Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hometown tourist - with history.

If I ever had a yen to write historical fiction, I'd never need to leave Alexandria. This city is steeped in history.

It starts well before the colonial period, with Native Americans who lived here as long as 13,200 years ago. Someone even found a Clovis spear point on a riverside bluff near the southern edge of the city -- during an archaeological dig for a different purpose: to find and mark the locations of the graves of free African-Americans who were buried at the site around the time of the Civil War.

Anyway, the city of Alexandria was founded in 1749. It's named for John Alexander, a Scotsman who owned much of the land on which the oldest part of the city was built. George Washington had a townhouse in what's now Old Town. He took his meals at Gadsby's Tavern around the corner, and had a pew at Christ Church. His townhouse is gone, but there's a marker where it used to be.

Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army in the Civil War, grew up in Alexandria. His boyhood home in Old Town was on the market for quite some time, but it's not for sale now.

And speaking of the Civil War, the city has preserved one of the forts built in the mid 1800s as a defensive perimeter for Washington, DC. Fort Ward now houses a museum, an outdoor amphitheater, and picnic areas. My kids attended Girl Scout day camp there. I've driven through it lots of times, but I'd never gone off the road until today.

The park preserves a lot of the fort's military fortifications. A majority of the defensive earthworks are still visible. Here's one of the ditches.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020
And the Northwest Bastion has been restored to its original condition. The outer walls are impressive.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

The white stuff you see on top of the bank are cannon emplacements. Here's what it looks like from inside.

Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

Note the "NO SLEDDING" signs. The city tries to keep people off the embankments to keep them from eroding, but of course it's a losing battle. I saw kids climbing all over them when I was there today.

Those embankments reminded me of the other earthworks I've seen, paticularly the ones built by  Hopewell culture in Ohio. The ones at Fort Ward weren't meant to be ceremonial, of course, and they were never used as burial mounds. It just struck me how humans have been heaping up earth for various purposes for millennia.
Copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

After the war, and for the next 100 years, the land Fort Ward was built on became an African-American neighborhood known as The Fort. A lot of the folks who lived there worked at the Episcopal seminary and school nearby. They had their own schoolhouse and Baptist church. The church cemetery is still at Fort Ward, as well as the remnants of a family cemetery, but other physical reminders of that time are gone. The community was torn down and all who lived there were displaced when the city turned the land into a park in the 1960s -- a troubling history of a different sort of war.

These moments of historical blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Politics as spectator sport.

Does it seem to you like this presidential campaign has been going on forever? It does to me. The first debate among the Democratic presidential candidates was in June. It was a two-night event because they couldn't cram all of the 20 candidates who qualified onto the stage at once. Remember that? Tons of candidates have already dropped out -- and we're just now, finally, getting into primary season.

As usual, the media are treating the campaign like a horse race. Pundits quote the latest polls and project a winner, never mind that the general election is almost nine months away. And the talking heads pontificate endlessly on which candidate is most electable, never mind that the most reliable indicator of electability is winning the election.

It's almost like the candidates' platforms don't matter. The players are warming up and the bookies have set the odds. Place your bets, people! And may the best horse -- uh, candidate -- win!

marjan4782 | Deposit Photos

I'm nowhere near the first person to notice the way we treat politics like a spectator sport in this country. But there's a political scientist at Tufts University named Eitan Hersh who maintains a lot of us treat it like a hobby. And he wrote a book about it. It's called Politics is for Power, and it got him an interview on NPR's Hidden Brain this past week.

Hersh says a lot of us watch news shows and "news" shows on TV not just to be informed, but also to be entertained. The line has blurred between politicians and celebrities -- helped along by our current celebrity president, of course, but it's been blurring for a long time. President Reagan was an actor before he moved into the White House. And I could name others. Remember the WWF wrestler who became governor of Minnesota?

The problem, though, is we've become interested in political figures the same way we are in celebrities. We're not tuning in for substantive coverage of the issues, but for what amounts to gossip.

Hersh also observes people are more interested in the presidential race than they are in their local government. He makes it sound like that's a new thing, but I first noticed it at least 30 years ago. It's too bad, too, because while local issues are often boring (if you have trouble sleeping, I recommend attending a meeting of your local planning and zoning board -- you'll be snoring in no time), they're the ones that have the most direct impact on your life.

It's not that Congress and the President don't make decisions that affect you. They do. But if your city council decides to replace the storm sewers on your block, that will hit you a lot quicker.

Hersh says he thinks of politics as neither horse race nor hobby, but as a way to help people have a better life. For my money, that beats celebrity gossip any day.

These moments of bloggy armchair politicking have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

It's full of stars.

yabadene belkacem | CC0 | Pixabay
I'm in taking an online course related to Paganism. It's being taught by John Beckett, a Druid priest who blogs on the Patheos Pagan channel. The class is called "Building a New Myth: Scientific, Animist, and Polytheist Foundations for the Future."

Come back here! It's not as weird as it sounds!

Did you notice the word "scientific" in there? You may be surprised to learn that unlike followers of certain other religions, Pagans have no trouble with science. Paganism is, after all, a nature religion (broadly speaking), and science defines -- or attempts to define -- things that happen in the natural world. We're good with that. Honest.

What we don't have, unlike those other religions, is a book of mythology that everyone adheres to. And here I'm using mythology not in the popular sense of myths being lies, but in the formal sense of myths being stories that underpin a religious or cultural tradition. Pagans don't have a shared mythology. Celtic Reconstructionists have Irish myths and the Mabinogion, Asatruar have the Eddas, and so on -- but we don't have one single book that tells us how to live. So the intent of the course I'm taking is to help each of us develop our own personal mythos, which we can then use as a touchstone for ethical behavior.

With me so far? Okay. So last week's module was about astronomy, among other things. For homework, we were encouraged to find an app that uses a phone's camera to pick out stars in the sky, even if they're not visible, and then go outside, observe the sky for a little while, and write our impressions of the experience. I really liked what I wrote, so I'm sharing an edited version with you.

La Casa Cantwell is in a very urban area. (Feel free to refer to my Facebook post earlier today of photos of our neighborhood.) Light pollution here is so bad that we regularly play the "Is that a star or an airplane?" game. About the only heavenly body we can reliably see is the moon. So the phone app was a revelation -- all those stars we can't see from here! No wonder modern humans tend to think of ourselves as the only thing that matters in the universe; we look up and see a vast blankness where the ancients saw billions of stars.

Although maybe it's not just modern folks. People in Galileo's time didn't have any problem believing themselves the center of the universe either, despite their lack of light pollution. Of course, they didn't know -- or didn't believe, or couldn't imagine -- that each star they saw was a sun, maybe with orbiting planets that were home to other forms of life.

Which brings me back to our modern world, in which we can imagine such a thing, but still we have trouble wrapping our brains around the vastness of space. Science posits that the universe began in a Big Bang, and we are still rushing away from that explosion. But what was before the Big Bang? Where did the matter that exploded -- the stuff in that infinitely dense point -- come from? What if the matter that makes up our universe has always existed?

"What's at the edge of our galaxy?" is a similar question. Does our galaxy have an edge? What is it like? Is it impenetrable or permeable? And if there is in fact an edge or boundary, what's on the other side? More galaxy? ("Moar galaxieeeee!") Or maybe -- shudder -- nothing at all? Or maybe -- bigger shudder -- it has always been here and will always be here.

Humans are linear thinkers, and our science demands a beginning point and an end point. Some of those other religions also require a beginning point and an end point. I'm thinking of one in particular, where God begins the world two different ways in Genesis (look it up) and ends it with an apocalypse in Revelations.

Modern Pagans haven't bothered with developing creation myths like the ones in Genesis. I think that's because our concept of time is different. We think of it as not linear, but as a wheel that keeps turning. We're okay with believing that the stuff of our universe was always here.

But back to science: It ain't perfect. Let's face it, the scientific method is useless for determining how the universe began. We cannot create an experiment to replicate the Big Bang -- we simply don't know enough about the variables that existed then. And what if the Big Bang is followed by a Big Squish, in which the universe snaps back like a rubber band to that singular point?

We don't know. Nobody knows. We're all just guessing.

So we make up stories about how it all went down. Or we write a poem. Or we create a myth. When faced with unanswerable questions, it's the best we can do.

These moments of bloggy wonder have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Imbolc is upon us.

While y'all are busy with your sportsball game (I'm rooting for the team in red*), I'll return to a topic that I've written about a couple of times before: the Pagan sabbat of Imbolc.

You may have seen some stuff on Facebook that yesterday was the day. And so it is, I guess, in Ireland, where the whole thing started. And the Catholic Church celebrates St. Brighid's Day on February 1st. But I'd always thought the Pagan holiday was the 2nd.

By definition, Imbolc is the day halfway between the winter solstice, otherwise known as Yule, and the spring equinox, or Ostara. It turns out that if you're calculating the exact midpoint between the astronomical winter solstice and the astronomical spring equinox, the midpoint can be anywhere from February 2nd through the 7th. Last year, according to this website, it fell on February 4th in the UK; this site has an interactive chart that shows Imbolc was on the 3rd last year in North America and on the 4th this year.

We Americans like to keep the dates of our holidays simple, though -- which is why, long ago, we moved every public holiday we could to a Monday. So let's just pick a day, shall we? I'm calling it Imbolc today.

Spring, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo | Wikimedia Commons
Another oddity: In Ireland, Imbolc is considered the first day of astronomical spring. Ireland's weather benefits from warm ocean currents that bring a lot of rain (and here we all thought Ireland was so green by the grace of God) but also mostly mild temperatures. So while a lot of North Americans are usually shivering in our boots and parkas in early February, in Ireland the snowdrops have begun to bloom and the ewes are pregnant and getting ready to give birth. The modern name for Imbolc derives from the Irish word imbolg, which means "in the belly."

That gives me a natural segue to Brighid -- who, after her saintly remodeling, was said to be the midwife at the birth of Jesus. As amazing (and very likely untrue) as that is, the Irish pagan goddess was pretty amazing in her own right. Goddess of medicine she was, and of poets, and of smithcraft. And like the Greek goddess Hecate, Brighid is also a goddess of crossroads.

I was thinking earlier this week about how well all those things fit together. When you get right down to it, they are all creative paths. Smiths use fire to transform raw metals into useful and beautiful things. Poets and writers use the "fire in the belly" to fuel their creative endeavors. And midwives ease the births of new humans, each possessing their own spark of life.

Are you sensing a theme here? Have I mentioned that Brighid is a fire goddess?

I'm honestly not sure how the crossroads thing works into the legend. But if you're at a crossroads in your life, you can ask Brighid in meditation for help in deciding which way to go. I've done this a few times over the years and I can tell you it works.

Blessed Imbolc, everyone.

*(Both teams this year have red uniforms. It's a joke, people.)

I've been pretty fired up lately over making new covers for the Elemental Keys series. The books will all have new titles, too. I'm hoping Amazon will let me keep the series title, but we'll see how that goes. In any case, stay tuned for the relaunch and the release of Book 4!

These moments of fiery blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.