Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Paved roads give way to dirt. It is Sunday morning, two days before I go back to New York with the aqua Mustang from this reconnaissance trip. The plan is to say some goodbyes in the city, then return to Vermont for the summer.

Right now in Vermont wide shallow rivers become narrow creeks then wide shallow rivers again. Deciduous trees give way to fields that are neatly delineated, each its own shade of green. And beyond the fields are pine woods. And we wind up at this church in seemingly picturesque nowhere. A very small frame church, open for the summer but not a summer people’s place, for it is a Congregational church, which is a denomination for people who live here all the time.

Peter Cooper and I have come out to this tiny church to see in action his close friend of a decade Donna. Julie does not come with us for she gets paid each Sunday to play the piano in a Christian Science church. Although Donna is ripe and robust and tan and well read and funny, there is this to consider: at the end of the summer she will head down to New York and Union Theological Seminary, and in the meanwhile she has a weekly gig at a tiny church way, way off in this obscure dirt-road countryside. The church is set in a graveyard that is still in use. There are grave markers, some of them so old you cannot read them, others much newer so you can easily read the birth and death dates of dead parishioners. On some there are also names and birth dates of family members in this farm area who have not yet died.

Donna is the first woman I have ever met who is studying to be a minister. But then Peter is one of the few people I have known who has wound up being a church-goer, not counting relatives who do it for social reasons. Peter, whom I knew way back in wilder times, himself belongs now to a socially active Rutland Congregational church, a big plain building with no stained glass, and with high balcony seats for the overflow. Its members work on poverty programs, he told me when I went to church with him in the fall.

Like so much else I am seeing, Peter’s church is both near to and distant from family precedents. It is true that on Christmas Eve at Rob’s in Princeton we went to a fake gothic Episcopal church that, along with its too perfect décor and its upper class non-ethnic crypto Catholic-style trappings, was a part of the sanctuary movement, a stated place of refuge for Latino victims of cruel American backed banana republic dictators, victims that the Reaganites want to hunt down. As if any Salvadoran fleeing the death squads would ever think of heading to Princeton. In Princeton I was sure such activism was what the supposedly nice cultured people did for the record without ever getting their hands dirty, while here in Rutland I think that what people do is not only serious, it is not separate from everything else. Maybe not unlike what I saw with black churches in the South in movement times. At least more like black churches than anything known to this family I am out to finally and forever put aside, even if it means figurative murder.

There are maybe 15 people in Donna’s country church, which is so small that with this number it feels quite full. I wonder what these farm people make of Donna. I believe she has a female lover some of the time. I know she is radical politically. And she does the sermon using as a visual aid a very rough crayon color drawing she recently did of a lighthouse.

It is almost impossible for me to look on any lighthouse pictures, for they all seem so clichéd – even those by my almost favorite (after Rembrandt, Constable, Hobbema and Andre del Sarto) artist Edward Hopper, who never goes near clichés. And anyway Donna is no artist. She tells the farmers what everything in her rough drawing symbolizes – the light, the sea, the seagull – like an English teacher telling you what everything in a poem means in such a way that you know there will be only one acceptable answer on the exam. At least this is what I think I should be thinking. And then it dawns on me that this is someone out to uncover what is in the world, that Donna could be a searcher out to live fully, not someone trying to make the world smaller by imposing a safe system on it.

Still, it is not easy to keep an open mind. On the way we rendezvous with Donna at a roadside ice cream stand. There seem to be ice cream stands everywhere in summer Vermont, though I cannot recall ever seeing one across the border in New Hampshire.

I want so much for Vermont to be a place where I am in my element, whatever that element proves to be. And this is seeming more difficult than I had thought. For now, as we eat our ice cream cones at the roadside this very ripe and, I decide, lovely, too, tanned woman is talking about how Jesus came to her in a dream.

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