Simple Gifts: Chosen Land


Here’s an updated version of a blog post for this day, published originally on the 6th of August, 2015. It is updated for this Covid-19 era and with updates to the roster of Shakers living in this place known as Chosen Land. The rest of the message is just the same, filled with the same spirit. ~ John


The Sixth of August is an important day for a small group of folks Seth and I know and love in Maine. They call each other brethren and sisters and they respond to questions in the old style yea and nay. They are the Shakers of Sabbathday Lake and there are three of them, currently: Brother Arnold, Sister June, and Brother Andrew.

August 6 marks the anniversary of the arrival of Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee in America. It is a day the Shakers call The Glorious Sixth. Mother Ann and a small band of followers left England and came to New York in 1774. Their official name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but they were ridiculed for their whirling dances and outsiders began calling them Shaking Quakers, which was meant to be derogatory. They embraced the name and soon began referring to themselves as Shakers. The movement found fertile ground in America and Communities were founded in the 1700s and 1800s throughout New England and New York and west to Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, and there was even a short-lived southern Community in Florida, up near Kissimmee.

Don’t let the yeas and nays fool you: the Shakers are a progressive bunch. From the start, they stressed equality of the sexes and the races. African Americans (most of them former slaves) were fully equal in their Communities. Shakers then and now refer to God as Mother/Father and women have always held prominent leadership roles. Early Shakers were quick to jump on board with technology, too, and even invented early versions of many tools we use even to this day, like flat brooms, and washing machines. A prominent Shaker motto is “Hands to work, Hearts to God,” a tenet of their belief handed to them by Mother Ann. Technology was useful in helping them make the work they had to do more beautiful, more prayer like. To that end, the things that Shakers made in their Community industries over the years have become known for their exquisite craftsmanship. And there have been many things: furniture, of course, as well as oval boxes, poplar ware, even the culinary herbs and herbal teas they package today (which we offer at the Convivio Bookworks website and which the Sabbathday Lake Shakers have been selling since 1783).

And so today it will most likely be Brother Arnold who prepares a big meal for the Community. Usually friends will gather and join them, but this year, in this time of social distancing, it will be a small and quiet celebration. Perhaps they will eat out on the lawn or in the dining room of the Dwelling House. Come sundown, they will gather up and head across the street, to the 1794 Meetinghouse, a building so beautiful in its simplicity. There are no column supports to interrupt the openness, which gave the early Shakers plenty of room for their ecstatic dancing. The Shakers today do not dance, but still the building inspires. Whenever I am there, I look at the wide plank floor. I think of all the Shakers who whirled and danced on that floor. I look at the beams painted with blueberry milk paint, the original paint from 1794, still blue, still the hue of sky at dusk.

There will be readings and set Shaker songs. One song that is always sung on this night begins At Manchester in England, this blessed fire began / And like a flame in stubble, from house to house it ran…. There will be testimonies from anyone who is moved to speak, followed always by Shaker spirituals inspired by those testimonies. And through it all, despite the lanterns, night will slowly descend on the Meetinghouse and the Community gathered, wending its way, weaving its magic.

Seth and I were there with them only once for this occasion, in 1996, when I was a printing intern with Brother Arnold. And I remember always what happened as the room filled with darkness and lamplight. The women sat on one side of the room and the men on the other, as is the Shaker custom, and in the faces of the sisters and other women across from me, I could discern the faces of Shakers throughout time. We may have entered the Meetinghouse in 1996, but it didn’t seem to remain 1996. Sacred spirit filled that sacred space.

Seth and I will be thinking of our Shaker family tonight as the sun sets, as we do each Sixth of August and so many times through the year. We will think of them and remember this night and our privilege of sharing it with them. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers call their home Chosen Land. To be there is to understand why. Especially on the Sixth of August: it is one night where this title becomes particularly apparent.

Please join Seth and me on Wednesday, August 5 at 3 PM Eastern Daylight Time for a live broadcast of “Book Arts 101: Home Edition” on Facebook Live. Click here for a direct link. Video is available after the live broadcast if you can’t be there at 3. This episode is subtitled “Simple Gifts,” and we’ll be chatting about Shaker craft and our experiences working with the Shakers over the years––me as a printing intern, Seth as a gardener and tour guide. I will no doubt be relating the tale of that August 6 evening in 1996, and we’ll also have some lovely things to show you: Shaker oval boxes, the handmade books we made with Brother Arnold, and probably a few other odds and ends from our collection. There’s a new “Book Arts 101: Home Edition” each Wednesday, by the way. Each episode is an unscripted ramble through the book arts, craft and design… and whatever else drifts through my head at the time. You can watch all the previous episodes here (and future ones, too).

The image above is the most famous of the Shaker gift drawings received from the spirits in the Era of Manifestations: a mid-nineteenth century period of intense Shaker spiritual revival. The drawing is called “The Tree of Life” and it was seen and painted by Sister Hannah Cohoon at City of Peace (the Hancock Shaker Community in Massachusetts) on July 3, 1854.


Print Culture, or Your August Book of Days

This month, we’re giving you a little glimpse into the Convivio Bookworks printshop––the heart of Convivio Bookworks. The presses, the movable type: letterpress and books are the core aspects of our business, and we’re celebrating them in this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar. For in the wheel of the year, come late summer, one of August’s traditional celebrations is the Bartlemas Wayzgoose. It comes each August 24th with St. Bartholomew’s Day: a bittersweet day, reminding us of summer’s waning, for it is a celebration influenced entirely by the sun. Come Bartlemas each August, printers in England would begin bringing lanterns back into the printshop, as the sun alone no longer provided enough light. As sunlight wanes, so does the summer season.

Ah but that celebration comes on the 24th, and I will send you an invitation to our online Library Wayzgoose Festival at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts. Save the date, in fact: Monday August 24 at 7 PM Eastern Daylight Time. We’ll be posting a link on Vimeo and on Facebook, where Convivio Bookworks will be hosting a watch party. And if you can’t make it then, worry not, the video will be available afterwards, too, anytime, from wherever you are. We may not be able this year to gather together for the Library Wayzgoose Festival, but the good news is this year you can join us from anywhere.

As August begins, though, it’s time for another old celebration: Lammas. It is a cross quarter celebration, an old festival of the first harvest, also based in that same idea that summer is ripening, slowly giving way to fall. The Celts called the day Lughnasadh (LOO-na-sa). We find ourselves now at the midpoint between the midsummer solstice of June and the autumnal equinox of September. A freshly baked loaf of bread is a traditional part of the celebration. Indeed, the name Lammas descends from the Old English hlafmaesse, or “loaf mass.”

This Lammas, we wish you good health, we wish you glad tidings. We have our challenges here in Florida right now. Those of us who feel quarantining is best in the current situation, or who at least see benefits to wearing masks, see no end in sight to our isolation. It’s frustrating, and small family businesses like ours are affected disproportionately than corporate businesses. Friends of ours who own small restaurants are afraid to open. For us, pop-up shops are our livelihood, and these are not an option now, and won’t be anytime soon––not in a state that sees over 10,000 new cases of Covid-19 each day. But we stay at home and we know others who do, too, and we know that eventually, we will get through this. And, as we always do, we do the best we can. The Library Wayzgoose Festival on the 24th of August is a fine example of this, and I am so excited to share that special event with you. Mark the day. This month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar, by the way, is, as usual, a printable PDF document… and a good companion to this blog. See you on the 24th? Good.


Somewhere in the Stars: Tanabata

We are in the midst of summer and a period ruled by stars: Sirius, Altair, and Vega. Sirius, the Dog Star, entered onto the scene a few days ago: by July 3rd, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, began rising with the sun. The sun occupies the same part of the sky as Sirius through the middle of August. It just so happens to be the hottest time of the year while all this is going on… and so we call these hottest days of the year, ruled by Sirius, the Dog Days of Summer.

That’s our story about Sirius in Canis Major. Meanwhile, here is an old story from Japan that relates to our other summer stars, Altair and Vega: It is the story of Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, and Orihime, the beautiful daughter of the Sky King, Tentei. Orihime wove beautiful cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way. Her father loved the cloth she wove, and so she worked very hard to make enough for him so that he would always have plenty of it. But Orihime worked so hard at her weaving that she never had time for anything else. And as much as Tentei loved the cloth Orihime wove, he knew she needed some balance, some time away from her work, and so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa.

And so Orihime and Hikoboshi met. They fell in love right then and there. The two soon married, and that was wonderful, but they became so enamored with each other that all else fell by the wayside. Orihime pretty much gave up her work at the loom, and as for Hikoboshi’s cattle, well, they were soon roaming all over Heaven. Tentei grew angrier and angrier over all this, until finally he had enough. He separated the two lovers on either side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to see each other. Orihime despaired over the loss of her husband and pleaded with her father. Moved by his daughter’s tears, Tentei relented. But he allowed the two lovers to meet only once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And so the story goes each year, and here we are today: the seventh day of the seventh month. It is the Japanese star festival, Tanabata.

As stars, the lovers are Vega and Altair: Vega, the Weaver Star, is Orihime, and Altair, the Cowherd Star, is Hikoboshi, separated always by the Milky Way, except, as legend has it, for this one night each year when they are reunited. Beneath the stars, here on Earth, we honor Orihime and Hikoboshi by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees. Bamboo is traditional, and that’s what I tied my wishes to last year, but I would think any tree would do. Heaven and the stars, I am sure, grant us a bit of leeway in these matters.

Two or three of my wishes from last year remain still on the bamboo outside our back door. The ink is long faded. I know I wished for protection, and for good health for us all, and especially for my father. His health gradually faded over the seven months that followed, until his death in February. But I am grateful he did not suffer terribly, and so perhaps that was the best manifestation of my wishes for good health and protection. Will I write some wishes on paper and tie them to the bamboo this year? Probably, though it most likely won’t be until after dark. There are no rules about that, either, and if there are, well, again: Heaven and the stars surely can be flexible with us mortals.

Perhaps it is all these thoughts of stars, but there is a song that popped into my head last night, a song I’ve not thought of in years. In 1982, when my grandpa Arturo died, Rosanne Cash released a record called Somewhere in the Stars. I know the title track is a sappy love song, but even so, I was able to reinterpret it for my own situation. It meant a lot to me then when I was missing Grandpa, and it suddenly means a lot to me tonight, too, missing him again, and my dad, and everyone else who is somewhere other than where I’d like them to be (like right here in front of me). If it’s a little sappy, so be it. I’m a little sappy sometimes, too, and there are nights when we need stories about dog stars and star-crossed lovers and reminders of all the ones we love.


This chapter of the Convivio Book of Days was originally printed on the 7th of July, 2017. Three years later, the sentiment is the same. Top Image: A very particular Somewhere in the Stars. This is a Hubble Telescope wide field image showing the “Summer Triangle,” a giant triangle in the sky composed of three bright summer stars: Vega (top left), Altair (lower middle), and Deneb (far left). Can you make out the triangle? [Public domain] via NASA, 2009.