Friday, February 4, 2000
In Search of Spirit: Local Group Continues Legacy of Transcendentalists
One hundred and fifty years ago, Transcendentalism flourished across our New England countryside. Its most famous practitioners, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, asserted that spiritual vitality and individual intuition were essential to human development. If New England was the acknowledged center, Concord was the undisputed nucleus.
Last week, in a standing-room-only ceremony at the Concord Free Public Library, a local group of spiritually conscious citizens presented a self-published book to the people of Concord and Carlisle. A Resource Guide For the Spirit, conceived in part as a gift for the new millennium, offers places, activities and services as possible sources of spiritual connection. It also pays homage to those who have come before, to those who walked these same paths in search of something more.
"There is a palpable sense of the possibilities," enthuses Ed LeClair of Carlisle, one of the four members of the committee that helped lay out the course for the book. "And that's where we are now with the distribution of the book."
Calling themselves Riverbend Landing, Inc., people from Concord and Carlisle came together roughly five years ago to form a not-for-profit corporation to raise money. Their goal was to purchase the former Greeley house on Main Street in Concord and operate it as a nonsectarian learning center. While they raised an impressive $150,000 in less than two weeks, they were not able to compete on the open real estate market. Considering the project an energizing but failed effort, the Riverbend Landing members returned the funds. They encountered an unexpected response. Many contributors sent back their donations and encouraged the group to continue exploring spiritual opportunities for the people of Concord and Carlisle. This was the first clear glimpse that there were others out there, others seeking spiritual resources and community connection.
The Greeley house sits at a bend in the riverit was actually Thoreau's boat landing, hence the name Riverbend. But the name is also an acknowledgment of ancestors more distant than the Transcendentalists. Concord lies at the confluence of three rivers, the Concord, the Sudbury and the Assabet, and in Native American lore, when three rivers converge there is a deep spiritual undercurrent.
Over the next year and a half, the group held monthly dialoguesjust as the Transcendentalists met periodically in Boston and Concord to discuss philosophy, literature and religion. While the mailing list grew to 80 names, there were sometimes as few as seven people in attendance on dialogue nights.
"We felt that given our original mission, we needed to hold [the idea]," explains Bobbi Miner, another member of the Riverbend Landing Steering Committee, "and not do something just because we had the money." This included sitting with the disappointment of some members who were very attached to the idea of getting the Greeley house.
The group's mission statement described a secondary goal: the creation of a directory of resources of people, places and programs in Massachusetts that promote wellness of body, mind and spirit. They began to consider that a spiritual deepening might just as easily occur between the covers of a book as the walls of a retreat house.
Drawing together resources
After many months of dialogue-nights, the steering committee was formed to help move the project forward. The real work began in August 1999, only five months ago, when questions were circulated among Concord and Carlisle residents. People were polled in what the committee describes as a random, if not whimsical, method. In addition to suggesting resources, people were asked to think about the towns as "spiritual places," and whether or not Concord and Carlisle had "a voice."
The 128-page, spiral-bound paperback book is unpretentious. At first glance, it is a straight alphabetical list of resources ranging from churches to yoga centers to a wealth of healing practitioners. There is an entry for Great Brook Farm State Park with references to its Native American and early colonial roots. And there are some unexpected surprises: two listings for photographers, an Acton contractor who tests for pollutants, and Gaining Ground, a non-profit organization that grows organic foods for hunger relief. But these pages offer much more than places to go and things to do. They hold voices culled from the collective consciousness. Sprinkled throughout the book are personal reflections on the meaning of spirit from both young and mature members of our communities.
The content is made all the more appealing by line drawings from well-known local artist, Phyllis Hughes. A rendering of Egg Rock, a place frequented by Emerson and Thoreau, graces the book's cover. Inside the book, delicate sketches of flowing rivers, swaying grasses and drifting clouds lead the reader's eye from one page to the next.
The initial printing of 5000 copies has been gifted to both the Concord and Carlisle libraries, where copies are available free of charge as long as supplies last. The group is exploring plans to put the resource guide on the web.
Making gentle waves
"When we first formed," says Di Clymer, also a steering committee member, "and talked about spirituality, people weren't really sure who you were talking about. Now people are actively seeking and talking about it in casual conversations."
In hindsight, the group agrees that missing the opportunity to buy the Greeley house was a blessing. "Our energies would have been diverted to administration, organization and fund-raising," explains Clymer. "Instead, our responsibilities were to each other and a concept."
"Our hope is that this book will be a provocation, an invitation to think of what other forms [of spirituality] can happen," offers Miner. She sees people receiving the book, and then going out into the community, as a larger reflection of the original dialogue nights. "One of our missions is serving as a model, in not only how we structured the dialogue, but how we made our decisions. We are committed to a very specific alternative way, collaborative understanding based on love."
Collaborative dialogue takes place before me as the three members inspire each other to further define their efforts in terms of visions, rather than goals. Their next dialogue session will take place on February 22, at 4:00 p.m., in the art gallery at the Concord Free Public Library. The public is invited to discuss what spirit in Concord and Carlisle mean to them.
"We think of Riverbend Landing as a vessel or a space," explains Clymer. "We have maintained an open vessel or space, and the people who are [listed] in the book are in the vessel. What happens next, we don't know, but we're hopeful that the people who are in the vessel will help move it in the direction it needs to go."
"The vessel is radiating out with the distribution of these books," echoes LeClair.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito