I’m still here

92 years old, moving about with a walker, diminished in sight and in hearing but still functioning reasonably well, still able to engage in conversation with others, but must confess to the occasions when I’m frustrated and embarrassed by not being able to call up, to retrieve, a needed word.

And I’ve reassessed what I wrote some five and a half years ago, in August 2017,  about being a Sannyasi in the Information age, about being in what my husband, Ravi, had considered the fourth stage of life, a final stage preceded by that of Student, then of Householder and a third stage of Retired.

I reinterpreted my sannyasi stage from the Hindu emphasis on renunciation to being elderly, being in the end stage of limited mobility but still intellectually engaged and alive to the end, all made possible by the computer and by access through the internet to a universe of good, even great, articles and books, to a magnificent library. For example, in the blog post preceding that on the sannyasi is an essay that grew out of my reading and thinking about women’s roles in society, essentially as wife and mother, beginning with roles adapted to the societal form in which we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, that of the small family-based hunting-gathering band, and then, some 9,000 years or so ago, when people, because of the agricultural revolution, settled down to life in a village or an urban community where men’s roles changed in numbers and sorts but those of women not so much —  all of this recorded and analyzed by Jared Diamond in his 1997 “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” 

But my current on-line reading has been changed by the AI Revolution, changed by reading articles drawing from an essentially new anthropology, one much changed by new technologies, such as in archaeogenetics, the study of ancient DNA in the bones and tissue of an individual buried in an archeological site, and by the AI revolution in collecting and analyzing data, for testing the anthropologists’ hypotheses on the nature of social groups and communities, as in this article using game theory. 


I could write about my thinking on the nature of human nature that results from our evolution as hunter-gatherers and what this means for the future – but I won’t.

More immediate are my thoughts and feelings about what I consider to be my post-sannyasi self.  Personal experience tells me that a new, a fifth, stage of life is on the horizon, one brought on by new and emerging technology, a stage of many people living into their 90s, one for which the medical care system is ill-prepared. I think and I feel that my doctors and nurses do not, cannot, understand what is happening to my body. After all, any person naturally lacks intuition for what is happening in a body older than one’s own. Given those thoughts but wanting to be examined by and talk with a doctor professionally equipped to care for someone my age, two months ago I asked to be seen by one of the few geriatricians in my large medical care system and was informed that the earliest available appointment would be in the middle of next June. So I carry on with my present aches, pains, physical and mental limitations, not knowing which ones can and should be seen by an M.D. or a nurse practitioner. I suppose that if/when I have a medical crisis I’ll be taken to an E.R. In the meantime, I carry on, moving about, staying active until a pain slows me down, trying to be careful and not fall, waiting for my death, wondering when and how it will happen.

This is enough, at least for now, but maybe permanently. 

I am still here, half way through my 91st year, still moving about in a limited way, still following the news and fearing for the future of our democracy, my mind filled with thoughts on being this age in this era but would rather, here and now, present an essay, perhaps my last, that I wrote more than a year ago. So —

Le Berceau

I did not know of Berthe Morisot’s painting when, in 1994, browsing in the antique shop down the street from our apartment in Enghien, a town outside Paris, I discovered a wrought iron cradle, a berceau, found it interesting and decided to buy it. Why not? It was inexpensive and could easily be included in the shipment of furniture we would soon be sending to the house in the States where we were retiring. It soon would be holding, rather of an infant wrapped in linen and lace in a nursery, small plants in a sunny room filled with large potted ferns.

As I regard Berthe Morisot’s lovely 1872 painting of her sister and tiny niece, it seems to me that the berceau, fully outfitted with all its bedding and drapery, is more like a substantial piece of household furniture than a place for a tiny being to lie, usually asleep, during the few months it is not yet strong enough to move about. I’ve never seen even a small cradle or bassinet being used, let alone a cradle as large as the berceau. Sixty five years or so ago I had a crib, a low fenced-in bed, for my babies, and from what I read the crib, followed by the toddler bed, continue to be the usual practice in America, and probably in western Europe. Why, then, this particular berceau in a Parisian household in the mid 19thcentury.

Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 into an affluent bourgeois French family with a history in the world of art. Her father, after having studied architecture at the École des Beaux Arts, became the prefect (senior administrator) of the department of Cher , and her mother was a great-niece of Jean-Honoré Fragonard. They provided their daughters, as was not unusual for bourgeois families in the era, with an art education taught by tutors in the home. Berthe and Edma were given lessons in painting and taken on chaperoned visits to the Louvre where they could practice by copying famous paintings and incidentally meet artists such as Edouard Manet, Monet and other Impressionists, as well as Corot of the Barbizon school.

I wonder about a basic education for the girls. They certainly were literate. Traditionally, primary schools for boys had been through the Catholic Church but with the Guizot Laws passed in 1833 the government began expanding public education, seeing to the creation of a primary school in every French commune. I found no information on where or how Morisot’s brother received his education or on whether the girls were tutored at home or attended a private or church school for girls.

The painting here of a classroom in Versailles, 1838, is by Antoinette Asselineau, a working artist who did portraits, was a scenic painter and the sister of Leon Auguste Asselineau. Searching a bit further, I found that he was known for his paintings and engravings of architectural sites. Portraits painted by women such as Antoinette were sometimes shown in various Salons but it was not until the Impressionist painters were established that women artists were recognized, if not equally valued, by the male dominated art world. 

Berthe Morisot became friends with Edouard Manet, also from a well-connected wealthy upper class family, and she married his brother. They included one another in their paintings. (In the Manet painting in my post, here, on apartment living in Paris, Morisot is the woman sitting at the balcony railing.) Edma married a naval officer, gave up painting, moved to another city and had several children. Berthe, of course, continued painting and exhibited in major Paris Salons. She had one child, a daughter.

Edma lived the usual life of an urban bourgeois woman; she had children, cared for them and managed a household well-staffed with servants. Morisot, like the other women Impressionists, painted scenes of mothers and children, including of her own daughter and many of Edma and her children.

I think of Morisot’s berceau as belonging to a traditional family of seven or eight or more children, one in which a cradle was brought out every other year or so to hold a baby next to the mother’s bed where s/he had been born, a cradle designed for an affluent family in a time when giving birth was still in the home, attended by a midwife, or perhaps for a bourgeois family, by a doctor. Hospitals were for the indigent poor and for research. I wrote here of the early French hospitals.

By Morisot’s time, mid 19th century, in line with the profound changes taking place in western European societies, the substantial berceau may already have been on its way to becoming an antique. Basic, of course, to the era was the Demographic Transition, the change from high birth rates and high infant death rates to lower birth and death rates, a change that took place first in France.  In 1800, four or five children were born to the average French woman and by the 1860s, Morisot’s generation, it was three or four. Demographers explain the Transition having occurred as a response to improved agriculture and the industrial revolution, in terms of changing technology, changing economies and employment, but for the French specifically in terms of farmers responding to new laws affecting how sons inherent the family’s land holding. How such a fundamental change as the number of births per woman occurred would have been primarily through a later age at marriage, at age 20 and after, and by contraception. The technological and economic causes of the Transition have been well studied and analyzed, but personal matters of the fertility rate and how it changed and changes not so, too complex to discuss here. Even with today’s reliable contraceptives, a community’s or a nation’s fertility rate it is not always a simple matter.

From Morisot’s paintings her lifestyle seems familiar, or at least recognizable, but the basics for women at that time, even with having fewer children, had not changed all that much from earlier times. Women lived a life in the home with children, perhaps with more leisure, but still separate from the outside world of men. The Morisot berceau painting, although shown in the sort of exhibition in which she sold her work, did not sell. I imagine that a majority of buyers of paintings were men and that the picture of a mother’s tender gaze at an infant failed to register with them. The family kept the painting and eventually it was purchased for the Louvre. Today it is the public’s favorite of Morisot’s art.

This is my third account of odd objects located here and there around my house, things I keep because they are decorative and/or interesting, but mostly because of the meaning they hold for me. They give me a sense of security and continuity. Before Ravi and I retired here in North Carolina, in the years when the children were with us at least part of the time, we moved continually, every two years, or more often — twice in each of four American cities, twice in Mogadiscio, twice in Ankara, three apartments in Paris and one in Enghien les Bains. In each new apartment or house the arrangement of space was different and furniture was regularly lost or newly acquired but by the time the children were old enough to notice what we had with us, besides our books and bookcases, we had our curios that I set out around us and hung on the walls, marking this place as our home.

The earliest of our curios date from the summer of 1962, from the first time I traveled anywhere other than from a steel mill town in Ohio to a university campus in Wisconsin. Ravi, on the other hand, had grown up a traveler, as a child fascinated with India’s railway system and by age twenty having traveled across India, by train, several times, in several directions. In 1951 he won a scholarship to an American university of his choice, a Fulbright that included travel expenses to the university and then back home for the return trip. He sailed in ’51 from Bombay to New York and arrived on my campus in time for the fall semester, having somehow managed along the way to visit Paris and London and another American university. He and I met in December 1952, end of his third semester, and married on June 16, 1953, on the last day of the spring semester. In 1954, his scholarship and student visa having expired, he took the train to New York City from where, on our first wedding anniversary, he sailed to Bombay. Two months later, when I was hospitalized with a broken leg, he returned by plane to America, to me and to graduate school. 

By 1960 Ravi had become a university professor. In 1962, when the spring semester ended without summer employment for him, he turned to his love of travel and figured out an affordable way for us to travel together. We would drive to Mexico and visit one of our colleagues, an anthropologist and close family friend, who was with a research team in Oaxaca. We would be with our friends, Jim and Donna and their children. For me, as a Lecturer in anthropology, part-time, and already interested in appropriate technology, the trip became especially interesting. I would watch Jim as he worked with a solar cooker the university engineers had developed, helping them introduce it to rural folk in a nearby town. 

My role as Ravi’s fellow traveler was to look after our two small children and be a second driver. He planned everything, detail by detail, and things went well for all four of us. We stayed, most happily, with the Silverbergs in the modern sector of Oaxaca City. They showed us the city, we visited Monte Alban, the five children played together, and I went with Jim to Teotitlán, the town where the solar cooker project was in progress. The appropriate technology is discussed  here  in three videos. Do watch the second video, from point 5.57 on, where Jim is the narrator, to see scenes of ordinary life in Teotitlán, at that time a traditional Zapotec town of under 4000 inhabitants with agriculture and weaving as its economic base, not yet a tourist site. The steps in turning out a wool rug are shown, from carding the wool from sheep raised elsewhere, in the villages; women spinning with equipment introduced centuries ago by the Spanish; men using dyes bought locally; men weaving on the loom introduced by the Spanish. (In the pre-HIspanic Zapotec and Mixtec era, women produced cotton cloth from cotton plants raised by the family. Women spun the fiber into yarn with a drop spindle, used vegetable dyes for color and wove the yarn into cloth on a belt or a hanging loom.) We bought several wall hangings, the most decorative being the image in green of a wild cat, possibly a jaguar.

Through the Silverbergs we met a Oaxacan gentleman who ran a stylish small shop with beautiful ceramic items for sale. He was from a family of Spanish origin, formerly elite and with deep roots in the traditional society. He loved the traditional black ware pottery, the barro negro, and knowing all the potters in the countryside, worked with the two most skilled and artful, commissioning from them dishes, bowls, cups, jars for sale in his shop. I bought the large perforated jar and the candleholder there, assuming both were modeled on items used by the local people. And he practically gave me the black ware cup, assuring me that it is genuinely an antique. Could my jar have functioned somehow as a sieve? At 20 inches high, I saw it as the right size to serve as a shade over the ceiling light on the front porch of our house. Maybe it was similarly intended to hold a candle at night? Whatever the original function, decoratively piercing a large barro negro jar and polishing it developed into an art form. I do not understand the form of my black ware candle holder. Could it be for having light at night, outside in the wind?

A curio I find increasingly intriguing is my Mexican three inch square brooch, too large for me to wear but just right for hanging on a wall among other mementos, Only now have I examined it carefully, finally aware of the materials and of the excellent craftsmanship used to make it. The figure suggests a monkey, most likely the spider monkey with its prehensile tail, a species found throughout Mexico. In the Aztec religion, Ozomatli the monkey was considered the companion spirit, ‘nahual’, and servant of the god Xochipilli, god of music and dance. The monkey was associated with the arts, games and fun. In the Aztec 260-day calendar, Nahua Ozomatli serves as the name for the 11th day.

I think the base of the brooch is obsidian, volcanic glass, four millimeters thick, fused onto a thin sheet of silver metal in which the pin was inserted. Being fairly abundant across the land and relatively easy to work, in pre-Hispanic times obsidian replaced stone, became a part of daily life, was used to make most of the tools for cutting, weapons for the elite, figurines, jewelry and ritual objects, in a way similar to how steel was used in Europe and Asia. 

Initially, I thought the monkey done in brass and vertical lines of copper, with the back leg, on the lower left, having been made with the larger figure, then put in place when the total image was sealed onto the glass. However, after cleaning the brooch, I wondered if the metals might be alloys of some sort, as of gold, and searched for information on where in the early 1960s craftsmen with those skills plus familiarity with traditional images were using metals to make jewelry. 

In pre-Hispanic times, gold nuggets were found in rivers. Metals were not mined, but in the Purépecha Empire, present day Michoacán and Jalisco, copper was discovered in surface finds and intrinsically useful enough that craftsmen worked it into axes, knives, fish hooks, needles, tweezers and small ornamental objects. During the Hispanic colonial period a town, Santa Clara del Cobre in the state of Michoacan, became a national center for producing copper vessels and implements. (Under the Spanish, metals, such as zinc and tin for making alloys, were mined in the area. The mining of silver and the consequences for the world economy is another story.) 

Today Santa Clara del Cobre is famous for its copper smiths, some 2000 of them working in over 300 workshops. They continue the town tradition, using copper salvaged from scrap metal, working with it to fashion the usual ware plus specially commissioned items in ways little changed from the Hispanic colonial period.  

Where did I buy the spider monkey brooch? It could have been in the Oaxaco shop, near enough to Stanta Clara del Cobre to have such items for sale. 

For our drive northward and home from the Silverbergs Ravi had us doing regular tourist things in places he, but not I, knew of.  The two evenings and the day we stayed in San Miguel de Allende, an attractive American community, remain a total blank for me.

I’ve forgotten where else we stayed and mostly what we did in Mexico City, except for being in a shop where I saw an obviously newly made bowl I just had to buy because it was so like one I’d seen in a museum. Could this have been the shop where I found my Aztec themed brooch? 

We visited the Lady of Guadalupe church my friends in the Racine, Wisconsin migrant worker Mexican-American community had dreamed of visiting. I bought a few mementos to take back for them. 

I probably found the four tumblers in Mexico City. I liked their form and the warm orange clay. Orange ware was Aztec. The green glaze on the inside may have lead in it, so I’ve used them only for holding cut flowers.

Ravi and I and the children walked about the Teotihuacan archeological site, with little idea of what to look for. Archeology was not my field and I knew virtually nothing of the Mesoamerican civilizations. I’ve read that a major restoration and excavation of the ancient city was started in 1961 but I was not informed of it, saw no evidence of it, had little idea of how to look for it. We were all alone on the site. No other tourists and certainly no archeologist. A local boy, ten or 12 years old, followed along with us, eventually showing me a potsherd he had found and that I bought from him, confident, at least until recently, that it is not a fake. I need a better photo to show its similarity to a Teotihuacan Aztec censer lid from the first century C.E.   

I’ve forgotten where we bought the pottery brazier, measuring 26 in. high and 14 in. wide, a large object that’s stood somewhere, safe but neglected, in every place we’ve lived since the Mexican trip. And where is it from? It’s different from this Monte Alban brazier and does have a vaguely Aztec headdress, so I assume it’s from the Mexico City phase of our travels. It lost an ear ring along the way and has sustained some chipping, but is still with us, in the upstairs hallway, usually holding various stray items until someone takes a minute to put them away where they belong.

I would like to think my children will feel some attachment to our Mexican curios. After all, they are part of our family’s past. When our Siamese cat was a kitten playing with the kids it would run into the brazier and sit there with its front paws poking through the eye holes. In Paris, when Ravi initiated a Public Management program for his agency, called PuMa by the staff, he decided that the cat on our Teotitlan wall hanging is a mountain lion, a puma, and should be standing on his office wall, behind his desk, rather than at home. When she was five years old, my son’s daughter loved watching the red finches that nested in the front porch light shade. Other of the curios were less conspicuous but there, in sight, in our home, for our children growing up, and when they were with us, for the Silverberg kids, too.   


For a long while I’ve found it difficult to write as usual, to write at all. In the time of Trump, in a time when the President of my country was inflicting his malevolence and incompetency on us, undermining our government, our democracy — With all that, describing my curios and events from the past seemed utterly trivial, totally irrelevant.

Then we had an election and competent, trustworthy politicians won the presidency. We no longer suffer the daily shocks of a madman President and his flunkies;I’ve been freed. I can think of personal interests, however trivial they may be, and finish something begun months ago upon reading the history of another of my curios, this one particularly important to me, an antique balance scale I bought some forty years ago and kept, as with other of my curios, safely stored away in a box until we finally, on retirement, had our own house with space enough to bring out and examine all our small possessions. I had read of a balance scale like ours being a farmhouse scale and decided that if so, this one and its weights (including others not shown here) could sit happily on the lovely stone countertop of my well-equipped modern kitchen and I would accommodate by learning to convert, at least approximately, its grams into pounds and ounces. Not only is the balance scale useful; I like watching its intricate mechanism move and adjust, regain balance each time I add or subtract a weight on one side to match whatever I’ve placed on the other side.  

I acquired the scale and weights while living in Paris, on the Place du Pantheon, in the 1980s, keeping house for Ravi and me, our college-aged kids as they came and went, and friends, theirs and ours, who came visiting. And I shopped on rue Mouffetard, a street like none other in Paris. I have no memory of where or how I shopped while in our first Paris apartment, in 1976, in the 14th arrondissement, but a year or so later we moved to Blvd Raspail in the 6th and there, most conveniently for me, the city held a twice weekly street market in front of our apartment building.  A small photo of the market is here.

La Mouffe was lined from the Place de le Contrescarpe down to the Saint-Médard church with such a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants that simply being on the street was an entertainment. I shopped once a week or so in the open market at the church and checked out the store where I bought house plants and the owner told me the history of that site, continued further up to the shop for spices and exchanged pleasantries with the Armenian owner who spoke some Turkish. When I bought Camembert at my favorite cheese stand the fromager, after asking me when I planned to serve it, picked up and gently pressed packet after packet until he found the one that would be perfectly ripe on that day. I visited La Mouffe’s antique shop out of curiosity, charmed by the owner, an agreeable young man from Prague, and by the fact that he stocked his shop by periodically driving his van to that extraordinarily culturally rich city and returning with items a family friend had located for him. Not being an habitué of antique stores (except for maps) I was looking for nothing in particular, really nothing at all, but he did have one thing we needed, a small wood buffet cabinet from the Pyrenees that became and remains part of our household furniture. When his home based source supplied him with a number of cast iron 5 Kilo balance scales, each with its box of brass weights, I was intrigued and he set a price low enough for me to buy one on impulse. I had never seen anything like them before and intended to discover their history, which, of course, did not happen until the internet. Another item, a measuring stick marked with centimeters, also caught my imagination. It’s made of brass, less than 2 centimeters wide, thin and light, cleverly hinged to fold into ten equal parts, into a tool that would fit neatly into a pocket. A few sections were bent so that it could no longer lie flat, but I bought it for the idea of it, not to use it.

The set of weights I bought with the scale did not include the kilo weight. It came later, after we had moved to Enghien Les Bains,  a small town at the edge of Paris,

Portrait of Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David (1800, Louvre)

where I again found an antique shop with an agreeable owner who chatted with me, this one an elegant French woman. From her I bought another piece of furniture, a 19th century recamier, one less splendid than that on which Madame Racamier is lounging but attractive and useful nevertheless. On my buying the kilo weight, the owner explained that the marks across its top would have been made by a government official who, following Napoleon Bonaparte’s introduction of the metric system, regularly tested the accuracy of weights in the local market. Knowing nothing of such matters, I took her word for it.  

As I read now and reflect on it, I’m surprised by how recently the metric system came into existence, during the French Revolution, with the new government and the realization that the existing system of measurement was impractical for trade. This woodcut, dated 1800, illustrates the new decimal units that became the legal norm in France on 4 November of that year, five years after the metrical system was first introduced. In captions under the drawing each of the six new metric units is followed by the name of the old French unit.  When I bought my meter measuring stick I thought of it as having been used by a traditional craftsman, perhaps a wheelwright, but now, aware of how recently it was made, I imagine a late 19th century French architect putting it in his pocket as he leaves his studio, going out to check on the work in progress of a building he has designed. 

My balance scale is most likely early 20th century. A tool for weighing objects was devised thousands of years ago, adopted world wide, the only such technology until the mathematician Gilles Personne de Roberval, in 1669, presented the Roberval balance to the French Academy of Sciences. “The traditional scale consists of two plates or bowls suspended at equal distances from a fulcrum. One plate holds an object of unknown weight while known masses are added to the other plate until static equilibrium is achieved and the plates level off, which happens when the masses on the two plates are equal. The perfect scale rests at neutral.  … … The Roberval balance is arguably less accurate and more difficult to manufacture than a beam balance with suspended plates. The beam balance, however, has the significant disadvantage of requiring suspensory strings, chains, or rods. For over three hundred years the Roberval balance has instead been popular for applications requiring convenience and only moderate accuracy, notably in retail trades.”  Many balance scales based on the Roberval model were invented and manufactured in France, Britain, Germany, Hungary and maybe Poland, and widely adopted for use in the local marketplace, in shops and in the kitchen. One is shown here  and another here.  Perhaps over the years I should have noticed the traditional and the Roberval scales being used in shops and elsewhere but I did not. My balance scale was only one I’ve seen other than in photographs. and those mostly in on-line antique sales, varying widely in size and construction, none exactly like mine, most smaller and less complex than mine  

I must add that I did own a scale before this one, a tiny thing for determining how many and what sorts of stamps a letter needed for posting. For decades, Ravi and I and our children lived, worked, travelled in different countries and we continually wrote letters and cards to one another. Postage for a letter in an envelope was determined by weight. I just realized that my scale is a beam balance, with a ring to hold it while being operated and a weight below the fulcrum to keep it upright. The bar across the fulcrum is divided into two parts equal in weight, one side being equipped with a clip to hold the envelope and the other side with a semi-circle part marked in centigrammes and an immobile arrow in front of it at a right angle to the perpendicular and attached at the fulcrum. When the clip holds an envelope the bar on the other side rises and the arrow points to the centigramme weight causing the imbalance. After reading the weight of the envelope I then read or asked how much postage was needed to mail that particular envelope. I haven’t used the scale for years. The U.S. postal system has been simplified and most of my correspondence now is by email. But I keep the scale in a drawer in my desk, just in case and to occasionally bring it out to see and remember. (There’s another sort of scale about which I know nothing, the spring scale, first made circa 1770 by Richard Salter of Bilston in Britain.)

I’m amazed by how early in our history human beings invented a tool for weighing things and how recently the technology was augmented. And now being increasing developed. This image of the traditional scale is from circa 1275 BCE, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, picturing the heart of a scribe being weighed against the feather of truth,  The balance scale became a symbol of judging and balancing elements in the social realm, here reminding a member of the elite to balance caring for himself with fulfilling the duties of his office and serving his society. In European history, Justice  is represented by a goddess holding a scale, weighing the support and the opposition in a case and seeking equivalence between them under the law.

The International Society of Antique Scale Collectors is an organization for collecting, studying and preserving antique scales, weights and measures.   And there’s the museum of weights in Italy.

My scale may not be sufficiently sensitive for a science lab or for weighing gold, but it still impresses me. The smallest weight I have is 10 grams.  Four new copper pennies weigh 10 grams. Two of my vitamin D tablets weight one penny.  The scale balances when I put one tablet on each side and does not rest at neutral with one tablet or even half of a tablet on one side only.

Another of my kitchen appliances from the past, the mortar and pestle, has not survived modern technology. My molcajete from the 1950s and a later marble mortar and pestle have gone into storage, replaced by a small electric coffee grinder I use to grind my spices. I never did use the handsome brass Turkish set given me by a friend in Ankara. It sits keeping company with the balance scale on my kitchen counter. 

After rediscovering my qalamdan I happened to set it down on a window ledge near another nearly forgotten curio, this one an 8 cm square coaster with an engraving printed on it, one of a set I picked up in 1970 or so in an Istanbul tourist shop because it was attractive and inexpensive. From the man’s dress and other clues I guessed it was a scene from 19th century Istanbul and worth keeping for that reason but had no idea of who and what was being pictured. Then, unexpected and most interesting, after the qalamdan search had me reading and thinking of the scribe, the scrivener, as a public figure before the era of the typewrite and widespread literacy, the engraving, at last, made sense to me. It’s of a scribe and his client and indeed of Istanbul in the 1800s. An on-line search for pictures of this sort brought forth five others here in this interesting blog,

Istanbul, once Constantinople, is one the world’s great cities and it fascinates me. I have two blog posts on the city. One is Kedi, on the cats of Istanbul and the other on Sinan, the great architect. A post on the movie “Belle” includes discussion and pictures of upper-class women in 18th century England dressed in  an exotic mode from visits to or paintings of Istanbul. Now, with an awareness of the scribe in history, this is my fourth venture into that great city and its history, discovering it through a scene where two individuals representing important aspect of its life meet and interact. 

The curio engraving is from a drawing by Thomas Allom , an English architect and artist, one of many made as he travelled across Turkey in the 1830s. This excellent article by Turgay Tuna describes Allom and his drawings/paintings of Istanbul. “… During his stay in Istanbul, Thomas Allom was warmly received by the British ambassador Lord Strangford. Accompanied by the Reverend Robert Walsh, chaplain to the embassy and a knowledgeable scholar of Turkey’s ancient and modern history, Allom explored the city. His picturesque engravings provide a rich array of detailed information about the architectural texture of Istanbul at that time and the daily life of its inhabitants. He drew scenes of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, the city’s cemeteries, Sultanahmet Square and its environs, churches and sacred springs, the city walls, coffee houses, and Turkish baths. In his engravings we see many buildings which have not survived to the present day, or have come down to us in altered form. … “  I’ve added an additional feature of architecture in Istanbul — its wonderful, beautiful public fountains, of which the Ahmet III is one of the grandest and another is in a park where women have gathered. 

Allom perceived the people he observed as individuals, not as stereotypical archtypes. I particularly like the way he drew his scribe and the lady. He gives us the scribe situated in a public space, seated with his desk at a large fountain, men gathered there, and in the background the wall of a mosque, two minarets, the mosque dome and treetops. We assume that behind our actors is a public building, with Moorish style columns and arches. (like those of the Cordoba mosque) We have more details of the public scribe’s dress than is given in other such drawings and paintings. He wears the turban, ankle length baggy cotton trousers, a full-sleeved short robe over a collarless shirt, a vest and the sash. And pince-nez glasses. (I read that the such glasses were first worn in the 14th century in Italy by monks.)  

Discovering the engraving set me to wondering. Who were these public scribes of Istanbul? I found a large number of Turkish words for the scribe and for scrivener and have no way to find the one that fits the public scribe in Istanbul. This scribe was available to read or write on any matter, for a fee, but specialized in documents pertaining to the government. I wondered how it was it that, while most people in Istanbul are barely literate, or even illiterate, this man not only could read and write so well but also knew how to deal with the government bureaucracy and the courts. How did he learn this and what greatly needed service was it that he was in business to provide? 

As in most Muslim societies, education was through the Sheik in the mosque keeping the metkep, a school where he taught children classical Arabic for reading the Koran and for religious instruction. In the Ottoman Empire the government, under the authority of the Sultan, also funded the madrasas as an additional level of education. They were secondary schools, each madrasa run by the town or city mosque, where the Sheik, a man of the Ulama, the traditional hierarchy of official imperial scholars, taught language and Islamic learning and the law. Madrasa graduates, usually men from the society’s elite families, worked in the government and in religious organizations as civil servants, from the highest levels down to that of scrivener. They were employed in large and complex bureaucracies that ran the country, levied taxes on farmers, craftsmen, businessmen, and controlled various community activities. Perhaps the role of public scribe evolved as an interface between those government officials and the citizen, helping ordinary people deal with all the rules, the demands from the bureaucracy. The public scribes would have been diverse in origin. Perhaps some were older men, retired cilvil servants, while others were individuals who, on having completed the madrasa training, worked in the bureaucracy for a time and then for a variety of reasons could not or chose not to follow the family traditional occupation of government service. On the citizen side, despite the paintings and drawings, all made by European men, of a woman waiting while the scribe writes a letter for her, the usual client for the public scribe was a man needing a petition written or a government form filled in. 

From the paintings and drawings we have a view of the Istanbul street in the 19th century, but in that time the city and all of the Ottoman Empire was changing, and in fundamental ways. Under directions from the Sultan, officials in the Ottoman government, influenced by European powers, particularly the French and English, began a program of modernization known as the Tanzimat. Lifestyle generally for men and women of Istanbul’s upper classes was beginning to change. Paintings and drawings of public scribes have them in the traditional dress of ordinary men while the governmental elite were adopting European-style trousers, shirt, jacket and replacing the turban with the fez, as shown here. Allom observed women in the palace haram, women caught in an ancient mode of servitude while dressed in the latest Paris fashion. He pictured them locked inside, eagerly peeking at the world outside their walls. Photographs taken two or three decades later, in the 1870s, show ordinary men wearing trousers and jackets, similarly to European men but with the fez, and upper class women in European style dresses, at least inside the home. And what have I learned about the woman in my curio painting? I imagine that she lived in a house on a street as pictured here and always when outside the house was in the veil. 


Finally, having this background of the public scribe and his client in mind, I look at again at my curio and see a drama unfolding. The woman is from the elite. Her head cover and veil, from the way they drape, are made of a fine fabric. Certainly, the girl she holds near her, most likely her daughter, is expensively dressed. Behind her stands an obedient servant, staring into space. The woman is a lady, wealthy, and may be literate; she would have attended the metkep and also could have been tutored at home. She is comfortable dealing publicly with this man; after all, he is from the learned, respected, almost religious sector of society. However, she is feeling most anxious. Does he really understand?  She watched him read her document and again points out certain facts he must keep in mind as he rereads it. He is analyzing the document, ascertaining its meaning and implications, deciding what to write next on the paper where he has already taken notes. Let us assume that our scribe will know the right way to help our lady and that she will soon return to her calm and confident self.

More than a month ago, on my 90th birthday, two non-routine things happened to me. One was rereading an essay I wrote three years ago —  Being Elderly, a Sannaysi, in the Information Age. I wrote there that my mind has become my university, a place where experiences, information and ideas are stored, that the internet has become my library and that the computer makes the act of writing infinitely easier than did either the pen or the typewriter. Why then, am I always fretting over the current political scene when I could be thinking creatively about other matters?

Next was finding a small brass object, one of my many curios, while searching in an upstairs closet for – I’ve forgotten what. Other souvenirs remind me of a person, a place, an incident but this one does none of that; it simply puzzles me. I’ve owned it for decades without knowing quite what it is, what it is called or even where it comes from. All it brings to mind, vaguely, is our apartment on the Place du Pantheon in Paris and a young man from Lebanon who became a family friend while Ravi and I were living there. I wonder if he gave it to me.

I decided the time had arrived, finally, to discover my curio’s identity. No one I know here where I now live would have the foggiest idea of what it is, so I went to the internet. I noted the curio’s form and guessing at the part that may have held ink, did an on-line search for “antique brass inkwell pen,” which brought up, all on commercial sites, six or seven photographs of items like mine for sale.

One, with Arabic letters and the engraved art work less worn than on mine, is titled “Antique Vintage Islamic Persian Brass Fully Inscribed Qalamdan Pen Box & Inkwell.” I asked a friend who speaks Urdu, Persian influenced Hindi, what qalamdan means and he responded, “Pen holder,”  which sent me to my enormous etymological 1950s Oxford Universal Dictionary. It has no entry for “qalamdan.” The word never came into English. From the Wiktionary: qalam is Persian for pen and dan for container.

All the brass penholders pictured on-line were named as qalamdans and with prices ranging from $200 or so to over $2000, the pricier ones being somewhat larger than mine, in fine condition, engraved with Arabic calligraphy and Persian designs. Mine is about the same length, 23 cm., and weight, 440 grams, as the others but not quite as high or as wide as most, only 2¾ cm by 1½ cm. All are described as Middle Eastern or Ottoman and from the 19th century. One is described as an antique Middle Eastern travelling pen case and attached inkwell, used by traveling scribes to document agreements and events in the times when few people could write. Another, similar to mine in decoration, length and weight but different in being wider and nearly twice as tall, is described as a traveling scribe’s quill or pen holder and small attached inkwell, and that qalamdans were used by scribes who traveled from town to town, that they were hung on the scribes’ belts with the ink pot holding them in place.

Continuing the search for information, I entered “qalamdan” into google search and that brought forth another sort of container, these made of silver, bronze, papier-mâché or ivory and they looked more like the sort of pen holder a working scribe would own and use. 

The earliest qalamdan I found on-line is in the Walters Art Museum, originally from Tabriz, Iran, circa 1300 CE, in brass, silver and gold inlay, measuring 25 cm x 3 cm. It has an ink well and inside a shelf for the pen with a compartment underneath for needed equipment. “It was carried on the owner’s belt and must have belonged to a statesman, since its side is inscribed with the maxim: — Your government shall rise without declining, if it has as its basis the largest number of people from every place.–  Hunt imagery, like the scenes on the box, was popular among the nobility as this sport required the valor and skills also needed in battle.”

From this source —  a 19th century lacquered and painted papier-mâché qalamdan from Isfahan, Iran  “The primary function of a pen box (qalamdan) was as a writing implement intended to hold a number of tools associated with the art and act of writing, including reed pens, an inkwell, liqah (a cotton wool substance used to absorb excess ink), a penknife, a qat’zan (a flat resting board made of horn), a whetstone (for sharpening the knife), a small spoon, and a pair of scissors. These accessories were considered essential elements for a scribe. The box that kept these elements was deemed, by association, as important as the person who handled its contents, with the quality of the box’s decoration directly reflecting the status of the scribe or patron. … Pen boxes were carried by penmen of all ranks, often tucked into the shawls tied around their waists, symbolising a badge of their trade. So esteemed was the pen box that even Shahs commissioned them; these rare examples are confirmed by their inscriptions. The earliest specimens of this type date from the reign of Shah Sulayman Safavi (1664-95), but later Qajar examples commissioned by members of high bureaucracy also exist throughout the nineteenth century.”  The Qajar Dynasty, from 1789 to 1925 was the last of the Persian dynasties. 

This qalamdan by Shaykh_Muhammad (Shaykh Kamal Sabzavar), 1587, Gujarat, India, in the Freer Gallery of Art, is in lacquered teakwood with mother-of-pearl inlay. From Stuart Cary Welch’s  India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900 1985 (page 139) “Like other qalamdans made for discerning and affluent penmen, this one is inscribed with its maker’s name and the date of its execution as well as a virtual anthology of appropriate Arabic and Persian verses.” I suspect it would have been owned by a wealthy gentleman more interested in Arabic calligraphy and Persian poetry than in the more practical uses of writing.

I had never before heard or read of a pen that needed a holder. When I was in school, also for my children, we each had a wooden pencil box to hold our pencils, sometimes a pencil sharpener, an eraser, even a ruler. What sort of pen was held in a brass pen box centuries ago? And what about the ink for it and would the writing have been on paper or another writing material?  

The pen once held in my qalamdan, I learned, would have been little different from the earliest known pens ever, found in Egyptian sites dating from the 4th century BCE, and it would have been made from a reed trimmed and cut to have the essential feature of a pen, the nib. Such pens were used for writing hieroglyphics on papyrus with a lampblack ink and they continued for millennia to be the most usual writing implement. However, even earlier, in the 4th millennium BCE, in Mesopotamia and Sumer, with the invention of writing, the reed was used as a stylus having a squared off end to press triangular marks and short straight lines into a clay tablet, to create records written in cuneiform.

In a society where most people were peasant farmers with no particular need for the written word, reading and writing was the work of a specialist, the scribe who wrote and read manuscripts. He was the one craftsman accepted into the inner circles of the society’s elite classes, the priests who represented the religion and the rulers who ran the government. For the religious establishment scribes put into writing the society’s sacred beliefs and for the ruling elite they wrote and kept historical and legal records while serving as secretarial staff and administrators. In his public roles the scribe was a gentleman but underlying that was his craftsman’s knowledge not only of the written word but of where and how to acquire his essential tool, the reed pen, and the skills for making, maintaining and using it.  

“To make a reed pen, scribes would take an undamaged piece of reed about 20 cm, and leave the end that would be cut into point in water for some time. This ensured that the pen would not splinter when cut. They crafted a series of cuts that would cut the nib of the pen until it was flat enough, and pointed. The pointed end was then cut off, not too far from the point, to form a squared end suitable for writing. At the end they would start the split, which would act as a primitive ink barrel, from the tip of the nib and lengthen it until it was of the proper length. They made care not to lengthen it extensively, because the pen was at risk of snapping in half. Being skilled at making reed pens was important for early scribes due to low durability of the pen. ….”

Further information —  “ … Rather than dipping the pen directly into the well a small piece of wool or felt called a liq was used to absorb a smaller amount of ink. The liq served a couple purposes, it held the ink in suspension, it cleaned the pen and was less messy than dipping directly into the well.”

And ink for the pen in my qalamdan? Having grown up using a dip pen I could not imagine the watery ink in the usual glass inkwell staying safely in the tiny brass qalamdan inkwell. My Urdu speaking friend suggested “India ink” and I returned to my etymological dictionary. “India ink. 1665. A black pigment made in China and Japan, sold in sticks; it consists of lampblack made into a paste with a solution of gum and dried. Called also China ink.”

Here for how the ancient Egyptians made ink for their hieroglyphics and colored inks for the wall paintings. For the ink used in my qalam — In China, the ink used with a fine brush for drawings and for writing had appeared by 2000 BCE. By the 4th century CE, Chinese formulated ink was being made in India. Surely, through the Silk Road, India ink was known, made and used early on in Persian lands. In medieval Europe, Roman carbon and iron gall inks for writing on papyrus were used also for writing on parchment and vellum until the mid 1600s, after Shakespeare’s time, when Europeans began importing India ink from India. 

And the writing material? Papyrus was the earliest for the reed pen. It’s a material similar to thick paper, made from the pith of the papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, a wetland sedge, from the Nile Delta, first manufactured in Egypt as far back as the 4th millennium BCE and for millennia traded throughout the Mediterranean region as the main writing material. Paper came to the world from China, invented there in the 2nd century BCE, first for wrapping things, then for painting and writing with a brush. It reached the Indian subcontinent by the first century CE. Archaeological evidence shows that paper was known and used in Persian cities, improved upon for manuscript writng by being made from rags rather than wood, even before the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th century, before the adoption of Islam and the Arabic script. After the 8th century the Persian Islamic civilization helped spread paper-making into the Middle East. Europeans, finally, in the 11th century, via Andalusia, Muslim Spain, acquired paper and paper-making. By the 13thcentury it was well established and had replaced its precursors. 

The printing press, which changed everything, including a return to wood produced paper, was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440.

This is a history of writing but not of the written word. The written word as a concept and an entity came into existence not with the scribes in service to the elite but in far more humble circumstances. It began with men who traded goods between societies or from one sector of the society to another, with men sometimes influential with the ruling elite but rarely in the elite. Traders invented writing for totally practical purposes, to have a record of the goods they owned and sold, of contracts they made and fulfilled. For instance, in cuniform, on a set of Sumerian clay tablets is a list of 21 sheep, 2 lambs, 36 goats received and passing inspection, plus 11 oxen, 5 sheep, 3 lambs, 10 rams, 2 goats delivered to the market. The tablets are from approximately 8000 BCE. Eventually the society’s elites took notice of this innovation, of writing the spoken word, and appointed scribes to gradually expand on the merchants’ script, to create a literature in fine language that recorded the society’s religious beliefs, that glorified its ruler and his lineage. A well-known text recorded on Sumerian clay tablets, in approximately 5000 BCE, is the Epic of Gilgamesh , considered to be the world’s oldest work of literature. 

The next critical, definitive step forward in writing was the invention of the alphabet. I wrote here in a previous blog post about the Phoenicians, a thalassocracy, a network of merchant city-state ports, each city-state politically independent from its hinterland, a sea-based civilization spread across the Mediterranean from 1500 BCE to 300 BCE.   “… It was from the Phoenicians that we inherited the alphabet, a way to write letters that represent phonemes, the basic significant sound units from which words are formed. It is a way to write a language that can be easily learned and applied to any language. A scribe writing cuneiform or Egyptians hieroglyphics memorized thousand of characters to achieve proficiency in his craft. Other persons, but not many, could learn enough of the more frequently used characters to attain literacy. By contrast, a trader with his alphabet could quickly master a script to write and read his language or another language, to keep records, and if he, or she, were interested, to read a document written by a government official, a poet, a scholar. Through their maritime trade the Phoenicians spread writing and reading by alphabet across their territory. One variant was adopted by the Greeks, who transmitted it to the Romans. 

“The Aramaic alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician in the 7th century BCE and became the official script of the Persian Empire, appears to be the ancestor of nearly all the modern alphabets of Asia. Most alphabetic scripts of India are descended from the Brahmi script, which is often believed to be a descendant of the Aramaic script, transmitted via the Persians to the Mauryan Empire (322 BCE – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Empire (320 — 550 CE) of India —  and from there to Sumatra, Java and Bali. ..”

The Persian word “qalam” is Arabic, borrowed from kálamos, the Greek word for reed. In Islamic cultures the writing of words and of the alphabet letters is a high art form as well as a means of communication. The prevalence of calligraphy, the art of writing, in Islamic art reflects the centrality of writing and the written text in Islam. The Koran, literacy to read it and Arabic as an international language linked people together across the world.  It is noteworthy that the Prophet Muhammad is related to have said: “The first thing God created was the pen.”

I read that a scribe would own a 15th century metal qalamdan such as this one but I imagine a Persian or Ottoman merchant having commissioned it to hold the equipment he needs to keep business records as he travels. It is sturdy, maybe in bronze, measuring about 27 cm by 8 cm by 9 cm, has a locked lid, and the merchant being prosperous, is beautifully engraved. It contains, of course, an inkwell on one end, a removable shelf for his pens and a space underneath for the equipment needed to maintain them.

The qalamdans pictured on-line are from Persia, a land outside my personal experience. From reading I know a little of the Persianate society but almost nothing of Persian history, of Persia’s imperial dynasties beginning in the 6th century BCE and continuing through many Empires into the 20th century. It was a great civilization centered in today’s Iran but covering a vast area that included Arabs, Caucasians (Georgian, Armenian, Dagestani) and Turkic peoples (Seljuqs, Ottomans, Ghaznavids). “A Persianate culture flourished for nearly fourteen centuries. It was a mixture of Persian and Islamic cultures that eventually underwent Persianization and became the dominant culture of the ruling and elite classes of Greater IranAsia Minor, and South Asia

I have two blog posts reviewing a movie on the legendary Omar Khayyam of the 11th century, a major figure in Persian history. The discussion  here  includes photos, useful maps and descriptions of Samarkand’s magnificent mosques and madrasahs and of grand buildings in Bukhara. Trying to make sense of inaccuracies in the movie’s plot and of mischaracterizations concerning religious matters led me into exploring the history of the period and presenting  here some of what I learned. Persian history is fascinating and relevant to today’s world.   

Learning that the Persian word for pen came from “reed,” the material used for making it, had me wondering how “pen” came into English. From my ancient dictionary – “Pen” came from “penne,” early French, originally meaning feather. In certain large birds the barrel of a wing feather, the quill, is a tube that can be cut, pointed and split into nibs at its lower end. 

Comparing the reed pen and the quill pen

The earliest known written works in Europe were found recently in an excavation in London, documents carved in with a metal stylus on wax covered wooden tablets, made by military men, Roman conquerors. Here for a description of the tablets and how they were made. On one tablet is recorded the bringing of 20 loads of provisions to London from Veruilamium, a Roman auxiliary (castrum) just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. It was dated Oct. 21, 62.

In Rome at that time, scribes and literate persons were writing with a reed pen on papyrus. We have
a Roman fresco portrait of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century CE.. In the 7th century CE, however, the fabled scholar, Isidore of Seville, Spain, most likely using a quill pen, wrote of the varieties of papyrus being sold in Roman markets. Papyrus had become expensive, was unsuitable for western Europe’s climate and could not compete with the cheaper, locally produced, more durable parchment and vellum. The quill pen, in use by the 6th century CE, produces a line more suitable for writing on leather. Besides the quill being readily available, it has better flexibility than the reed and retains ink in its hollow shaft, allowing for more writing time between dippings.

The steel nib for the dip pen, first manufactured in a factory in Birmingham, England in 1822, replaced the quill. A metal point is sharp, long lasting and requires no skill to make or maintain. By the late 19th century, or at least the early 20th, the fountain pen, a nib pen that contains an internal reservoir of liquid ink, was in common use.

I wrote above of the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, as the innovation that changed everything. Quoting from this short, highly informative, delightful to read article  —   “Knowledge is power and the invention of the mechanical movable type printing press helped disseminate knowledge wider and faster than ever before. It was the key to unlocking the modern age. With the newfound ability to inexpensively mass-produce books on every imaginable topic, revolutionary ideas and priceless ancient knowledge were placed in the hands of every literate European, whose numbers doubled every century.”

Martin Luther, whose writings changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West, stated: Printing is the ultimate gift of God and the greatest one.” 

Considering my brass holder of a reed pen, I wonder why all those like mine pictured on-line for sale are from the 1800s and none earlier. Most are higher and wider than mine and could have, unlike mine, held a quill as well as a reed pen. I note also that only one other brass qalamdan viewed has, like mine, a floral design rather than Arabic calligraphy or Persian images engraved on the holder. No other has, like mine, a Celtic knot on the inkwell, a design that brings to mind central Anatolia’s Galatian history. I wonder if my qalamdan is Turkish, and given it being suitable for a reed pen only, from an earlier era and/or a more isolated region.                      

Another question concerns the statements on-line that this sort of qalamdan was owned by a travelling scribe, a designation of the owner’s occupation that seems to me not quite right. I have images of the 1800s and the industrial revolution and of fundamental changes in European societies. Gone are the royal courts, centers of sacred learning, craftsmen in guilds, peasant villages as the base on which all of that rested. Instead, I think of factories and farms where some 80% of the people labored while a small elite continued in power and a middle class of merchants, shopkeepers, accountants, managers prospered, of transportation by railway and steamboat, of the telegraph, of gas light in the home, shops, offices, the factory, on the streets. 

The typewriter came onto the market in 1880 or so, not yet affecting office staffing patterns.  In most governmental and business offices, professional penman, scriveners, were hired to take dictation, to write or copy documents and records. A famous work of fiction featuring scriveners is the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, first published in 1853. This, of course, is of Europe and the U.S. where the industrial revolution was in process. Elsewhere, the Sublime State of Persia, 1785-1925, was ruled by the Qatar dynasty with an agricultural and craft based economy that had been encroached upon by Western colonialism but not yet greatly changed.  

In more traditional settings, still Persian or Ottoman, not many ordinary workers or rural folk were fully literate, and a man who was highly literate could work as a scrivener. He could sit with a small desk in a public place where passersby could pay him a fee to read or write a letter or a document. In this drawing the scrivener in Istanbul seems to be using a reed pen. In a painting of a scene in Mexico in 1828 the scrivener is using a quill. Here for the public scrivener with a typewriter and knowledge of how to fill in official papers replacing the scrivener with a pen.

Descriptions I read of the box sort of qalamdan include nothing on the brass qalamdans. A scribe during the imperial era would have owned a fine box qalamdan as a sign of his highly respected role in elite society. Would he also have owned a brass qalamdan to use while away from his workplace, fulfilling duties of office in other locations? For how long would the ink in the brass qalamdan have lasted, how long before the equipment in the box qalamdan was needed to keep the pen functional? For a few hours? For longer than that?

Elaborately decorated paper-maché box qalamdans dated 19th century, such as this one from the LACMA, open with the inkwell shown and contents laid alongside. The other is in the Walters Art Museum. The approximate size of the 19th century Persian qalamdans I saw on-line is 24 cm long, 4 cm wide and 4 cm deep. 

Describing the qalamdan here named Battle Scenes and Pastoral Scenes is this text: “From the 15th century, lacquer was used primarily for bookbinding in Iran. From the 17th century onward, however, it became the primary medium for the pen box. A massively popular item, the lacquer pen box served as the vehicle for the dissemination of new styles, in particular, farangi-sazi (the Europeanized style) characterized by the integration of Western motifs and pictorial techniques. European landscape scenes, as seen on the object’s side, were of great interest in Iran and a frequent motif on pen boxes.”

Here for a view of a galamdan from Iran 1701—1900.

Describing a qalamdan named Lacquer Pen Box with Royal Audience Scenesca, 1870-90  in The Met Fifth Avenue art museum is this text:  “Kiyani (royal) penboxes with cartouches framing audience scenes, celebrate Persian kingship by linking the ruling monarch with Iran’s great historic and legendary rulers. This example features the court of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1848–96) at the center of the lid. Other audience scenes of Persian rulers, such as Genghis Khan and Khusrau Parviz, as well as legendary kings from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), such as Afrasiyab and Manuchihr, are each identified by inscriptions. Such penboxes were not made for the market but were often commissioned and given as presentation pieces.”   I imagine an ordinary scrivener owned a box qalamdan as well as one in brass, but not one so fine as those shown here.

I have no further information on the life of my brass galamdan. It remains a mystery to me. No matter. Just reading and thinking about it has been an adventure into history.    

Addendum –  Mira Kamdar writes that her grandfather in Jaipur, India had such pen-holders to use in his work, as well as a scribe assistant to aid him. Her father, in diplomatic service in Burma some sixty years ago, used a fountain pen, known to him as an ink-tub pen.




Recently, needing a break from our dreadful, insane politics and the pandemic, I turned to completing a project begun months ago, the organizing for storage of countless photographs scattered across my desk, of photos taken in 1980 as I crossed Indonesia, visiting over forty villages on a consultancy for the Ministry of Health. Several years ago I included a number of the photos in various blog posts but this time, reviewing and reminiscing, one in particular, different from the others, caught my attention. It is, I think, from Sumatra, but what it has me remembering is that when I and my assistant/interpreter entered the village we were received, not by the village headman and village health team, but by this traditionally dressed man who immediately walked over to a gong and struck it. We waited and some minutes later people began arriving, we introduced ourselves to one another, the headman and health team members settled in and my interviewing began. I was so charmed by the gong that after the meeting I asked its keeper to pose with it for the photo. The one other photograph with a gong is, as the sign on the office building indicates, in a South East Sulawesi village where I am standing with the PUSKEMAS/ Community Health Center team and their mobile clinic van.

I looked on-line for “Indonesian gong” and learned only that the word gong came to us from Java and refers to a flat, circular metal disc that is struck with a mallet.  Gong is defined as a percussion musical instrument used in Asia and Southeast Asia.

In further searches, the term “slit drum” was attached to pictures of the sort of instrument I saw in Indonesia but from the Republic of Vanauto, a Melanesian island nation east of Australia, which puzzled me. Melanesians are different from Indonesians. The Pacific island people related to Indonesians are the Polynesians.

I set that anomaly aside, searched for “slit drum” elsewhere and discovered a long tradition of the drums as a means of communication throughout Indonesia. Here for photos and background information from a Jakarta newspaper article on Java’s slit drum, the kenthongan, now made in bamboo rather than wood.

The article reads “Those who grew up in the 1980s are perhaps the last generation familiar with the sound of kentongan beaten at night …  a slit drum used in traditional villages to communicate, (to) produce rhythmic beats as a sign that some residents were on duty patrolling the village. … At a time when telephones were rare, sound codes from the beating of kentongan were vital for communicating. … ….  beginning from the era of the kingdoms of the archipelago, (the kentongan) spread to almost all regions in Indonesia. Each region has its own code and meanings for kentongan sound patterns. ….. a sign for residents to gather, an invitation to participate in cleaning up or building something in the village and as a sign that prayers will start soon. …”

In Madura, a small island off Java, the slit-drum is called gul-gul.  In Bali, it’s the kulkul.

“…beginning from the era of the kingdoms of the archipelago …”  I wonder. Could it have been that the slit drum was part of an earlier Indonesian culture, one of village folk long before the time of kings and kingdoms. While learning something of Balinese history, I learned, as well, a bit of Island South East Asian history and prehistory. I read that the earliest people in the islands were, of course, Paleolithic Age hunter-gatherers, living off the land, moving frequently in small bands from one camp site to another, making and using flaked stone tools. (See here for using simple stone flakes as tools.) In Australia, people lived in such societies into modern times, but mostly the hunter-gatherers were replaced or absorbed by later migrants with a Neolithic Age culture, neolithic meaning new stone for the ground stone tools, the axes and adzes, suited for clearing the land and working the soil to grow their food.

The Neolithic Age began some 12,000 years ago, originating independently in different centers around the world. For the island nations of South East Asia, it evolved along the Yangtzi River, the beginnings of agriculture and domesticated animals, of making pottery and weaving cloth, of hundreds of farm families living in a settled village where, unlike the thirty or so adults in a hunter-gatherer band, to function well as a community they needed more than direct face-to-face communication.

the Austronesian languages

From circa 3000 to 600 BCE, a seafaring Neolithic people, the Austronesians, sailing in outrigger boats, coming from south China, maybe Taiwan, arrived in the Indonesian islands, bringing with them a Neolithic Age cultural complex based on rice agriculture. They became the village folk of Indonesia from whom the later cultures arose. I discuss the Austronesians  here  in a blog post on Bali.

By 500 BCE, a Bronze Age culture had developed in Java, influenced by, possibly brought by, people from what is now the area of Vietnam. It was the Dong Son culture, a complex that included the skills for making bronze tools and weapons (iron came later) and for more complex and productive agricultural practices, all of which increased the food supply, population growth and social complexity. The number and the size of villages in Java increased. Chieftainships developed as the beginnings of government. There was trade and warfare. By the 8th century kings and kingdoms were flourishing. The wooden slit drum, having arrived with the Austronesian Neolithic, continued as a means of communication within the village and between villages but the bronze gong eventually replaced it as a musical instrument.

I wondered how a man (ordinarily, woodworkers are male) using a polished stone axe or adze or chisel could carve a slit drum, or anything, from wood and discovered a rich literature on these tools from archeologists and hobbyists who are knappers.

Neolithic adze

Neolithic adze

axe with handle

Neolithic stone axe with handle

Further reading on Neolithic tools informed me on  … “Wood began its broad role in human life with the ground and polished tools of the Neolithic. Home and fire and furniture and utensils, cradle and coffin were products of the ax, adz, and chisel, which could fashion wood intricately and with precision. This kit of tools turned wood into an almost universal building material, for a host of new things was now possible, such as dugout canoes, paddles and framing for hide-covered boats, sledges, skis, wooden platters and ladles, as well as other household gear. “  Here  for a description of stone tools.  And here for an excellent article from archeology on Neolithic tools

It does not surprise me that in Bali the slit drum announcing a community meeting, wedding, funeral, an emergency is simple in form but beautifully and elaborately housed. Each village community, the banjar, has its own slit-drum, the kulkul, that is kept hanging under the roof of a small but ornate wooden pavilion, a bale, called the bale kulkul, In a temple complex the bale kulkkul is larger and far more elaborate. In striking the temple wooden kulkul one is calling upon the gods. For calling the demons, one strikes a bamboo kulkul.

The bamboo slit drum would have been a related instrument and present in Austronesian culture. In the Philippines it is called kagul, used as a percussion instrument for social dances and in the rice fields to scare away birds competing for the harvest seeds.

Returning to the anomaly of Indonesia’s Austronesian Neolithic Age slit drum being featured in articles on Melanesia’s small island republic, Vanuato, we turn to archeology and population genetics for information on the cultural and racial history of the islands.   Quoting Samir S. Patel, here  — “Analysis of seven 3,000-year-old skulls from the oldest cemetery in the South Pacific, on Efate, an island in Vanuatu, is helping explain how the region was settled. The people of this island nation today resemble Melanesians—natives of Australia and New Guinea—more than Polynesians, such as natives of New Zealand and Hawaii. Osteological data are showing that a people called the Lapita, who first colonized the Pacific, looked more like Polynesians. Melanesians apparently came later and the groups intermarried. In places such as Vanuatu and Fiji, Melanesian traits won out, while Polynesian ancestry dominated elsewhere, as people island-hopped to the east.” The Fiji islanders’ slit drum, the lali, horizontal and quite simple, seems close to the original Austronesian Neollithic slit drum.

In present day Papua New Guinea, hunter-gatherers arrived around 42,000 to 45,000 years ago. Around 7000 BC, they independently domesticated plants, taro providing the basic crop, and developed agriculture for settled village life. Around 500 BCE a migration of Austronesian-speaking peoples settled on the New Guinea coastal regions, introduced pottery, pigs, certain fishing techniques — and the slit drum. However, being of a Neolithic based on rice agriculture and this soil, climate, etc. not suitable for growing rice, the Austronesians did not increase in numbers. The region remained Melanesian. Later, in the 18th century traders brought the sweet potato to the islands, where it became an additional staple, increased the food supply and made possible a significant increase in population. This photo, possibly taken decades ago, is from a village outside a town, Buin, of men in their clubhouse, conveying coded messages by drum.

The Polynesian Austronesian culture originally included the slit drum, as pictured here in Samoa and Tahiti but in a form obviously elaborated after the introduction of iron and steel tools.

How fascinating this early technology for communicating within and between communities. One could continue with a history of how the slit drum in other lands, in Africa and elsewhere, held a community and communities together – but enough of that for now. Let me simply note how it worked in one part of the world in the beginnings of its history.

For other of my 1980s photographs taken in Indonesia  —

Among them are those I took of Yogyakarta’s wonderful, colorful 1980 Eid al Fitr celebrations.

And a few years ago, thinking of Ravi, my husband, and looking through a family album he had put together, I found two of the 1980 photos of me in the historic Macassar, now called Ujung Pandang.  I outline  here  the role Macassar played in European and Indonesian history and why it interested Ravi, then more of the city, plus photos of the Ujung Pandang medical school doctors and staff I was there to meet and who briefed me on the national rural health care program I was to evaluate.

Next, In “Visiting the Villages in Indonesia, Part I” I describe something of the project and include photos of a village and its people in South Sulawesi, intending to follow with blog posts on a cross-section of the villages I had visited. Instead, by having chosen a village in Bali,  here, as the next one to describe, I got side-tracked; got lost in reading for background, in discovering Bali’s unique agricultural-community system, plus its art, and all that interspersed with reading into Island South East Asian history.  Finally, eight blog posts later I woke up, realized I had researched enough, analyzed enough on how Bali became and continued to be, quoting Jawaharlal Nehru, a land like “the morning of the world,” and moved on from this project, interesting to me as it is, to write about my other interests.

I live in my fourth stage of life (defined here) and use my blog as memoire, writing on my many years in a cross-cultural Indian-American marriage, on being an expatriate wife and a mother while keeping house in the U.S., Somalia, Turkey and Paris, having taught anthropology in the 1960s and done sociological studies through the decades, an MBA in hospital/health services, and finally worked in public health programs in the U.S., Turkey, India, Indonesia.  

I have, for example, a set of curios that with one exception has been kept more in storage than on display but now, after years of invisibility, has me thinking of where I acquired them. I recall having been in Medan, a large city in northern Sumatra, the largest of Indonesia’s island, based there for work, physically in the city but not seeing it. (On the map to the left, Medan is marked as Aru, the name of a kingdom in the land many centuries ago.) I was once sent to Kuala Lumpur to meet with government officials but unexpectedly they had no time for me and unintentionally I had time to be a traveler, to move around in the downtown, even in a residential area, to observe, to chat up people. I still remember experiencing that city and gaining at least some small insight into Malaysia as a nation. No such luck in Medan, but because of my curios I’ve gone on-line to discover something of what I missed.  

And how did I rediscover these particular curios? It began with setting up a bookcase, placing on it a lamp from our Paris past, selecting three objects that by form and size somehow belonged together with the lamp and arranging them in a row. Behind the bookcase display is a Miró poster from the Paris Centre Pompidou. And what are the objects? Next to the lamp is a degchi, a brass cooking pot from India, tinned on the inside and with a tinned cover that during cooking is sealed to the pot by a ring of dough. Ravi’s cousin, the cousin in Delhi who lived near the old city, gave it to me. In the 1980s I often stayed with him and his family and became very fond of them. I remember especially having walked with the daughters along the fascinating Chandni Chowk. At the other end of the bookcase top is a small pottery bowl given us by Ravi’s boyhood friend from Bombay who settled in the States, a wonderful individual with a wonderful wife and children. The bowl was made by Bill Robbins, a potter in eastern Iowa, in country similar to the American Midwest where I grew up.

Between the brass pot and the ceramic pot sits a wooden container with a remarkable lid, carved by a craftsman of the Batak people who live near Medan. Another of my Batak curios, also from Medan, now hanging on a wall in my dining room, originally had strings, as if it were a musical instrument, but on seeing it in a shop where an Indonesian colleague had taken me, I thought of it simply as art, as sculpture. The shop owner was pleased that I wanted to buy it. Evidently, it had been gathering dust on the shelf for quite a long time. I remember the colleague who took me into the shop, one of the agreeable individuals from Medan I worked with in a program bringing modern medical services to people living in still traditional communities outside Medan. And memories of the city? I had no time then to explore Medan but can do so now, at least through reading and pictures, and with great rewards. I’ve learned a bit of Medan’s history, which is now part of my personal history. 

I was in Medan in 1993 on a consultancy, on a research project in public health, the only non-Indonesian on a team of highly qualified health professionals, all of whom spoke fluent English. As in my previous consultancies in Indonesia, all healthcare related, I was fascinated with the project and thoroughly engaged in working with my colleagues. I knew nothing of Medan and the standard hotel where I was housed hardly inspired me to explore the city. During the day, riding through city streets in the official vehicle that took our team to and from the building where we met and worked or to and from the rural communities that were the subjects of our study, I was too involved in thought or conversation for gazing out windows. In the evenings, when not engaged in work, I walked from the hotel to the home of a colleague whose house was in the Dutch colonial style, quite like a house in Menteng, a neighborhood in Jakarta I knew from previous assignments. That delightful house, built on a street in a 1930s Dutch colonial suburb, had become a guest house and something of a home for me in the city.  I regret not learning more about my friend’s Medan neighborhood.   

When first working in Indonesia, the sights and the culture were a surprise for me, different in so many ways from countries and cultures in my part of the world — European, Middle Eastern, South Asian — all from an interconnected land mass, most descended from the same basic Neolithic Revolution that had begun by 9000 BCE and developed into a Bronze Age by 3000 BCE. I picture societies based on wheat agriculture, maybe rice in India, with cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, the horse from the steppes of central Asia, societies where people move on roads in and between villages, towns and cities, everyone depending upon the horse, plus the donkey and oxen, for transportation and the movement of goods. 

By contrast, Indonesia is a country of islands and its people, the Austronesians, arrived there by 4000 BCE, by sea, migrating in boats, moving in the outrigger canoe and ships with sails, bringing with them a Neolithic culture that originated, most likely, along the Yangtze River, one based on rice and millet agriculture; pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs; as well as pottery, basketry and weaving. The water buffalo, essential in paddy rice agriculture, and important symbolically, may have appeared in their Bronze Age. Bronze artifacts began appearing by 1500 BCE, indicating that communities were large and chieftainships could evolve into kingdoms where, in these island settings, waterways were their main roads and highways. I wrote here in a blog post on Bali what I learned of the Maritime Silk Road that flourished between the 2nd century BCE and 15th century CE, connecting Southeast Asia with China, India, Arab lands, and of the kingdoms, the thalassocracies, with large ships that ruled over coastal cities and through force or threat of force controlled the trade between them.

Medan City sits across from the Malay Peninsula at a site where two rivers drain into the Strait of Malacca, the channel through which trade between the Indian and Pacific Oceans has streamed for millennia, one of the most important shipping lanes in the world, and still the busiest in the world. The people of the city are the Karo, distantly related to the rural Batak tribes, an urban people who, beginning in the 13th century, organized and built a kingdom that by the15th century was a maritime power controlling the northern part of the Malacca Strait. In 1630, the Karo Aru Kingdom was conquered by a Sultanate from further north but nevertheless prospered and became a Sultanate named for Medan’s Deli river. 

Food for the early Karo people was rice (farmed, not paddy rice), coconuts and bananas; poultry, the water buffalo; game hunted in the forests. They wove cotton cloth, so unless they traded for the fiber, they must have grown cotton, a plant from India. They used forest commodities such as rattan, camphor, ling aloes, frankincense, benzoin, honey, plus gold mined inland as goods to be traded for the salt and metal weapons/tools they needed and the silk cloth and luxury items they wanted. Slaves were sold in at least one of the kingdom’s town markets. Influences from China and India are evident throughout the region.

The Suez Canal opened in 1869, transforming Southeast Asia. It gave European traders, via the Mediterranean and Red seas, a much shorter and safer route to Asia, one avoiding the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. For Medan, the changes were profound. Amsterdam ran the world’s largest tobacco market. Sultanate of Deli tobacco plantation owners, plus European entrepreneurs settled in Medan, became among the world’s largest tobacco producers, providing the means through which Medan developed as a prosperous world connected city. One area of Medan is known as Polonia after the Polish Baron Malachowski who was given land for a tobacco plantation and prospered.  Here for photos of the rich and attractive architecture that expresses Medan as an amazing ethnically diverse city – with Indian, Chinese, European, different Indonesian communities, all building in their own style. I love the post-prosperity Karo residential architecture. Today Medan’s culture and its continuing prosperity is based, as in its early history, on being a center for trade.

And what a difference. My time in a Batak community to interview and gather data was brief, but I was impressed that where the Javanese where orderly and subdued in manner, the Batak were open, talkative, and their village far from orderly. I remember that being there was fun. (Much has been written about Batak cannibalism but that’s not for discussion here.)

Here for images and explanations of Batak artwork, and here for the 1983 account by William Finnegan of his visit to a Batak village at Lake Toba in a remote area reached by a three hour drive from Medan. Note that these Batak were growing paddy rice, which provided them with sufficient food to remain independent and held them in a pattern of social relationships that results in a well governed community. I discussed paddy rice agriculture here, mid-essay, in three different cultures. 

From Finnegan’s article on the Batak —  “…. the traditional, or adat-style, Batak houses. Often hundreds of years old, constructed entirely without nails and up to 60 feet long, a Batak house may have as many as 12 families living inside it. Its most distinctive feature is its tremendous, saddle-backed, twin-peaked roof, which is made from a special palm fiber and commonly anchored by long poles in a manner reminiscent of the stone-weighted chalets in Switzerland.

“Upon closer inspection, Batak houses reveal another extraordinary dimension: their decoration. Fantastic mosaics and carvings of snakes, lizards, serpents, magic birds, monsters known as singa, manlike figures and double spirals adorn the beams and the front facade. Water buffalo horns hang from the gables and the jutting roof-points, and whole carved water buffalo heads with arched necks and lowered horns glare down from blind dormers. Carvings are painted in the Batak holy colors, red, white and black.” It’s possible I acquired the traditional, authentic medicine horn in the Medan village, and most likely the other in the shop, along with the carved container and my Batak sculpture.

For all that I experienced in villages and cities across Indonesia and have written here in my blog, it wasn’t until learning about Medan as a center for trade that it occurred to me how closely my personal life is, in quite another way, tied to that part of the world.

From the Indian store today I brought home ground turmeric, cinnamon, red pepper, amchur, plus seeds that I grind — mustard, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, cloves, (all so fragrant). Plus two bags of the Assam tea we prefer. Plus basmati rice. I already had a good supply of cardamom seeds, nutmeg, fenugreek, ginger, kalonji and curry leaves. I look at these colorful wonders spread across my kitchen counter and think of the spice trade on the Silk Road from China to Constantinople, then of the maritime trade between Europe and southeast Asia begun in the 1500s by the Portuguese in their galleons, dangerous and expensive but incredibly profitable. The European demand for spices drove the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance and it ushered in an age of European domination in the East. The spice trade is no longer central to international trade but it’s still happening and certainly important to me. 

It’s been months since I’ve written anything on my aging self in the fourth stage of life. Writing is time consuming and I’ve needed to focus on the state of my health and what my inevitably diminished capacities mean for others in the household with me. We carried on, from one day to the next, busy with mundane matters not worth recording, and, then, suddenly, something happened that I absolutely must, to clarify my thinking, deal with through writing. Talking is useless. Meaningful words have not come to my aid. Only tears.

A friend committed suicide. She was dear to me, good company, the one remaining contact with my youth. We had been friends in college, beginning in 1950, on into the mid 1960s, then did not see one another until nine years ago, when we met again and immediately fell into conversation as if we had never been apart. Unfortunately, we had settled in retirement on opposite ends of the U.S., but once, when she was traveling through my part of the country, she stayed with me for a week, after which we continually emailed one another. It was the sort of friendship that, given my sannyasa lifestyle, was fine with me. Until ten days ago. 

Ten days ago, at what was still nighttime for her and early morning for me, she sent me, and a number of her other friends, an email to say goodbye. Just goodbye, it’s been nice knowing you. I cannot bring myself to reread the email for her exact words but she did add that she had a “stash” (of drugs) that would put her permanently to sleep. There was no talking with her; she had disconnected her phone. Frantic, I emailed and she responded immediately, insisting I do nothing, that she was in continual pain with sciatica, that she had no intention of ending up like the other people in her senior residence she had watched slip into a long miserable, lingering prelude to the inevitable.  

I had to stop her. She was five years younger than I, had seemed very much alive, had written that she planned to see another doctor about controlling her pain. I tried phoning the office in her residence but no one answered. I do not know her children or anyone close to her, so in desperation called the police department in her town, informed them of her email and described the building where she lived. Within an hour a police officer phoned me and reported that she was alive and in an ambulance on the way to a hospital. 

Two days later she sent me an angry email. She wrote that through a family member she had all her affairs in order, knew what she was doing and I had cruelly prevented her from going peacefully into an end of life sleep. Instead, she wrote, she is black and blue from the police pounding on her chest and doctors sticking needles in her and she resents the psychotherapists who bothered her with stupid questions and hates it that everyone in the residence is whispering about her. I wrote that I love her, as do all her friends, that we want her to recover and be with us. She did not respond. I waited, hoping, but the following day her son sent an email to all of us on her email list, informing us she had used the remainder of her stash to end her life and he would hold a ceremony in remembrance of her.

I am grieving in a way I’ve never felt before. When Ravi, my husband, passed away, and that is the proper way to express his death, I was with him. His last words were of wanting me to be safe and happy and mine that I loved him. Some days later our son who lives in Paris, members of Ravi’s family who are living in the States, a childhood friend from Bombay, local friends, friends from elsewhere in the States, all came to our home for the memorial service my daughter, adopted son and I held for them. Among the Indians was an elderly aunt who conducted the traditional Hindu funeral ceremony, elaborate and solemn with fire and recitations, followed by our gathering together, speaking of Ravi, exchanging our favorite memories of him, then sharing a repast. (I am in tears as I remember those moments.)

Tears for my friend’s goodbye feel different. And as I’ve discovered from others who’ve lost a loved one through suicide, there will be no end to the grief I feel when I think of her. 

I’ve rarely thought of suicide or its incidence but from all that I now read there is no society anywhere in which the taking of one’s life is acceptable. It is a sin. For a great social cause, as in a war or for the religion, when sacrifice is needed to save others from harm, individuals may, even should, put their own lives at risk. They are remembered as warriors and martyrs. They know that ceremonies will be held in their memory and memorials built to honor them. For a natural death, especially for the elderly, the culture provides a funeral ceremony designed for family and friends to reconcile themselves to their loss. For a solitary suicide there is no ritual for reconciliation; family and friends grieve individually, each seeking his/her own answer to why it happened.

Charles Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species that “Natural selection will never produce in a being anything injurious to itself,” but in humans, natural selection has failed in that regard. According to the World Health Organization, worldwide suicide is the leading cause of violent death, striking down about 800,000 people each year, more than in all wars and murders combined, and the reason for anyone wanting to die could be that it is a rational way to deal with unbearable pain, either physical or emotional. The author of this article explores how suicide has been perceived in different times and different cultures. I read that persons suffering from depression are more likely to commit suicide. 

We also have the sociological perspective. Emile Durkheim, in the late 1890s, in France, after gathering data on suicides by religious affiliation, Catholic or Protestant, concluded that although people may have a mental illness or be depressed, they take their own lives because of social forces, of becoming isolated, less a part of a community. The more socially integrated a person is – connected to society, possesses a feeling of general belonging and a sense that life makes sense within the social context – the less likely s/he is to commit suicide. As social integration decreases generally, people are more likely to commit suicide. (but my friend was not socially isolated.)

People suffering from suicidal thoughts can be helped and suicides prevented. All the research into motives for and prevention of suicide show this. Professional counselling services are effective, even those by telephone that are available in many cities and counties for anyone to call. Whether in a health center, a hospital or other facility, a crisis counselor listens sympathetically, advises the person needing help and follows through with later outreach. “Helping people feel understood and cared about saves lives.”

However, considering suicide at the end of life is a different matter, and naturally, I think about how my own life will end. As an 89 year old American woman I have, according to life expectancy tables, two more years of life, the quality of which will determined by the state of my health and the medical care I receive.

The medical aspect is particularly fascinating. In public discussions, as well as in legal documents, medical services are called “health care” but we all know full well that although health and medicine are related they are not synonymous. Medicine —  meaning the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation or cure of disease —  has been with us since the beginning of human societies, first with the shaman and bone setter and herbalist, then in the great civilizations with systems of medicine, including the Greek and Roman, Chinese traditional medicine, ayurvedia in India, all of them practiced by medicine men who realistically could make little to no difference in the course of their patients’ lives or how long their patients lived. Then in Europe, beginning in the 1800s, through the continuing advancement of the sciences, a science-based system of medicine, our modern medical care, evolved, has become universal and universally practiced. And it has transformed our lives and our world. 

Consequences for the individual in contemporary society of having or not having access to modern medical care are so enormous that doctors, medicine’s prime practitioners, have acquired a role in our society not unlike that of the priest in traditional societies. In ways mysterious to other of us mere mortals they speak and act for an institution that is central to our lives throughout the life span, but especially for the early years and for the elderly. I remember the years when the Pediatrician was an important figure in my life, treating my children until they were old enough for the less frequently visited family General Practitioner. Then for Ravi in his last years it was a series of specialists, going from one to another, as it now is for me. In 1995, at age 65, when we joined our university medical school and hospital based clinic system, I asked about having a Geriatrician for what would soon become a changing end-of-life body and had the very idea of it dismissed. Now a few Geriatricians do practice within this very large system and none are taking new patients. Fortunately, I have as my primary care provider a Nurse Practitioner who is experienced within the system and knows me well.  

One of the few guides I’ve had for thinking about these last years is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End. He is from the high priesthood of medicine, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a professor in Harvard Medical School and in Public Health, the recipient of many awards. I first read him in the New Yorker magazine. He writes skillfully and amiably against the medicalization of death, of over-medication generally. Quoting from the Epilogue of Being Mortal. “(We doctors) have been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when disability comes, but all along the way ….” and he goes on to discuss palliative care for the dying patient. In his discussion of avoiding over-medication and the misuse/overuse of medications and medical facilities I thought of the phrase “First, Do No Harm.”  

So here we are. Hospice  — the medical system returning as near as can be managed in today’s world to the traditional mode of the aged person waiting for a “natural” death at home in the bosom of the family. Hospice is end of life care for patients who have, by medical diagnosis, no more than six more months to live. A doctor determines when a patient is ready for hospice and may prescribe medications to control pain but not to treat illness or disease.

Going a step further, Marcia Angell, in an excellent article (New York Review of Books Feb.21, 2013) on the Death With Dignity movement, wrote that sometimes hospice care is not enough, that for some patients no medication can relieve the pain and for others their suffering is primarily from a loss of autonomy, of being utterly helpless. Like my friend, they had seen others die a miserable, protracted death from an incurable illness, and they fear that for themselves. The DWD citizens organization protects the right of a person with terminal illness to control his/her own death.They helped write and defend in courts the nation’s first successful assisted dying law, the state of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.

Through physician assisted dying the medical priesthood sanctions self-willed death, bringing it into the social framework. A physician/doctor “knowingly and intentionally provides a person with the knowledge or means or both required to commit suicide, including counseling about lethal doses of drugs, prescribing such lethal doses or supplying the drugs,” bringing the act within social legitimacy. In Oregon, when death is imminent (half a year or less) patients can choose to have assisted death as a medical option to shorten what the person perceives to be an unbearable dying process, and the reasons were not those one might expect.  Patients talked not primarily of physical pain but of the decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (96.2%), loss of autonomy (92.4%), and loss of dignity (78.4%)

Where does this leave me?  I reread the many emails my friend had written to me over the years and finally understand why she no longer wished to be alive. She wrote “….Have you considered how many more old people are around than in any other time or place? And how we live alienated from all following generations by the pace and nature of change? We are no longer role models for today’s youth as they age. …” For months she had been in continual pain. And she was not living with family. Instead, for more than a decade she had been in a residence for the elderly, most of them retired professors, lawyers, government employees. She had written “… after a fall or illness they come back and are almost their old selves. (It’s wonderful, in a macabre way, what modern medicine can accomplish.) Most become pretty much invisible, or sit around the dining room or lounge for large parts of every day until another breakdown sends them to the hospital again. We have a lot of memorial services. Those who ‘wander off’ eventually get removed …  those who are just too much trouble, what with meds, and falls, and getting fed are taken away by their relatives. And there are quite a few who go on for years and years, so infirm that they have to have daily help but still functioning mentally–strong personalities who refuse to be sent to the nursing home. The hard part in thinking about this is trying to anticipate the route oneself will go. … … the usual end point is a fall at about 85, followed by surgery, followed by a very brief recovery aided by lots of morphine and antibiotics followed by a fairly rapid descent into dementia and death. The hideousness of this has me hoping that I will recognize when I get to the brink, and do myself in instead.” 

I am trying to absorb my friend’s view of her life. I know quite a few persons who have moved into a senior residence and this is the first such negative account I’ve read or heard of living in one. I failed to understand her, to catch the meaning of what she was writing to me. I know she would continue being angry with me, but I still cannot accept her suicide, can still be brought to tears when thinking of it. 

Ravi had suffered for years with dementia but at the end was at peace and slipped away into sleep. Like most people, I would like to die while asleep but more likely will come to my end in hospice, overseen by a doctor or nurse. My failing body will, I believe, have me reconciled to death as the natural end that comes to all living things. And my children will continue in their lives with, I hope, fond memories of me. 

I watched Charade in 1964, again this week, and again thoroughly enjoyed it. I even remembered much of the rather silly plot that is full of non-sequiturs, the clever dialogue and improbable set pieces of action that are fun to follow. (Here for the plot and a history of the film.)  Plus, who would not enjoy seeing Gary Grant and Audrey Hepburn together, despite it being another instance of Hollywood casting a popular male actor as the romantic partner of a woman young enough to be his daughter.  In Charade, however, Grant, 59 years old, and Hepburn, 33, had the good sense to recognize the age difference and to devise an understandable, less incongruous path for their characters’ mutual attraction.

The movie’s action, and there’s lots of it, happens in Les Halles, on the Champ Elysees, in the Palais Royale, on the streets, at Metro stops (I wish the Guimard metro entrances were more on view) and in chases through the Metro, but the key scene has Hepburn and Grant in the Carré Marigny, a park off the Champs Elysees, and is the reason I watched the movie again.

This guide to a walk down the Champs Elysees helps locate the Carré Marigny and the stamp market between the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde. I think in terms of the metro stops. First a stop at the Etoile and next the George V. For going to the Petit and Grand Palais one exits from the Franklin D Roosevelt stop at the rond-point or the Champs Elysees Clemenceau, for the Place de la Concorde, at the Concord.

Hepburn and Crant are twice in the Carré Marigny, the first time with a large audience of small children happily watching the traditional puppet show with its central figure Guignol. The second time we see more of the park and finally Hepburn and others in the stamp market moving through the narrow, crowded aisle between the two rows of temporary covered stalls, the sort set up by the city for weekly street food markets such as the one in front of my apartment building on Blvd Raspail, but here each table covered with innumerable stamps, books of stamps, sheets of stamps hanging from the top and side railings. It’s a scene I visited weekly for years, where I had my favorite venders and exchanged greetings with a few of the other regulars. On seeing it my heart skipped a beat.  (Here for photos of the stamp market)

I watched the stamp market scene one more time before returning the DVD. I suppose my stamp collection has become another of my curios, but one that is especially important to me. I still find my stamps endlessly interesting.

It was the Paris stamp market that turned me into a stamp collector. One afternoon, coming out of the Champs-Élysées – Clemenceau metro on my way to a favorite bookstore on Avenue Matignon, I noticed people milling about at the Avenue Gabriel, plus further into the park another center of activity, and stopped to investigate. At the street corner were tables covered with folders and various containers of postage stamps and men, most of them quite young, discussing, exchanging, purchasing stamps. Beyond that site was the stamp market. I joined in, began looking at the stamps and for the first time regarded them as something other than items necessary for using the postal service.

Seeing how attractive so many of the stamps were, some a miniature work of art, I bought a few, and later, at home, reflecting on how they called attention to places I’d never before noticed, decided to go again and look at other stamps. I had no idea of collecting stamps, had never known or known of a stamp collector. My husband, Ravi, had mentioned that as a child in India he saved stamps and kept them in an album that, unfortunately, his father, while traveling, long ago, had lost. As a child and into his teens, my son, Arun, without the fact registering with me, had collected stamps. When he discovered that I was collecting he gave me his stamps, which I, before I understood the personal importance of a collection, unwisely integrated into my own collection.

In Paris, as I examined that multitude of stamps, each beautifully printed with a different image, it occurred to me that someone on high was deciding what places, what objects, what events in France and French history were worthy of being honored by a postage stamp everyone everywhere could see, appreciate and use. I thought this meaningful and that I should pay attention, become informed. I knew virtually nothing about France. Ravi, not I, had decided we would live in Paris, just as his career choices and preference had always determined where we lived. I went along, made each apartment or house our home, saw to the children’s schooling and our family life. For myself, in the States, in Somalia, and in Turkey I managed to teach or do a research project part-time, all of which helped me make friends, engage in the environment and keep my professional identity intact.

Paris, however, was different. I soon learned that opportunities for working in my field, for working at all, were non-existent, but alternatively, that doing short-term consultancies in developing countries might be possible. Finally, with persistence and some luck, I became a consultant for UNICEF, WHO and other international organizations concerned with public health, work for which I had prepared myself. At home, in Paris, I spent much of my time preparing for another assignment elsewhere, hanging out in a social science library, talking with professors and mostly foreign students. I became friendly with a few French individuals but circumstances seemed always against our becoming friends. (discussed here in the letter dated New York 13 January 1995)

Becoming a collector of French stamps connected me to my life in Paris. I bought all the stamps of Paris buildings and places I could find in the market, now in my Paris album, and went from there to learn what it was they pictured. I had regularly walked by historic buildings, such as the historic Institut de France on the quai across from the Pont des Arts, without seeing them. After studying its stamp, reading and asking questions, a building took on meaning for me; it ceased being invisible.

After a while I also collected other French stamps, arranging them in an album by Region and Department as a picture guide for what would be interesting to see and visit when Ravi proposed that we drive somewhere over a weekend or for a vacation. I learned more this way than by following the usual tourist destinations. Soon, stamp collecting being additive, I spread out to small collections on other countries, especially Turkey, and to a collection on architecture. Most surprising is my album of stamps issued to celebrate the victory and the end World War II, a collection initially inspired by the American stamp of troops marching down the Champs Elysees, planes overhead, the magnificent Arc de Triomphe in the background.

In my fourth stage of life, my stamp collection reminds me of where I have been, of what I saw and experienced, of who I am.