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The Pilgrims' Networks - and Ours

THE imminent arrival of the Thanksgiving season here in the United States seemed the other day to be as good a reason as any to dip into William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647," his chronicle of the little colony founded by the Mayflower Pilgrims.The Pilgrim heritage looms large in the national consciousness; all the more so for those of us who live in New England, to whom the historic place names are so familiar. Bradford's opus is no idealized tale, though it is certainly informed by his own ideals. He presents some very human beings, subject to greed, theological contentiousness, and other frailties; all of which makes the instances of heroism, fidelity, and self-sacrifice he records all the more touching. And for a late 20th-century reader, an interesting sidelight is how the book portrays a community, a far-reaching web of personal relationships. There was the confused and generally difficult connection with the Pilgrims' London underwriters. There were letters back and forth across the ocean to and from their pastor, the Rev. John Robinson, who kept hoping to join his flock in the New World but was never able to - and yet is one of the strongest presences in the book. How much we take for granted today: The message tape on our friend's answering machine may be full, but we know this right away from the series of irate-sounding beeps we run into. By comparison, even the most reliable means of communications the Pilgrims had were only a modest improvement over sending a message in a bottle. Our latter-day notion that "relationships" have to be "worked at" would have struck them as strange; but we can be impressed that they managed to hold together as well as they did. Of course, as we tend our far-flung gardens of friends and family by means of programmable phones and frequent-flyer programs, we need to be clear when technology enhances communication, and when it fogs communication. Some public schools now offer "homework hotlines parents can call a telephone number to get a recorded announcement from the teacher explaining what the homework assignment is. If they get parents involved in the children's education in a way they wouldn't be otherwise, these hotlines are probably a good thing. But if when parents look their kids in the eye and ask, "Do you have any homework?" they can't be sure of getting a straight answer, a technological fix is covering a deeper problem. And if such are the problems of really connecting with those who live in one's own household, what about those who are miles away? How many of us have close ties - of friendship or family - maintained by a personal contact measurable in days, or even hours, spent together in a year? A colleague reports that she finally, in just the last few months, got around to writing a friend to thank her for helping her through a rough patch in her own life some 15 years ago. The two have been close friends over the intervening years; but the one had never told the other just how much of a difference she had made in her life. To leave an unimportant message like that undelivered is like carrying a large balance on one's emotional credit card. Of course it's often done over the phone nowadays. And the answering machine can give the immediacy of electronics and the distancing of letter writing. How many of us who have overcome our inhibitions about verbalizing to a machine subsequently find that we can say things over the phone that we might not have been able to say face to face or even in a real-time conversation, with both parties on the line: words of appreciation or encouragement or apology? From a notebook I kept in my teens, long before answering machines were in anything like the use they are today, I have resurrected a quotation from Christopher Morley: "If we all discovered that we had only five minutes left to say all that we wanted to say, every telephone booth would be occupied by people calling other people to stammer that they loved them." As true as ever; but today, we might have to wait for the beep.