A force field of goodness

RelicOfLoveHappy Valentine’s Day!

I took this photo of a relic of St. Valentine in Santa Maria en Cosmedin Church in Rome. I hadn’t expected such a find, and in fact there are many more similar wonders in Rome. This invites more thought about the purpose of relics, especially given my interest in the Middle Ages.

Goodness is transferable, according to the medieval theory of relics. And who doesn’t want to be good?

During the early years of Christianity, the remains of martyrs were frequently interred in church altars to lend their holiness and protection and to work miracles.

But in the Middle Ages, saintly remains, along with feathers from angel wings, griffin eggs, or slivers of the True Cross, acquired another power: they radiated a goodness force field that could forgive sins and improve souls. Everyone wanted to keep a relic near them to cut down their years in Purgatory, and collections grew in churches, monasteries, and royal chapel-museums. Frederick the Wise of Saxony, patron of Martin Luther, gathered 17,433 relics in a Wittenberg church housed in 12 galleries along the nave, where visitors could earn 128,000 years of indulgences simply by being piously present.

It seemed logical at the time. In those days, the world vibrated with spirits, magic, and divine intervention in a way that we in the 21st century may find beyond our understanding.

For example, the Black Death killed up to half the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351, a plague brought to Europe from the East by trade and spread by rats, fleas, and sneezes. At the time, some said it was punishment by God for sins, and prayer was the cure, but the College of Physicians in Paris said that the stars had battled the sun over India, drying out a great sea; the rotting fish had poisoned the air, and the poison had caused the plague. The College prescribed burning aromatic wood so its smoke would drive away the bad air.

Those were the days. The supernatural filled medieval life. Everyone knew that magical and divine signs and prophesies could come as dreams or natural phenomena, which were minutely analyzed. Statues wept and bled. A touch from a king or queen could cure diseases; so could the charm Abracadabra. A bit of blessed bread could keep away the devil and rabies. Those who couldn’t afford the rib of a saint or the horn of a unicorn could, at least, carry a rabbit’s foot.

Religious doctrines and medical science have moved far since those days.

Some churches still maintain relics because they believe them to be potential instruments for God’s miracles, but don’t expect automatic indulgences or magic just by being proximate to one. Modern science says that the bubonic plague is caused by a bacillus, and aromatherapy is not the preferred prescription.

But making fun of the past is not the point of this musing. History can teach us as much about ourselves as about others. The history of relics shows the extremes that people will go to and the things that they will believe in their search for goodness and health. And today, who doesn’t want to be healthy and good? What extremes do we take for it?

The Original Catholic Encyclopedia: Relics
Catholic Answers: Relics

P.S. It’s also possible that St. Valentine is in Madrid, Spain, as this article by Felicity Hughes explains.

“Semiosis” release: a few links

My novel Semiosis was released last week on February 6. Here are a few things I wrote about the novel and the ideas behind it. If you’re interested in reviews of the book, you can find them here at the Semiosis website.

I wrote a column about the novel for John Scalzi’s Big Idea series at his blog, Whatever, asking who is in charge of the plant where you live?

At the Tor/Forge blog, I answer the question of whether your neglected houseplants want revenge. Short answer: no. Consider the fate of the osage orange…

For Mary Robinette Kowal’s website, I share “My Favorite Bit” about Semiosis. I describe how to imagine a big scary monster.

At the Chicago Review of Books, I talk about where science fiction writers get their ideas, specifically how Semiosis started with an episode involving my houseplants, and how I developed that observation into a novel.

On an entirely different subject — that is, not the novel — at the That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing Tor blog, I discuss Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and why, as a translator, I would utterly love to translate aliens, and why personal experience has made me believe in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Book signing at Anderson’s on February 8, followed by a party with the “Human Survival” cocktail

I’ll be signing my novel Semiosis at 7 p.m. Thursday, February 8, at Anderson’s Bookshop La Grange, 26 S. La Grange Road in Chicago’s western suburbs.

More information about the event and bookshop is here.

If that were not enough, the restaurant around the corner, forteensixteen, has offered to host an after-signing party. It will feature a cocktail inspired by the book called “Human Survival,” and draft wines and beer for $5 all night — in addition to their regular food and drink menu.

If you’re in western Chicagoland, I hope you can come! I’m already thirsty.

“Semiosis” Book launch February 6

Cover_WebSizedVolumes Bookcafé will host a book launch party for my novel Semiosis at 7 p.m. Tuesday, February 6. Volumes is at 1474 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

While you’re there, you can browse their carefully curated books: great new books, classics, and local authors. And you can enjoy a tasty menu of baked goods, quality espresso drinks, and an array of local beer and wine. Try their special mixed drinks! I speak from experience. Or come early and check out their Sip and Stitch craft group.

You can get more information about the book launch and RSVP here.

By the way, you can pre-order a signed copy of Semiosis from Volumes’ website — and they ship anywhere.

The American Writers Museum

AWM_PrimaryLogo_195x195As a writer, I was skeptical. The American Writers Museum, which opened in May 2017 here in Chicago, says it’s all about “Celebrating American Writers Past & Present. The first museum of its kind in the nation!” Well, there’s only one exclamation point. They might know punctuation, at least.

This museum is housed on the second floor of the Crain Communications Building downtown, 180 N. Michigan Ave., in an area frequented by tourists. Adult admission is $12; by comparison, the Field Museum costs $36 (but you can see Sue the T. Rex [not named after me]). What would you see at a writer museum? An animatronic guy typing?

Because that’s what we writers do, we sit around and write.

It turns out you can actually do that – write – at the American Writers Museum. There are cushy sofas and chairs, and pencils, pens, paper, and even old typewriters in working order sitting out to be used. And there are shelves of books if you’d rather read. The advertising says that “through dynamic state-of-the-art exhibitions” the museum “educates, provokes, and inspires visitors of all ages.” What it might actually do is encourage dedicated readers and writers to read and write even more.

You enter through glass doors and pay at a desk in the midst of a small gift shop, turn right, and start your visit. When I visited, a special exhibit called “Palm” celebrated poet W.S. Merwin and his palm garden in Hawaii. It tries to recreate the garden with real potted plants giving off the scent of wet earth and live greenery. Loudspeakers play outdoor sound effects and, if you push a button, you can hear poetry read aloud. Or you can read texts displayed on the walls.

At one end of the long room, a desk with paper invites you to write your own poem, and Mr. Merwin will compost the paper and feed it to the palms: your poetry will have a guaranteed consumer. The museum gives you the sights, smells, and sounds of a garden. And a prompt: if it were the last day of your life, why would you plant a tree? So I wrote a poem.

Another area, the Children’s Literature Gallery, contains playful exhibits about famous books such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It also has comfy sofas and shelves of books. Sit down, read a book – or have your dad read to you if you’re still learning the alphabet. (Kids 12 and younger get in to the museum free.)

American Voices, a 60-foot long presentation, is a “multilayered exhibit wall [that] takes visitors on a journey through the literary history of the United States. Trace the development of the American voice with the 100 emblematic and influential authors.” That exhibit faces a wall with 100 boxes showcasing selected works. Context saves this from superficiality: the exhibit details how writers and their works fit into US history, how authors’ inspirations and aspirations changed, and how a truly American approach to writing developed over time.

I spent a while watching short videos about how Edgar Allan Poe’s “urban shock” stories led to a new kind of detective story and a new way to write about city life. I could have spent a lot more time investigating other writing topics with touch screens and moving exhibits. The museum seems small, but it has a lot of depth to share.

A temporary exhibit when I was there displayed the brittle, yellowed scroll Jack Kerouac used 60 years ago to type the novel On the Road. You could study his corrections and edits – and margin changes, since apparently the roll shifted sideways a bit as he continuously typed.

The Readers Hall is just that: displays about books, shelves of books, and sofas and chairs. I grabbed a book of 2016’s best essays, sat down, and read for a while.

The Mind of a Writer area contains the aforementioned typewriters, pencils, and paper. You can write, post work on a story wall, and add to an online story of the day.

In other parts of the museum, you can watch and listen to the hypnotic Word Waterfall, study writing techniques, and play writing games, such as an electronic form of poetry magnets. The museum ends with a display showing where writers and readers connected and still connect in Chicago, and information about the city’s iconic writers.

Finally, there’s a small, writing-oriented gift shop. One thing that would make the museum better would be a coffee bar, but a sign warns: “No food and drink in the museum.” However, you can buy an American Writers Museum mug to take home.

My visit held none of the boredom of watching a writer at work. I even learned a thing or two. I bought a little book of writing prompts on my way out, and chose a free bookmark.

The museum holds regular events: a children’s author story time, workshops, and author readings and signings. On February 15, will host a Read Dating, which is like Speed Dating, but you can look for potential partners who love the same books as you.

Though small, the museum has a niche it aims to fill. I think it can do that.