Images and stories. How they do shape how we think of the world – what it is to us, even when the stories or images may not be true or real.
I’m not religious in any formal way, but darn it all if I can shake off the image in my mind that God is some big vague-looking guy hanging around way up high in the sky somewhere beyond the clouds – no matter how hard I try. In the same manner, just push my Thanksgiving Button and regardless of any intellectual knowledge of what it actually was to start with, up pops turkey and Pilgrims in black clothes with huge hats and buckles on their odd shoes.
I think then of the Shakers, who were of the same ilk. Then the Quakers who fit in there with all this. A song comes into my head somewhere along here and it refuses to stop. I have to hear it over and over again for goodness knows how long.
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Somehow I’ve known that song since nursery school. I still love it.
But it’s not what I thought it was as a four-year old – there’s more to it that that. There’s the fact that usually people know the words as ’tis a gift’ rather than as ’tis the gift’. This adds a very different meaning to the song – one that is pointed and sharp. ‘The gift’ is one thing and one thing only, not open to interpretation by those who sang of it. It was the core point of the song that ‘the gift’ was something to be desired (and worked for and suffered for) – and this was the only ‘gift’ that should matter. And that gift of ecstasy, of bonding with their God, was sought through dance.
A beautiful simple song with a passion wrapped so quietly within it.
There are four Shakers left in the last Shaker Community existing in Sabbathday, Maine. Only four Shakers. Their religion is a fascinating one. But then it comes to mind that the ‘Pilgrims’ associated with our Thanksgiving holiday – with their funny hats and shoes with buckles – did not come here seeking turkeys (though of course turkeys are a good thing to have if one wants to continue living rather than dying of starvation in a new land where grocery stores don’t exist and where one has not been trained in the actually-rather-knowledgable-art of farming . . . ever tried to even keep a plant already grown in a pot alive if you don’t have a ‘green thumb’?) but from what I understand – unless I missed something – our Pilgrims came to these shores to escape religious persecution. They just plain didn’t fit in, where they came from, and it was time to move – that is, if they wanted to follow their deep passion, a passion which was not about what buckle to put on their shoes or what stuffing to serve with the turkey but rather a passion which centered around who they as human beings were and what their relationship was to their God and how they would live to express this.
Not small potatoes. That is, if one believes that in some way human beings are more than a bag of bones tossed together with other ingredients to make an animal of sorts that ‘thinks’ and who has been lucky enough to have these opposable thumbs that help us build things of all sorts.
Funny, the shapes seeking for ‘higher truth’ can take.
Several years ago I visited a church located within several hours of where I live. The church is one where snake-handling is the core participatory ritual that brings its followers a sense that they have found a way to experience the higher truth that the Christian Bible offers. This is not the only church in the country of this sort – though it is against the law in many states for these churches to exist.
I remember sitting in a pew near the back taking it all in. The women did not cut their hair – it was against the church laws . . . and they wore dresses and stockings and were all covered up. The men did not seem to have any rules of dress but they were all very conservative. I remember looking at the people of the church, this church that existed in a small covert hollow of poverty along a grim winding road in a tiny sad broken-down converted house, and I remember my first reaction. It was a visceral one rather than an intellectual one. To be honest, an initial sense of repulsion rose from within me.
What those Pilgrims must have put up with, before coming to our shores! What any Pilgrim must put up with, really – if they have a strong path to follow that does not merge and support the usual way of things.
But thereby hangs the tale.
The faux-Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner is just the tip of it all. But oh, where it can lead to, just the stories of interest as one follows the winding path around it!
“Oh the Places You’ll Go!” as Dr. Seuss (who of course was Theodor Geisel) wrote.
Happy Pilgrim Day!
Maybe I’ll bake a cake and frost it black with a big silver buckle. I love that image.
No photo header today but instead something better: Jordi Busque is allowing me to link to his wonderful photos of the Mennonite in Bolivia.
More on ‘Simple Gifts’ at the American Music Preservation site.