Looting in Plain Sight

For the current possessors of plunder, repatriation does not appear to be a topic of discussion.

If you’ve ever been to any museum or art gallery anywhere on the planet, odds are quite good that you’ve looked at something that has been stolen from its rightful owners. Colonialists the world over have looted, pillaged, and plundered with impunity, because they believe the world is theirs to exploit and profit from. For the current possessors of such booty, repatriation is quite often a dirty word. (And I find it ironic that these organizations often charge the general public a good bit of their hard-earned money to gaze upon these stolen goods.)

I firmly believe that things should be returned to their rightful owners. Unfortunately, that gets rather complicated in practice. I’ll give you one such dilemma that I stumbled upon quite by accident, and afterwards I’ll hit you with some questions about how these situations should be handled in general.

I must confess that even at my ripe old age, I still play Pokemon Go. One aspect of that game is the ability to exchange “gifts” with other players around the globe. These are in the form of digital postcards. They’re often photographs of points of interest, and if you’re lucky, someone has taken the time to write a description thereof. This is my absolute favorite part of the game. It’s like traveling without leaving your own home. Every day, I get “postcards” from Japan, Hong Kong, India, Brazil, and Spain.

Last week I was getting my Pokemon Go on, so to speak, when I received the following postcard from a Pokemon friend who is from Louisiana. My first thought was, “What the heck is a Buddha statue doing in Louisiana?” Many more thoughts would follow.

The person who created this postcard was kind enough to type out, verbatim, the inscription placard that is below the statue. It says, “This Buddha was built for the Shonfa Temple located northeast of Peking by the order of Emperor Hui-Tsung (1101-1125). Its builder was Chon-Ha-Chin, most noted of ancient Buddha makers. The temple was looted by a rebel general who took the statue as part of his loot and sent it to New York to be sold … The statue came to the notice of two friends of E.A. McIlhenny who purchased it and sent it to him as a gift in 1936.”

Seriously? This statue was knowingly taken from its intended place, passed through several hands, and now it’s proudly displayed in Louisiana, and the owners/accessories-after-the-fact don’t even bother to hide this information? It’s right out there for the whole world to see. “Look what we got!”

Naturally, I had to learn more. The postcard didn’t say exactly where in Louisiana this Buddha patiently sits. But since those who run the venue are blatant and proud of having this loot, they weren’t hard to track down. I simply dragged the image into Google images, and voila! The kidnapper’s lair was uncovered!

This statue has pride of place on Avery Island, which is located on the Louisiana coast southwest of Baton Rouge. If you look on a map, it would be quite understandable if you didn’t realize the place was an island. It’s a salt dome that is surrounded by bayous, marshes, and swampland, so technically, yeah, it’s an island. But much of its boundary is comprised of what looks like a drainage ditch that you could easily jump over, if you don’t have the good sense to be mindful of alligators and poisonous snakes.

Having never stepped foot in Louisiana, I had never heard of this island, so of course I did some homework. The place does have a fascinating history. Currently, about 124 people live there, but a lot of tourists come to visit the island, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

First, the island was a sugar plantation that was operated by about 100 slaves. Then, strangely enough, a nutria farm was established there. The culprit was Edward McIlhenny. While this family is known for its environmentalism, the nutria is one of the most ecologically harmful invasive species on the planet, and this guy released “a large number” of these nutrias into the wild, and their descendants plague the south to this day.

During the Civil War, Avery Island was home to a salt mine that supplied the confederacy with 22 million pounds of salt. Right after the war, in 1868, Edmund McIlhenny invented Tabasco Sauce, and you can still tour the factory, which continues to crank out the hot stuff for a spice-loving public.

Even more interesting for tourists, in my nature-loving opinion, is Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre venue on what used to be the McIlhenny estate. It looks like a beautiful place, well worth a visit, although I wouldn’t do it in the middle of summer. Way too hot.

The site is also used for events and weddings. Much of the garden was built to highlight the stolen Buddha. Buddhists sometimes come here to worship.

I don’t mean to imply that the McIlhennys did the actual stealing of this statue. But if they knew enough about it to be able to compose the placard that tells its history, then they were most definitely complicit. If someone steals the key to a house, and then gives you the key as a gift, that doesn’t mean you have the right to go in there and make yourself at home.

That placard gives us many clues about the statue’s provenance, so I decided to do a little sleuthing to figure out where it came from. First, the Shonfa Temple is mentioned, and it is said to be northeast of Peking. I Googled the temple and came up empty. However, there is a Chongfa Temple that was ransacked during the late 1800’s, but it is southwest of Beijing (Peking), not northeast. But the description might have gotten that backward. Further, the Emperor Huizong (anglicized as Hui -tsung) figures prominently in this temple’s history.

I could not find a thing about Chon-Ha-Chin, but given the other slight errors, and the fact that at the time the English spellings of Chinese names left much to be desired, it’s not surprising that I couldn’t find him.

The rebel general who did the looting was not named, but there was quite a bit of plundering going on during the Taiping Rebellion. I find it interesting, though, that said general would send the statue to New York to be sold, and yet no one knew his name. I’d think it would be much more likely that he sold it to some rich white guy who then brought it to New York. It is said that the statue languished in some warehouse for many years until two friends of the McIlhennys found it and thought it would make a great gift for them. It came to Avery Island in 1936.

And there the statue sits to this day. If it could talk, I wonder what it would have to say about the slavery and the nutrias and the Tabasco sauce and the tourists. Its surroundings are lush and beautiful, and it’s obvious that it is much loved. It’s the Jungle Garden’s most prized possession, but I still believe that they have no right to keep it.

But here’s where it gets sticky. History changes much. Even if Chongfa Temple is Shongfa Temple, most of that temple is no longer standing, and what remains is now a tea house. Should it go there?

In addition, while Buddhism is still popular in China, its history with the communists is fraught with violence, destruction, and suppression. Currently, Buddhism is tolerated, but it’s hardly official. And who knows when that tide will turn, and in which direction? Lest we forget, a fair amount of the ransacking of that nation was done by the Chinese themselves. Wherever this statue goes, it should be kept safe, and there’s no guarantee that that will be the case in today’s China. Just ask the people of Tibet.

But who gets to decide what is appropriate for this statue? It hasn’t exactly been safe in Louisiana either. Some fool tourist decided that it would be fun to break off its right earlobe. It’s a strange world we live in.

I don’t think Jungle Gardens or the Chinese Bureaucracy has the moral authority to make a decision about any of this. But then, who does, and based on what criteria? The ghosts of the past seem to be keeping their own counsel, and I keep going back and forth on the subject.

This seems to be a dilemma that matters to nobody but me. I’m sure Jungle Gardens doesn’t want to broach the subject for fear of losing this lovely statue. I suspect the current Chinese Government doesn’t particularly care, because they don’t want to focus on Buddhism. And while the Dalai Lama may be the most famous Buddhist, that religion doesn’t have an official leader.

Meanwhile, the Buddha sits in whatever the Buddhist equivalent of limbo might be. He sees everything, patiently waits, and judges not. But there’s plenty of judgment to go around.

Additional Sources:

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My Exploration of Mystery Flesh Pit National Park

If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life.

Longtime readers already know how much I love our national parks. I wish I had the time, money, and stamina to visit every single one of them. I’ve learned a lot about our country with each new park encounter.

While researching parks that I have yet to visit, I happened to stumble upon one called Mystery Flesh Pit National Park. Naturally, discovering that there’s a park I’d never even heard of intrigued me quite a bit. I had to learn more.

This park, sadly, can no longer be visited. Its history is rather tragic. In the early 1970’s, we are told, James Jackson, an oilman, stumbled upon what turned out to be a large geobiological orifice just outside of Gumption, Texas. He decided to explore said orifice, and the subterranean superorganism turned out to be so large that it couldn’t be accurately measured. As is often the case, man’s first instinct is to profit off all discoveries, and the Mystery Flesh Pit was no exception.

Enter the Anodyne Corporation, which, post-catastrophe, was renamed the Permian Basin Recovery & Superorganism Containment Corporation. They saw the opportunity for great riches by mining the site’s organic resources, and while conducting their extraction operations, they enlarged and reinforced the organism, and opened it to tourists in 1976. It became part of our national park system in the early ‘80’s and was a very popular destination, but it had to close because of a horrific tragedy that occurred in 2007.

You can read the very detailed and extremely technical government disaster report here, but if I’m reading it correctly, a freak combination of a great deal of rain which caused an overflow of water inside critical sections of the superorganism, combined with a power failure and the inability of some very poorly maintained pumping equipment to keep up with the water volume, caused a choking action and subsequent vomit response within the superorganism at a time when there were an increased number of visitors within it due to holiday celebrations.

That tragedy resulted in the death of 750 visitors, and an additional 1,800 people were seriously injured. (I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your last conscious moments on earth be consumed with the fact that you’re essentially being digested and/or masticated.) To make matters worse, 18,000 residents of Gumption County were left with some horrific side effects due to the gastric ejecta which flew, well, just about everywhere.

But even worse than the loss of human life is the loss of such a precious natural resource for the American people. While it’s understandable that the federal government wants to avoid future gastric disasters, especially since it’s unknown if this superorganism, when sufficiently agitated, might become ambulatory, the end result is that park lovers like you and me will never again be able to visit this unique location.

If you approach the site of the former park now, you are presented with a tall electric fence and a warning sign that says, among other things, “Stop! This area has been quarantined for YOUR safety!” “Over 582 people have died attempting to commune with the superorganism.” (Which proves this sign is woefully out of date.) And, perhaps most startling, “There is nothing beyond this fence worth dying for.”

But there is a silver lining to this cloud. Mystery Flesh Pit National Park’s legacy is an extremely comprehensive internet archive that is not only educational, but also allows you to delve almost as deep into the ecosystem as you would have if you had been able to enter its big, fleshy maw to go exploring like so many others have done.

If you visit this archive, click on everything you see, because things that don’t necessarily look like links often lead you to yet another page, with yet more links that yield troves of fascinating information. I have, on more than one occasion, lost 3 or 4 hours wandering through this internet maze, learning something new every time. I highly recommend it.

There is entirely too much information to distill in this humble blog post, so, to whet your appetite, I’ll just introduce you to this one topic: The Fauna of the Permian Basin Superorganism. I hope these few fun facts will encourage you to delve into this archive in greater detail. You won’t regret it.

In my opinion, one of the most intriguing creatures that resides within the deeper portions of the superorganism is called a Gasp Owl. They are very elusive, so little is known about them. They congregate in broods and are easily frightened. They are called Gasp Owls because their breathing is quite labored, even in those specimens which seem otherwise healthy. I wonder if they used to keep the campers up at night? I suspect I wouldn’t get much sleep, knowing they were nearby.

Gasp Owls have often been mistaken for the fabled “Marrow Folk” on the rare occasion that they’ve been spotted by tourists.

Campers who overnighted within the deepest regions of the superorganism (surrounded by a mandatory electrical fence, of course) often surfaced with stories of hearing ritual chanting deep below. Sometimes they saw the shadows of creatures that could not be mistaken for any of the park’s many parasitic organisms. Scientists have found no conclusive evidence that Marrow Folk exist, but the chanting voices leave many unanswered questions. I wonder if any recordings of these chants are extant?

This historic national park flyer, which shows many of the parasitic organisms that tourists would often encounter in this unique ecosystem, gives you a small taste of how much we all can learn from this now defunct site. It’s heartbreaking to contemplate the numerous scientific inquiries that will now never reach credible conclusions.

Our nation, and in fact, the world, is diminished by our inability to enter the deepest bowels of this creature and conduct further study. If only it had not chosen to engage in a premature geobiological consumption event which resulted in such a catastrophic loss of human life. Contemplating the discoveries we will now never make is enough to make one weep.

For those of you who are gullible enough not to realize that this park is an extremely detailed and very hilarious work of fiction, here are a few sources that will explain how the whole Mystery Flesh Pit story has taken on a life of its own:

Please support Trevor Roberts, the creator of this amazing world, so that he can continue to entertain us with his wild imagination. Either buy some Mystery Flesh Pit merchandise here, or contribute to his patreon account. Thank you!

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

A Delightful Drawbridge Perspective

No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. . .

I absolutely love it when someone says something that makes me look at things in a completely different light. That happened today, and the topic was drawbridges. After working on drawbridges for 21 years, you’d think I’d have contemplated them from every possible angle, but this was a fresh perspective for me, and I was delighted.

The comment in question was added to one of my most popular blog posts, entitled Bridge Symbolism. I don’t know Shubhanshi Gupta personally, but she writes a blog called Petrichor, and, based on my admittedly brief glance, it seems to be quite full of profound thoughts. I may have to give it a closer look.

In the meantime, here is the comment she left for me:

“what I find interesting about is how they manage to integrate two different worlds together at the same time- land and water. It’s like the bridge is rooted in the ground under the water body, and it’s surrounded by water everywhere till eyes can see, but deep down, it’s touching land at the base and both it’s two ends. And in spite of all this, it lets us transit over water without having to touch it.”

Whoa. It’s as if she has stripped bridges down to their most basic components. And she draws attention to the fact that they are straddling two elements, earth and water, protecting us from one, and transporting us to the other. Bridges are portals, if you think about it. They help us transition from one place to another.

Perhaps that’s why so many people linger on my bridge and gaze down at the water. They are gathering themselves for what’s on the other side, while perhaps feeling nostalgic about what, or whom, they just left. No wonder I have always thought this job was so magical. I may never look at a bridge in the same way again.

Thank you, Shubhanshi, for your insight! I hope you’ll share many more with us on my blog. I always enjoy new perspectives. The broader the horizon, the more one gets to see.

I’ll leave you with another delightful perspective in the form of art:

Surreal Waterdrops by Mousette on DeviantArt. Check out her full body of work here.

Like this quirky little blog? Then you’ll enjoy my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Sticks ‘n Stones

In which I’m told that I’m a “White Elitist Liberal hypocritical jacka$$”.

For the most part, I’ve been really lucky with this blog. The bulk of the comments I receive are either positive or at least respectful in their disagreements, which gives me the opportunity for growth and increased perspective. I think most of you get that my posts are quite often opinion pieces, and that I’m not insisting that you agree with me. Reading your comments is one of my favorite parts about having a blog. I take your input seriously, and I learn so much from you, dear readers!

I did encounter one troll about 5 years ago who gave me pause, though. His hatred was towering, persistent, unjustified and inappropriate. I can directly quote from his pearls of wisdom because I had to save them as evidence in case things escalated.

In his eyes, I am a “White Elitist Liberal hypocritical jacka$$,” (dollar signs mine, I assure you) and I’ve been informed that I’m on his “publish when I die list”. He went on to explain that in the event of his death, the media would then show up at my door to interrogate me about what a horrible person he thought I was. (One assumes it will be a slow news day.)

This gentleman also seems to think I’ve somehow attacked him for being a Native American, but I can’t imagine any scenario in which I would have done so. Oh, and it seems that Obama and I gave away his homeland. That he believes I have that much power is flattering, I suppose, but that he thinks I would employ it so cruelly is insulting and baseless.

What seemed to trigger him were my feminist posts and my more liberal posts, and the fact that I tend to poke fun at conservatives, Floridians (having lived there for 40 years), and misogynists. Yeah, sometimes I do rant in my opinion pieces. Guilty as charged. But I don’t know this man, and wouldn’t care to, so I’m at a loss as to why he seems to find my mere existence to be some kind of personal attack on him.

His own blog, based on my admittedly brief glance at it, is riddled with hatred of women and anger at society in general. He has even self-published a few books that, he himself asserts, cast women in the role of “sexual mercenaries” whose “wicked game played upon their hapless stooge ejaculates with sex and humor.”

Whatever that means. His books don’t seem to have made it to the best seller lists. (But then neither has mine.)

I followed the standard advice and did not feed this troll, and eventually he got bored and crawled back into his cave. He’s still out there somewhere, probably pulling the wings off of more reactive flies. But now you know what I had been dealing with. That should be the end of the story.

But no. In his attacks on me, he took it to another level of fixation. Because he disagrees with my opinions, he seems to have decided that that merits a financial penalty. To achieve maximum destruction, he carried his diatribe to a different forum. I’ve only just noticed that in 2017 he left a review of my book on Goodreads, most likely because he has been blocked on Amazon. (Note: This review has since been removed. Yay!)

In the Goodreads review he says not a word about the book. I’m certain he has never read it. Instead, he attacks my blog and says, “This White Elitist author is not welcome in Spanish-Indian territory of Florida.”

His words make him look entirely unhinged. As if he determines who gets to come and go in the Sunshine State. Normally I wouldn’t give it further thought, but for the fact that at the time of this writing, my book only has 3 reviews and one additional rating on Goodreads, so his one star rant impacts my average considerably. His remarks also inject a lot of negativity into a page for a book that is all about positivity.

But by far the most frustrating aspect of this insanity is that, for the less discerning among us, his histrionics might make one think that my book espouses white elitism. That’s a belief system that I never want to be associated with, even by accident. It is against everything that I hold sacred.

Having said all that, I sure could use your help. If you have actually read my book and are willing to write an honest review of it, good, bad, or indifferent, on the Goodreads site, I’d greatly appreciate it.

When I’m asked to review a book or a service or a medical practitioner, I tend to do so. I know that honest reviews, even the negative ones if they are devoid of agenda, really matter. I can’t imagine targeting an individual in an attempt to ruin their reputation without producing a boatload of evidence of their nefarious deeds. But that’s just me.

But I can’t emphasize this enough: Please do not engage with, respond to, troll, or flame this guy in any way. Clearly he has enough problems in his life, and it would be better for both you and me if he continues to leave us alone. Life’s too short for such foolishness.

That I’m even wasting this much energy on this guy makes me sad, so I decided to get it out of my system with this post. I hope that he doesn’t turn his Eye of Sauron back in my direction as a result. I’ve said my piece. I can’t work up the energy to continue to care about what he does. In the overall scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.

Be kind to one another, dear readers. The type of light that you choose to shine on the world will always reflect back upon you, one way or another. Namaste.

Low Key Holidays

To me this is holiday perfection.

It all started with the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. It was just to be me and Dear Husband, and I wondered out loud what the point would be of all that elaborate grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning and, you know, leftovering for just two people. So we decided, instead, to make reservations at a restaurant that was doing a Thanksgiving feast. All we had to do was get dressed and show up on time. And we actually came home with a ton of leftovers after all.

The venue we chose was The Fisherman’s Restaurant in downtown Seattle, which is located on the waterfront. They specialize in seafood, of course, but on this one day they were offering a 5 course meal, which included turkey and all the fixings. (One course was steamed clams and mussels, though, which was a delightful departure.)

As an added bonus, the weather was uncharacteristically mild, and we had a marvelous view as we dined. Afterward we took a nice walk on the waterfront. It was quite romantic. It also allowed us to work off some of the meal. And when we got home, all there was left to do was perform the traditional nap, which I’ve got to say I did with my usual aplomb.

To me, this is holiday perfection. No muss, no fuss. No dishes to wash. No tense family conversation. No Thanksgiving airport insanity. You can’t beat that.

A few days later, we went to a wonderful play called Mr. Dickens and His Carol, which I blogged about here.

At the beginning of December we had a lot going on, so we never quite got around to decorating the house with extensive Christmas light display we usually do. We didn’t buy and decorate a big tree. We didn’t print a family card. And we never buy and exchange gifts, because we prefer experiences scattered throughout the year rather than adding more stuff to the stuff we already have entirely too much of.

We did buy a tiny live tree, about a foot tall, from Costco, and it sat on our kitchen counter with a star on it. We’ll plant it in the ground once all the holidays are over and the season is right for planting. Dear Husband did put up our big lighted snowflake on the chimney chase for passersby to enjoy, but that was the extent of it.

To get in the spirit, we got tickets to the Garden d’Lights, which took place at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens. The tickets were timed so that only a limited number of people walked the one mile trail at any given time, due to the pandemic. It was, of course, out of doors, and it took about 45 minutes to wander through. That was fun. And it made me want to return in spring in the daytime, to see what the garden itself looks like.

I don’t know if I was just too busy with other things to notice, or if it was just that I hadn’t gotten out and about as much as usual, but I don’t seem to recall seeing very many homes lit up for the season this year. I’m wondering if a combination of economic stress and COVID burnout has everyone on the same path that I’m on. Simplicity equals stress reduction. I’m looking forward to a very chill Christmas, once I get home from work.

Sadly, my birthday falls between Christmas and New Year’s, so I’ve been short-changed, celebration-wise, my whole life. By the time my birthday rolls around, everyone, including me, is kind of over celebrating. Usually, I just pick a restaurant and we go to lunch or dinner. But this year, I’ve decided that I’m going to lean into the Christmas Baby experience and give myself the perfect day.

I plan to take the day off of work and… do absolutely nothing. No chores. No errands. No guilt for not getting things done. I will refuse to even look at my to-do list. And I won’t go anywhere. You can’t make me.

I plan to stay in my jammies all day and read a book. Maybe I’ll soak in the bath if the spirit moves me. I’ll definitely take a nap. That, to me, is my idea of heaven. I’m really looking forward to it.

As for New Years, it’s almost always a non-event for me. I’m not one to drink or go to parties. I don’t believe in ruminating over the past or making promises about the future that I know I won’t keep. If I’m up at midnight, I’ll say Happy New Year. If I’m asleep, I won’t. And I have to work the next morning, so life goes on.

Wow, this year went by quickly. I had already decided that I was going to make an effort to reduce my stress in 2023. It certainly seems as if I’ve gotten off to a good start. I could get used to this.

I hope you enjoy the holidays, dear reader, in whatever way you choose to observe or not observe them! Thanks for being here. I wish you peace on earth, good will to Men, and all that good stuff.

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

A Heartwarming Holiday Play

Mr. Dickens and His Carol

‘Twas a dark and stormy night.

Seriously. ‘Twas. Would I lie to you?

Big, spongy globs of snow were flying at us sideways, and hitting our coats with a splash. As this weird snow hit the ground, it immediately intermingled with the blanket of previously accumulated powdery snow, resulting in a mélange of wet, muddy, slippery slush pies. The winter wonderland of the morning was quickly turning into an evening winter wasteland.

Our feet made squelching noises as we walked. We were drenched through and through. And it was cold and raw in the way it can only be in the Pacific Northwest. I could feel it in the very marrow of my bones. No sane person would be out in this crap. Oh, but we had theater tickets.

On a night like that, I’d much rather be snuggled up with my dog in front of a warm fire, clad in flannel pajamas and bunny slippers (me, not the dog or the fire) and wrapped in a fuzzy blanket (both me and the dog, but definitely not the fire). It is the kind of weather that calls out for one to stay home, engrossed in a good book. There are very few things that would make me shed those jammies and venture out into a slushy hellscape.

I will admit that I have been known to run down the street and pick up some pho on a night light that. It’s the ultimate comfort food. But then I’d run back home to enjoy it before the fire, with the dog and the bunny slippers. The only other thing I can think of that would make me face soggy misery, short of an urgent need for an emergency room, is a play.

Plays, when done well, are magical things. They allow you to get all cozy in your seat and be transported to another world. You don’t even need bunny slippers. You just need some imagination.

A wonderful play can feel all the more decadent when you know that the weather outside is frightful. You are one of an exclusive group of people who get to leave that place where one uses the words “trudge” and “galoshes”, and instead sit back, warm and dry, while passively observing a marvelous adventure. Sign me up.

The play in question on this night was Mr. Dickens and His Carol, based on the book of the same name by Samantha Silva. It’s a fictionalized literary cloak draped over a non-fiction skeleton of Charles Dickens‘ true circumstances as he wrote A Christmas Carol.

At the time, Dickens was partway through his latest serial novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and it was turning out to be a shocking failure after his huge success with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop. This was extremely bad news as he was already under a great deal of financial pressure.

His wife just had the fifth of their ten children, and there were a whole host of people counting on him for their livings as well, including agents, publishers, newspapermen, and household staff, in addition to a father who was so financially irresponsible that growing up, Dickens was able to see for himself what life was like for a patriarch in a debtor’s prison.

Based on that information, Samantha Silva weaved a story about what it must have been like for the author to desperately write A Christmas Carol simply to keep his financial head above water. She turned Dickens into a Scrooge himself, bitter at all the hangers on who were intent on draining him of all his money. She allows Dickens to transform in the end, just like Scrooge did, and that is what inspires him to write A Christmas Carol as we know and love it today. God bless us, every one.

This preview performance of the world premier of the play took place in Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theater. We had never been to this venue. It felt intimate. It gave me the same kind of butterflies I feel when I burrow deep into the stacks of a dusty old library filled with mahogany and possibilities. And the play would soon follow suit with its own inner flutter of butterflies.

The director announced that this was a preview performance to work out the kinks, but I saw no kinks whatsoever. Not only were the actors amazing, but the costume and set design were superb as well. I love how the actors seamlessly moved the furniture on and off the stage as the play was going on. They also provided the sound effects from just off stage.

The stage itself had a rotating floor, which allowed elements of the set to be used for different purposes as they were turned to different angles. I’m impressed when actors remember their lines and move and emote at the same time, so it’s a thousand times more impressive when they do all of that along with walking on a moving floor, keeping time with the other characters, and always managing to orient themselves to the audience, along with keeping track of what furniture needs to go where for any given scene.

That the cast and crew managed to pull all that off without a hitch was quite a feat. In the end, we were treated to a deliciously deep dive into Victorian London, with all its struggles and triumphs. And I’m pleased to say there was no slush involved.

The good news is that you can still get tickets to see this play as it will be here in Seattle until December 23rd. I hope it does, indeed, catch on and travel the world. I can imagine it becoming a delightful Christmas tradition. It was well worth a slog through the winter wickedness of the streets of Seattle to get there. For a delightful 40 second taste of this play that will leave you wanting more, check out this YouTube video.

I’ll leave you with a few photos I took while the actors were off stage. Even without people, it looks like a wonderful place, well worth exploring, doesn’t it? I highly recommend that you do so.

I’m no Dickens, but I wrote a book, too, and you can own it! How cool is that? http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Duck and Cover: Its Legacy and the Aftermath

If a child never knows what safety feels like, what kind of adult will that child become?

In my first post about duck and cover drills, I compared and contrasted them to the active shooter drills that students endure today. In the next one, I discussed many of the insane policies that came about due to the sheer panic of the adults who were in charge. Now, let’s get into the ways these drills changed people, and how they reacted to that change.

As the children who were made to cower under their desks got older, they began to realize that the adults had lied to them. Desks can’t save you. Many people now believe that this was a cold war tactic to manipulate the next generation to fear USSR and communism in general. (In fairness, duck and cover might save you from a low-yield bomb that detonated at least 10 miles away, but the subsequent survival would not be pretty.)

This caused many of these kids to reject the system and that, in part, gave rise to the Hippie Movement. Many of them weren’t dropping out of society as much as they were dropping out of the fear of a mass kill off. They figured, if we’re going to die anyway, let’s not think about it. Let’s live for today.

It’s understandable that these kids thought anyone over 30 couldn’t be trusted. But even as a child, I thought that philosophy was terribly short-sighted, because they, too, would turn 30 someday. Then what?

Here are a few posters created to push back against the cold war mindset.

The cold war also inspired a great deal of creativity. The women I spoke to wanted me to recommend several books, songs and movies. I can’t vouch for these recommendations, having not read/seen them all myself, but for those of you who are really interested in this era, I’ll list them here:

Movies:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Matinee

The Fog of War, a documentary in which Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, with tears in his eyes, discusses how close we came to nuclear war.

On the Beach came out in 1959, prior to movie ratings. A lot of the duck and cover kids saw it at a young age, while the cold war was still going on, and it scared the bejeezus out of them. I saw it for the first time about a year ago, and, far removed from its history, and without any duck and cover trauma from my past, it “only” made me want to cry. I do remember reading the book at a young age, though. It was good, but scary. That’s probably why it took me so long to watch the movie.

Catch 22: the movie, the book

More Books:

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. This is not about the era so much as it is about the end of the world vibe.

The Children’s Story by James Clavell

Songs:

The Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire

Wooden Ships by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young or Wooden Ships by Jefferson Airplane. Which do you like better?

Hammer to Fall by Queen. That first link shows the lyrics, but if you already know them, I suggest this video, which shows Freddie Mercury in all his incredible glory. (God, I miss him.)

But honestly, so much good music was inspired by the cold war that I could go on forever. Instead, I suggest you check out this article entitled, Cold War Music: A Top Ten List for a deep, eclectic dive.

Clearly, all this fear mongering seems to have backfired for our government. Many of these duck and cover kids became lifelong pacifists and activists against war and nukes. Even more of them grew up to distrust authority and they still have the mindset that you should do what you need to do now, as tomorrow not guaranteed. For some, that sometimes resulted in poor decisions, but others matured into an attitude of gratitude and a feeling that nothing should be taken for granted.

Many of the duck and cover generation, especially the ones that had been plagued with night terrors or nightmares as children, are still stewing in toxic existential dread as adults. That should not come as a surprise. They were taught that the world will end in their lifetime, and that something bad would suddenly happen at some unspecified time. No one should have to live with that type of free floating anxiety.

One woman said, “When kids can’t trust their own instincts, it creates a feeling of powerlessness and an unstable relationship with those in power.”

I was not old enough to be tortured by the cold war antics of the adults all around me, and yet I can relate to that statement entirely. If you have a rational thought at age 7, and everyone ignores it or continues to behave irrationally even though they’re supposed to be in charge, you tend to question authority quite a bit.

Despite everything that one woman from the duck and cover generation went through, she still feels more sorry for the children of today who are enduring the active shooter drills. She said the red threat seemed too far away to worry about, whereas today’s kids see mass shootings on the news that are taking place in their own back yards all the time. That danger is too close for children to ignore. They can’t even pretend to feel safe under those circumstances.

For the duck and cover kids, the treats were mostly from the outside. Today most the threats are close enough to touch. That’s a sobering thought.

This is not the time for the adults, whose primary purpose should be to make children feel safe, confident, and loved, to instead model instability, irrationality, fear, and hatred, all while actively destroying the very planet on which we depend for survival. As a society, we subject our children to terrorism. If a child never knows what safety feels like, what kind of adult will that child become?

Drills should not be about transferring adult anxieties to children. They should be reassuring. They should be honest. They should answer questions, but they also should make it very clear that these drills exist so the ADULTS can be sure they keep everyone safe in the case of an emergency.

If schools insist on doing drills, for the children’s well-being they should combine them with tornado, earthquake, or fire drills. They are anxiety-producing, yes, but at least kids will think the enemy is the weather or faulty wiring, not some insane human being who is actively wanting to kill them. Perhaps turn it into a quarterly safety day designed to teach kids how to be part of a school community working together to remain safe and strong, rather than an exercise in helplessness.

The teachers, on the other hand, should have more in depth training, because they should all be on the same page as to what the plan will be. But that training should be done without students present. Anything more intense than that does more harm than good. After receiving such training, these teachers could then talk to the students, calmly, and say, “In the event of xyz, here’s what you will see the teachers do, and here’s what we may ask you to do. Just so you know.”

And, for the love of God, can we please not manufacture anxiety in children and parents where none need exist? Children should not be pawns in a political game. They should not be taught to fear Critical Race Theory, for example, especially since no public school in this country ever taught it in the first place. They should not be taught that wearing face masks and getting vaccines, as recommended by all public health professionals, is anything more than just that: a way to keep the public healthy and demonstrate your consideration toward those around you. And most of all, we should not be prioritizing our desire for automatic weapons over the very lives and mental health of our children.

It’s a much better tactic to give kids a feeling that their leaders are being rational and will know what to do in a crisis. Let them be children while they still can. Why on earth would anyone want to do otherwise?

If there’s any value in distrusting the Russians, we should be less worried about bombs and more worried about the fact that we aren’t teaching children to think critically, and we ourselves are buying into Russian disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories.

Khrushchev wanted to bury us. He didn’t. But disinformation will do so if we don’t all take a deep breath and employ a bit of critical thinking. Destruction doesn’t require bombs or bullets these days. It just requires the masses to be ignorant, gullible, lazy, and accepting of social media that is not fact checked or moderated in any significant way.

But we’re too jaded to fall for Cold War fear mongering. Aren’t we? Apparently not. We elected Trump, who taught his base to fear immigrants, education, healthcare, and democracy.

And we need to give up this insane love affair with automatic weapons. Kids today are a lot less worried about being fried to a nuclear crisp than they are of having bullets tumbling at them at a rate of 40 rounds per minute, leaving an unidentifiable corpse. That feeling, right there, is what we are doing to this generation. I can’t even imagine being a student these days.

One thing’s for certain. We are letting these kids down with all our thoughts and prayers. Rest assured that there will be long-range societal consequences, and they will be impossible for us to predict. If we insist on fearing anything, we should fear that. Shame on us all

Special thanks to the women of the Facebook Group Crones of Anarchy!, for revealing so much about their duck and cover experiences.

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Life at the Ephrata Cloister

They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide.

In my last post, The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America, I discussed an interesting compendium of music from 1746 that is currently housed in the Library of Congress. This music was originally created at the Ephrata Cloister in what is now Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. These Germanic hymns are remarkable in their simplicity, and are very haunting and beautiful if you have a chance to hear them performed. (More details on how to do so can be found in that post.)

Deep within the pages of this beautifully illuminated codex, a scholar named Chris Herbert discovered that several of the compositions were attributed to three of the sisters who led celibate lives as part of the religious commune. These are now considered to be the first known written compositions by women in what is now America.

I wish we knew more about Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura. Currently it seems that all we know was that they lived to be about 79, 67 and 79 respectively, at a time when most women would consider themselves lucky to make it into their 40’s. Life in 18th century America tended to be unhygienic, brutish and short.

Think about it. According to this article, today, about 15 American women die in pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births. That’s outrageous and says much about our broken health care system in this country. But in the 1700’s, when it wasn’t uncommon for women to have 8 children, the death rate was more like 1200 women per 100,000 live births. And by the last half of that century, long before reliable birth control, about one in three girls were already pregnant when they walked down the aisle.

Those are some scary statistics. Women must have felt like they had little choice but to play Russian Roulette with their ovaries. Most of them could expect to stare mortality in the eye several times throght the course of their lives. Under those circumstances, joining a celibate commune would be (sorry) a Godsend.

Joining the Ephrata community afforded a woman the opportunity to not have to focus on mere survival as most people did. Not only was the average woman raising a large family, she was preparing meals from scratch, making her own clothing, soap and candles, and fetching water for the laundry she had to do by hand. And if she found herself, by some misfortune, to be left as the only surviving parent, there were scant opportunities for her to make money. The only occupations that were common for white women back then were domestic service, childcare, gardening, and household production in the forms that I described above. (I specify white women because slavery was still very much in effect at the time and that’s another subject entirely. Suffice it to say that the lives of most black women were, at the very least, a thousand times more brutal.)

To make matters worse, that era was also plagued with smallpox, typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, and measles. Often these maladies were brought on by unsanitary living conditions and made even more deadly by a dearth of formally educated medical professionals, especially outside of the larger cities.        

Clearly, most colonial women didn’t have time to consider composing music or producing art of any kind. It wouldn’t even have been on their radar. But the sisters who lived at Ephrata Cloister led different lives, indeed. Celibacy alone afforded those women a longevity that other women merely dreamed of. A longer lifespan meant more years to be musically and artistically creative. It makes me wonder whether all the sisters in this community were genuinely pious. This life sounds like a logical choice if you’re a woman living in that era and you want more out of life.

But that’s not to say that the sister’s lives were easy. They slept on wooden benches that were 15 inches wide, and they used wooden pillows. They slept in two 3 hour shifts per night, and usually ate one small vegetarian meal per day, often consisting of roots, greens, fresh baked bread and water. Witness reports say that the celibate sisters and brothers all looked thin and pale, but they appeared healthy.

The sanitation at the cloister was poor at best, and they were not able to bathe often. The white robes that they wore must have glowed in stark contrast to their dirty state. And yet I imagine those robes were a nightmare to keep clean as well.

When Sisters Hannah, Föben, and Katura and their fellow celibates were not composing, creating art, or praying, the sisters would spin thread, often to be woven into linen by the men at the fulling mill, in order to produce the cloth needed for the robes. They would also copy music and tend gardens. Brothers would run the water-powered saw mill, the grain mill, the paper mill, and the oil mill that extracted natural oils from seeds or oil rich vegetables. The brothers also, of course, built all the structures in the commune.

Their religious philosophies seem to have been rather unique. They believed that God had a male, wrathful side, embodied by Christ, but also a female side that was pure love and wisdom, and was embodied by someone called Sophia. The brothers and sisters were married to one side or the other, and therefore were expected to remain faithful to that spouse. Hence the celibacy.

The community’s collection of books subscribed to a wide range of ideas, including alchemy and astrology.  It seems that members of the community were not strictly bound to a rigidly defined creed. Some in the community believed in sacred visions, and that all parts of nature are intimately interconnected. One book on alchemy describes how to generate life from the lifeless. They also read about Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, the Harmony Society, Hermeticism and Kabbalah.

You can peek inside some of their books on the Historic Ephrata Cloister’s website. One book, called The Golden Chain of Homer, includes a page in an unknown language.

The community also highly prized a book that opined that although the earth was round, its basic nature was cubic, and at its center lies the holy point of rest, also known as New Jerusalem. They also had a well-illustrated book that described the process of spiritual transformation on the body. Clearly these people were dedicated to seeking out the proper spiritual path for themselves, by any means necessary.

It appears that some members also practiced powwowing, which originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. It’s a folk magic tradition that includes aspects of folk religion and healing charms. (I was fascinated to learn that the term abracadabra is associated with powwowing.)

In this article about Chris Herbert’s discovery of the female composers in the cloister, he states that “Rules about worship changed frequently at Ephrata. At times devotees shaved their heads, at other times they slept only three hours a night. Treatises were written about what to eat in order to sing properly, and what to eat in general — no meat, no honey.”

The founder and spiritual leader of this community, Johann Conrad Beissel, seems to have been philosophically influenced by Radical Pietists and Mystics. He came to America from Germany in 1720 and was still forming his belief system when he was baptized by the Brethren-Anabaptists in 1724, but he eventually rejected the brethren when he decided that the Sabbath should fall on Saturday rather than Sunday. (Scandalous!)

By 1732 Beissel decided to move deeper into the Pennsylvania forest and become a hermit, stating that he had a distrust of organized churches. He wanted to lead a quiet life of contemplation, but friends who believed in his philosophies followed him and built homes near his. They called this place the Camp of the Solitary. Yet, oddly, many of them lived in shared dwellings.

Then came other followers who chose not to be celibate. They were called householders. They were couples who were farmers and craftsmen. They lived nearby, supported what became the cloister, and worshiped with the brothers and sisters, allowing them to have more time to compose and draw, and hold ceremonies that included the washing of feet.

When Beissel died in 1768, membership really started to decline. The last celibate member died in 1813. At its height, the community consisted of about 80 celibate men and women, and 200 non-celibate householders living on farms nearby. After 1813, the buildings that used to house celibate members were divided into apartments and rented to church members. The last surviving (non-celibate) resident of the cloister, Marie Elizabeth Kachel Bucher, died in 2008 at the age of 98. She apparently moved from the Ephrata area in 1927, but before that she had given tours of the now empty cloister.

Today, the historic Ephrata Cloister is maintained by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and from the looks of it, they are doing a wonderful job. They certainly have a well-designed website that makes me long to visit the actual place someday. The information on this website has taught me much about Ephrata Cloister despite my distance. I lingered on its pages for hours. It includes a virtual tour, a well-made introductory video that is also played in the visitor center, and some interesting slide presentations (I particularly recommend the one called Hidden Knowledge at Ephrata) and if that ignites your interest, you can even attend a Virtual Ephrata Academy, which includes a dozen very fascinating lecture-length videos on a whole host of subjects related to the cloister in its heyday.

I am grateful that this cloister existed, especially for the sisters. It allowed them to lead fuller, healthier lives, and demonstrates that women of that era were just as creative as women are today. They simply needed the time and space to express themselves. That time and space, given to them in the form of that community, was a precious gift. We are all beneficiaries of that gift, because we can still hear their music, view their art, and walk around their community.

Other Sources:

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/common-diseases-18th-and-19th-century

https://clickamericana.com/topics/health-medicine/us-life-expectancy-in-the-1800s

https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/six-unbelievable-but-true-facts-about-colonial-life/

Travel vicariously through this blog. And while you’re at it, check out my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

The Ephrata Codex and the First Known Female Composers in America

“April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania.”

As I write this, I’m being serenaded by a haunting a cappella quartet. The music they are performing echoes across time from the mid 1700’s. It was composed by members of the Ephrata Cloister in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Listening to these devotional Germanic hymns is a welcome retreat from the modern world.

It is miraculous that this music was preserved. In fact, the historic cloister, which you can still visit, boasts of more than 1,000 original compositions. Many of them were gathered together in 1746 to make up the Ephrata Codex, an anthology of all the members’ compositions up to that year.

The 972-page codex is a handwritten, gorgeously illuminated work of art that is housed in the Library of Congress. It’s the only known copy. It has been digitized, thank goodness, so you can look at every page of it online here. But I’m including pictures from some of the pages in this post, since the entire volume is now in the public domain.

There are many things that intrigue me about this codex. One of them is the note on the inside cover. It says, “April 1775. This curious book was lent me by Doctor Franklin just before he set out for Pennsylvania.”  The quote is attributed to John Wilkes.

I would love to know this book’s entire provenance. The Doctor in question had to be Benjamin Franklin. According to Wikipedia, the year before, he had been Postmaster General of British America, and was living in England. I’m quite sure he rubbed elbows with Wilkes, who was the Lord Mayor of London at the time. But as Franklin’s sympathies for the rebel cause in the colonies started to increase, it was time to return to Philadelphia. One month after he loaned out this book, Franklin became a Delegate from Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress, which was convened in support of the Revolutionary War. Those were heady times, indeed.

One assumes there was no time or opportunity for Wilkes to return the book to Franklin during that period, and the fact that Wilkes wrote in it gives one the impression that he expected to possess it for quite some time. Why would Franklin bring such a heavy book to England in the first place? And why would he loan such a treasure out to someone who would soon become his enemy in nationality if not in spirit?

How did Franklin come to possess this book? Did he ever visit the cloister? It isn’t that far from Philadelphia, and the cloister did house the second German printing press in the colonies. Franklin started off as a printer’s apprentice, so this press would have been of interest to him.

And when would he have come to own this large, significant book in order to loan it out just seven years after the death of Johann Conrad Beissel, the founder of the religious community at the heart of which was the Ephrata Cloister? While the codex was being passed around, the cloister was still limping along, with the last celibate member surviving until 1813. So why hadn’t the community held onto the codex?

The second thing that intrigues me about the codex is that, according to this article, Chris Herbert, a modern-day vocalist and musicologist who has extensively studied this book, and in fact is considered to be an expert on it, discovered, almost by accident, that several of the musical compositions therein had been written by women.

That meant that these women, Sister Föben, Sister Katura and Sister Hanna, are the first known female composers in America. (You can see their work on pages 653-679 in the codex, which seems to correspond with Images 680-706 in the Library of Congress’ digitized version. It was very exciting to see their names!)

Composing is a stellar achievement for women in the mid 1700’s, a time when most women were housewives and mothers and did all the laundry by hand and made all the meals from scratch. That these particular women had the time and opportunity to compose, and that it occurred to them that they were allowed to take credit therefor, is impressive indeed. It was their lives at the Ephrata Cloister which made that possible. (And it was a fascinating community. I’ll delve deeper into it in my next post.)

But let’s circle back to this hauntingly simple and beautiful music. It is Chris Herbert who produced the album Voices in the Wilderness, which I’m enjoying so much as I write this. He included the works of those three female composers, and the album was recorded in the Meetinghouse at the very cloister at which it had been created. Bearing witness to that would have given me goose bumps.

Seriously, check out this music. It’s amazing! Also check out this video entitled The Music of Ephrata Cloister on Herbert’s YouTube page. And while you’re there, check out Hebert’s own performances as well. I just love discovering new (to me) music, don’t you?

Additional Source:

https://blogs.loc.gov/music/2019/05/a-sweet-bitter-sweet-find-in-an-eighteenth-century-pennsylvanian-music-manuscript/

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Negative Hands

“I was here.”

Recently, I caught a minute or two of a TED Talk in which the speaker was discussing “negative hands”. I was really confused by this, having never heard the term before. It kind of sounds like some form of abuse to me.

But the speaker explained that back when early man started doing art on cave walls, one of the first innovations was to place your hand on a wall, then spit paint over and around it, and when you removed your hand, you left a “negative hand” painting on the wall.

I’ve been looking at photographs of negative hands for decades. They always make me wish I could go to the site and touch the hand, while imagining the artist placing his or her hand in the same spot. (It’s a wish I would never fulfill, though, because I wouldn’t want to damage the work.)

What an amazing feeling that would be. Standing right where the ancient artist stood. Touching her, his or their hand. That would feel like some sort of time travel conversation. Artist, in a faint, distant voice: “I was here.” Me: “I know! Thank you! Lovely to meet you!”

The motivation for putting negative hands on a rock wall is fairly simple to understand. I’m sure that for as long as there have been humans on this planet, we have all wanted to make our mark on the world. We all want to say that we were here. It’s as primal an instinct as an animal marking its territory.

We do this in so many ways. We create art. We tag walls. We name things after ourselves if we can, and after others if we haven’t quite “made it”. We write. We invent things. We make scientific discoveries. We pass on our genetic code. We mark graves. We teach others. We build things. We try to nurture and lift up the next generation so that they’ll remember us. We do good works. More and more of us, unfortunately, prefer to live in infamy.

We are all mortals, and so we reach for immortality in creative ways. But like it or not, it will be time to go for each one of us eventually. Some of us will be remembered much longer than others. We will hope those memories are fond. Some will be remembered without really being remembered, as their innovations morph into common household objects that get taken for granted, or when their descendants display similar quirks, or when their art is labeled, “artist unknown.”

Whether we succeed or not in making our mark, I’m glad that we are driven to try. It’s that instinct that brings about change, and, hopefully, improvement. Change can bring about beauty as well as destruction, so we must learn to tread lightly.

I hope, dear readers, that your marks upon this world are positive ones. When all is said and done, that’s all that matters. Either way, I wish for you a life well-lived, because, yes indeed, you are here.

ARGENTINA Patagonia Cueva de las Manos Cave of the Hands. Prehistoric rock paintings of human hands in red black and orange 13 000 to 9 500 years old. Wouldn’t these people be stunned to know that their hands are now seen on the internet by more people then they imagined would ever exist?

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!