Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blessings count…

Ugh. I’m looking out of my window and see the worst of all non-disaster related weather events happening. Not snow, not rain, but snow mixed with rain that’s just barely cold enough to not melt. It’s like slush, but more dangerous to drive and walk on. I’ll call it slice. Or snush. Whatever the term, I should just stay inside, amen?!

The past two weeks, I’ve been reading a book about the “peopling of America.” That refers to our nation’s first European settlers. And the slaves they brought too. Native folk will say the land was peopled already, thank you very much. The title of this historical tome sets the stage poignantly, and sadly. It’s called, “The Barbarous Years,” and focuses on 1600-1675, written by Bernard Bailyn, Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard historian and all-around American Founders expert.

The story is brutal. As he puts it, “Death was everywhere” in colonial America. Death is everywhere always, but in certain circumstances, its hands are more frequent and grasping. Bailyn describes settlements from Virginia to New England to what eventually became New York, and time after time these fragile communities suffered beyond my imaginings. I mean, sure, I remember elementary school legends about huddled settlers near Plymouth Rock, gratefully accepting assistance in their need from friendly, local Indians. I had some awareness of what happened next- the Pilgrims soon turned on their native hosts. Blood feuds, war, even genocide complemented efforts to trade and survive.
But the depth of that period’s suffering, among colonists but especially native peoples and slaves, was even more severe than I’d previously realized. Perhaps that says something about my own historical ignorance. And there’s also something in that about our modern sugar-coating of the nation’s founding (a process every nation undertakes, by the way; we all want the past to be nobler than it frequently was). But I also think this story is one about the vast improvements made across the centuries. I can stare out the window at slice/snush/icky ice and say, “I’ll be okay inside. I’ve got what I need.”

The original colonists had no such luxury, of course, especially in the first years, when Atlantic seaboard winters wiped out entire towns, desperate people resorting to terrible measures- stealing Indians’ seed corn, lunches of leather, occasional cannibalism. Many came to these shores fleeing what they considered religious persecution. So a blazing fire of faith drove them to persevere through these hardships, and then inflict more hardship on “heathen” natives, barbarians they thought. But the settlers whose stories most intrigue me aren’t the pious, well-documented Puritan Pilgrims. It’s the high percentage of travelers who came as servants or basic workers without an agenda. They made up about one-third of the Mayflower’s passengers, and had no interest in establishing a pure, new world religious outpost. They simply thought this foreign land held more opportunity for work, advancement, survival.

Little did they know. Or maybe they did know the depravations the journey would entail. Nevertheless, they gathered all they had and sought a fresh start or new adventure. What does that say about the society they left behind, the struggles of ordinary poor folk in 17th century England? I haven’t read that book yet, so I can’t say for sure, though I suspect the situation “at home” was desperate too.
Which returns me to my forlorn glances out of the window today and niggling annoyance I can’t take my dog for a run. I may have trouble counting my blessings at times, but I’ve got a great many to count, if I took the time. People in generations before mine underwent ghastly struggles that- God willing- I’ll never have to endure, not even close. Native tribes exterminated by disease or bigotry. African families bought and sold and treated like cattle. Fragile European migrant communities still figuring out how to till this soil, build enduring homes, make a living or simply survive. It’s not a new or especially insightful point I’m trying to make. But it’s useful to remember now and again. For all our troubles, we have many advantages unthinkable to ages past. May it be our kids will say the same.

Grace and Peace,

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