When I'm on my journeyThese are alternate words to a song by the Weavers, whose original refrain was "When I'm on my journey/Don't you weep after me." Barbara Greenler died peacefully in her sleep on Wednesday night.
Won't you sing after me?
I just want you to sing after me.
Barbara was an elder to me before I knew that the word used to leave such a bad taste in Friends' mouths. When I asked Barbara over lunch at an FGC Gathering one year if she would consider being an elder for me, she cautiously asked, "Well... What do YOU mean by 'being an elder'?"
It was only after I answered her question that she told me how "eldering" had become a dirty word. Barbara probably knew I was too young a Friend to have known there was any such concept, let alone the baggage that came with it, yet she cared enough to let me have my own experience around eldership and to find my own way.
We ate lunch together at least once a month for the next four years after that, until I eventually moved to Minnesota, where quarterly phone calls and intermittent get-togethers at annual sessions, Nightingales, or FGC Central Committee meetings had to suffice. During those calls and lunches, Barbara and I traded stories--or mostly she listened to mine!--about unrequited love; being wealthy but desiring simplicity; uncertainties about Quakerism and how to bend our life gently to come into greater accord with its discipline.
When my partner and I were clear to wed one another in the presence of God, fFriends, and family, we asked if Barbara would clerk the wedding. We were so happy that she said yes, despite the fact that we then lived in Minnesota and she lived in Wisconsin some 300 miles away.
I remember that the day of the wedding, she wore earrings with butterflies that I had made her some time ago; she so loved insects and bugs and any sort of critter. But she also had the gift of showing her love for her friends and family in just that way: wearing handmade jewelry; framing and hanging a grandchild's fingerpainting; remembering to ask how a certain school project had gone the previous day.
Barbara was engaged.
Two or three years after the wedding, Barbara brought some of her watercolors to the FGC Gathering to be displayed at the Gathering's Lemonade Art Gallery. My partner was taken by one painting in particular, of stones from the Great Lakes. Soon thereafter, I privately asked Barbara if I could commission her to do a painting as a present for my sweetie of the North Shore of Lake Superior that included stones. Barbara was delighted by the chance to paint some more, the painting made my partner cry, and it now hangs in our guestroom in our house.
When Barbara was asked by Friends General Conference to serve as co-clerk of the 1998 Gathering at River Falls, Wisconsin, she joked that she was now one of the Big Dogs, but my guess is that inwardly she was very humbled and conflicted about how to stay low in such a highly visible position.
I wonder if it was her experience as Gathering co-clerk that brought her under the burden of addressing a part of Quakers' "underbelly" about our sense of entitlement at the Gathering. Barbara was the kind of Friend who seldom spoke, so when she did, Friends knew to listen with an especially discerning ear and open heart.
Barbara also was one of the "Celestial Mamas" who, decades ago, started Nightingales, the fellowship-through-a capella-song group in Northern Yearly Meeting. I can imagine her joy at the 1998 Gathering at River Falls, Wisconsin, when she and so many other Nightingales found success with the experiment to carry out pre-plenary singing with no microphone, no stage, no pitchpipe, no instrumental accompaniment, and no leader. Just a large circle of Nightingales starting off a selected song and trusting that the 1,500 other Friends would catch the tune and join in.
This last fall, I nearly missed what would have been my last opportunity to see Barbara. Though her spirits and energy were high, it was known that the thyroid cancer had returned and that there were few treatment options to address the recurrence.
In November, I was in Madison, Wisconsin for a small meeting of Friends to talk about something that had happened at Central Committee. A week or two before, Barbara and I had made tentative plans for me to stop by after the meeting and before I headed back to Minnesota. I hadn't thought we firmed anything up, but in Barbara's mind we had, so she was clearly disappointed when I explained how drained I was by the emotional meeting and felt I needed to be on my way. I told her I would call her from my hotel room later that night.
As I headed out of town, though, the hand of God tapped me on my shoulder and I was compelled to reconsider. I pulled over, found a phone, and told Barbara I had changed my mind, could I still come by?
That chilly, wet night in November, Barbara showed me the woods outside Robert's and her apartment. She told me about the foxes and coyotes they had seen there, this wooded retreat tucked between two multi-lane urban thruways. Barbara showed me some more of her artwork and told me quite clearly that despite the growing list of doctor appointments, no one but her watercolor instructor got her time on Tuesdays.
I want to remember that commitment to Joy whenever it is that I may be failing in health and starting to make my own journey.
To you, Barbara, I'll keep a few of your favorite songs close to my heart, and I will sing after you:
That Cause Can Neither Be Lost Nor Stayed
Be then no more by a storm dismayedThe Mary Ellen Carter
For by it the full-grown seeds are laid
And tho' the tree by its might it shatters
What then if thousands of seeds it scatters
Rise again, rise againMusic In My Mother's House
Though your heart it be broken
And life about to end
No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Those days come back so clearly, although I'm far awayBlessings,
She gave me the kind of gift I love to give away
And when my mother died, and she'd sung her last song
We sat in the living room, singing all night long.
P.S. For any of you who know the Greenler family, I believe cards and letters would be welcome, but for awhile now they have asked for no visits or phone calls. I'll plan to update this post when I receive information about a memorial.
UPDATE: The memorial is scheduled for Saturday April 15, 2006 at 3:00 pm. The service will be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the main building of the Boerner Botanical Garden, followed by a traditional midwestern Quaker potluck at Milwaukee Meeting.
You can read more about Barbara, her life, and her love here.