books, literature, research, Uncategorized, writing

The Cycle of Life in Books

When I began my master’s degree program in history I quickly discovered that the ancient history professor believed in books. He taught all the best classes–ancient history was my primary interest–and so I saw a lot of him. He would routinely assign twenty books per semester-long class. We would then discuss the ideas and approaches the writers took. He also said that you cannot really understand a civilization without two things: knowing their language, and reading their stories.Language wasn’t my strength. But books? Yes, I could get behind that.

We read Gilgamesh when we studied the ancient Mesopotamian hero, and parts of the Bible, and Greek poetry, and Roman plays. He told us the story of the Roman Triumph, when a victorious general, at the height of his glory and manliness, would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome with the crowd lining the streets in adoration. Occupying the chariot next to him was a slave, who held a gold crown above his head. He would also whisper in the general’s ear, “Remember, you are mortal.”

There is a time for life, and glory, and triumph. And there is a time for death. Medieval people knew this as well, surrounded by death as they were, from plagues and accidents and wars. They would often show a skull in art, a memento mori. A reminder of death.

young_man_with_a_skull2c_frans_hals2c_national_gallery2c_london
Young Man with a Skull, Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666), Wikipedia Commons Public Domain

A popular poem during this age was “Erthe upon Erthe”, written in Middle English. It was often inscribed on the front or back pages of books.

English translation:

Earth has been miraculously created out of earth
Earth has attained a high position on earth out of nothing
Earth has fixed all his thoughts
On trying to raise earth to heaven on earth

Earth wants to be an earthly king
But earth doesn’t have a clue how on earth to go about it
When earth breeds earth and brings his reward home
Earth and earth will have to bid each other a tragic farewell

Remember, o man, that you are ashes
And into ashes you will return

Earth conquers castles and towers on earth
Then says earth to the earth, “All of this belongs to us”
When earth has built up his defences on earth
That is when earth will really get his come-uppance from earth

Earth is piled up on earth like dirt on dirt
He who swans around the earth, glittering like gold
As though earth won’t really have to return to earth
Will soon find earth indeed becoming earth again, no matter how much he tries to fight it

I really wonder why earth loves earth
Or why earth should toil and work for earth’s sake
Because when earth is brought to the earth of his grave
Earth back in the earth will stink to high heaven

books-1283923_640
Kaz/Pixabay

In Middle English:

Erthe out of erthe is wonderly wroghte
Erthe hase geten one erthe a dignite of noghte
Erthe upon erthe hase sett alle his thoghte
How that erthe upon erthe may be heghe broghte

Erthe upon erthe wolde be a kinge
Bot how erthe to erthe shall thinkes he no thinge
When erthe bredes erthe and his rentes home bringe
Thane shall erthe of erthe have full harde parting

Memento, homo, quad cinis es
Et in cenerem reverteris

Erthe upon erthe winnes castells and towrres
Thane sayse erthe unto erthe, “This es al ourres”
When erthe upon erthe has bigged up his barres
Thane shall erthe for erthe suffere sharpe scowrres

Erthe goes upon erthe as molde upon molde
He that gose upon erthe, gleterande as golde
Like erthe never more go to erthe sholde
And yitt shall erthe unto erthe ga rathere than he wolde

Whye erthe lurves erthe, wondere me thinke
Or why erthe for erthe sholde other swete or swinke
For when erthe upon erthe has broughte within brinke
Thane shall erthe of erthe have a foul stinke

You can see from this poem that memento mori was on the anonymous author’s mind. To dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.

We no longer put such morbid thoughts in our book dedications, instead choosing to honor loved ones or mentors. Perhaps, though, we should remember, like that Roman general of old, that one day we, too, will be gone. I try to do so in order to keep from being lulled into the complacence that everyday life brings. It reminds me to work, to create, to write while I still can. Memento mori.

 

 

history, research, travel, Uncategorized, US history

1920’s Postcard America

My mom passed away last February, old and full of years, as the Bible says. With her passed a bygone era, at least for me: farm life in rural Pennsylvania. From a family of Mennonites, frugality, simplicity, and family were the paramount values. She carried these with her whole life, as well as other things.

Mainly, junk.

Yes, I said it. I love my mother dearly (I can’t use the past tense because I still love her even though she’s gone) but she did tend to keep things way too long. Going through her stuff is a lengthy process that involves much head-shaking. Why did you keep this 1980’s era badge from when you worked in a convenience store, mom? Why did you keep every piece of crappy jewelry I had as a teenager – even when it was broken or missing pieces (one earring)? Just … why?

I think the answer lies in the “frugality” I mentioned above. Born in the late ’30s, she came into an America still in the grips of the Great Depression, when jobs were as scarce as consumer goods. Her frugality would be considered poverty today. And as anyone who has struggled with it knows, it leaves scars. And also thrifty habits. Believe me, I am grateful for learning how to get a dollar’s worth at the store. I’m also grateful for the memories of button boxes, homemade clothes, and the do-it-yourself ethos. Reusing the old green toilet cover as landscaping did seem to be taking it a bit too far, though.

Anyhow, along with the junk she also kept lots and lots of pictures, slides, and cards. I came across these lovely 1920s postcards during my search, some which were sent by my grandfather, who passed away in the ’70s. We live in a much different world today when it comes to travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country several times and flown all over the world. But up until the interstate system came into being in 1956 (and not completed for 35 years) it was a royal pain to go any distance. And of course the vehicles were not so comfortable and quick-moving. You can get a good sense of the difficulties and challenges involved in Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s cross-country travel memoir.

It was a real thrill to go somewhere different. Like Virginia:

virginia

Where you could see all manner of things, which fold out accordion-style, like this image of Monticello:

monticello

Or the Hudson River:

hudson-river

Photos within this package (look close for the old-timey cars):

hudsonriver2

And, a world away from small-town Pennsylvania, Chicago:

chicago

So many sights to see, there! Why, sailboats, even:

chicago2There’s more, but these are the most fascinating to me, history-lover that I am. My latest fiction project takes place in 1911 America, so finding these was particularly relevant.

Thanks, mom.

freelance, history, nonfiction, research, travel, Uncategorized, writing

The Worst Trip Ever: Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

Like most fiction writers, I have a day job. Mine happens to be as a writer. Of nonfiction for kids. What can be better than to research, write, and edit nonfiction for kids? Especially when my writing projects are historical. Let me tell you, it beats my past jobs with a stick: project manager, administrative analyst, administrative coordinator, accounts payable clerk, and some others that have faded into the past like a rancid odor.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the ability to support myself and my family at past jobs, but they’ve all been stepping stones to where I am today. Which is in my home office with my dogs all around me, my hair in disarray, dressed in yoga pants and sweatshirts, and wearing away at the paint on my computer keyboard.

It’s glamorous, all right.

I’m a freelancer and happy with the independence it brings me. Sure, there are downsides, too, but I can’t see myself headed back into an office environment any time soon. Or any time at all.

Last year I wrote a fun historical book on Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (2017 publication date). He’s that failure of a 16th century explorer who set off to find the Seven Cities of Gold. That didn’t exist. But at least he had fun along the way, leading a motley crew of soldiers and missionaries across the broiling hot deserts of northern Mexico and southern Arizona. They stumped across rocky defiles and cactus-choked deer paths in their heavy plate metal armor (which they evidently scattered here and there, to the delight of archaeologists), and abused American Indians at every opportunity. You see, if Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro could overtake gold-rich Central and South American civilizations, then certainly Coronado could too. When he heard the “credible” tales of the Seven Cities of Gold that lay north of Mexico from a wily and perhaps demented friar, Marcos de Niza, he seized upon them.

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado conquistador explorer 16the century

Perhaps Coronado should have fact-checked de Niza’s reports a little closer. Because he and his men traveled hundreds of miles north, then east, then north again, following rumors and pipe dreams. They crossed from Arizona to New Mexico, into Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and finally central Kansas. Poor Indian villages were all they found, no wealth other than the clear air and endless grasslands.

The revelation that de Niza lied about these gold and jewel-bedecked cities deterred the group only temporarily. The hints and lies of another man, an Indian slave nicknamed The Turk, kept them traveling on into Kansas. The Turk hoped that a local tribe would slaughter them. Alas, The Turk ended up being the one slaughtered when his deception was uncovered. At last, Coronado determined to turn back, but he would have gone on if his men and the Spanish government would have given him more support. He and his men slunk back to Mexico in disgrace. He did not receive the riches and fame he sought, but he did penetrate a previously unknown land and pave the way for later explorers and settlers.

Coronado Expedition Conquistador Explorer
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=146759

The Spanish left behind horses, which the Indians bred and used to legendary utility. Before the coming of the Spanish, Indians only had dogs as pack animals. They also left behind diseases that the biologically separate Americans had no natural immunity to. Such began the Indian’s long decline and eventual near-extinction.

You can still hear echoes of long-ago drumbeats and see the crumbled remains of Indian dwelling places on the Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, a stretch of narrow, winding highway in eastern Arizona. This section of US Route 191 is said to have 460 curves, which make it “exciting” or “terrifying” depending on your perspective. Perhaps you, like me, find yourself drawn to remote historical adventures, though, and if so you may enjoy the 120-mile drive.

I just hope that my own life’s adventures do not end in infamy like Coronado’s.

history, research, travel, Uncategorized

Peeling Back History’s Layers

Recently, I had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. A transcendent, awe-inspiring, utterly magnificent experience.

An orgy.

No, not that kind of orgy, you naughty thing. Rather, an orgy of artistic and historic wonder. A plethora of beauty and splendor as can only be seen in Italy. Rome, in particular. My husband and I celebrated a significant anniversary in La Bella Italia. We’d been a number of years ago, but it is Italy – one could spend years discovering its treasures. More than 2,000 years of history leaves lots of remnants behind. During this trip we concentrated on places and experiences we had missed during the last one. So we visited innumerable churches, cathedrals, quaint hilltop villages, and packed-to-the-gills museums.

One church in Rome stands out among the others. It lacks the gold- and jewel-bedecked opulence of others such as St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica, but has something in abundance that the others lack: mystery.

Here it is, the Basilica of San Clemente, a rather non-descript spot, though quintessential what with the cigarette-smoking Italian out front. It sits near the Colosseum.

Front of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, Italy Roma
By Berthold Werner via (Wikimedia Commons)

Inside this 12th century church you will find incredible mosaics well worth a visit. The Official Site provides a virtual tour.This drawing gives you an idea of its insides.

Basilica of St. Clemente 12th century Rome Roma Italy

In 392 AD, St. Jerome spoke of a church in Rome that preserved St. Clemente’s memory, and this was thought to be that church. In 1857, Father Joseph Mullooly decided to see whether that was true. Down he dug, and was rewarded greatly for his efforts. He discovered the original basilica underneath the current church.

stclementsallthree052-4

Statues, marble columns, Roman brickwork, fantastic frescoes, and a bubbling spring were all revealed to him.

But. What if? What if there was something beneath this lovely original basilica? The digging began again. And again, the effort was rewarded. This time with a 1st century sanctuary to Mithras, a mystery cult, about which little is known.

1st century building underneath Basilica of San Clemente Rome Roma Italy

Here you will find a plainer, more ancient structure, with close hallways and small rooms, arches, and concrete. And that spring, bubbling and cascading, refreshing. Before it was a sanctuary, the structure is thought to have been a private home, or perhaps a mint.

Down, down, down. Modern-day Rome bustles on the surface of the city, and rises into the blue Italian sky. But, oh, what lies underneath it all. Much more just waiting to be discovered.

~

This post lacks images, I know, partly due to a lack on my part to find decent ones of the magnificent mosaics, and part of which because the church prohibits photography in the lower reaches. But there is one remedy for that, dear reader.

Visit Rome yourself. The Eternal City beckons. Will you heed the call? I have done so long before actually physically going there, through reading and writing. Such influences saturate my fiction, in some pieces more than others.

general wackiness, humor, research, Uncategorized, writing

It’s Alive!

Yes, I am resurrecting my blog from the dead. Lazarus, come forth! I am not so sure about this header photo, but it is a bit quirky and has books on it. Plus it gives the illusion that I look like the woman on the bed, which I most assuredly do not.

I have decided to change the focus of my blog from an unfocused mishmash of travel posts and writing/marketing ideas to something near and dear to my writer’s heart:

RESEARCH.

Ah, research. I could spend my life on you if I had all the time in the world. Now, on the face of things you might be saying, “How boring!” But, my friend, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Case in point being this article from the June 15, 1908 edition of Perth, Australia’s The Daily News:

capture

Now don’t tell me that rampaging monkeys released by a baboon and subdued by alcohol doesn’t give you a chuckle.

I came across this while browsing for material about my latest Work-in-Progress, an early 20th century gay romance set in remote Alaska.

Stay tuned every Monday for something equally enthralling. Err … I hope!