Who am I, really? I can’t help but ponder this whenever I apply for a new form of identification. While at the Department of Motor Vehicles I observed a room full of strangers—if there’s a melting pot in the United States, it’s the DMV. Outside those cloistered in the major cities, you must drive to survive in this country (or at least to thrive) and the ritual of waiting your turn by number at the DMV is part of it. I glanced at my application while waiting. I’ve held drivers’ licenses in at least four states, but I’ve lived in at least six—how do you count where you live, really? I think I must’ve had an Illinois license at some point, but I could find no record of it. Who am I? Are the Illinois years lost? Big brother will find out, no doubt.
To apply for a license in Pennsylvania, as in most states, you have to prove you are who you say you are. Swapping in your old license just doesn’t work any more. While the actual “who” depends on government-issue documents (social security, birth certificates, or passports) the where question is more financial. To prove your residence you must present bills with your name and current address. You’re defined by your money. Bills demonstrate that you’re integrated into the system, the matrix. I spent one day, as a temp with Manpower, working for Detroit Electric (no, I didn’t have a Michigan license; I kept the Massachusetts one), processing requests for new service. Despite not being asked back because they had expected a woman (really!), I learned that to get service you had to prove you were part of this matrix, with a history of paying your bills.
None of these agencies ask the deeper, more philosophical questions of identity. None seem to care that each day is a struggle to define our spiritual selves in a world hopelessly secular and financial. Yes, my birth certificate “proves” I was born in Pennsylvania. The DMV records “prove” I learned to drive here and had my first license in this state. They show nothing of the real question of who I am. A reasonable facsimile of my visage appears on the plastic card that certifies my citizenship within these artificial borders. But now my home state stamps “Temporary” on the card so that a security check can be run. They want to discover if I am who my records say I am. What the powers that be don’t seem to recognize is that although where we are born influences us every day for the rest of our lives, no little plastic card, despite the amount of information it conveys, can say who it is I really am. “Temporary” may be the truest word on it.
It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.
A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.
These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Travel
Tagged Anabaptist, Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past, sacred space, Sarah Hutchison Tassin
I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.
For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.
Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.
What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.
Posted in Bible, Memoirs, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel, Weather
Tagged demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcism, Mysteries at the Museum, Pennsylvania, Stroudsburg, television