Mainers, like the state, have secret lives.
- By: Paul Doiron
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
On a drive last week to Washington County I noticed a sign posted outside an old church. “Make Jesus your BFF,” it said. (The abbreviation is text-message shorthand for “best friend forever.”) Church signs are rural America’s enduring contribution to world literature: our homegrown version of the limerick or haiku. The best ones manage to combine old-time religion with an offbeat nod to popular culture. “Don’t Make Me Come Down There — God” makes the Almighty sound a bit like Bill Cosby. “Jesus Is Returning. Resistance Is Futile,” offers a mash-up of the book Revelations with Star Trek. Or how about this one? “Prayer Is the Ultimate Wireless Connection.” I suppose it is.
In this month’s cover story, “The Secret Lives of Mainers” [page 46], Contributing Editor Colin Woodard notes that Maine is the third most secular state in the nation. Only Vermont and New Hampshire have higher percentages of nonbelievers. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a secret, but it came as news to me. In this issue we explore the theme of secrets, from the hidden places pets occupy in our hearts [page 54] to the buried treasures of our unheralded women authors [page 60]. At Logan Place in Portland [page 62], a residence for formerly homeless people — the “least loved of God’s creatures” in writer Monica Wood’s bracing words — we found a community of individuals shadowed by their former lives. This groundbreaking program doesn’t forgive the past behavior of its residents, but it understands that their futures will only begin when they can stop hiding from their demons.
Mainers are scarcely alone in feeling a tension between the past and future. But New Englanders are unusual in our reluctance to fetishize newness and nowness. Anyone who’s driven the back roads of Maine knows that abandoned churches — and farms and tanneries — are defining fixtures of our landscape. With their faded signs and toppling steeples, some might call these structures eyesores, but photographer Brian Vanden Brink sees beauty in them. In his new book Ruin: Photographs of a Vanishing America [page 50], he writes, “They are relics of another time, of other lives, but they are of my time, too.”
That is the Maine we inhabit: a place that is both conservative and progressive, where no one is eager to tear down the past in a rush to move headlong into the future. In the Pine Tree State we prefer to let our old structures — and secrets — fall down in their own sweet time.