Translation is an inexact craft. Some words born in one culture lack close equivalents in another. Schadenfreude (pleasure at another’s misfortune) and déjà vu (a sense of having been here before) entered the English tongue because nothing else says it so well.
Ability to describe your emotions more precisely than “glad,” “mad,” or “sad” may improve your physical health. If English doesn’t have the exact word for what you feel, why not look further? The examples below are from Dr. Tim Lomas’s long and growing list. What favorites can you add? What sensation do you wish you had a word for?
One of the novelties of fifteenth-century care in the great Hospital of Rhodes was the provision of a separate, curtained bed for each sick patient. Perhaps the Crusaders learned from the more medically advanced Arabs. Most European hospitals assigned at least two to a bed, while homes and taverns crowded sleepers more closely.
Communal sleeping cut across social classes in medieval Europe. While servants and poor folk huddled on rags or straw on the floor, entire families of means—or guests at an inn—shared mattresses, sheets, and blankets on raised platforms. Women, men, and children slept together. Nights were cold, beds were expensive, and notions of privacy didn’t exist.
Only gradually did the bedroom become a private space for sleep, sex, and childbirth. Well into the 1700s, monarchs received visitors in their bedchambers. Ben Franklin and John Adams shared a bed at an inn and quarreled about the window.
The Victorians ended most bed sharing with an appeal to health and morals. Though married couples eventually rebelled against mandatory twin beds, the old practice of communal sleeping is nearly extinct except for romantic/sexual pairs. Judgmentalism persists. Eyebrows rise over who’s sleeping with whom, why so-and-so sleep in separate rooms, or whether babies should sleep with a parent. Just a few centuries ago, nobody cared.
Winter blues come in many colors. Mine take at least three distinct, relatively predictable forms.
Early December: out of kilter. As night blankets out more and more daylight, I grow shaky, lose confidence, and see rejection where none was intended. This “Decemberitis” lifts with the lights, sounds, and camaraderie of the holidays.
Mid-January to late February: lethargic. Snowstorms, icy roads, and bitter cold restrict activities and personal contact. Anniversaries of significant mid-winter losses don’t help. Lots of time to write, but who has the energy? I’d rather go back to bed.
Around March: restless. Spring should be just around the corner. Instead, slush on my favorite forest paths hides patches of glare ice or puddles four inches deep. Cabin fever itches worse than it did in deep mid-winter. Are we there yet, are we there yet?
I’d love to hear from others about the hues of your winter blues.
Earlier this month I attended my first meeting of a local book group that specializes in historical mysteries. The current mystery was Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun. Huh? What does a story set far in the future share with stories set fifty or five hundred years in the past?
Lots, I soon realized. Readers explore an unfamiliar world through the eyes of characters already at home there, who rarely pause to explain what’s going on. Interspersed with the puzzles in the plot is the puzzle of figuring out how an alien society works. It's like foreign travel without a guidebook or interpreter. As a reader of historical novels, I may try wrapping my mind around futuristic science fiction more often.
Writers' workshops on “world building” attract historical novelists and science fiction writers alike. As an author, how do you convey the sounds, smells, customs, technology of an alien culture? Its assumptions, habits, day-to-day relationships? Because of the need to build a world, novels in both genres are typically longer than most other fiction (see sample word counts here and here). The need to keep a mystery moving adds a delicious challenge.
In ecology, the term edge effects refers to phenomena at the boundary between two different habitats, such as woodland/meadow or pond/shore. I first learned about edge effects in work for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a meeting place of sand dunes, wetlands, prairie, forest, oak savanna, and Lake Michigan beach. More than a thousand plant species at IDNL range from orchids and prickly pear cactus to bearberry of the Arctic tundra.
Magic flourishes and sparks fly at the boundaries. How many folktales begin with a little old couple who live in a cottage by the edge of the forest or sea? How many human conflicts erupt at cultural borderlands? Some years back I explored edge effects between nomadic and settler cultures, where systems based on kinship clash with systems based on territory.
In my writing about polio eradication, the main story begins in the 1980s on the boundary between a private service organization (Rotary) and multinational agencies (World Health Organization, UNICEF). They took years to learn to work together and trust each other. Now polio eradication efforts in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria focus on the boundary between modern epidemiology and some of the world’s most traditional cultures.
My historical fiction-in-progress is set on an eastern Mediterranean island on the border of Europe and Asia in the late fifteenth century, the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Edge effects among Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Jews, and Muslims create a breeding ground for tensions galore.
Returning to work after the holidays was less jarring than usual this year. A board game from under the Christmas tree set my mind on course for two days of meetings about the global eradication of polio.
Pandemic challenges a diverse team of specialists from CDC Atlanta to stop four deadly infections before they engulf the world. Players race around the continents in a collaborative effort to bring outbreaks under control. Should we suppress an outbreak from the epicenter or work in from the edges? Focus on one disease till it’s gone for good or strive to maintain low levels of each? Divert staff from existing programs to respond to each new outbreak? Invest in research for future cures at the cost of immediate treatment?
This map-based strategy game reminds me of the Avalon Hill war games of half a century ago, such as Waterloo, Gettysburg, or Battle of the Bulge. While Pandemic isn’t overtly historical, that’s only because the game doesn’t name the infections. In any recent year, the international health community has battled multiple pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, cholera, SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu, Ebola, Zika virus, or Lassa fever. Pandemic mimics reality in the way deadly infections spread and the strategic challenges of combating them.
Would a character in this time and place really do that? Reader feedback helps novelists make draft characters more credible, but unfounded expectations complicate matters. Recently I’ve had a protagonist challenged for failure to act like a typical medieval woman: meek, docile, obedient, and subservient. Where did that come from?
Though men held most of the formal power and property, medieval literature and history abound in assertive, influential women. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) and the women in Boccaccio’s Decameron were feisty, if fictitious. Blood feuds in Icelandic sagas depended on women goading reluctant men to fulfill their vengeful duty.
Abbesses ruled monasteries that included men as well as women. Women of rank plotted with sons and lovers to control the English crown. Some queens governed as regents for minor sons or demented husbands. When feudal knights rode off to war, the complex management of their manors fell to their wives or widows. Widows who inherited property enjoyed considerable independence.
There are lots of good reasons to question a character’s behavior, but the presumed docility of medieval women isn’t one of them.
Gratitude. Intention. Simplicity. Joy. If you were to pick one word for personal focus in the year ahead, what would it be? Clarity. Self-care. Authenticity. Trust. The practice of choosing a word instead of making resolutions has been around a while, but I first heard of it a couple of weeks ago. Resolutions are a set-up for failure, typically forgotten in a month or two. A word isn’t a promise to keep or break, but a lens through which to view one’s life during the year ahead.
Nature’s years don’t start and end, of course; they cycle. Knowing New Year’s Day is arbitrary doesn’t stop many of us from endowing it with a sense of fresh beginnings. Often I’ve chosen something I wanted to leave behind. Last year, Fear turned to ashes in a New Year’s Eve bonfire. Right now the idea of a focus word calls to me more strongly. At this writing it’s Magic, though it has a few more hours to gel.
With what rituals do you usher in the new year, if any? What word would you select for focus in 2019, or what from your past is it time to let go?
Childhood Christmas Eves taught me much of what I love. The brightly lit tree in our living room was draped in tinsel, with a home-cut tin star at the top. Having no fireplace, we each hung a sock on the couch, which backed against the wall nearest the furnace pipe. I wondered what difference that made when Santa had to go from chimney to furnace, up the basement stairs, and around through the kitchen. But it worked; the socks were always full the next morning.
We sang favorite carols at the piano and read the ancient Christmas story, illustrated with paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our other annual reading was “King John’s Christmas” by A. A. Milne, which still brings me to tears.
Lasting lessons from those Christmas Eves: The joy of home and family. Lights, music, art, story. Tradition, ingenuity, wonder. Unconditional goodwill to all, even to bad King John.
Image: by Gerard David, 1480s. Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was one of the paintings in the Christmas book I grew up on.
A whisper in the ear, a note on the counter, a hand on the shoulder. We use more than one sense to communicate, perhaps all five. Then again, the “five senses” we learned in grade school may oversimplify. What about our ability to sense balance, temperature, motion, or pain? What senses might other creatures have?
Communication goes beyond humans, of course. Animals exchange information within and across species, from the roar of a lion or the warning flick of a whitetail to the dance of bees or the pheromones of ants. More surprising, to me at least, is communication among non-animal organisms, involving senses so alien we turn to metaphors like “language,” “eavesdropping,” or “information highway.”
Through underground threads of fungus, plant roots not only poison competitors and share nutrients but also pass information. Aphid-infested broad beans signal aphid-free seedings, through fungal networks, to activate chemical defenses against aphids. Bacteria communicate through chemical signals to act as a group. A grad student at Princeton just published research showing a virus can “listen in” on bacterial “conversations,” using the information to guide its spread from one host bacterium to another.
As a specialist in the written word, I find it humbling to learn of communication among life forms of all sorts, probably since before we humans were a twinkle in nature’s eye.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.