“What do people do on a cruise ship?” I asked an upper-middle-class audience years ago. Eat, swim, dance, play shuffleboard, they suggested. What else? Watch shows, listen to lectures, go to a spa. As I pressed for more, the suggestions slowed. At last the ideas ran out.
Nobody suggested that people on a cruise ship wash dishes, tend bar, or make the beds. When I noted this, they dismissed it as frame of reference.
My sociologist father first pointed out to me that “people” tends to mean people like oneself, not all humankind. The version of “Old Man River” on our Showboat album had the line, “People all work on the Mississippi while the white folks play.”* How could all the people be working if some were playing? Dad’s response explained so much over the years, like languages where the ethnic group name is the word for “man.”
Webster’s calls frame of reference “a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood.” There’s nothing wrong with having a frame of reference. We probably can’t avoid it. The problems arise when we confuse our frame of reference with universal truth, or people like ourselves with humankind.
*Others changed the taboo original to “darkies,” “colored folk,” or “we all.” I haven’t been able to trace a “people” version but that’s my memory of it.
Sometime in the year ending March 21, 1844, the Second Coming would usher in Christ’s thousand-year reign on Earth. That biblical calculation by New York farmer William Miller won tens of thousands of adherents. When nothing notable happened on March 21, or April 3 or 18 (based on recalculations), Miller acknowledged his error and disappointment. The true date, he said, would be October 22.
Excitement rose among the Millerites. Some quit their jobs, abandoned their fields, and gave away their possessions. Thousands gathered in churches or hilltops the night of Tuesday, Oct. 22, 1844, to meet their savior. The “Great Disappointment” of an ordinary dawn on Wednesday brought weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
What fascinates me is how many people continued to believe Miller’s predictions, often at great personal cost, even though events proved him wrong again and again. Mere facts rarely inspire us humans to change beliefs that are central to how we understand ourselves or our world. Finally abandoning such beliefs can be painful. It’s not a mark of stupidity but a trait that must somehow have helped our prehistoric ancestors survive. And it’s as evident in public affairs today as in religion of an earlier era.
This blog on the interplay of writing, reading, history, and imagination opened last year on March 12. Neither travel nor health nor move of house has stayed the posting of a new entry every Monday. Besides giving a rhythm to my weeks, it’s teaching me a lot.
Blog format highlights the two-way conversation between writer and reader, present in all writing beyond a private journal. See the June 27 entry on writing in relationship.
Comparing notes on creative process with visual artists, musicians, and quilters is fascinating. And I love learning readers’ associations with personal experience or current events.
Each kind of writing provides training for other kinds. Blog posts are an exercise in focus and brevity. History, fiction, journalism, and poetry hone skills in research, sensory detail, meeting deadlines, and word choice, all of which strengthen writing of every sort.
It’s all about connections, part of an interdependent web of people, ideas, and values.
Happy spring! Before you insist spring doesn’t start officially for another two weeks, astronomical spring (starting on the equinox) isn’t the only game in town. The weather folk go by three-month chunks, with spring being March, April, and May. This results in “winters” and “summers” that more closely correspond to the coldest and hottest quarters of the year, and it makes year-to-year comparisons easier because the dates are always the same.
Changes of the seasons exist in nature, at least in the temperate zone. Defining them by calendar date is a human convenience. Is the compulsion to specify turning points universal or specific to our culture? Just as people don’t suddenly reach the maturity to drive, vote, or drink on a particular birthday, nature’s spring doesn’t arrive on one predictable date each year.
We know this intuitively. We speak of a long winter or an early fall. We know that summers in North Carolina last longer than summers in Alaska. Even the division of the year into quarters is arbitrary. My life holds a distinct harvest/hay-fever season from mid-August to mid-October.
I’m a late convert to the concept of meteorological seasons. They’re a good fit for the novel I’m writing. They match the school calendar of my childhood. And they allow me in early March to bid you a joyful spring.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.