Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com

To the Swift

Despite its generally secular reputation, one of the great charms of New England is its churches. I was forcefully reminded of this during my recent trip to Boston. Each city along the way boasts impressive churches that might be glimpsed even from the highway, and although there are now many taller buildings it is possible to imagine the days when the steeples stood over all. Boston’s historic churches remain stunning symbols of the power Christianity once held in this city. We first climbed off the T at Arlington in the shadow of the great stone Arlington Church. On the Esplanade the looming steeple of the Church of the Advent violently reminded me of the deep mysticism that drew me to the Episcopal Church even while I was a Methodist seminary student. Park Street Church, King’s Chapel, The Old North Church, the Old South Church, and finally Trinity Church in Copley Square invited us to gander and ponder. Almost like fossils, these churches remind us of the history of what made the city, or the nation, what it is.

Trinity Church lies nestled at the base of the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest building. A blue glass Brobdingnagian, this prophet of capitalism represents the highest possible aspirations of our race, so we are led to believe. The material triumph over the spiritual. And yet the tourists stop to photograph the stunning church. It is on the street level, down here among us mere mortals. Upon closer examination, I noticed the statue of the tortoise and the hare in the plaza of Copley Square, the holy terrapin racing toward the sanctuary, it appears from my angle. It seems that I have unexpectedly received a kind of epiphany.

Look closely.

Look closely.

I first came to Boston many years ago as a spiritual seeker. In the intervening years during which I was attempting to find out what that might mean in a life that was intellectually honest, many bronze sculptures appeared in this city. The one commemorating Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, installed after I completed my studies at Boston University, would not have caught my pre-parental attention, as I had never read the book. Now you have to stand in line even to snap a picture. The work of local artist Nancy Schön, both “Make Way for Duckings” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” are part of Boston’s continual evolution of character. Officially, we are told, the turtle and rabbit are representative of the Boston marathoners who trudge the final feet past this church toward the finish line. To me, this sculpture suggests something more as the hare dawdles and the tortoise breaks toward the church. It may be a marathon, indeed, but the race, I remind myself, is not always about being swift.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

Freedom Trail

The machine gun on the bow of the National Guard boat would’ve impressed me as a boy. Now it kind of scares me. The helicopters overhead pass frequently. Police on jet skis chase girls in a canoe away from the shore of the Charles as if they were piloting a landing craft on D-Day. A whole blessed platoon of chartreuse-garbed police on bicycles pedal by, some clearly out of shape, creating a presence. It has been a quarter century since I’ve been in Boston to celebrate our freedom. I wonder where it’s gone. To get onto the Esplanade you have to be brushed with a metal detector. Although the web site said backpacks would be searched, the guy at the gate claims it said they were not allowed at all. “You can empty it out”, he said, “and put the contents in a plastic bag,” but the empty cloth must stay here under a tree like a naughty dog. “Happy Independence Day,” he says. I wonder if he’s aware of the irony.

Big Brother

Big Brother

We have become the most skittish home of the brave I know. We are being watched, we are told, for our own good. The watcher is not some enemy nation, but our own “leaders.” Lead us not, I pray, into temptation. I wonder when we considered chasing girls in a canoe away from the shore a matter of national security. In 1985 I called Boston home. When my wife and I came to the Fireworks Concert as a young engaged couple, we lazily wandered down to the Esplanade, plopped on a free bit of grass and saw maybe an officer or two the entire day. Now everyone on this grassy strip is treated as if they’re on a grassy knoll. Armed police on boats cruise the shore to make sure we’re minding our manners. After dark that helicopter spotlight can’t help but to make you feel guilty of something. There’s a hurricane coming, and three tons of fireworks are sitting anxiously on the barges in the river. The concert begins, but soon so does lightning. They skip right to the fireworks, forget the 1812 Overture. I wonder about my evil backpack under the tree.

The woman behind me is talking to her companion about how illogical the backpack rule is. “If the bag is empty, why can’t you take it in?” she asks. I’m not one to talk to strangers, but I have to turn around to agree. We exchange horror stories about being screened at the airport. Doesn’t anybody see how offended our revolutionary forebears would’ve been by such a military presence in peacetime? What if some crazed national decided to do something insane? Would that wicked machine gun hit me and my family, right on the waterfront, while trying to get the perpetrator? Are we collateral damage on the trail to freedom? Or is freedom even in the picture any more? We can’t let the terrorists win. Every time we face a backpack full of homemade explosives with hundreds and hundreds of chunky guys on bicycles and hovering our heads with deadly force, I can’t help but think it’s no contest. There’s a hurricane coming. They rush through the fireworks and I join the other owners of dispossessed backpacks looking for my luggage. Then the fattest raindrops I have even felt begin to fall.

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

IMG_0962

Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”

Heaven Forbid

Cars can be a nuisance—they consume resources, pollute the environment, and have a habit of being very expensive to repair. We’ve been pretty good about taking our car in for its regularly scheduled Toyota check-up. Since the garage is several miles away and my wife and I both work, it is often a matter of the one who can most easily work from home the day of the car doctor appointment taking it in. Our Toyota dealer has in-store wifi for those who can’t live without the internet. For some of us, work is almost exclusively internet. So it was that I drew the short straw and dutifully drove out to the dealership. I was pleased that my VPN connected so easily; this was going to be a snap. I was working happily away when I had to find somebody on a university website. I googled the name and clicked. I received a forbidden website message (copied below) explaining tersely: “Block reason: Forbidden Category ‘Religion’.” I tried again on the Society of Biblical Literature website—same message.

ForbiddenReligion copy

Now I can understand workplaces blocking pornography sites, and even Facebook (I found the latter to be blocked at Toyota some time ago, but I’ve never tried the former), but religion? I am a religion editor. How am I to work when I can’t access websites that contain the word “religion”? The more I pondered this—I could still check my email, and do VPN-type work with files from the office—the more it bothered me. On the television in the background inane daytime talkshow hosts were interviewing someone who’d written a book about God. How many more businesses out there are biased against internet religion? That means my blog is blacklisted along with the scantily clad and overly chatty. I fully support the disestablishment clause, but I also subscribe to the freedom of religion. Smirks aside, there is a serious undertone to all of this.

I have no desire to be proselytized at work. I also agree that it is the right of others to expect the same. Sometimes, however, a little religion might help work go down like a poppinian spoonful of sugar. One time when I worked for Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts (I seem to have a knack for working for businesses that are on the way out), I had a tough day. Some of our customers could be quite abrasive, and since the customer is always right, we had to take personal insults with a smile. One lunch-hour I told my manager that I needed to recoup my moxy (I didn’t use those words). I ducked out the door and stomped to the first church I could find and asked if I could just sit in the pew for a few minutes. The church secretary, a complete stranger to me, said “of course.” Ten minutes later I returned to work collected and able to face more unreasonable customers for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe it wasn’t religion, maybe it was only the calm of sitting in what some believed to be a sacred space, but my capitalist company got better performance out of me that day because of it. Ironically, at Toyota, my religion editing is cast in with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Only the tax collectors, I’m pretty certain, are always permitted to work.

More Witches

WitchHuntAronson It’s been some time since I’ve been to Salem. It’s been even longer since I’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The events of 1692, however, continue to haunt me. I recently read Marc Aronson’s Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Intended for a young adult readership, Aronson’s book really isn’t proposing any new theories about why religious violence was perpetrated against the vulnerable, mostly female, pool of those living in a very superstitious society. It does, however, show some of the issues in sharp relief—more academic books sometimes cloud the issues with erudition. Historians will continue to debate what happened in Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century when the Enlightenment was getting underway and the explanatory value of science was overcoming the world of miracle and magic. Even with science on our side, however, adequate explanations of the sad social madness of Salem are still lacking.

As Aronson points out, there seems to have been a certain amount of greed involved as laws allowed the property of “witches” to be confiscated. Equally culpable are the learned clergy of the day, some of whom overrode their disinclination towards belief in witchcraft to hang a few women (and fewer men) for an imaginary crime. Lack of full historical documentation and the unrecorded lives of women often combine to raise many questions about Salem. It remains clear, however, that the outlook of the clergy influenced perceptions on the ground. Aronson suggests that Cotton Mather’s earlier accounts of Goodwife Glover of Boston—a woman executed as a witch without even her first name having been recorded—may have “inspired” similar violence among the population of Salem. When devils are suspected, the clergy are never far.

When the mania died down after a lethal year, the clergy, both Increase and Cotton Mather among them, recanted the easy execution of a few expendable women, and fewer, less expendable men, in Salem. Since we lack documentation, we will never know fully what was behind the witch-hunts, apart from misogyny and misperception.

Aronson ends his little book by asking us to consider modern terrorist hunts and the eerie similarities to the mindset of Salem. Listening to some media interviews, particularly on Fox, after the Boston Marathon bombings, we haven’t traveled so very far from Salem. In a world of high technology, where Satan is said to once again stroll the streets of Massachusetts, we have to wonder if the witch-hunts will ever truly end.

Loneliness of Long-Distance Runners

1988. I was standing along Boylston Street, in Copley Square, watching the Boston Marathon. As the weary first place runner trudged by, I somehow neglected to take a photograph. I did snap one of the number two winner. I always have had an affinity for those who don’t win. Those who try, only to be beaten by others. His name didn’t stay with me, but I still have that photo, a moment in time, when everyone was excited about the culmination of a long tradition. When I heard that there was a bombing at the marathon yesterday, I experienced a different kind of culmination. I wondered what kind of people we had become. The Boston Marathon, a long-time symbol of endurance and pushing oneself to the limit, came to a crashing end. Along with another chapter in the innocence of a world gone mad. Just last October, I posted a photo on this blog that I had snapped near where one of the bombs went off. As I write this nobody has a clue as to who was responsible or what they were trying to prove.

BostonMarathon

The NRA gun barons were not on hand to stop the terrorists, I note. Funny how they always show up too late. Perhaps we should all start carrying hand-grenades. We all have a choice whether to do more good or evil in the world. To leave behind a better place or a worse one. The Boston Marathon is an international event, with long-distance runners from around the world competing. More against themselves than against anyone else. Just to finish the grueling course. Who would want to hurt just anyone, including several children—those who love to race and dream and hope for a better tomorrow?

The news saddens me, for we like to think we live in an enlightened nation. Maybe a little soft around the middle, but generally a congenial place. We hold events like the Boston Marathon to celebrate human achievement—those who push themselves to the limit but then keep going. Standing in the crowd in 1988, I remember how we clapped for those who seemed too exhausted to trudge those last few yards to the finish line. We wanted them to succeed. I couldn’t tell you one of their names, but we were all wishing the best for them. That is the human spirit. It takes a coward’s coward to plant bombs amid crowds and then not even claim your own evil victory. Terrorism, already heinous, without even trying to make a point. And yet the runners run on. Like the marathon itself, we must keep believing that we can reach that ribbon and that the vast majority are hoping for our success.

Soul University

ExcellenceWithoutSoul Cambridge, Massachusetts is a likable town. As students at Boston University my friends and I would occasionally take the red line to Harvard Square and shuffle through the leaves of that venerable institution that gives the square its name. One of the treats was stopping in The Coop, the Harvard bookstore that made us all feel smart. While at Harvard last year, The Coop was part of my professional, editorial remit. I spied a book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, by Harry R. Lewis. I have often thought about how higher education has slipped its moorings these past few decades, and wondered what an erstwhile Harvard dean had to say about the matter. The leaves on campus weren’t so abundant last October, but I felt that same inferiority complex that being on the Harvard campus always gives me. Of course, I had received an acceptance letter from Harvard Divinity School when I considered transferring there, but it was easier to stay at BU and complain.

Lewis’s book is a somewhat nostalgic consideration of how Harvard has evolved from a seminary to a powerhouse university—the powerhouse university—in the new world. There is no doubt that Harvard is our oldest institution of higher education, and there is no doubt that it has the money to be “the best.” But by what measure? This is one of the questions Lewis asks, repeatedly. Still, the assumption is always lurking in the background that Harvard is the best, but as Lewis notes in the book, there is no one best doctor just like there is no one best book. Harvard is good, but so are many other schools. They all suffer from the same indifference in a society that takes education for granted. The real problem is that we like simple solutions. Take a look around you—you’ll see what I mean.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Harvard. The elite of the elite, it has that time-honored patina that antique specialists love so much. What it doesn’t have it can afford to buy. There is no doubt, however, that as Harvard leans, so tilt the other universities of this country. In my professional field I’ve seldom met an unemployed Harvard Ph.D. Those of us who attended even older universities (yes, the Europeans came up with the idea first) with even more recognizable alumni—has anyone heard of Charles Darwin or David Hume? Adam Smith?—are used to being passed over for positions while Harvard writes its own checks. Elitism may be at the heart of the problem. It’s not that I wish hard times on Harvard, it’s just that I wish we’d be honest about the academic enterprise. Has higher education lost its soul? To find the answer we’re going to have to look beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the leaves in autumn are certainly pretty, if not so abundant as they were before.

Hallowed Eve

My last night in Boston found me in Copley Square. This has always been one of my iconic Boston locations; something in the juxtaposition of squat, solid, dual-toned Trinity Church with its wide, open plaza, the blue glass razor of the Hancock Tower, and the classical facade of the Boston Public Library where Sophia broods over the world, arrests my wondering gaze. Across Boylston Street stands the gothic Old South Church like a guardian for straying souls. As I walked through the square a local band of street musicians jammed and the first neons of an October evening were awaking. As I strolled past Old South I had to back up a step or two to see if I’d read the sign right.

Scared for Good, a Halloween organ concert featuring spooky music, will soon be on offer. Business-types have long noted that Halloween is a great potential selling holiday. With kids who want to dress up and parents stressed for time, the selling of costumes has grown into an increasingly substantial accessory item holiday. People want their houses to look scary, knocking down real cobwebs to make way for the artificial ones, hanging out orange and purple lights, and ordering pre-carved, artificial pumpkins. All the fear is, of course, a charade, and we laugh at ourselves for taking it too seriously. Some churches object vociferously to the very holiday itself, claiming it is devil worship and evil.

While Halloween does have some serious pagan influences, it is, in its present form, a good Catholic holiday. The night before All Saints, aka All Hallows, begins a period of reflection on mortality. I’ve celebrated “Protestant” Halloween from my youngest days and have never been in any way tempted toward devil worship. It is fun to be scared when you know it’s not real and it won’t last long. That’s why I applaud Old South Church’s Scared for Good concert. Reading the list of pieces included, it sounds like it should be a grand time. Too bad I won’t be in Boston for the occasion. As I walk back to my hotel in the chill of the evening,the only fear i feel is that moments like this evening come at insufferably long intervals for those who feel about the city as must the denizens of Copley Square.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.

Crossing Over

The periodic reforms that have swept through the church like so many Massachusetts tornadoes have often whirled around the matter of ceremony. Certainly there have been disputes over obtuse points of esoteric doctrine for which there is no final arbiter, but frequently the rancor involves what the faithful do when they meet together. In keeping with ancient templates, religion is generally a matter of what people do more than of what they believe. I personally had my love of ceremony beaten out of me by its plangent and perpetual repetition at an institution so enamored of it that humans and their needs were viewed as mere obstacles to sacerdotal perfection. Nevertheless, as the school year winds down, ceremony is all around us: graduations, awards dinners, rites of social passage. Last night I attended a Girl Scout bridging ceremony. Bridging is the symbolic crossing of a bridge to indicate a new level of commitment and integration into the larger Girl Scout community.

It's just a bridge.

As I sat staring at the bridge, waiting for the celebration to begin, it occurred to me that this was very much like a religious service. A group of spectators had gathered to watch a ritual unfold—a ritual that involved everyday objects invested with a new significance by the context. The bridge is just a small arch bridge over artificial water; before the ceremony kids run and jump over it with no fear of divine reprisal. Once the correct words are spoken, however, crossing the bridge becomes a solemn act. The ceremony opened with a kind of invocation, a creed (the Girl Scout law), a kind of Scripture reading—complete with exegesis of what that “Scripture” means and a reference to God as creator of all—a sacramental act of transformation, and even a hymn or two. The main difference I felt between this ceremony and most religious events was that the Girl Scouts are far more accepting and affirming than most religious conglomerations. Of course, there is the matter of gender distinction, but what is a church without any exclusivity?

I have great admiration for the Girl Scouts. In the face of a community that continues to act out male supremacy as a matter of God-given right, the Girl Scouts (and other similar organizations) offer a place for young women to assert their sense of belonging. Religion has just as often been used to suppress aspirations as it has been to uplift them. Life is difficult enough without God breathing down our necks. Human institutions that encourage thoughtful regard for those who are different, or underprivileged, or simply overlooked, often fill the gaps that religions callously leave behind. Yes, some religious institutions still display a social conscience, but if we wait for the religious to solve the suffering of the world, it is good to have groups like the Girl Scouts around who actually put their beliefs behind their ceremonies into action.

Malleus Practice

Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.

This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.

To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.