I just wanted something fun and trivial to read, for a change. But still, I got religion. Go figure.
I was actually in a bookstore—that is, a physical building, inside which people take money for reading material; I know, it’s shocking. And I saw a book that I knew I would love: How the States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein. Maybe not your passion, but it’s my kinda fun. Even better, it was in the marked down pile: only $7.98 plus tax. Perfect: a little mindless geographical trivia, not to replace the sabbatical reading, but to just offer a bit of a break, you know. Not too much to ask.
And I have to say, I’ve been loving it: I now know why so many state boarders line up with the 37th parallel, and why so many more are set at 36.30. Slavery (in)decisions, basically, in both cases. I have read why Oklahoma has a panhandle, why Missouri has a heel, and why Michigan has that big honking peninsula that doesn’t even connect. And I’m loving all of it! Matter of fact, I will almost certainly be boring you with some of it at an upcoming potluck.
But then, in the middle of my mindless trivialities, religion reared its unavoidable head. Because I had to know something far more perplexing than why there are two Carolinas, two Dakotas, but only one California. I had to know why Maryland is shaped so altogether WEIRD. Because it just is, right? Delaware elbowing in on the east, Virginia snipping off a bit to the south; and that very strange hook into Appalachia? I mean, haven’t you ever wondered? Of course you have.
So I’ll wait for that potluck to yammer on about most of it, but here’s the biggest part of the answer: religion. The Christian religion. Inescapable. Yeesh.
Charles I of England set aside Maryland as a safe place for English Catholics in the “New World.” Not a bad idea, really, given that most of the rest of the colonists viewed Catholics as antichrist pope worshipers, or worse. Trouble is, every time the poor Catholics turned around, some other Christian appropriated their territory: Pennsylvania Quakers smooshed them from the North, creating what would eventually be known as the Mason-Dixon Line. And Delaware? A bunch of Dutch Reformed Christians who, once their home country was kicked out of North America, simply refused to be lumped in with papists. You can hear their “Ewww” across 300 plus years. The conflicts with Virginia weren’t specifically religious, but given that Marylanders lost every single judgment, I have trouble believing that bias against their religion wasn’t at least part of the decision-making. Except for the one where the Earl of Baltimore had the wrong map—that one’s on him.
But when I think about it, maybe we’re all a little bit like Maryland. Snipped at here, elbowed there; the innocent victim of someone’s bad map. And pretty soon, we lose the form we wanted. We’re all bent out of shape. But still, part of our original purpose was that we’d be a refuge. And, if we let it, our odd shape can still fit with our neighbor’s. We can, in our brokenness, set aside history, and match someone else’s distension, just like a puzzle piece. We relate to one another, not because we’re perfect, boring boxes (sorry Colorado; sorry Wyoming), but because we have our unique hooks and crannies that somehow fit into what we once thought were thefts and wounds.
Maybe the lesson is simply this: our history forms our boarders and boundaries, but we are not forever compressed into them. We can reach out across the lake, the bay, the history, the hostility, and be united in a new story.
But enough of that—I’m off to read about that bizarre pointy thing sticking out of West Virginia.