I’ve decided to start my monthly newsletter in earnest … just as soon as I figure out the proper format for it! Writers newsletters in general can be rather boring, so I’m trying to make mine brief and interesting. I’ll be including a very short story in each of them – 200 words or less. Readers are welcome to submit prompts for the following newsletter’s story.
Intrigued? Well, of course you are!
Join up here. I pledge to only use it for occasional contacts and to keep you email confidential. Think Fort Knox, here.
If you join via my listing on InstaFreebie you will also receive a free book of fantasy short stories by yours truly and co-author Janet Loftis.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
It was early May, and I continued to walk the Santiago de Compostela, bloodied but unbowed. Well, all right. Not bloodied. And only slightly bowed. My feet, however, hurt. When I would sit for a rest I was all right – until it was time to get up again. That’s when the grunting and groaning began. I wasn’t the only one with such afflictions, and commiserating with fellow pilgrims helped somewhat. So did views like this:
Before I left on the Camino, I daydreamed about how wonderful it would be to have a donkey as a companion on the road. Not only would he keep me company, but he could tote my cumbersome backpack as well. It soon became clear that such an endeavor would take more logistical energy than I had – where would the animal sleep, how would I feet it, where would I get it, what would I do with it when I finished my journey. I decided to let that dream go. Instead, I felt certain that God would bring a donkey into my Camino in some way. Sure enough, he did. I passed this duo on the way:
The donkey, perhaps, had much to eat along the way.
It was, doubtlessly, a blessing not to have to tug the poor creature away from such treats hour after hour.
Mileposts like these showed that my journey would soon be at an end.
Reminders of a simpler life cropped up unexpectedly. I halted on the trail as a married couple herded their cattle past. They were old, and wearing ragged clothing and mud-slick boots. I spied a wound on one of the cattle, and a broken down dog wore a giant goiter around his neck. How awful it would be to eke out an existence in such poverty, with old age slowing your steps. What if I could not afford to take my animals to the vet when they needed it? I thanked God for the goodness I take for granted so often – my easy suburban life in sunny southern California.
Between the little villages are peaceful places where nature reigns supreme.
Soon enough human habitations arise, made from stone, slick and mossy.
Little churches dot the wayside, like this one, Iglesia de Santa Maria de Leboreiro, built in the 14th century. It is simple and humble.
And the torments of past terrors, such as the ones suffered by Saint Sebastian, are ever near.
The Renaissance costumes betray a 16th century origin. Old to us. So old. Like the urge to walk onward, an instinct encoded in our genes from our days as nomads, wandering day by day.
My pilgrimage continues on in future pictures. Subscribe to see them, or backtrack, if it suits you, to other images in my 100 Spanish Photos series.
I was raised in the desert. I know heat, parched earth, scorching sun, and dry, dry air. The rain, when it comes, is either a light pitter patter or torrential floods. There is no in between, it seems. And so when I come to a place like the region of Spanish Galicia, “the country of a thousand rivers,” I find it irresistible. So much green! So much moisture. Misty and rain and moss. Mud and more. Gnarled trees and stone huts. All of them are here, and more.
Flat heavy stones are everywhere. Stacked to form walls, bridges, homes …
Even charming old chapels.
Grain is stored in these odd looking little huts to keep them safe from rodents. Every house seems to have one.
Hills everywhere. An endless panorama of them.
The sign beside it claims that this tree is 800 years old. Called a castaño, it produces chestnuts in the fall.
I never tired of the overflowing streams, and the constant drip, drip, drop from above. I don’t melt, and my shoes are waterproof. What more did I need but a rain jacket and backpack cover?
It is in such places that I am constantly surprised about the many hues green takes.
I took a longer route on this day’s walk, determined to visit the Benedictine monastery of Samos, founded in the 6th century.
Along with two Finnish women, we toured the cloisters with a monk who spoke only Spanish. He showed us the lovely frescoed walls with pride. The Botica interested me as well, a long ago pharmacy.
The monk blushed when I asked to take his picture. What a lovely, humble man he was. A credit to his profession.
More streams, as I traveled on.
More idyllic scenes.
And another bridge, leading to the unknown.
Join me, if you like, as my pilgrimage continues on. Or backtrack, if it suits you, to other images in my 100 Spanish Photos series.
Until next time, enjoy the new year. Indeed, we are blessed to experience it, with its many highs and occasional lows.
I am drawing closer to another milestone with my 100 Spanish Photos series (now 200 plus Spanish Photos!), and since it has been a while since I’ve posted, I am making this an extra long entry tonight. Last time I visited the fairy tale castle in Ponferrada. Onward I trekked, 18 kilometers from Ponferrada to Pieros, my feet hurting all the while. I ended my day early when I came to the lovely vegetarian albergue El Serbal y la Luna.
It is a large old home, made of bricks, mortar, and heavy wooden beams. I stayed in the room with four massive bunk beds and a view out the skylight to the starry night sky – truly one of my favorite stays. The communal meal was prepared by a chef who was next on her way to work for the summer on a Greek island. How romantic is that?
Two friends I knew from the trail showed up that afternoon – Antonia from California and Fiz from New Zealand or England, depending on the day. The albergue in the previous town, Cacabelos, was closed. As such, El Serbal y la Luna filled up quickly. However, in the late afternoon an older German couple showed up, huffing and puffing. Sweat running down his bald head, the husband proclaimed: “I am 72 years old. I will die if I cannot stay here!” We crowded in and made room lest he have to keep going.
Antonia and I headed off toward Trabedelo in the morning, taking a detour through cherry orchards and vineyards. The view was beautiful, I’m sure you will agree:
Antonia and I parted ways, certain that we would see one another again soon – such is the way with companions on the Camino. One does not wait too long before pilgrims come by, although this group of fast-walking French people did not seem inclined to stop and chat:
I passed gushing streams:
And little villages that looked a lot like American suburbs, minus the farm animals:
A few stops back, Scott from Georgia had told me a tale of his first Camino, when he had snagged a horseback ride up the long ascent to O Cebreiro. What could be better? I thought. When I saw this sign, I knew what to look for up ahead in Herrarias:
There was much to hold my attention on the way:
And soon I arrived at the sleepy village of Herrerias:
Though it was closing on 11 am, I rousted Victor out of bed, and he kept me waiting until he rounded up four more riders to accompany us up the long hill to O Cebreiro. One young German girl who had never ridden before chain-smoked cigarettes. As she contemplated the ride ahead, she repeated, “Mein Gott! Mein Gott!” Presently, Victor appeared with our mounts:
And off we went, up the spectacular heather-covered hills:
The views were inspiring:
Although the knotted muscles in my thighs protested loudly. I ignored the pain as we passed the winded pilgrims on foot. At last we came to the top of the world and the village of O Cebreiro, where winds blow cold and hard and the peasants lived in round stone huts:
You may notice that there is no chimney. The hearth inside is always lit, but the smoke seeps out through the woven mat roof. We supped on octopus, a regional specialty which I found to be chewy. And the intact suckers creeped me out a bit. Fiz and Antonia both showed up, and together we visited the simple church with a talented organist:
The panorama is magnificent, green hills all around:
The albergue perches sturdy and tall near an edge. Its boot room sports the most magnificent view of any I encountered:
The wind howled all night, and continued on in the morning. Fog and rain were my companions as I trudged on like so many before me