Monday, February 23, 2015

A Word from the Puritans

“Suffering is not good for writing.  Suffering is good for depression.  Reading is good for writing.”

So says a mother to her daughter in Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked. 

If she were a Puritan, she might have added, “Satan is good for writing.”

The Puritans who settled on our East Coast in the 17th Century believed that Satan was a daily presence in their lives, a spirit that looked for opportunities to enter into and to corrupt their souls.  It had plenty of opportunities.  The open mouth for a sneeze or a yawn was a door that fit just right—unless a fellow Puritan had the presence of mind to utter “Bless You,” which would ward Satan away just in the nick of time. 

The mischief of Satan was everywhere present.  Curdled milk?  A new loaf of bread that mysteriously fell flat in the oven? An infestation of weevils in the garden?  A child slow to speak?  All Satan’s work, to which the appropriate blessings and ceremonies were applied.

One tool against Satan was vigilance:  one had a better chance of warding off the lord of darkness if one watched everywhere for him and kept good records of what was going on.  Thus Puritan neighborhoods were plagued by continual gossip and rumor—in itself ironic, since gossip was regarded as sinful, a form of idleness (and there is no playground more popular with Satan than idleness).  But one could privately keep a watch out for Satan by keeping a diary, recording the events of one’s day, no matter how small and routine, so that the writer could look for moments when Satan might have been invited.  This form of vigilance eventually became a historic boon:  Puritan families left diaries that have given us impressively detailed accounts of their daily lives.

In Trieschmann’s Crooked, you meet a 16 year old girl who has a lot to teach you about Satan.  Take notes if you like.

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