This Old House

 The house in my grandfather's day

The house in my grandfather's day

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the Shaker meeting house my grandfather bought in the 1930s. I know--I've mentioned it at length in an earlier post. But I've been thinking about what really happened in there before it became a home. After all, it's not like people sat around gossiping, bouncing babies on their knees, or churning butter. It was a place of worship and, as the spiritual center of a small Shaker community, its gallery was often filled with the sounds of believers singing and dancing and channeling the spirits of freed slaves, or George Washington, or an "Arab from faraway deserts." The Shakers who congregated there whirled and fell to the floor in fits of wonder and self-abasement before Mother. (That's Mother Ann Lee to you and me, the exalted founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, otherwise known as the Shakers.) They really believed.

                                                    Shakers dancing in Meeting

It's hard to square that kind of activity with what goes on now. Boisterous family dinners, barking dogs (lots of dogs), generation after generation of babies laughing and adults drinking and kids arguing and glasses being raised and walls being torn down, then rebuilt, then torn down again. And Elton John. It's really hard to square the whole Shaker thing with him. 

 The house (before my family owned it), up on blocks and ready to be moved

The house (before my family owned it), up on blocks and ready to be moved

Perhaps it would help if I remembered that the house no longer occupies the site it did when miracles were so thick on the ground. Sometime in the 1920s, it was raised up onto blocks and rollers, and then pulled by one winch and a single draft horse over frozen ground to where it sits today, a mile or so down the road. All this moving (and shaking) was done before my grandfather bought the place, as was the extensive renovation that saw the addition of a central stairwell and fireplace--complete with fake bread oven--in the middle of the huge open meeting space. Then there was a second wing attached. Then a third. And so on.

 Local Shaker settlement (date unknown)

Local Shaker settlement (date unknown)

There are still pegs on all the walls surrounding the main room so that, back in the day, hats and cloaks and even chairs could be hung up out of the way before the singing and dancing began in earnest. There is even a line cut through the floorboards extending the entire length of the room so that the brethren could sit to one side, the sisters to the other. It is straight and even and divides the room precisely  in half. There are multiple doors for elders, sisters, brothers, and visiting guests from "the World." Everyone, it seems, had his or her own entrance to our house.

                     The outside of a typical meeting house

                    The outside of a typical meeting house

                    The inside of a typical meeting house

                   The inside of a typical meeting house

Staircases inside climbed up each of the gable ends--one set for the Elder Sisters, one for the Elder Brothers--leading up to separate rooms for working, receiving and sleeping. A local carpenter recently told my mother that he could tell that the roof had been raised at some point. This would explain a lot, because while the house now looks exactly the way we imagine Shaker buildings should look--like the red hotel pieces found in any Monopoly set--meeting houses typically sport a gambrel roof. That's the style in which most were built, with the interior beams of the gallery painted a celestial blue. Why? To signify Heaven, of course.

Until I began working in earnest on The Visionist, I never once thought about anything that might have happened in our house. Once or twice, I thought about what didn't happen--which is to say, sex. There was no carnal sinning under our roof for a good, long while. In fact, it's where everyone came to save their filthy souls, not to sully them further.

 My family's house on a hill

My family's house on a hill

In my family's house, there's no more "shaking of the dry bones," as Elder Rufus Bishop described one Sunday's enthusiastic worship session at the New Lebanon Church Family meeting. But now, on warm summer nights when I'm sitting alone on the doorstep out back and looking over the valley, I sometimes feel I can conjure the clamor of the old days. The sounds of feet stomping, the chant-like songs, the Visionists babbling their strange messages from the world beyond. I hear the fits of laughing that possessed believers for hours when they had "the laughing gift." The floorboards tremble with religious fervor. I'm middle-aged and thus perhaps more sensitive to the past now, its spirits so full of conviction. How could I have been so deaf and blind to them for all those decades? 



Wishing They Were Here

It's a strange thing when, far beyond any outcome you imagined while writing it, your first novel gets published. There is the havoc it wreaks on a life that was once reclusive--lonely, even; the welcome but somewhat uncomfortable sense of oneself as--for however brief a time--a public person; the distraction such attention creates when it comes to getting any new work done. But there is something else, and it is, perhaps, particular to writers who first publish late in life.

There is the past and the crisp shadow it casts when the light shines brightest.

 My uncle as a young man

My uncle as a young man

My uncle, Walter Howard, is the reason I wrote about the harsh life of the New England farmer. He could have done anything. Until his hands grew too swollen and chapped from exposure and hard work, he played the piano so effortlessly and well that some people thought he might make a go of it. He wrote beautifully. Quick-witted and generous, he could talk to anyone as though he'd known them for years; there was nothing he wouldn't do for someone down on their luck. He had a bright career ahead of him at Time-Life in New York, but his passion was dairy farming, so he left and chose to run full-time the Massachusetts farm my grandfather had started back in the 1930s. Over decades, he did so with very little help until he died, in 1987. He was only 51, just a year older than I am now.

 My older brother Thomas, playing on the farm with a cousin

My older brother Thomas, playing on the farm with a cousin

Up at 4 AM to milk the cows, back at 4 PM to do it all over again. Muck out the barn and spread manure on the fields--then do it all over again. Plough the fields, plant the fields, turn the fields, hay the fields--then do it all over again. Feed the cows, feed the pigs, feed the horses, feed the dogs, feed the barn cats--then do it all over again. Read up on bulls who have sired great milkers, buy their sperm at huge cost, then store it inside tanks full of liquid nitrogen until you've found a perfect match. Inseminate the chosen cow with something like a turkey baster designed by NASA, pray for a female calf, pray that her milk yield will have been worth the trouble--then do it all over again. Wake up early on dark winter mornings and unfreeze the water in the drinking tubs with a giant electric coil; do this every dark winter morning. Greet the truck that comes daily to siphon dry the huge tank in the milking parlor. Carry home a calf born in some faraway field; reach a full arm's length into the womb of a pregnant cow to birth a turned calf; burn the calf's horns to prevent them from growing curvy and sharp. Separate the calf from its mother and listen for days to her desperate cries--then do it all over again. Tap the maple trees, empty the buckets, empty the buckets, empty the buckets, then boil the sap inside a huge metal trough over a fire in the field until it turns to syrup. Fix the tractor, the brush-cutter, the baler--then do it all over again. Mend the fences, mend the fences, mend the fences--then do it all over again.

  Sisyphus in the Hayfield  (Cobble Press, 1988)

Sisyphus in the Hayfield (Cobble Press, 1988)

In a book titled, Sisyphus in the Hayfield: Views of a Berkshire Farmer, he wrote with great humor and elegance about farming. His essays show what it really means to love the land, even if that same love is what ends up killing you, as it did him. 

Here is a snippet from the title piece:

"Hay and I start the season as friends. No Chanel can match the smell of a bale cured in early-June sunshine. By mid-July, the friendship is severely strained, the perfume larded over with sweat. And with August and a second wind, it is an uneasy truce at best as the barn fills and we head for the final tree line...

"One way or another, it gets done. As the season progresses, more and more of our fields are crew cut, and fewer have that depressing hippie look that means Howard didn't get there and get it cut when he should have. Certain fields are jinxed, this I know. The lower Swart lot, near our barn, can conjure rain out of a starlit sky, grow rocks overnight…

"Chop it up, bale it, cube it, I don't care what you do--you cannot containerize an acre. Those evil little sounds you hear are the grass starting to grow again under your tired old feet, and the brush creeping in around the edges when your back is turned. This year's shoot is next year's sapling, and for every field cleaned off, there's another abandoned forever to the trees around it…"

 My uncle, Walter Howard, at the wheel of his tractor 

My uncle, Walter Howard, at the wheel of his tractor 

There are lots of people I wish were still here: my grandfather, Sidney Howard; my godfather, Ralph Bunche; my first father-in-law, Mike Kalogerakis; my second father-in-law, Philip Herrera; the woman I think of as my godmother, grandmother and idol all rolled into one, Anna Hamburger. And more. So many more.

But it's Walter I most wish I could have shown my book to. He'd have set me straight where I went crooked; helped me hack through the brush; told me to stop whining and just get it done. Then, in his quiet way, he'd have cheered as I headed for the final tree line. 

 

 

 

 

The Youngest Believers

Around this time of year, thoughts turn to family. Time spent together, yes. But, for parents who've split up, time spent apart--especially from the children. Anyone who has gone through a divorce knows the pain of a custody agreement. Who would think that the Shakers had their own custodial contracts regarding the sons and daughters of believers? And who would think that those documents could be more unyielding than the toughest divorce papers? 

 Shaker children's chairs

Shaker children's chairs

When a family presented itself to a Shaker community, its members pledged many things. They gave up their land and personal property. They agreed to confess to all of their sins. They promised to forgo all relations with the opposite sex--especially those of a "carnal" nature. And they pledged to break all blood ties. Husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers--none of those relationships were allowed by the Shakers. 

Often, poor families or families that had lost one parent to death, conscription, or simple abandonment were forced to leave their children with the Shakers while they attempted to better their circumstances. The children, after all, would be well looked after by the sect. There were food, medicine and schooling to be had; there would be a roof over their heads; they would be kept warm and well-clothed; and they would receive a good education, both academically and in various trades and domestic areas. They were likely, in almost every way, to be better off than when they lived with their real families.

 Two Shaker boys drawing water from a well

Two Shaker boys drawing water from a well

The catch? They couldn't go home. Parents who decided they could not stay with their children--whatever the reason--had to sign contracts of indenture, essentially handing over their sons and daughters to the Shakers until the children reached the age of twenty-one, at which point they were allowed to decide on their own whether to remain with the Shakers or "go into the World."

 A Shaker contract of indenture

A Shaker contract of indenture

Often, parents would attempt to steal back their children. Sometimes, children attempted to run away or, as the Shakers put it, to "elope." There are records proving that Shaker communities occasionally transferred to another settlement a child at risk of being stolen or turning into a fugitive. But many children preferred their orderly new lives to the impoverishment, abuse and/or neglect they had experienced in the past. Needless to say, the Shakers didn't insist on keeping every child: obstinate troublemakers--those beyond all redemption--were returned to their parents for fear that they might infect their peers with their "Worldly attitudes."

 Mary Marshall Dyer

Mary Marshall Dyer

The Dyer clan suffered more than dissolution because of the Shakers' rules of indenture. In 1813, Joseph Dyer, his wife Mary, and their children, Caleb, Betsey, Jerrub, Joseph Jr., and Orville, joined the settlement at Enfield, New Hampshire. Two years later, Mary Dyer left the community claiming that, by keeping its members apart, the Shakers had destroyed her family. She began a campaign to get her children back, attacking the Shakers in writing and in the courts. She became an activist, assisting others with the same battles, but she never won her own case. Her husband and all but one child remained devout Shakers. Indeed, Mary’s oldest son, Caleb, became the head trustee of the Enfield settlement. 

 A group of Shaker girls

A group of Shaker girls

The Dyer family's trouble with indenture did not end with Mary's struggle to reclaim her children. In 1861, a local shoemaker named Thomas Weir enlisted in the Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. His wife was recently deceased so, before leaving to fight in the Civil War, Weir indentured his two youngest daughters with the Enfield Shakers. In May of 1862, he was discharged with a disability, returned to Enfield, and demanded to have his daughters back. After repeated attempts to regain his children, he turned up at the settlement brandishing a gun. Elder Caleb Dyer--now a grown man but himself the subject of his mother's court battles over indenture--refused once again to let Weir have his daughters. Weir shot Dyer in the abdomen and he died within 48 hours.

Weir never got to see his daughters grow up. He was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to prison for 30 years. He served 13 and lived out the rest of his life in Enfield, occasionally doing odd jobs for the Shakers.

One last note: The Shakers used the word "family" all the time. For them, it described small communities--the Church family, the North family, the South family--within the larger settlement. The way they saw it, men and boys were brothers, women and girls were sisters, and everyone was a child of Mother Ann Lee and…Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

'Tis a Gift...

What constitutes a gift these days? A gift is something given, and then, more than likely, re-given.  A gift is a flat plastic card that will lie, unused, in a desk drawer until it expires. A gift is a talent. A GIFT is a “gamete intrafallopian transfer,” an egg-and-sperm cocktail that gets injected into a woman’s fallopian tubes as a fertilization treatment.

Few of these definitions -- Gamete intrafallopian transfer? -- would have made any sense to the Shakers.

And yet, the Shakers had at least as many strange meanings for the word “gift” as we do. A gift might be an intuition; it might be a sense of divine direction; or it might be an ability. An ability mind you, never a talent. Talents are far too showy. 

 An exhausted Shaker sister after be taken with "the Whirling Gift"

An exhausted Shaker sister after be taken with "the Whirling Gift"

The Shakers engaged in “whirling gifts” and “laughing gifts,” ecstatic events during which believers fell into spinning or guffawing together for hours on end. The gift of “acting drunk with new wine” or “acting the fool”  involved collectively mimicking the behavior of a congenial souse or idiot.  Elaborate pantomimes mimicked feasting, washing, planting, harvesting, even fighting, which is surprising because the Shakers were pacifists. These directions from the eternal beyond—performed at the behest of visiting spirits—were all deemed to be "gifts." What, then, possessed a member of one Shaker congregation to sink to the ground and writhe limply across the floor in imitation of a human mop pushed to and fro by divine hand? A gift, of course.

As is true the world over where gifts are concerned, some Shakers got more than others. Visionists--so named by the Shakers for their hallucinatory visions and accompanying altered states of mind--possessed the ultimate gift of personal communication with heavenly spirits, chief among them the founder of Shakerism, Mother Ann Lee. Though many of them were just teenage girls, they had great power over the communities in which they lived. A visionist could inspire hope, productivity and religious fervor, but she could also convince elders to punish or expel members she did not like. All in the name of Mother Ann, all because of her "gift."

 An elaborate "Gift Drawing"

An elaborate "Gift Drawing"

Visionists were the songwriters, choreographers and artists behind some of the most disturbing, most revelatory and most beautiful artifacts left behind by the Shakers. The best known of these—the “gift drawings”—have an exuberance that is at odds with everything the Shakers believed in. Full of color, fanciful images and poems, about 200 gift drawings survive, the best known of which have been displayed in museums all over the world. 

Many of the drawings are made up of complex and highly ordered patterns. Others look more like spiritual maps, intended to chart the path to Zion. A few are so free-form in nature, they appear to have been received directly while in a state of trance.

 "Gift Drawing" of The Tree of Life

"Gift Drawing" of The Tree of Life

One of the visionists' favorite subjects was the Tree of Life. Painted in vibrant color, bursting with fruits and flowers, the Tree of Life represented the unspoiled loveliness of the Garden of Eden. There are many versions--each visionist saw the tree differently--and you can find most of them reprinted on coffee mugs, posters, aprons, tea cozies, even carved into useful household objects such as the "Tree of Life trivet" pictured below.

 Tree of Life trivet, $39.95

Tree of Life trivet, $39.95

A gift within a gift.

 

.

 

 

 

Red Ink

Very few people have a favorite Shaker, but I do. His name is Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, and I met him thanks to a great book called One Shaker Life, by my friend, Glendyne Wergland. Youngs did a remarkable number of things well. He made beautiful clocks and pens. He was a skilled tailor and carpenter. He was a respected member of his community, entrusted by his elders to accompany them on missions to investigate everything from the behavior of the early “Visionists” to possible land deals up and down the East Coast and beyond. He was a writer and poet. But, most impressive to me, he aired his frustrations as well as his epiphanies as a Shaker in his personal journal, the keeping of which was strictly forbidden by the sect. He was a rebel.

shaker_inkwell_1.jpg

Youngs wrote about lots of things in his diaries—the difficulty he had tempering his lust while living in a celibate society, just for starters. He also described a multitude of run-ins with authority during his 72 years as a Shaker. Many of these battles revolved around his desire to be remembered, if only in the most humble way. He recognized—and was willing to fight for—the human impulse to leave one’s mark on the world. To say, more elegantly than your average paint-packing teen standing atop a highway overpass:

Brother Isaac Was Here.

The Shakers, of course, had few problems with graffiti but they hated colored ink anyway. Considered as a superfluity—something used for fancy’s sake—Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee ordered her followers to “let all such things go to the moles and bats of the earth” and so—mystified, no doubt—they did.

But not Brother Isaac. He liked to make his own silver pens—despite their reputation as “lust of the eyes”—and even mixed his own red ink. He did it simply because he enjoyed the color and the variety it afforded him in his writing, not because he wanted to draw fanciful things. Knowing the purity of his own intentions, he ignored the edict forbidding its use.

His hubris caused more of a fuss than we—with our tweets, our YouTube videos, and our bumper stickers advertising the Ivy League schools attended by our brilliant children—could ever imagine. There were tense meetings and letters exchanged between the elders on the subject of Brother Isaac’s stubborn refusal to give up the things that kept him from “falling into union” with the other believers. “Union” was a key Shaker ideal, and though it was certainly rooted in such virtuous traits as humility and subordination of the self for the common good, it was also an extremely effective control tactic. In a society where the price of admission was very high—no sex, no worldly goods, no family relations—an iron-clad set of rules was essential. Individuality presented not only the possibility of insubordination, but also the very real risk of contagion.

Ultimately, because he understood the value of “union,” Brother Isaac threw out his beloved pens and ink. But had he been allowed to keep them, would he eventually have wanted more? His own website, for example? A Facebook page? A blog about making the perfect clock, or writing spiritual poetry, or—horrors!—the miseries of being a sexually explosive teenager forced by his religious elders to wrap his loins in icy wet muslin before retiring for the night? The man had a lot to say—more than most of us.

87809.jpg

We think of them as quaint, but the Shakers not only embraced progress, they participated in its march forward. They hated waste—of time, of effort, of materials—hence their innovation to sell pre-packaged, high-quality seeds that were previously unavailable in such small and practical quantities. Hence their creation of the flat broom—and then, with dizzying genius—the angled flat broom. And hence their invention of at least one iteration of the washing machine. Had they been prominent as a society today, it’s highly likely they would have been first in line to “friend,” “like,” blog, and tweet. They would also, doubtless, have designed the most elegantly functional web site the world has ever known.  

So why can’t I just lighten up and have fun with my graceless tumble into the world of social media?  I feel as though it’s my giant pot of red ink, but there are no elders here. No one is really looking. No one is really listening. (Well, these days, that’s a bit naïve I suppose.) The more I stand up and wave my arms about myself and my book, the more smoothly I slip into a crowd of millions, all believers in progress, commerce and community.

Minus the attendant navel gazing, that’s pretty damn Shaker.

History

Before writing this book, I knew three things about the Shakers: they forbade sex, they made beautiful furniture, and they “shook,” whatever that meant. I felt about the sect the way most Manhattanites do the Empire State Building: appreciative from a distance but not particularly interested. 

 Shaker Barn

Shaker Barn

It is also true, however, that I have spent—and continue to spend—all of my summers and most of my weekends living in a converted Shaker meeting house that was bought by my grandfather in the 1930s. He was a successful playwright and screenwriter who despised Hollywood and preferred to combine writing with working on the small dairy farm he built up in the fields surrounding the meeting house. 

At the height of his career, just before winning an Oscar for writing the screenplay of Gone With the Wind, he was killed in a tractor accident on the farm. He was only 48 years old and left behind a widow, four young children, a mountain of debts and a beautiful but now haunted property. 

The melancholy of that place remains intact to this day, and, even more than the Shaker house, it informs the tone of my book. So did the summers I spent playing and working on the farm, which, over the decades, my grandmother—and then my uncle—managed to keep going. I grew up knowing that, even in the modern era, dairy farming is soul-crushing work. 

 Shaker Pond

Shaker Pond

How must it have been back in the 1840s? Hardship in 19th Century rural New England seems to have known no bounds: the filth of living without plumbing, on very little food, with livestock roaming free in the front yard; the prevalence of alcoholism and domestic violence; the huge gap between rich and poor; the long, brutal winters and short, unreliable summers; the isolation; and finally, the loss of sons and daughters to lives spent working in factories instead of on the family farm. 

This became the backdrop for much of my book, and to me, it helped explain why a person—particularly a battered woman or a poor couple seeking food and shelter for their children—would have made the sacrifices that the Shakers demanded of their converts.

Forced indenture of children. No contact of any kind with the opposite sex. Total confession. Complete divestiture of land and material wealth. And, to my mind, strangest of all: no recognition of blood relations or spouses. To sign on with the Shakers was to accept an often dreary, cult-like existence, but for a certain type of person in a certain type of bind, it almost made sense.

Almost.

In a compendium of prayers and songs written during the 1840s revival period, I found that one particular document really snagged my attention. It was a song used to indoctrinate children against their parents, also known as their “fleshly kindred.”

A couple of the verses go like this:

Of all the good friends that I ever possess
I certainly love good believers the best:
So good and so pretty, so clever they feel
To see them and love them increases my zeal.

Of all the relations that I ever see
My old fleshly kindred are furthest from me:
So bad and so ugly, so hateful they feel
To see them and hate them increases my zeal.

It seems that, far from being the holier-than-thou do-gooders I had them figured for, the Shakers were a fascinatingly repressive yet imaginative group, one whose traditions and history I feel fortunate to have stumbled across and immersed myself in for the better part of a decade.

Process

The Visionist was a difficult novel for me. I am a novice at writing fiction—there’s that. Much of the book is composed in a kind of patois that combines language and cadences from another era with a more contemporary manner of speaking. It attempts to describe what I came to regard as the New England magic realism of Shaker worship. And it takes place in a hard-hearted world, where the characters are burdened by pasts they may or may not be able to overcome. 

Tyringham Valley.jpeg

It also wrestles with fairly dark themes, many of which resonate today. The pull between individual expression and subservience to the community; the power of faith to both uplift and destroy; the misplacement of belief; the tendency to mistake extremism for religious purity; the price of living a lie; and, last but not least, the potential for chaos when groups of isolated teenage girls become infected with a kind of contagious hysteria seen the world over from long before the time of the Salem witch trials right through to today, in the behavior of a group of cheerleaders in Le Roy, New York, a small town not far from Buffalo. 

But analyzing one’s own novel is a tricky business—a job best left to other people, should they feel so inclined. In fact, while I was writing The Visionist, a wise friend told me not to think about themes. She said that if I concentrated on telling a good story through characters that rang true, the larger meaning would, as if by alchemy, make itself known. I’ve tried to live up to the challenge of that advice.