This is the story of a place at the edge of the world, where a black bear ventured into a Russian hamlet and attacked a human. One bear became two, two became dozens, and before long no one would leave their home, and no one had any idea what to do.
In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books. I wasn’t particularly picky about what I read. Every week, I went to the local library and scanned the middle-grade and young-adult shelves, zeroing in on spines that caught my attention. I then examined the covers and jacket copy of those books with the solemnity of a scholar. If a book passed muster—and it usually did—I put it in my special red library tote bag, which my parents bought for me with the explicit purpose of limiting the number of books I brought home.
That was the summer when—tan, smelling of chlorine, stippled in mosquito bites and goose bumps from the air-conditioning, just on the verge of puberty—I discovered Lois Duncan. Her books’ dramatic titles, such as “Summer of Fear,” “Killing Mr. Griffin,” “Gallows Hill,” drew me in, and their taglines sealed the deal. I wedged as many as could fit into my bag. Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?
With conservatives decrying what they see as creeping secularism, and liberals warning of attacks on the separation of church and state, one gets the impression that many Americans believe that secularism is something quite new, a product of declining morals or aftershocks from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Yet the roots of secularism in the West run far deeper, deeper even than Jefferson and the Age of Reason. Most historians agree that secularisation took hold in the period known as the ‘early modern’ – the era between about 1500 and 1750, when science, capitalism, religious crisis and the growth of centralised states coalesced to reshape Western consciousness.
The religious implications of secularism are often misconstrued, too. Secularisation did not mean godlessness; for the most part, early modern Europeans were profoundly Christian. It was rather that the boundary between the religious and the secular became more distinct than before. As the 17th-century English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne put it, humans live ‘in divided and distinguished worlds’. The sphere of religion was diminished, so that many of the hopes and fears formerly expressed in religious terms became expressed in worldly terms. For better or worse, secularisation rested on the realisation that eternal truths are inaccessible to the intellect; only the limited insights afforded by experience in this world are relevant to the earthly career of the human race.
By 11:00, I am sitting at booth L1 at Nita Nita, the bar and restaurant that was my workplace and second home before I left town. Before I can dig into my bowl of smashed sweet potatoes—made with cayenne and chorizo and a perfectly unspeakable amount of butter—Sam comes up and hugs me.
"I can't believe you're here!" she says, smiling.
My old boss looks wrung out despite her wide, Jersey-girl smile. But I don't tell her this; I want to keep things light. Nita Nita is closing tomorrow, after nearly 10 years serving beer, comfort food, and hospitality on Williamsburg's north side.
Notes on the end of my marriage.