I have tried unsuccessfully for years to embrace simplicity- the art of shedding the clutter and disorganization that flies in a chaotic cloud around me. My efforts are foiled by boys, dogs and my own absent-mindedness. A glimpse into an average day in my life reveals: a cell phone dead from lack of charging, a mislaid appointment book resulting in a missed appointment, a candle left dangerously burning unattended half the morning, an empty gas tank, unwashed, sweaty basketball jerseys stuffed under the seat of the car (resulting in puzzlement about the rank smell permeating the hot car, and alarmed sniffs from passengers), and strangest of all, a lone sock found in the freezer. Sometimes I think my purpose in life is to make other people feel more competent about their own lives.
I admire people who seem to function smoothly, simply, and cohesively in life. I appreciate the Amish, Quakers and the now extinct Shakers for their respective faith, industry, simplicity and mindfulness. Thoughtful attentiveness especially, eludes me. I am scattered and often lost in thought- the obvious often isn’t obvious to me. For example, I once arrived to deliver a speech to a group of professionals wearing dark sunglasses that I thought gave me a certain sophisticated air. Unfortunately, I had unknowingly lost a lens at some point in my day. The resulting glaring, lopsided look drew hard stares and snickers from the appreciative crowd. (My family still wonders how anyone could walk around for hours like that and be unaware.)
Another time, an important colleague I wished to impress opened my car door and was met with a can of SPAM on the front seat. I have never knowingly purchased SPAM, so its presence was a mystery to me. The SPAM’s jarring randomness, however, seems a metaphor for my life. I just can’t seem to get it together.
Thus, it was with much anticipation and desire for inspiration that I decided to visit a restored Shaker village in
Upon arrival, we entered a village that remains as it was 200 years ago. Each building is restored and has a specific function: Meeting House, Center Dwelling, Trustees House, and others. The entire village is a living history museum with demonstrations of spinning (with wool from sheep raised on the farm), medicinal uses of plants and herbs, singing in the Meeting House of traditional music, and more. Not surprisingly, my grandmother, my two sons and I were some of just a few people visiting, although I learned that some guests were staying in the buildings converted to inns.
We walked the village on our own, but period attired guides were available when I wanted to learn more. I was immediately struck by a feeling of immeasurable calm and peace. The last Shaker to die here did so in 1924, yet their spirits have infused the entire area with a sanctified glow. Millions of prayers seem to have seeped into the walls and continually released goodwill. The rooms were spotless, free of clutter and suffused with light. I watched a woman spin wool and was struck with how certain work is a meditation in and of itself. Purposeful, with its own rhythms, its own timeline.
I toured the gardens with acres of heirloom and rare vegetables while the boys were communing with horses and examining some rare cattle. I wanted to look at the huge barn, and parked my grandmother’s wheelchair (she doesn’t share my passion for barns) under the shade of an elm tree, where she could hear “Simple Gifts”. I made my way down a sloping hill toward the vast barn and was soon deep in conversation with the horseman. As I stood examining the beamed roof and the glowing wooden stalls, polished to a high sheen by countless generations of horse and cattle bottoms, I heard a commotion that broke my reverie. I popped my head from the barn and saw my grandmother careening down the hill in her wheelchair at about 150 miles per hour, hair whipping in the wind, an enormous grin on her face, yelling, “Wheeee!” A multitude of pseudo-Shakers poured forth from various buildings, summoned by some secret distress signal, arms pumping with alarm and legs pistoning, they gave chase.
As she roared to the bottom of the hill, my grandma expertly applied her feet and hand brakes and with a gentle, curving skid, and landed safely in a cloud of dust. The crowd arrived seconds later and surrounded her in a buzzing, concerned cluster.
After determining that she was fine, and had, in fact, intentionally raced downhill seeking some action, the would-be rescuers began to drift back up the hill to their designated buildings, at least one muttering un-Shaker-esque expletives.
Since my grandma was obviously ready to move on to more exciting attractions, I decided to end our visit. We had given the village more action than it had seen in a century or more and
I think if I were able to spend a week there, all would be well. I brought home a Shaker guiding principle that I hung in my kitchen to help me be mindful,” "Do all you work as if you had a thousand years to live and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow.”