As a kid in hilly West Virginia, I heard the best predictor of long life was love of life. The trait most likely to keep me going, I decided, was curiosity. I always wanted to see what was around the next corner.
Didn’t curiosity kill the cat and open Pandora’s box? Not really. When nosiness harms relationships or reckless experiment harms bodies, blame the action, not the interest. Curiosity is a blessing for body, mind, and spirit.
Curiosity doesn’t just motivate us to learn. It also improves recall and brightens tempers by activating the hippocampus (involved in creating memories) and brain areas that transmit dopamine, associated with anticipatory pleasure. Fear may ease its grip when we ask what we can learn from it. As for bodily benefits, I take longer walks when distracted by unfamiliar surroundings. What’s around the next corner?
Shedding preconceptions is a blessing I’m learning to value. To say “I don’t know, I’d like to learn” allows space for possibilities. It’s easy to dismiss people if you assume you know what makes them tick. In her book Respect, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot tells how a portrait photographer’s respectful curiosity about his subjects helps him see beyond the obvious. Zen Buddhists speak of “beginner’s mind,” setting aside certainty in favor of staying open.
Not being of Polish descent or living in a heavily Polish-American community, I never heard of Dyngus Day until recently. Boys throw water on girls in this Easter Monday custom, said to commemorate the baptism of the first King of Poland in the year 966. By some accounts girls used to give boys colored eggs to get them to stop.
Eggs feature in many spring holiday traditions—not just coloring, rolling, and hiding them but dancing around them while trying not to break any. Festivities at a royal wedding on Easter Monday 1498 included egg dancing, also attested in later paintings and poems. Early Christians called the egg a symbol of resurrection and rebirth.
Ideas of resurrection and baptism aren’t inherent in eggs or water, nor is the older fertility symbolism that’s easy to see in these traditions. The meanings of objects lie not in the objects but in us. To get to anything about Easter eggs that didn’t start in human minds, you have to go back to the hens who started laying again in springtime after an eggless winter.
We humans make meaning all the time. Meaning and symbols are integral to how we think, speak, and write. It’s my belief individuals and cultures don’t find meaning, we create it. One meaning may be more creative or satisfying than another but it’s not more true or false. That’s not to say life is meaningless, a cause for despair. It’s rather to say life is as rich in meaning as we choose to make it.
In many ways I’m not much of a geek. Unfamiliar machines and electronics perplex me. But tools that combine history and maps in intricate detail have always entranced me. Shepherd’s Historical Atlas (ninth edition, 1964) is still a favorite on my bookshelf, alongside atlases of diasporas, Russian history, Jewish history, and half a dozen others.
Children (and I) love pressing the buttons in the Wisconsin Historical Museum to light a display showing how far a settler could go from Milwaukee in a day by foot, wagon, boat, or train. Historical sea travel times prove more complicated. In “Speed under Sail of Ancient Ships,” Lionel Casson writes that “the ‘average speeds’ are worthless. How could they be otherwise? They ignore the fundamental fact that the speed of a sailing ship depends first and foremost on the direction of the wind.” Happily for my writing needs, Casson lists the duration of numerous specific voyages recorded by Pliny and others.
My new love is ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. Ancient and modern meet in this fabulous GPS system to plan your trip of two thousand years ago. Plug in your starting point and destination and a host of other options to map the fastest, cheapest, and shortest routes with their costs in denarii. I generalize to any period predating the advent of steam. ORBIS suggests an oxcart from Marseilles took most of two weeks to reach Toulouse. Travelers who arrived in Rhodes at the end of March, having crossed the Continent on horseback, must have left London about February 20. I could do this all day. Ecstasy!
What do a mystery novel draft and the Affordable Care Act have in common? You might give many answers, not all of them snarky. In both writing and health policy, events of the past week and a half set me thinking how a good start is only a start.
The 2017 University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute suggested many rounds of revision in my mystery’s future. I brought home ideas to strengthen character, dialogue, world building, scenes, and word choice. Special thanks to presenters Patricia Skalka (Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries), Kathy Steffen (historical thrillers), Peggy Williams (On the Road mysteries), and Silvia Acevedo (God Awful young adult series). Click on their names for websites and books.
Human endeavors are rarely perfect. Recognizing the need to revise can feel overwhelming. I’d rather see room for improvement as cause for celebration, not despair. The opportunity to revise is an invitation to creativity and hope.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.