Our foundational stories: Beginning

Recently I heard a Quaker friend speak about returning to the beginning of a foundational story in our lives. And then think about how that story changed as we grew older. And how we view it today.

That was amazing because I had begun to do just that before she spoke. My foundational story is related to the intersection between my Quaker faith, protecting Mother Earth, and photography. This combination has remained a powerful, yet evolving, influence throughout my life.

I’m praying about my foundational story for several reasons. Thinking of how drastically our world has changed since the beginning of my story. And wondering how I might be most helpful or effective now. Because my Quaker faith, care for Mother Earth, and photography have always been about doing what I’m led to do to help all my relations.

I often think of this quote:

If we are to find a new kind of good life amid the catastrophes these myths have spawned, then we need to radically rethink the stories we tell ourselves. We need to dig deep into old stories and reveal their wisdom, as well as lovingly nurture the emergence of new stories into being.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium, June 18, 2019

So, this is me radically rethinking the stories I tell myself (and you). We are being forced to nurture the emergence of new stories into being because of the catastrophes that are ever worsening because of environmental devastation.

As I explain in the following, there have been times when I’ve kept a record of what I was thinking and feeling, documenting my foundational stories. Of course, I didn’t have a way to share what I was writing in my journal at the beginning of my story. That is one difference in how my story has changed, now that there are so many ways to share writings on the Internet. This has stimulated me to write nearly daily blog posts for more than the past five years. I don’t know how many people read them. Although the main reason has always been for me to think through, pray about, what was going on at the time.

Now I have ways to share what I was learning about spirituality with others. Some of this might be helpful for the declining number of those involved in organized religion. This is the Quaker piece of my story.


I began a journal in 1969 when I was a senior at Scattergood Friends School. (see: journal). This is my first journal entry.

Sept 29, 1969

Journal, Sept 29, 1969

I sometimes included printed material in my journal. The following, It’s Your Choice, was written by Joan Baez, a folk singer and peace advocate. Which includes a photo of half of a young man’s face. I put a photo of myself at the time on the right-hand page of the journal entry for November 6, 1969. (Photography as part of my foundational story). Getting close to my eighteenth birthday, Nov. 21, 1969, when I would have to decide whether to register for the draft.

I would disagree with one thing she wrote. I believed it WAS God who was going to get us out of the bloody mess we were in, the Vietnam War.

Journal, Nov 6, 1969

It’s your choice
Ultimately you can listen to only one thing, not your President, not you many misguided leaders, save a few, not the Communists or the Socialists or the Republicans or the Democrats, but you must listen to your own heart, and do what is dictates. Because your heart is the only thing which can tell you what is right and what is wrong. After you have found out what you think is right and what is wrong, then you must know that you can say yes to what is right and no to what is wrong. And you young men, for instance, if you feel that to kill is wrong and to go to war is wrong, you have to say no to the draft. And if you young ladies think it is wrong to kill, and war is wrong, you can say yes to the young men who say no to the draft. Because it is not the leaders and the dictators, it is not God who is going to get us out of the bloody mess we are in. It is only you and only me.

Joan Baez

Mother Earth

Anyone who has farmed is intimately connected to our environment. The first ten years of my life we lived on dairy farms. I took the beauty for granted and remember much of the time was taken up with hard work. We had a large pond with a narrow strip of land through the middle, dividing it in half. There were many times I was so frustrated when I got the herd of cows moving around the pond, heading to the barn for milking, when half of them would turn back, going the wrong way down that narrow strip on the pond. And of course, when I went to get them, others would turn around, going along the side of the pond. One day it was so muddy I stepped out of my boots and that was the last straw. I went to the house in tears, without the cows.

In those days (1950’s) living on the farm usually meant living with very little money. But my parents were able to rent small campers that we loaded with food and went camping for two weeks. We usually went to National Parks. One of the first was Rocky Mountain National Park, which immediately became our favorite.

Photography

As a teenager I was blessed to be led to photography. I was a lifeguard at the YMCA in Marshalltown, Iowa, one summer. To show appreciation (we didn’t get paid) we were taken to the YMCA in Racine, Wisconsin, where we were taught to scuba dive in the swimming pool there.

On the way home, we stopped in downtown Chicago. I was amazed to find a camera so inexpensive; I could buy it with the small amount of cash I had with me. In those days cameras didn’t have automatic focus or built-in light meters. So, you used a standalone light meter to see what settings were needed for the shutter speed and aperture, and manual set those on the camera. The focus was also set manually. The camera looked like this picture on a tee shirt I have.

I don’t know why I was so drawn to photography. My mother and brother were artists. I couldn’t draw or paint well, though I didn’t spend much time practicing. This is my portrait of my best friend, Randy Porter.

Part of it was the science of photography. My career was to be computer programming and medical research. But the exacting process of film and paper development was often frustrating. For example, the temperature of all the chemicals and water bath could not vary more than one degree without causing problems in creating the negative of the film. I developed this photo of Long’s Peak in a darkroom.

Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Jeff Kisling

I wrote a lengthy story about photography in my life: Jeffrey Allen Kisling Photography

Quaker Faith

I was born into a Quaker family and community, Bear Creek Friends, near Earlham, Iowa. So, I grew up seeing how faith was an integral part of people’s lives.

Bear Creek Friends Meeting near Earlham, Iowa

Attending Scattergood Friends School, a co-ed Quaker boarding high school, continued my Quaker education. Not so much intellectually, but in the way we worked together, and made decisions in community. We rotated through a crew system, where we prepared meals, baked bread, cleaned, did laundry, raised pigs, and did other work on the farm.

Scattergood Friends School

It’s not at all that we were indoctrinated. In fact, what we value is how we are challenged to examine our beliefs and whether we are living those in our lives. We have a spiritual practice of reflecting on questions, or queries, about our lives at that moment.

Queries related to peace and nonviolence:

  • What are we doing to educate ourselves and others about the causes of conflict in our own lives, our families and our meetings? Do we provide refuge and assistance, including advocacy, for spouses, children, or elderly persons who are victims of violence or neglect?
  • Do we recognize that we can be perpetrators as well as victims of violence? How do we deal with this? How can we support one another so that healing may take place?
  • What are we doing to understand the causes of war and violence and to work toward peaceful settlement of differences locally, nationally, and internationally? How do we support institutions and organizations that promote peace?
  • Do we faithfully maintain our testimony against preparation for and participation in war?

The first time I was really challenged in my faith was while a senior at Scattergood. All eighteen-year-old boys were required to register with the Selective Service System (military draft). That was consequential because the draft at that time was inducting boys into the armed forces, where many were sent to the war in Vietnam.

Quakers could apply for conscientious objector status, which would allow you to spend two years working as a civilian, most often in hospitals. Many of us found doing so was still participating in the military and refused to cooperate with the draft. To refuse was a felony offense.

I was convinced becoming a conscientious objector was wrong for me. But I struggled with the idea of facing time in prison. There were over a dozen Quaker men who refused to cooperate in the 1950’s when there was a peacetime draft. And they were imprisoned. Muhammad Ali also refused to be drafted. That showed me there are people who act according to their beliefs, no matter the consequences. Without their example, I imagine I might not have resisted the draft myself. I did refuse to cooperate but was not prosecuted for that.

Quakers don’t believe in proselytizing, instead believing the way they lived their lives might be an example for others. Like those who resisted the draft mentioned above.

Together

My faith led me to try to share my spiritual experiences and show my love for the beauty of Mother Earth through photography. These three things, together, concern for Mother Earth, photography, and faith, came into play in many ways, and at various times during my life. I love this quotation, which pulls these things together.

(Barry) Lopez could not have known the effect he was having on one impressionable member of the audience. Yet I believe he established a connection with me that evening—a thin strand in the elaborate web that is community—by describing a path that was utterly new to me, and by suggesting that, as others had walked that path, it was safe for me to do so as well. This all happened in the space of a few seconds, as he mulled over the central question plaguing the men and women at the conference, namely: How could we convince lawmakers to pass laws to protect wilderness? Lopez argued that wilderness activists will never achieve the success they seek until they can go before a panel of legislators and testify that a certain river or butterfly or mountain or tree must be saved, not because of its economic importance, not because it has recreational or historical or scientific value, but because it is so beautiful.

His words struck a chord in me. I left the room a changed person, one who suddenly knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it. I had known that love is a powerful weapon, but until that moment I had not understood how to use it. What I learned on that long-ago evening, and what I have counted on ever since, is that to save a wilderness, or to be a writer or a cab driver or a homemaker—to live one’s life—one must reach deep into one’s heart and find what is there, then speak it plainly and without shame.

Reid, Robert Leonard. Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West. Counterpoint. Kindle Edition.

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