Monday, October 5, 2009

Keeping the faith

In which we learn about Anne Bradstreet's adopted home, and Maria Bradstreet's adopted name

The Maria Chronicles, #14

Maria is facing the Smart Board, reading the title of a poem she got from a Bing search (she likes it better than Google). It says, “Here followes some verses upon the burning of our house, July 10, 1666. Copeyed out of loose paper."

She then p
roceeds to read the Anne Bradstreet poem:
In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow neer I did not look,
I waken'd was with thundring nois
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice.
That fearfull sound of fire and fire,
Let no man know is my Desire.
"Can you
see that house burning? Maria asks them. "The fire would be a huge orange sheet, sweeping up toward the New England night, overrunning the wood, glass and thatching. Gray smoke against a black sky. Clothing writhes, curls and blackens in the overpowering heat. And yet the surrounding woods are quiet, punctuated by occasional crackling and the songs of crickets. I see terrible beauty."

The class is dead silent.

"Bradstreet knew she couldn't bring that house back," Maria continues. "And deep down, she knew that she shouldn't be trying. In essence, that’s exactly what her poem is about.

And when I could no longer look,
I blest his grace that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so 'twas just.
It was his own; it was not mine.
Far be it that I should repine . . . .

"What’s she saying here?" A long pause.

Dylan looks around, sees no hands raised, and ventures forth his own. Maria raises her eyebrows encouragingly. "She's praying?" he ventures.

"Well, yes, in a way. What's she praying for?"


Maria nods in approval.

"I think she's conflicted," Olivia says.

"Me too," says Zoe.

"How so?"

"She's trying to say that it's God's will that the house burned down," Olivia resumes.

'Why do you say that's what she's trying to say?"

"Because it's a struggle," Mia says, answering for Olivia. "She wants her faith to help her."

"Wants her faith to help her? Is that like trying to say it’s God’s will?"

Mia nods. Maria resume reading the poem, walking around the room as if she's surveying the ruins of the house:

Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,

My pleasant things in ashes lie

And them behold no more shall I.

Under the roof no guest shall sit,

Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
"It's a heartbreaking scene, isn’t it?" Maria asks with an insistent sense of urgency in her voice. "Can’t you just see it, her walking among the ashes? 'No, no, no,'" she's saying. "'It doesn't bother me a bit that this place I loved has gone up in smoke. I won’t miss the furniture, or my trinkets, or the company of friends and family that gave it life. My faith is so secure that I'm not going grieve for it. Really.'"

"You believe her?" she asks the class. "You think she’s being sincere?"

A sense of silent gravity has returned to the room. Maria wonders if she's overplayed her hand. Her guess is that none of these students considers themselves very religious, but think of it as politically incorrect to question the sincerity of a believer. Max, for his part, is looking at her quizzically, as if he’s amazed that anyone could possibly be this into seventeenth century poetry.

She decides to break the tension, doing her best imitation of a sixteen year old girl: "Me? Like him? No way! Oh my God – did you see those jeans he was wearing? I admit, that belt was kinda cool, and he is does look a little buff under that T-shirt. But come on. No, seriously. All right, all right, I admit it: He is a little cute. But no – no! Unless . . . .”

"Sounds like you," Maria hears Karina whisper to Vanessa.

"Karina!" Much laughter, as even those who didn’t hear Karina infer what she said. Maria suspect Vanessa, clearly an incorrigible exhibitionist, is not unhappy.

"Say, Ms. Bradstreet," A.J. says, "are you by any chance related to Anne Bradstreet?"

"Well, A.J., in a way I am."

"What to you mean by 'in a way?'" Jake asks. Maria notes that Derek is looking on, interested to hear what she will say. She wonders if anyone will ask her about her Irish maiden name, or whether she'll reveal her mother's Mexican one.

"Well, by marriage I am. My husband's name is Bradstreet." She doesn't tell them that it's soon to be ex-husband. "So I consider her an ancestor."

"Well, that doesn't really count," A.J. says.

"Why not?"

"Well, I mean, you're not directly related. And it's not like Bradstreet is really your name. It's like something you, like, picked up."

"You mean the way Sean Combs picked up Puff Daddy or P-Diddy or whoever the hell he is? Or the way Alecia Moore suddenly became Pink?" Some laughter. If they can pick their identities why can't I pick mine?"

"It's not the same."

"Oh no? Hey, pal, this is America. You get to decide who you are." Some chuckles.

"Well in that case," says Matt in a voice of levity, "I'm the son of Bill Gates."

"Oh, that's bad taste," Maria replies, wrinkling her nose. "Can't you do better than that, Matt?" Why not John D. Rockefeller? Or, better yet, John Jacob Astor?"

Matt clearly has no idea what she's talking about. "Sure. Whatever you say, Ms. Bradstreet."

Maria looks at the clock. Time is up and she's wandered off course. Time to bring it on home. The name thing was good, and she's glad they made the digression. But she wants to swing back to her main point.

"You know, she says, "people like yourselves sometimes get the idea that religion is a crutch, that it’s a way for people to escape hard realities by taking comfort in simple solutions. But – " here she pauses for emphasis and effect – “this is a stupid idea. True faith is a struggle. People don’t want believe because it’s easy; they do so even though it’s hard. Faith makes demands. What Anne Bradstreet is showing us here is just how demanding and difficult it is. And while I don’t expect you to share her faith, I want you to understand that this woman was no fool, and that the art she produced, art which has been admired for hundreds of years, would not be possible without it."

Nor, Maria suspects, as she pulls the classroom door open for them, would even mediocre teaching be possible without it.