by Margot Overington
I was raised in a Catholic family with a Mom who was severely mentally and physically ill. It was a tough upbringing, and I learned survival techniques at an early age. I spent 17 years with an abusive mother, a disciplinarian father, and I was badly damaged by the experience. My mother had both type one diabetes and Borderline Personality Disorder…BPD for short. My older sister has BPD, and my daughter also has BPD, so my life has been surrounded by, and profoundly influenced by, mental illness. By the way, the “Borderline Personality” isn’t borderline normal, its borderline schizophrenic. It includes much harmful behaviour which no child should experience. I was raised in the unhealthy soup of mental and physical illness.
Against this black and sometimes hopeless background, I found some comfort in my Catholic faith, and at the age of 17, I joined the convent. I was a novice for over two years, and left because I lost my faith in God. At the age of 20, I didn’t know who God was. The image of the Guy with the Beard in Heaven didn’t exist anymore, and I had nothing to replace it. I did not trust the Catholic Church or my family of origin. When I was 21, I had the opportunity to join the US Army for a four week trial basis. I took this opportunity, and it was in the Army that I was horrified to discover that the young men who were about to go overseas had no idea why they were going to be killing people. This discovery led me to understand that I could not trust the US Government. Because I no longer fit in the standard patterns of church, family, and government, I made the decision to leave the United States.
When I graduated from university, I got on a plane and headed to Canada. I settled in Toronto, and became a volunteer for the Union of American Exiles. Toronto Anti-Draft Programme (TADP), a Quaker sponsored organization, worked from 9 – 5. After 5 pm, our volunteers were the contact point for young men and women coming into Canada as both draft dodgers and deserters. We did emergency food and housing, so that people would be OK until TADP opened the next morning.
One night, a person named Jim Kenyon crossed the border, and I met my first Quaker. I asked Jim if he would take me to Quaker Meeting, because I was too shy to go by myself. The next Sunday, there I was at my first Quaker Meeting. During the Viet Nam War period, various members of Toronto Monthly Meeting volunteered to meet with newcomers, and I was invited to an evening with Fred and Ursula Franklin. Sitting on the floor next to Ursula’s right knee, I learned about Quaker values and traditions. I was mesmerized. I still remember Ursula discussing the problem of nuclear energy waste disposal, and she said something like this, “If you don’t have the means to solve a problem, you don’t have the right to create the problem.” This made good sense to me.
Quakers continued to be a growing source of comfort, and my friendships began to grow within the Meeting. Eventually, my ever changing life brought me to Halifax, and I joined Halifax Monthly Meeting in 1972. Friends were a great support as I struggled with the responsibilities of being a single parent, and I watched carefully how Dorothy Norvell’s kind ways influenced me to be kinder. I watched Muriel Duckworth work every day for civil rights for people both close at hand and in far off countries. I was growing up all over again, growing in a sane, healthy way.
Halifax Monthly Meeting wanted me to learn about Canadian Yearly Meeting, so they sent me off to my first experience of Yearly Meeting in Session, held in Pickering, Ontario. There I continued to meet some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known including Thomas Mathieson, Helen Stevenson, and Hugh Campbell Brown. For me, watching Quakers stand up for what is right for human beings and all life forms is one reason why I am a Quaker.
When I was 26, my two year old daughter and I took a walk in our local cemetery. I was watching the sky and the ocean, when the air started to shimmer. There was a rainbow of sunshine sparkles surrounding us. Suddenly, I knew that all life is one, all life is sacred…the earth is sacred and everything that lives and dies is of the earth. With every breath I breathe the sacredness of all life, and of all time. It flows through me. My path of understanding the nature of life and death began to open. From this small beginning, I grew (and continue to grow) with the recognition of this truth: We are One. We are Sacred.
Because Friends don’t have a creed, through the years I have been able to explore what this insight means to me. At the age of 70, where do I stand spiritually? I am rooted in a tradition that knows I am energy, and the energy I send into the world will come back to me three times. It will define my vision, my sense of the world and how I fit into it. It will define the movement of my heart. It will define how I interact with myself and those around me.
The metaphor I choose for my life is to make my life a work of art; I want it to be a masterpiece of loving compassion and mercy. Given the reality of my daily comings and goings, I have a very long journey ahead of me! Friends help me to stay on a path of joyful recognition of where I am and where I need to be. It is in the company of Friends that I have the opportunity to experience loving kindness, and this is why I continue to be active as a Quaker.
I have decades of experiences with Friends, times which include not only the positive aspects of Friendly encounters, but some that have encouraged me to leave Quakers. What I have learned from the negative experiences is that using the word “Quaker” to identify myself is putting on a cloak that can cover a good heart, or a nasty heart. It’s a word that allows me to categorise and pigeon-hole who I am. I can hide behind a lovely front cover, as can the person beside me. To say, “I am a Quaker” is meaningless unless I act with integrity, exploring within my Quaker community, and my world at large, what it really means to be a Friend.