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Mary Dyer's difference

THE West Coast mind and eye have some real adjusting to do, moving to Boston. With so much history stuffed into a few streets, slap up against urban renewal, it feels as if you could slide in and out of centuries with each revolving door or set of stairs. All of those statues staring down at you seem to demand: ``What have you done?'' and you know it had better be something pretty significant. My study began on the Boston Common, and it took some time. The war memorials were poignant. Those of great thinkers and leaders were impressive, but cold. Also, I began to see that apart from anthropomorphized concepts like liberty or wisdom, there are no foremothers in the bronze record of the Common. I shrugged and told myself that at least the women long dead didn't know.

Then one day, leaving the Common proper, I saw a different sort of statue, set back from the street, in the shadow of the charging General Hooker and the Bulfinch State House. A woman, clothed in simple Puritan garb, sat meditatively. I walked closer, ignoring the traffic jam at Beacon and Park Streets.

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Her name was Mary Dyer, and she had been a Quaker. She had been hanged on Boston Common in 1660.

There lay almost 200 years between the quiet figure, eyes modestly cast down, hands folded in her lap, and the flamboyant general astride his fiery-eyed mount. Yet the statue looked remarkably modern, far newer than Hooker's.

Looking at Mary, another day filled my mind. I stood in a panicked crowd, hearing that American students had been shot down on a campus. The only calm centered on four people who stood silently holding a banner reading ``Quakers for Peace.'' That was all they attempted to convey to those seething thousands. Their silence grew more eloquent as the rally wore on.

Standing in front of Mary, I pondered. What had she done? I couldn't shake the haunting question, nor could I find her in my history books, my encyclopedia, or my local library. The puzzle haunted, pressing me to visit the Cambridge Friends Meeting, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Boston Public Library.

Finally, the hideous facts took shape. Mary and others had persisted for three years in their attempt to preach tolerance and freedom of religious expression. Boston, at the time, was a fledgling theocracy, which feared dissent as the work of Satan. Mary and the others spoke on following one's inner sense of the divine will. Each time, they were arrested, beaten, and abandoned at the edge of the colony.

Finally, Mary returned to a certain death sentence in the belief that only by showing the law's brutality would it be abolished. She, in the end, didn't question whether she could make a difference. She acted. A year after her execution, the death sentence for preaching Quaker thought was lifted.

Mary's statue had been cast 300 years after her death. Her family and the Friends shared a memory that had inspired them to wage their own kind of war for peace and justice. The seated Mary, attending to an inner light, bears witness that this war is not over.

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Perhaps each of us hears words from various facets of the history around us. Maybe the bronze memorials remind us of our best qualities, share with us a vision, and give us courage. In the cacophony of the city, looking at Mary Dyer, I heard one voice. Another may speak to you. Mary would like that.

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