Vacation Theology

It’s gone muggy again for now, but the air earlier this week was cool and clear, with the whisper of autumn floating on the wind. A few leaves at the tips of the excitable, anxious maples are starting to hint at shades of red and gold. It was a welcome shift from the thick summer heat earlier in the week that greeting us when Spouse and I returned from a short vacation, but also a reminder that this wide-open summer is beginning to draw inward, into a new season and time.

Spouse and I observed our fifth wedding anniversary this summer by taking a few days “down east” – a camping trip in Washington County, ME. We’d originally scheduled the break between the CPE program I didn’t finish this summer and the internship I won’t be starting this fall, but it was still important to go spend some time with each other. The weather was cool and beautiful – we camped and did a little hiking at Cobscook State Park; spent a day playing tourist on Campobello Island, NB; heard some great live music at a Summerkeys concert in Lubec one night and at a little country fair in Pembroke another day; and ended the trip with a wildlife-viewing cruise around Passamaquoddy Bay.

It is satisfying to see the tourist economy growing downeast. Washington County is the end of the road – the eastern pointy bit of Maine – with a mostly resource-based economy that has suffered greatly over the last fifty or hundred years as the sardine canneries close and the shipbuilding trades and major ports move elsewhere. Spouse tells me that the first time he went to Eastport, some twenty-odd years ago, there were almost no businesses downtown save the only restaurant, a diner with a sign it its window reading “Closed until next food delivery.” I am pleased to report that this is no longer the case – there is still a lot of poverty and decay in rural Maine, but there is also hope and community and revitalization. I hope to get back out there every so often.

We got back to town late Monday, back to the heat and humidity, work and errands, meetings and appointments. Ending vacation also initiates a shift for me, out of this summer’s season of introspection and stillness back into the slightly-more-externally focused world of seminary where I not only have things to do but deadlines to do them by. In an effort to productively distract myself from the bittersweet reality of not being in Chicago this week with my classmates, I’ve taken up an early start on the reading for my classes this term. I’m working through Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty, required reading for my Liberal Theology class that’s also on the denominational required reading list, and I’m trying to recapture the glimmer of understanding I had a day or two ago (when I began writing this post), a brilliant gossamer thread of connection between vast abstract academic theories and the salt-scented reality of fishing villages in deep rural Maine.

It made sense then. I swear it. Now, if only I had somehow not lost that thought in the process of coming up the stairs and getting on the computer.

Perhaps it was simply that when I read Rasor’s overview of what “Modernism” means in this context – science, progress, human reason, the autonomous individual, bold enterprise – and particularly of the residual systemic issues that are Modernism’s shadow legacy (racism, colonialism, classism and economic inequality among them) my mind’s eye illustrates the text with a downeast travelogue. The history of the region is one of cyclical prosperity and decay, colonialism and coexistence, the weatherworn poverty of the present juxtaposed with the ghosts of former affluence and the tiny sprouts of hope jutting up through the cracks, tender but tenacious.

There is a resilience in these rural communities that seems to me to push back against the presumptive culture of everyone for themselves. One cannot afford to be completely individualistic in remote locations. Living in tight knots of people, where pretty much everyone knows pretty much everyone else, forces a level of interdependence that can be avoided in larger, denser concentrations of people. You may not like the guy, but everyone knows he’s the only person in a fifty mile radius who has a portable sawmill, and so you deal with him.

I ought, perhaps, to have used the camera more on vacation. Then I could pass round a picture and say, this here? this is what the post-Modern critique of Modernism looks like. It has weathered cedar shingles and a faded sign and a whimsical piece of folk art in the window, and it is open every day but only until four o’clock. It smells of salt and old fish and road tar. It is around the corner from a vacant boarded-up sardine cannery with a crumbling concrete dock and across the street from an empty lot where a set of granite stairs leads to nothing. Post-Modernism has a soft, cynical chuckle at Modernism’s notions of progress because progress is motion and motion means “away from here” and post-Modernism knows that “here” will still be here when the big houses burn down or sag on their sills until they collapse under their own unmaintained weight.

Post-Modernism paints flowers where they will not grow, because it can.

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