Tag Archives: Pennsylvania

Temporary Id

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.

Special Delivery

Apotropaic is a word that can be translated as “turning away evil.”  For all that, it’s a perfectly good English word, although seldom used outside realms such as religious studies and anthropology.  Although the word itself may be unfamiliar, the concept is one that everyone recognizes—the charm that wards off evil is the most common example.  The rabbit’s foot means good luck (except for the rabbit) because it’s an apotropaic device.  In perhaps one of the oddest twists in Christianity’s somewhat lengthy history is the fact that the Bible itself has become an apotropaic device.  You’ll see this quite a lot in horror films, and if you read Holy Horror when it comes out you’ll see it quite a bit, although I don’t use the technical term for it.  Apotropaic outlooks also pervade society as a whole.  A recent article on Mysterious Universe proves the point.

Pennsylvania is a weird state.  Having grown up here, I know that to be the case.  In Wilkes-Barre (which itself is a strange name) a ghost-hunter was arrested for breaking into a haunted house bearing a sword, shotgun, and Bible.  That should cover your bases.  Of course, I couldn’t help but notice the odd equivalence of these three weapons.  One is intended for close combat (the sword), one for a reasonable distance (the shotgun), and one for an enemy so close that they might get inside (the Bible).  Make no mistake about it; the Bible is indeed a weapon.  Probably intended as an apotropaic device in this context, it was nevertheless an object to defend the ghost hunter from evil.  The sword and shotgun, however, seem to betray a lack of trust in Holy Writ.

The Bible has been used for offensive purposes ever since people figured out that it can be used to control others.  Coercion, in whatever form, is a kind of violence.  Interestingly, reading the Good Book would seem to indicate that such usage of holy things is inappropriate.  Then again, the Bible doesn’t refer to the Bible.  The idea of Scripture as a powerful object developed only after the Good Book had become an iconic object.  The final authority.  Who can argue with what is claimed to be the word of God?  That idea has become more important than what the Bible actually says, as any “Bible-believing” Trump follower will prove.  Against ghosts, however, it might serve as an apotropaic device, but it won’t prevent you from being arrested, it seems.  A lesson worth pondering.

Spiritual Walls

I often ponder what a difference walls make. Perhaps our ancient, cave-dwelling DNA just runs away with imaginations, but walls make us feel safe. Most of the time. As I was reading the ensemble-written The Haunted, by Robert Curran, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Jack and Janet Smurl, the concept of walls showed its other face. In the mid-to late-1980s, the Smurls lived in a haunted house. The West Pittston duplex in Pennsylvania was also home to their four daughter’s and Jack’s parents. And the entity that harassed them there was deemed a demon. It’s easy to be skeptical about such accounts—no physical proof exists, after all, and proving anything is pretty near impossible anyway. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, apparently this become quite a media event. It’s easy to question the whole thing. Then I think about walls.

Although there are public haunted buildings, I often wonder about specific residences that foster claims of haunting. If spirits are, well, spiritual beings that can pass through walls, why would they stay in a house? In the case of the demon that everyone in the family saw, what does it mean to see physically a being that has no physical reality? And when the priest exorcised their house, why did they look to see where the incorporeal being might be hiding? It seems that the demon needed walls too.

Human beings are natural actors. We behave differently at home than we do in public. We act differently with friends than with strangers. Even closer to home, we act more natural with our families than we do even with friends. Beneath all these layers of pretending, most of us still act differently when we’re alone. That’s where walls come in. Although knowing someone’s in the next room might temper our behavior, the family unit within its walls is one intimate collective. What was happening within the walls of the Smurl household three decades ago? Any recounting will involve retelling. Interpretation. And we all know what a difference walls can make. The neighbors, according too this book, could hear demonic screams. Some even experienced invasions of their own during the height of the haunting. Books like this have a way of drawing you in, opening windows and doors through the walls into someone else’s life. What actually happens to them, however, is something we’ll only learn when walls begin to talk.

Parks and Wreck

It was a bit of a shock to see Bethel Park on the list. I make no bones about being a Democrat. I’ve supported progressive causes on an evolving journey since high school. When I saw the news that Conor Lamb is a worthy contender for the 39th district seat in my native western Pennsylvania, and that this area is “deep red,” I had to look it up. A special election’s coming up and the district is leaning a little blue. Historically, until 2010, it had been Democrat territory. But Bethel Park has other associations for me. My wife will pardon me, I hope, for saying it was the home of my first girlfriend.

As a naive and thoroughly Pauline Fundamentalist, I always believed marriage was against God’s will. The Bible says as much. Still, Paul magnanimously allows for marriage to those who “burn.” I’d felt the heat once or twice as a boy becoming a man, but I’d adequately stifled it with Scripture and the comparative fires of Hell. I was strong. I would never marry, I told myself. College up to that point had involved a cenobitic separation of the sexes in an all-male dorm on a campus where the rule was to sit with a Bible’s width between a guy and his girl. I met her at church summer camp where we were counselors together. She was from the city—Bethel Park is a suburb of Pittsburgh—and I was a kid from what she called “Roosterville” (the town of 900 souls was actually technically “Rouseville”). The ways of love, I was learning, were liberal.

To a point. That relationship limped along for a couple of years. I got on with my life, attended seminary and met my wife there. Bethel Park, I knew, had been named from the Bible. Bethel was the place of Jacob’s dream, the original stairway to Heaven. My first lady friend was impressed with my biblical knowledge—it was really about all I had to offer. Things improved after meeting the woman I would marry. Boston would remain a blue city while Bethel Park would degenerate from purple to red. When did this happen? The working class boy from Roosterville believes in equal rights for all. And now District 39 has a decision to make. Will the stairway to Heaven be limited to those who can afford those swank suburban houses? Or will the district remember its heritage that was blue from 1969 until we had our first African American president? “This,” Jacob muttered “is none other than the gate of Heaven.” Or, it could be, just another brick in the wall.

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Keystones

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.

Night of the Museum

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.