Rest not in peace: 14th century murder

I walk where Hugh Singleton walked on the streets of Oxford and the castle, where he journeyed frequently as bailiff for the manor of Bampton and as 14th century detective, most recently in Rest Not In Peace. I have worn the long dress and coif his wife Kate wore, and looked in the little shops off High Street where she helped her father.

The grand and imposing buildings of nearby Cotswold stone are mostly newer, though some  buildings Hugh would recognise. And the gown and coif are strictly dress up for me for historical re-enactments put on around the country by the Plantagenet Society. Yet this all links me to a world that fascinates us and that we try to imagine. In England, I am always aware of the centuries upon centuries of people walking the same roads, worshipping at the same sites, living and dying in a slowly changing world. I have walked the Brother Cadfael route in Shrewsbury, lurked behind the chapter house pillar (now in a car park) behind which he dozed daily, and have to keep reminding myself that that particular (unreal).medieval monk never actually lived in that (real) monastery.I have stood outside the non-existent 221b Baker Street home of Sherlock, wishing to hear the wheels of hansoms rather than the hum of busses. In Avebury, in the midst of the stones, the presence of the past is sometimes, for me, almost an immediate experience, especially in rain and mist.

Literature, and specifically novels, opens up a door to other places and times, and to how life was or is  experienced in those places and times. I have found that consciously reading novels by authors from African or Asian countries has helped widen my awareness in ways I could not do by travelling even if that were possible for me. In the same way, the American author of the Hugh Singleton series, Mel Starr, can give his students (he teaches) and a wider readership a glimpse of the past. He knows much about the past as a historian and has visited the area of his books’ events, though he is also helped by an editor, Jan Greenough, who is local (and whom I know from church) and by a historically informed imagination and feeling for characters.

Plantagenet re-enactors can usually tell you more than you ever learned in school about the history and daily life of the historical period, -about the same as that of this series of books, and they know the life story of the character they enact whether a historical or an invented  person.Many learn and use the skills and crafts of the past. Audiences enjoy the chance to share this at least a little by taking part in dancing, archery or squire training, and listening to medieval music on medieval instruments, as well as watching the knights in combat. Some elements are not possible this way but imagined better in books though: the everyday toll of death from accident or illness, the Black Death itself, so well covered in Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, and especially the all pervading belief in a medieval Christian view of the world, and daily practices of prayer,  fully held by none today, even of devoted Church of England members using the same buildings or Roman Catholics proud of our (imagined) unchanging faith.

Our worlds intersect in literature.

Is this only a hobby for those who enjoy it, as I do? I would argue that it is an indispensable part  of education in our world today. We all are living in a century where what is done in one place has repercussions for the whole planet. What we struggle with politically can be looked at in other countries and the outcomes compared. It has been said that those who know no history are doomed to repeat it, and those who know history are doomed to watch them! We are no longer members of only one village with its local lord. It is profoundly disturbing to me when people are still  confined within a narrow knowledge and belief limited to  their immediate social network, and to find people  who cannot extend their sympathies beyond this.

The world is one.

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Always moving on?

Husband and I, two teenagers, one pre-schooler and one as-yet-unborn. In 1977 we all squeezed into a 1971 VW camper and set off for a coast to coast camping trip from the SF Bay area to New Haven, where we visited family and old family history sites. About 7,000 miles, ten days each way plus ten days with family.

In  1922, My husband’s father, then sixteen, drove a Model T Ford, in company with his family, (mother, two sisters and four brothers) from eastern Pennsylvania to California, where some of the family (father, uncle, brother) had already moved. They wore out three sets of tires on the gravel and dirt roads. In 1643, my husband’s first known immigrant ancestor, Pardon Tillinghast arrived from southern England to Rhode Island. Those immigrants never expected to see their family again.My own ancestors are  both English and Irish – but northern Ireland protestants who may have moved from lowland Scotland. And our four children live in California, New Zealand, Pennsylvania and England.

And yet, a recent DNA study of the population in England, used volunteers only if  all four of their  grandparents lived  within  thirty miles of their present place. The discovery was that it is still possible to see the borders of the old English kingdoms from the times of the Anglo-Saxons ( who were earlier migrants) a thousand years ago. So some people, at least until recently, have stayed put in Great Britain.

My most recent library read is Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by Lillian Schlissel. Fascinating. I wish my ancestors had written such memories.

Common to almost all these 19th century women was the grief at leaving family and friends, even though the wagon trains heading to California and Oregon usually included large and extended families. Men tended to be excited and look forward to adventure and possibilities for wealth in newly settled lands or in the Gold Rush. Women, except unmarried teenagers who were not married yet, and who shared the excitement, were much less eager: in fact reluctant, dreading separations from all the social links that were so vital to them, but in the society of that time, they had to accompany their husbands. Some men went off without wives and family, but almost no women. Reticent because of the taboos of the time, women still obviously were almost overwhelmed by the work of the journey- care of children, cooking, washing, and any hard labor the men had not been able to do. Many of them trudged hundreds of miles of the journey with babies on their hips. Many had several children to care for, many of them were still in their teens and pregnant, though the only mentions are of the actual birth of babies. If the mother died in childbirth it is noted only as “a brief illness” though if she was buried with newly born baby, it is clear what the “illness” was. Cholera and dysentery ensured that the route was lined with graves, which many of the women listed in their diaries. At the beginning of the migration, Indians bartered and guided, but as the stream of wagons grew from year to year, hostile incidents increased between immigrants and Indians, and the women’s fears intensified. Yet the writers of the diaries did not- could not- see the broader picture of history unfolding, aware mostly of their own immediate decisions and needs.

I see a pattern again. Humans have a strong instinct to migrate when conditions seem intolerable where they are and more promising elsewhere, and humans  feel an instinct to stay in and claim their own land, among their own people, in places with memories and sacred aura.

As I read about the weary, ill women, walking with little children through rocks, dust, mud, crossing rivers on rafts or frail canoes, leaving possessions by the trail when they could not be transported further, enduring and enduring, I was keenly aware of the migrants of this century, women and children escaping from deadly violence in central America, and dying in the southeast deserts, (or instantly deported to the same desperate situations,) hoping to find a haven in what was still Mexican land at the time these diaries’ eastern immigrants started trudging across the snow of the Sierra. Women, children and men are right now entrusting their hopes to flimsy inflatables to cross the Mediterranean to lands they hope will be safe from war and bombing.

Have we all been trudging towards our hopes ever since we left Africa a million years ago? Are we so long settled in any one land that we forget, in our love for what we have found, that the human story is always of migration?

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Visions for the Future

As I am currently in California, which has been in a state of severe drought for several years, 2020:Visions for the Central Valley, edited by Amy Moffatt, interested me. This year is, I thankfully report, wet and snowy (snow means water later in the year as it melts slowly over the summer months.) Yet that does not undo the years of our depleting groundwaters and aquifers at an unsustainable rate, enough to cause subsidence and damage to infrastructures. Nor does it warrant optimism that the coming years will follow patterns we have grown accustomed to . The book’s authors -speakers at a conference in 2010, so we are already halfway through the years they contemplate- talk about needed changes in agriculture and land use, water source utilization (though I missed any contribution on the water rights, enshrined in law for many years, of early major agricultural water users,) sustainable development and so on. Very detailed contributions, and by real experts.

At the same time I read Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian, a novel, plucked almost at random from the library shelves, about an adolescent growing up in the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown in which her parents both died. The main character is growing into a future she literally, both as an adolescent and a disaster survivor, does not envisage or plan for. Both the falling apart of her private childhood world and the chaos following a nuclear disaster on the scale of Fukushima or Chernobyl, are utterly convincingly portrayed. Be reassured though that if you read this – I enjoyed it and will read more of Bohjalian- both her life and the life of the New England setting of the story are going to continue and the world will cope.

Both of these books were in my mind yesterday as I listened to President Obama’s last State of the Union address. Among many good elements was a call to rational consideration of the future beyond one election cycle, in a cooperative manner.
“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.” He called for Americans to be what they were when they first saw Sputnik overhead and decided to put energy and vision – and investment- into a moon landing program.  Innovation, technology, renewable energy investment: all those good things, good, as he pointed out, not only for the planet but even for the investors and workers.

Someone, I forget who but it may have been Schwartzenegger, recently pointed out that it would be as foolish to hang on to fossil fuel energy as it would have been to hang on to selling horse-drawn buggies when car dealerships were opening all around. I confess I do not altogether share the view that technology can always save us from the mess we have got into through faith in unfettered technology, but it has to be part of the way forward. As does ending our faith that we can always have more, that this finite planet can support humans’ more-than-finite desires. As Pope Francis frequently points out, Materialism is a bad religion.

Reforestation, and the end to government support for deforestation, would also have an enormous impact on the climate problem. Wind, solar, and other forms of energy are becoming more important and more economically viable.

Nuclear power, as is made clear in Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, has always seemed to me to be fraught with unacceptable risks, as well posing a continuing problem in disposal of spent fuel. Back in the Californian context, for years ordinary drums containing radio-active waste were dumped in the ocean by the Farallon islands, just outside the Golden Gate, where we lived for nearly two decades, and also, in Humboldt County, where we lived for the next two decades, spent fuel rods were kept in a pool within half a mile of an active earthquake fault- and of an elementary school.

We should, however all be considering, in whatever  part of life we are as individuals in society, what the future could be. It is not a matter only for experts, though we need to learn from them. It is not a matter only for novelists imagining the future, though most of us need an infusion of imagination. Nor is it a party political matter, nor even a single country’s problem. It is a pressing moral concern for all. What sort of  world can we hope to leave for our grandchildren and generations beyond them?

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War is hell. On the Home Front too.

My father served in WWII in the RAF, though he spent most of his years there as a navigation instructor, not in combat. He was posted to North Africa. I think that for the rest of his life he missed the sense of purpose, order, and ” buddy support,” (in American terms,) which he found there, He walked (or mobility scootered) in Remembrance Day parades. He wore his ribbons and his poppy. But he said frequently to me in his later years, “It was a bloody waste.”

More veterans have died by suicide than in action in the Iraq War. Into what circle of Dante’s Hell were they sent, in our name, allegedly, though the 2003 protests were massive. In Eureka, (population around 30,000,) 3 or 4 thousand marched against the war, and the Women In Black were still standing in mute awareness/ mourning/ protest once a week when we left the city nearly ten years later. And into what circle of Dante’s Hell may we consign the leaders who sent patriotic, idealistic, honorable young people to a terrible, destabilizing and unwinnable war, in which those leaders did not fight, suffer or die, and from which some of them made a whole lot of money. And this war was an unjust one- I use the term from traditional Roman Catholic ethical and theological tradition, not from my own feelings. It was condemned by almost all Christian denominations in the US and by massive protests around the world

I picked up Home Front in the library from a recommendation by Nick Kristof about another work (not available on the shelf) by the same author, Kristen Hannah. At first it seemed to be about a not untypical middle aged couple whose marriage is in the doldrums: but then the heroine, a long time member of the National Guard, gets posted to Iraq, flying Black Hawks. Her lawyer husband is not in sympathy with the war or even the military. So the plot unfolds.

Not political statements about War or this war, Some readers may have not read this far because they identified  my “political position” in the second paragraph. Not you, if you are still with me here!

This book will give much to think about for those who support this or other current conflicts and for those who insist there has to be a better way. The human story is of the human cost. The protagonist here joins the military because she sees no other option for her future – no family, home or financial support. I knew many young people in Oakland who joined the military for the same reasons, and, even though I am a pacifist, and particularly question the conflicts of recent decades, the military service gave many young people a camaraderie, a sense of belonging, skills, and strengthened values like honor and  reliability, as well as giving employment skills to some (including nephews of mine.) It does all this for Jolene and Tami, in the novel. But at a terrible cost.”Enfants perdus” they were sometimes called in medieval wars. The ones on the ground who trigger IEDs, or are shot out of the air. The children too who are in the market or street when the mortars hit. The 20 year olds who have to pick up their buddies’ remains, and are traumatized forever. Battle shock. Shell shock. PTSD.

And personnel survive the most horrible wounds, personnel who would have died in any earlier conflicts. Young people face a future of coping with severe physical injury, and often with moral injury too.

And what help and support is offered when they all return home, changed forever by what they have done and endured? How do families cope?  What help do they receive from the government that always has enough money to send troops out- but not to help when they return.  This book makes the situations real and makes us feel sympathy for the characters- all the characters. It is clearly possible to hate the war and respect those who serve their country. Vietnam vets felt strongly the negative reactions to that war which too often were inflicted as hatred of the (often drafted) young service members. That is a useless deflection of anger at the chaos of war and the leadership and motives of those in power.

The news article to which I linked in my first paragraph, explores the story and cost of the ongoing war in one family. This novel does the same, but with the insights into characters and motive and relationships that are not possible in a news article and would be unbearably intrusive.

It does make me wonder what people really mean when they say “Support the troops.” Yellow ribbons and casseroles don’t do it.

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The universality of human experience

Two books have been with me for the last few days; Jhumpa Lahiri’s  Unremembered Earth, and Soy Sauce for Beginners, by a newer writer, Kirstin Chen.  One is by a woman from Singapore’s culture, and the other from India -Bengali life. Both speak strongly to me, a westerner who bridges two western cultures, about the universality of human experience and needs. More and more people in the modern world have real ties to more than one country, or are of mixed ethnicity. I once had a Sunday School class where, in a survey, the number of ethnicities claimed  by the children was larger than the number of children. The number of languages spoken in my children’s elementary school was amazing.

I know a Muslim woman of Pakistani origins, born in Oxford, who, in some ways, is more British than I am, after my forty years outside the country, and yet is veiled in public, and devoutly Moslem and with strong ties to a country she was not born in, as well as to her home country.

I, an immigrant to the United States, and for a while undocumented, lived among people in Oakland whose ancestors were abducted from Africa and forced to a new world, and others who had come from  Mexico, some in centuries before it was “Mexico” or “California.” (Because of the accidents of history, my life there as a white person was much much easier than most of theirs, even as people who were stable and financially successful and all those things our society values.)

When I am around Native Americans, I am aware of my doubly immigrant status, personally in 1970 and as part of a European population surge to the western continent centuries ago: some of my husband’s ancestors arrived in the 17th century and others in the 19th. We sold our house in Eureka after a title search (a legal check on the validity of ownership) going all the way back to the -ahem-1850s. The irony is that we sold it to a member of the local Yurok tribe whose people had been there for so much longer, though the actual land we briefly “owned” was Wiyot territory.

Our Home Forever, a book I love, is the history of the local north coast Hupa people, one of very few tribes never torn away from their original homeland. Like many peoples’, their stories tell that they were created in that spot and have always lived there. From my western scientific point of view, humans probably originated in the Rift Valley of eastern Africa, Yet we have been moving ever since, And because of our primate origins, we always tend to live in smaller groups, with whom we identify as “us” and we can react in very hostile ways to other humans we identify as “them.”

Books like the two I just read teach me and remind me of what it is to be just human, though always within a specific cultural milieu. Both strongly portray the strength of the family and community bonds that make us who we are, and a love and yearning towards each other. At the same time they show that though “No man (sic) is an island,” in John Donnes’s words, yet we never succeed in truly knowing even those closest to us. We try and fail to understand and compassionately respond even to those we love most. We say things clumsily or not at all, or say things we can never unsay. Our actions may be as well meaning as we can humanly be, and yet not be read that way: and sometimes our actions are not even well meaning, but hostile or desperate.  Do I need to go on?  The experiences are universal. They can be, in these stories, as apparently impersonal as which country of  two to live in, or as immediate as how to help a parent with a drinking problem. As complex as simultaneously holding and letting go of those we love. As simple as putting a meal in front of another human being with whom we share this planet, but whose inner world we can never know.

And we expect to understand God?

Truly, all reading is Lectio Divina. The tiny individual that is me opened to what is beyond me.

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Also Read

Sometime in the middle of the year I stopped writing a blog entry for each book I read, or nearly all of them. But I continued to list what I have read. So this post is really mostly for me. Maybe I’ll start blogging again. The starred titles are ones I particularly thought important and well written.

Anne of Green Gables: Montgomery
The Female Man: Russ, Joanna
Rebels and Traitors; Davis, Lindsay.
*God Help the Child: Morrison, Toni
*Homeland: Kingsolver, Barbara
Vault:Rendell, Ruth
The search for Jesus: Patterson, Borg, Crossan et al.
A truth Universally acknowledged:33 reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen: ed Carson, Susannah
We Need New Names: Bulawayo, NoViolet
Bone China: Tearne, Roma.
The King’s Evil: Marston, Edward.
Shakespeare’s local: Brown, Pete
Orphan Train: Kline, Christina Baker
Trigger Warnings: Gaiman, Neil
Sapiens: Harari, Yuval Noah
Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania: Switala, William J.
Lessons from Tara: Rosenfeld, David
Years’ Best SF 18 (2013) ed Hartwell, David.G.
The Gap of Time: Winterson, Jeanette (not yet)
Steering the Craft: Le Guin, Ursula
The Road to Character: Brooks, David.
In the Unlikely Event: Blume, Judy
Stone Mattress: Atwood, Margaret
Meals in the Early Christian World:ed. Smith, Dennis E. and Taussig, Hal
Rock With Wings: Hillerman, Anne
House Rules: Picoult, Jodie
Deadly Election: Davis, Lindsay
All is Grace: Forest, Jim(Dorothy Day)
Mockingbird: Erskine, Kathryn
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy: Joyce, Rachel
Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge:Lovett, Charlie
Deadly Election: Davis Lindsay
The Handmaid’s Tale: Atwood, Margaret
FitzEmpress’ Law:Norman, Diana (also =  Ariana Franklin,)
Mistress of the Art of Death: Franklin, Ariana
Adam Bede: Eliot, George
Between the World and Me: TaNehisi Coates
Under the Same Blue Sky: Schoenewaldt, Pamela
Cold Sassy Tree: Burns, Olive Ann
My Music, My Drinking and Me (Sibelius): Sinclair, Carolyn
Spider Woman’s Daughter: Hillerman, Anne
Lord of the Rings: Tolkien, J.R.R.

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God Help the Child:

I have always loved reading books about children or young women in England during WWII. It is my generation, and my story is recognizably part of the world it describes, though less dramatic (I was only 5 when the war in Europe ended.) I also read to learn about how other lives are experienced in other places or times, feeling kinship with people whose experiences are very different.

There are always common threads though. Thinking only of a few favorite books, I can learn of brother love and compassion from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the pull of conscience and the search for understanding of Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, the unique and brave people who seem so real in Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

But it is only in the  literary kerfuffle over the publication of Harper Lee’s newly published  book, and its relationship to her magnum opus, (and whether she really wanted Watchman published at all,) that I realize one of my favorites- To Kill a Mockingbird– is more than the beautifully told story of young Scout, and her idealized father, Atticus, heroic and impassioned for justice for black as for white. It is both more and less than I had taken it. It is more in that it is an eye opening call for conversion to the white people of the whole nation which has embraced this as a great 20th century novel. The book and the movie have undoubtedly influence subsequent generations. It is not embarrassingly dated as is Gone with the Wind for example. It can still be a clarion call for the “Black Lives Matter” of modern civil rights.

Toni Morrison is, imho, about the best American novelist of this generation. Reading her new book, God Help the Child, moved me, as her writing always does, because of its awareness of the traumas of children and the effects of the surrounding culture and the adults in their lives. I am aware in reading her books- The Bluest Eye comes to mind-  that they are written by a African-American woman, immersed in black culture and for black readers, even though others love her work too.

In this I realize that Mockingbird is written neither from a black perspective nor primarily for black readers. It is less than universal in that sense. How did I not become more aware of this before?

Living in East Oakland for years, I had African-American neighbors. We were friends with black people in the casual wide-ranging relationships that are common in America. (For those we Brits call friends, Americans would say “dear friends, close friend, long-time friend…”)  I actually interacted with more Hispanic, Asian and Polynesian people than black, partly because of our churches, though I visited black churches, where “Rev. Bud” knew many more people than I did. And to this day I miss black preaching and black singing, and the multi-ethnic culture of Oakland. So I knew that “our” TV choices were not the same as “their” TV, and “our” magazines only paid occasional attention to non-white readers. White privilege is everywhere and I become more aware of it. The link between ethnicity and poverty is inescapable when you live in areas like that. Our society is still very segregated, and separate does not mean equal.

We need to listen and be aware of people who have a different story. Toni Morrison is a great story teller, and her words read as evocatively as poetry. Only by listening to the stories of others can we build a society better than we inherited. Though even with all our intentions and our hopes, God Bless the Child who is born, anywhere,  into this world.


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