Witchcraft in New England before the Salem hysteria

Something I pretty much skip over in my history of Dover is the Puritan authorities’ close examination of the bodies of the early Quaker women missionaries for any signs revealing them to be witches, from 1656 on.

That was down in Boston, for one thing, and I’ve seen no indication of similar actions along the Piscataqua watershed in New Hampshire and Maine, the center of my new book.

But it has come back to haunt me.

Much of my argument regarding the readiness for a significant portion of the Dover population’s joining Quakers has to do with the ways they differed culturally from the Puritan majority in the Massachusetts Bay colony and Connecticut. What David Hackett Fischer terms “folkways.”

For example, in all of their fearful piety, what made the Puritans so morbidly curious about the naked female flesh, anyway? And just what, exactly, were they looking for? This gets weird, doesn’t it? I’m not sure I want specifics, as in details, much less in those parading through Salem, Massachusetts, these days in preparation for Halloween. I’ll have to admit that part leaves me feeling queasy.

Puritan Costumes. Illustration from The Comprehensive History of England (Gresham Publishing, 1902).

Just consider the stereotypical presentation of witches in pointed hats and black capes and then recognize how much that resembles the dress of Puritan women in New England at the time. As for flying on brooms? How strange! Just how did that conflation happen, anyway? Put another way, witches didn’t dress differently than anyone else. As for the brooms? Every housewife had one.

Well, maybe that points to the male authority role in all of this, something I’m perceiving as a gender power play.

Back to the Quakers. As historian Arthur J. Worrall explains, “Two groups of Quakers arrived in 1656. The first, led by Anne Austin and Mary Fisher, came to Boston in July. The Massachusetts government promptly imprisoned them for five weeks; after checking them for signs of witchcraft, they expelled them in August. A second group of eight Quaker missionaries came to Boston two days after their expulsion,” aboard the Speedwell.

“Massachusetts imprisoned this group for eleven weeks and expelled them also, after the clergy had examined and debated with them.”

For perspective, Fischer notes that from 1647 to 1692, the Puritan colonies accounted for ninety percent of the accusations and eighty-five percent of the executions for witchcraft in English-speaking America. That is, almost ALL of them.

Moreover, “In England, every quantitative study has found that the recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled.” Specifically, the Puritan heartland, in the motherland and then in the New World.

“Even white magic was regarded as a form of blasphemy. In 1637, for example, Jane Hawkins was punished for selling oil of mandrakes in Boston. Many other magicians and sorcerers were treated in the same manner.”

So just what defined a “witch,” anyway? Anyone who drew on folk remedies? Or even a midwife who knew more than she was supposed to?

Fischer goes into ways the Puritans’ Calvinist teaching and likely their earlier folkways combined to make them especially fearful.

As I observe, Salem itself was a cauldron of controversy from early on and a place where the Puritan invasion clashed with the existing population. Like Dover, the Puritans were latecomers there.

I’m still curious about the zealot ferocity of the Puritan outburst at the time of the infamous mistrials in Salem, 1692, in a perfect storm that may have fused an outbreak of hallucinogenic ergot in rye, a clash between traditional ways of examination versus newer ones, a gap in the governorship and jurisprudence, and a drive to curb the influence of the now well in place Friends by attacking their servants instead. Many, many other factors, perhaps even the weather, likely also come into play. All of the other angles I’ve heard point in the same direction.

One of the overlooked aspects in all the controversy is how the witch persecutions in Salem solidified the collapse of the rigid Puritan reign in New England. In a way, the old guard overplayed its hand and had to bear the consequences. With widespread revulsion at the executions and their abuse of the court system, a new strand of teaching and emphasis emerged in the Congregational churches. In another century-and-a-quarter, many of them would even become Unitarian, a far cry from the Puritan orthodoxy.

What makes witches so romantic for so many today?

Did the accused “witches” have their revenge in the end?

Maine’s Common Ground Fair has a cult following – and we’re going

It’s like a state fair in the hippie, organic, granola-mind reality. There’s no midway with carnival rides, for sure, but for truly inquiring-minds folk, it’s an autumn equinox slash harvest-time celebration.

Yes, let’s declare a true Thanksgiving, minus turkeys.

Shortened in its post-Covid resurrection, this year’s gathering in Unity, Maine, is the premiere event of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and runs Sept. 23 through 25.

Now that we’re living in Maine, we can identify as members and look forward to attending, even though in New Hampshire we were surrounded by devotees. Yes, it’s that boffo.

As an aside, I can attest to enjoying my best-ever souvlaki ever, from a wood stove, no less, at an earlier fair. Gee, and I hate standing in line. It was worth it.

This is definitely a hippie-vision positive manifestation of the radical mindset of nirvana. And there’s no honky-tonk.

This year’s poster will no doubt be displayed on a wall of our new abode.

See you there?

Don Draper and the life I thought I’d be living

My first awareness of the Mad Men television series, about a decade ago now, came in my daughters’ outraged question – “Was there really that much sexual abuse in the workplace back then? They’re making that up, aren’t they?”

They were incredulous at the blatant sexism and racism of the time I grew up in, even after I confirmed it was there.

What they described was confirmed and more in my recent binge viewing of the series. Let’s just say I was quickly emotionally engaged in the show.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was repeatedly told I belonged in New York rather than in my hometown. Advertising was, in fact, one of the career paths I was considering, and like journalism and publishing in general, Manhattan was still the center of the universe.

Watching the presentations reminded me, to some extent, of the first offices I worked in, even in Ohio. And Don Draper, the advertising creative director at the core of the story (I started to say “heart” but he is rather heartless), reminded me of some of my livelier bosses as well as a kind of ideal of what I was aspiring to or perhaps was being groomed for, at least before the hippie influence kicked in.

Yes, there was cigarette smoking everywhere, and liquor – and functioning alcoholics. (Should I say “functioning alcoholics who smoked”? Or is that too redundant?)

There were also some incredible secretaries, who were far more than typists. The best held the office together, far more than the corner office they reported to.

Let’s just say that the workplace changed drastically in the years since, in part through the digital revolution.

~*~

The show also hit close to home through the father of my best friend in high school, who was a vice president in a boutique advertising agency, one titled with the initials of the three of the partners’ surnames. Not that he was anything like the ad men in the show. Through him, though, I learned of the intricacies of billing, production challenges, deadline crunches, marketing analysis, and purchasing print, broadcast, billboard, and direct mail access – things that were touched lightly on, if at all, in the plots but still a factor.

And during college and the first year after, I was exposed to families that could well have mingled with the Drapers – executives, attorneys, and politicians, plus their wives and children of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

~*~

My daughters were swept up in the show’s fashion mindfulness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s but unhappy with the styles as the chronology moved on in the final seasons. We can argue there.

My biggest criticism is of the cheap shots taken at hippies, falling into stereotypes rather than the more carefully crafted type studies up to that point. In doing so, the writers and producers lost an opportunity to more sharply critique the cynical, superficial world Draper and his colleagues inhabited. The tone of these segments, quite simply, was out of line with the rest of the production.

Even so, I was devastated by the final episode.

Could that have actually been me? Thank God, I escaped.

What happens when a journalist attempts a novel

It used to be said that every newspaperman had a novel inside him, waiting for release. (Yes, male. Women reporters and editors were a definite minority. My, how times have changed!)

Frankly, I rarely saw any literary ambition around me. Few in the business read fiction of a serious sort, much less poetry. There were, though, a couple of playwrights. More recently, however, I know of two colleagues who have self-published – one a mystery, the other a political intrigue.

Yes, we’ve had notable exceptions, with Edna Buchanan, Ernest Hebert, Carl Hiassen, and Tony Hillerman topping my list. (Hemingway wasn’t considered much of a reporter in his six-month stint in Kansas City, and earlier giants often cited reflect a much different kind of journalism than what’s been practiced from the rise of the last century.) The crush of daily deadlines is exhausting, and fiction requires an entirely different approach and sensibility to the telling of a story. Journalists are conditioned to put facts first, usually without any concern for feeling, and to be professionally neutral, reflecting the quest of objectivity. These stances place the reporter at a distance from the subject, no matter how fascinating. Journalists also tend to put action ahead of the actors. Most of the resulting novels leaned toward the crusading reformer slant of the Front Page tradition – Down with corruption! – or maybe sports, either way, with the emphasis on the game more than the inner mindset of the players.

Well, there was also one editor-in-chief who took a popular genre novel and did a paint-by-numbers kind of rewrite over it. I think it was a Western, but I’m no longer sure. His connections got it published, and his success led to a half-dozen more. He was sheepish about the whole thing, though. It was more like a game, I suppose.

I wasn’t typical. My first love was the fine arts beat, for one thing. Since jobs there were scarce, I wound up on the copy desk. No matter how much I love politics, I find meetings boring. Press conferences, even more so. My most satisfying post was heading up lifestyles sections. Long story, as you’ll see in Hometown News. Maybe I was mostly a misfit who happened to do some things extremely well.

News writing, for the most part, is supposed to sound anonymous. Short sentences, limited vocabulary, a structure with the most important details at the top and the rest in descending order. As a writer or editor, your craft can soon become dulled. As an editor, one of my skills went to headlines, trying to relate a story in as few as four or five words. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of them, and I can see the distillation as an element of poetry. In my personal writing, I often reacted against the broader restrictions – I wanted a richer range of diction, more accurate language, more varied sentence structure (yes, I love long threads that work), and often more background on the story itself.

Turning to fiction, I’ve learned the importance of withholding details until later in the tale, things like not including first name, middle initial, and last name when introducing a character, much less his or her age and address. As for my poetry, I’ve preferred experimental and edgy, where the image or fractured expression might open into its own ambiguity and potential.

I do remember the first time a poetry publisher reacted to my submission by saying how delighted he was that my work wasn’t what he expected from a journalist. He had received enough to develop a negative opinion, one I fortunately didn’t fit.

My novel “Hometown News” was drafted during my third break from the news biz, when I was approaching 40 and gave myself a sabbatical after two years calling on editors in 14 Northeastern states as field salesman for a major newspaper syndicate. Driving between my calls on the local papers and seeing their newsrooms from the other side of the desk, so to speak, gave me plenty of time to reflect on the industry and then augment what I had collected in my own career. At many papers, as I saw, the managing editor or his equivalent was gone in a year, and with each one, I’d have to start grooming a new connection all over again. Many of them had telling histories of their own. Many of their towns looked like bombed out shells after World War II, their industrial might boarded up or rusting. I kept notes. Many of their skirmishes reflected my own.

Later, developing my novel in a series of routine days set months apart, “Hometown News” gave me an opportunity to see what I could do with creating a computer-generated novel. I set a framework for the day and randomly inserted 80 to 120 markers I could hit with search-and-replace items for each round. There were many other places that had to be manipulated manually, but it the attempt was fascinating, the way working a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle is.

The result was something like a Jackson Pollock painting, a theme-and-variations curiosity but not compelling reading. Through a series of revisions, I kept the bones but layer by layer added flesh and muscle to bring certain characters to the fore while the dystopian theme deepened.

Thirty-four years after starting out on the work, and seven years after its publication, I am struck by the story’s prescient warning of the collapse of a once very profitable business for the dominant voices, not that our salaries reflected that. What I saw was entire communities under attack, and they still are – not just their daily mirror.

The newsroom I present is a blend of five I’ve worked in over the years – another one was much smaller, and the remaining one was simply different. When you get a group of news folk together and we start talking what one spouse called Bodoni-Bodoni, after the typeface used for many headlines, we all have insider war stories. I hope “Hometown News” gives you an idea how ours translate.

My encounters in a yoga ashram altered my perception of life

I stepped out of my journalism career three times in my life before retiring for good. The first was when I decided to move to the ashram where I could immerse myself in yoga philosophy and practice. Responding to Swami’s invitation to settle into her rural setup was something I did slowly and deliberately, with a large degree of trepidation. As I relate in my Yoga Bootcamp novel, the daily life was intense and evolving. Leaving the ashram was a different matter, with others largely resolving the outcome – out you go. For weeks afterward, I felt myself falling helplessly through space. Eventually, I reestablished my feet on the ground and then headed off for a new life in a town I call Prairie Depot.

The paperback cover …

What happened for me during my residency was life-changing. I regard it as my master’s degree and my introduction to psychotherapy of an amateur sort. Among other things, it led me to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, which turned out to be the faith of my Hodgson ancestors from the 1660s down through my great-grandfather.

In the novel, I chose to confine the structure to a single day, in part because I had so many lingering questions I could not answer. Yes, within that day individuals could look back on their previous history, but the focus was on the NOW. And a lot could happen there in a 24-hour span. Besides, as I later learned through some candid discussions with a former Episcopal nun, monastic life has some commonalities of its own. As she said, some of the most intense interactions came in trying to choose the flavor of ice cream when the rare opportunity arose. I’ll argue you’re the most human under such rarified circumstances.

On top of everything, when I was drafting the book, I was out of contact with the place and its people. Critically, I had refused an order to return to the ashram after I’d married and moved to Washington state and a follow-up stipulation of heavy financial support was out of the question. A half-dozen years later, back on the East Coast, I had an opportunity to stop by but was not admitted into the house. I did learn that Swami had died and I sat by her grave. So much for making amends.

… and the back cover.

Since then, I’ve reconnected through social media with some of the key players and had a few assumptions, not in the story, deflated. In addition, Devan Malore’s “The Churning” reflects life there a few years after I’d moved on.

The story itself could have gone another way, if I hadn’t wanted to present the ideals that drew us together and kept us going. Especially the humor and playfulness.

More compelling for many readers would have been a more sordid tale of just one more “new religion” outfit run into scandal of a sexual or financial sort, preferably both. There were enough elements for that, as I’ve since learned.

The story first came out as a pioneering ebook in PDF format only and was later updated to Smashwords and its affiliated partners. A more recent, quite thorough recasting (again, blame the influence of Cassia in “What’s Left”) changed Swami from female to male and introduced Jaya as one of the eight resident yogis, thus linking her to the heftier Nearly Canaan novel. Besides, the transformation made Swami more acceptable to the expectations of many readers and allowed the Big Pumpkin and Elvis dimensions. The role was already unconventional enough, and this was more fun.

Am I still doing yoga? If you mean hatha, the physical exercises, let me say rarely and embarrassingly, at that. As exercise, I’ll substitute my daily laps in the swimming pool, and as meditation, my weekly Quaker meeting for worship. And no, I’m no longer vegetarian, other than when I voluntarily follow the Greek Orthodox “fasting” of Advent and Great Lent (again, blame Cassia), though I also eat much less flesh than most Americans. Actually, in these seasons, the Eastern Orthodox Christians are stricter than we yogis were.

I do wish there were a similar haven for youth today, one freed from the burden of student college debt. I’ll let “Yoga Bootcamp” stand where it does.

 

No, it’s not always business as usual

My first published novel ends as the protagonist joins with five hippie siblings who run a restaurant they’ve just inherited.

My novel What’s Left returns to the scene, to find the family’s prospered under the alternative approach.

Do you know any “retired hippies” who did quite well professionally? Tell us about one.

~*~

When her family buys an old church like this and converts it into a hot nightspot, the move simply feels like a natural extension of what they’re already doing.

More about ‘What’s Left’

No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.

Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.

My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.

The paperback cover …

What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.

I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.

But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.

… and the back cover.

It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.

I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?

Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.

While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.

The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.