I was recently at a meeting where the leader led us in something called the “Four Quaker Questions.” A little bit of googling has led me to believe that these questions are widely used as icebreakers in religious groups, but that they have no connection whatsoever to the Society of Friends (aka the Quakers). That’s okay. Neither Quaker Oats nor Quaker State Motor Oil are affiliated with the Friends, either. Anyway, the Four Quaker Questions, whether Quaker or not, are a series of questions used in small groups to start conversations. They begin simple, and quickly get more intimate and deep.
Anyway, I found my own answers to be intriguing, and I wanted to reflect on them in this literary mirror of mine, my blog. There are a few different versions of these questions out on the web, but I’ll use the version the leader of my group used.
The first question: How was your house heated, when you were between the ages of 7 and 12?
This answer was easy. With big old-fashioned radiators, sloshing water heated by an oil furnace in the basement. I still remember the “key” we used to bleed the radiators, and even the particular pan we used to catch the water. I also remember the haunting sounds that the radiators would make, the clanging sounds of Jacob Marley’s chains rattling away in his torment.
Everyone in my group shared different memories, and I was glad to hear that one other person in the group shared my memory almost exactly.
The second question: In that same time period, what room or place in your house was the center of warmth?
This one was also easy. My bedroom. I grew up in a big old parsonage, built in the early twentieth century. The ceilings were high, the windows offered little insulation, and every room was big. And I had the biggest bedroom. It was filled with everything that was mine — my toys, my books, my tape player, my strange little projects I always got into. I was a loner as a child, and that’s the place I always felt at home. I never called it my bedroom; I called it my room.
But here’s where I started to feel a little awkward at the meeting. Everyone else was sharing stories of how the kitchen was the place everyone always was. Or how the living room was where the family always did such-and-such together. Every single person told a story about how a particular room reminded them of family. Except me: I told a story of how a particular room separated me from family. I felt very strange. I wondered: had I misunderstood the question? No, I really hadn’t. But perhaps as a child I misunderstood something far deeper.
The third question: When you were between ages 7 and 18, who was the center of warmth?
People around the circle started answering. “My Mom.” “My grandmother.” “My Dad.” Et cetera. They all gave really good and detailed stories of why they chose the person they did.
I never answered. Because the thought that went through my head was this: what’s warmth? I can’t remember ever feeling a sense of warmth in my family growing up. And I don’t in any way blame the others in my family. My parents and my sister were, and still are, loving and thoughtful people. But I never looked to them for anything I could call warmth. I have good memories of my childhood, but most of the memories I have of my parents were them being at their wits’ end trying to deal with me. Scolding me for being an arrogant snot, for constantly picking on my sister, for talking back to them with almost every breath. My childhood was good, and it was safe, but I made it hell for my parents. Warmth? I didn’t want warmth from them. I didn’t even know I was supposed to look for warmth.
I guess in the latter portion of this age range (say, 14 and onwards), perhaps warmth was what I was looking for from the girlfriends I dated. I was always looking for someone to, you know, “complete me” and all that. I was so emo. But I never felt connected to my family — by my own choice. I just can’t envision an answer to this question. Maybe the center of warmth for me was Doctor Who? Or maybe it was my computer? Or maybe my own sense of my intellect?
But honestly, my initial response still stands: what the heck is warmth? I don’t even know what I was missing. And now I’m wondering if my childhood was really lacking in something. I’m wondering if I was just a precocious misanthrope. If I was so stuck in my own world that I never cared what other people thought, never thought other people could offer me anything. And I wonder what effect this has on my parenting now, on my role in my current family. Am I really connected here? Do I really know how to be a good father, a good husband? When my kids are asked the Quaker Questions in a few decades, what will they say? “Well, the center of warmth certainly wasn’t my father. He was always in his own world.” Or maybe I’m wrong. Because maybe I just don’t know what warmth is. Maybe I’ve lived with a cold heart for too long.
The fourth question…
…that’s going to wait for another post, because it’s a very different story to tell there.