Category Archives: American Culture

Failed and Fruitful Utopias

Because we recently relocated to the area, my husband Ben and I spent a lot of the past summer exploring areas in New England, traveling to New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. It gave us a better sense of the region, but we sometimes just visited sites in our state. One day, when we had plans to meet friends at the Fruitlands Museum, Ben had to bow out, which was disappointing for us both. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “There are no shortages of failed utopias in Massachusetts. There will most definitely be other opportunities for you here.”

Like the fabled Fruitlands, some of these nineteenth-century utopias had the significant participation of American Transcendentalists, whose ideals were usually some combination of inspiring and infuriating for their neighbors. Fruitlands was a fairly short-lived experiment; it lasted only a matter of months, when it became clear that this farm in central Massachusetts could not remain self-sufficient through the winter.

Eventually Louisa May Alcott wrote a parody of her father’s farming project that became a book titled Transcendental Wild Oats: A Chapter from An Unwritten Romance. This thinly veiled autobiographical account of their family’s time at Fruitlands ends with her mother telling her father, “Don’t you think ‘Apple Slump’ would be a better name for it, dear!” Clearly the author thought so herself.

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It’s easy to make utopian communities the subject of satire, but I think we ought to resist the temptation to do that too quickly. As my friends and I wandered the museum grounds, we saw how the beautiful site itself could inspire visions. A student I had met from the chaplaincy at Wellesley College was working at Fruitlands over the summer and it was surprisingly pleasant to see her there. She allowed how enjoyable it was to do any job in such a lovely spot.

As we toured the historic house where the Alcotts lived, the museum guide soon deduced that all of us in our group of three were Unitarian clergy. Within minutes, she was telling us a story of her involvement several years ago with a local church that had left her disillusioned with congregational life. These accounts are more commonly occurring than most of us generally care to admit and also quite informative. We suffer failures large and small.

Our faith communities lift up high ideals that we struggle to realize in our lives — that does not make those ideals false, though. The boldness of utopian communities (there were more than 100 of them across the U.S. in the 1800s) was that a group of people committed to living together according to unusual expectations of one another, expectations that were spiritual and social in equal measure. While these communities rarely survived long, they did introduce imaginative possibilities for communal life.

At Fruitlands, pioneering ideas formed around environmentalism, education, and gender equality; in time, these would become increasingly influential around America. Social reformers such as Henry David Thoreau — himself a close friend of Alcott — found inspiration in the experiments that the farm residents had attempted. Instead of being too unsparing of our appraisal of failed utopias, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more appreciative of all they ventured. They sensed so much potential to tap.

These days, most of us inhabiting faith communities find ourselves operating in an innovative mode — we are working with newer models of religious education, finding different ways to use media and technology, and adopting a fresh approach to the social actions we take on behalf of greater justice. Whether or not our experiments succeed, it matters that we are willing to run them. As one wag has observed, we tend to forget that Icarus flew for a little while before he fell.

At the turn of the calendar year, when our minds turn to New Year’s resolutions, we might start to feel some loftiness rising within ourselves; perhaps that merits our indulgence. We human beings tend to be future-forward creatures. In his compelling history Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, Chris Jennings writes that “the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools…. [these] utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example — to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.” Of course they failed. After all, on this side of glory, where does perfection permanently reside?

Yet what I admire about those long-ago residents of Fruitlands and Hopedale and Brook Farm and the rest of the storied sites in this Commonwealth was that they dared to raise their eyes and tried to catch glimpses of glory in their own place and time. So I will resist joining in the snide jokes of cynics and remember that instead. They pulled us ahead. We don’t have count to the days of those utopias existence as failures, whether they spanned months or years. The days were distinctive ones, however many they numbered. Isn’t that what we all hope for in our own lives — days we ourselves can make distinct? There are far worse things we could be than heirs apparent of neighboring idealists.

Stand by This Faith, Rally, March

After Election Day, I continued to wear my ‘Love Trumps Hate’ button and also added a safety pin to my lapel for good measure. Beyond politics and personalities, I believe that certain principles generally hold true. On the eve of Thanksgiving, while I was riding an express train home on NYC transit wearing both button and pin, a man and his male friend got on at Penn Station. This man was well-dressed and a little older; he took the seat right next to mine on the subway, so our wretched encounter would be pointedly personal.

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Despite It All

Just recently, the conductor has once more begun calling my train stop by name. Each time I hear it echo, I feel a touch more relieved, a bit closer to home. When I hand him my green Metro-North Railroad ticket stamped SPN DVL, he peers at it closely, then booms “Spites!” as he punches two holes in rapid succession. “Spites” is railroad shorthand for Spuyten Duyvil. For several years, this New York station was known for having a Dutch name almost impossible to pronounce. Now it’s best known for being the worst accident site in regional commuter rail history. The train wreck took place right near the bend in the tracks where the Harlem River meets the Hudson – one year ago, this December.

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High Holy Week

Down the street from us sits a quaint neighborhood pub in the Irish tradition, and by tradition, I don’t mean the pouring of green beer in March. Its name is a jumble of words from the Irish Gaelic that have been scrawled in Celtic script on a sign with paint faded by successive seasons. A fair number of Irish expats patronize the place, and the wait staff still have brogues thick enough to charm. The pub even hosts a resident theater company that will stage a Synge play in the back of the back room, against the backdrop of a velvet curtain. So it’s worth looking at the grainy chalkboard outside to see what offerings the pub has in store in addition to the stout. Each March, a coy listing goes up for the ‘High Holy Week’ that culminates in St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday which the pub rather valiantly tries to keep respectable. God love them for that. Continue reading

Buddha out of Bounds

For a few years now, I have shared a lovely office suite with a marvelous assortment of helping professionals, although I am the only minister in the lot. The diversity among us is impressive – we have psychiatrists, psychotherapists, couples counselors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and nutritionists practicing side by side. We hail from a variety of faith traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and that perennial favorite of ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, in addition to other, increasingly popular hyphenated-hybrid categories. So I was startled one morning to open up the front door of our suite and come face to face with a huge Buddha head.

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Tiny’s Kindness

The sharp economic downturn took place shortly after we moved into our corner of the city, and the result was that our neighborhood was coming undone just as we were settling into it. Restaurants and stores emptied as quickly as dominoes falling up one side of the street and around down the other side. Yet the small corner diner was one of the last businesses to go, which seemed odd, given just how horrible the food was there. Since the window blinds were always drawn shut, it was hard to know when (or whether) the diner was even open, but the blinds did serve to hide an especially dreary interior from the view of passersby. Continue reading

Because it is Beautiful

In my 20s, I briefly served as the junior-most member of a church board. My implicit assignment may have been to bring new energy and a fresh outlook to bear, and while I might have done those things to a passing degree, mostly I learned an awful lot. I loved this church, my home church in Washington, DC; it was an urban congregation located in a stretch of the city blighted by the riots of the late Sixties and left fairly desolate for decades afterwards. Several of our older members would drive a ways in from distant suburbs, but the younger members tended to live within the city limits, and we were all looking to be good neighbors. Continue reading