History Undusted: Mary Seacole

Have you ever heard of Mary Seacole? Probably not – I hadn’t, and I’m a history fan. Have you ever heard of Florence Nightingale? You probably had something taught to you in school about her.  In reading about the two, the most striking difference, and perhaps the one that made all the difference in the paths their lives took, was that Florence was born into a rich, upper-class and well-connected English family; Mary was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican woman, who first taught her about medicine.

mary seacole

 

Mary Seacole. Source: Wikipedia

 

While Florence was famous for training nurses during the Crimean War, the English authorities refused Mary’s request to be sent there, too, even though it was known that the nursing care was far too inadequate; so she scraped the money together herself, travelled to the front lines on her own, and established a hotel in order to provide meals, a place of rest, and medical treatment for the wounded. She would often go out to the battles to bring in the wounded, and as mortars flew past, a soldier would shout, “Down, mother!” and she would hit the dirt, then pick herself back up and continue on. To tell her whole story would be a lengthy one here, but she has told it in her own words by writing a book: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, available for free as a Kindle or other formats here. You can also read more about Mary herself in the following links:

 

Wikipedia

BBC

YouTube

Her story is well worth reading, because it truly was an adventure, and it neither started nor stopped in Crimea. Kudos to the woman who overcame a triple-prejudice (being a woman of mixed race from a poor background) to achieve her calling and change the lives of the men she helped. It’s a history gem worth undusting!

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Columbus’s Egg

1200px-columbus_breaking_the_egg'_(christopher_columbus)_by_william_hogarth

Columbus Breaking the Egg, by William Hogarth, 1752

At the end of December, I began a new training course in crafting short stories; this has renewed my interest in finding good writing prompts. By focusing on something, you usually begin to see things related to it everywhere you go. For instance, if you’re doing a puzzle and focus on the edges, you’ll begin to see them right under your nose where they’d been all along – you just hadn’t seen them before because you’d been focused on a specific colour or a particular section.

My brain is usually on rapid-fire mode; in any given second, dozens of topics flash through my thoughts. Reaching into this stream and pulling out one particular topic to focus on can lead to interesting, related issues, and Columbus’s Egg is one of the results.

The original thought that I plucked from the stream this morning was, “How do you actually spell Kobayashi Maru?” (I know, right? I’m sure you had exactly that thought as soon as your feet hit the ground this morning; it’s just that my “morning” began this afternoon as I wrote through the night and got to bed at 9:30 this morning…) By looking it up, I came across the apocryphal story about Columbus:

The story goes that Christopher Columbus, while attending a dinner, was confronted with Spanish scoffers who said that, had he not been the first to discover the Americas, someone else would have done so. He made no answer but asked a servant to bring him an egg (presumably a boiled one). He then challenged everyone present: They must try to get an egg to stand on its end, with nothing to support it in that position. Everyone tried and failed; when it was Columbus’s turn, he tapped the tip of the egg on the table, and the crushed, flat end made the egg remain upright. the moral was that a solution is obvious to everyone, but only once it has been found by someone else.

brunelleschi's dome, duomo of florence

the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral

The story is recorded in Girolamo Benzoni’s History of the New World, published in 1565, as he related it to Columbus, but it is likely apocryphal as the same anecdote was circulating 15 years previously about the architect of the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy.

My original thought’s term, Kobayashi Maru, is a term that any Trekkie will be familiar with: It was a no-win scenario designed to test Star Fleet cadets’ characters in the face of certain defeat. The term has gone beyond Star Trek and is used in business to illustrate the importance of changing the rules of the game in order to win, i.e. re-evaluating the foundation of a particular business scenario.

There are other such related terms, such as the Gordian KnotCatch-22, and the Archimedean point. All of these concepts are about thinking outside the box, which is exactly what I try to do as a writer.  If you’re also a writer, catch those thoughts – write them down, and let them foment into something interesting! Keep writing!

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History Undusted: New Year’s Day

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year VintageOn such a day more than any other time of the year, one tends to think of time. Time has been personified through Father Time for centuries, with the New Year usually being a baby. But what we assume is a universal start of a new year actually isn’t. By the Julian calendar, today is 19 December 2018; by the Gregorian, 1 January 2019.

Perhaps it would help to review the Julian and the Gregorian calendars:

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a reformation of the Roman calendar, which had months of 29 or 31 days (except February, which must have confused even the contemporaries of the system – it had 28 days or 23 or 24 some years). The Julian calendar has been gradually increasing in discrepancy to the Gregorian calendar, which means that currently, it is 13 days behind. It is still used today by the Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and the North African Berbers.

The Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The corrections spaced leap years to a set rule, making the average year 365.2425 days long. The rule is that every year exactly divisible by 4 is a leap year except those exactly divisible by 100; of the years divisible by 100, if it is exactly divisible by 400, it is a leap year. For example, the year 2000 was exactly divisible by 400, so it was a leap year; 1900 was not, so it wasn’t a leap year (it is exactly divisible by 100 but not 400).

Even though the Gregorian calendar is the only one most westerners have grown up using, it is not the only calendar in use – not by a long shot. There are many religion-related calendars, so some people grow up with 2 calendars (Ethiopian Coptics, Hebrews, and Chinese, to name a few). Added to the confusion is the civil interpretation of the leap year day of 29 February: If you were born on 29 February, in China your birthday in common years would be 28 February but in Hong Kong, it would be 1 March.

When the Gregorian calendar was introduced, imagine the confusion it must have led to (as it was not implemented everywhere at once): Pope Gregory XIII had no authority beyond the Catholic Church and the Papal States of the time, yet he was proposing changes to the civil calendar; this required adoption by the governing rulers of every individual country to have legal effect. It meant that, for the countries which adopted it, they had to have dual dates for clarity with neighbouring states and for their own people who were still adjusting to the fact that they’d just lost nearly 2 weeks. Other countries made a gradual transition, which must have confused things even more; for instance, Scotland adopted 1 January as the beginning of their New Year (previously, around 25 March) in 1600 (making 1599 a very short year), but didn’t switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, whereas the rest of the United Kingdom made both switches in 1752, meaning that for 152 years, Scotland’s dates were out of sync with their neighbouring countries.

So the next time you wish someone a Happy New Year, remember the privilege of sharing a mutual understanding of the same date with that friend. Even in our global village, it’s not something we can take for granted!

New Year 2019

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Merry Christmas, everyone!

Knocked Down the Xmas Tree

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December 25, 2018 · 11:18 AM

Wordless Wednesday #55: Meanwhile, Somewhere in Alaska…

Children, Dog Teams & Aircraft Use these Roads

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December 5, 2018 · 6:33 AM

Quintus Quotes: Mark Twain #2

Mark Twain - Cats, Friend without further IntroductionMark Twain - Eyes vs ImaginationMark Twain - Funeral LetterMark Twain - Kindness is a Language, Deaf, BlindMark Twain - Politicians & Diapers

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The strange story of the friendship between Hitler and a Jewish little girl.

Here’s an amazing piece of history that deserved to be undusted!

RANDOM Times •

We all know that Adolf Hitler was responsible for sending six million Jews to their deaths. Her name was Rosa Bernile Nienau and she was a little girl of Jewish origin in Germany in the 1930s. After this premise, you could imagine her end in a gas chamber of Auschwitz or another Nazi camp. Instead Rosa has a friend who preserves her from any racial persecution, a friend with a high-sounding name: Adolf Hitler.
This incredible photograph shows the smiling Nazi leader embracing the young Jewish girl, who referred to him as ‘Uncle Hitler’ and became known as his ‘sweetheart’ at his Alpine retreat.
Personally inscribed by Hitler, this photograph was taken in the summer of 1933 at the Berghof just six years before the outbreak of the Second World War!
The photo, taken by Hitler’s official photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, is signed by Hitler in dark blue ink which says:…

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History Undusted: Agafia Lykov – Surviving in the Taiga

Agafia Lykov - Siberian Times

Agafia Lykov. Photo credit: Siberian Times

I recently came across a documentary about a woman, Agafia Lykov. I’d come across information about her family years ago, and had intended to write an article about them;  life happened, and I forgot about it, so I’m glad to do it now.

 

The Lykov family were part of what is known as the “Old Believers” – Eastern Orthodox Christians from Russia who refused to submit to the new regulations laid out by the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, between 1652 and 1666. At a time when religious affiliation was political power, they were viewed as a threat and were shunned and persecuted. In 1936,  Karp Lykov’s brother was killed by communists during Stalin’s religious purgings, and he fled with his wife and two children into the Taiga wilderness, an inhospitable region of Siberia. In this isolation, 250 km (160 miles) from the nearest settlement, two more children were born; Agafia was born in 1944.

The family was a living time capsule; they weren’t aware that World War 2 had come and gone; they missed the birth of the Space Age, though they knew that something had taken place when rocket chunks began raining down in the Taiga near their home, as they are under the flight path of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (if you have Google Earth, just search for her name; her homestead is marked). Survival was difficult, and they had to work constantly; in 1961, the mother, Akulina, starved herself to death in order to give the children a fighting chance of survival when food was scarce. At one point, they were forced to eat their leather shoes to survive. Agafia’s teeth have been worn down from eating such tough foods.

In 1978, they were discovered by accident when a geology team’s helicopter was searching for a place to land in the remote wilderness; they saw the homestead and decided to trek to it when they’d finally landed. Most likely as a result of contact with outsiders, in 1981, three of the four children died of pneumonia. At first, the geologists thought the children were mentally disabled, as they spoke a strange lilting and chirping language; but they soon realized that it was simply the isolation and family dialect that had developed a shorthand between themselves; Agafia actually speaks two languages: Russian and Old Slavic, which modern Russians cannot understand (it would be the same for English speakers to hear Old English; it’s related, but unrecognizable to its modern version).

Born into such isolation and alone since 1988, Agafia is surprisingly informed about the wider world; she has left her homestead for populated areas only six times since contact with the outside world began, but she prefers her home – the world is too busy for her, too many cars, bad air in the cities, and no peace. Her beliefs are also a time capsule; she only knows what her father taught her, and has had no teaching beyond that; her prayer book is over 400 years old, a family heirloom, and one she uses every day.

In January 2016, she was airlifted to a hospital in Tashtagol, Russia, due to pain in her legs caused by the cold. Before the end of the month, she had returned home – all the time she was away, she was worried about her goats and chickens, and about Georgy, and Old Believer who had come to live with her to help in her old age.

I find her life fascinating; she is an example of the unquenchable human tenacity to survive, and thrive in any environment; she is content with her simple life, as hard as it is, because it is what she knows; she knows of modern conveniences, and has accepted some things – learning how to make bread, or accepting supplies such as salt and flour (as long as the products don’t have barcodes on them, which she considers a “mark of the beast”); but for the most part, she wants nothing of the modern world.

To watch a 35-minute documentary (made in 2013) of her daily life, just click on the image below.

Agafia Lykov - Titlovi-com

 

 

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History Undusted: The Japanese Schindler

I believe that people who have made a significant impact on the lives of individuals and nations not only deserve being honoured by remembrance but need to be brought into the spotlight for each new generation.

Though you may have learned something about Oskar Schindler through the books or film about his deeds, chances are you’ve not heard of Chinune Sugihara, whose conscience would not allow him to look the other way when Jews came under the persecution of the Nazis during World War 2. As vice-consul of the Japanese Consulate in Lithuania, he was in an ideal position to save thousands of lives by issuing travelling visas, but at the risk of his own career by disobeying orders.

His story is worth taking a few minutes to read; please click on the two links below, to get a picture of the man who became the only Japanese Righteous Among the Nations.

Lessons in Manliness: Chiune Sugihara

“Sempo” Chiune Sugihara (Wikipedia)

Chiune Sugihara

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‘Tis the Season (Already)!

I can hardly believe it’s November already – where did this year go?  It’s moving so fast that I have started preparing for Christmas already. Now, I know that for most Americans it may come as a shock that I’ve waited so long – don’t you lot start in August? 😉

I was discussing the cultural differences of Christmas traditions with a Swiss neighbour recently, and I mentioned the fact that I have an aversion to the opulence of the average American household’s decorations. If an American came to Switzerland during Christmas, they’d probably think that the Swiss forgot to decorate! Outside lights (minimal and usually non-blinking, as not to disturb the neighbourhood), tree (minimally decorated, and in most households, it’s set up on Christmas Eve), advent wreath, advent calendar, done. Maybe a front door wreath, but not usually.  Maybe a nativity set, but not always.

Most of our decorations are made by yours truly; with the exception of a wedding-year ceramic ornament, all other ornaments are either embossed tin, or crochet, or paper mache, though we do have a small set of glass ornaments, too. Our presents are not wrapped but put into reversible cloth gift bags that I made a few years ago because I disliked the waste of wrapping paper. And we’ve used the same silk tree for about 15 years; I didn’t like the environmental waste of chopping down a live tree for a couple weeks’ enjoyment, just to toss it out again. It looks like the real thing and is storable.

I do a LOT of upcycling crafts, and this past week I had a creative streak; our church will be having a creche display, and they asked me if I could have some items to sell when visitors come. I made dozens of tin ornaments, and have on hand a few dozen plarn bags to sell as well.

Besides such preparations, I’ve begun planning for our family Christmas dinner, which will be here this year, as requested by my nieces (they stay overnight, and take over the upper floor for a party). A few years ago, on a whim, I decided to make a traditional American Christmas dinner with turkey & co. (I would have gone for British, but couldn’t get a goose at the butcher’s or find Christmas crackers), and they wanted that once again. The first time I prepared it, I ordered the largest turkey I could get, which was 3 kg. (~6.5 lbs.); for 15 people, that was WAY too much!! But try as I might, I couldn’t find instructions anywhere online for such a small bird on American sites; the lowest end of their cooking time graphs started at 8-12 lbs. [An interesting note: IKEA had to make American dining tables much larger than they sell in Europe, and it’s mainly due to the load of food served at their holidays, including the size of the turkey; in fact, they had to supersize everything for America, from drinking glasses to chairs to sofas…]

I managed to get the turkey cooked in time, and I made notes for the next round. But in that process, I recognized many cultural differences between what I grew up with in America, and what I am used to, having lived in Europe for over 30 years: The simpler approach to the season of Christmas, not only in decorations but in the whole materialistic aspect. Here, it’s not about the biggest, the brightest, the loudest, or the most; it’s about family, friends, taking time with loved ones, and eating a nice meal that won’t break the bank or the scales! Our Christmas decorations and lights fit into 2 boxes; my mother recently told me about helping one woman decorate her home for Christmas; she had an entire walk-in closet filled with hundreds of decorative pillows, and her basement was lined with shelves for nothing but her seasonal decorations… mercy me – that woman’s collection could decorate dozens of Swiss homes.  If that’s what makes someone enjoy Christmas, then so be it; but it’s not for me!

Some people dislike the fact that Christmas decorations and sale items have already appeared in stores here, but I don’t mind it this early – I can get my shopping done before the first of December (including advent calendar gifts, and Samichlaussäckli fillings [6 December]), and leave the last-minute panic up to others. If you haven’t begun preparations for the season, you might think about how you want to celebrate Christmas, and perhaps find ways to avoid stress or trying to keep up with the Joneses.  In the meantime, I’ll share a few ideas for upcycling crafts and decorations – make it yourself and save money, spare the environment and natural resources, and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something with your hands! For more ideas, check out my Pinterest boards.

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