The Whirligig of Time

Every once in a while, I come across something that seems at odds with the history I’ve learned. Admittedly I’m the product of an older, more gendered Zeitgeist, and in the intervening years, have struggled to accept what I might once have termed historical revisionism. Each epoch seems to want to believe its own version of the past and interprets artifacts -whether newly discovered, or housed in dark drawers in museums- accordingly. Traditionally, of course, history has been written by the victors -the powerful- and so it has always been a matter of conjecture how accurately ethnographical descriptions of the time, captured the lived reality of the era.

It is often tempting, either through lack of sufficient historically corroborative evidence, or currently prevailing attitudes, to denigrate the achievements of women in the past. Evidence of the contrary, must needs run a gauntlet of well-entrenched, and therefore not entirely impartial judges. The current of paradigms run deep and largely unnoticed until challenged, and the resulting turbulence, no matter how insightful and epiphanous, can nonetheless be unsettling.

How can history change if it has already occurred? Is it merely interpretational -like the apocryphal two people crossing the same bridge seeing different bridges? Or more nuanced, more coloured by our present day conceits than we would like to think -the hammer judging everything to be a nail?

Sometimes a sturdier explanation arises from evidence being viewed with modern and, hopefully, more objective techniques -techniques like, say, DNA, or perhaps, sophisticated chemical analyses which largely remove any subjective biases.

One such study I discovered while strolling through the various online magazines to which I am habituated, seemed unusually compelling. It was an article written by Sarah Zhang in the Atlantic that outlined how the analysis of dental plaque in the remains of a medieval woman revealed the existence of hitherto unexpected female scribes in what had been seen as an almost exclusively male profession. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/the-woman-with-lapis-lazuli-in-her-teeth/579760

A brilliant blue was found in the dental tartar of a 1000 year old woman buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. ‘It was ultramarine … a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts… [T]hese embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.’

Anita Radini from the University of York, and her co-author Christina Warinner, a microbiome researcher at the Max Planck Institute were actually looking for other things, but became captivated by the blue particles on the teeth.

Alison Beach, an historian at Ohio State University who studies female scribes from 12th century Germany has cataloged the overlooked contributions of women to medieval book production and she noted that ‘while most manuscripts with signatures are signed by men, the vast majority of manuscripts are unsigned. But a small number of surviving manuscripts are signed by women, and scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns about book production.’

The question about the lapis lazuli was obviously how it got into the woman’s dental plaque in the first place, though. Was it through some sort of medicine, or even from devotional kissing the of the manuscript? Both of these things were ruled out by knowledge of contemporary practices, and the fact that the particles were particularly fine suggested that ‘the stones were purposefully made into pigment.’

Finally, it was concluded that ‘two scenarios are most likely: The woman was a painter who could have ingested ultramarine paint while licking her brush to a point, or she breathed in the powder while preparing pigment for herself or someone else.’

Either way, though, the findings are certainly evidence of the largely unreported roll of women in medieval life -and the respect accorded them in their areas of expertise. Admittedly, in this case the scriptors and illustrators were nuns, and presumably more educated than the vast majority of feudal peasants of the time outside of their walls -and yet, so were most of the men in the grips of that same system.

Given the intellectual equality of the genders, I wonder how much more there is about historical women we do not yet appreciate. Since women were not usually allowed to sign the religious scripts on which they had worked, how many other things were they contributing that has been lost to time? I cannot believe that men when confronted with problems, whether in trade or everyday practical issues, would not consult with their wives for solutions -especially if survival was at stake.

Of course, special cases like Hildegard von Bingen spring all too easily to mind. She was a German Benedictine abbess living between 1098 and 1179, and so roughly contemporaneous with the lapis woman (whose bones were dated to between 997 and 1162). As Wikipedia describes her, she was a ‘writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.’ I have to admit that I only became acquainted with her because of her music, not her numerous other talents, but the very fact that she was able to be fêted in her own time despite her apparent lack of instruction in ‘the Seven Liberal Arts, which formed the basis of all education for the learned classes in the Middle Ages’ encourages me to think that others, albethey less well known, were also able to succeed along with her.

Still, I suppose we may have to await future discoveries to appreciate just how much women in less publicized arenas contributed to the well-being of their families, or the success of their husbands engaged in other endeavours.

But hurray for teeth, eh…?

We Know Not What We May Be

There are times when we only seem to hear in sentences, and forget that their meaning and colour is dependent on the words –it’s like ignoring the rivers that feed a lake. It’s like assuming that the story of a wall is written in the bricks we notice, not the mortar we don’t. History can become like that, too: a sentence, a reality -until we parse the words that is. Each word.

Take, for example, women in the workforce. Until relatively recently, their collective contribution was both underestimated, and definitely undervalued. In fact, if there was anything for which they were eminently suited other than family matters or, perhaps, a subordinate role in cleaning and food preparation, it was seldom apparent in the prevailing ethos. But, like the image on a developing photograph, it was there, but blurred. Hard to see… and yet there, however indistinct.

The invisible is all around us –like the nuns. And, as an abstract from a 2005 issue of Women’s History Review informs us, ‘Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in negotiating the boundaries of religious life […]Prescriptive literature gave one model of womanhood, married life, with a second model, single life, clearly an inauspicious alternative. Women religious provided a different model and created a religious, occupational and professional identity that varied from the prescriptive literature of the day.’ –the workplace, in other words. We see the world but through a glass darkly, indeed; maybe change is the only constant. There are none so blind as those who will not see. A BBC article forced me to look again: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170908-the-extraordinary-undervalued-work-of-nuns

‘Becoming a nun [was] not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. […]But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice.’

It would be too much to expect that their rewards would be commensurate with their worth, but rewards come in different forms. ‘Revelations of women being paid less than men for doing the same job make it clear that society has a serious issue when it comes to valuing women’s work. Nuns offer a unique insight into how work is divided between the sexes and rewarded accordingly.’

In fact, in spite of the widely held belief in the subordinate and often inadequate abilities of women at the time, ‘The testimonies I [the author: Flora Derounian] collected shared many commonalities, the most striking of which is the contrast to the existences of most other women living in the epoch between 1947 and 1965, otherwise known as “the era of the housewife”.’ So, for example, ‘[…] interviewees had founded communities in rural Burundi, housed victims of civil war, and set up pharmacies in the Pakistani desert. Many others had taught in schools, cared for the elderly, worked with drug addicts, or given communion and comfort to the dying.’

The article reminded me of  the time I found  myself sitting beside a nun on the bus a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they even took buses, but maybe that’s because many of them nowadays are like unmarked police cars –you don’t know until they catch you unawares. Anyway, I don’t know that I was so much caught as observed, staring at the Bible she was reading. Well, more likely the spreadsheet under it on her lap. The combination seemed jarring.

I could see her smiling as she noticed my interest. “Is it the Bible, or the spreadsheet that caught your eye?” she said with a mischievous grin. A short woman with even shorter auburn hair, she was wrapped in a dark grey raincoat, and except for the oversized briefcase at her feet, looked like any other person on the bus.

I have to admit I was embarrassed at the question and I think I shrugged. “Oh…” I tried to think of a quick answer. “… Is that a Bible?” Stupid thing to say, and my face immediately reddened.

I could swear she winked at me before I hastily withdrew my eyes, though.

“I prefer the King James, but my Order decided to go modern over traditional…”

“So… what…?”

“New Jerusalem Bible…” She watched me for a second. “Less literary, I’m afraid, but more literal… Maybe they chose it because it’s also more gender neutral. Anyway, I use it for work now and then.”

I allowed my eyes to hover around her face for a moment and then called them home.

“We like to believe we were the first feminists, but…” she studied my reaction with a steady, almost practiced gaze, and then relented. “… It depends on the motherhouse, of course. I was fortunate, as it turns out.”

“Oh? And why is that?” I said, hypnotized by her eyes. And her voice was so soft and reassuring, I couldn’t help smiling. She could have sold me tundra in the far north and I would have felt honoured.

“We’re allowed to work in the world at large, as long as we donate our salaries to the Order.” I could see her watching my eyes hover above the spreadsheet. “I find it’s easier to work with this,” she said, touching the paper, “rather than booting up my computer on the bus.”

“I see,” I said, pretending I actually did. “So… Are you an accountant, or…?”

Her eyes twinkled and she giggled softly. “Why don’t you try to guess?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. An office manager? A bookie…?”

We both laughed. “Nobody gets it right,” she said and shrugged as if it wasn’t all that mysterious nowadays. “I started a company with a group of my sister nuns…” She glanced out of the window to see if the bus was approaching her stop. “We’re a compassionate order serving single moms and homeless or troubled girls in the city and we -okay I– thought maybe we could be more proactive about it. Should be, in fact…”

I sat up straighter in my seat as she pulled the cord for the next stop. “How, can you be proactive about that?”

A mischievous smile gradually surfaced and she winked again –this time for sure- as she stood up to squeeze past me. “I’m the CEO of an online dating service,” she said and squeezed my left hand naughtily as she reached the aisle. “No ring, eh?” she whispered, and handed me her card.

I glanced at it as the bus pulled away again. There was just one word, Inundate, superimposed over a picture of a large crowd. Clever.

I’m tempted to send in a profile…

The Stealing Steps of Age

Elderspeak. We’ve all heard it: baby-talk for seniors, an almost unconscious reaction to those we deem cognitively impaired, or hopelessly out of date. It’s a kind of pretend-communication with those who seem unreceptive, or beyond the pale of verbal comprehension.

Although the term is aptly descriptive and eerily evocative of rows of beds with wrinkled heads whose staring eyes peek out from where their bodies are tucked, I have to admit I had not heard the word before seeing an article in the CBC News. It described a study published in The Gerontologist about the way a group of nuns cared for their elderly colleagues from their convent: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/nuns-elderly-1.4039508

‘The sisters caring for cognitively impaired elderly nuns in a Midwestern convent spoke to their care recipients in a way that sounded strikingly different to linguistic anthropologist Anna Corwin. The nuns rarely used “elderspeak” — a loud, slow, simple, patronizing and common form of baby talk for seniors. Instead, Corwin reports, they told jokes, stories and blessed the sick nuns, all the while speaking to them like they were completely capable, even though their ability to communicate was significantly diminished.’

‘The nuns in the infirmary suffered from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, aphasia, stroke and neurological deterioration, and all had limited or impaired communication abilities. Sometimes the caregiver nuns held the sick nuns’ hands, and sometimes they massaged their legs, Corwin said.’

It all sounds so… sensible. So empathetic. And yet, so often we are frustrated by our apparent inability to effectively communicate that elderspeak becomes a sort of default –almost as if those to whom we are speaking are not really listening, or, depending on their condition, are minimally aware of our presence. And this can be especially prevalent among overworked care providers in geriatric wards.

‘Kristine Williams, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Nursing in Kansas City, trains nursing home providers to use less elderspeak. Her studies found that communication training can reduce the number of diminutives, terms of endearments and collective pronouns senior caregivers use.’ But training to do what?

The nuns offer an interesting option. ‘The caregiver nuns had long-established deep relationships with their elder charges, Williams noted. “They are in almost a family-like relationship, as opposed to someone who’s a nursing assistant in a home,” she said.’ And what they offered, was not condescension or inadvertent humiliation. Not patronage or mere toleration. ‘”They see these older adults, even when they’re lying in bed moaning and can’t move, as not being reduced by these chronic conditions but still as whole individuals.”’

The study was an interesting one, and yet its findings should not surprise us. ‘Beauty doth varnish age, as if newborn, and gives the crutch the cradle’s infancy’ as Shakespeare said. In other words, finding beauty in old age can transform it and make it bearable –in this case both for the aged as well as the caregiver.

Now that I think about it, I suspect I learned that years ago when I was a beginning medical student and visiting my aunt Shirley who was hospitalized after a stroke. She was stored –that’s the only word to describe it- in an older part of an already-old hospital on a ward –a large room, really- lined on both walls with beds like a dormitory. And for the most part, as I described above, all one could see looking down the rows were heads peeking out from neatly tucked bedsheets, white hair splayed across the pillows or stuck to the scalp with sweat. Some had eyes that moved, but mostly it was a room of mouths –none speaking, all busy with just the chore of breathing.

Shirley was one of the exceptions, propped as she was by a series of pillows and a cloth bib whose tethers kept her from tipping over the bed railings and onto the floor. Her voice was slurred and indistinct, so I had trouble hearing what she had to say, but I could tell she was getting better because she was complaining about the woman in the bed next to hers.

“There’s nothing there,” she kept saying, her eyes pointed at the head beside her that was staring, unblinking, at the ceiling. “They’ve put me in an empty room, dear, and I don’t like it.”

My aunt had always been gregarious, some might even say nosy, so to be confined to a room where she couldn’t extract vital gossip and life histories, was a type of exile for her. A punishment.

“You seem to have improved each time I come here,” I said, trying to cheer her up. For my part, the ward depressed me. “They’re obviously treating you well,” I added, quickly running out of small talk.

Part of her mouth smiled, but most of her face seemed still asleep. Not at all happy.

“Your aunt is improving, sir,” a soft voice said from behind me.

I turned and saw a short, smiling, grey-haired nurse dressed in white trousers and a white shirt buttoned up to his neck. His eyes were twinkling, and he was gazing at my aunt as if he, too, was proud of what she’d accomplished. There weren’t very many male nurses then, so I was surprised. “I expect they’ll be transferring you to another ward, soon, Shirl,” he added locking her eyes in his and ignoring me for a moment. “So quit complaining, eh?” He chuckled when he saw her smile broaden and the rest of her face follow suit. He reached out and squeezed her toe through the sheet and wandered off to check on the next bed. Shirley giggled, obviously pleased.

I could hear the nurse talking to that unresponsive woman in the next bed, although he spoke quietly. First, he tilted his head to stare at the ceiling above her bed. Then, he smiled. “You know, Liz, I figure you must have much better eyes than me…” He liberated a skeletal arm whose flesh hung from it like curtains on a window and held it tenderly. “…Because no matter how often I look, I still can’t see whatever it is that you find so interesting up there.” He gently squeezed her hand. “We’re gonna have to discuss this over a beer someday, eh?”

Her face didn’t change, but her breathing seemed a little less laboured. A little slower. More even. “Anyway, is there anything you need me to help you with today?” he said as he ever so gently massaged her arm then flexed and relaxed her fingers. When he’d finished with that arm, he tucked it under the sheets again and repeated the exercise on the other. “I’m going to come back and move you into a different position in a few minutes, Liz, so don’t get too comfortable like that, eh?” He loosened the sheets around her and raised the railings around the bed again that guarded her from falling. “And I’m going to make sure that physiotherapist you like comes with me to massage your legs.” He winked at her flirtatiously and gave her leg a squeeze through the sheet.

“He might as well be talking to the pillow,” Shirley whispered, as he busied himself with the railing. “All she does is stare at the ceiling. She doesn’t seem to notice when I talk to her…”

“So wait for me, Liz. I don’t want to have to go looking all over the ward for you again,” he said, laughing, and wandered off to yet another bed.

“I do like Bill,” Shirley said when he was out of earshot. “He treats us all like family –like we matter.” She was silent for a moment and then, just when I was about to leave, she managed to snag me with her good hand. “But I don’t know how he stays so cheerful here. I think half of the patients don’t even know he’s talking to them.” And her eyes wandered over to the woman in the next bed again. “It must be terribly discouraging for him, don’t you think?”

I glanced at the woman, and for a moment, I thought I saw her eyes flicker as if they were searching for something. Someone. And then, a tear? But maybe it was just a trick of the light, because, as her face relaxed a tiny bit, they closed and she began to snore. Not loudly, not as if she couldn’t breathe –but quietly, comfortably, and slipped from the waking dream, into yet another more peaceful one further inside.