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Quaker Worship and Intentional Design

Eleanor Dart
On Rules (November 2020)
Inward Light

The best college class I ever took was called “Design” and was offered by the Art Department at the University of Oregon during the summer of 1967. There were two sections. One section had a textbook, and studied things like color theory and perspective. By some lucky chance I ended up in the other section, taught by Dr. Stannard, a gifted artist and potter of worldwide renown.

We had no textbook. We were required via the syllabus to bring a bound notebook with blank, unlined pages, and something with which to write. As I recall it was a small class of around ten students, three of whom were football players who needed humanities credits and figured this would be an easy “A.” We all showed up with our brand-new notebooks and waited for the teacher to tell us what to do. He didn’t.

I went home and looked at a walnut. I cracked the walnut open. I drew pictures of the walnut. This did not inspire me and I became even more frustrated. The class met three times a week at 1:00 in the afternoon. It was a hot summer and the room was stuffy. We sat around sweating, not knowing what to do. Stannard waited. Finally, I cracked. “I don’t know about the rest of you,” I said, “but I want to go swimming.” “OK,” said Stannard. We all trooped a block down to the millrace, a small canal flowing through campus. Fully clothed, we jumped in. Ah, the lovely cool! Sitting dripping on shore, someone said, “Let’s make something to float on.” “Good idea,”
said Stannard.

None of us had any money. We decided to individually explore the campus looking for things that would float, and reconvene on the bank the next day. I remember a motley collection of old tires, Styrofoam boxes in which gallon jugs of chemicals had been packed, wooden pallets, a road sign and giant plastic bladders, very sour and smelly, from the dispensing machines for milk and orange juice in the cafeteria.

And so, it began, at first a hilarious game involving disasters (the bladders were very slippery) during which we all got happily soaked. The rest is history. Working together we eventually constructed a floating raft in modules, built a sail for the lead module, carted the entire thing over to the Willamette River and went for a sail with Stannard at the helm. The football players proved to have great engineering skills and provided both a truck and much needed muscle. Early on, my husband started a photographic record of the process, which I still have, along with all the design sketches and my no-longer-blank notebook. It was a wonderful summer!

And that is how I learned the real principles of design, which are:

  1. You have to really want something.
  2. Just start toward what you want. Take one step. Another.
  3. Keep records, pictures, photos, sketches, journals.
  4. There is no such thing as a mistake.
  5. Whatever you try will at first work badly, work a little, or not work at all.
  6. Persist, building on what works, abandoning what doesn’t.
  7. You get somewhere, somewhere good.
  8. It may not be where you thought you were headed. Indeed, it could be quite a surprise. But you will know when you arrive and be satisfied.

An addendum: This can be a solo process. But it is a lot of fun and very productive to do with other like-minded people, as long as you remain playful and follow the eight principles above.

I was thinking today about how the pandemic has shifted the paradigm for Pima Meeting, just as Stannard intentionally shifted the paradigm for my design class. We are accustomed to meeting for communal worship indoors in a large group. Suddenly, we can’t safely do that. But we are solid on principle #1. We know what we want. We really want to worship together after the manner of Friends. We want it badly. And so, we are tackling principle #2. We are taking one step after another, trying different approaches, both individually and in groups.

We need to remember principle #4: There is no such thing as a mistake. We will learn by going where we have to go. Some forms of worship will work for some people and not for others. It is useless to imagine that our worship during the pandemic is ever going to be identical with our previous norms. Who knows, maybe we will learn so much that communal worship after the pandemic will take new forms as well.

The most important thing is to be kind and playful as we make this journey together. We may not all be on the same raft, but we are all on the same river, flowing toward the same destination.  ~~~

Eleanor Dart Eleanor Dart is an author and psychotherapist and a lifelong Quaker. She is a member of Pima Friends Meeting in Tucson, AZ (IMYM).

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