Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 8

The Shakers built the houses in which we lived. They'd made the pegs on which we hung our clothes and cleared the fields on which we played. The inhabitants of the New Lebanon Society had died off long ago, but we lived with their spirits, surrounded by their architecture and ingenuity.

I lived in Ann Lee Cottage, named for Mother Ann, who, the Shakers believed, represented the second coming of Christ. Although it had been retrofitted with a boiler and radiators, wired and plumbed to add sinks, showers and toilets, it was otherwise as it was constructed in the mid 1800s. The double-hung windows (a Shaker invention) were original. Mine faced the west, and in winter, when the wind blew up from the valley, fine little piles of snow accumulated inside on the sill, and the coffee in my cup placed there the night before would be frozen solid by morning.

Handsome and utilitarian, Ann Lee Cottage was nevertheless a firetrap. Our housemaster made it quite clear what he thought about smoking, which was forbidden for all students on campus.
"I know you smoke," he would tell us, "and nothing I tell you will prevent you from doing it. But if you have to smoke, go out into the woods to do it. Because if I ever catch you smoking in this house, and putting the lives of every boy and me and my wife and children in danger, I will make sure that you are gone from this school immediately and forever."
We didn't smoke in Ann Lee Cottage.

Once, I could not contain my curiosity any longer about a third-floor closet, the door of which was painted shut. It was a long, low closet under the eaves. One Saturday afternoon, when everyone else was watching a soccer game, I worked at it with a table knife and got the door open. It was packed full of old chairs. I don't know what I expected to find, but I was disappointed.
Of course, those old Shaker chairs would now be worth a fortune. We had no idea at the time that the old furniture we abused would someday be commanding huge sums on the auction block at Sotheby's.
Many years later, when enrollment had plummeted and the school was in poor financial shape, much of that Shaker furniture was sold. I don't think that Sister Emma Neale would have objected, though. I think she would have felt that it was not the object that is sacred, but rather the work that made it.

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