New Harmony



“I just hope the coffee roaster’s still there,” I say as we exit the highway.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” asks my husband, whose world contains fewer neurotic imaginings.

I shrug. “Things change from year to year.” I remind him about the other little coffeehouse, now vanished, and the bookstore we loved….

We have been coming to New Harmony for thirty years now, starting with our honeymoon. A quiet, art-filled town in Indiana only earned us pity from friends who made love in glamorous tropical destinations, but this place felt right to us.

“What would really kill me is if The Mews vanished,” I continue, chatting happily as we near the town.

A few minutes later, we glide into New Harmony’s quaint downtown and—The Mews is empty. A big For Sale sign in one of the windows that used to display elegant-bohemian, unusually comfy clothes and vintage jewelry and whimsical gifts, all of it deftly curated and affordable and—

“How could they close?” I wail.

“Things change from year to year,” Andrew has the nerve to volley back to me. Later, as we walk the twilit streets, admiring the gardens that always look a little lusher and better kept here, we take a retrospective inventory. The eco-friendly depot we loved several years ago closed; it now has a Theaterworks sign out front and props and a sewing machine visible through the window. The Golden Raintree bookshop is now Artefacts, full of intriguing collectibles. That coffeehouse I missed turned into a nice restaurant with an adjoining wine bar.

“Remember the herb sale, how we used to stuff the hatchback with plants to take home?” That was early on, when we were excited to learn how to grow things, how to cook, how to create a home. Now we might buy a painting from the plein air show (the town is spattered with easels this time of year) or some goat’s milk soap. Our home and garden are stuffed, and we have more ideas and plans and bits of knowledge than we will ever use.

I have only fuzzy memories of that first trip. Who were we then? We barely knew each other, it seems to me now. Yet we knew enough to vow to devote the rest of our lives to each other. How many different moods we brought to this peaceful town in the years that followed.  Early on, we often arrived addled, strung out by crazy jobs or bosses, hungry for peace. In reprieve years, we showed up full of energy and eager to explore. In the middle years, we were bone-tired, world-sick, in need of hope. Or we rattled with discontent, asking each other why we did not live somewhere this lovely instead of merely visiting once a year. In recent years, we jotted resolutions: we would live more healthily, more slowly, ignore our phones, read more deeply….

The resolutions usually cracked the minute we returned to work, chores, reality. But we always knew we could regain the desire the following year. We had New Harmony memorized—its simple street grid, the bright yellow rapeseed covering the wetlands, the gleaming white Atheneum, the soft mood. This, I suppose, is was why each little change felt somehow dangerous. The configuration shifts, and a reliable pleasure is erased.

You grit your teeth and make your peace with the loss. An open space has been created—in your expectations, in your schedule—and it makes room for new possibilities. Novelties you can enjoy because what matters, deep down, has not changed at all.

At dinner on the Red Geranium terrace, we nearly always see a wedding party in the Roofless Church or a gaggle of Promgoers, awkward in their unaccustomed finery, posing with sweaty clasped palms for their photos. The inn still has its smooth, simple, light Shaker furniture, its bare floors and white cotton sheets. The streets remain free of billboards and kitsch and chain anything. Words that have inspired us are still engraved everywhere we look: on a curved bench at a street corner, at the top of a waterfall, outside St. Francis’s hermitage, at the labyrinth, on boulders in a pine forest.

We used to see Jane Owen scooting around town in her golf cart or bringing her dog into the restaurant for dinner. An oil-money heiress, she created the town as we know it, invoking an unlikely combination of money and spirit and art. She invited Richard Meier and Philip Johnson to design here; she flew New York opera singers here to perform; she lured writers and sculptors and theologians. People traded ideas well into the night, but nobody argued. It is hard even to use profanity, of which I am fond, in this gentle place.

Before Owen’s careful curation and philanthropy, New Harmony had other lives. It was founded by German craftsmen and farmers, the Harmonists, in 1814 as a spiritual experiment in communal living. Ten years later, a Welsh industrialist, Robert Owen, took over, his utopian vision one of scientific knowledge and social reform. And the following century, his descendant’s wife brought her utopia.

Our marriage has changed the way the town has, stacking up dreams, failures, exciting beginnings, convergences of interest, losses, new capacities. Andrew was recently diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, so on this trip, we are taking even more naps than usual. We take an hour to read our books on a sunny bench; we pass up the little out-of-the-way shops we used to march toward. We need nothing, now, except time, ease, and each other’s company.

The dog is blissed by all the naps and cuddles. We spend more time chatting with the usual array of interesting people we meet here—historians, architects, writers, theologians—and talking to each other. We drink coffee laced with beer-bourbon syrup at the Black Lodge roaster (they are still here!) and watch the plein-air painters squint at their tiny square of a larger beauty.

Our shared life needs some adjustment: reliable muscle strength and vision have been lost, but they have been traded for a new tenderness and deliberate calm. A closure, and a grand opening.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.