Tag Archive: Maine


Sabbathday Lake Shakers Look toward the Future

29 October 2011

In addition to some clearing up some factual errors in my 22 September post, “Irene and the Shakers”, on 26 September, Br. Arnold wrote, “Also do not write us off just yet.  God has a strange sense of humor to confound the wise and learned.  Yesterday we had another Novice join us – a woman – and we are expecting a man to be here in October so we are confident in a future!”

I wish them good times of community building and discernment in the months ahead, and  share their hope for the future of their faith.

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Irene and the Shakers

Sunday 28 August 2011

Like the ancient Egyptians, or the extraterrestrials who leave crop circles in remote cornfields, Shakers are generally known, if at all, only by their relics.  Most people’s only association with the Shakers is with their furniture or the hymn, “‘Tis a gift to be simple”.  I grew up and lived and worshiped in the Northeast, where the majority of Shakers also lived, and I have known of them for a long time.  Shaker village museums dot the landscape of eastern New York and New England, the smartly designed structures, elegant in their simplicity, enriching one of the country’s most scenic, historic regions.

I was in Santa Barbara, CA, however, far in geography and culture, when I first cultivated a Shaker curiosity.  I was seeking an offering for Vacation Bible School when I thought that Shaker dancing would be good, kinetic material for young children.  I mined a local library for ideas, and taught the kids about Shakerism and a Shaker hymn with movements.

I don’t know when I heard about the Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, but in August 2007, we visited the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village not long after reading a newspaper article that reported that this last active Shaker Community in the world had received a new member, a rare occurrence.  At the time, there were five Shakers in the Family.  Driving away that sunny afternoon after the tour, I said, “I want to come and worship with the Shakers some Sunday.”

When Hurricane Irene stranded us in Maine, extending our August vacation into the weekend, I suggested going to Sunday Meeting at the Shaker Village.

Christopher and I leaned into the wind and driving rain, and crossed Shaker Road to the historic Meeting House.  A notice pinned to the door directed worshipers back across the road to the Dwelling House Chapel because of the storm.  A Shaker Brother saw us through the window, and gestured toward the front door.  In a moment, he swung open the large wooden door, and invited us in, indicating a long line of Shaker coat pegs on the wall, and led us into the music room, where we joined the handful of people seated in Shaker chairs and rockers.  Women sat to the north, facing south, men on the south, facing north.   An older woman wearing a deep raspberry dress, distinct from the others’ clothes, sat front and center on the women’s side, her walker beside her.  A Shaker, I concluded.

I sat in a rocking chair at the far end of the front row, and the Brother sat to my left.  Three other men, including Christopher, sat behind us.   When another Sister arrived with an oxygen tank, the Brother nipped across the room to help her get situated.  She initially chose a rocker, but pondered, “I don’t know how I’ll get out of this chair” in a sharp Maine accent.  The Brother responded, “That’s why I set you up in this chair,” indicating a straight-backed chair opposite my seat.  When she was resettled, worship began.  We were eleven.  I had never worshiped from a rocking chair before.

The room was a plain white, stenciled near the ceiling.  All around the room hung black-and-white photos of men and women from decades past, presumably past members of the Community.  A pump organ sat square in the middle of the long, east wall, its foot pedals still, reeds silent.  I was surprised; I thought that Shaker hymn-singing was always unison, always unaccompanied.  On each long wall were two doorways, a pair from the hallway to the west, and a pair going on into the large darkened room to the east, sparsely furnished with similarly simple, refined Shaker pieces.  Women and men enter through separate entrances, and sit on opposite sides of common rooms.

Only three Shakers remain after two recent departures, including that of the woman whose arrival had recently attracted outside attention.  The three keep the 229-year-old community alive with the assistance of a paid staff and volunteers.  There is a museum, offering tours of some of the buildings, but Sabbathday Lake is unique in the world – a living, breathing, working and praying Shaker community.

The three Shakers led the worship cooperatively.  Sister June read the opening psalm, and we sang a hymn from the Shaker Hymnal.  Brother Arnold read from the New Testament, and we sang another hymn.  Sister Frances read from the Gospel, then we sang again.  Brother Arnold welcomed everyone present to share something as the Spirit moved us.

Sister Frances was the first to stand and speak, her oxygen tubes tangled in her cerulean blue Shaker dress.  She reflected on her 74th Shaker birthday, the anniversary of her entering the Community as a six-year-old in difficult financial circumstances.  For forty-five minutes, everyone in the room shared something inspired by the scriptures, or related some experience with the Community.  After each testimonial, a Shaker chose a hymn echoing each person’s sentiments, and we sang from memory, or some of us a fraction of a second behind, trying to mimic those in the know.

Rain lashed the windows, and the ancient tree limbs whipped under the dusky sky as I told how, as we had set out that morning, I feared that braving Hurricane Irene might have been a fool’s errand, but in the end my spirit was refreshed by the intimate gathering and the sharing taking place.  Though we had already sung it, Sister Frances suggested repeating “‘Tis a gift to be simple”, the one Shaker hymn familiar to us from the World.  She pointed to a photograph of an old Brother on the wall to my right, and told how he wrote that hymn out of a deep grief when some promising young men left the Community secretly in the night.

Our eleven voices echoed in the adjacent room as we sang hymn after hymn – more than a dozen. Brother declared the work of Meeting concluded, and we greeted each other, and were invited to the dining room below for fellowship over coffee and doughnuts.  Seated around a long, wooden table, we chatted for an hour.  We witnessed some of Sister Frances’s feistiness, Sister June’s sweet humor, and Brother Arnold’s no-nonsense quick-wittedness and warmth.  A mention of Ken Burns’s documentary about the Shakers brought a chilly response from Sister Frances.  She asked if either of us cooked, and when I replied yes, she sent Brother Arnold to fetch two books she had written, one a memoir of her childhood in the Community and the other a Shaker cookbook, both of which she inscribed in shaky script.  Such generosity shown to two young strangers.

We helped clear the table, carrying dishes into the simply beautiful and functional kitchen, and made our farewells. As we prepared to leave, Brother Arnold grabbed me for a warm embrace, then Christopher, too.  We promised to return, and donning our rain gear, pressed against the wind back out into the storm.

The future of this remnant of a long-waning society seems clear.  Sisters June and Sister Frances are strong in Spirit, but aged.  Brother Arnold is in vibrant middle age, but soon could be the Sole Surviving Shaker, hopefully not to be reduced by the media to a curiosity.  They have supporters and companions, but like any monastic community, followers need a believing, practicing core around which to gather.  The Shakers, unlike other religious orders, lack congregations from which to draw members.  Their sworn celibacy is an obstacle, as it always has been.  In earlier times, children would be given over to the Shakers when orphaned, or by families unable to care for them, but society no longer embraces such solutions.

We may witness the death of Shakerism in our lifetime.  This loss would be largely unfelt, a silent slipping away of an obscure species, but it shouldn’t be.  Shakers’ theology is surprisingly progressive.  They recognize in God a dual nature, addressing the Divine as “Father-Mother”.  Shaker hymns speak joyfully of fellowship with God and the Community.  Although segregated by sex, Shakers profess gender equality, a radical concept when introduced over 200 years ago.  Mother Ann Lee, spiritual leader of the community in the late 18th century, understood that Christ’s second coming is in His Church.  As such, the Shakers might be considered a millennialist community, believing they are already living in the next age, foreseen by Christ and foretold throughout the New Testament.  Obviously, this is not widely shared among Christians, who warn adherents of a still-looming judgment.  That the Shakers live in the Second Church seems to result in less fear and more joy.  The Shakers still have much to teach us.  We should rue their end.

We left the Community deeply moved by our visit.  We don’t know how we will be changed, but we hope to share worship and fellowship with them again soon.  Hurricane Irene gave us a great gift that wild Sunday morning.

…and about 10% black bear

21 August 2011

I walked down Shore Road from Bayside toward Lincolnville on the shore side, and divided my visual stimuli pretty equally between views of Penobscot Bay and of the interesting assortment of cottages along its shore. “I could live there. Or there. I could spend the summer there.” Some of them are pretty drool-worthy.

I walked about two miles, and after making a brief stop in the woods where there were neither cottages nor people to be seen, I turn back northward toward Bayside. Walking on the inland side of the road now, I am intrigued by my instinctive behavior. Despite the presence of ocean and cottages to delight the eyes, I can’t stop scanning the roadside for berries. Walking along at a brisk pace, my antennae are attuned to that deep-as-black purple of blackberries and the wine red of red raspberries. If I look across the road at the ocean, within seconds, I am, without thinking, again scanning the shoulder for berries.

When I go for bicycle rides in the summer near my hometown of Hamilton, NY, my pace is adversely affected by the same obsessive quest. Few things in life, it would seem, can bring me greater satisfaction than finding and eating wild berries. I can’t remember if I heard it or made it up, but I say of Putney (and, generally, all dogs) that found food is the best food. In my case, it’s specifically found berries.

I’ve also thought since I visited Norway in 1998 (when I read that Scandinavians are big berry-lovers) that I must be a closet Norwegian. If you ever find me drunk on a park bench, look around to see if there’s an empty bottle of Chambord nearby.

I know that I’m one quarter Italian, from my maternal grandmother. From my maternal grandfather, I’m a quarter mix of Irish, French and Canadian (mostly). My paternal grandmother brings a generous helping of German into the gene pool. My paternal grandfather was mostly English and Scottish, with some native Canadian. We used to say Canadian Indian, but for reasons of cultural sensitivity, I think now we’d say First Nation. That probably makes up about 10% of me.

I think they got that tenth wrong, though. Based on the berry thing, I think I’m about 10% black bear.

Down East Discoveries

Bar Harbor, ME
18 June 2011

A trip to Maine always reminds me of my aunt, who first introduced me to some of the best of the Pine Tree State twenty-five years ago. We camped at Camden Hills and wandered the coast from Boothbay to Lubec. Breathtaking scenery, even for a teenager.

But since those formative trips, I’ve visited places the family avoided (Shall I name them?). Bar Harbor is one of those places. Actually, on that first rip in August 1986, we detoured through Bar Harbor. Before we crossed into the village, though, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors. We never stopped. We just cruised through, gazing at the touristy shops and the tourists much like rich suburbanites pass cautiously through the ghettos, as if to scare the kids into obedience: “This is what happens to bad teens who drink beer before turning 21…” In our case, it was the fate of those who stayed in city hotels instead of rural motels with asphalt front lawns and “vintage” aluminum deck chairs outside each unit.

This time, I found Bar Harbor rather charming, if not yet overrun by summer hoards. Many schools are still in session, or finished yesterday. Even wanderlusty parents couldn’t pack the kids that soon after the final dismissal bell rings.

Poppa was a brochure man. He picked up tourist pamphlets all over the place, or sent away for them. Maybe that’s where I got it. I pack too much to read before leaving home, then amass a library of brochures, local weeklies, new books and slick magazines, none of which I ever have time to read, compulsive as I am about exploring from dawn to dark everywhere I go.

Today, reading guidebooks and studying maps and looking out over blue water, grey rocks and green hills makes me long to see more, to stay longer. I want to chain myself to a tree in Blue Hill, eating Nervous Nellies Jams & Jellies with my hands, fingers cupped like a primitive spoon for scooping sweet blueberry preserves out of jars and right into my mouth.

My sister served steamed lobster and clam chowdah Wednesday night. That was yummo. Last night, we had lobster “subs” at Roy’s in Auburn. Big helping of shredded meat with too much mayo. Described as a sub, I expected lettuce & tomato. My traveling companion asked for coleslaw with his. “We only have fries.” There was — literally — not a single vegetable in the place, except for relish. The clientèle, all locals, looked like they weren’t much for veg. I guess you play to your audience.

We had an EXCEPTIONAL meal of local food at Cleonice in Ellsworth last night. The 1930s-era ice-cream parlor has booths with original wooden arches setting each apart like a little room. The long counter is still there, but the shelves are lined with spirits, some of them local, memorable. I plan to slip away today to go up to Bartlett’s Maine Estate Winery in Gouldsboro. That French white oak-aged dry blueberry wine is worth the detour when one is so close already. And now they make brandy.

Who has a scheme for how to stay the summer?