Light, Cleanness and Order

by Brad Cotton

Published in Lake Erie Yearly Meeting Quarterly Winter 2011-12 edition.

Looking up from cutting my grand-daughters waffle I saw the photos. Dozens of folks seemingly enjoying themselves at this Waffle House arranged in a collage above the grill. The hand written note read “Christmas 2009”. Grand-daughter Gracie, my wife, and a car full of loved ones were breakfasting  here on the way to a Christmas visit with my Quaker parents.

“Sophie” often called 911 just to get us “ambulance boys” to visit, especially on Thanksgiving, Christmas and her birthday. She could cook , as well as chat your ear off. Sophie lived behind an iron latticed  security door , an older Hungarian woman living alone in a Cleveland neighborhood that held no more Hungarians. Sophie’s building  was bright with gang graffiti. 911 Dispatch always kept us ‘in service’, ready for a real call while Sophie showed us photos and told stories of her family. We never saw any of them, they were away, always . We enjoyed  her cooking.

Our family first started eating at Waffle House as a joke of sorts. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy spoke of having a Waffle House credit card. There is in fact no such card. I checked. At work in the emergency department (ED) I kid the staff about quitting this Doc business and opening a Waffle House.  They are open 24 hours, as is the ED, and, just like the ED you don’t have to dress up to go there. The ED is always busy on Holidays , full of folks bringing us gifts and sharing photos with the lab tech , the patient on the nearby bed, or anyone else who will look and listen.

I spoke in vocal ministry about the Waffle House Christmas 2009, about Sophie, about the patients that come to the ED for company more than medical care, and about Hemingway’s  short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”. Twice in my life, once on entering the Kent State School of Nursing in 1977 and  again upon writing a letter to the Clearness Committee for membership to the Athens Friends Meeting,  I have been asked to write about core beliefs and ultimate meaning. On both occasions I wrote of Hemingway’s short, less than 1500 words, yet strikingly compassionate story. Hemingway would have made a good ED Doc. He was after all, a  fellow “ambulance boy” from his service in World War l.

“ A Clean Well-Lighted Place” contrasts through dialogue the differing reactions of two waiters to an older man drinking late at night in their café . The younger waiter wants to close up , get home to his wife, the older notes “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.” The younger waiter says the old man can just go to a bar that is open all night. Hemingway, speaking through the older waiter, replies “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well-lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are the shadows of the leaves.”

 Hemingway was not a soul at peace, he searched through four wives, through three wars and around the globe for meaning. I think the real writer and seeker is here in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” Hemingway , like George Fox, like us all, listened for God speaking. Often we listen in vain. There are more Psalms that cry out when God is distant, silent and far away. Job and Ecclesiastes may be the most honest books in the Bible as both admit there may be no answers. When people ask me what Quakers believe I say I am not sure what we believe, but that I hope we ask the right questions together. As a fellow “ambulance boy” I feel some kinship with Hemingway as I work late in the emergency department. The older waiter closes up the café:

 “… he continued the conversation with himself. It is the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and  nada us our nada as we nada our  nadas  and  nada us not into  nada but deliver us from nada; pues  nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

Quaker silence, our vocal ministry is that light and cleanness and order that is needed. That light and cleanness and order needed by every Waffle House patron that Christmas of 2009, by  Sophie, by my next patient.  I hope  our  Circleville Friends Worship Group offers light and a certain cleanness and order for all who would ask questions together.


Brad Cotton is an emergency physician and member of the Athens, Ohio, Friends Meeting and serves as convener for the Circleville [Ohio] Friends Worship Group.