“Jesus died for our sins,” annouced large letters on a brick wall, in a simple, unadorned font.
Two blocks down, a large car sat idle on the curb, the words “rent-a-center, worry-less life is closer than ever!” swirling, fluid and colorful, on its side.
Somewhere between these two signs, I thought as our bus drove on and on through Roxbury’s streets, lies the history of New England in a nutshell.
The Puritans came here to live anxious lives, forever worrying about their worthiness (did Jesus’ death really cleanse them? How could they, in their sinful state, accept his gift?).
They didn’t come here in pursuit of happiness. In fact, excessive happiness – like excessive comfort – were perceived as a distraction from the real goal of life: the heavenly city above. The shining city on a hill was a place to pass through. An important place, but a mere stop, still.
(A young mother was publicly reprimanded in Boston in those early days. The charge: kissing her infant on the Sabbath.)
Time passed, and here we are today, told that we should pursue worry-less-ness, and consumer-ize (and trigger-warning-ize) discomfort away.
(The end of days is closer than ever, declared the Puritans, and they were wrong. Worryless life should prove elusive, too.)
I looked at the brick walls stretching by us, and at the people forming lives between their shades.
The bus drove by many churches, a liquor store, and a mosque. It passed by a tiny bench, and a couple sitting out below the sun.
The man, an elderly African American with graying hair, shook his wizened, ancient head. The woman beside him (his daughter? a friend?) looked away from him (in exasperation? In boredom? In mere distraction?), and up into the sky.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
She wore something blue and gold and airy, and I turned around in my seat to watch the way she seemed to glow in it, the way her smile caught the sunlight on her face.
I kept looking as her image grew smaller and smaller and farther away, too far to see that smile. Too far to see anything, really, but the blue and gold and black.
In those anxious days of the Puritans, this was a rocky, barren place (Roxbury used to stand for Rocksbourough). A man named John Elliot preaches here from his pulpit, determined to save the souls of the native people of this land.
(For most of his colleagues, the native Americans were yet another force of wilderness to stave off. But for Elliot they were people, and thus in need of being saved, and brought into the Puritan covenant of worries.)
Today this place is far from barren. It’s full of people and their different worries, the different things that make them smile, the different ways they look up and see the sun.