Michelle Wildgen of the Madison Writers’ Studio begins each class, “What are you reading?” My latest three were recommendations from a historical mysteries book club, a comment on my Pandemic blog post, and a Facebook friend respectively.
• In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen. A novel of spies, class, romance, and mystery in World War II England. I hadn’t previously heard of the “land girls” sent to the countryside for wartime farm labor, or of Nazi proposals to restore the former King Edward VIII to the British throne.
• The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. A riveting history of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic, on every scale from microbe to metropolis, and the pioneering epidemiologist who figured out how it spread. The book grabbed me from page one with the night scavengers who recycled the bones, rags, and excrement of Dickensian London.
• The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker. Powerful memoir of a Chicago kid in the 1970s, raised to expect the end of the world before he reaches his teens. His parents are blind, his God wrathful, his classmates puzzled. To his secret shame, Jerry wishes he could just be a normal boy.
What are you reading?
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.