I had never heard of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, before I wandered into it by accident. I left my home in Cambridge on a Saturday morning and drove north. I didn't take a map. I just felt like driving, and I wanted to stay off the interstates. I took roads on whim, made turns at random, and that afternoon I parked in this tiny Shaker village and got out to look around.
I'd turned 23 that summer. A recent transplant to the East Coast, having moved from California, I wondered every day if I had done the right thing, leaving the familiar for the new, moving so far from my friends and from the canyons above Santa Barbara where I loved to hike. I missed losing myself in the hard work of those climbs, and the reward of looking down from the top at a gray ocean far below.
This was not some young person's romantic idea of nature: It was a feeling of right belonging that I couldn't come to any other way, and that I felt I'd given up, now, for the sake of some job that I wasn't that good at anyway.
If you know just a little about Shakers, as I did then, you might be as surprised as I was to discover that the sect has not completely died out. Shakers, after all, believe in separation of the sexes; they practice celibacy. Their communities throughout New England, New York, Kentucky, and Ohio flourished in the 19th century and well into the 20th. They took in orphans and accepted converts, and their numbers, for a while, increased, But their practices and beliefs became anachronisms and the communities closed down. Some are run, now, as museums.
At the time I first came through, six women and two men lived in Sabbathday Lake. The men were converts; the women had been raised as Shakers.
A SHAKER Sister showed me through the village, pointing out the workshops and the dormitories, the herb shed, barn, and pump house. Inside the meeting house she told me that the blue paint on the woodwork was the original, put on when it was built in 1794. Paint companies had come for samples, she said. They wanted to know what was in the paint that made it last so long.
I went back to Sabbathday Lake half a dozen times after that day. I liked the feeling I had there, of having left behind the busy-ness of the world, and I liked the way the history of the place was evidenced in every peg rail, every floor plank, ceiling beam, and staircase. I liked, in particular, one upstairs bedroom set up for display with its simple bed and chair, a small wood-burning stove, and a window looking out onto an apple orchard on a hill.
Not many people could live happily, or for long, in such a sparely furnished room. I knew that even then. I understood as well that the simplicity of such surroundings did not mean the lives lived in them had been simple, or devoid of hardship. But I responded to the idea, made visible in Shaker life, of things in their places, of order, and the acknowledgment implicit in that ordering that it was necessary to leave space in one's life, and energy, to wrestle with the messy, unordered inner life.
I struggled with my job. As winter came on and I stood at bus stops in subzero temperatures, I imagined my friends in Santa Barbara watching sunsets from the beach, where the ice plant covering the dunes would be blooming recklessly with yellow, white, and purple flowers. I imagined hopping boulders all the way up Rattlesnake Canyon, lying on the quartzite slab that formed the basin for a waterfall there, and watching tankers glide between the Channel Islands and the coast. I knew I would at least have felt warmer in that spot, if not more sure of who I was.
Along about spring I began to feel at home. I made friends; I learned to love the Red Sox. Looking out a bus window one day, onto the Charles, I watched a rower glide across the shadow of the bridge that I was on. There was nothing wasted in her effort, the snap and rhythm of her oars. That boat meant motion. Just that, for that instant. The bus bumped over the expansion joints, jostling its passengers, the rower slipped upriver, and that particular conjunction of perspective, placement, and intention, was gone.
Years later I moved back to California, but it happened in a complicated, roundabout way that I could never have foreseen or planned. And when I came back I left friends in Boston, and I felt the same pangs about leaving that I'd felt when I'd first moved there.
I'm a big believer in the power of the surprise encounter: to fuel creativity; to reveal the overlooked, and sometimes obvious, truth; to connect experiences for us in ways we wouldn't think to do on our own, the categories into which we've put them being separate and distinct to our minds. From Sabbathday Lake I took away the feeling of what it must be like to see the larger world evolve around you, and to stay unchanged; to seek stillness and find understanding.
And that rower, in that instant, gave me solace in the same way my hikes had done. Activity, absorption, solitude - all these were there, where I was, where I happened to be looking at that moment.