In a week, I will start (yet another) internship at Canterbury Shaker Village, a museum in Canterbury, New Hampshire, working on researching and cataloging the museum’s object collection as well as assisting the curator with revamping the museum’s gallery space. I’ll also be living in one of the historic buildings that was part of the village, the home of a vibrant religious community between 1792 and 1992. I don’t believe in ghosts, but got a little nervous when the woman who interviewed me asked if I was comfortable living in an old house that creaks at night…let’s hope I leave this internship still skeptical of the paranormal.
A remnant of Shaker life (the sect only has one living member left) — a former office building from one of their communities in Harvard, Mass., now part of Fruitlands Museum
Some people think I’m bonkers for taking this internship; I graduated last May and I should probably get a real job, but I’m excited about this opportunity, not just because of the career preparation it will provide me with, but also because of the potential for personal growth that I see in moving to a different place, learning about a remarkable group of people, and building myself as a person. I will admit though, there are a few reasons to be terrified:
- Moving. I’m very close to my family, and in the two months I’ve been home, I’ve quickly settled back into my comfort zone of home life. Any move means transition and facing the unknown, which I often find emotional and anxiety-inducing. Not to mention, starting a new job is just plain intimidating.
- Being in a rural place. I have a secret confession: I love big box stores and strip malls. Seeing them makes my heart happy. I didn’t realize that until I lived with no car in a town consisting of a mile-long street with no stores. Living nowhere near a supermarket should be interesting…
- NEW ENGLAND WINTER. I am from below the Mason-Dixon line. I hate ugly winter accessories that are meant to keep you warm. I shiver inside of my own home. I really have no business being in New Hampshire during February and March.
But more importantly, reasons to be excited:
- Living in a new place. One reason I love doing internships is they give me the chance to live in a completely different place from where I grew up, giving me a taste of the culture, history, and landscape of that location. So far this has taken me to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Western Massachusetts, and, most recently, Central Massachusetts. Being a suburbanite, I’ve enjoyed being in small towns where you’re closer to nature and historic buildings, things we tend to raze in suburbia.
- Learning new things. I love coming to a subject I know very little about and becoming intimately familiar with it through historical work. Shakerism embodies two significant portions of American history: the many religious sects that have arisen in our country and the many Utopian, communal societies that were formed in the early 1800s. With this internship, I’ll learn about a movement that represents important parts of American culture: our impulse to practice religion as we see fit, to pursue equality for all people, and to invent, innovate, and work hard.
- Gaining personal direction. On one level, I hope this gives me some direction for my career. On another level, as silly as it may sound, some part of me hopes that by having be close to nature, dwell with my own thoughts, and learn about the lives of others will give me some insight into myself. On that note, let me continue.
I’m a big believer in taking time to wander around forests alone to gain inspiration for art and to get to know yourself better. That’s part of why I wanted to return to New England. I went through some difficult times this past fall as I lived on my own in Massachusetts, but I also found the built and natural landscape surrounding me to be awe-inspiring, peaceful, and empowering. As I processed through making difficult career choices, difficult feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, and processing heartbreak, I found myself drawn back again and again to the banks of ponds, the canopies of forest foliage, the shadows of bracketed historic buildings, the faded carvings of town cemeteries.
As I lost myself in long walks, tours of writers’ homes, snapping photos of gables fading into the sunset, and driving back and forth across the Mass. Turnpike with an “Autumn Leaves” Yankee Candle car deodorizer dangling from my rearview and Mary Chapin Carpenter singing a ballad about a dead man from New Orleans, I slowly emerged from my shell of brokenness, helplessness, and fear. I am adventurous, but I am also anxious. Moves like this force me out of my comfort zone and propel me to pursue independence.
Ann Lee must have known as much when she decided to cross the pond from England to America in 1774, bringing with her a small, no doubt ragtag group of followers of her new faith – disparaged as the “shaking Quakers”, much like “Christians” once upon a time was an insult to a persecuted band of believers. She established a settlement in New York for the group, but also began seeking out converts in her new country.
The Shakers were defined by a commitment to communal living, hard work, celibacy, pacifism, and living as closely to biblical teachings as possible. While much of their life seems completely unrelatable to us today, as I began researching the Shakers in the past week, I realized there were many parallels between the values they sought to embody and the journey I’ve been on personally in recent years and the crossroads I find myself at today:
Shaker-made baskets at Fruitlands Museum, MA
The Shakers’ commitment to hard work, not to mention the sheer extent of their accomplishment, speaks to my own hunger to do, to work, to find my place where I can make a difference, to use the talents I have been given effectively.
Their practice of meditation prompts me to do the same — taking time to name my thoughts and feelings instead of simply pushing them away, to savor life as it passes.
The Shaker’s commitment to celibacy reminds me of my own pursuit to be content being single and become more grounded in myself before seeking out relationships.
The rural landscape they cohabited with is an opportunity to take a break from the breakneck speed of life and the technology that simultaneously tears me down and lifts me up.
The gender equality they pursued reminds me of my own recent transition from the narrow, traditional view of women’s roles I grew up with to seeking to build a career for myself and a self-concept as a strong, smart, capable woman.
Their unabashed pursuit of practicing their unique, oft-berated religious convictions reflects my own journey to navigate the spiritual landscape, blazing a middle ground between the religious tradition I grew up in and my own experience and convictions, often leaving me feeling isolated as I fit neither in the church I grew up in, nor the world outside of it.
Their emphasis on compassion and showing God’s love to neighbors is a reminder for me to be more self-sacrificing and understanding of others.
Their love of community points me to my own craving to experience true friendship, acceptance, companionship, and support in my relationships, which often feel shallow, conditional, one-sided, and neglectful.
In closing, I remember how during my junior year of college, my friend and I found out there was an Orthodox convent not far from our college campus. It was on state park land, with a beautiful lake, and the sisters sang in a choir together and made greeting cards to sell in the convent gift shop. I remember wanting to go live there, being young, depressed, lonely, burnt out, fed up with men, and unable to get a boyfriend anyways. Why not go live in a beautiful place where your life had clear vocation and you were a recognized member of a community. I figured old people usually love me and a simple, orderly life where each day was laid out for you sounded kinda nice.
While there are many benefits to having so many choices and freedom these days, sometimes the array of opportunities can become overwhelming. Ultimately, my desire to continue chasing romantic love won out over the attractiveness of making greeting cards with old ladies, but looking back, I can see the draw of such a place. As much as we value freedom, independence, sensuality, and spontaneity, I think many of us also have a part of us that craves the stability, community, and security that communal religious societies offer.
We want peace in the midst of the flurry of emails we need to respond to before we’re viewed as rude, sales to take advantage of before they expire, things to check off our to-do list before another vacation ends.
We want guidance and clarity in a world where even a simple trip to the grocery store can overwhelm you with the options before you.
We want community in a time when people leave texts unanswered and conversations face-to-face often get interrupted by those same devices that are supposed to help us keep in touch.
The Berkshires, Massachusetts
I don’t think the Shakers had all the answers. I don’t think their lives were perfect. I don’t think we all need to give up all our technology or join communes. But I’m curious to see how living where they did, walking in their footsteps, and studying their lives can give me perspective in the modern day. Because as foreign as life in the past may seem — and as awful as many aspects of it were — I think it’s always worth keeping an open mind to any culture and its practices to see what we can learn from it and apply to our own little world.
Sometimes you have to step outside your bubble, jump outside your comfort zone, so you can expand it to include things that will enhance it in the long run.
Learn More About Shakers:
PBS: “About the Shakers” (Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about the group)
National Park Service: Shaker Heritage Sites
Hancock Shaker Village: History of the Shakers
Other posts you might enjoy:
Around Town: Summer Fellowship, Pt. 3
Explore New England (Well, Mainly Massachusetts)
Glimpses into life in the past at National Park Seminary historic district
Forgotten Buildings, Forgotten People
Blast from the Past (in Concord, Mass.!)