art ~ spirit ~ transformation
e*lix*ir

e*lix*ir   #16
Twin Birthdays 2023
Looking Back on Books
 

TABLE OF CONTENTS


Editorial

The Art of a Loving Correspondence

The Writing Life

Trust in Poetry by Tami Haaland

Features

The Beautiful Foolishness of Things, A collaborative work by poet Sandra Lynn Hutchison, composer Margaret Henderson, and painter Inger Gregory
Writing Music for The Beautiful Foolishness of Things, by Margaret Henderson

Poetry

Heather Anne Hutchison
Victor Kulkosky
Linette Kuy

Essays

The Art of Losing by Victor Kulkosky
Yearning for Water: The Story of a Traveling Quilt by Bradford Miller

Personal Reflections on Bahá’í Texts

Fire and Paradise by James Andrews

Letters

Dreaming of a Better Iran: A Letter to Our Fellow Citizens by Eight Bahá’í Students

Translations

“I Want to Walk With You” translated by Bashir Sayyah

Comics

Ruhi & Riaz by Eira

Voices of Iran

Keeping the Eternal Garden by Maryam Afzal and Saam Mozafari
Mrs. Mansouri’s Mission by Shahrzad Mohebbi
Nothing but the Sanctity of the Desert by Nazgol Adyani
Five Days by Bahar Rohani

Interviews

Art and the Creative Process: An Interview with Hooper C. Dunbar by Nancy Lee Harper
An Interview with Erfan Hosseini, Santur Player by Mehrsa Mastoori

Arts

Paintings by Hooper C. Dunbar

State of the Art

Books for Children by Allison Grover Khoury

Looking Back on Books

Forty-eight Fragments by Imelda Maguire
The Divine Melody: Song of the Mystic Dove by Lorraine Hétu Manifold
Walking to Martha’s Vineyard by Franz Wright
Soul of the Maine House by Bradford Miller

Films

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in France by Perry Productions


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Soul of the Maine House

by Bradford Miller

Review by SANDRA LYNN HUTCHISON

This book is a small masterpiece, and, quite simply, the best book of literary nonfiction I have read by a Bahá’í author thus far. In this judgment, I do not include memoirs by Bahá’ís whose services have intersected with important episodes in the modern history of the Bahá’í Faith; such books stand in a class of their own. But this book is not a memoir nor is it a history; rather, it is a moving meditation on the self as it engages with history, specifically, the tragic history of a nation that founded itself by obliterating its original peoples and, in so doing, committed an “original sin” that spawned a deeply secular culture rife with materialism, excessive individualism and the host of other ills that have given rise to the social problems that plague the American nation today.

As so often seems to be the case, important American stories are stories about the land. And in this book, the author’s relationship to the land is a central theme. The Soul of the Maine House tells the story of the author’s trials and tribulations as he sets out to build a house on the Maine coast, close to the site of what was once the Popham colony. There are trees to fell, driveways to level, and an endless number of insects with which to negotiate air space, but, as Miller discovers, these things can be managed: one can build a house with the work of one’s own hands — and with a lot of help from contractors. But what he is not sure he can do is build a spiritual home on land whose unjust appropriation is the cause of the historical trauma suffered by Maine’s indigenous people. Miller’s book is a search for answers and a plea for forgiveness, grace, and healing. In its contemporary manifestation, the American nation is, in Miller’s view, utterly bankrupt, and throughout his book, he takes us along on his search for an alternative value system that he might adopt in order to bring himself into proper relationship with the land and with the house he hopes to build on it.

What is a home? In his book, Miller traces the evolution of the idea of “home,” from the world of the rising bourgeois in the Netherlands, to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, to Thoreau in his cabin at Walden Pond, to the author himself at his house site in modern day Phippsburg, where he plans to build a simple wooden house whose design draws, to quote its architect, Miller’s son, on the “minimalism of the New England frame house vernacular.” (xiv) In his search for an answer to the question of what is home, Miller probes the multi-faceted truths offered by the Kennebec River, by the ocean and its beaches, by various works of English literature, and by the work of a host of philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and activists, always seeking to commune and make peace with the ever-present spirit of the Abenaki people.

Miller’s search for redemption begins with an act of remembrance:

The least I can do is to name the People’s names, describe their clothing, identify their food, their tools, and the gifts they made to friends and relatives. Perhaps such detail will help us to feel their flesh and blood, their presence in midcoast Maine, a land they called Mawooshen. (19)

So it is that Miller attempts to honor a people whose distinguishing feature was and is “the genius of understanding the interrelatedness of all things.” (20) But redemption is a process, and not an easy one. Miller asks: “What are we to make of what happened here, if anything at all?” (22) What he is after, he decides, is “a personal ceremony of reconciliation with the fact of their [the original people’s] historical presence here, and now with their absence that incriminates all of us, in order to make amends and to build honest and whole for the first time my American soul.” (22) It’s a lofty goal, and Miller is uncertain he will achieve it. But whatever the outcome, he understands that he must engage in the process: “And on that half-frozen day in April in the Maine woods,” he confesses as he stands on his building site, “I guess I knew that I was the new house that I must build.” (31)

In one of the most compelling chapters of his book, Miller introduces the person of Samoset, a towering figure about whose doings we have some historical records, a figure who, for Miller, symbolizes the tragic demise of the Maine indigenous peoples. Samoset was a person from Maine who, he writes, “stood, confidently, if naively, in the historical void between divisions and dichotomies, between opposing forces, between enemies,” someone who “stepped boldly into murderous margins and extended a welcoming hand, albeit to an ignominious end for him and his People.” (39) Samoset gives “human form to an otherwise uninhabited blank spot in the American memory” and Miller does not hesitate to acknowledge his complicity in his erasure:

He lived in the area where I built and stood at the point of convergence of all manner of lethal forces, amidst the clash of civilizations, lifestyles, and value systems, at the brink of religious hostilities, political turbulence, and terrorist violence. (39)

Indeed, Samoset gives shape to “a creative space both precarious and fecund” and offers “a human ‘face’ on which to focus, a habitable psychic space from which to pivot in and forward, back and forth.” (39) Miller’s hope, he tells us, is “to liberate the figure of Samoset along a Northwest Passage all its own.” (40)

In the face of the transgressions of the colonists who viewed the “New World,” as they called it, as a wide-open space in which they might do whatever they liked, build whatever they liked, live however they liked, in the face of all this how does one rebuild the American soul? According to Miller, “intentionality” is key; it is, as Rollo May tells us, a “forming of the future.” (41) As psychologist James Hillman puts it, “We are lost in the woods.” (46) But if our intentionality is strong enough, Miller argues, the woods can become “a place of engagement, of trauma and then transformation.” (43) All this must happen, Miller points out, in an age of increasing globalization: “ . . . we live in an age that is experiencing the painful and tragic paradox of awakening to the interconnectedness of the human household at the very moment that humanity seems to be especially fragmented.” (45)

There are a number of artists who, as Miller sees it, can help us find the way out of the woods: Kesey, Thoreau, Whitman, and also Hawthorne, especially through his incarnation of the misguided “American way” to and in the New World, as embodied in the life of Hester Prynne, the central figure in The Scarlett Letter. Hester, Miller claims, is “a saintly and iconoclastic agent in that largely inaccessible but now enlivened creative space, amid contending forces . . . .” (53) She is “sister to Samoset and like him a monumental and transcendent figure in the American imagination.” (53) Indeed, Hester becomes “a goodly prophet of a new order altogether, threatening the dominant ecclesiastic hegemony of early Boston but generative of the burgeoning spiritual soul in America.” (53) And, Miller believes, it is time for “creative apostates,” “spiritual criminals” and also artists to “seek out a new platform, a new sacred site.” (57) “Such figures,” he tells us, must “be prepared to take up residence there.” (57) This assertion is followed by a confession: “I aspire to be such an artist, such a criminal, such a resident.” (57)

Such thoughts lead Miller, in two pivotal chapters of this book, chapters twelve and thirteen, to assert the need for an “alternative value system” (58) and to share with us the plans he has drawn up for the construction of a “holy house” (64) within his own soul. Miller asserts that a “religious framework” is needed so that “the components of the self” can be shown to “virtuously and nobly cohere”; otherwise, the whole process is — and he quotes Whitman here — “aimless, a cheat, a crash.” (61) To achieve true selfhood, Miller claims, one must discover what he refers to as an “alternative value system” (62) to replace the values of the prevailing social order. “As for me,” he writes, “I invoke God as the ultimate inspiring source of the work of human transformations and the guarantor of a new “alternative value system,” and religion as the matrix in which intentionality has an honored place . . . .” (62) Once the trauma is healed and the mind and heart awakened, Miller’s Maine house can, at last, become “a house of God.” (62)

But that is not the end of the process. What is needed next is a logos, a sacred word, but from which religion should one choose that logo? “Our age,” Miller quotes Jung, “is seeking a new spring of life.” (63) What and where is that spring of life? It is a question Miller answers for himself in a chapter entitled “Holy House.” We need a new master word, he asserts, one drawn from a fresh logos, and, for him, that master word is “Bahá” — glory — the root word of the name of the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh, the “divine Architect” of a new, an independent world religion. (67) There is a “spiritual alchemy” in the word “Bahá,” Miller claims, and with this word, he “conjure[s] both fire and water within the American personality itself.”(65) As a Bahá’í, he explains, he is engaged in a “life of movement, not stasis.” (66) For a follower of this faith, he elaborates, salvation “is not an event,” but “a work in progress.” (66) “We are always,” he asserts, “the ‘building site,’ always the house under construction, always at the transformative point of convergence of otherwise contending and often chaotic exigencies.” (66)

What is the connection of the Bahá’í Faith to the themes of this book? Miller explains:

The Bahá’í vision does not seek to preempt or supplant American democracy itself, nor does it disrespect any psychoanalytical effort to liberate the human psyche, nor does it disregard the sanctity of any other particular religion. It seeks, as Whitman might say, to infuse all such transformative effort with conscience and spiritual ballast, in order to help the democratic ideal to reside ever more deeply, especially as we come to understand the revolutionary implications of love in a democratizing world. It does not rest on a priestly class, or in the absolute right of fathers and husbands, but in the ability of each of us to remember who are in order to find our home in what was once a traumatized but swiftly evolving, liberating universe. (66)

Bahá’u’lláh is, Miller claims, a “cosmic Samoset,” a divine messenger who “urges one to build ‘such houses as the rain and floods can never destroy.’” (67) “His mission, specific to this age,” Miller explains, “admonishes humankind to come under the roof of one holy shelter, one planetary domicile.” (67) To some, such a vision may seem hopelessly utopian, but for Bradford Miller and the Bahá’ís, the expectation that a unified planetary civilization will be achieved is a foundational belief. For the Bahá’ís, the evolution towards a peaceful global civilization is inevitable. Miller writes:

The fury and fractiousness of this globalizing period, Bahá’ís believe, will, in the end, yield their vitriol and give way to unity and reconciliation not by mere historical processes alone, but on the basis of the spiritual guidance embodied in the ‘call and response’ between Bahá’u’lláh and all of humanity. This is the framework at any rate in which I have chosen to live. (67)

So it is that in this pivotal chapter entitled “Holy House,” Bradford Miller offers his confession of faith:

As an American Bahá’í, I stand in the cross-current hurricane forces of . . . Old Testament yearning, and in the turbulence of modern materialism and the vacuums of spiritual loss, in the hope of helping to build that ‘alternative value system,’ that ‘Temple,’ that Common House, if I may put it that way, which visionaries and pilgrims have long imagined . . . . (71)

So it is that Bradford Miller builds his house, “paralleling the Pilgrim process of breaking away, even in snow and harsh weather, down in the post and beams of what must surely be the American dream.” He adds this caveat:

While it is religion, in general, that is capable of ‘housing’ the soul of man, it is the Bahá’í Faith that does so most knowingly, confidently, and elegantly, in the face of contemporary world crises and in response to age-old hurts and sustained injustices, and that fuels my own capacity to feel fully. (72)

Miller ends the chapter with this meditation:

Thus my house in Maine is a generating, voluminous vantage point. It is my hut at Walden set upon a diamond balance between heaven and earth amid warring religions and cultures, on New World ground once contested by France and England and seeded and hallowed by the blood of American Indians, all such victors now accounted for, reconciled, and redirected. (73)

A word on the poems which appear in this remarkable book, as a kind of postlude entitled “Poems in Broken English.” Such stirring, authentic work! I share one of those poems here:

Voice

I have built houses, planted trees,
Buried the dead. Now I pour wheat from
My hand into yours
I am a man and I have changed my life
Have the smell of a spring storm about me
Birds build nests in my shoes
The sea flows through my ribs
I whistle a music attractive to flowers
I fit a key of sobs into the locks of factories
Spiritualize steel from which guns are made
How do you make a sparrow?
I sharpen sticks, lay them at the foot of fountains
Lay myself at the foot of fountains
Obey the commands of future
War encoded on wings of butterflies
I have pressed the fight deep into the mind
Have suffered, earned the right to tell you:
Only a language never heard before
Will change the destiny of the world
(102)

In this remarkable book, Bradford Miller utters a plea for forgiveness and, through his act of remembering, asks for a benediction, even as he offers a template for how we might reimagine our relationship to the land and to its original peoples. Of all the eco-spiritual writers I have read recently — and I would call him an eco-spiritual writer — Miller speaks most clearly and most powerfully to me about what we must do in order to realize the spiritual latency of our nation and to find our place in the renovated social order that is needed throughout the globe in these fractious times.

I have no doubt that the wisdom embedded in Bradford Miller’s book is the fruit of a lifetime of thinking, of pondering good and evil, of contemplating the ethical issues of our time. This book is a twenty-first century Walden, written by a new kind of Thoreau, one who does not merely wish to live in a self-sufficient manner, but seeks to acknowledge all those who made that lifestyle possible — the people on whose lands he and the rest of us now live. Miller’s book is a call to action, a call to live in a new way. Inhabiting as we do the “ruined house of man,” Americans, he shows us in this book, need to engage in a radical act of self-questioning, one that issues in the search for an “alternative value system” that can serve as the foundation for a newly constructed house for the nation’s soul. (58)

For Miller, that new foundation is the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that, he believes, “is not just one more religion,” but rather “the latest in an evolutionary and irrepressible series of divine irruptions since the beginning of time, each embedded in a particular time and place but also progressive, and therefore best understood diachronically.” (100) The Bahá’í Faith,” Miller asserts, “is the most responsive to the exigencies of this time of the shrinking of the vast spaces and psychic distances of the world and the burgeoning consciousness of the oneness of humankind, until the voids that presently stand among the religions must surely collapse, and are collapsing.” (100)

In this book we have a radical retelling of American history, from a spiritual point of view, as seen through the eyes of justice, a retelling that gives shape to a freshly imagined American dream, one that has its origins in a very cathartic purification of the American soul through an act of remembering and in the kind of contrition that finds expression in genuine and persistent efforts to build a widely inclusive community, one that empowers the dispossessed. Such a process will flourish only when America has succeeded in integrating into its national psyche the deeply ecological, profoundly spiritual consciousness of Samoset. Only then will Americans be able to understand how to design a modern-day version of the garden the Pilgrims imagined they were coming to America to plant, a garden in which all people can live together in harmony and at peace with their creator.

I loved this book. I was raised up by this book. This book is important. Read it. Where have you been Bradford Miller? Come into the light and let us know you better. Please write more. Thank you.