Cai Yan 170-249

Cai Yan

The Han Dynasty was a time of great development in China. 206 BC-226 AD was a 400 year period in which roads and canals were expanded, the Great Wall was extended, paper was invented, the scholar class was instituted as a way to train and select government workers, and the territory was increased through the execution of many wars. With the ratio of women to men so unbalanced due to the Han’s building projects which cost many lives and with the many wars they fought, men at all levels of society were taking many wives and concubines. It was one tenet of the Confucian structure of the Han Dynasty that each and every female was subordinate to a male, be it her father, brother, husband, or uncle. Any female alive would have a male master. Females in Confucius theory were considered as property, to be laborers for their male masters.

Though an exact date is not certain, between 174 and 178 AD Cai Yan was born in present-day Qi District, Henan Province to the renowned literary, mathematics, astronomy, and history scholar, Cai Yong (133-192) who was also a gifted musician and calligrapher.

The family was a fairly well to do family, and even though it was not a customary practice to educate girls, the more wealthy families tended to educate their daughters. This was very fortunate for Cai Yan, who was very bright and learned her subjects with speed and efficiency. She also had an ear for music, making her the consummate Renaissance person much like her father.

The legend of Cai Yan’s astute abilities in music begins with her father playing the gu qin in another room. Although Cai Yan was only six years old, when the string broke she came into the room and pronounced to her father that he had broken the second string. Cai Yong had no way of knowing if Cai Yan had merely guessed correctly at which string was broken on the zither-like seven-stringed instrument or if she really had that precise of an ear for music. To find out for sure, he broke another string and Cai Yan correctly told him that it was the fourth string. Finding that his daughter could judge pitch and tone quality perfectly, Cai Yong encouraged her to pursue her musical interests.

When Cai Yan was 16 years old she married, but her husband died within two years and they had no children. She moved back home, where she found that her father had passed away while in prison, where he had been sent for offending an official. The Xiongnu (the Huns) began to invade parts of Northern China, kidnapping slaves and stealing valuables. Cai Yan was taken captive and married to a tribal chief in modern day Inner Mongolia. She gave birth to two children while married to the chief.

Cai Yan was not only an adept musician, calligrapher, and historian; she was also an accomplished poet. Away from her Han home as a captor of the Huns for twelve years, she wrote poetry to express her longings. One such poem, “Indignant Grief,” or “Poem of Affliction,” shows this ability:

Frost and snow covered the ground all over,

The wind howls even in the summer,

With a puff it blows up my fur,

The rustling sound came to my ear,

Missing my parents, endless sighs I heave,

Hearing visitors come, great delight filled me,

But none sees how disappointed I feel,

Knowing he wasn’t from my home.

The last emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cao Cao, realized that the great work of Cai Yong, The Xu Han Shu (The History of the Later Han Dynasty), needed to be completed. In order for this history to be written, Cao Cao needed Cai Yan’s help, for committed to her memory were hundreds of her father’s books and she was a great historian in her own right. This story is written down in “Xu Han Shu”:

Cao Cao asked her: “I have heard, Madam, that in your home there used to be a great many books: do you still remember them?” Cai Yan replied: “The books bequeathed by my late father totaled some four thousand juan, but they have been scattered and ruined, none are left. Those that I can recite from memory number only a little more than four hundred.” Cao Cao then said: “I will now order ten clerks to go to your residence, Madam, to write them down.” Cai Yan said: “I have heard that propriety requires men and women to be separate, without handing things to each other. I beg to be given paper and brushes so that I can write them down, either in standard script or in cursive script, as you may command.” Subsequently she wrote out the texts and presented them, and no words were missing or incorrect. *

Cao Cao ransomed Cai Yan back from the Xiongnu with much gold and jade, but Cai Yan’s children were not allowed to come with her, as the tribe insisted that the children stay with their father. The act of leaving her children behind caused Cai Yan tremendous grief and sorrow which she laments in her poem, “Poem of Affliction”:

Desolute, I faced my orphan shadow;

Grief and anger swelled in my entrails,

I climbed a hill to look off into the distance,

And my spirit seemed suddenly to fly from me;

Cai Yan married a third time when she rejoined her people, then she set to work in the Imperial library rewriting her father’s articles, or books, which had been either lost or destroyed during the preceding wars. Through the terrible heartache of having an “orphan shadow,” Cai Yan was able to reproduce 400 pieces of her father’s work in beautiful calligraphy.

Being a historian and poet in her own right, Cai Yan put her own work to paper as well, though only three such pieces survive today and only one of those poems is agreed upon by present-day historians as rightly being attributed to her; “Poem of Affliction” is a narrative poem of 108 lines with five characters on each line. It is a poem which shows all these centuries later a lady of great courage and tenacity as she faced terrible hardships and yet through the pain was able to accomplish the enormous deed of setting her people’s history down for future generations.

The fame of Cai Yan’s musical, literary, and artistic ability was passed along from generation to generation in Chinese lore, as demonstrated by a series of poems by Liu Shang, a Tang Dynasty poet and by musicians of that same dynasty. In Liu Shang’s Cai Yan poems, he writes Cai Yan’s story in first person, but signs the poem with his own name. Though historians have often written and spoken of not only Cai Yan’s immorality in marrying a barbarian, but also her shame in failing her first husband by not achieving her duty of bearing him a son, the triumph of her spirit still holds true. Perhaps it is because she was forced against her will to marry the barbarian, perhaps it was because her first husband died so soon after being wed, whatever the case, Cai Yan was soon endowed with the courtesy name of Cai Wenji, which is translated as “Lady of Literary Refinement.”

What Color Shoes Does Success Wear?

A few years ago, I drove my oldest granddaughter to work in the wee hours of the morning. The summer sun was already blazing through the dust on my car windows at 7 a.m. As I drove home from dropping her off at the cannery doors, I noticed a person sound asleep on the southeast corner of 17th and Center Streets. I was stopped at a red light and saw that he or she was curled up in a snug ball, as if cold, right on the corner of the sidewalk in front of the crosswalk’s signal pole. A pair of clean, bright blue and neon yellow running shoes was resting near the person’s huddled feet. I hope no one takes their shoes, I thought. I wonder if the homeless shelter will give them new shoes if someone takes off with the ones they have? How out of place those new, clean shoes looked laying smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk at the feet of a rumpled and dirty person with no home. My traffic light turned green and I drove past the individual sleeping in front of the businesses which were not open yet; a t-shirt shop, a hair salon for children, a watch repair shop and a nationally franchised tax specialist.

Those shoes were so unprotected there in the road like that. What if someone does steal them? The 90 degree days of summer were heating the pavement to such scorching temperatures that I had been waiting until evening to walk my dog in order to avoid burning the pads of her paws on the hot cement. What if someone stole that persons shoes and they were forced to walk barefoot in the grass and they stepped on a stickery, pokey weed? OUCH! There is safety in shoes, even if a person has nothing else. Baggy, ratted clothing, filthy hair, a shopping cart of what others have thrown away, but as long as a person has shoes, a person has the reassurance of safety. Is that why the shoes are placed there at that person’s feet, like a prize, a trophy perhaps? Beautiful, new, protective shoes.

I drove on home, but the image stayed with me. The image of a person’s neon-colored shoes set out boldly in the open, available to anyone who would scoop the shoes up and take them. Such a fragile existence suffered and balanced with cruelty and love. The love of someone giving those new shoes to a person in need and the cruelty of someone if they were to steal them from that person. Without shoes we stub our toes on the sidewalk, or step on thorny bushes that lacerate our tender skin. Without shoes we can cut our toes on an unnoticed piece of broken glass, or slice the sides open on a sharp rock while trudging along beside a stream or in a field.

When one of my granddaughters was about four years old we put up a long, plastic, tarp in the backyard for sliding. The lengthy, yellow plastic came with all sorts of water spraying gadgetry, whirley gigging about and thrusting random streams of water all around. There were a few neighbors and friends over, and the backyard was full of giggling children running around in the summer sun. Unfortunately, the yellow jackets wanted some water too, and my little granddaughter stepped right on one of them. Oh, the tears and wailing, and swelling that little tiny stinger caused!

After that, even all these years later, she wears shoes when she goes outside.

I think that I have always thought of the homeless as just the homeless; a grouping of folks, or even maybe a race, religion, or ethnic group, the most mysterious subculture in America, as very few really know anything about them aside from assigning causal settlements and shrugging our shoulders before turning our backs. The sight of those shoes lying neatly at the foot of that sleeping homeless person grabbed my thoughts like a bull terrier on a prize bull , shaking lose misconceptions and biases. The shoes looked so new, and they were placed there so neatly, as if a child had prepared the next day’s school outfit and lain them lovingly at the foot of their bed. Yet they were so exposed there. So available for anyone to just walk up and cart them away.

When I was a little girl, my older brother and I spent our summers at my grandparent’s house out in the country. One year Grandma had a bicycle that I loved riding out to the barn and back. That year Grandpa built Grandma a beautiful water garden with lava rocks collected from the lava beds. I was wearing my new sandals as I pedaled past the lava rocks, but I cut in too close and smashed my right foot into one of the rocks, the momentum of the turning pedal grinding my pinky toe into its porous, unyielding bulk. Oh, how that smarted! Of course I screamed and Grandma came running, leading me into the house and setting me up on the washing machine next to her medicine cabinet. I was crying like I’ve never cried before or since and Grandma told me not to look as she was going to put iodine on it and a bandage. Well, I looked, and I saw a big piece of pale skin flapping over an active eruption of blood. I cried, held onto grandma’s arms for strength, held my breath, closed my eyes, and trusted that she would know best what to do – she had raised nine kids, after all. The pain in my pinky kept me off Grandma’s bike for a week or better, but I did eventually get back on. I was sure to wear shoes, though, no more sandals for me while riding a bike. The toe on my right foot has turned out just fine. It is as awkward and ugly as the pinky toe on my left foot – a perfect match, so kudo’s to Grandma.

I wonder if the homeless person I saw sleeping on that busy intersection of Center Street and 17th ever had a bike as a kid? Maybe they too rode sandalled or even with their feet bare, carefree with the sun warming them and the wind in their face and in their own turn learning that riding a bike is most safely done with shoes on. Maybe they remember being a kid, looking down from the top of a long hill, holding their breath then pushing off on the fastest downhill flight on two wheels in the history of kid-dom, all the while hoping the chain does not fall off the sprocket again, disabling the coaster brakes. (Another story for another day).

When I was in Junior High School, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. The idea struck me that I should produce a newspaper and I was so proud of my extended family that I could not wait to brag on them, prank them, roast them, or what-have-you, and I began writing a family newspaper. Articles in the paper ranged from birth announcements, shower (baby, wedding) synopses, new car news, medical news, etc. I had an ask Tami section fashioned after “Dear Abby” called “Tami Wami,” a sports section, and even a classifieds section. Anything that went on with the extended family, and much of what I stretched the truth on quite a bit, was shared in that hand written rag which my aunt made copies of and distributed among family members. I do not remember how long I did this, but it was a fun activity that my entire family and I enjoyed together both locally and across the miles as the “newspaper” was mailed to those who did not live close. It was a dream of mine, to become a writer, and I have in some small ways achieved that, but dreams are fragile and require careful attention to reality in order to come to fruition.

As I remember those shoes lying at that homeless person’s feet, I wonder if they too had dreams of becoming a writer one day? It is said that there is a fine line between creativity and insanity. Or is the expression genius and insanity? There is probably a fine line between any of us and insanity.

According to a 2017 study by Mental Health America, Oregon has the worst mental health ranking in the United States. Many of those in need of mental health services are homeless. The 2017 bi-yearly point-in-time survey which counts homeless people all across the united states via live interviews with each individual concludes that fourteen percent of Oregon’s homeless people suffer from a mental health issue.

Perhaps I felt a bit guilty, seeing that person’s brand new shoes lying there that day. Guilty that I have so much and that person had so little. I have a loving family, a job, a roof over my head, food enough, clean water. I am truly a queen, genuinely fortunate. The sidewalk may be road’s end for many homeless people. The vulnerability is great and the trust greater still; the shoes say that to me. Perhaps that is the true guilt, then, that the person has so much trust in me that they can lay their shoes, their complete safety, before me.

Yet I do nothing but drive right past them.

Joaquin Miller

In researching my current WIP I’ve come across a name associated with Oregon which rather surprised me. Years ago, way back in junior high (middle school in contemporary language), I found my first writing niche — in poetry! More often than not, it was an endeavor in word wrestling – an obsession with counting, rhyming, and syllable stresses that kept me busy for hours at a time. During these years I read a little poetry, even understood it some, which is why when I read the name of Joaquin Miller while reading about Opal Whiteley, I took a moment to pause my explorations; I recognized that name from long, long, ago.

The journalist, poet, naturalist, international traveler, Joaquin Miller spent some years in Oregon where he grew up to become a lawyer and then a county judge before he went off to travel the world and write romanticized and sensationalized, or fantastic even, melodramatic poetry and prose.

Fantastic. Sensationalized. Romanticized. Melodramatic. Likely, he was a man before his time.

At any rate, he spent some years living in Lane County, same as the heroine in my current work, Understanding Opal; where the road goes three ways. Perhaps he should be included in the work somewhere, though his story in Lane county occurs 50 years before hers. A time, not much different from our own, when those who controlled the printing presses controlled, if not the ideas, then the opinions about the ideas.

Fortunately, Joaquin Miller’s work is still available and I’m setting out after I’ve finished the typing of this post to revisit some. I’ve also learned Miller’d built a park in Oakland in 1919, the same year Opal went to Boston to secure her destiny. Opal Whiteley’s work is available for reading as well, but as far as I know she has no sprawling public park. She does, however, grace the entire side of a building butted by a plaza of lovely foliage – something she’d have loved, and a statue of her at age 10 greets visitors to the Cottage Grove Library and the Knight Library at the University of Oregon, thanks in large part to Steve Williamson‘s efforts to share her story.

Two fantastical Lane County poets, naturalists, journalists, international travelers, meeting with scandal, intrigue, and reaching forward into the future to remind us of our nature; our innate desire to follow our dreams despite a lack of support in the media.

(Click here to read Steve McQuiddy’s article on Opal Whiteley) and here for an extensive bibliography of everything you ever wanted to know about Joaquin Miller.

The Rabbit Hole I’ve Entered and why I’m a terrible book reviewer

I haven’t posted on this blog in awhile because I’ve been moving my office space from the area at the end of the kitchen to the spare bedroom we acquired a couple of years ago when the grandchildren moved. Yeah, I miss them – they’ve grown now, but I’m moving my office into one of their old rooms; two walls painted blue as Jazmine’s color choice and two painted green, Lilly’s choice. I’ve left the glo-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling for now and a pair of dusty red dice hanging from the ceiling light fixture.

In my time away from blog posting, I have continued to read. The Woman They Could Not Silence, Beethoven’s Hair, Raising The Bar (Ruth Rymer), and True Colors, are a few of the books I’ve read recently. I’m thinking about re-reading Benjamin Hoff’s The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow as my own piece about Opal Whiteley has got me to thinking about her story from a different perspective; i.e. what if I totally, 100% believed her side of the story? Benjamin Hoff of The Tao of Pooh fame, this man (a successful Broadway composer), and many many more such as her first editor believed her, what if I did? There’s the rabbit hole I’ve entered, but not without excitement! I’m hoping to shape it much the way Erik Larson writes many of his books, namely The Devil in the White City. Two separate stories; his mad man has a story, the Chicago world’s fair has a story, they’re complete – they converge at the end. It’s an amazing bit of work that book!

Though I do read a good share of books, I don’t write many book reviews. The main reason is I’m terrible with divulging secrets! Yeah, you want me to keep something under wraps, just tell me – nothing could drag it out of me. The most enjoyable secret in the world is discovered within the pages of a book and I’m not going to spoil the journey for anyone by telling them what happened! All that aside, I do want to share one thing I learned this past week from reading Beethoven’s Hair by Russell Martin because it made such an impression on me.

We’ve always known of Beethoven’s deafness and given his work the level of homage it deserves. Such a wondrous feat to compose all those great masterpieces while deaf or partially deaf. What I did not know about before reading Beethoven’s Hair were the myriad excruciating ailments Beethoven suffered for the last thirty years of his life. Russell Martin’s book made me feel Beethoven’s pains, his yearning to write music even though he couldn’t hear it, his desire for love. Many of the things we hear in Beethoven’s music are brought closer to synapse within the pages of Beethoven’s Hair. The book follows the hair from its initial cutting form Beethoven’s head to the men in Arizona who purchased it late in the 20th century. Martin explains the science behind hair strand testing and the results of the tests done on Beethoven’s hair. Results which will shock the reader – make the reader ever more appreciative of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven.

So you see, a body in motion stays in motion. Even though I may not be posting on this blog, you can be sure as the sunrise that I’m alive, and though I may be suffering from allergies I am as golden as can be.

(My grandson and I on our first rock hounding excursion 2022)


My compelling exploration of Biblio in its entirety:

I believe if we’re not actively encouraging a love of reading in our children, we’re enforcing a subtle ban.

The Bibliophile —Book lover—

We live for books. Umberto Eco

Some people read cereal boxes, encyclopedia entries, shampoo bottles, recipes, discographies, filmographies, and nearly every genre of recorded fiction and nonfiction imaginable. Old books, new books, hardback or paper. They read novels and the specs of engineering and mechanical marvels such as the Golden Gate Bridge or the amazing steam engines that once pulled mile-long locomotives or powered industrial sized manufacturing plants. Some don’t take notes on file cards as those with an insatiable thirst for knowledge might do, or scribble in the margins creating a missive to revisit later or highlight interesting facts and ideas or dog-ear favorite pages. Instead, they let the words lounge in the perch of their mind before the infused essence slowly trickles into their hands then down through the very fingers actively underscoring words on the page, leaving behind the fullness of one who’s been intimately involved with the marriage of knowledge and wonder and was able to set it free.

Every day, people carry remnants of all they’ve read and what they’ve forgotten along with them wherever they go, the aggregate of all they’ve read a tender and solid part of them. In a strange twist of imagination, they are also a part of everything they’ve ever read. Not that they are the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, but having read about it, having run their fingers over the 10 point pica, the descriptors becoming blood-kin or ink-siblings, they have a relationship of respect with it, a deep connection to it and should they place their hand upon the great span over the bay, surely a spark of recognition would trill their arm.

To nearly every conversation which readers such as these have with people, they can invariably add the words, “Like in the book…” These book lovers are known as bibliophiles. Being a booklover is difficult to describe to someone who has never lived it for themselves. Perhaps what makes the experience altogether magical is the allusionary description, or maybe it’s a literary love affair because of a soul-deep kinship with character, condition, or culture. Whatever the case, it can be difficult if not seemingly impossible to explain the love of reading to someone who has not experienced it, especially if they hate reading, which is said much more often than book lovers care to hear and is a phrase which makes writers break out in hives.

The Logophile —Word lover—

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation, they deepen and widen and expand our sense of life; they feed the soul. Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird.”

Writers are up against great obstacles in trying to get to their readers. Flashy screens, beeping “in”-boxes, and easily digested two-hundred word news blurbs as they swipe left and right, all vie for the attention of current and future book readers. The competition for the reader’s attention is electric, but logophiles and bibliophiles alike have a deep desire for all to know the kinship, the blood relationship, of ink, be it virtual or tactile.

Book lovers the world over have been known to spend hours searching store shelves for a specific title or a general idea that grabs onto their imagination and won’t let go. They are dedicated browsers at used bookstores, new bookstores, thrift stores, libraries, and e-book retailers all over the world. Though their walls at home may be supporting shelves stacked and weighted past safe load-bearing specifications, the hunt in the paper (or digital) jungle goes on and on.

How do they know when they’ve found the book they need?

The rush. The bibliophiles browsing bookshelves are often in it for the rush. Not the hurried, but the sublime. Much like gold miners who dig through thick overburden to uncover the gold rich gravel underneath, the book lover will browse beyond rational human endurance until maybe they see a light blue cover with a splash of burgundy on the spine and get a tingle on the back of their neck. Upon lifting the book from the shelf, where it’s perhaps been leaning sideways for some time, they read the end flap to find a story of a war hero’s painful homecoming to an empty house, or a tale of a marathoner’s triumphant race against cancer, or how Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla were involved in a convoluted and sometimes much-heated partnership/rivalry/three-way business relationship. The tingle becomes more powerful, gains momentum and travels down their spine, racing to knock against the backs of their knees, and the reader makes an effort to steady themselves against their failing balance.

That reaction, or one similar, is what writers dream their readers have when picking up a book they’ve written.

It is most likely that writers began their logophile life first as bibliophiles and have experienced endless joys of reader-word connections from that point of view. Also likely is that the reader who one day picked up a pen to write a poem for a class at school, or perhaps a note in their diary, was shocked to experience a sensation at the back of their throat very similar to the reading sensation, yet contrary. The location was different. The sensation was stronger and subtler, alive and still. Hiding behind corners, lurking in secret chambers and peeking from dark shadows. Forever present then and always, it was awakened by the sound of a pen scratching across paper.

The obsession of the writer began with the search for the right word. The word announcing itself with the thunder of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the grit of a cat’s tongue waking them from sleep. They add and add and add to that word and the next like a bull rider at the rodeo until not one more second, not one more letter could be coaxed from the mysterious hidden places, fingers racing over the keyboard, the writer’s growling stomach long neglected, and their throat tight with thirst.

Spent, staring with wonder at the words on the computer screen pulsing with life, the writer is elated and hopeful that one day a reader will know the excitement, the utter joy he or she felt while chasing after those words. The dedication it took to throw open the shutters and draw them from the back corners and deep chambers, the light of hope exposing everything that lay in the dark shadows.

The Bibliopole —Buyer/seller of books, especially rare ones—

And you read your Emily Dickinson, And I my Robert Frost,

And we note our place with book markers That measure what we’ve lost.

Simon and Garfunkel, “The Dangling Conversation.”

Ideas, drama, information, instructions, and the like can all be found in places other than inside the pages of books, but nothing is experienced in the same way as books are. Every time the reader opens one, then turns first one page, then another, head bent in rapt posture, there’s a good chance they’ll find something nothing else offers; themselves. There is a phrase which ascertains that the reader has their head in a book when enthralled in such a way, but maybe, just maybe the book is in their head. Whether traveling to different worlds, a foreign country or a fantastical one, learning the role of floor space when decorating the living room, or finding out what happened when God gave the people the king they’d demanded, the turning of the pages or the swiping left on the e-reader signify a rapture unparalleled.

Readers have found books they never knew existed while browsing book stores. Have discovered ideas they never thought to think or ever saw put into words before. Readers have run across tomes that put their own thoughts into plain language for them and gained serendipitous knowledge. To run their hand along the spines, to open them up and breathe the scent of the inky pages, and to run their fingers across the name of the genius who brought characters, imagined and real, to life is one of the pleasures of book browsing all made possible by the bookseller, a person who has most likely read more material than anyone who has ever entered through the book shop’s doors.

The curator of the bookshop has probably at least touched, if not actually read from, every one of the thousands of books on the shelves. This trusted keeper of words also knows how to recommend the book most likely to attract the attention of almost any reader. The keeper of the books sees their function as a feeder of souls and therefore sees a book as a table set for a savory feast with all the hors d’oeuvres and entrees anyone could possibly need all served up with relish and flamboyant flair. Book sellers know that anyone can unexpectedly fall in love with a book. From babies who turn the hard pages of board books about cute puppies to people in their 90’s bent contentedly over the large print book of the month, no one is immune to the spark, the connection, the bond, that can unexpectedly peak their interest. From Dr. Seuss to Charlotte Bronte’, to J.R.R Tolkien, the possibilities are as diverse as people themselves. The book written by an impassioned writer who hopes to touch someone with kindness and inspiration is deeply indebted to the bibliopole, the Golden Gate Bridge between writer and reader, who knows when the right connection between person and tome are made by the trill of recognition trebling along his arm.


Far From Trending

I am all sorts of excited about the possibilities the new year presents. Having a vacation is my biggest hope for 2022. Some of us have worked tirelessly during the past couple of years through the labor shortage, pandemic, business loss, and whatever other effects the period had on us. We’re all very tired and could use a vacation.

Also, with the new year, I’ve begun something new. I’ve started to explore twitter.

This morning I was watching my twitter feed on my computer instead of on my phone and saw postings over on the right side of the screen. News items that are trending (Willow the First Cat has arrived at the White House), advertisements for Apple TV, and suggestions on who to follow were neatly lined up along the edge of my screen. While on twitter, I posted about my new blog, mentioning it was new, yes, but I’m a continuous student of history and new would be a relative term.

Trending. Is history a record of trends? In some ways it is, some ways it isn’t. History explores trends, i.e. considering cultural and geographic norms of the time and place, but records events carried out by people, nature, and God. As I’m always carrying a book with me, what’s trending, on twitter may not interest me as much as West African Folktales. It will come, it will go, but will a country’s or the entire world’s history rely on it?

I tried to be trendy once, if a loose interpretation of the term is used. In the ninth grade I begged and begged my mom for a pair of soft leather white Nike shoes with the red swoosh. I wore them and wore them and wore them. When they got dirty and scuffed I washed them and painstakingly rubbed white shoe polish on them, careful to avoid getting any on the swoosh. I wore them for all of ninth grade and into the tenth, and I thought I was fitting in with my peers. Mom bought me a pair of trending jeans that came far too long – seriously, the company intentionally made them too long, so wasteful; they could have made them shorter AND cheaper – Anyway, I hemmed them up with masking tape after every wash. It was a defeating moment when I realized that in order to fit in with the trends, you need to have new Nike’s and new San Francisco and Brittania jeans (those were trending at the time; now they’re vintage), but my high school splurge allowance was spent in the 9th grade and my mom wasn’t buying any more of those trendy, spendy things. I earned money doing odd jobs and babysitting, but I didn’t earn near enough to maintain a trend.

Mom still remembers the sacrifice she made in order for me to be stylish. I still remember learning that trending is not something that is ever finished. I like all the wonderful people I’m meeting on twitter. As I’m new there, I don’t follow a whole lot of people yet, but those I have run across all seem very nice. I just hope they don’t notice I’m barefoot.

The Subtle Ban

Banning books tends to increase their sales. I can remember when Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling was getting run through the ringer by the public who didn’t want their children exposed to magic. It’s still the best selling book series in history. Currently, there are folks all over the world in an uproar over sexually explicit illustrated books in the school library. I have questions. Honestly, who’s choosing these books? Is this high school or elementary? I, personally, don’t think such books have a place anywhere in a school; be it library, a teacher’s desk, or what have you.

We get a say in what our children are exposed to. Our children are our children – they don’t belong to the state and they don’t belong to the school board. If the parent’s wishes outnumber the parties responsible for choosing what goes onto the book shelves, so be it – make it so. No big deal. Books are for sale at Amazon, available at the public library, whatever. There’s no shortage of books.


That won’t happen until people stop reading.

Some of my own (now adult) children like to read, some don’t. When they were in school, I was glad when they were reading a book, but I usually at least peaked at it – sometimes I read it and sometimes we watched the movie if it’d been made into one. When they were in grade school, I don’t remember any controversial books, aside from the aforementioned H.P. I do remember being concerned about Goosebumps being scary and all – but hey, they were reading, and for some of my children the Goosebumps were the last books they’d read for fun.

I’ve noticed, as a mother and as a grandmother, something happens to reading for pleasure along the way to adulthood. This (click to read an essay on the love of reading, writing, books) is missing from many of our children’s lives. It’s too bad because reading books is good for people on many levels. For instance, reading is credited for being instrumental in the life of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, i.e. reading is knowledge and knowledge is freedom!

I think the true banning of books begins long before the school board has to face an angry group of parents who are protesting the presence of pornography in their school library. It begins before a national outcry against tax-paying, school supporting, teacher-salary-providing parents who express concern about the books available for their children.

I believe the banning of books begins with omission when teachers don’t have D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything And Read) time, or when they fail to plan favorite book character days, or celebrate books and reading at all, ever, — in effect they’re aligning books to the often confusing texts of difficult learning as opposed to the exciting adventures in the pages of Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Henry Huggins, etc. The banning of books begins when parents buy more video games than the small rectangular objects, more apps and systems than books, allow more minutes per day on screens than pages. If parents got their kids hooked on good books, guided their reading, discussed what’s on the pages, this true banning by omission would not exist.

“The video arcade is down the street. Here we just sell small rectangular objects. They’re called books. They require a little effort on your part, and make no bee-beep-beeps. On your way please.” — Mr. Koreander, bookseller, The Neverending Story.

Banning something outright often makes it cool, and I’m all for making reading books a cool thing. Perhaps being aware of actual banned books, children will wonder at the mysterious rectangle objects with printed pages. Maybe we should ban more of them on an absolute and public level – perhaps the children would wonder long enough to put the video games down and pick up a book to see what the excitement’s about. This banning by omission is more subtle than the outright protesting of questionable material currently under fire. This invisible banning, this quasi-indifference, this outright apathy, is an ignorance our children will suffer a lifetime for, not just a school term.

Whatever happened to Dorothea Lynde Dix and Nelly Bly?

Who Cares? An observation of Dorothea Lynde Dix and Nellie Bly concluding that a society neglecting it’s most vulnerable population is indeed wholly poor in virtue.

“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.

Proverbs 29:7 NIV.

As a child, Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887) was a pseudo-pauper, for although her paternal grandparents were fairly well-off, her father and mother were rather underfunded, as neither maintained steady employment. Dorothea’s parents, Joseph and Mary Dix, and the family lived on a tract of land owned by Joseph’s father, Elijah Dix, in Hampden, Maine.

Dorothea’s father was known for his fanatical flights of religious fervor equal only to his propensity for strong drink. A Methodist lay pastor by trade, Joseph traveled and distributed tracts of sermons he wrote preaching hellfire and damnation.

Dorothea’s mother suffered from some sort of mental infirmity; the accepted speculations favoring depression, but whatever it was that ailed Dorothea’s mother, she felt it was personal business and never shared the details with anyone. It can be sure the mental infirmities suffered by her mother made a grave impression on the young girl.

There was more than a little bit of mystery and tragedy slapping against the face of Dorothea Lynde Dix’s childhood. By the time she was twelve she grew tired of pasting and sewing her father’s religious tracts together for him and spending all of her remaining time seeing to the household duties her parents neglected in favor of their various oddities, conditions, and pursuits.

One day in 1814, Dorothea appeared on her paternal grandmother’s doorstep in Boston Massachusetts, having had enough of what biographer Francis Tiffany termed as Dorothea’s “immediate parents’ lacking in energetic fibre.” Though her grandmother was a strict disciplinarian, Dorothea preferred the sewing, cooking, and knitting lessons of her grandmother to the arrant disregard of her parents and especially the endless drudgery of the gluing and stitching of her father’s tracts. When Dorothea went to her grandmother’s, her brother, Joseph, was 2 years old, and Mary Dix was expecting a third child.

Without any formal schooling herself, other than having been taught to read by her father, Dorothea began teaching school at the age of 14. She moved in with her great-aunt, Sarah Lynde Duncan, in Worcester and discovered her knack for storytelling, which her cousins deeply enjoyed. Dorothea set up her dame school over the bookstore on Main Street and began teaching the three R’s to any child who would pay the small fee. To the delight of her students, it was with her own favored stories that she taught science to the children as well as devotions and tales with a moral lesson. The school was very successful because even though Dorothea executed fair and strong discipline, she was also gentle and kind.

When she was 17, Dorothea moved back to Boston into her grandmother’s mansion, bringing her little brother Joseph along. Her second brother, Charles Wesley, remained at home. Here she not only continued teaching, but also set up a second school so that poor children could have access to moral training. Dix wrote eight books between 1824 and 1829, including hymns for children, short stories, meditations, and botany. Two examples of the books she wrote are Conversations on Common Things, (reprinted 60 times by 1869) and The Trials of a School Girl,

Raising her brother Joseph, and now her other brother, Charles, as well as caring for her mother, along with teaching at two schools, preparing her own texts, and looking after her aging grandmother, all made for a heavy work load which took a toll on Dix. After about fifteen years of it, all told, she had a nervous breakdown. To recuperate, she quit teaching and took to traveling and visiting friends. In 1836 Dix’s mother and grandmother passed away and left her a legacy which, combined with her own savings and the money she earned from her books published a few years prior, provided funds enough to live on as she recuperated from her malady, which some speculate to have been associated with some form of depressive disorder.

Despite her feeble health, on March 28, 1841, Dix volunteered to teach Sunday school to some twenty female convicts in the East Cambridge jail for a pastor friend of hers. This was where she saw the fate of society’s indigent insane, which propelled her into the political/social-welfare arena. When Dix found the bowels of the East Cambridge jail were over crowded not only with criminals, but also the indigent insane, as well as the mentally and physically handicapped, all herded together in filthy and freezing conditions, her first political act undertaken on behalf of these innocent persons was to present a proposal to the court which won heat to warm the prisoners’ jail cells.

Certain that conditions should be improved for those less fortunate souls, Dix spent the next two years traveling with a notebook to every almshouse and jail from Berkshire to Cape Cod, noting the conditions of each institution along the way. With her notes, she wrote a memorial (report) addressed to the state legislature with the hope of gaining humane living conditions for the innocents who were neglected and abused. In the memorial, Dix wrote:

I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience. Lincoln. A woman in a cage. Medford. One idiotic subject chained and, and one in a close stall for seventeen years. Peppernell. One often doubly chained, hand and foot; another violent.

The local newspapers cried that the memorial written by Dix was pure fiction, that there were no almshouses keeping the poor citizens of Massachusetts as prisoners, behind bars, with iron chains around their necks! “Incredible” the citizens argued. “Sensational and scandalous lies!” But Dix would not be discouraged. She garnered the support of politicians and respected statesmen, and after many weeks of heated debate, finally convinced the state legislature to expand the size of the state hospital in Worcester in order to accommodate more patients and provide better care, such as the gentle and therapeutic moral treatment she’d learned from Elizabeth Fry, Samuel, Tuke, and William Rathbone in her travels.

Spurred on by her empathy for so many poor people suffering in jails and almshouses in other states, in three years’ time, Dix traveled over 30,000 miles, visiting institutions all over the United States and lobbying for improved conditions for the poor mentally ill. In New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. From the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic to the Mississippi, contracting sicknesses, and sometimes bedding with rats and cockroaches. Her practice in each state was the same; she visited every jail and almshouse she could, collected data, prepared a memorial using her meticulously documented research, all to be presented by an affable and well-known politician pressing for better facilities for the indigent insane. The tireless woman carried on this process for ten years, pleading with state after state to provide humane conditions, moral treatment, for the weak-minded who could not afford the care provided in the private hospitals of the wealthy. The moral treatment contended that environmental factors such as beauty in architecture, landscaping, interior design, etc, and pursuits such as reading and enjoying company, all played a significant role on the way to recovery.

One after another, the states began building adequate mental hospitals. In 1845 Dix published a treaty, Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States, which advocated for separating prisoners according to the crimes they’d committed and for educating them in the hopes that the acquisition of knowledge would improve their lives. Throughout the 1850’s Dix advocated for mental health institutions and for the incorporation of moral treatment on an international basis, and her pleas were heard all throughout Europe, Canada, Russia, and Japan. Her intercessions for active reform were building momentum.

With the building of mental institutions all across the United States and even internationally, and on the heels of the failing of a land grant bill she’d spent six years (1848-54) lobbying for, Dix took a much deserved vacation in Europe. She soon discovered a great inequality between the private hospital care provided for the wealthy and the public care facilities relegated to the poor. She managed to get an appointment with Pope Pius IX who verified the research in her statements and set out to make changes in Italy’s system. Upon her return home, Dix again took up the cause of seeing to the needs of the mentally infirm and began to ask the state governments for larger appropriations and more hospitals suited to provide efficient and effective moral treatment.

In 1861, at the age of 59, Dix volunteered her services in the Civil War and was appointed Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army. This was, as had been all of her previous official activities, an unpaid position. She was responsible for recruiting and training over 2,000 women as nurses, and organizing and procuring all necessities for the Union Army hospitals. Dix was the first woman in such a high federal position. She found herself often confronting doctors about their drinking habits and lack of sanitation and the nurses complained of her severity, but the soldiers called her an angel of mercy. Obviously, she was not politically motivated, as making friends with the drunkard doctors and seemingly uncaring nurses was not in par with getting the needs of the patients met.

After the Civil War, Dix returned to her role as a representative for the impoverished mentally ill. She examined hospitals and tested proposed sites for water purity. She ate the food being served to the residents, inspected the heating systems, looked over the finances; she thoroughly examined all aspects of the asylums that she helped to create. Before her death in 1887 she would help establish 32 of the 110 new mental institutions built in her lifetime. The first institution that Dix helped set up was built in Trenton New Jersey. That institution is where she retired to in 1881 and is the one institution dedicated in her name, for Dix was forever and always the humble empath, proven by the fact that she rarely put a name to any of her endeavors in her lifetime. Even many of her books are void of her name.

Nellie Bly

In the same year as Dix’s death, the journalist Nellie Bly undertook an assignment for the editor of the New York World Newspaper as investigative reporter. Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, a town began by her father, Michael Cochran, a successful miller, store owner, postmaster, and associate judge. Though her father passed away when she was only six, Bly managed to acquire some college education at the Indiana Normal School in Indiana Pennsylvania before financial restraints sent her to help her mother manage a boarding house in Pittsburgh. In 1882, Bly fired off a hot missive to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch rallying against Erasmus Wilson’s recent editorial which stated women who work outside the home were a “monstrosity.” The editor, George Madden, immediately offered her a position at the paper.

By 1885, Bly was becoming increasingly bored at the Dispatch where the editor assigned her to the women’s page and ever further away from a chance for writing exciting journalistic endeavors. Two years later, she managed to move to New York and land a gig with the New York World newspaper. One of her first assignments was to enter, undercover, the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt’s Island), an institution for the indigent insane in New York. She was to report on everything she saw there, be it good or upsetting, happy or sad, whatever she experienced, heard, felt, because the editor wanted to know if the reports he’d heard about concerning the asylum’s brutality and neglect were true.

After getting herself committed, which was a clever bit of acting itself as she feigned the demeanor of a person who did not know where she was or whence she came, it wasn’t long before Bly found herself on Blackwell’s Island. The ten days of her incarceration were the first immersion journalist actions ever recorded in an American newspaper. The conditions exposed were far from Dix’s practical philosophy of moral treatment. In the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Bly witnessed horrid abuses of the women, many who were taken to the closet and beaten by the caretakers and verbally teased into fits of rage or tears. She suffered through eating wretched food, bathing in a cold water dorm-successive tub, forced silence, freezing conditions in thin clothing as the heat was not allowed until October (Bly’s subterfuge took place in September), and witnessing patient’s fingers getting twisted and their faces slapped by the nurses.

With the publication of the two part series of Bly’s report on the women’s asylum, the New York World not only introduced immersion journalism to the reading public, but due to the exposure of the conditions inside, New York City awarded $100,000 in additional funding toward the care of the insane. Bly was proud of her accomplishment in aiding the penniless mentally ill.

Unfortunately, moral treatment for the institutionalized insane who were underfunded was not to make a comeback, as for the first three quarters of the 20th century, state institutions crowded more and more patients into their quarters, anesthetized and sometimes euthanized their souls with medications, straightjackets, frontal or medical lobotomy, shock treatments, wet towel treatments, cold water treatments, foul food, and kept them under observation for experimental purposes.

By 1977 the number of patients housed in institutions fell to 160,000 from 1963’s 600,000, a result of President Kennedy’s enacting of the Community Mental Health Centers Act, an act hoping to afford a more humane treatment to those in need. Those remaining institutionalized tended to be heavily medicated mental hospital patients suffering from dystonia (painful muscle spasms), tardive dyskinesia (stiff, jerky, uncontrollable movements of face and hands), and suicidal tendencies; many test subjects having signed no informed consent form.

The community-state model of moral treatment expanded in the last decades of the 20th century, affording for a meaningful and fruitful life for some. The many advances in medications prescribed by doctors combined with local outreach nonprofits as well as government funded programs and services, became a more attractive treatment resolution to the states.

By the turn of the 21st century, the buildings once toured by curious admirers of impressive architecture reminiscent of castles and cathedrals, manicured landscapes, and the relative order of moral treatment, were lauded as exciting haunted asylum tours. However, without enough spaces available in the underfunded, understaffed, and undertrained care facilities intended to care for the many who needed help, the prison population exploded with mentally ill persons falling through the cracks (Federal prisons: 78,800, state prisons: 705,600, local jails: 479,000. (2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS) and the streets increasingly became homes for the insane who could not afford private care. Recently, I saw a statistic that a full 33% of the homeless people we see huddling on the sides of roads, cowering near bushes, and curling under plastic tarps suffer from mental illness.

Certainly, there is not one simple and easy answer for the current problem of homeless people who wander aimlessly through the streets, but the original answer wasn’t easy for Ms. Dix as she parried and wrestled with bureaucrats until she tore through their hardened prejudices to expose their humanity. Because the federal government no longer provides funds for long term mental health care and the states can’t afford to provide it for them, are we going to, collectively – as a strong, thriving, robust nation, – ignore those poor souls who’ve lost their connection to their own community?

Who among us will rise from the circumstances dealt us, only to turn around and sleep among rats and cockroaches, heroin needles and feces, in order to secure a dignified future for those we don’t even know, who likely wouldn’t even know us or thank us for our troubles? While the buildings of Ms. Dix’s creations are being dismantled brick by brick, or turned into museums, where will all the people go?

The stresses of Dix’s ideals were to engage with the patients, provide them therapy, music, books, recreation, and meaningful work. Where were the Dorothea Lynde Dix’s in the 20st century? Where were the Nellie Bly’s to expose the perfidy? Where was the humanity? If “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” (Mahatma Gandhi), the United States’ lack of moral treatment toward the indigent insane in the 20th century may display the nation under a less than favorable light. It is yet to be seen if we will redeem ourselves in the 21st, a century which, through the lens of modern history, given that we’re confirmed navel gazing screen swipers, looks to have spawned more sloths than doers and more ailments than caregivers.

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A New Year

This year I’m looking forward, as many, many millions of people around the world are, to getting out on vacation somewhere! I don’t know where, or when, but I’m hoping it’s soon and I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.

Last year Craig and I took a few daycations and in the fall we stayed the weekend in the Bend/Prineville area. We enjoyed seeing the painted hills for the first time, they’re always beautiful and always changing in color according to atmospheric changes such as sunlight, humidity, moisture, etc.

The Painted Hills.

We also walked around the majestic Smith Rock (some people climb – we walked around), and toured the underground lava caves in Redmond. We had a great time. I’m hoping for an end to the pandemic this year. Looking forward to being able to run around unencumbered by masks and/or vaccine conversations.

Smith Rock State Park.
Exploring the caves.

A couple of years ago (Spring 2018), Craig and I were up in Washington State. Just driving you know, seeing the sights, getting lost, etc. We love to do this! We were in our hotel on the last day of our trip and over breakfast I was looking at a map and said “you know, I think if we drove east we could drive through Idaho and into Montana in only a few hours time.

We didn’t take that drive, but it’s on my bucket list.

On that particular Washington State trip we did see Toppenish, a small town which hosts over 75 historic murals, the Yakima Valley (my first time but Craig had worked there before), Zillah, home of the restored teapot shaped gas station built in honor of the teapot dome scandal in 1922 and a touching memorial to local veterans.

Restored teapot gas station roadside museum.
Veteran’s Memorial Park, Zillah Washington.
A mural in Toppenish.
Another one of the many lovely historic murals in Toppenish.

There’s a host of places we didn’t see during our trip, but trust me; they’re on the list. Maybe this year we will jump into our car and head up and over and across three states in one day, or maybe stay in Oregon, which we never tire of. Whatever we decide, it’s going to be better than ever because Craig and I grow better than ever each passing year despite the aches, pains, and occasional bout of cantrememberstuff.

My partner in adventure and yours truly standing in the ghost town of Valsetz Oregon.

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