In the prideful insecurity and ignorance of my youth, I registered, in my very first semester of college, for an upper-level history course. An honors upper-level history course. I was not alone in this risky venture, but was accompanied by my friend-since-sixth-grade Lucy Lee. For the next four months, the two of us spent our Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 8:15 to 9:30 under the tutelage of Marcile Taylor, whose lectures we wrote down word for word and took turns transcribing so that they might be memorized in hopes of passing the final exam.
Two totally unrelated facts learned from that semester burrowed so far into my brain that 39 years later, they float to the surface on a regular basis at unexpected moments and, often, a propos of absolutely nothing. First, the single event that drove the settlement of the American West was the invention of barbed wire. And second, the single question around which the colonization of New England by religious refugees was conceived and carried out was the issue of how to live in the world without being of the world.
The invention of barbed wire tidbit has rarely been of any practical use, not even in any of the trivia competitions in which I have distinguished myself over the years. On the other hand, the Puritan dilemma, as it came to be called, remains an unresolved quandary, an ever-present irritant, a never-to-be-lined-through item on the to-do list. And, to be honest, after all this time, it nags at me, not with regard to religious affiliation or practice, but rather as a question of how one manages to approach the world with an attitude of appreciation rather than consumption; how to experience intimacy with creation without experiencing the need to own it; how to inhabit a specific set of geographic coordinates at a specific moment in time in such a way as to know both without being changed by either.
Some days I am more barbed wire than thoughtful Puritan. Some days I show up at the office locked and loaded with a tale about the ineptitude of the food-service folks at my drive-through of choice or the cluelessness of other drivers in the line. Some days I bounce hard across the washed-out places on Settlement Road and wonder why I’m not a priority for the road crew. Some nights I stand on the deck staring at stars that look like the cheapest of rhinestones and want to throw what is left of my patience and my heart into the darkness that I am quite convinced is a bottomless pit.
But there are other days — days on which I find myself mesmerized by the sight of a 2-year-old in a seersucker bubble suit, patting her fat hands together and bobbing her head so fast that her blonde curls can hardly keep up; days on which I notice that the dress I am wearing is the exact color of the cornfield reflecting the early morning sun, and I wonder if Sherwin-Williams has a shade called June Corn and declare out loud that if it doesn’t, it most certainly should; nights on which I stand at the edge of the ocean, feel the waves carve away the sand beneath my feet and hear my brain, my pulse, my heartbeat respond to their shush-shush-shush’ing like voices to a tuning fork.
Not long ago, I got to watch Jackson as he got his first look at the ocean. Prepared to cajole and comfort, his mother and I stood on either side as I set his bare feet on the sand. He opened his mouth in a smile and ran toward the water, arms spread wide. The waves slapped at his ankles and he skittered away laughing. As they receded, he ran back out to meet them, to replay the slapping and skittering and laughing over and over again, all the while with his arms held out as far as they would go.
The Puritan dilemma was not resolved by the Puritans. It will not be resolved by the Methodists or the Presbyterians or the Druids or the atheists. Perhaps it is not even a dilemma. Perhaps it is the exact opposite; perhaps it is a miracle — an amazing, astonishing, unexplainable condition that is still identifiably human, like bipedalism and the capacity for language, a condition that defies all known physical laws by demonstrating that everything that is can be held with arms that are open.