The first time I attended a Quaker meeting, I was with a friend in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she took me to the meeting she went to. She didn’t explain beforehand how it would go, which made it more interesting. After some socializing with other people, we went into a round room with glass windows looking out on trees, and we sat in chairs arranged in multiple concentric circles. At first everyone was very quiet. After a few minutes, they were still quiet. I wondered who we were waiting for, and I was thinking “When does it start?” Still we all sat quietly. After about ten minutes it occurred to me, with a bit of astonishment, that it had started. This was it. We were sitting in silence.
I’ve since learned that there are different kinds of Quaker meetings, and at some of them there is a preacher, or speaker, or leader—I don’t know what they’re called. I’ve never been to one of those meetings. Back here in Pennsylvania, I eventually decided that the idea of sitting silently with other people was appealing, so now I attend the Quaker meeting in town. I don’t consider myself a Quaker, just a spiritual lurker, but I go quite regularly.
Below is a poem that arrived in the Quaker meeting house. Most of the poems I’ve written in the last year or so have forced their way out of me, under compulsion from the emotions evoked by an interesting romantic relationship. Later in my bloggity career, I intend to post a few more of those poems here, but this is a Quaker post. Once I got into the bad habit of writing poetry, I wound up dashing lines about everything, as though I had loaded my pistol with a dictionary and was firing randomly.
After our meetings on Sunday mornings, many of us are in the habit of staying for soup, and from such a Sunday morning, this poem came to me.
Soup in This Universe
“There are multiple universes,” she said.
I took a spoonful of soup and thought
Maybe she knows, she’s an astronomer.
“You mean different dimensions?” I asked.
When she sat down she had spilled her soup.
I tried to explain how I always spill mine,
to make her feel more comfortable.
I probably tried too hard.
“Oh no,” she replied. “Multiple universes in this dimension.”
Why doesn’t she smile? I thought.
She seems so intense.
But I had to admit that the entire universe was an intense subject,
and if you had more than one,
well…maybe you needed to look serious when you talked about that.
I went back for more soup.
When I returned
she was saying to someone, “Our solar system is a box,
and a galaxy is another box,
so the universe is just a bigger box.”
As she spoke we were sitting in a Quaker meeting house,
which was boxy itself.
the solar system,
the Quaker meeting house—
how many boxes were we in?
Some boxes swirl with a mysterious soup of dark energy,
where space itself bends and objects can have mass but occupy no dimensions,
leaving us simultaneously mystified
whether science is brushing its fingers across the face of God.
Other boxes are lined with stars,
creating patterns, evoking myths,
and filling our hearts with poetry and melancholy longing.
Some boxes contain tables where people sit eating soup in late autumn,
discussing the nature of God, the purpose of existence, and what time the meeting is next Sunday.
But the most perplexing box of all
is the one inside my skull,
the one that contains memories of my grandmother
standing at the stove
stirring a pot of soup.