Family Ties

When I found myself writing fiction that was based on what was known of my family in Switzerland (not much is known; the stories are 98% fiction), I examined my ancestry. I’m not into genealogy, but that was the source of the answers to my questions. Had Rudolf von Lunkhofen had children? Who were they? Where did they live? How about later, during the Reformation in the 16th century? Was the family still there? Who were they? How many? By any remote chance had they been involved in the terrifying events of the time? Were any of them Anabaptists? Then, later, knowing by virtue of my BEING on this continent, that some of them had had to have emigrated, I began looking for THEM.

They were pretty easy to find, even down to the ship on which they sailed — and more.

Luckily, one of my cousins married a Mormon woman, and my mom had been a passionate genealogical researcher in the 1960s, and they’d exchanged information, so the great data base of the Mormon Church had fed into the vast number of places into which one can look for their ancestry. The fantastic Swiss Lexicon told me about my family during the Reformation. I was stunned to learn that two of the Schneebeli brothers had fought in the Second War of Kappel and one of them, the pastor, was killed. As for the rest? I was on my own — within certain parameters — to determine what might have been their lives.

Then, as I cleaned out the boxes in my garage, boxes that I inherited from my mom, I started to photograph (with my phone) pictures I knew I was going to throw out but that I wanted to keep with the thought of uploading them to the pretty extensive family tree I had built on Ancestry.com. Why did I do that?

For posterity. I did it very consciously for the kids of my cousins and my own niece. The photos — some old photos — are cool and the stories of the people are interesting. I truly love the family I’ve known. I’m proud of them and they interest me. I suspected they might interest the future.

And then came the DNA tests. I did it for fun and learned NOTHING new, but unknown to me, some of my relatives were taking it to. The upshot of that was I was emailed by the daughter of one of my cousins with some sincere and serious questions. I wasn’t as helpful as she might have wished, but at least I showed up on the other end of her messages.

That’s what I wanted. I want them to know those people. So when I find photos, I put them up. Because I knew them (not the very old ones, of course) and have a really amazing memory I feel a kind of responsibility to those people who aren’t here any more to share a bit of them to any of the future who asks. I’m a story teller, after all. ❤

War Memorial in the Back of Beyond

Cold in the back of beyond — single digits but still above 0 F ( +4 F/-15 C), and I didn’t need to let the dogs out at 5 (they weren’t even awake) but I did which means leaving the back door open a little. OH well. It’s cold in the house, but if I’m either surprised or upset, I’m an idiot. You might say, “No, you’re an idiot for leaving the door open,” and I wouldn’t dispute that.

Yesterday I took the little paintings to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. Incredibly beautiful windy ground-blizzardy day, jewel clear and dazzling. The display turned out to be a couple of lilac branches stuck into some modeling clay. It’s kind of cute, but somewhat unstable.

Trying out the display at home…

The little paintings have their own table in a room that is otherwise reserved for the Rio Grande County Veterans’ stories. Louise Colville, the museum director, has not only put hours of work, but hours of heart into it. On a counter are notebooks that hold the stories of the veterans of all the wars up to (and including) the current fracas. Each veteran has all the pages he/she needs to tell their story. “I had to stop for a while,” she told me yesterday, “it was just too sad.” Many of the pages include photos of grave markers and the obituaries of those who were killed in action.

Now think of this. ALL of WW II has two, slender, three ring binders. WW I has one. There is a Civil War Veteran. The binders are not full to over flowing. Each typed page is placed into a plastic leaf so people can read the stories easily without wrecking the paper. There is so much information in the way the notebooks have been assembled, clearly illustrating how few people have lived here and how precious each person is. This is a database that can’t be Googled. If a kid wanted to research WW II Veterans of Rio Grande County, he or she could find excellent first person sources, but they would have to go to the museum. There are small museums like this one all over America, treasuries of local history, labors of love that are unknown for the most part.

On the wall are some photos — most from Vietnam, naturally, as photos before then might have fallen by the way if they even existed. It was pretty intense. “The only thing that kept my father out of WW II,” said Louise, “was that he was the only son of a farmer.” Her comment made me think about some woman in Denver who, on a Facebook post back in 2016, asked “What’s so damned important about farmers?” I guess they knew the answer to that back in WW II.

As is always the case in the San Luis Valley, we shared stories and opinions. And, small political statement, I’m 100% sure we did not vote the same way in the last major election but I am also 100% sure we agree on most things. I felt again the immense distance between the government in Washington and a tiny county museum in the back of beyond.

The museum is a haven for the objects of the lives of the people who have lived here pretty much since the beginning.

“The earliest settlers here came with the Spanish conquistadors. Their descendants are here in the valley,” Louise tells me, her voice filled with wonderment. I share her wonderment. That bit of history is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.

An exhibit of clothing at the Rio Grande County Museum

Cult of Personality

One of the the best movies I’ve seen in EVER is The Death of Stalin: A Comedy of Terrors. True, you need a very dark sense of humor. It might even help to deepen your appreciation if you have lived some of your life under totalitarianism. Admittedly, my little venture into totalitarianism was brief and mostly happy, but I definitely got the big picture on what it is and means.

The film shows — in an almost factual way — the last night of Stalin’s life and ensuing events. The focus of the film is on the central committee, its fears, rivalries and corruption. The humor is grimly slapstick. The committee is brilliantly played by a bunch of actors I don’t know and two I do — Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi. The director is Armando Iannucci about whom I know nothing except this film is a masterpiece.

One of the puzzling things to me about history is that the entire burden of stories of atrocities against humanity during the 20th century rests on Hitler, somewhat unfairly. It’s suspected that more than 20 million people were killed under Stalin’s leadership. How could a funny movie be made about this? I’m not going to tell you. The film isn’t for everyone, but I laughed out loud several times.

The Death of Stalin carries a meta-message warning of the dangers of personality cults. Like Chairman Mao, Stalin was a real (not merely hyped) hero and beloved by his people (many? most? some?) but for thirty years, he maintained his power through death lists, sycophantic followers and an ignorant public. One revelatory (and darkly funny) scene shows Stalin lying on the floor unconscious in his Dacha. The committee cannot figure out what to do. When they finally decide to bring in a doctor, one of them says despairingly, “But all of the good doctors are dead or in gulags…”

Don’t Beat Up My Friends

Yesterday I read an article from The New York Review of Books, “Super Goethe” by Ferdinand Mount.

More or less it is a review of a recent biography of Goethe by Rudiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. I made it most of the way through this book until I realized that having read Goethe’s autobiographies (with a grain of salt and a grin) this book was, for me, gratuitous. I didn’t finish it. Goethe wrote a LOT about himself and I felt OK having let him tell his tale. I don’t take issue with Safranski’s book. This review, however?

I have a huge problem with retroactive judgements of historical figures and this review concludes with the intimation that, in another time and another place, Goethe would have been a Nazi.

Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s false. No way to know that because Goethe did not live in another time and another place and just because Weimar is near Buchenwald doesn’t mean Goethe would have been a prison guard, or worse, but Mount concludes his piece with, “I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

I happen to love Goethe, but that doesn’t mean I “know” him. I can’t. But when I look at the past I try to see past the hazy fog of intervening historical events to what had NOT yet happened.

  • In Goethe’s time, there were only the beginnings of what would be the Industrial Revolution. Marx was born when Goethe was 69.
  • When Goethe was a young man and made a journey to Switzerland, the United States of America was three years old and did not yet have a constitution.
  • Voltaire was alive; the Age of Enlightenment was in full force.
  • Goethe lived during the French Revolution. What he saw of it, what he knew of it, would have been FAR different than what we know of it. From Goethe’s perspective it was wanton death on the streets and the destabilization of life for millions of ordinary people.
  • Goethe was the son of a lawyer. Education in his family was extremely important, but it was not the common lot of most people to have the chance to go to school.
  • There was no “Germany.” That geographical blob on the map was a very loose assemblage of small duchies, principalities, etc. Imagine a big hunk of land broken up into hundreds of very vulnerable Liechtensteins and Monacos. When Goethe — or anyone at that time — wrote about “German cultural identity” they were writing about something that didn’t exist.
  • Goethe -SAW war. He was sent to be a correspondent about fighting in the Alsace. His descriptions of this are harrowing. He was never the same person afterward, either. He wrote about refugees from war, too, and problems they had becoming part of the culture to which they had refugeed.
  • Mount has written that Goethe admired Napoleon, a statement that is — miraculously — both true and false. They met. Napoleon could speak of Goethe’s novel, Sorrows of Young Werther but apparently had no directly knowledge of Faust. Goethe admired Napoleon, but only up to a point. Because Goethe was ALIVE at the Napoleonic moment, he would NOT have seen Napoleon the way I do or the author of this article does.
  • Science — as we understand it — was new. The scientific method was being, at that time, defined. Goethe was a contemporary of Newton. Goethe was himself a good scientist and far more influential than most of us are aware.

I will never know who Goethe really was. I like that he wrote very direct erotic poetry. I like that he was irreverent and reverent with life and language, both, at the same time. I appreciate his intellectual curiosity. I like that he believed a person needed to constantly learn, to explore, to nurture curiosity. In the time in which Goethe lived, there was no big push to specialize, and he didn’t. I like that he asked, “What if?” I appreciate his willingness — desire — to learn. I admire his resilient sense of wonder. I know he was misogynistic and thought people who wore glasses were trying to be something they’re not. I don’t know if he would have liked me; I even kind of doubt it. But, that’s OK. I probably wouldn’t have known him if I had been alive during his lifetime. But I’m not. I’m here, now, and I have been able to reap the fruits of his long lifetime of work. I like that he composed poetry such as this:

From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing,
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, and now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many-hued reflection we have life.

(Faust Part II, Act I, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Featured image: The Rhinefalls, ink sketch by Goethe

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/inheritance/

History

I study history. I especially like primary sources. I then use what I’ve learned to create lives for imaginary or semi-imaginary people. I read everything I can — popular literature is very important to me as I try to gain access to a world that is not my world. Context is important. I study paintings that are contemporary to the era in which I’m interested to see what surrounded people in their lives and what commanded their focus. I am as thorough as I can possibly be. I’ve been complimented by historians on the accuracy in my books, but I try very hard not to overburden my character’s lives with some scholarly rant about the world they live in.

All I can ever know about the past is that I cannot ever live there and that’s important. Where were they that I am not? What did they do to bring this world — my world — into being? That matters.

One thing I’ve learned is that we don’t know much about them. Our knowledge is a chamber of fading echoes. A few figures stand out for a generation or two (sometimes longer) as an emblem of the past — but that figure will always exist in our time and for us. For example, we relate to Anne Frank because we know about her, but every time her story is interpreted it becomes more OUR story and less her story. We know Marilyn Monroe wore a size 14, but we imagine that to be the SAME size 14 people wear today (it wasn’t. It was 34/26/34. I know. I sewed which means I studied the backs of pattern packages to find out what sewing notions I needed and the yardage for my size, back then, a size 9, 32/23/32). We talk about the fifties and the “Father Knows Best” family without thinking that their real-life counterparts had grown up during the Depression and lived through WW II. Many of them built their families in a world very different from the world their parents had known. We don’t even think that “Father Knows Best” was entertainment, not documentary.

We forget what Hitler really was; we define fascism as anything we don’t like. We don’t even remember that Hitler was not the only one, not even then. We don’t think of Stalin, Tojo or Mussolini. It’s too much for us. We want it simplified, and then we forget it was not actually simple; we made it so.

Goethe said it very well during his trip to Italy when he was in his 30s. He loved art — painting — and wondered at the time if he were an artist. He studied everything he could before his trip and when he GOT to Italy, he was stunned. He said that there were thousands of “lesser lights” whose work he’d never heard of, never seen, did not even know existed but which were lovely, necessary and important. The same is true looking at any historical moment, any historical figure.

We look at the artifacts of time and assemble them into categories WE have made up in OUR time. Example, because Giotto’s work is different from the other “medieval” painting we know of, we class him as a Renaissance painter but conveniently ignore the years in which he was painting. We extend the arbitrary classification to fit our expectations. We don’t even ask “Why did Byzantine art have such a hold on painting for so long?” (Byzantine art being an arbitrary label) It’s a good question to ask, though, and the answer is beautiful, (I’m not telling) and worthy of respect. We call the Middle Ages the dark ages, but in fact, it was a time of rapid progress in almost every area — science, art, architecture, public safety. The European city — with brightly painted buildings — was born during the “dark” ages.

For centuries people thought Greek and Roman statues were always white, that white marble had a special significance to them — it did but because it was a good surface to hold paint and keep colors true. How about that?

Often we look at the sincere people of other eras and don’t afford them the respect they deserve. We forget that their world had tensions just as ours does. That it was complex and competitive, and they were also lost and confused a lot of the time. That their aspirations and hopes might not have fit the narrow compass of their lifetimes. That their imaginations were stultified by their beliefs, the expectations of others, social norms (which we judge rather than we learn about) and they — like us — mostly did the best they could. The further back in time, the fainter the echo. We were bored learning about this stuff in school. History is too much for us. We have our own moment to contend with.

As did they.

If you study history, you can be surprised. If you study it enough you’ll be humbled. It is Samuel Beckett saying, “Try, fail. Try again. Fail better,” across millennia.

The Story of China — a “Review”

I just finished watching the PBS series and I’m left with a churning anger inside, a resentment. Ultimately it’s propaganda. The narrator — a British historian named Michael Wood — clearly loves Chinese history from a British historian’s perspective. He waxes enthusiastic for what he understands to be ancient Chinese traditions (ancestor worship for example) without ever considering how some of those old traditions actually hurt people and led to suffering over the years.

He paints in wide swaths to reach the final conclusion that now that China is capitalist, everyone is happy again.

He makes no effort to understand China at the time Chairman Mao (and others, not even his followers) wandered the countryside doing things like teaching the peasants to read. This British historian speaks only about the rural Chinese as vast numbers of people and he calls their villages “remote” — the villages are not remote at all in a world that is traveled on foot; they are only remote if you want to take a plane… They were not remote to the people who lived in them in the early and mid twentieth century and that is one reason for the incredible success of some of China’s most interesting revolutions, including Mao’s revolution at the end of WW II.

I love China so much I cannot even express it. I came home in 1983 and wondered where in the hell I had been, what in the hell had I seen. I spent the next decade figuring that out. I had been in a world so different from anything in my experience that I owed it an open mind, as open as possible, anyway. I was lucky to have been there only a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the damage done to what I would now call “tourist attractions” (historical sites); I heard the stories of people who had survived the persecution. I read the fiction written in China throughout the 19th and 20th century. I did everything in my power to see how the streets with which I became familiar had come to be.

I saw legless men walking on their arms, their torso supported by a block of wood hung from the shoulders by suspenders. I was dumbfounded when a man tried to sell me his child. I spent Chinese New Year in a remote, rural fishing and farming village with no plumbing, no electricity but surrounded by friends. I spent an afternoon with two old men who owned an art store in the Fragrant Hills, their dream come true, the reward from their government for their having gone on the Long March. I woke up every morning to The East is Red. I lived there in the middle of the “one child policy” — which this historian calls “misguided” but which I know pertained only to urban Chinese and was designed to prevent further population explosion and another famine like that in the late 1950s. I don’t have words, as I’ve said before.

I would never ever in a million years attempt a conclusion about the progress or regress of Chinese society based on its political ideology or power structure. That this “historian” has done that upsets me a lot. Yes, it’s better to have than to have not. It’s far better to eat than it is to starve. It’s better to have an education for your kids than not, but what Chairman Mao accomplished (and I don’t like the man, I think he was unspeakably evil, and DJT reminds me of him) was real. The Maoist years ultimately served as a bridge for all Chinese — not just urban Chinese — into the modern world. In 1950, China’s rate of literacy was only 20% — an important point this historian did not mention.

Communism has many commonalities with traditional Chinese Confucianism. No, they are not the same, but the organization of an extended Chinese family is not so different from the organization of a work unit and most Chinese villages are FAMILY villages…

I don’t even think a Chinese can write the ultimate truth about China. I know I can’t. But when it comes to history I hate it when a historian negates complexity and reduces history to the events that interest him and the line that supports his biases.

All this being said, it is a captivating series and well worth watching.

Photo: Fish market in Guangzhou, 1983

 

People of Color in the Medieval Period

I am white, therefore, I guess, no-color. Actually, I’m a lot of colors. Brown spots of freckles float on pink and white skin, the genetic residue of a lot of Brits and Vikings and a smidgeon of Italo/Greco something. Today I saw a announcement advertising a presentation at the Medieval Institute, “Medieval People of Color.” I about gagged.

The people of color in question — the presenters — are from India, China and an Arabian country (I forgot which). If they’re going to talk about “people of color” in medieval times how in hell are they going to do that? Recite “The Alhambra”?

One of the most interesting problems in looking at history is escaping, avoiding, fleeing from our own time, its biases, our “zeitgeist.” One example of this that I know well is how, during the 80s/90s “marginalized populations” fad, medieval scholars decided that lepers were marginalized and there was a plague of leprosy. Their “facts” were 1) for some odd reason from the 11th to the 13th century a lot of leper communities were built all over Europe (this is true; there were). OBVIOUSLY there must have been a shit load of lepers AND lepers were forced to stay in leper hospitals. 2) Sir Walter Scott depicted lepers as the scourge of the middle ages. Oh and we have Cadfael. Cadfail. 3) Medieval doctors could not accurately diagnose leprosy, therefore a lot of those guys probably weren’t lepers at all, but had syphilis.

Looking through the backward telescope, it’s easy to make assumptions. I write historical fiction and I have made a lot of mistakes, so many I don’t even want to do it any more, but one I did not make was that one. I didn’t read history while I was writing Martin of Gfenn (though I did later). I read what the people of the time wrote about lepers. It was vastly different from the history I read later.

Meanwhile, a relatively new science was applying itself to the graves in the innumerable leprosaria in Europe only to discover 1) there were few people and most of them were lepers in the graveyards of any of the leper hospitals and almost NONE in the “regular” graveyards. Meaning, two things a) Medieval doctors were good at diagnosing leprosy, b) medieval lepers in these hospital had it pretty good, c) documents showed the lepers were free to leave but why would they? 3) the number of leper hospitals was related to the role the leper played in Medieval culture; showing kindness to a leper was a sure road to salvation — we don’t think of them this way, but St. Martin of Tours and St. Francis (both famed leper-kissers) were almost pop stars in their time and among their great acts was showing kindness to lepers — what better insurance for a wealthy medieval family than building a leper hospital? and 4) Sir Walter Scott was writing pure fiction. Never mind Cadfael.

So here we are in our “black lives matter” (I believe they do, don’t misunderstand me) world and we’re having a look at “people of color in medieval times.”

The Arabs, Indians and Chinese had developed cultures WAY above most medieval European cultures in almost every respect. Us pink spotty people had NOTHING on any of those people of color. The Chinese are busy writing poetry on paper along with various other inscrutable yellow people things such as inventing cannons, woodblock printing and paper money. The brilliant, brown Arabs are blasting along with advanced mathematics and astronomy. The Indians — various colors from blue/black to pale yellow — are busy influencing the Arabs and, in turn, being influenced. Sadly, from our point of view, they followed a caste system, a misery for many but one which led to the Diamond Sutra. All kinds of cool merchandise (including human beings) is being carried back and forth on the Silk Road.

Of course, these cultures were shaken seriously by the arrival of Genghis Khan who was yellowish/brown.

When the Crusaders of all the predominant European shades went to the Holy Land and began slaughtering people randomly, they also saw things the like of which they had never seen — stone castles, for one, a technology they built on (ha ha damn I’m funny) and employed back in Europe. The cultural exchange that began as a result of the Crusades led to the modern world. As for “victims” — I think Monty Python has done a good job depicting the “cultural ethos of the time.” It was feudalism; we think of “serfs” but it was really about feuds…

Anyway, I’m almost tempted to take my pintoesque coloring to this conference to hear about “People of Color in the Medieval Period,” but I won’t. I’m trying to recover from my recent discovery of the slave trade of kidnapped Europeans to the American colonies. It’s not so much that I’m shocked by the fact that such a trade existed — humans have enslaved each other forever — but that I didn’t know it was REAL until I was 65, reading primary sources — advertisements — in periodicals from the 17th and 18th century. FYI, the Irish were considered an “inferior type” to the Swiss and German (slaves), less healthy, less hardy, less clean and less economical… Is that racism?

The moral of the story?

When are we just going to be PEOPLE? When are we going to be able to transcend the obvious (skin color) and acknowledge both our universally hideous and beautiful human history? It isn’t, ultimately, remarkable to me that we’ve all be enslaved. What’s remarkable is that somewhere along the line — and not that long ago — we decided to stop enslaving each other. The kind of humility that might lead us to accepting others is the same that might allow us to approach the worlds of our ancestors with clearer vision, asking “Who were you?” rather than assuming they were us, with our biases and experiences. They weren’t, but their choices brought us to the present moment, a moment that is unique to each of us. Talk about diversity… Meanwhile, “Come Patsy…”

***

Colonies

The Schneebelungenlied has progressed and now I’m reading books that I didn’t even know existed. I found them on Masthof Books (your one stop shop for Mennonite and Amish sources, cookbooks and fiction, including  The Brothers Path).

The books were available as a massive download that never downloaded, but I was lucky and found them other places, Archive.org, Google, Kindle. Now I’m reading books that interest me very much and that’s put to rest my quiet fear that I just don’t like to read any more. I do have a very hard time making it through most books these days.

And, it looks like, after all, the Schneebeli family is going to enter the land that is America. They will become “Snavely.”

All this reading has made me think about history class in school. When I imagined the Schneebeli’s arriving and settling in America, so boring. Everyone says so. SAD!

I imagined they’d arrive and instantly become Johnnycake eating clichés. “Oh god no, not more Colonial History.” But what I’m learning might make Colonial American History great again, really, truly great. Believe me.

Among the bits of history I’ve since learned is the story of a colony in Delaware, in what is now Lewes, (where I have been). In the mid 1600s small group of Dutch Mennonites banded together in Holland. They were led by a guy with the amazing name of Cornelius Plockhoy. They were forty one people comprising married couples and young men aged 22 (why 22 I have no idea). Unique to the colonies at the time, in Plockhoy’s settlement, slavery was prohibited. There was a public school. Church was the singing of a psalm, a scripture reading, discussion if anyone wanted, another psalm and everyone adjourned for that week’s court. There are other things, too, that we, today would object to, but since they were building their very small Utopia in a faraway land, it seems that with so many enemies on the outside (Indians, British, etc.) they didn’t want dissension on the inside. So they came, they set up a village, began to work and to prosper and it seems life was working out pretty well.

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away there was a war between the British and Dutch. Some British sailors? Soldiers? Settlers? got a ship to America. Many couldn’t pay their way and expected to work off their transport in the colonies. They landed near Lewes, raided Plockhoy’s Utopia, sold the people to the captain of the ship to pay for their own passage, sold others to plantations in Virginia. Because the Lewes settlers had brought their best tools and supplies, the British got those, too. It was fair because, after all, the Dutch were their enemies. And, at that time, slaves were as likely to be white as they were to be African. Imagine that.

Horrible (I guess) but a lot more interesting than Mother making Johnnycake for little, uh, Johnny, or finding out how Abigail learned her alphabet by sewing a cross-stitch sampler.

It’s been an eye-opener to me. I majored in American literature. Much of what I read was from colonial America. I never thought (duh) that all I was reading was written by British immigrants. It was also pretty limited to that bizarre and surreal nest of Puritanism in New England (“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), or the journals of landed, wealthy, British planter in Virginia — William Byrd — who got up every morning, “danced his dance,” studied his Greek, studied his Latin, “rogered my wife,” and rode out to see how the tobacco plants were doing.

There were those two poles.

I understand that what I’m doing is looking at American history from a different point of view; my lens this time (as opposed to school) is the German/Swiss/Dutch settlement, not the British. But even when it comes to a Brit-centric perspective, we’re not that honest. AND, maybe I’m the only person in the US who didn’t know the story of Plockhoy’s Utopia (and other stories I’m discovering), but if that’s not the case, and this has generally been slurred over, I think maybe we need White History Month.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/slur/