy. As I watch the cotton candy taking shape, I awake.5
Three years later, this germinal dream would gestate into Light Morning’s second book, Wax Statues, Cotton Candy, and the Second Coming: An Inner Exploration of the Essenes, the Birth of Christianity, and Its Impending Renewal.
Two Roads will conclude next week.