Mothers’ Instinct

Maternity leave (not for me, but still) demonstrates just how sexist capitalism is.  This becomes very clear in publishing where schedules are reinforced by incentives (instead of paying properly) for meeting agreed-upon deadlines.  If an author gets pregnant while writing a book—not an unusual situation—it can throw shockwaves all through a book’s schedule from production all the way back up to editorial.  Why?  Because incentives are on the line.  It’s possible to counter with what if an author falls sick?  Or dies?  Yes, these happen too, but pregnancy isn’t an illness and isn’t infrequently a biologically constrained event—there is an age at which it ceases to become an issue.  So incentives, which are based on schedules drawn up before an author conceives, put the capitalist machine into a tizzy.

If employers didn’t rely on incentives, but paid better wages, this could make the issue less acute.  The entire system is devised from a male perspective.  Sickness and death do occur from time to time, but the invariability of a schedule (which ironically takes about nine months) is based on a view that doesn’t account for the somewhat likely event of a pregnancy.  I often think about this.  The corporate structure was made by men, for men.  We now give lip-service to equality while refusing to change the masculinist structure that underlies it.  By doing so the valuable contributions and improvements that women might make are kept under the standard business model.  No wonder it feels like we’re stuck in a rut.

Societal change is generally slow, and that conservative tendency preserves our property and our means of making a living.  If we gave women more prominence in leadership I would hope that this would start to change.  The male-oriented viewpoints of the capitalist entrepreneur, the stolid religious leader, and the halls of government, and even education, are reluctant to let people think differently.  We want to move forward, but we’re afraid of losing what we have.  This is why the conversation needs to widen.  Maternity leave reminds us that some things are more important than work.  Care for a helpless human being is something nearly all people would support.  It’s when they grow up that society feels it can safely ignore their needs.  We need a mother’s wisdom here.  Every time a pregnancy sets publication schedules in a frenzy I ask myself why we have to rely on incentives beyond just being the most human that we can be.


Savage Doc

Over the past several years I’ve written quite a lot about childhood books.  Despite my ambivalence toward the internet, it has made it easier to find books from years ago.  Since one of my Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge categories was a book from my childhood, my thoughts went to Doc Savage.  I haven’t written much about the Doc on this blog.  I think I can understand why now.  Doc Savage, I suspect, was one line of inspiration for Indiana Jones, although the latter was much more of a hapless sort of adventurer.  Kenneth Robeson was a pseudonym mostly for Lester Dent, the author of many of the pulp fiction stories about Doc.  As a forerunner of the superheroes that were shortly to appear, Savage was a “Mary Sue”—a literary character with no faults.  The stories were originally written in the 1930s and ‘40s.

As a child I read many of these novels, beginning in sixth or seventh grade.  I recently found a used copy of Brand of the Werewolf, which I read as part of my challenge this year and I was embarrassed by what I found.  Not that Doc’s perfection came as a surprise.  No, my embarrassment was at the racial stereotypes that were so blatantly on display.  This particular story caricatures African-Americans, American Indians, and Spaniards.  It does so unselfconsciously with an air of entitlement that made me ill.  Sure, all characters suffer by comparison to Doc Savage, but those who aren’t “white” (or bronze, in context), are throw-away characters.  Unless, of course, they are pretty girls.  If so we’re reminded every time that they are pretty.

No wonder our culture remains so intolerant of difference!  Here the default human being is the white male.  Even Doc’s female cousin (pretty, of course) doesn’t really help at all.  The entire scandal is uncovered and resolved by the white man.  I realize that I might be putting too much stress on a pulp that just can bear much weight, but I do wonder about how such stereotypical messages, repeated decade after decade, blend into the cultural stew in which we all soak.  I was by no means the only tween reading these books in the 1970s, some three or four decades after they’d been published.  A friend of mine got me started on reading them, and they were still popular books at the time.  We need, it seems, to be aware that our prejudices will live on in our words after we’re gone.  And after all that there wasn’t even a werewolf in the book.  Childhood memories are sometimes unclear.


Sea Romance

Sea shanties seem to be one of the early rages of 2021.  I’ll likely address this as a separate topic soon, but today I would note their appropriateness for discussing Melissa Broder’s The Pieces.  Despite my earlier concern about the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for this year, my family helped me put one together.  You see, January has become a bookish month for us.  Not only are books frequent holiday gifts, they are also a great way to anticipate a year of reading.  One of my categories was a book that makes you laugh out loud.  For help in selecting such a book I consulted some websites and found The Pieces so listed a few times.  The tie-in for sea shanties?  It’s the story of a woman’s love affair with a merman.

What defines a book as laugh-out-loud funny is largely the reader.  Yes, this is an amusing story with several parts that make the reader smile (or blush), but it seems to this reader a much more serious story than many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the idea of a merman makes it less reality based that much straightforward literary fiction, but the protagonist is portrayed as dealing with very real human relationship issues.  These made my reading of the book a pretty serious one.  When a person feels inadequately loved, it’s no laughing matter.  Sometimes such people (as the protagonist is portrayed as being) are driven to desperate measures, as the book suggests.  Perhaps some people find this funny, but others of us see a serious message dressed up in fiction.

Part of the draw here is clearly the romance of the sea.  Lucy (the narrator/protagonist) begins her relationship with Theo (the merman) because of the abusive kinds of relationships men have presented her with.  It’s a sign of Broder’s writing ability that she can make this kind of story lighthearted enough that some would call it hilarious or laugh-out-loud funny.  For me, however, when the issues raised are serious, even when couched in humor, there are underlying issues of sober import.  Relationships are complex.  Since the speculative element of a merman is thrown into the mix, it seems, many readers think the story is funny.  This despite the suicide attempts of one of Lucy’s friends and the death of the dog she’s watching for her sister.  For me laugh-out-loud books either have no serious consequences or dismiss such consequences as laughable in themselves.  The Pieces, however, made me think and, ironically, take a renewed interest in sea shanties.


BLM, MLK, and Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. was a martyr.  The word martyr means “witness.”  Given what we’ve all seen done by the Republican Party over the past two weeks, let’s hope they at least know the meaning of the word repentance.  King died trying to set people free.  Half a century later we’ve had to witness a sitting US president praising an armed mob, some of whom were carrying confederate flags, storm the Capitol.  Then, that very night, we watched Republicans still attempt to repress legitimate votes in order to keep white supremacy in power.  The set-backs of the Trump administration will take years to overcome.  King stood for equality.  He called for fair treatment.  He knew his Bible.  Now those who cynically hold the Good Book up for the camera can’t quote it but can tear down everything it stands for.

We need Martin Luther King Day.  This year especially.  We need to be reminded that all people deserve fair treatment.  Justice isn’t a meaningless word.  The color of one’s skin is no indicator of inherent worth—that belongs to everybody.  Throughout the country there are heartfelt memorials to King.  The various Trump towers—often segregated and reserved for the wealthy—are monuments of a different sort.  There is power in symbols.  Those who praise and crave money above human need will ultimately be remembered for how evil seeped into their bones.  How hatred of others and narcissism defined their rotten moral core.  Today we try to focus on a good example, but present reality keeps getting in the way.

Four years ago I joined about 1.3 million marchers in Washington, DC.  The Women’s March, as estimated by government officials on the ground, was more than twice as large as the media estimates still tout.  I’ve puzzled over this for four years—why when an oppressed group makes a stand officials and pundits feel the need to downplay it.  King made a stand and he had a dream that one day we wouldn’t have to make marches on Washington just so that everyone could have the equal treatment they deserve.  Human rights are the only rights we have.  Even as some haters are planning further acts of violence to object to a humanitarian president, we are given a necessary reminder that all people deserve fair treatment.  Black lives do matter.  Why has half a century not been enough to assimilate that simple message?  We need to sober up from the drunkenness of irresponsible power.  We need to learn the simple fact that nobody should be killed for being black.  That whiteness is toxic.  That we need to call out those who would use privilege to claim otherwise.


Yankee Doodle

Some books stay with you in a way that hits very close to the nerve.  Since I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court many years ago, memories of how it left me feeling prevented me from re-reading it.  That’s pretty unusual for Twain, in my experience.  I’ve read some of his other novels and there’s not a similar feeling toward them.  The racist elements are disturbing, but overall the stories manage to overcome some of the darkness with either levity or sarcasm.  The scenes that scared me off from re-reading Connecticut Yankee were the two episodes in which young women were murdered.  I realize Twain was simply being honest here regarding the cheapness of life in medieval times, but I found both these instances so saddening that I had a difficult time coming back to it.

Now, some two or three decades later the book speaks to me in a new way.  Something else I recently read reminded me of it, and I was struck at just how much Twain’s Arthurian peasants resemble the unthinking crowds of Americans who simply accept what people like Trump say.  One of Hank Morgan’s banes is how the uneducated refuse to question what they’re told.  In many ways this is humorously narrated but a dark undercurrent remains behind.  Twain had clearly supposed that nineteenth-century America had overcome this brainless gullibility.  A century and a half after Twain’s Connecticut Yankee we’ve clearly been involved in retrograde motion.  Twain levels much of the blame on the church.  His choice comments in this regard also still apply.

“I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty and paralysis to human thought.”  So Morgan states in chapter 10, and indeed, in the novel it is the church that largely leads to the downfall of the civilization Morgan had built.  Or again, in chapter 17: “I will say this much for the nobility:  that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.  Nothing could divert them from the regular and faithful performance of the pieties enjoined by the Church.”  Twain couldn’t admit in public,  even in his own nineteenth-century life, what he really thought about organized religion.  It’s pretty plain in his fiction, but disguising fact as fantasy is a tried and true method of getting at the truth.  If I weren’t so sensitive to the human plight, I might read it more often.


Biblerama

Perhaps you’ve heard—the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Stop the presses!  I’m sure that everyone has been anticipating this as much as biblical scholars have!  If you’ve not been able to feel the buzz maybe it’s because you’re not in the Bible publishing business.  As the discussions have been going on (rights holders are of course consulting with publishers, because that’s where the money is) a great deal of energy goes into deciding what exactly to call it.  And since Christianity is so fragmented there have to be different versions of the versions.  Some include the apocrypha and others do not.  Some prefer British spelling and others American.  Imperial interests are important, even when it comes to Scriptures.  What may be overlooked in these developments is the connection to the most influential English translation, the King James.

The King James Version was not the first English translation of the Bible, but it was the version that captured the imagination of some as directly inspired by God.  Strangely enough, King James onlyists can seldom name the translators who apparently had the divine mouth to their ears, but never mind that.  The KJV held immense sway especially among literalists because it is so quotable.  In the 1950s it was revised.  (There are, by the way, several differing versions of the King James Version, and the original included the apocrypha.)  That first major revision came to be known as the Revised Standard Version.  Translators seldom begin their task with what original language manuscripts they can find; new translations are based on existing translations in families.  It’s okay, we’re all related.

Bible closet

When I was a kid the RSV (Revised Standard Version) was considered pretty good by many.  Hardly an overwhelming affirmation, but still, it’s something.  The real concern began when the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came out in the eighties.  The reason?  It used inclusive language!  See what happens when you allow women to read?  Ironically, the book that has been used for centuries to liberate white men is something you want to keep out of the hands of women and non-whites unless you make it clear that everyone from Adam to Jesus and Paul was a white man and this is his story.  Now the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Nobody’s quite yet sure how it will be denominated.  And this is only one family in a vast genealogy of Bible translations.  If you’re not in the Bible business, you’re missing all the excitement.


Favorite Color

Blue has always been my favorite color.  Even growing up Republican, I preferred it.  Like many Americans I awoke last Wednesday to a national map mostly red and pink, and watched gradually as more and more states turned blue.  I don’t mind confessing I wept when Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania.  These past four years have been torture against all that’s descent and humane.  White people killing blacks and being told there are very fine people on both sides of the issue.  Watching a virus run out of control here like nowhere else in the world because one man can’t be bothered with the troubles of 330 million (stop and think about that number) people.  A man personally enriching himself while not paying his own taxes and getting breaks for those wealthy like himself.  Endless lies.  Loud, brash, and crude.  Groping women as if they are commodities to be owned.

We have, at the embarrassingly late age of 244, finally elected a female vice-president.  Many other nations have realized that gender should not be the basis for electing leaders.  Poisoned by various forms of Christianity that assert male superiority, our culture has feared female leadership since it has become a real possibility.  I voted for Geraldine Ferraro as much as for Walter Mondale in that fateful year of 1984.  We’ve actually reached Orwell’s vision of it in 2016, but now it seems there might be legitimate hope.  I could never have imagined a presidency that would make me think Nixon, Reagan, and Bush weren’t so bad after all.  (And they weren’t good.)  This reconstruction of the Republican Party has been courtesy of the religious right, which is really neither.

Today, however, I’m enjoying my favorite color and thinking that hopefully we’ll have some peaceful years to work on true equity and the ideals on which this nation was founded.  I’m hoping it will signal to the other fascists of the world that gaming elections only works if people with consciences are complacent.  I’ve been told that many Trump supporters think Democrats incite violence.  The Dems I know are tree-hugging, owl-saving, vegan types.  We value all people, even Republicans, and ask only that all people be accepted.  We don’t tote weapons to state houses or threaten those who are counting ballots.  Yes, we may fear election outcomes—we’re just humans—but we believe in the process.  The many protests in which I’ve marched over the past four years have all been peaceful.  And I breathe, as I tear up again at the sight of blue, dona nobis pacem.


Really Celebrate

It’s a dilemma.  How do we celebrate Mother’s Day during a lockdown?  The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things.  Given that it was snowing around here yesterday (not to be blamed on the virus), even May doesn’t seem very cooperative this year.  On Friday night I made an emergency trip to Target for essentials.  One of my ulterior motives was to purchase a Mother’s Day card for my wife.  Given the lack of social distancing at the card rack, I wasn’t the only one who had this in mind.  The remainder of the store had shelves of daily necessities picked clean.  How to celebrate moms during a pandemic?  I guess by trying to stay alive.

Those of us far from childhood homes can’t visit our mothers.  Even if we could we couldn’t take them out for dinner.  If we send flowers we can’t send gloves to protect their fingers—the stores are out of those.  If we send flowers to plant we have to send plastic to cover them too, having had four nights with freeze warnings in a row.  Talking to my Mom yesterday she recollected the year that it snowed on Memorial Day.  I shouldn’t complain.  Mom would rather I didn’t.

Perhaps the best we can do for Mother’s Day is to start treating all women better.  One commemorative day a year doesn’t make up for a lifetime of second-class citizenship.  Our mothers are the reason all of us are here.  Isn’t that reason enough to see we’re all part of a single family?  Women put up with a lot to take care of us.  Even so we deny them an amendment granting them equal rights.  Politicians are saying “Happy Mother’s Day” even as they continue to withhold basic human rights from women.  We could celebrate Mother’s Day by putting our sentiments into action, transforming daily life into equal pay and equal protections.

There’s a pandemic outside.  There’s some snow out there too.  But there’s a warmth inside and for that we have our mothers to thank.  If we really mean it when we send our mothers cards and flowers, if we really mean it when we call, if we really mean it when we give her a hug, we’ll show it by our actions every other day of the year.  We need to be sincere when we say it, or don’t say it at all.  Happy Mother’s Day!


Learning To Fly

It’s perhaps the most deeply rooted human dream.  Flying.  Women Who Fly, by Serinity Young, is a fascinating book.  Subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, the book covers all of these and more.  The dream of flying is played out in many ways here, but often the narrative comes back to how patriarchy imprisons women.  Is it any wonder they want to fly?  Very wide in historical scope, the book can’t cover all cases in equal depth.  It nevertheless demonstrates how pervasive the idea is.  Beginning with ancient female figurines bearing bird-like features, Young moves through the related concepts of captivity, transcendence, sexuality, and immortality, showing how female characters are related to these idea in universal and unrelenting ways in the form of flying females.

There are many lenses through which to view patriarchy.  It can be explained as a consequence of settled agricultural existence with its subsequent division of labor.  Such a scenario raises questions of whether women dreamed of flight before that, and I believe the answer must be yes.  For as long as we’ve observed birds and associated the sky with gods we have longed for flight.  Although birds make it look easy, it is an incredibly difficult and costly adaptation.  Still, women dream of travel without obstacles (let the reader understand) to the realms where deities dwell.  It is difficult to summarize a book that covers so much historical territory.  Young doesn’t limit herself to western religions but also spends a fair bit of time among Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist ideas of flying women.  She covers mythical, folkloristic, human, and historical flying females all the way up to modern astronauts.

As I was coming to the close of the book the real message hit me—I can be thick at times, although much of my own writing is metaphorical—men have actively tried to clip women’s wings for a long time.  Often under the auspices of religion.  Think of it: for centuries of existence the major monotheistic traditions have refused female leadership.  The one (inevitably male) god has set up a boys’ club of sacerdotal leadership.  As Young points out, even the named angels in the Bible are male.  I used to comfort myself with the explanation that male leaders were simply too self-centered to consider others, but it is becoming clearer, the more I read, that men have always had a tendency to try to keep women down.  And thus they fly.  There’s much in this book for both women and men to ponder.


Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.


Half of Us

Today is International Women’s Day.  We need to pause a moment and think.  We can’t change the past, but we can improve on it.  I think it’s fair to say that historically—before the Enlightenment anyway—domestic arrangements were the product of evolution rather than intention.  Like religion, however, domestic arrangements have a difficult time keeping up with change in real time.  By the time healthcare improved and women’s chances of surviving childbearing grew, men had become set in their ways.  Even now we still have trouble getting a female on a presidential ballot in “the most advanced” country in the world.  The week before International Women’s Day Elizabeth Warren stepped out of the race.  The rational world is so desperate to get the anomaly out of the White House that it hasn’t really dawned what a lost opportunity this was.

Although for most of history their roles have been hidden, half the advances of the human race belong fairly to women.  Males often have difficulty admitting that they require help, or had any assistance getting to where they are.  In fact, though, we know they had mothers and those mothers helped make them who they were.  Many of them had spouses who kept the situation stable enough that they could go on and follow their preoccupations.  History, unfortunately, would record only the names of the men.  In the western world this was often reflected in the changing of names during marriage.  Domesticity comes with a price, but it can be balanced out.

Capitalism, it seems to me, rewards the greedy.  Instead of evening things out so that those who don’t have the same opportunities can be cared for, our economic system rewards selfishness.  I often wonder if women would’ve been so suppressed had a more humane measure of human worth been adopted.  When I think of billionaires whose names I’ve never heard of before, I always mentally add, “they wouldn’t be billionaires if the rest of us refused to play the game.”  It’s only because we agree to an arbitrary and artificial valuing system that we allow the obscure to “own” far more than the rest of us.  Women, it seems to me, would know the realities of this way better than most men do.  What if the value system we shared measured worth in having had a mother?  It’s something we all share.  Yet in this nation we still haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment.  The time has come to ask ourselves what’s really important.  Today should be the answer.


Ash + Hera

I’ve obviously been reading about the Greek gods.  Apart from being borrowed and renamed by the Romans they’ve remained pretty much unchanged through the millennia.  Those who read a blog like this will recognize the names of many Olympians and would recognize the name of the head honcho as Zeus.  The name of Zeus is Indo-European—this is a linguistic group, and not necessarily an ethnic one.  That is to say, the languages of ancient India and ancient Europe are related.  Zeus, it has been postulated, is related to the word Deus, familiar to many Catholics as a Latin word for God.  In antiquity most gods had personal names as well as titles, but this is something we see a little more clearly in the Semitic linguistic realm.  The texts of the Bible and its surrounding cultures often preserve titles as well as names.

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, via WikiMedia Commons

Hera is widely recognized as the consort of Zeus.  It’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to divine couples as “spouses” since they really don’t comport themselves according to human-style conventions.  In any case, Hera in Greek mythology is an underdeveloped character.  She’s jealous of Zeus’ many affairs, and she sometimes punishes his children by other women or goddesses.  Her name is a bit of a mystery, and the other day I was trying to remember where I’d read that she may be a shortened form of Asherah.  My research on Asherah is now nearly old enough to fit in with the classics, but much of it still remains fresh in my mind.  In any case, the reasoning went like this: Asherah always appears as the consort of the high god.  The Greek Zeus was clearly influenced by Semitic ideas associated with Hadad, or Baal.  And while Asherah was not Baal’s consort, Zeus is clearly the high god so his main squeeze should be that of the highest order.

Greek, as a language, had trouble beginning words with a vowel followed by the “sh” sound, like Asherah.  The argument went that if you knock the “as” off the front of that divine name you’re left with Herah, and the final h isn’t pronounced anyway.  This line of reasoning always made sense to me.  Deities in antiquity were defined more by what they did than by what their names were.  In a patriarchal world, being the consort of the highest male was about the most a goddess could aspire to.  Still, we all know of the more colorful individuals who take a more forward position: Athena and Artemis—both powerful virgins—and the somewhat more naughty Aphrodite.  All those names beginning with alpha!  They could teach us something today, I suspect, if we read our classics.


Human HU

In these times of extreme xenophobia, we desperately need to understand those who are different.  When my brother recently shared his discovery of The HU’s album The Gereg, I was at first a little concerned.  That deep-seated childhood evangelicalism suggests anything that unfamiliar is bound to be satanic.  How unfamiliar?  Mongolian throat-singing unfamiliar.  Songs sung in Mongolian, unfamiliar.  Album art that could be heavy metal.  I’d never come across anything like it.  I suppose it’s a natural, knee-jerk reaction to say anything so unfamiliar is potentially demonic, and it shows just how paranoid a culture can be.  We think of 1950’s America as “the norm.”  I wasn’t alive then, but I’ve seen pictures.  Buzz cuts still give me the willies.  I trust Mongolians more.

I don’t know if The HU is a deliberate play on The Who or not, but the word roughly translates to “human.”  Like many ancient practices, nobody thought to write down the origins of throat singing.  Traditionally it was what Inuit women did when men were out on the hunt.  Like many aspects of hunter-gatherer society, it fascinates.  Some cultures reported that when Christian missionaries came, with their cultural imperialism in tow, they suppressed throat singing.  It looks like I wasn’t the only one raised to be suspicious of that which is different.  I learned, however, of my own cultural biases.  I learned that ones’ own assumptions must be interrogated.  If humanity is to survive, we must learn to try to understand one another.

Although the actual roots of throat singing are lost in unwritten times, I strongly suspect it has a religious, or if you prefer, spiritual, origin.  When women gather it isn’t the same as when men consolidate power and institutionalize violence.  I’ve read that when women rule there is a strong impulse to cooperate, to suppress aggression.  Men can learn this.  Indeed, as those white, male missionaries took up their positions in far-flung parts of the globe they spread the idea that men alone held the divine right of, if not kings, priests.  Conversion, you see, is seldom gentle.  Making the world in your own image, if you’re a man, runs into certain obvious problems right away.  HU means human.  When I feel the cold paranoia of my own government creeping up on me, I cue-up the soundtrack of my life.  I’m no longer a young man, and I don’t fear the different as much as I used to.  I need to hear something different, something human.


Shifting Perspectives

Perspective.  The ability to change it is vital to understanding.  I’ve been working with the idea of demons for a few years now.  My perspective, however, has been aided by Nancy Caciola’s Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages.  Noting something that has long been a puzzle—behaviors attributed to saints were also recognized among the demonically possessed—Caciola suggests a solution.  In the Middle Ages very few female saints were canonized.  Delving into records from the period Caciola noticed that when saintly behaviors exhibited by men were experienced by women those behaviors were deemed demonic.  In other words, from a perspective that saw masculine experience as normative, when supernatural events were encountered in women they were seen as diabolical.  Using Hildegard of Bingen’s frame of an “effeminate age,” Discerning Spirits explores the idea of how the Medievals told good from evil.

 My own experience of “discerning spirits” came about through a United Methodist curricular study on spiritual gifts.  I was in either junior or senior high school, and deeply involved in the church.  An adult study (I was close enough) on spiritual gifts explained the laundry list compiled by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  The apostle from Tarsus notes that discerning spirits is a divine gift.  I trembled as a teen, wondering if I might possibly have it (that was the point of the study).  It seemed like an immense responsibility.  The issue, it turns out, was nothing new.  Since codified in the Bible it had to be true, but what was it all about?  Smarter people than me were struggling with it.

There’s plenty of provocative and explanatory information in Discerning Spirits.  From ancient times it was understood that gods could possess people.  By the New Testament demons clearly could too.  We hear less and less about divine possession as time goes on.  In fact, it becomes a kind of heresy in itself.  Demonic possession was never really in doubt.  It fell out of favor with the Enlightenment, but it didn’t really disappear.  This book shows a clear trajectory from women’s possession as being demonic straight toward the witch craze that erupted in Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages.  It was no coincidence that the majority of accused witches were female.  The perspective had shifted with the fortunes of the church during the Medieval period.  Fear of schism and fear of unsupervised spirituality in a world where only men could be priests led to results that, in hindsight, look inevitable.  Caciola’s book is an important source for not only ages past, but also a mindset all too prevalent in our present world.


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.