Bob Schwartz

Simple Gifts

“The Shakers were celibate, they did not marry or bear children, yet theirs is the most enduring religious experiment in American history. Seventy-five years before the emancipation of the slaves and one hundred fifty years before women began voting in America, the Shakers were practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality for all members.”

The Shakers (they called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) have few followers remaining. They are well-known in the twenty-first century for two things: their arts and crafts—most famously Shaker furniture—and a song.

The song is Simple Gifts. You may have heard the familiar melody (used by composer Aaron Copland in his Appalachian Springs Suite) and you may have heard the words:

‘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.

Below you will find a selection from Appalachian Springs Suite, with Copland’s variations on Simple Gifts, and a description of the Shakers from Ken Burns’ documentary series The Shakers: Hands to Work. Heart to God.

Even with all the complications we’ve had before, it is possible this is as complex a time as we’ve had. It is the gift to be simple, at least for a while.


From Ken Burns’ The Shakers: Hands to Work. Heart to God.

They called themselves the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but because of their ecstatic dancing the world called them the Shakers.

The Shakers were celibate, they did not marry or bear children, yet theirs is the most enduring religious experiment in American history. Seventy-five years before the emancipation of the slaves and one hundred fifty years before women began voting in America, the Shakers were practicing social, sexual, economic, and spiritual equality for all members.

The Shakers were ordinary people who chose to give up their families, property, and worldly ties in order “to know, by daily experience, the peaceable nature of Christ’s kingdom.” In return, they were welcomed into “holy families” where men and women lived as brother and sister, where all property was held in common, and where each participated in the rigorous daily task of transforming the earth into heaven.

Shakerism was founded by an illiterate English factory worker named Ann Lee. Guided by divine visions and signs, she and eight pilgrims came to America in 1774 to spread her gospel in the New World.

At their height in 1840 more than six thousand believers lived in nineteen communal villages from New England to Ohio and Kentucky. Tales of their peaceful and prosperous lives impressed the world’s utopians. But Shaker aspirations were divine, not social or material. As millennialists, they were unified in the belief that Christ had come again, first in the person of Mother Ann and subsequently “in all in whom the Christ consciousness awakens.” It was therefore the duty of each believer to live purely in “the kingdom come” and to strive for perfection in everything he or she did.

Work was the currency of their service. If the world was to be redeemed and restored to God, the Shakers would accomplish it by the dedicated labor of their hands. They believed that God dwelt in the details of their work and in the quality of their craftsmanship. All their devotion, which no longer went to family or home, was put into what they made. Their villages were meticulously constructed and maintained, their workshops were world renowned for reliable goods, and their gardens provided amply for their own needs, with plenty to spare for the poor.

Shakerism is a system which has a distinct genius, a strong organization, a perfect life of its own, through which it would appear to be helping to shape and guide, in no small measure, the spiritual career of the United States.
— Hepworth Dixon, 1867

For more than two hundred years Shakerism ran alongside American history, sometimes heralding things to come, usually reflecting trends, events, and ideals from a slightly different angle. The Shakers arrived in America on the eve of the Revolution, having left England in pursuit of freedom. They were gathered into order as a practicing religion in 1787, just as the new United States found its form with the drafting of the Constitution. That same year Shaker women were officially given equal rights, and in 1817 the Shakers’ southern societies freed the slaves belonging to members and began buying black believers out of slavery. The Shakers were suddenly appreciated as successful communitarians when Americans became interested in communities, as successful utopians when America hosted a hundred utopian experiments, as spiritualists when American parlors filled with mediums and with voices from other worlds. They invented hundreds of laborsaving devices from the clothespin to the circular saw, which they shared without patents (some of these machines launched brilliant industrial careers for the men who borrowed them), nor were they frightened of useful inventions. The New Hampshire Shakers owned one of the first cars in the state and rigged up electricity in the own village while the state capital building was still burning gas. They were admired and derided, imitated for their successes and ridiculed for their eccentricities. And they are enduringly appreciated for their contribution to American crafts and architecture.

Today, just a few Shakers still live in a single village in Maine. To all appearances these are the last Shakers. But the living Shakers faithfully assert that their religion will never die. Mother Ann predicted that Shakerism would dwindle to as few members as a child could count on one hand, and then overcome all nations. “This is God’s work,” says Sister Mildred Barker, “and what could bring that to an end? Nothing that we humans, that mortals do.”

How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
I keep telling you day after day
But you won’t listen, you always stay and stay
How can I miss you when you won’t go away?
Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks

It is hard not to think about Trump. It is hard not to talk about Trump. We got so used to talking about him every day, multiple times a day. The same goes for the news media, who at least have the excuse that what Trump is doing or might do, or what others or might do about him, is news.

What’s my excuse? What’s your excuse? Yes, his toxic legacy is everywhere and will be for a long time, hopefully shorter than longer time. But remember what we learned over the past years: just thinking and talking about him is itself toxic, even if it was to point out his most recent immorality or crime.

Will he continue to act badly as a private citizen? Will he, or members of his family, or those in his vicious circle of enablers and followers, be punished for what they did or what they still might do? Will Melania divorce him? Will he finally lose a little weight, or will he continue to blow up in a contest to see whether he or Barr or Pompeo can be the fattest? Will he finally be exiled to Elba? These and other questions are superficially interesting but ultimately not in our best interest.

Let those who have direct responsibility for dealing with his wrongdoing do their job. Otherwise, observers can note the results with approval or disappointment, but with beneficial reduced psychic investment.

In the wisdom words of Garth Algar in Wayne’s World: “Stop torturing yourself. Live in the now.”

Motto: Handle with care

While stacking dishes this morning, I read this instruction on the bottom of a ceramic bowl:

HANDLE WITH CARE

It seems a good motto for the rest of the day. Or longer.

Will the Bidens hire Capitol Insurrection Shaman Guy to cleanse the White House?

The story was circulated that when the Trumps moved into the White House, Melania hired an exorcist to cleanse the building of evil Obama spirits. That story was not true.

As fortune would have it, we do have a shaman in the national news, one who knows his way around Washington. We know that the Bidens, as with every incoming administration, are changing out the mattresses in the White House. Would it be that far a step to also change out the spirits? And if you were going to cleanse the spirits, and you just happen to have a shaman under arrest, why not use him to do the job? Maybe ask in return that some time be knocked off his prison term.

I’ve heard crazier things. Every single day in America.

More Phil Spector

I included only one track in my previous post about the death of Phil Spector. There are dozens to choose from.

Be My Baby is the most renowned of the Spector tracks from the most renowned and Spectorish group, The Ronettes. (Literally the most Spectorish, since Phil married Ronnie, the lead singer of the Ronettes.)

For all its historic standing in the world of pop music, Be My Baby is not necessarily the best Ronettes track. Here are two others, less well known, both from the later days of Spector’s run as one of the most visionary, influential and revolutionary record producers.

Both were written by ultra-successful pop songwriting teams, Walking in the Rain by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Is This What I Get for Loving You? by Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

If you think these are adolescent tracks, simple silly pop songs, one about the fantasy lover you dream about meeting, one about the pain of rejection, then maybe, if you have grown past your adolescent years, you haven’t been paying attention.

Phil Spector Dead

Music producer Phil Spector has died in a California prison at the age of 81. In 2009 he was convicted of murdering actress Lara Clarkson.

You might read stories about his life and about his lifelong mental struggles that devolved, even according to Spector himself, into insanity. You might also read parallel stories about his musical genius, if you aren’t personally familiar with it.

My reaction to the news of his death, given what I (sometimes at least) think about supreme art in light of an artist’s concerning life: Fuck biography. Just listen.

Recorded music is now more than a century old. For those not old enough, realize that there was a time when ordinary listeners didn’t have the tools to hear music the way we do now. Realize too that those who produced music also had much more limited tools. Yet Spector managed what remains one of the miracles in that history of records. He heard something in his head, assembled and stretched the available musicians and tools, and created something that would go from that studio to a record to a radio DJ’s turntable over the air to a tiny and crude speaker on a tiny and crude radio and sound like—heaven.

May his memory and his music be a blessing.

The Human Be-In – Saturday, January 14, 1967

Saturday afternoon
Yellow clouds rising in the noon
Acid incense and balloons
People dancing everywhere
Loudly shouting I don’t care
It’s a time for growing, and a time for knowing
Jefferson Airplane, Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon (1967)

On Saturday, January 14, 1967, the Gathering of the Tribes was held at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was labeled the Human Be-In.

The lineup of counterculture luminaries was astonishing. Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Dick Gregory, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jerry Rubin, Alan Watts, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service. The day was in part to mark the recent criminalization of LSD, so famous chemist Owsley Stanley provided acid specially produced for the event.

Just months later, legendary music festivals such as Monterey Pop and Woodstock were held. Those same months later, with an influx of lost and searching souls, part of the counterculture of San Francisco evolved and devolved into the Summer of Love, which said to some that the counterculture was not only wrongheaded, but dangerous and deadly. The dominant culture, it seemed, had been proven right and won, and all these counterculture tools and philosophies were right where they belonged—on the scrapheap of history.

More than fifty years later, if you don’t believe that the counterculture has been mainstreamed, look again. Maybe fifty million Americans practice yoga. Millions practice non-Western or alternative religions. Maybe fifty million smoke marijuana regularly. Millions also use psychedelics. Millions are vegetarians and vegans. The cultural staples of war, racism, inequality, intolerance and alienation are still with us, though being slowly (too slowly) pushed aside. Sexual hypocrisy and shame are being replaced by honest expression. Strict compartments of music (and literature and film and theater) have been replaced by art without borders.

As for the observation that counterculturalists would grow up and drop in, sung about by Donavan in Season of the Witch (“Hippies are out to make it rich”), well, yeah, kind of. Noted San Francisco counterculturalist Steve Jobs thought different, made a fortune, changed the world.

There is fortunately film of the Human Be-In. You’ll notice a number of men and women spinning freely and wildly to the music, or to music in their heads (“To dance beneath the diamond sky / with one hand waving free”, Bob Dylan). You’ll also notice a lot of people who by later standards look pretty straight and sober. Some were, being curious onlookers, some not, so don’t be fooled by appearance.

Some who pay attention to the 1960s counterculture and the Human Be-In, if they bother noticing at all, are quick to box it up as a failed moment. They propose that you can move forward by moving backward. That Saturday afternoon, the Human Be-in asked the question “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?” You know the answer.

We all share American karma

Buddhist concepts are deep and subtle. Terms like “karma” get tossed around, sometimes coming close to the idea and sometimes wide of the mark. The term I want to add here is “dependent origination”, which is related to what people mean when they say “karma”.

From The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Kamma: In Sanskrit, “action”; in its inflected form “karma,” it is now accepted as an English word; a term used to refer to the doctrine of action and its corresponding “ripening” or “fruition”, according to which virtuous deeds of body, speech, and mind produce happiness in the future (in this life or subsequent lives), while nonvirtuous deeds lead instead to suffering.

Dependent origination: In one of the earliest summaries of the Buddha’s teachings (which is said to have been enough to bring Sariputra to enlightenment), the Buddha is said to have taught: “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”

Choose whichever one speaks to you, or both. The point is that you cannot distance yourself from consequence by saying “I’m not one of them” or “I didn’t do that.” The term “accountability” is being used a lot this week, and we do want to attach individual wrongdoing to consequences. But as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty but all are responsible.”

It is common in some quarters to hear slavery described as America’s “original sin.” This might send us back to thinking about the religiously applied original “original sin”, that is, the storied transgression of Adam and Eve. Stripped of its theological trappings, it is part of a greater story about action and lasting consequence. The bad actions, or the lack of good actions, echo down eternity, and do not think you will escape them, even if you had nothing to do with the original phenomenon.

Does this mean that you are guilty for the perpetuation of racism, or for the incompetence of leaders in managing a plague, or in the devolution of American government and politics that led to an insurrection? Depending on your particular role in all these, maybe not. But neither are you an insulated observer. “When this is present, that comes to be. / From the arising of this, that arises. / When this is absent, that does not come to be. / From the cessation of this, that ceases.”

The Point

The Point

Vereker’s secret, my dear man—the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.” He began to flush—the numbers on his bumps to come out.  “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”
Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet

The point behind the point
The meaning behind the text
Is not what they say
Not what you think
Like the figure woven in the rug
What did the weaver have in mind
Except to cushion your feet
Delight your eyes
Believe nothing except
That behind the point
Is a question that exhausts you
To surrender

© Bob Schwartz


Note:

From Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet:

“As an older acquaintance of your late wife’s than even you were,” I began, “you must let me say to you something I have on my mind.  I shall be glad to make any terms with you that you see fit to name for the information she must have had from George Corvick—the information you know, that had come to him, poor chap, in one of the happiest hours of his life, straight from Hugh Vereker.”

He looked at me like a dim phrenological bust.  “The information—?”

“Vereker’s secret, my dear man—the general intention of his books: the string the pearls were strung on, the buried treasure, the figure in the carpet.”

He began to flush—the numbers on his bumps to come out.  “Vereker’s books had a general intention?”

I stared in my turn.  “You don’t mean to say you don’t know it?”  I thought for a moment he was playing with me.  “Mrs. Deane knew it; she had it, as I say, straight from Corvick, who had, after infinite search and to Vereker’s own delight, found the very mouth of the cave.  Where is the mouth?  He told after their marriage—and told alone—the person who, when the circumstances were reproduced, must have told you.  Have I been wrong in taking for granted that she admitted you, as one of the highest privileges of the relation in which you stood to her, to the knowledge of which she was after Corvick’s death the sole depositary?  All I know is that that knowledge is infinitely precious, and what I want you to understand is that if you’ll in your turn admit me to it you’ll do me a kindness for which I shall be lastingly grateful.”

He had turned at last very red; I dare say he had begun by thinking I had lost my wits.  Little by little he followed me; on my own side I stared with a livelier surprise.  Then he spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Man shown carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern at Capitol riots arrested”

You may not have noticed it, but along with my rational side, I am also a huge fan of the absurd.

This is because 1) life is absurd and 2) absurdity makes us laugh.

We all recognize the continuing tragedy of our public life, abetting and joined by the continuing tragedy of the pandemic. There is nothing funny about either.

Yet when I read this particular headline and saw the accompanying picture, something snapped, and I still can’t stop laughing. Think me callous and insensitive, but I need that laugh.

Here is the headline and picture again.

Man shown carrying Nancy Pelosi’s lectern at Capitol riots arrested