To Colonize

When French explorers landed upon Nova Scotia in 1617, it is believed they brought with them the smallpox virus that nearly obliterated the Indian population of what would later become known as New England. In 1633 another smallpox epidemic raged, this time across the Boston area. It infected colonists and Indians alike. Approximately 1,000 Indians became sick with smallpox and more than 950 died. Native peoples had virtually no natural protection against the disease, leaving them more susceptible. Yet, as unknowing hosts, they gave the virus the very fuel it needed to continue spreading across the North American continent.

This region of New England, better known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would endure a half dozen more outbreaks, some quite significant, before the end of the seventeenth century. But going into the eighteenth century, Boston was different. The city had a number of quarantine regulations in place. The people who lived there were now better protected than they had ever been. 

Colonists endured, as an unquestionable reality of life, a barrage of infectious diseases. Their children, and their children’s children, were also familiar with sickness and death. Smallpox and yellow fever. Influenza and diphtheria. Cholera and typhoid. Before it was even understood how diseases were spread, quarantine measures were often imposed.

New York City was the first American city to enact a localized quarantine order during a cholera outbreak in 1663. Boston went on lockdown in 1783 to halt the spread of yellow fever. Philadelphia, only ten years later, lost over 10% of its population to a smallpox outbreak. Officials only managed to slow the spread of the disease by imposing isolation orders on those who remained in the city. History shows us that most of the time isolation has worked in our favor. 

Viruses, such as influenza and smallpox, and bacteria, such as cholera and typhoid, are often confused as one and the same. But viruses cannot survive without a host, which gives them their only opportunity to reproduce. Bacteria are much more self-sufficient. Viruses cause disease whereas bacteria can be quite beneficial. One thing they both have in common, though, is the ability to colonize a person’s body, leaving them asymptomatic and completely unaware they are carrying the illness. A colonized body is not an infected body, but it still must become an isolated body so as not to infect others. 

It’s an interesting choice of words, isn’t it? Colonize. Historically, colonizers have been brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. The violence inflicted by colonizers upon a body of people is such that the people yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. It is how our country came to be and it is how our country has endured. It is both an individual surrender and a collective one. American history simply begins a new chapter each time.

Yet here we are again in the very beginning of a new chapter. What is being inflicted by colonizers this time is upon single bodies, and it is not violent. It is in my body, perhaps yours, too, but we feel fine. We walk the aisles of the grocery store because we are bored, or take too many visits to Home Depot because we have time, tired of being stuck in our homes. We do not practice social distancing. We do not stay in the house. Some of us do not even believe such measures are necessary. We are asymptomatic, completely unaware. With each breath, each touch, each close encounter, the virus is spreading because of us. We have unknowingly become colonized.

People must acknowledge that quarantines, whether imposed by law or by self, buy researchers the time they need to understand the disease. Quarantine is not a punishment, just as it is not the cure. There is no cure. Coronavirus, like smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, and AIDS, is the oppressor. It is violating the social order. It is recreating cultural norms. It is making people so sick that they yield, they submit, and they eventually succumb. Over a quarter million Americans are infected. Hundreds of thousands of us could die from this. Most of the sick will recover. But many of us are simply colonized.

Colonists, their children, and their children’s children, endured the grim realities of infectious disease outbreaks. They accepted the brutal deaths that accompanied these epidemics as a part of life. If our bodies are colonized by the virus, then we, too, are victims. But if we continue to break quarantine, we are no longer victims. We have become the colonizers. We have become the brutal oppressors, intent on violating the social order and recreating cultural norms. We bring the virus with us everywhere we go. We ARE the virus.

 

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artwork by David Owens, 2020

 

A Quarter of My Life

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My husband and I have been fans of Lord Huron for quite some time. When we lived in Cleveland and found out their tour was bringing them to town we set reminders for ourselves to buy tickets the minute they were on sale. Then we moved to New Hampshire about a week before the show, giving up our tickets to people I barely knew. A few weeks later they were going to be in Portsmouth performing a free outdoor concert at Prescott Park. The night of the show an intense storm rolled through the area. It poured buckets. Lightning and thunder. The whole bit. We didn’t see them that night either since the show was canceled on account of dangerous weather.

And so we found ourselves driving to Portland, Maine one night back in July. Another chance to see Lord Huron! Another outdoor concert, too, but this time it wasn’t free. We bought tickets, booked a hotel, and watched the weather reports all week. The night of the show we reveled in our good luck. The weather was nothing short of spectacular. As was the show itself.

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Lord Huron sings about the places where I grew up. I literally just did the math and even I’m surprised to learn that I’ve lived a quarter of my life on the Great Lakes – first Huron, then Superior, then Erie. In between I spent holidays and summers with my mother’s family near Lake Michigan. A few years ago my husband and I spent a couple of nights in Buffalo, New York, and made a point to drive to the Lake Ontario shoreline. She was my last lake to visit, a final check on the Great Lakes bucket list. On the way home to Cleveland we talked about me getting a Great Lakes tattoo for my next birthday. I never did.

My birthday is coming up and I have yet to shake the idea. Clearly those lakes mean a great deal to me. I have yet to shake them, too, I guess.

Indie Bookstore Day 2017

Last month I rallied up the family for a literary adventure through Cleveland. I had recently heard about Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually on the last Saturday of April, and I thought it would be a fun way for us to see some of the city while we supported local businesses. Since I was finishing up a final assignment on this particular Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time. Otherwise we would have hit up more than just the two stores we visited.

Our first stop was Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland. Right away I knew I was going to love this place. I mean, just take a look at the mural that’s painted on the side of their building. It pretty much gives you an idea of how seriously they take their books.

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Once inside, it’s easy to see how Loganberry Books serves as a community anchor. Not only does it extend back and feature a fair amount of new and used books of every genre, but there are other rooms off to the side for author signings and art exhibits. They even have live music events.

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And in the back room, the Lit Arts room, is a bookstore cat. His name is Otis. He really didn’t seem to care that so many people were hovering around, and why would he? He’s used to it. But the day was especially drizzly and gray, and the cat bed was warm. The cat bed was electric! (I have something similar. I have an electric heated mattress cover.) I left Loganberry with two books: Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land by Lauret Savoy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America.

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Our second stop was to Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. It’s a much smaller bookshop, but it still felt very much like a bookshop. The owner seemed very excited to meet and greet everyone who came inside, and was super helpful in locating for me a copy of American War by Omar El Akkad.

The walls of Appletree are papered in book pages. And then there’s the staircase…

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After our short tour of Cleveland area bookstores, we found a soul food restaurant on Shaker Square, splurged on some shrimp po’ boy sliders and red Kool-aid (that’s how it’s listed on the menu: red or purple Kool-aid).

And then we returned home so I could finish a paper on the role smallpox played in the founding of America. I submitted it the following day and received a note from my professor urging me to consider the topic as my master’s thesis. I chose another topic, though, which I’m excited to share here on this blog once I get everything approved. And so it seems I’m committed to one final paper before I graduate, before I can finally get around to reading those three books I just bought.

Believe me, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to Independent Bookstore Day 2018. For now, I’ll leave you with a closer look at that beautiful book mural.

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