Rough Winds of May

Monday Morning Musings

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.”
William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”

(Full text here.)

It’s been a week of horror and hope; a week of unforeseen occurrences and unexpected miracles. Rough winds have shaken the darling buds of May.

In Nepal, the death toll from last week’s earthquake has climbed to over 7,000. Thousands more are injured or unaccounted for. The death toll will no doubt rise, as people succumb to their injuries and diseases spread through contaminated food and water in makeshift camps. (BBC news article.)

In the midst of the tragedy, there have been all too few briefs glimpses of hope. A 5-month old baby pulled from the rubble after 22 hours. And a 101-year old man was rescued a week after the earthquake. It is unlikely now over a week after the tragedy that survivors will be found buried under rubble, although rescue attempts continue. Worldwide support is still needed. Rebuilding Nepal is going take time and money.

In other news, some of the women captured by Boko Haram were rescued. Survivors have told of the horrors they’ve experienced, the abuse and the deaths from malnutrition. So far, it does not appear that any of the Chibok schoolgirls who were abducted last year were among the rescued women. But the world rejoices that some of these women have been rescued. Horror and hope.

As the weather gets warmer, people flock outside to celebrate–and to protest. Here in the US, the nation watched the ignition of rage and flames in Baltimore, following the death of Freddie Gray, now ruled a homicide. Six police officers have been charged. For days, Baltimore was under a curfew, which has now been lifted.

For many, the protests, riots, and rage in Baltimore brought back memories of the 1960s. But May has often been a time of protests. May Day is designated International Workers’ Day. In the US, this appellation goes back to May 1, 1886, when workers sought an 8-hour working day, and over 300,000 workers across the country walked off their jobs. Chicago was the center of this movement. The strike started off peacefully, but workers continued to strike, and by May 3, almost 100, 000 Chicago workers had joined the strike. At the McCormick Reaper Works, violence broke out between armed Pinkerton guards and police and steelworkers who had been locked out. Tensions there had been escalating for 6 months. Police beat workers who retaliated by throwing rocks. Police fired and killed at least 2 workers. The next day, a rally was held at Haymarket Square. Once again, violence broke out, after detectives accused the speakers of using inflammatory speech and prevailed upon police to go after them. Later the mayor testified that the speakers had used no incendiary language. Someone set off a bomb—it is not known who it was. Some believe it could have been an agent provocateur who worked for the police. Police then fired into the crowd. Civilians and police officers died, and many more were injured. Eight anarchists were arrested, tried, and later hanged. Six years afterwards, the governor pardoned some of the organizers and publicly criticized the judge for his mockery of justice in the trial that convicted them. (This is a really brief summary. There’s a nice digital narrative with photos here.

Older than May protests, however, are traditions of May celebrations: Beltane, fertility festivals—the day to bring in the flowers, to go “a-maying, dance around a Maypole, and crown a May Queen. Bryn Mawr College has a May Day celebration every year. (I know because one of my daughters was an undergraduate there.)

Come, let us go while we are in our prime ;
And take the harmless folly of the time.
We shall grow old apace, and die
Before we know our liberty.
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun ;
And, as a vapour or a drop of rain
Once lost, can ne’er be found again,
So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade,
All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.

Robert Herrick, last stanza of “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”

Full text illustrated here with “Village Scene with Dance Around the May Pole.”
Pieter Brueghel, the Elder, 1634.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is best known for his carpe diem poems. (Is that a thing? I’m going to say it is.) In another poem, perhaps his most famous, he offered this advice (to virgins) to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” However, Herrick was a clergyman who lost his post during the English Civil War, but Charles II restored him to his position during the Restoration. Herrick also wrote religious poems. Perhaps he saw life from several perspectives—the beauty and rhythms of the rural areas, religious beliefs, the excesses and turmoil of war and the effect it has on a society, and the various ups and downs of life. He never married, and some believe the women he wrote of existed only in his imagination. Perhaps he imagined his life going a different way. In his 83 years he must have seen and experienced many changes. Nevertheless, there is truth—and value—to the idea that people should not postpone living and enjoying life because we might never know what will happen. At the same time, most people have friends, family, and coworkers–communities that depend upon us. So help others, help yourself, stand up against injustice, and be a good citizen of the world, but be moved by miracles, and take some time, if you can, to enjoy the flowers and life itself. Gather ye rosebuds and stop to smell them. Come, though rough winds blow, let’s go a-Maying.

Visions of May

“Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long”

–Jackson Browne

 

“And a bird overhead sang Follow,
And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
And the meaning of May was clear.”

–Algernon Charles Swinburne

 Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the surgical center, and I waited—of course. It was May first, May Day, the day of flowers and revolution, parades and Maypoles. In our region, torrential April showers the night before left flooded streets and hopes that now giant May blooms will spring forth. In any case, I waited. I edited three entries for my next book, checked Facebook, read part of a novel, and waited some more. My husband was having cataract surgery done. This was his second surgery; he’d had the first eye done a few weeks ago. He is fine (except for some extra pressure in his eye right now), and so thrilled to be able to see well. “I can read that!” he exclaims about words that appear on the screen when we watch TV.

         I marvel that surgery such as this—removing the lens from an eye and replacing it with a new lens is now “routine surgery.” Yes, I know every surgery carries risks, and I know that some people have had problems with cataract surgery—and probably every type of surgery—but still, I marvel.

         For the past week or so, I’ve been immersed in eighteenth-century medicine. I’ve read about Washington’s teeth—there was a man with some dental problems! I’ve thought about what women and doctors said about menstruation–and tried to imagine coping with that before disposable pads, tampons, or running water. I’ve examined documents about eighteenth-century epidemics and medical techniques. And so, though I long for the non-invasive medical techniques practiced by Dr. McCoy and Dr. Crusher on Star Trek in their respective Enterprise sick bays, I still marvel at how medicine has advanced from the eighteenth-century.

         All types of revolutions took place in the eighteenth-century. There was the revolution that gave my country, the United States of America, its independence. There was a revolution in France a few years later that toppled its monarchy, at least for a time. The revolution in Haiti ended slavery there and sent French masters to the new United States. But, there were also revolutions in science and scientific thinking, as men—and women—sought, as they have throughout time, to explain the world around them.

The changes to “scientific practices” were not always beneficial. For example, in the late eighteenth-century, Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine, delivered nearly 1,000 babies without any mother dying during delivery, and only five mothers died during the “lying-in” period. These rates were much lower than that of her contemporary physicians. Ballard, was a particularly skilled and conscientious mid-wife; some of the physicians who delivered babies did not have her skill or experience. In addition, physicians sometimes attended laboring mothers after they had examined seriously ill patients. Since this was before doctors and the lay public understood how diseases were spread or about the need for sanitary practices and sterilization (some people still don’t understand—like those people who don’t wash their hands in public restrooms. Ewwwww!), “advancement” in obstetrical techniques practiced by physicians sometimes led to more deaths of mothers than the traditional birthing procedures practiced by midwives.*

Still, I marvel. While working on my forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, I read several gruesome accounts of women undergoing mastectomies without anesthesia. The over diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer is a debate to have at another time, but I think all would agree that surgery without anesthesia, X-rays, and other modern surgical tools is not something we would want to experience.

I get so peeved when I hear people talk about the good old days that never really existed. There have always been wars, murders, rapes, stealing, and child molestation. Since ancient times, art, music, and storytelling have also existed. Humans have invented better and more efficient ways to kill, but we’ve always invented better ways to heal. We are complex, creative creatures, and sometimes also amazingly simple and stupid.

Some revolutions have brought death, but they have also brought freedom. Some revolutions have brought new ideas. Who know what this month of May will bring? I’m hoping for bright new visions—and flowers, of course.

 

 

Image

Longwood Gardens

* Further reading on eighteenth-century midwives and childbirth:

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. 1986. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scholten, Catherine M. 1985. Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850. New York: New York University Press.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 1990. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf.