Archive for the 'history' Category

Mystic traditions

September 2, 2014

I don’t know enough about it to discuss it accurately, but it seems to me that a mention of Jewish mysticism is missing from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for today.



August 26, 2014

My building contractor is back from Washington, D.C. and helping his lacrosse-playing daughter get situated at college.  Today he was continuing his digging under the other end of the back piece of my house  —  a piece that may have originally been a porch and smaller than it is now, and in any event has sustained water damage beneath it.  He needs to excavate enough so that he can get underneath it to replace deteriorated wood he has removed.  He did that beneath the other end, under the half bath, and I ended up with a lovely floor re-tiled with tiles Willy and I had bought years ago.

The end Joe’s working on now is beneath a windowed mudroom, and I don’t expect the interior will get spruced up.  That flooring is slate.

But I did get a lovely benefit today:  Joe found an inkwell, Bixby brand, intact, tinted glass, kind of iridescent in places, where he was digging.  Very nice, I am quite tickled with the discovery and find.

The half saucer Joe found a few weeks ago in pieces is nice, too, and I have a small collection of old nails found during such work over the years, but this inkwell is really the first piece found in the vicinity of the house that gives me a sense that this house really was inhabited during much different times.



January 26, 2014

There’s a version in another culture of the story the Romans tell about Lucretia in order to explain how the reign of the kings got overthrown and the Roman Republic got established.

The Roman myth is known as “The Rape of Lucretia,” and in the Augustan Roman historian Livy’s version of it, Lucretia is coerced into having sex with Tarquin (a king) by his threat of shaming her more by making it look as if she had had sex with a slave.

In this version in another culture, the Lucretia character rebuffs a suitor on the grounds that she’s married, he says, “Well, I can fix that,” and kills her husband.  He then forces himself on her.  She’s now a raped widow with orphans.  In her culture, she should marry her rapist.  In one variant, she kills herself rather than do this, in another, he refuses to marry her because he doesn’t want two families.  I don’t think this culture thought in terms of divorce, but if it had, I think he would have said, “What?  I can’t do that!  That would have a negative impact on my family!”

How should the male character resolve the situation?  Clearly the train left the station when he figured he should have more sex — whatever went into that “decision” is the problem.  If he is that same person, it is doubtful he will do something helpful, even if one assumes a helpful resolution exists in theory.  If he develops some further insight into himself and others as a result of this situation — we could imagine a variant, maybe the operatic version, in which he is moved to compassion in a final scene with swelling music — maybe he will at least voice the realization that he has created a situation in which he has enriched himself at the expense of others, no matter what he does now.

In a situation in which it is unclear what to do, there is always the “Phone a Friend” option — ask the universe, pray to God, look deep within for insight.  That may well be a lesson of the situation, to present the male character with a problem he can’t solve on his own.

I don’t actually know what understanding of what to do this male character would develop if he did that — in the variants I know, no epiphany comes because he isn’t willing to ask the universe or God and he hasn’t developed his ability to hear what wisdom lies within himself.  Maybe his amend is to live a changed life going forward and arrange for substitute care of those he has made destitute in the present.

In this other culture, the story doesn’t usher in a new world order abruptly.  It’s more of an illustration of how we are stuck with an old flawed one when people don’t learn from situations in which they are challenged to do more than think and behave in their usual patterns.

Mikveh and conversion

February 18, 2013

I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs or history of the mikveh in Judaism, nor to know the history of rituals attendant on conversion to Judaism, but the idea that John the Baptist was doing something so new and radical — well, I would like to know more about his context before I accept that as true.  I’m open to the idea of cross-pollination, even from Christianity back to Judaism, but I thought ritual immersions went back pretty far in religious history.

Maybe I should add that we had Jonas’ ritual immersion for his conversion in a pond — rabbi, cantor, and all.  The folks who control the local mikveh wouldn’t allow us to use it for him.  My younger son’s first mother is Jewish, so Judaism required nothing there.  (Where we skipped out on our synagogue affiliation was when they treated the children differently.  For example, they wouldn’t let Jonas up on the bimah for a ceremony they wanted to have for Jordan, I think it was for him to receive his Hebrew name, and there had been no such ceremony before the congregation for Jonas for receiving his.  The children ended up in the Brandeis Jewish Education Program instead.)

“That’s the way they liked it.”

July 13, 2012

This was a repeated, punctuating line that a Roman history professor of mine used in an opening lecture he gave in one of the classes I took with him.  Mr. MacMullen was trying to undermine some of our pretty ideas about the Romans, and when he revealed a fact seemingly at odds with a slide he showed and with received interpretations about what was in it, a fact that would tend to make the Romans seem pettier and more crass and less refined than we often take classical culture to have been, he would say that they did the thing because “That’s the way they liked it.”

I haven’t kept up with Ramsay MacMullen and I don’t know what he’s been up to for years, but I was thinking about this line of his today because what I was encountering was the apparent truth that people who persist in behaviors and attitudes that I don’t like do so probably because they do like them.  This thought is helpful to me because it suggests that they are not very likely to change the behaviors and attitudes.  That, in turn, suggests to me that I need to find another way of dealing with them.

“The Regulars are out, don’t you know!”

April 16, 2012

That’s what Paul Revere just said as he rode by:

(No motorcycles this year, a squad car instead.)

William Dawes left it at, “The Regulars are out!”

(I’m a little bit wistful that Gus didn’t get around to painting the porch last week, but I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere about patience, relative importance, and priorities.)

Photo credits to Jordan (who grudgingly but kindly indulged his mom in this).

Minute people

April 15, 2012

As in Minutemen, only families of them.  There were some in front of my house this afternoon, reenactors for the Patriot’s Day parade.  They got out of a yellow school bus, musket in hand, toddler in a wagon-like perambulator.   That mixture of old and new, bus and old-fashioned clothing, is what’s particularly startling to me.  When there’s a whole company of them marching down the street and shooting off their muskets, they sort of create their own reality, but only a couple of them against the backdrop of modern transportation creates dissonance.

But I was pleasantly surprised to see them at all this year (not so much the traffic back-up on my street, due to the detour), since they’ve moved the parade start location about a quarter mile away down Mass. Ave.  Used to be they’d march down my street on their way back from Lexington reenactments early in the morning on actual Patriot’s Day, muster down the street at a home I think Revere stopped at for a cup of water, and then fold into the parade a house-length from there, where my street merges with Mass. Ave.

The section of road I live on was actually part of the Country Road from Cambridge to Concord back then, the road bed down the hill where the corresponding section of Mass. Ave. now lies apparently wasn’t there yet.  A battle did take place down there on April 19, 1775, though, across the street from what is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, at a location known as the Foot of the Rocks.  The town was called Menotomy back then, later it became West Cambridge (in 1807), and then Arlington (in 1867), but now there’s a movement to rename the center of town “Menotomy Village” because Arlington gets so little attention on Patriot’s Day, and with tourists all season long, despite the battles that occurred here (and the Jason Russell House and the Old Schwamb Mill) — using the old name will help people recognize its name in historical accounts, I think the thinking goes.

In any event, Paul Revere and William Dawes will ride by my house tomorrow, surrounded by modern police on motorcycles.

An audience of one

January 6, 2012

I had an adviser in graduate school, whose own writing was very well received and whose books were quite popular among general readers, who told me he wrote for an audience of one.

He told me I should try that, too.

His was a businessman on the Connecticut coast, I think, he didn’t tell me who, or how he knew him, but his point was that this guy was intelligent and curious, but without previous knowledge of the subject, or even field, and hence needed the subject matter laid out for him clearly, with as few assumptions as possible.

So, I loved reading recently how Ron Paul seems oblivious to the size of his audience.  True, Paul is speaking, not writing, but Jeb’s actual audience was far bigger than the one he focused on when he wrote, and I’m wondering whether that process of amplification can occur in other contexts, too.  For example, with memes.  I am not sure how memes spread, but an idea seems to find more and more hosts through some process, and from this gather strength and influence.

I like the idea of people hearing an idea through their own thinking, of it being heard internally instead of being read with the eyes directly or heard through the ears.  This helps overcome the “not invented here” syndrome most of us are prone to — we react less to superfluous issues (such as, I could never agree with any idea from that person) when we seem to come to the idea on our own.  Of course, this involves letting go of creative control, attribution, acknowledgement, and the like.  But I suspect my ideas are in a sense like collages, anyway, and I accept Gita’s point when she says that she doesn’t think she’s ever had an original idea.  Who knows where they come from.

The part I do have an interest in working on is clarifying my ideas and learning how to communicate them so that others can understand them.  I haven’t yet found a process for doing this that particularly works for me as a non-student and as a single person.  And having been interrupted by family emergencies for years, I have a difficult time assuming I will have a chance to get back to something on my own timetable — it’s also a reason I initially stopped trying to do things that require large blocks of time and control over my schedule — so I tend to do things while looking over my shoulder and hoping the phone and the doorbell don’t ring and the mail doesn’t bring a certified letter.  But I suspect there is a way for me to improve my writing process, and even my writing, even with these shadows still lingering.  I am thinking that a place to start might be to go back to Jeb’s notion of writing with a specific person in mind.

Church Latin translations

November 28, 2011

I am wondering whether the current contretemps over the new Vatican translation of the Catholic mass needs a wider context to be understood better.

My last paying job was to edit somebody’s translation, from the Latin, of medieval church court records in marriage cases for a book on medieval marriage.  And one of my frequent reactions was, “Yes, but is this English?  colloquial English? English that is not too distracting in its usage?”  And some of the time Charlie changed the wording and sometimes he decided to keep it the way he had translated it originally (which he attributed to his “stubbornness”).  I didn’t much care which way he decided, it was his book, I only felt obliged to bring up this stuff that I found jarring (we agreed pretty easily on the other stuff, the stuff that was less stylistic and more objectively in need of a little editing), and I think he enjoyed both using what I thought were anachronisms and uncommon phrasings, and my reaction to his usage.  But he also said since I was one of the twenty-five or so people who would possibly be interested in the book, he wanted to know what I thought, and he knew I came to it through classical Latin, not a Church context (much to his disappointment).  It seemed to be a friendly enough exchange, and his acknowledgments I think reflect that, even if they don’t accurately reflect the structure of my assistance to him (an issue which is unfortunately in keeping with my previous experience of our relationship, although I can thank Charlie for by his behavior leaving me open to other callings).

Anyway, this Latin mass translation situation indicates to me that Charlie’s translation style may not have been idiosyncratic to him, that there may be a proud tradition within certain circles of the Church of using what sound to outsiders like peculiar translation fashions (there’s a wonderful essay somewhere on fashion and idiosyncrasy in scholarship).  Maybe indeed a taste for these fashions is an important currency for belonging, within the Church, a kind factor for separating out groups of members within the larger group.  I don’t know.  But my experience is too close a parallel not to be relevant, I think, to understanding the current, wider issue of controversy regarding the mass translation.

Shamans and the speed of light

September 25, 2011

I’m kind of relieved that maybe scientists have found that the speed of light is not as ultimate a bound as they thought.

I read the piece on the PBS NewsHour’s blog and the article in the NYTimes to which it links, and my reaction is, “Well, yes, sending telegrams back in time, or even the plumber or a tow truck back to help out, that’s what shamans do.”  And it would be nice for scientists to be on that same page.

I wonder what, if anything, will happen when they do.

I sometimes think scientists could use a shaman or someone similar to help direct where fruitful paths for research might lie, but we’re all too busy tending to our separate magisteria or attending our own conferences or otherwise keeping ourselves in our separate camps.