Friday, July 09, 2010

Shakin' It

On the three day journey to Maine for my final MFA residency and graduation, Z and I stopped in New Hampshire at the Canterbury Shaker Village where we had lunch and visited the gift shop. The meal was served family style, and we were lucky that we were seated with a couple from Brooklyn, who were chatty, and a local couple in their late seventies who were trying the restaurant out for the first time. The wife was obsessed with finding a short cut home, because she hadn't appreciated the bumpy route they'd taken in.

As a child, I went to the Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, twice and was taught to see the beauty in the craftsmanship and simplicity of the furniture. (Always, I felt relief that I was not Shaker as their dedication to hard work seemed like something at which I was destined to fail.) As a young adult, I learned to appreciate some of their more feminist principles and commitment to a belief system, and if I did think about their celibacy, it was only in a romantic way--I wondered about the Shakers who were unable to resist temptation and imagined tumultuous, secret meetings in hay mows and pastures, bonnets hanging on fence posts, flat brooms cast aside. As a bride, I smiled wryly as Z and I marched down the aisle to "Simple Gifts" because the rest of the evening was a testament to excess and kitsch--once you put zebras and polka dots on your wedding cake, all attempts at plainness and simplicity have been abandoned.

Since I was a teenager, I've had recurring nightmares about accidentally joining the army or a cloistered convent, and then having to live out my days on someone else's schedule, doing the jobs assigned to me by some overseer. To the best of my knowledge, Shakers weren't big evangelizers, and even if they had been, given their abstinent lifestyle, you can count the number of Shakers still living on one hand. Even so, I worry about things like accidentally becoming Shaker and having to abandon my current way of life. So I stood looking over these tidy buildings and manicured lawns and considered the married couples who joined the Shaker communities and dissolved their unions--their families--because they were so committed to their beliefs. When I was a child (and later, a single adult), I never considered the wrench and pull of moving away from a couple and into a collective, but this time--as Z ushered me away from a $700 sofa table in the gift shop and towards my MFA destiny—it seemed unfathomable to un-tether the self from a beloved familiar. Would a fellow Shaker remind me to take my Prilosec each morning or tell me that I’m excellent during moments of self-doubt? Would he or she buy me surprise candy bars or do the laundry solo when I have a writing deadline? (Would a Shaker sister or brother have the spare time to do such a thing even if he or she were so inclined?)

As I slid into the too-warm seat beside Z and our car crept along the gravel road, the village got smaller in the rearview mirror. It somehow felt like a narrow escape. Give or take a century and a little geography.

Next stop: Maine.

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