The Blue Room

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Adriano Cecioni, “Interior with a Figure,” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

“I’ve put you in the blue room,” the landlady of the respectable seaside boarding house had said. “I’m sure it will suit you.”

Lillie was at the boardinghouse to regain her health. She suffered from a nervous condition, according to her aunt’s physician. In his view, it was brought on by all the reading she did. She needed fresh air and exercise to cure her of her fancies.

They all said—her aunt and cousins—that she was too sensitive. Even more so since the young man she had hoped to marry was killed in the Crimean War. She always seemed more comfortable reading her books. Immersed in fictional worlds, she escaped the constant chatter and gossip of her cousins. Thus, while her aunt wasn’t looking, and despite the doctor’s orders, Lillie had slipped a book into her small travel bag.

On the first night in the blue room, tucked in bed under the warm quilt, she read her book, before blowing out the candle and drifting off to sleep. Somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, she sensed she was not alone. A luminous presence hovered nearby. “Lillie,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

The next night, he came again just as she fell asleep. This time he kissed her. She began to long for the nights and his caresses. She barely spoke to the other women staying in the boardinghouse, although they muttered about strange noises coming from her room at night. For three weeks, she sleepwalked through the days, but at night, in her dreams, she was alive with passion.

One morning, she did not come down for breakfast. They found her body in the blue room under the crisp, white sheets. A book was by her side, The Demon Lover.

 

This is in response to Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. –although I went over 200 words with this one. Oops.  The prompt was the painting above by Adriano Cecioni.

I had been thinking about Victorian views of women, medicine, and hysteria. I discovered after I wrote the story that there is well-known story called “The Demon Lover,” by Elizabeth Bowen. Written in 1945, it is about a woman affected by the Blitz in London, and who upon returning to her home there, find she may or may not have been contacted by her fiancé killed in WWI.

 

 

 

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

MONDAY MORNING MUSINGS

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

–William Shakespeare, The Tempest

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

–Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”

I had a dream the other night that I was explaining the difference between a comma and a semicolon to my niece’s six-year-old son.* Unlike my niece, he got it right away. (My niece is amazing, but she is the first to joke about her sometimes grammar-challenged writing.) Unfortunately, I don’t remember my great nephew’s dream sentences now, but they were kind of deep reflections of life and death in nature. It’s funny what we remember from dreams, and what we don’t.

I often have dreams of writing. I also dream of food and recipes I want to try. While finishing my forthcoming World of the American Revolution, I dreamt of editing primary sources. I actually saw and read texts in my dreams. In a half-conscious state I’ve written brilliant prose in my head (or so it seems) that I promptly forget once I’m up and about.

I’m waiting to dream of a masterpiece, something like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” For those unfamiliar with the poem, subtitled, “Or, a vision in a dream: A Fragment,” or with its origins, it is a well-known poem, one of the great works of Romantic poetry, a poem of beauty and imagery, and a poem of dreams. I can remember my dad reciting its opening lines. (You can read the poem here. ) Coleridge said the poem came to him while he was in the midst of an opium dream. While writing it down, he was interrupted by someone who came to his door. When Coleridge returned to his desk, he could not remember the rest of the poem.

Coleridge was an opium addict. Opium, in the form of laudanum, or a tincture of opium dissolved in a base of alcohol, was a common household medicine in the nineteenth-century in England and the United States. (The modern hypodermic needle was invented in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing morphine to be injected to relieve pain—and creating a group of Civil War veteran addicts, among others.) Laudanum did not require a prescription, and it often cost less than alcohol. Poor parents and unscrupulous nurses dosed infants with laudanum to keep them from crying from hunger or to induce sleep. Men and women took it to relieve the myriad pains of nineteenth-century life—everything from toothaches and menstrual pains to migraines, diarrhea, and severe coughing. It was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Many of the other Romantic Poets also took laudanum, although perhaps not as often or notably as Coleridge.

I would love to awaken with the memory of a brilliant book, poem, play, or other creative work that I could quickly write down before it disappeared from my memory. (I could say I dream of it, but I won’t.) Unlike Coleridge, I would have to do so without actually taking any mind-altering substance. Unless you include chocolate or caffeine, or an occasional glass of wine, as mind-altering–which I suppose they are in a kind of happy mouth-feel kind of way. Yes, I do dream of chocolate. You’re not surprised, are you?

If you have a cat or dog, you’ve probably seen them dreaming. Their bodies twitch and sometimes their legs move as if they’re running. I remember one of our dogs sometimes barked in her sleep. I always wonder if their dreams are happy and what they see. Dreaming must be necessary for them, as well as for humans.

Dreams are essential to human life–both the nighttime fantasies that take place as our brains process the events of the day, and the daydreams we all have. C’mon you do, too. Dreams can be scary. They can bring out inner demons and taunt us with visions of things that cannot be. At least not now. But the dreams of artists, scientists, explorers, and revolutionaries have led to discoveries and movements that have changed the world. Dreams are the visions of the real and the unreal that meet and mingle in our brains. Dreams twist time and space. Sometimes they even twist and shout.

Most Americans probably know of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” If you haven’t read or heard the entire speech, you can read and listen to it here. It is still soul-stirring.

Perhaps what’s odd is not that we have dreams, but that we seldom remember or act upon them.

* If anyone needs help with commas and semicolons, here’s a great post from The Oatmeal

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.”

–John Lennon, “Imagine”

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.

*******

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.