Remember This

Have you ever had one of those days?  You know the kind I mean—a day when you feel like you’re forgetting something.  Wednesday was like that for me.  You see, the first full week back to work after a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day) seems to stretch out like a desert road whose end you can’t see.  It always hits me on Wednesday.  The previous week the third day of work was the day before Friday (and I mean “Friday” metaphorically, as the last work day of the week).  The first full week you’ve been at it three days and on Wednesdays I realize, “I’ve got two more days to go.”  So, although it was sunny around here, I sulked all day feeling like I’d forgotten something.  I had.

I post on this blog every day.  I have for many years.  The way this works on WordPress is you get your post ready and you’re given an option to publish.  I get my post ready before going to work (which in my case means going upstairs to my office).  I delude myself into thinking I have regular readers and that they will be looking for the post at its usual time—around 6:30 (I start work early).  Wednesday I finished my post even earlier than usual and I thought, “I’d better not publish now, or my readers won’t see it.”  I trudged upstairs, however, and began to work.  Once work starts, all bets are off.  Even with the sun warming my chilly bones, I had a nagging feeling I was forgetting something.  I’d forgotten to click “publish.”  My post, which had been waiting patiently for publication (I know how that feels!) never got launched.  I didn’t discover this until Thursday.

You see, we’re not supposed to use social media at work.   Although I work remotely, unlike Republicans I play by established rules.  So I went through my day feeling I’d forgotten something, but not knowing what.  It’s not that I forgot you, my dear readers, I just forgot to click “publish” before heading up to work.  At the end of work, after staring at a computer screen all day long, I tend not to go online.  Most days I read a book, or get supper ready.  So I awoke on Thursday to find Wednesday’s post, well, unposted.  Some of us aren’t constitutionally compatible with the nine-to-five schedule.  My mind goes lots of places during the day.  Often those places are reminding me how many more days I have to do this before a break comes.  And some weeks, it seems, it never does.  If I recall correctly.

Memories of Scotland

I admire those who follow their dreams.  I have been writing fiction for over forty years now, and although I’ve had some success placing short pieces my novels haven’t found much interest.  So when I see the published work of someone who obviously loves writing as much as Ailish Sinclair does, it warms my heart.  Her debut novel, The Mermaid and the Bear, is the kind of historical fiction tinged with a little fantasy, all set in Scotland.  Having spent three happy years in Scotland myself, I like to read native writers.  One of the categories in this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge is a debut novel, so all these things came together in this one little book.  There may be a little spoiler info below, so proceed with caution!

Sometimes I read a novel without knowing much about it in advance.  That was the case with this one.  I read Sinclair’s blog posts and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t compose long, rambling essays.  Her posts often make me stop and think.  Her novel follows a love story that turns into a witch-hunt.  Unlike that claimed by those who have the whole world watching them, this was a real one.  The historical notes tell a bit about the characters based on women actually tried in Scotland during those dark times.  In fact, when one of my doctoral advisors gave my wife and me a walking tour of Edinburgh early on in our time there, he pointed out where the witch trials had taken place.  Sinclair captures the rage and frustration of women who had no recourse once such accusations flew.  A religion only too ready to believe the worst about people, women in particular, showed no mercy based on what was only hearsay and jealousy.

It’s difficult to imagine what life would have been like in such times.  Castles and lairds make us think of fairy tales, but reality must’ve been somewhat harsher.  It’s fun to pretend about witches around Halloween, but there’s a sadness that’s difficult to escape as an adult.  That sadness is all the more profound for finding claims of witch-hunts on the lips of abusers and others who do their best to perpetuate inequality.  They dishonor those who actually did die so that men like them could feel smug self-satisfaction in the past.  The Mermaid and the Bear brought a number of these thoughts to mind.  Our society has made some strides towards treating all people as human beings but we’re yet a long way from where we need to be.  Books that remind us of that are always to be welcomed; dreams are worth pursuing.

The Reading Bug

With the sunshine coming in my office can feel pleasantly warm in winter.  I chose this location not because of its southern exposure, but because it is a small room and it’s a good place for books.  Although it’s January, the sun brought a shield bug to life the other day.  At first I didn’t know what it was.  I’d hear a loud buzzing followed by a rather obvious crash, but I saw no insect.  Since we had a string of sunny days it kept reawakening in the mornings, warmed by sunlight on my windowsill and spent the days climbing on and sometimes attempting to fly through the glass.  I identified the beetle quickly once I saw it.  As I watched the poor creature’s progress (or lack thereof), I was sorry that I couldn’t release it outside.  It was still quite cold out, and I didn’t think it would survive.

Spending long hours in the same room with my perplexed insect friend, I came to ponder what its experience of life was like.  I’m no Franz Kafka or Thomas Nagel, but I had to wonder when it chose to spend the night on a clay replica I had made of an Ugaritic abecedary.  I’d made this clay model when I was teaching, and I used it as one of several visual aids to help students understand how writing had developed.  (I had even ordered authentic papyrus to pass around, and the single sheet of vellum cost more than an entire book in those days.)  My doctoral work largely focused on Ugarit, and in the 1990s it looked like that sub-specialization might be on the ascendant.  We often live to have our mistakes rubbed in our faces.  But why had the shield bug picked this very spot to roost?  It looked as if it were trying to learn to read cuneiform.  It needn’t bother.

Although I habitually awake quite early, it isn’t easy getting out of bed.  Especially in a cold house during winter.  My entomological friend, of course, had to wait for the sun itself to come back to life.  Night on the windowsill can’t be comfortable, especially when the radiator is under the other window in the room.  No matter how much I try, I’ll never know if I’ve succeeded in understanding the experience of that bug.  How it is enslaved to the sun, and how it keeps on climbing, even after it falls, raising a tiny geyser of dust.  How it flies full speed into a barrier it cannot see, and then tries again.  I may not be able to understand this beetle sleeping on my Ugaritic alphabet, but I do think there’s something here to learn.

How To Study

As much as I critique Calvinism, I participate in its hardness sometimes.  For instance, when I was employed in higher education I would’ve considered reception history—the kind of research I’m now doing—soft.  My doctorate consisted of learning to read dead languages and trying to make sense of ancient religions where tons of lacunae existed.  It was rigorous mental work.  More modern studies, however, often look at the human (softer) side of religion.  There are any number of approaches: gender studies, sexuality studies, disability studies, and plenty involving the social sciences.  I was taken aback, however, when I first encountered fat studies.  This is apparently a thing now.  As far as I know it hasn’t been applied to biblical studies, yet.  The title is intentionally somewhat derogatory, rather like queer studies adopted a term at first intended to disparage, but later taken as a token of pride.

Fat studies is a field that considers the acceptance of all body types, and the prejudices against those who might be called “overweight.”  We’ve begun to reach a period of acceptance of difference—well, we had been getting there, until about three years ago.  Academics are keen to explore implications of just about anything, and considering those who face acceptance issues due to weight, or body mass index (BMI), suggests itself.  The media likes to cast us into various crises: an obesity crisis, an anorexic crisis, substance abuse crises, and satanic panics.  Each of these crisis points eventually leads to some form of study.  We want to understand this inherent complexity of being human.  Some feminists expressed surprise when masculinity studies became a thing some years back.  Being male, I see that the only way to break down seeing my own gender as normative is to put it under the microscope with all the others.

Because of historical developments, a particular subset of the human race came to see itself as the measure of all things.  I doubt this was intentional, but over time the male of northern European persuasion, particularly the Protestant variety, came to be seen as the textbook human.  He stood about six feet tall and tended to fit a certain BMI.  He was straight.  Like a ruler.  All other humans were measured against him.  This system of privilege is breaking down.  Some, as we can see in Washington, are reluctant to let it go.  Difference, however, is endemic to any species.  And males are no more normative than females.  Or those attracted to their own gender.  Or who change gender.  Or who weigh more than others.  Until we learn to accept all humans, it’s only right that we study our assumptions.  There will always be those who look at dead languages and some day we may want to study even them.

Fueling Fires

Paying attention to world affairs can take all your time.  In fact, for those who study foreign affairs, it practically does.  I’ve been struggling with the fact that you can’t be lazy in a democracy.  I know that’s true—we must constantly be vigilant of governments turning evil (with a wink)—and yet we each have our own lives to look after.  Trying to balance this teeter-totter, I noticed a Washington Post story lately about library officials in China burning books.  Said books challenge government ideology and are being destroyed.  We’ve seen this before.  Nazis burned books, and Republicans would certainly like to.  Even further back in history Medieval thinking led to the destruction of what would now likely be invaluable tomes.  There is biblical precedent, of course.  Read Acts 19 if you need a refresher.

Book burners now do their deed for its symbolic value.  We live in an age of Kindles and Nooks and books online.  Not as many are printed as there used to be, but the smell of burning plastic doesn’t convey the same pathos.  Besides, you can just whip out your synced phone and continue  reading.  Those of us who’ve committed our lives to reading find this symbolic gesture heinous.  Yes, there are books that offend us.  I’ve read more than one that I wish I hadn’t.  I have, however, no inkling to burn them.  Books represent our attempts to increase knowledge.  Fiction or non matters not.  Those who write have something to say, and surveys reveal that many adults really would like to write a book.  As a symbol, there’s nothing like it.  I suspect that’s why burning them makes such an impact.

The western world is struggling to understand China.  One of the largest investors in both Africa and South America, China is building foreign relations just as the Trump administration is jettisoning them.  Many well-informed Americans don’t realize just how long and how well China has been making connections through financial investment.  Sounds like a very capitalist thing to do.  That librarians should burn books seems an odd form of theater in such a scenario.  Governments that can’t take criticism are autocracies.  I know few donkeys that would state any one of their party is really a saint.  That’s GOP territory.  At least we haven’t started book burnings on the White House lawn.  As we turn our gaze to the east, or, depending on your perspective, to the west, we do have to wonder just how long it will be before we do.

Quiet Night

Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find.  This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation.  That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding.  My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence.  Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island.  Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power.  This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.

With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here.  I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption.  As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles.  There’s a matter-of-factness to them.  They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey.  Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island.  Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia.  That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.

In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil.  I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places.  Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic.  Academics have a point, though.  For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are.  The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people.  That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels.  At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face.  And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space.  And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic.  Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation.  We can all use a good challenge.

Space Farce

Okay, so “Space Force” sounds like a gimmick that you’d see in a 1950’s ad geared to dungaree-wearing boys.  These boys, who’d be named “Dick” would show the girls, named “Jane,” just how it was done.  So as I read about the furor of dedicating a King James Bible from the Bible Museum as the official Bible for military branches aimed at the stars, I had to think how very small we actually are.  So 45 thinks, like Reagan thought, that we need outer-space defenses.  These guys need to read more science fiction.  Actually, some plain old science would help.  If there are most advanced civilizations out there—and such seems increasingly likely, given that our understanding of science is subject to change—we are nothing more than cosmic mosquitoes buzzing close to our own planet where we can wail on each other in the name of lucre.  And we call it “Space Force.”

An article on NPR points out the hypocrisy of swearing in the military on a Bible.  One guy in there, I’ve heard tell, was called “the prince of peace.”  He’s somewhere near the back.  The public loves a good warmonger, though.  We can send our tentative rockets into orbit where bug-eyed aliens laugh with bemusement, and say “Just you try something.”  Or we can make business deals with Russia with one hand while pointing our missiles in their direction with the other.  Is that a missile or am I misreading something, Dick?  I can’t ask Jane, because she just follows along.  Maybe we’re inheriting the consequences of those who grew up reading Dick and Jane.  Boys with their rockets, girls with their dolls.

Bringing religion into the military is nothing new.  German soldiers marched out into a couple of World Wars with “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their waists.  Millions died.  No lessons were learned.  So now we want to take conflict so far over our heads that we can’t even see.  Ancient people knew the gods were fighting far above.  That’s how they made sense of the world.  Some, like Erich von Däniken took those stories literally and thought our alien observers were the reason.  Now that we’ve got drones we have no need of UFOs anymore.  All that sci-fi I watched as a kid wasn’t wasted after all.  Only I grew up reading that Bible instead of swearing on it.  I was pretty sure that war wasn’t a good thing, as he rode on a red horse with his sword pointing upward.  Time to dust off William S. Gray and get back to watching Space Force. 

From NASA’s photo library