thoughts on peace

Sigh!  Peace seems so impossible these days.

Here is a poem by Yehuda Amichai that gives me hope and comfort in small ways.


Not the peace of a cease-fire,

not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,

but rather

as in the heart when the excitement is over

and you can talk only about a great weariness.

I know that I know how to kill,

that makes me an adult.

And my son plays with a toy gun that knows

how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.

A peace


without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,

without words, without

the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be

light, floating, like lazy white foam.

A little rest for the wounds-

who speaks of healing?

(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation

to the next, as in a relay race:

the baton never falls.)


Let it come

like wildflowers,

suddenly, because the field

must have it: wildpeace.


thoughts on time

I am interested in how notions of what I have always taken for granted are, in fact, things, thoughts, ideas that have changed over history.  Time.  Time as we keep track of it is relatively new.  I don’t mean in the Einsteinian sense.  And I long ago learned about the different calendars (Julian vs. Gregorian).   No, I am surprised to learn that keeping track of daily time has been standardized for barely 100 years.  For context, let me say my father would be over 100 years old if he were alive.  So, suddenly in my ripe late middle age I’ve learned that time, as I’ve always known it, is a modern invention.

As with so much in history it came about slowly.  In the Middle Ages ‘liturgical time’ competed with ‘merchant time’.  During the Renaissance the Medici’s and The Church were intolerant of expressions of the future.  They seemed to actually want to monopolize time.  The biggest changes came with the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 18th century. The needs of capital and the mechanization of work replaced the rhythms of the natural world. Time was no longer something ‘passed’ as something ‘spent’.

This is my period of interest, where my attention is focused.  This is the period of time where Lady Mary Wortly Montagu and  Jane Austen reside. It strikes me as curious that I haven’t noticed a different kind of time there.

Time was standardized for the railroads in Britain on December 11, 1847.  They chose Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) which is still the worldwide prime meridian.  The USA and Canada lived with nearly 100 individual time zones until they too acknowledged GMT in 1883!  British colonies around the globe protested ‘colony time’.    Daily Savings Time created another issue.  Since I’m not a fan of it I will not go into that history, except to say in 1918 the Mayor of Bangor, Maine (a man after my own heart) actually declared local time secession in protest of the newly created standard time and daily savings time.  I’m more of a time passing, natural time girl.  That does not, of course, account for how I’m always early wherever I go, wear a wrist watch and even have a ‘dress up’ watch.

I love that before all official standardization (which is most of recorded time!) people kept time by calling noon the moment that the sun was directly overhead wherever they happened to be, or the day began when it was light enough to see the veins in a person’s hands.  It could be measured by something called a ‘pissing while’, or the time it takes to cook rice.  I found an old recipe from my husband’s grandmother in Kansas who measured how long to bake her pies by the amount of cobs needed to heat the oven.

My favorite item is that in 1835 a man named Henry Belville carried a chronometer through London giving out the correct time to the clockmakers.  His granddaughter continued the business of traveling from Greenwich to London to sell the exact time during the Second World War.  Unlikely, but true!

The more things change, the more they stay the same

This expression came to mind most recently while I was reading about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She was a woman of profound intellect with many literary accomplishments. She was, for her times, a ‘mover and shaker’.  And yet, we hardly know her.

One accomplishment that draws me to such a fascinating woman from the late 17th and early 18th century is that she is responsible for bringing knowledge of small pox inoculation to England.  She had had the disease and it left her scarred.  When she was living in Turkey in 1717 she learned about their custom of inoculating children.  She had her young son engrafted then and there.  When she returned to London she shared the information with friends, some of whom had their young children inoculated.  In 1721 London experienced another epidemic of small pox and Lady Mary watched many of her friends become afflicted and die. She began to advocate more wildly for prevention, but physicians disagreed about whether prevention or treatment was more important.  A power struggle ensued between the College of Physicians who cared for the wealthy members of society and the Apothecaries who cared for and treated the poor.  The apothecaries were charged with “quacking about in the office of physicians.” (I completely LOVE that the use of Quack in reference to false and ignorant medical skills goes back to 1659, so says the OED!)  From arguments of treatment to who administers that treatment and ultimately to religious leaders disbelief the gamut of disrespect and paranoia sounds sadly familiar to the modern ear.  I’m thinking of reactions to HIV/AIDS and, more recently, Ebola.

Reverend Edmund Massey actually preached an “anti-inoculation sermon”.  Warning that inoculation “negates the two spiritual functions of disease”: divine punishment and divine testing.  A popular pampleteer, William Wagstaffe, complained that this medical procedure came from ‘non-physicians’ and was “stemming from a country inferior.”  He could not support an “experiment practiced only by a few Ignorant Women, amongst an Illiterate and unthinking people.”  He suggested that inoculation was a poison and “an artful way of depopulating the Country.”  The opposition press to the Royal family protested that it was “female inspired and Turkish.”

In response to this outpouring of prejudice the (male) physicians who were medically progressive and advocates for inoculation decided to undermine and bury the important contribution that women played in bringing this Oriental prevention to England.  They chose to accentuate the scientific aspects only.

Thus, it has taken me 300 years to learn that Lady Mary was the progressive voice of saving lives and bringing inoculations to the West.  Who else don’t I know about, yet?

are stories from the sixties historical fiction?

I have always thought about historical fiction in terms of past centuries. By past centuries what I mean is not my own time.  But, I was brought up sharply to the passage of time and possibility of expanding my understanding of what is history because of a recent conversation.   I volunteer at the local survival center and meet a wonderful cross-section of people there.  On this particular day I was talking with a college student.  When I asked her what she was reading and she said a biography of Marilyn Monroe I was surprised, but intrigued.  The more we spoke, the more it became clear that she considered Marilyn Monroe an historical figure. That certainly gave me a new perspective on time, aging, and my reference points.

How can Marilyn Monroe be history? How can movies from the 1950s be considered history?  I was alive for them!  I realize how simplistic this is when I think about my 96 year old mother’s reference points: The Great Depression, World War II.  Certainly, despite her age, she doesn’t think  of her life as history. To me, however, both of those events are historical.

This line of thought leads me to wonder whether I could market my book about my college days in Madison, Wisconsin in 1970 as historical fiction. Of course, the very thought makes me uncomfortable and reflect on my own age. But it now seems likely that 1999, which is the ‘present’ part of the book and 1970, which is the flashback part of the book could/would be read as history by some people.

Does anyone have an opinion about this?


Lady Mary Wortley Montague and the Turkish baths

I am reading a biography of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Isobel Grundy. It is the most detailed and academic biography I’ve ever read, filled with footnotes and references.  These are gifts to me as I work to bring into focus what it was like for a woman to travel in 1717.

Today my intrepid, aristocratic Lady Mary has finally arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Her first visit to Eastern culture is in Sofia, capital of present day Bulgaria.  When she visits the Turkish bath house a transformative phase in her life begins.  She is delighted beyond all measure.  Grundy says, “As usual, Lady Mary was alert to what was and what was not different.”

Inside the five domed stone building where the women’s bath was but one marbled room with sulfurous hot springs she viewed 200 women.  They were naked, relaxed, drinking fruit juice, embroidering, plaiting one another’s hair, and all around appeared entirely comfortable.  Their good humor and friendliness welcomed her.  Egalitarianism was noteworthy since she did not know the status of one woman from another.  She did observe the absence of small pox scars which was something she had recently been afflicted with, and she also noted the lack of red marks from tight stays in clothing.

Grundy says “…to find unadorned, unemproved feminity free from lewdness or narcisssism or rivalry: this was a most happy denial of what her own culture had led her to expect.”

What strikes me to learn, but sadly doesn’t entirely surprise, is that when her letters describing this were published it created a scandal. She was accused of making it up, of not being delicate or lady-like.  As if that was not bad enough, in more recent times she has been accused of snobbery for not joining those women in the bath.

Reactions change according to the norms of the time, but what doesn’t apparently change is the fact that a woman reporter is judged first for her socially aberrant attitudes and then, if lucky, for what she is describing.

Fifty years after reading Lady Mary’s letters describing the Turkish bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted this from notes he had made earlier.  Her letters were a powerful stimulus to the imagination.  And they still are!File:Le Bain Turc, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, from C2RMF retouched.jpg

The Road to Writing

I keep trying to pull my thoughts together for this blog post.  I’m surrounded by research and, yet, not a cogent thought emerges that leads to either fiction or report.

It seems the process of incorporating my eclectic reading, juggling the unfamiliar aspects of the late 17th and early 18th century (the defined, rigid levels of society…..I can’t seem to care), and playing with possible scenarios and characters has not yet formed a whole.  This is either because it’s all roiling in my subconscious, or because, like baking bread, the yeast has not yet proofed. In either case, nothing has risen from within to mar the blank page/screen.

What I am reading includes a wonderful travel memoir, “Turkish Reflections” by Mary Lee Settle.  My favorite travel writing includes history, observation and personal experiences that flow seamlessly.  This is one of the best. Also, dipping into Brian Dolan’s “Ladies of the Grand Tour”.  The subtitle reads: “British Women in Pursuit of Enlightenment and Adventure in Eighteenth Century Europe.”  Needless to say, this is right up by alley! These are women who tell their tales through letters and diaries.  What especially interests me is how entirely liberating they found being away from the strictures of home.  So many of these women married for status and money.  It really was often nothing more than a fiduciary exchange among families. (Jane Austen’s women were more radical than we can imagine.) So some of these intelligent and curious and sensuous women found a new kind of freedom when traveling, mainly, it seems to Italy.  And, really, what country is more sensuous?

I continue to pursue Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.  A complete biography by Isobel Grundy is on my desk and I’ve taken dozens of pages of notes, and am only on page 122!  She hasn’t yet arrived in Constantinople!

There is so much to learn about the late 17th and early 18th century before I can begin to imagine it.  What I do know with confidence, is that women struggling to become themselves against prevailing expectations is a familiar story.

The importance of research

I’ve spent most of this week sitting at my desk scribbling ideas about the who, what, when for a piece of fiction lurking in my brain. But, I can’t decide if it is linked stories or a full novel.  I think it takes place in Afghanistan, but maybe Iran, or even perhaps Turkey. Is it in the 21st century? I know there are refugees and I know there is an American nurse. All good things to know, but not nearly enough to begin creating.

In a moment of clarity I decided I needed more information.  Most importantly, I decided that research, i.e., reading, is ‘work’, is ‘writing’……maybe I’ll call it ‘pre-writing’.

Happily, I’m fully prepared for this moment.  An entire shelf of travel books describing foreign places during various centuries awaits my indulgence…..I mean, ‘research’.  I’ve begun with Mary Lee Settle’s Turkish Reflections. This is a wonderfully written memoir of her several years spent living in and learning about Turkey.  Personal, historical, descriptive.  It’s a joy to spend hours touring with her.

turkish reflections by MaryLee Settle 001

Next up is: Twelve Days in Persia, by Vita Sackville West, Somebody’s Heart is Burning by Tanya Shaffer, and A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Somewhere along this journey I will feel inspiration and direction to face down that empty pad of yellow paper again.  In the meanwhile, bon voyage to me.

The Song of the Lark celebrates 100 years

I am rereading my favorite Willa Cather novel, The Song of the Lark.  This is a novel about a young woman discovering herself and her talent; of learning how to become herself as an artist.  Thea Kronborg is an unusual person in her small Colorado town of Moonstone.  She has a destiny that she cannot discern. Cather allows us to feel that unformed urge that is looking for expression; a young girl, unconsciously dissatisfied, but not knowing what it is or what it means.  She is fiercely intelligent and stubborn. She must come to understanding music, feelings, actions entirely on her own terms in her own way.  And Cather puts us there, allows us to feel the development of a unique artist as she finds her truest self.

As always with Cather the land is a full character.  There is nothing ‘gooey’ in her descriptions of the young, undeveloped country: it is beautiful and dangerous, unknowable and indifferent. It has its own history, separate from human history.  What a relief that she rarely gets sentimental about the place or the people who find themselves living, often stranded, in wilderness. Life is lived hard; death can come unexpectedly and must be incorporated into one’s world view. And yet, the indifferent physical world is beautiful when noticed by another of Willa Cather’s extraordinary women.

sound of the lark 001I am grateful for this 100 year anniversary because I have been reminded of a wonderful novel by a great American writer.

work in progress

“Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” Spectator 93, 16 June, 1711.

I recently discovered this comment and it has helped me decide on my next project.  It will be something diverting, entertaining, and perhaps, even useful.  For several years now I have been following a fascination with all things Middle Eastern.  It began when I purchased a frayed, but beautiful Oriental rug at a local auction.  It’s a double tree-of-life design and I began researching its origins.  That led to books about carpets, about Persia, about Turkey.  I found histories, stories, including the wonderful Arabian Tales (1001 nights), and travel books. My study is filled. I want to know about the lives of women there and then.

One extraordinary woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montegu, fascinates me. She was a British, titled, educated woman in an unhappy marriage who took the opportunities offered to her to investigate and taste the larger world.  In 1716 (yes!) she traveled overland with a young son and her husband to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire).  She wrote letters rich with details and delight of a foreign way of living, dressing, eating.  It changed her profoundly.  She also is credited with bringing the information about small pox vaccination back from the East a full generation before Edward Jenner’s ‘discovery’.  In fact, since she had suffered disfigurement from small pox as a young woman she allowed her young son to be vaccinated in Turkey.  A very daring and intelligent decision.

I didn’t discover someone unknown, but I would like to make her better known, and hope to do so through a novel.  Why a novel? Well, because I don’t believe I have the fastidiousness required for a biographer.  I like to indulge in flights of fancy, and I have a fertile imagination which needs regular feeding.  I want to color in the unknown bits of her life.

welsh women’s classic literature

When traveling I usually take a book on the plane based on where I will be traveling.  The Count of Monte Cristo was perfect for the year we visited the South of France.  Italian mysteries based in the particular city to be visited (Donna Leon for Venice, Iain Pears for Florence) are wonderfully discovered on the website ‘italian-mysteries. com’.  You can find the who, where and what there. England provides all kinds of choices from Agatha Christy and Conan Doyle to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, to the moderns like Virginia Woolf (Oh, did I mention Jane Austen?).  But, Wales presented a challenge.  Before leaving home I read the poetry of the favorite son, Dylan Thomas.

Wales is a proud country with an independent spirit and a strong identity distinct from England.  I met some Welsh people and wanted to know more, wanted to feel that difference.  I wasn’t until the last day in Wales that I found a truly Welsh book.  I was in the bookshop of the Cardiff Art Museum. The museum is a wonderful place filled with, among other things, Impressionist art.  A lovely Renoir I had never seen before!  In the late 19th and early 20th century Wales industrialists grew rich shipping mined raw materials around the Empire.  There was money being made and art being bought.

But, back to the bookshop where I discovered “Welsh Women’s Classics”series.  This is an imprint. previously called the Honno Classics series, that publishes out-of-print books in English by women writers from Wales.  I picked up Hilda Vaughan’s “The Soldier and the Gentlewoman.”  It is a beautifully written book from the 1930’s describing life in a rural community just after the First World War.  The tension is built around a woman of the land who has been cheated out of her home by an entail (still a factor in women’s lives well into the 20th century!) and a weak, wounded war veteran who assumes ownership in complete ignorance of the traditions.The use of language, the novel’s structure are wonderful to read.

soldier and gentlewoman cover 001

Unexpected discoveries are the joy of travel!