Books are a Bridge

Monday Morning Musings:

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Once again Jane Dougherty inspired me with a prompt—a muse for my musings.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”.

–William Styron, Interview, Writers at Work (1958)

 Books are a bridge to the mind,

A link between author and reader.

Across it

Ideas slither stealthily—or—

Stride boldly,

Characters stroll, march, and dance,

And

Emotions gallop with the force

Of an army.

When I was younger

I fell asleep while reading a book

And I was there.

Astride a horse in the north of England,

Speaking in a voice and accent

That are not my own.

The air was cold,

The horses warm,

And it was so real

That I remember it now

Decades later.

When I awoke

I was sad and wanted to return to this

Foreign land that was not mine.

But that I knew. Somehow.

From a book.

Who hasn’t wanted a wardrobe

That leads to an enchanted land?

Or wondered what it would be like

To go back in time?

To live in another world?

I lived the teenage emotions

Of Anne, feeling first love

And fighting with parents,

The joy of being alive

Even while crowded in

A secret annex during WWII.

And I wanted to not know

Her fate.

I also wished another fate

For another Anne,

Whose head would be parted

From her slender neck.

They placed traitors’ heads

On London Bridge,

A bridge of the living

And the dead.

But not hers,

Which was buried with her body

In the Tower

Where she had been a prisoner.

I read Hilary Mantel’s

Books of Thomas Cromwell

And Wolf Hall.

Tudor England became alive.

I sat at the table with Thomas More,

I rode on the river barges

I saw Cromwell with his family

And pet dogs,

A different side of the man.

I imagined it all

And so

I could hope while reading

That the story might be different

That history might change

And Queen Anne might live.

Still another Anne,

In another time and place,

That’s Anne with an “e,” please,

Delighted me with her love of big words

And the time she got her friend Diana drunk

And accidentally dyed her red hair green.

But I cried when Matthew died,

Didn’t you?

And when Beth, the third of the Little Women, died

I cried then, too.

I read the passage early in the morning

Lying in bed at my aunt’s house

Before anyone else was awake.

Books,  a refuge from the turmoil around me.

Jane Eyre, who became my friend,

Had a friend, Helen, who died in the horrid Lowood School,.

My school was nothing like that,

Although it had its horrors, too.

But that was long before she met Mr. Rochester

Or his mad wife in the attic.

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My daughter’s wedding fan.

I cried for the inhabitants of the plague village of Eyam

Brought alive by Geraldine Brooks,

This time reading late at night, an adult,

My husband already asleep,

But I could not stop turning the pages

Until I reached the end.

During graduate school,

Douglas Adams’s books brought some comic relief.

I laughed so much at his world of unwitting space travelers

That my husband had to read the books for himself.

Remember to bring a towel.

Good advice, always.

I’ve walked side-by-side with Wordsworth

And seen the host of golden daffodils

Beside the lake.

Haven’t you?

And haven’t you fallen down the hole with Alice

And learned to beware the Jabberwock

And not to drink or eat items

Simply because there are notes telling you to do so?

Recently I crossed a bridge with All the Light We Cannot See

To enter a new land

Where I felt the tiny houses that blind Marie-Laure

Could not see,

Smelled the salty air,

Felt the vibration of the bomb blasts,

Knew the wonder

Of an orphaned brother and sister

As they hear a voice and music

That traveled from Brittany

To Germany

As though by magic

To reach their ears.

And the book was magic, too.

Just last week, I closed the pages of Golden Age

The final book of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy

The saga of the Langdon family.

I experienced the history of the United States

Through their eyes

And experienced it with them—

Technology, wars, cults, births, and deaths

A farm in the Midwest,

A world in microcosm.

The final page was so brilliant and beautiful–

And perfect–

That I thought,

“I want to read this whole trilogy again.”

So many feelings and ideas

So many characters that I grow to love

All of these books–

And those yet to be discovered and read,

Old and new,

Crossing the bridge,

To new places

Entering my mind

And taking hold.

But the knowledge is sweet,

Minds, like hearts,

Can never be too full.

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Standing on the “Smoot Bridge” between Cambridge and Boston

Smoot Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Disease, Mortality, and Lessons from History

Monday Morning Musings

“Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.”

–Herodotus, The History of Herodotus

“The forms of diseases are many and the healing of them is manifold.”

— Hippocrates

I’ve been thinking about the intersection of disease and history. Stay with me here–both subjects have been much in the news. The word “history” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning inquiry or investigation. Historians investigate a variety of materials, and then we evaluate, interpret them using the available facts (which often change over time), and chronicle them. History is not a science, but science has its history.

The current outbreaks of measles here in the United States and elsewhere can be examined through a historical lens, as well as through scientific ones. For example, my own history: I had the measles, chicken pox, and many other childhood diseases because I was born before there were vaccines. According to one report, there were 102 reported cases of measles in the United States, in fourteen different states, that are linked to one outbreak in California. (See this.) As a child, I did receive the oral polio vaccine. Due to the effectiveness of that and subsequent vaccines, polio has nearly been eradicated.

As of January 2015, no new cases of polio have been seen in Nigeria or Syria, where there were cases found last year, but the disease still exists in the wild in Pakistan. This is a disease that can be eradicated. What many people do not realize is that one case of a disease such as polio can cause an epidemic. According to the World Health Organization:

“Despite the progress achieved since 1988, as long as a single child remains infected with polio virus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease. The polio virus can easily be imported into a polio-free country and can spread rapidly amongst unimmunized populations. Failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200, 000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”

World Health Organization. 2014

Polio cannot be cured, but it can be prevented through proper vaccination.

Measles can also be eradicated. Many young doctors have never seen actual cases of the disease because the vaccine is so effective. One could divide history in the United States into a before vaccination for childhood illnesses and a post vaccinations period. Look back at family histories—how many children were lost to not only diseases such as polio and measles, but also scarlet fever, whooping cough, and others? Measles can cause severe complications, and the disease can also be fatal. There is NO scientific link between measles vaccines and autism. There is no debate about the efficacy of vaccines. Some children cannot be vaccinated because they have cancer, allergies, or auto-immune problems, but parents who choose not to vaccinate healthy children put not only their children at risk of getting the disease, but also help to spread the disease to others.

Epidemics have changed the course of human life and events. Most people probably know of the plague, the “Black Death” that occurred throughout the world in waves in the mid-fourteenth century–and killed millions of people. Fleas carry the plague bacterium. Many have theorized that rats harbored the plague-ridden fleas over decades, which caused the epidemics to break out in waves of plague throughout the mid-to-later part of the fourteenth century.

Some scientists now believe that Asian gerbils brought the disease to Europe. By examining tree rings, the scientists determined that weather conditions in Europe during plague outbreaks were not particularly conducive to rats. However, whenever the weather was favorable to gerbils and fleas in central Asia, the plague bacteria appeared a few years later in European harbor towns, and then spread across Europe. Of course, anyone who has ever had to deal with fleas brought in my pets or people, knows that they easily hop to new warm bodies, so carrier fleas once introduced into new locations, could jump to mice, rats, cats, dogs, livestock, and people. Rats are not off the hook, but the black plague of the fourteenth century may not have originated with them. (See an article about the study here.)

After the fourteenth century, the plague periodically reappeared. In England, the Great Plague of 1665 is perhaps the next most famous plague period, but there were others. I came across this story about plague graffiti left in churches. The article features a bit of graffiti: the names Cateryn, Jane and Amee Maddyngley that were inscribed on the wall of a church in Cambridgeshire after the plague of 1515 broke out in London and spread to the south and east.

Although it is sad to think of the deaths and the survivor who wrote the names of these three sisters, I had immediate questions. First, an observation–how cool is it that there is church graffiti survey! Then I wondered who had left the graffiti. And why? Was it simply a memorial? Was there more? Did the survivor feel guilty? Was it a brother? Of course, the other obvious thought was that he or she (but probably more likely he) was literate, and I wondered about literacy in this 16th century English village. The article says the family was likely tenant farmers, which encompasses a great economic range. Perhaps the unknown graffiti artist attended one of the grammar schools that were established at this time. Because it’s unlikely that whoever left this graffiti left a record saying so, we will probably never know who inscribed these names, or most other church graffiti. But it is so interesting.

This is part of what makes the study of history fascinating and relevant. One can look at an event—the outbreak of plague in London in 1515–and from there follow all sorts of historical paths. It can lead to studies of epidemics, village life, family life, class, church history, agricultural history, and education, among others.

Recently in United States, some politicians have tried make the teaching of history in public schools fit their ideas of what should be taught, whether it is accurate or not. Some have attempted to rewrite or censor textbooks. Recently, Representative Daniel Fisher of Oklahoma introduced House Bill 1380 in the state to prohibit teaching the US History Advance Placement course there, unless it was changed to fit his ideas of what should be included in such a course. He and others who support him believe the AP US History course is not patriotic enough. Mr. Fisher lacks understanding of both the AP Course and US History. AP courses are designed to be similar to a first year college course. Students are expected to not merely memorize facts, but to investigate and analyze material, including a variety of primary texts. His version of required documents for US History included the Ten Commandments and the Magna Carta. The Ten Commandments should absolutely be studied—in a course on world culture or religions. The Magna Carta is important for a course in English history or government. Despite his desire to rewrite the past and influence the present, however, the United States is not and has never been a Christian nation, and “the Founding Fathers” were not all devout Christians. (See this.)

I agree that students—indeed all Americans—should be familiar with such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but how does it detract from the significance of these documents to know that many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders? Good and bad things have happened in the United States, and students should be aware of them. They should know that along with fighting for freedom during World War II, the United States also interred thousands of Japanese Americans. This is part of our history. Political documents, like works of art, are richer for knowing and understanding the context in which they were created. The Founding Fathers did not live in a bubble. They had wives, families, servants, and slaves. They suffered from chronic diseases and were often in pain. It is also important to know about the lives of the less famous, and to understand the context into which both famous and unknown people lived their lives.*

If we are to understand the past—or at least to make educated guesses–then we need to know about more than kings and presidents, the wealthy and educated. To understand the past, we need to examine its rats, fleas, and dirt, along with its shining surfaces, palaces, and plantations. We need to appreciate the devastation of an epidemic, as well as the glory of gaining independence. We need to look at the graffiti and scribbles, as well as the portraits and treatises.

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Next week, my new Monday Morning Musings history blog post will return to more familiar and delicious territory. But so I don’t leave you without mentioning food, here’s a report of an exhibit that used cake to depict disease. Look if you dare!

Also, two wonderful historical novels that focus on plague in England: Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, which also involves time travel. It’s one of my favorite books. Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, is based on a true story of a village in England that was struck by the plague in 1666. It is elegant and heartbreaking. I seem to remember reading it in one sitting, and crying.

*My World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO) should be out in September, at least that is what Amazon tells me!  It is full of information about things that Representative Fisher probably thinks are totally irrelevant.