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The Monster’s Doctor

Mary Shelley’s horror story, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is a classic examination of the ‘science vs. religion’ debate. Written during the Industrial Revolution, Doctor Victor Frankenstein is so taken by the technological achievements of the time he forgets the soul of his creation; his Monster, and ultimately loses all he loves as a result.

Scientists conducting electrical experiments at the time certainly provided much of the inspiration for Shelley’s maniacal doctor, but one man is cited as a possible model for the theme of her novel.

1673 – 1734

Johann Conrad Dippel was born in Castle Frankenstein in south central Germany in the region of Hesse. As was the custom of the day, he acquried Franckensteinensis or Franckensteina-Strataemontanus as a surname and became forever linked to the place of his birth. He received a Master in Theology in 1693 at the University of Giessen where he also studied philosophy and alchemy and gained a prominent position among Europe’s intellectual elite.

Influenced by the Age of Reason while remaining a fervently religious man, Dippel authored several controversal theological papers under his nom de guerre; Christianus Democritus, a name that represented the duality of his views. In them he called for the demise of the traditional church organization and a rejection of the Bible as the literal word of God in favor of a more personal approach to faith. They were widely circulated throughout Europe and earned him both praise and criticism. One enthusiastic follower, Emanuel Swedenborg, later criticized him as a cultish opportunist who was “bound to no principles, but was in general opposed to all, whoever they may be, of whatever principle or faith…becoming angry with any one for contradicting him.” Swedenborg also accused Dippel of being the ‘most vile devil…who attempted wicked things.’ This opinion was surely based upon his suspected experiments in alchemy. In his Maladies and Remedies of the Life of the Flesh, Dippel announced his discovery of the ‘Elixir of Life’, as well as, a method to exorcise demons through potions produced from the boiled bones and flesh of animals. Even more alarming to the public were rumors of his attempts at ‘soul-tranference’ on human cadavers, where he was viewed as playing God on desecrated corpses.

In the end, it was reported by his contemporaries that after having been thoroughly trashed by the religious leaders of the day Dippel gave up his faith altogether, directing all his energy to his experiments in alchemy. He never backed down from his arguments or the experiments that he felt supported them and may have even actively encouraged rumors that he was in league with the Devil, having sold his soul to become a dark sorcerer.

So, in the end, Mary Shelley may have used this real-life ‘mad scientist’ as inspiration but the moral lesson she provided her Doctor Frankenstein was lost on Johann Conrad Dippel.

 

Russia: Uncensored

Russian writers, the great storytellers of the “Golden Age” of literature (18th & 19th century), were masters of observation. Their world was changing; rapidly and permanently. Western influence introduced to them during times of war provided them freedom of thought for the first time in their long history as a monarchy. In a matter of a few years the Russian intelligentsia absorbed the knowledge of over three hundred years of Enlightenment thought, innovations, and art. They became the catalyst for conversations on the rights of man and the role of church and state in the lives of their citizens. Suddenly, a feudal society’s eyes popped open from a deep sleep and they realized their dreams of freedom were real and within reach. It was a dyamic time, and a confusing one.

The great Russian writers of the “Golden Age”. Top row (from left): Leo Tolstoy, Dmitry Grigorovich, Bottom row (from left): Ivan Goncharov, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Druzhinin, and Alexander Ostrovsky

Because of their late arrival the Russian people were in a position to expand their knowledge base exponentially and soon conversations heard in the salons and receiving rooms of St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of Russia at the time, had become passionate with talk of the “rights of man”. Influence the church and state had over the middle class decreased and, as it did, their power went with it. The common man gained the ability to ask his own questions and decide his own beliefs for the first time in Russian history, and as they sipped their vodka they began to speak of revolution. They began to seek their freedom.

And a few wrote.

Government censors, focused solely on traditional news sources, weren’t quick enough to pick up the messages behind the storylines and this gave writers of fiction a way to move the conversations they were having privately forward into the mainstream. As a result, Russian literature stands to this day as some of the most important to our society, regardless of where your origins lie. By examining the human condition with compelling narratives these great Russian writers succeeded in questioning the way we live our lives. Questions that are still with us today.

In this Age of Information we’re facing another sweeping change to our culture, and this time its on a world-wide scale. The struggle governments are facing around the world are proof the status quo is changing once again. Think Arab Spring or the recent struggles in India and Turkey. It’s the same story but now a new element has been added; Globalization.

As a way to improve my own writing I’m reading and learning about these great Russian writers. The characters, plots, rhythms, styles and themes of Tolstoy, Checkov, Doestoevsky, Pushkin, and others. A side effect of this is a sideways glance into my own world through their eyes.

Blue Light Lady

Out on the cold, dark prairie a blue light appeared at the top of Sentinel Hill. As it grew in size everything else around us went pitch black until there were no trees, grass, or sky. Just an empty, black world. The light began to take on a human shape, with shadows defining its eyes, nose, and mouth. It was the Blue Light Lady.

The ghost of Elisabeth Polly is well known in Fort Hays. As the wife of Ephriam Polly, the frontier fort’s Hospital Steward during the cholera epidemic of 1867, she nursed the ailing soldiers until she succumbed to the infection and died a painful death . She was buried on Sentinel Hill with many of the outbreak’s other victims and marked with a limestone post that had long ago been stolen. Several sightings have been reported over the years, with one local policeman even fearing he’d accidentally hit a woman when he’d seen Elizabeth’s ghostly form in front of his squad car, only to mysteriously vanish when he stopped to help.

The apparition crested the hill and floated along the prairie like a stray tumbleweed. It paused once to glance up at the full moon, then continued on its descent toward our hiding spot in the bushes. As the blue light drew closer the shadows of her face became distinguishable features and the pattern of her long, prairie dress and bonnet came into view and even though the apparition faded before touching the ground, I heard footsteps shuffling through the dirt.

“She’s so beautiful,” my friend whispered.

Her head whipped around towards our hiding spot and Elizabeth Polly’s cold, dead eyes drilled into ours as her blue light faded. Moonlight suddenly lit up the pasture, revealing hulking shadows moving around us. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty huge black forms circling slowly in all directions.

Frozen in place by fear, we held onto each other as the shadows closed in. I squeezed my eyes shut. My friend’s fingertips dug into my arm, clutching me just as I was clutching her. The footsteps were heavy now, I could feel them stamping the earth nearby. My rapidly beating heart skipped when a whoosh of hot air blew the hair away from my face. I felt a touch on my head, soft and wet. Slowly, slowly, I raised my head and met the large, dark eyes of the beast. It opened its mouth and, from deep within its chest, a “moooo” rumbled to life.

Looking around, I saw that Elizabeth was gone and the pasture had been returned to the cows that lived on it. I patted the cow’s giant head as he sniffed my hair and said to my friend, “Let’s go home.”

***

The legend of Elizabeth Polly is true, as is Sentinel Hill. This story is a very embellished version of what I experienced when I tried to locate her gravesite. Wikipedia has a bit on Elizabeth’s story:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Polly

Rasta Beats

                         

Press play then return to read on…

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5O5xMx3qpo

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A voice; far off and tight…

“A rasta man…”

Others join in.

A bell.

Shaky voice; full of years…

People singing together,

Individually distinct.

Real…real…real…

They sing pain…

I feel it.

They sing family…

I feel it.

They sing home…

Jamaica

Africa

I feel it.

“They (Wingless Angels) play deliberately at just slightly under heart rate. The drumming goes deeper than your bones. It’s marrow music.”

– Keith Richards; producer for Mindless Records.

The music you’re listening to is called Niyabinghi (also binghi). It’s a style of chant that sprang from the Rastafarian resistance celebrations and went on to inspire popular ska, rocksteady, and reggae music. Comprised of three kinds of drums called “harps”; a single akete or “repeater”, a middle-pitched funde, and a bass striking loudly on the first beat and softly on the third of four counts, they create a smooth, comforting rhythm that is nearly hypnotic. The funde and bass keep regular rhythms, while the akete player improvises a conversation with his beats. Words, spoken or sung, during the chant are taken directly from Bible verses or well-known Christian hymns.

The African influence is easily heard in Niyabinghi but the style is considered to be a new sound that combines Jamaican traditions with a rediscovery of African drumming, rather than a direct continuation on traditional African rhythms. It is the religious music of Rasta followers and has been used by reggae’s legendary musician, Bob Marley.

I was introduced to Niyabinghi music through Keith Richards. Not in person–although that would be in the top five dream moments of my life–but rather through his promotion of a group called The Wingless Angels (that’s who you’re listening to now). He met them while living in Jamaica during the early 1970s and found the rhythms of the drumming to be a calming influence as he recuperated from a tour with the Rolling Stones.  For me, this meditative music helps me to reach the place where I can connect with the words that need to come out in a story. It slows me down and allows me to enter a world where I am free with the music of the Rastaman.

The Wingless Angels website: http://www.winglessangels.com/

The Mountain Strikes Back

Click play, then come back to read:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzntZLHcYy0

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The theater grows dark. On the screen a story begins to unfold, rolling out into a star filled galaxy,“It is a dark time for the Rebellion…”

My husband was eight years old in 1980 when “The Empire Strikes Back” came to his local theater in Portland, Oregon. He was already in love with the characters and the epic adventure that George Lucas was playing out in a galaxy far, far away. For two hours my husband was lost in this surreal world where the bad guys ruled and the good guys were the rebels.  It was a world unlike any other. A world formed by imagination and created by special effects.

But, unbeknownst to anyone inside the theater, the world outside was equally surreal and unimaginable–and it was created by nature over forty thousand years ago.

After spending a good part of the afternoon traveling through space with Luke, Han, and Chewie, my husband and his dad shuffled out of the theater to a sky filled with the volcanic ash of an erupting Mt. St. Helens. The world around them had suddenly turned grey; the sun dimmed behind a thick cloud that stretched across the entire sky. Under their feet a cushioning layer of pulverized rock and glass muted the sound of their footsteps as they ran to their car.

Talk about surreal.

It was a world  only a handful of people could witness in real life but I remember the news that came out of the Pacific Northwest that summer. In less than fifteen minutes the blast rose 80,000 feet into the air and in only three days the cloud had spread across the United States, circling the Earth twelve days later. Ash was found within a 22,000 square mile area, with a 10 inch depth of ash and pumice at 10 miles, 1 inch at 60 miles, and 0.5 inches at 300 miles downwind. Fifty-seven people perished in the blast and subsequent landslide, along with 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk and bear), and all the birds and small mammals in its path. Millions of dead fish cooked in the rivers and streams where temperatures rose to ninety degrees Fahrenheit from the hot ash that floated on top of the water. In the end hundreds of square miles of forest were destroyed, causing over a billion dollars in damage ($2.74 billion in 2012 dollars) and years of management to rebuild.

Mt. St. Helens experienced several smaller eruptions from 1989 to 1991, then quieted down for over a decade until the mountain became active again in late 2004, and stayed that way until January 2008. I had moved to Portland by then and secretly I was wishing for another big one to blow because I wanted to live in a surreal world, too. I wanted to walk out of a theater and “sense a great disturbance in the force”.

Find Your Own Way

I started a new book today. It’s about a woman adventurer named Emily Hahn and her spirit spoke to me in the very first paragraph.

Emily Hahn and her monkey, Mr. Mills.

“During the Great Depression, a male colleague cautioned Emily Hahn to “be careful” when she quit her $25-a-week teaching job, left New York and went looking for adventure in the African jungles. “I still don’t know what he meant,” she said sixty years later.”   – Emily Hahn: Nobody Told Me Not to Go by Ken Cuthbertson
 

Embarking on any new adventure will always invite detractors who, knowingly or not, have the potential to derail you from whatever it is that is calling your soul. Shut out those voices with all the energy you can muster because the words they speak are the same words they use to hold themselves in their own prisons of horrible jobs, relationships, etc. Each person is unique onto themselves and their goals in life should naturally reflect those differences. So, be supportive of your friends’ dreams while chasing down your own.

I’ll tell you more about this fascinating woman after I read the book.

The Pledge

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands-                     one nation indivisible-with liberty and justice for all.”

On September 8, 1892 the Boston based childrens’ magazine, “The Youth’s Companion”, published a patriotic pledge written by its circulation manager, Francis Bellamy. It was sent out to public schools across the country, which started the tradition of receiting “The Pledge of Alligence” every morning before class. After my own numerous receitations during my school years, I still remember the words today–although the version I was taught had an addition that wasn’t part of the original pledge.

Can you spot what phrase is missing?

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