March 24, 2006

On her journey: Barbara Greenler

When I'm on my journey
Won't you sing after me?
I just want you to sing after me.
These 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.

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 dismayed
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
The Mary Ellen Carter
Rise again, rise again
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.
Music In My Mother's House
Those days come back so clearly, although I'm far away
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.


ef said...

Thanks, Liz, for this.

I didnt' know Barbara nearly as well as you did, but I miss her. I'm so glad that she lived her life so fully and died peacefully, and at peace, but I'm also just shadowed by an intense, quiet grief.



Rob said...

Thank you Liz. She sounds like quite a Friend, and I am moved by your remembrances. Rest.


Lorcan said...

Oh Liz:
I am holding thee dearly in the light as thee passes through this loss. Thank'ee so for bringing us a glimpse of thy friend.

Laurel said...

I have fond memories of the 1998 gathering. I was nineteen at the time and living in a tent on the river that runs through River Falls, Wisconsin. I wasn't registered to attend, I couldn't afford it and I wasn't organized enough to get a scholarship. But I would walk through the campus and see all the khaki and fanny-packs and feel comforted.

There was a communal notebook in a breakroom next to the campus, and I remember sitting in that room, fighting off morning sickness and feeling like a phantom amongst "my" friends on "my" college campus. Anyways, I'll always be grateful that River Falls was chosen for the gathering. At the time, I felt as if I was being cradled through that very difficult time. I couldn't go to my community and some they came to me.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. It really is amazing to think of how many fFriends and friends of fFriends Barbara's life has touched...

Though Barbara didn't have internet access--which prompts me to remind all of us to think twice before we eliminate the disciplines of writing letters, making phone calls, and having face-to-face visits--she was interested in what I was writing on The Good Raised Up, and so occasionally I would send her a hard copy of a post or two. Yet another dimension of the creative nature of our friendship over the years.

And Laurel, will you consider attending the Gathering when it returns to River Falls next year? I hope so.


Anonymous said...

I live a few blocks from campus. I'm an thoroughly broke and too proud to ask for a scholarship, but I imagine there may be a quaker or two crashing at my pad. Will you be there?

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Liz, for sharing your very touching memories.

It is quite serendipitous that I find my way to your blog tonight. So perhaps I was meant to have come here tonight. Does God work that way? I have not spent much time yet in the blogosphere. My eye caught that you had a post on Barbara; I was saddened to see that she had passed.

I have very few memories of Barbara, but the ones I have are precious and tender. Just months before the 1998 River Falls Gathering, I had participated in developing and sharing the Young Adult Friends Epistle on Sexual Boundaries. My first experience of Barbara was a handwritten note from her as co-clerk of the gathering, thanking us for our epistle, telling us that the Gathering Committee was moved by it and was considering how to share it with the Gathering, and asking me to phone her to discuss it. Ultimately, the Gathering Committee decided to include a copy of the epistle in the registration package that year and asked all attenders to consider its queries. I was moved by the support I felt and touched by the tenderness and care I felt from Barbara. Yet this was just one of thousands of details she dealt with as co-clerk of that Gathering.

A few years ago in worship at FGC Central Committee, I shared a message about my appreciation for the work of the Committee for Ministry on Racism, not just because of its work on race privilege, but because it reminded me of the work we have to do on all sorts of privilege, and race is as good a place to start as any. And I shared my concern that a new form of privilege threatened to create a new set of divisions among Quakers and in our larger society, which I called "Internet Privilege." I was actually thinking of Barbara when I shared that and how tragic it would be not to benefit from her input if her lack of internet access impeded her participation in any discussion. And I was somewhat uneasy with my message, wondering if I had been too bold. As it happens, as I recall, though I may not have realized it when I spoke, Barbara was sitting right next to me or nearly so. And at the rise of worship, she thanked me for my message. I wish I could remember more.

These are small memories, I am sure, compared to those that others enjoy. But they are enough to make me want to pause and remember her on hearing of her passing. And I am grateful for what memories I have of her.

And I am grateful to hear the memories of Liz and others to enlarge my appreciation of her life and spirit.


Ken Stockbridge
Patapsco Friends Meeting
Ellicott City, MD

Liz Opp said...

Ken - Thanks for sharing your own memories of Barbara.

And - I'm not sure who "Anonymous" is, who wrote about being at River Falls in 2007, and being "too proud" to ask for a scholarship, so if Anonymous is reading this:

1. I'm planning to be there, yes.
2. I once heard from an FGC staff person how frustrated she was that Northern Yearly Meeting (of which Wisconsin Friends are a part) was not able to disburse all of its scholarship monies for Gathering one year.

Being low and asking for help is one thing that can strengthen the community of Friends, but we must be willing to shed the American pressures of "keeping up appearances."

Friends should check with clerks of their local meetings and worship groups, as well as their yearly meetings, about scholarships to Gathering, before getting in touch with FGC directly.

And if a Friend isn't connected with a meeting, I think it's okay to skip ahead to contacting FGC and at least ask.