A New Mind in Salem

7gables-smallWhen I was in college, I sang for three or four years with a group named “A New Mind.” The name, which preceded my involvement, was taken from a line from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:2): “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

I loved the name of the group — both it and St. Paul’s words echoed what I believed Jesus meant when he told the Pharisee Nicodemus that we must be “born again.” I believed then, and now, that the reason Jesus chose to use the idea of birth in the statement was that he knew that to renew our minds would require the abandonment or at least suspension of everything we’ve become so sure we know — returning to a place where we view the world and each other with the eyes of innocent curiosity and loving trust, drawing wholly new conclusions. I’m reminded of a story I read on Facebook where a young boy was so excited about getting his hair cut in a buzz because he looked forward to his kindergarten teacher’s being unable to tell him and his best friend apart. Cute enough because of his excitement, the story was quite convicting when we discovered that our young boy was white and his best friend black. I hope against hope that his teacher played along with the joke.

My best friend and I recently spent some vacation time in Salem, Massachusetts. Its notoriety, of course, whether current-day citizens are happy about it or not, is that it’s the site of the 1692 witch trials. We visited a couple of museums that presented the story of how the whole idea of witches came about and the particulars of the actual trials, one of the clearly most disturbing episodes of our history. In my mind, the story is second only to the much longer period during which those of us of Anglo-Saxon ancestry diminished an entire group of humans to the level of property — all for the purpose of propping up an economy that promised to make a few opportunistic individuals incredibly wealthy. (Sounds familiar for some reason.)

As it happens, I have a tie to both — a lineage that tracks all the way back to Salem and participation in that bloody war just 150 years ago. And I descend from folks who were on the wrong side of history in both scenarios — a couple whose testimony contributed to the eventual hanging of Sarah Good, and those who fought, often with no understanding at all until much later, for the “right” to treat other human beings as a commodity.

Oddly, however, it wasn’t all the witch stuff per se that would be central to what I took away from Salem. It was the difference between the response of those Salemites and that of my other ancestors 170 years later. The survivors of the Puritan massacre, started by the ungodly mix of spoiled children and an opportunistic out-of-his-league young minister, were much quicker to see the error of their ways and the iniquity of their actions.

I imagine the fact that my own Salem ancestors soon left and their progeny gradually found their way south in the next century may have had something to do with their need to distance themselves, to forget their connection to what had taken place there. The move would certainly be consistent with the response of those Southerners who, unable to physically remove themselves, retreated instead to denial about their own inhumanity and focused instead on the perception that they were the persecuted. Distance is as distance does, I guess.

Those families who stayed in Salem, although eventually exploiting the horror for economic reasons, were forced to reflect on what could be learned and how to recognize and stop such hysterical behavior in its tracks. They’re still doing it, by the way. After 300 years, historians have finally come to some measure of agreement about the exact location in town where the accused women and men were hanged and dumped into a ditch. A new park will be constructed on “Gallows Hill” in the next year or so, designed to promote reflection.

Not so in the South, I’m afraid. Now, I heartily agree that the Confederate flag and monuments to those who used their ill-gotten gains to build schools and institutions should be removed from places central to the everyday lives of today’s inhabitants. I agree that, for a time, they should be replaced with monuments to those who did the unpopular things even when their actions ran them out of town, both literally and figuratively. Charleston, S.C.’s recent honoring of Judge Waties Waring is such an example. A native of Charleston whose ruling would set the precedent for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education, he would live out his final days in New York. But as in Salem, I support the continued display of our misguided ancestors, elsewhere, in a much quieter place, an ongoing reminder of and place of reflection on what the mendacity of bearing false witness can do.

Hawthorne-smallBut back to Salem. Like many, I had frankly forgotten another of Salem’s claims to fame, someone whose statue inhabits a mall of sorts. I remembered Nathaniel Hawthorne as an author, of course, but not having re-read any of his works except The Scarlet Letter in close to 40 years, I did not recall that the actual “house of seven gables” on which his novel was based was there. I also didn’t remember until visiting Salem that one of the “hanging” judges during the witch trials was actually an ancestor of Hawthorne’s, a Judge Hathorne. (I didn’t misspell his name, by the way, nor was the change due to a misrecording. No, Nathaniel himself inserted the “w” into his name, in an overt attempt to distance himself.)

After visiting the house, which is thought to be the oldest still-standing wooden structure in New England, I decided it was high time I re-read the book, so I downloaded the e-book and started reading it on my phone that night. Within just a chapter or two, the general plot came back to me, but I so enjoy the structure of Hawthorne’s sentences, I endeavored to read it in its entirety. In a description of the daguerreotypist Hargrove, I came across one of those sentences: “As all is activity and vicissitude to the new mind of a child, so might it be, likewise, to a mind that had undergone a kind of new creation, after its long-suspended life.”

I have no idea if Nathaniel Hawthorne knew anything of Romans 12:2 or Jesus’s admonition that following in his steps required being “born again,” but I can tell you that young Mr. Hawthorne met a kindred soul in me. In the midst of our long-suspended lives, our minds need a kind of new creation, indeed.

May it be so.

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