Learned Ghosts

For one memorable year of what I call a career, I taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  One in a series of near misses, this came close to becoming a full-time job.  Apart from a couple of rather humorless colleagues, the department was welcoming and an enjoyable place to be.  I even got to know the dean, now elsewhere, and planned on working on a project with him.  It was a memorable year in many respects.  One was its inherent strangeness.  I was living away from home while teaching there, and saw some odd things on my drives through the Wisconsin countryside.  It also happened to be at Oshkosh that I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft, so the weirdness was, in a word, enhanced.

Students like to tell ghost stories.  A recent article by Jocelyne LeBlanc on Mysterious Universe caught my eye because it tells of students in Oshkosh that live in a haunted dorm.  These kinds of stories are ubiquitous and Oshkosh is in no way singular here.  Students, whose brains haven’t yet ossified, are often open to new experiences.  Most of them, however, don’t possess the research skills to get behind the origins of some such tales.  Sometimes there’s an explanation.  Other times there’s not.  At Grove City College, when I was there, students told of a haunted playing field.  It was the site, it was said, of a former gymnasium.  What made it haunted was the death of a basketball player who’d smashed through a glass gymnasium door during a game and bled out before help could arrive.  It sounds improbable and I never had time to research it.

We all, I suspect, have a longing for the supernatural.  We want to believe that there’s more to this world than physics and earning money.  And strange things do happen.  I never saw any ghosts in Oshkosh, but the things I did see helped to make up for that particular lack.  Edinburgh, where I studied for my doctorate, is widely rumored to be among the most haunted cities in the world.  Although I saw no ghosts there, people flock to the ghost tours.  In fact, one stopped right below our first apartment’s window every night during the tourist season.  By the time we moved out we had every word memorized.  The haunted dorm story is a revered tradition.  Thinking about it makes me wish I could afford to be a student again.


One, two, three

The danger of statistics is that they turn an individual into a number.  A few days ago an article in the New York Times addressed the rare blood clots that some women develop after receiving the Johnson and Johnson covid vaccine.  The response of the cited physicians was telling.  Many praised the decision to halt use of the J&J vaccine immediately.  Others, however, point to the numbers.  If a vaccine is halted many more could be exposed to and contract Covid-19.  It is better, they aver, to take the statically smaller risk and use the vaccine.  While I understand the logic here, I do wonder if the side effects occurring primarily in women has anything to do with the reasoning.  Why not save this vaccine for the men instead?

This raises once again the specter of consciousness.  Statistically the odds are small that a woman will develop a clot.  What if you are the woman who does?  This dilemma always bothered me while camping in the woods.  Statistically black bear attacks are rare.  How does that help you if your tent is one that looks like a candy wrapper to a bear of little brain?  You become a statistic instead of a living, breathing, feeling, blogging person.  Statistics.  There’s a reason some of us identify with the humanities, I guess.  I can imagine what it would be like to have your doctor say to you, “Sorry, this is rare, but look at the bright side—you now become a statistic!”

Photo credit: HB, via Wikimedia commons

The fact is we’re all statistics to strangers anyway, the government above all.  We are vote-bearing numbers to be gerrymandered and prevented from voting.  Beyond that we’re merely annoying.  This pandemic has introduced Stalin’s accounting with a vengeance.  542,000 is a big number.  Unless you know one or more of them personally.  Then the statistics seem to melt.  Life is full of risk, of course.  We’ve barricaded ourselves in our homes for over a year now, eating things that are likely more dangerous for us than a rare complication.  The virus, and perhaps some vaccines, are among various killers on the loose.  Nobody can declare with any certainty the correct course of action.  Actually doing something about the virus when it was first a known threat would’ve helped, of course.  We find ourselves on the brink, it seems, of getting Trump’s disease under control.  Would that we all could do so, without having to worry about lying down to be counted.


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Clippings

Weren’t newspaper clippings more fun than bookmarks?  For one thing, bookmarks are hidden away in your browser where they proliferate like bunnies in April.  Clippings were always limited in number, to the level of your interest.  Or physical storage capacity.  I once decided to organize all my bookmarks into “folders.”  I’m still not finished and some websites don’t seem to fit any category.  Still, the exercise is an eye-opening one.  I’ve been on thousands of webpages, hundreds of which I want to remember.  With newspaper clippings, there were a limited supply and they felt—let’s face it—real.  These words and images were printed on tangible paper.  Kept in a file (or in old movies, tacked to a bulletin board that inevitably contained clues), they were visible reminders of something that caught your attention.

I’ve seen movies made where research is being done on the internet.  They involve people who know they have to go beyond the top page of a Google search.  They may even go to the third page or further!  Such thrills.  Compare that to a scene where someone pulls open a desk drawer and finds a clipping.  Isn’t there real drama there?  No doubt the internet has made finding information easier.  It has also proliferated it so that we no longer have time to read it all.  I recall reading how Isaac Asimov read the entire encyclopedia when he grew up.  Who could read all of Wikipedia?  It changes every single day.  The clipping file, depending on the papers and magazines to which you had access, might be pretty slim but it helped to inform opinions and outlooks.  There were occasional hoaxes but nobody worried about fake news back then.  After all, reputations still meant something in those days.

There was a real thrill, growing up in a small town, to being mentioned in the newspaper.  In my case it was generally about being in the Cub Scouts, or, interestingly, being baptized in a river.  (This was a small town.)  Ironically I didn’t have a clipping of the baptism story; I found it online.  The Franklin News-Herald wasn’t a large circulation broadsheet, but it was paper closest to where the incident took place.  Perhaps it struck a locals as odd seeing a bunch of people wading into the river fully clothed, even though it was 1970.  It’s an event I remember well.  But most of my clippings have flowed away over time, like those sins that were washed downstream that day.  I must remember to bookmark that site.


Street Teaching

When I’m out on the street—not so often these days—I’m sometimes accosted with strange questions.  This has happened to me quite a few times over the years.  Recently, when I was taking the recycling out for my daughter on a weekend visit, I saw a couple guys in a car right by the receptacle.  I was wearing a mask, due to, you know,  Covid, so I wanted to keep social distance.  The one in the driver’s seat asked if I was going to dump the recycling and when I said I was his partner said “I’ll take care of that for you.”  They had a plastic bag full of cans and were loading glass bottles in their trunk.  I thanked them for their help and turned to go.  As I was walking away one of them called out.

“Hey!  Are you a teacher?”  I get asked that a lot.  Only the academy refuses to recognize it.  I acknowledged that I used to be.  “What level?” they asked.  I allowed as I used to be a college professor.  “Where?” I told them most recently at Rutgers.  “What’d you teach?”  This is where it always gets interesting and I start to sweat a little.  I told them religious studies.  I also said that’s why I couldn’t find a teaching job.  “The best information we ever had on religion came from a six-year old.  You know what the F in faith stands for?”  I shook my head.  “Forgiveness.  Without that the rest of religion means nothing.”  I told them I could accept that.

Then as I was turning to go they called out, “You know the acronym for Love?  Living our values every day.”  I told them they were now the teachers and I was the student.  They responded by telling me that they’d just sold a song they co-wrote for a million and a half dollars.  I expressed surprise at that.  They told me the title and said it was recording in Nashville this week.  I congratulated them and finally was able to be on my way.  This made me reflect on the several such strange conversations I’ve had on the street.  They often begin with “Are you” and not infrequently end with “a professor.”  This is usually followed up with some kind of intelligent question.  People, it seems to me, are eager to learn.  Maybe not in the classroom, but in what is referred to as the “university of life.”  Perhaps that’s all the schooling we ever really need.


Helpful Horror

It’s pretty obvious when you meet one.  A horror fan, that is.  For one thing, they’re mostly decent people who often feel like outcasts for their tastes.  They also tend to have a well-developed critical sense for films.  While I’ve never actually met S. A. Bradley, I feel like I know him after reading Screaming with Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy.  This is a must-read for horror fans and it comes with enticing descriptions of movies you’ll want to see afterward.  Bradley’s range is truly exceptional.  Not only that, but his taste in films leads to an inherent trust that he won’t steer you wrong.  The movies he recommends—the ones that I’ve seen—wholly bear him out.  The man’s a connoisseur.

Perhaps it was because I, like Bradley, was raised in a very religious household, but his recognition that horror and religion are closely related really spoke to me.  With a similar radar toward the religious impact of horror, he notes at several points how the two interact. His discussion includes horror in music and literature as well as cinema.  The benefits of the genre are unapologetically discussed, including the relatively high proportion of women who direct horror compared to other genres.  Unlike other movie genres, horror suffers from a perennial bad image.  Bradley confronts why this is so and also why it is misguided.  The bias is deep and undeserved.  Ironically, many of the same kinds of criticisms are now being leveled at religions as well.

Bradley’s book isn’t about religion and horror.  As someone raised in a religious household and who used horror to cope, however, he understands how the two are related.  Horror can heal.  When those of us in similar settings come to realize that horror is offering a means of getting along in a cruel world, it answers questions in a way that theodicy can’t.  Horror can be an intellectual experience.  It can be thoughtful.  But what comes through here is that it is also honest.  Life is complex and difficult.  Horror doesn’t shy away from that, but brings it out into the open.  I’ve read many books that analyze horror, and there are many more yet to read.  Bradley does something a bit different from many of them—he writes from a broad experience both in life and in the genre and comes up with an eloquent statement about a genre often dismissed.  And those willing to read it come away the better for it.


Lines and Silver

If you’re thinking about silver linings, here’s one to ponder: waiting in lines has, with certain exceptions, disappeared during the pandemic.  Yes, some people waiting in line to be tested, others to be inoculated.  Early on lines were long to buy toilet paper.  By and large, however, waiting in lines has ceased for many of us.  For me that’s a silver lining.  Even from my youngest days I’ve found waiting in line problematic.  Not that I think I’m more important than other people—not at all—my mind keeps itself pretty active and standing in line has been one of the more difficult times to keep it engaged.  I generally keep a book with me.  The lack of mass-market paperbacks in the categories I tend to read, however, makes having a book in your jacket pocket difficult.

People standing in line are often surly.  It’s not always a great place to strike up a conversation, to improve your mind.  It is the epitome of wasted time.  Not just for me, but for everyone involved.  Learning to live mostly at home has greatly reduced that wasted time.  Interestingly, many people have reported being bored with their extra time.  Others of us find this small windfall just enough to keep in place as we continue sprinting along.  Regardless, the line waiting absence has been one silver lining.  When I was a student I used to call waiting in line a theological problem.  What I believe I meant was that time should not be wasted and your options were severely limited by standing in a queue.

For many people, I suspect, the smartphone has addressed the issue even before the pandemic came.  My smartphone has never been that much of a comfort to me, when it comes to time.  Although I’m on social media I don’t spend a whole lot of time on it.  It can easily become yet another way of spending time I don’t have to squander.  Reading ebooks on a small screen doesn’t really lead to any sense of accomplishment for me.  Perhaps I think about it too much, but it seems that real goals are met in the real world.  Ah, but this is meant to be a silver lining post, the lack of lines.  As the pandemic slowly dies down, queues will return.  Books won’t have grown any smaller in the meantime.  Perhaps I could use the time wisely by learning to explore the wonders of the universe in my pocket.  Just after, however, I finish this book in my hands.


Not Out Loud

I’ve been thinking of funny things lately.  Literally.  You see, while many of us are waiting for vaccines or any sign of hope, it’s natural to try to cheer oneself up.  I try reading books with the reputation of being funny.  I try looking for movies that IMDb tells me will make me laugh.  One thing I’ve discovered is that what’s truly funny is a matter of taste.  Some comedians make me laugh.  Others, well, don’t.  Books that I’m told are LOL (“laugh out loud”) funny often turn out to give me a snicker or two as I wend my way through the pages.  The “out loud” part remains elusive.  But it’s the movies that get to me most.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie that made me laugh from beginning to end.  “Sophomoric” is the word my wife used to describe most of the movies on online comedy recommendation lists.

I suppose funny is a matter of buying into lowest common denominator culture.  Education, if we’re honest, can knock the sense of humor out of you.  Besides, most movies have a story to tell and few stories are funny every step along the way.  During a pandemic you might well need something like that.  Of course you couldn’t go to the theater to see it if it came out.  There’s some fun stuff on the internet.  People I know will sometimes send me things that make me chuckle, but I’m guessing I need to step away from horror movies for a while to reacquaint myself with what’s funny.  I got so desperate the other day that I sat down and tried to make a list of the funniest movies I ever saw.  Then I looked at the lists I found online and saw little overlap.  Where to go for a good laugh?

Our sense of humor must have roots in our youth.  I really got into religion then, and I became a very serious teen—we’re talking eternal consequences here.  So much so that I had a conscious epiphany one day that I no longer laughed.  I needed to rebuild my sense of humor.  I tried buying funny books (which wasn’t easy in a town with no bookstores).  I tried to catch up with the others in school who were always talking about this or that funny movie they’d seen.  Of course, anything crude scandalized me then, so it had to be clean fun.  Now it’s a matter of trying to see if anyone gets my sense of humor.  After a year in lockdown we could all use a good laugh.


Rabbit Years

A childhood horror movie that I only recall in the most wispy of fringe memories is Night of the Lepus.  It’s one of those monster movies that involves mutated animals, in this case the unexpected rabbit.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but a little research indicated that it was based on the Russell Braddon novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit.  This book is out of print and still under copyright, so finding a copy wasn’t easy.  Apart from vague images of giant rabbits, I had no idea what to expect.  The book turned out to be a comedy horror, in that order.  Remembering that the movie wasn’t funny (although it is consistently considered one of the worst cinematic efforts of the time), I wasn’t prepared for this.

You see, I don’t like to read about books before I read them.  I don’t read cover copy.  (I tend not to watch movie trailers either, unless it can’t be helped, like when you’re in a theater.)  I suppose knowing a genre of a book helps, but I just wanted the experience of reading the story behind a movie that won’t completely vacate my memory cells.  The Year of the Angry Rabbit is a satire on government, war, and capitalism.  If you’re not expecting a serious horror story it’s quite funny.  Russell Braddon never became a household name—he was from Australia and a person’s cultural impact tends to be greatest on their own continent—but if you knew this was a satire from the start you’d probably enjoy it as such.  Although written in the sixties, it’s climax takes place at the millennium, now two decades past.  It’s always interesting to see what people thought we might be up to by now.

Although there are elements of humor to our politics, Orwell seems to have been more on the money than Braddon.  Nevertheless it’s important to keep the old stories alive.  There are still people like me who will seek out rather obscure novels from many decades ago.  They might have to have sat on library shelves for years without having been checked out—this used to be the glory of the library, before “evidence-based usage” studies ruined them.  I search for things I want to read in my local small town library and find that my tastes are too obscure.  Besides, old stuff has to be cleared out to make room for the more recent books hoi polloi wish to consume.  I’m glad they’re still reading.  For me, however, I’ll need to stretch back to a time before I was old enough to read to satisfy an unrelenting memory. It was rabbit years ago.


Around the Bible

Perhaps it’s happened to you.  You grow curious about something adjacent to the action in the Bible and you go online to find information.  Instead you discover that Google (or Ecosia—plant trees!) searches round you up time and again into the biblical realm.  It seems as if nobody is interested in exploring the world of the Bible not mentioned in the Bible itself.  This has been an avocation of mine all along.  After a while you get tired of hearing what yet another commentator has to say about the Bible itself and you start to want information on, say, places Jesus didn’t go.  A startling apathy meets you online. If it’s not mentioned in the Good Book it’s not worth knowing.  Now quite apart from sending me to the pre-biblical world for my doctoral work, this was also the impetus for Weathering the Psalms.  Nobody seemed particularly interested in the larger picture.

I’m guessing this has improved somewhat in the academy, but it doesn’t translate well to the web, at least not the versions available in America.  Searches for topics around the Bible always herd you back to the Bible itself, as if it is the only reason one might be asking about the weather, geography, or natural flora and fauna of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria.  Who’d possibly have such an interest for its own sake?  Our bibliocentric culture seems to feed into search-engine algorithms and brings up Scripture time and again.  Try this for maps, for example.  You’ll come up with plenty showing places the Bible names.  If it’s not named there, you won’t find much.  Curiosity for its own sake isn’t encouraged.

This is related to the phenomenon of trying to search for something you don’t know the name of, I suppose.  Those who post content on the web, if they want to be successful, anticipate what others are interested in.  What of those of us who think differently?  Some of us put unusual stuff on the web, but how do you find it if you can’t put it into words?  Secular society doesn’t have much interest in the Good Book.  I’ve suggested many times why I think this is misguided—the Bible is foundational for the American way of life, whether you’re religious or not.  You might think curiosity would abound on related topics.  The thing is you have to get through all the clutter to get there.  I guess we need to be archaeologists of the web.


Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.


Movie Demons

There’s an old tradition regarding demons that even discussing them is dangerous.  This was certainly in my mind as I wrote Nightmares with the Bible, as the topic is an uncomfortable one, at best.  A recent story by Paul Seaburn on Mysterious Universe references this danger in the title “Exorcist Claims ‘The Exorcist’ and Other Horror Movies are Sources for Actual Demons.”  Others have made similar suggestions that merely mentioning a demon is a form of summoning.  The post focuses on Fr. Ronnie Ablong, a Catholic priest in the Philippines, and an exorcist to boot.  Fr. Ablong claims that a number of recent cases involve fictitious demons from horror movies that possess those who watch them.  This is scary by implication and indeed is similar to what I learned growing up.

One of the things researching  Nightmares revealed was that demons in the ancient world come in many varieties.  There wasn’t one origin story behind them and ideas that make it seem that way had to evolve over time.  Of course, you can’t write a book like that without watching the movies and reading lots of books about demons.  It is a creepy thing until you start to reach the point where the material starts to break down.  In the case of Fr. Ablong, the demons come from movies, but often movie demons are based on ancient grimoires that name various entities.  The real question, and one which Seaburn raises, is whether such demons are real.  Given that we don’t know what demons are, and that some of the movies mentioned use made-up demons, such as Annabelle, it becomes suspect.

After finishing Nightmares with the Bible I was ready to put the subject aside for a while.  I’ve got other projects going and it’s important to have some balance, even in horror watching.  Still, the article caught my attention because it was one I’ve frequently heard—the danger of “opening doors.”  Often this is done unintentionally.  There’s no doubt that in the biblical world demons were frightening.  They still are.  Part of the reason is that they are so poorly defined.  In many more recent treatments they’ve become somewhat secularized, but they are, by their nature, religious monsters.  There is some truth to the Mysterious Universe story, however; our modern conception of demons goes back to the movie The Exorcist.  This is something I discuss at length in Nightmares and I don’t want to give too many spoilers here.  The topic, it seems, remains relevant even in our technological era.


Visualizing Twilight

Graphic novels still feel like cheating.  That childhood message that comic books “aren’t really reading” has proven difficult to dislodge.  That, and the fear that we are entering a post-literary world, keep me from reading many of them.  Koren Shadmi’s The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, however, caught my attention right away.  Like many other people my age, my thinking was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone.  As a kid, television had a kind of authority to it.  This is what adults were feeding us.  Although I was hardly intellectual then, I thought deeply about things and one of those things was The Twilight Zone.  The episodes were profound.  The twist endings certainly were among the best on the tube.  Shadmi’s graphic novel of Rod Serling’s life is a tribute to the influence the man had.

For a graphic treatment, The Twilight Man is strangely affective (yes, that’s spelled correctly).  I tend to shy away from hagiographies, and Shadmi’s treatment isn’t one.  It does illustrate, however, how Serling fought against a commercialism that would eventually win out.  Those who control the money control what we see.  Granted, the democratizing influence of the internet has let competition arise from unseen quarters—there are young people who watch YouTube to the exclusion of television altogether—but few shows manage the impact that The Twilight Zone had when there were only essentially three large networks.  Now we have so many choices that cultural reference points are rare.  Those who’ve never seen it, at least for the time being, know what The Twilight Zone is.

This book is biographical, based on published biographies.  There’s something about knowing, however, that the episodes actually happened.  Being in combat (as Serling was) puts some people into their own kind of limbo.  At least one person in my own family was irrevocably changed by fighting in a war.  The remarkable thing is that Serling came out of it wanting justice for all people. The book even points out that he became a Unitarian, although it doesn’t dwell on that point.  Some things, such as spiritual insights, are difficult to illustrate I suppose.  I can  see why Shadmi’s tribute receives good press.  Graphic novels are a means of telling a story that moves people.  I re-learn this each time I read one, which is something I rarely do.  Now that I’m starting to explore this genre I’m perhaps learning to address my own prejudices.  As long as there are still words to read.


Naming Easter

Today, for some, it’s Easter.  Others call the day Pascha, after the Hebrew word pasach, or “Passover.”  At its deepest roots it is a spring celebration timed around the vernal equinox.  The name “Easter,” however, has an interesting story.  All the more so for having missing parts.  There was apparently an Anglo-Saxon goddess named Eostre.  Since these Teutonic peoples didn’t have their own archives we only learn about the April festival dedicated to this dawn goddess from the Venerable Bede.  Being venerable, we tend to trust him.  He tells us that what is called Pascha used to be called Easter because of the goddess and her celebrations.  We’re often left, however, with not enough information about the deities of old Europe because, ironically, literacy had not come to them.

As we move into what publishers are calling post-literary culture, I have to wonder at the losses that will mean for the future.  We all know, deep down, that electronic media are ephemeral.  We just hope our bank accounts stay viable until we die so we don’t run out of money.  In any case, Easter is a good illustration of what historians and those interested in the development of ideas have to do when few written records exist.  We look at artifacts and images and make our best guess.  This is clearly evident in the field of studies of another goddess—Asherah—upon whom I lavished my dissertation.  We do have some written records, but for many scholars they aren’t enough.  We guess that this or that image might be of her, although they’re not labelled.  A similar problem applies to Eostre.

There is little doubt that a goddess named Eostre existed.  It makes perfect sense that she would be celebrated in April.  Before Daylight Saving Time was invented, it was light around 5 a.m. this time of year.  For early birds (historically we were in the majority) it would’ve been obvious.  The goddess of the dawn is coming back to us.  Shining in our eyes as we try to pry a little more slumber from a shortening night.  Early Christians tended to adapt rather than to reject  non-Christian celebrations.  The name of Easter is yet another of those conveniences.  Although it snowed a little around here on what some call Maundy Thursday, today Easter is here to remind us of resurrection.  Life does return and our daffodils, although they may be shivering, have bravely broken through the sod to greet the dawn.


Cherry Trees

Today is the predicted peak blooming of Washington’s famous cherry blossoms.  Although the trees were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo (before the United States bombed two Japanese cities into oblivion) they perhaps reinforce the myth of a boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.  I’m sure you know the story: Georgie cut down the tree and when his aristocratic father asked about it, knowing that he’d get in trouble, our founding father nevertheless confessed.  The incident never happened, as historians have long assured us, but it is part of American lore.  And perhaps a key to understanding American gullibility.  We like things that make us look great.  If a story shows that we’ve been honest even well before independence from Britain, well, we must be honest now.

Perhaps this is why so many people believed Trump, a president with a well-established and fully documented lifetime of lies.  The biggest one being, of course, that he cares about anyone other than himself.  Not content to accept facts, such as a closely monitored and fairly lost election, he espoused lies that are still causing shudders through the nation.  I, like many Americans, live in a “purple” town.  A few doors down from our house is that of a rabid Trump supporter.  Just two days ago I had to walk to the drug store about half a mile from here.  I walked past this house that had hung huge Trump banners right on the siding, in addition to one phallically jutting out from a flag bracket.  Now the house has huge American flags upside down.  Such things never happened, I’m pretty sure, when Bush lost to Clinton.  Or ever before.

Nobody with the ability to read can doubt Trump’s actual record of deceit and lies.  It is fairly well documented that he ran for president to help his business and promote his image rather than out of any concern for any other human being.  After sentencing over half-a-million Americans to death with Covid (about which he simply couldn’t be bothered to do anything), his followers (who numbered high among the victims) still clung to the lies.  Today the cherry trees, it is said, are blooming in Washington.  I believe it because I can check the facts and see if it’s so.  When I do I know that I’ll be thinking of George Washington and his fictional cherry tree.  I know it never happened.  Instead, I’ll focus on the beauty right before my eyes.