One of my favorite things that has been going around the internet for some time is the EMO person who posted, “What if he’s your Romeo, but you’re not his Juliet?” The lightning-fast response was, “That means you’re his Rosaline and you survive the friggin’ play.”
Despite the reality of what happens to the “star cross’d lovers,” the persistence in thinking of them as the romantic ideal lives on.
Most people, even those who have never read or seen the play, are more likely to conjure up this image, or something close to it, than gruesome deaths:
I didn’t know, however, until I heard a story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” yesterday, that men (mostly, I guess) have been penning letters to Juliet for centuries. Initially, shortly after the play’s performances, people left notes at what was thought to be her tomb. The numbers of letters left became so great that the post office of Verona established a special office to handle the volume.
The remarkable thing about the letters left for Juliet is that she actually answers. Well, understudies for Juliet do. Dozens of volunteers in Verona, who call themselves “The Juliet Club” answer, by hand, each of the 6,000+ letters addressed to Shakespeare’s heroine each year. All of the letters are retained in a massive archive, to which more letters are regularly added.
The job must be tough but many of the volunteers have been at it for ten and twenty years, some even longer. What do they say to these heartbroken people? Here is one of their answers to someone who was driving herself crazy asking, “What if?”
“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if? I don’t know how your story ended but if what you felt then was true love, then it’s never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn’t it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart. I don’t know what a love like Juliet’s feels like – love to leave loved ones for, love to cross oceans for but I’d like to believe if I ever were to feel it, that I will have the courage to seize it. And, Claire, if you didn’t, I hope one day that you will. All my love, Juliet”
You can read more about the long history of the Juliet Project in Lise Friedman’s study, Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love
If you’ve ever crooned along to Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” you might remember the line about the “sixteen vestal virgins.” Probably, you happily sang along without a clue as to what “vestal” really means. In ancient Rome, “vestals” were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, who was the goddess of the hearth. Her priestesses attended an eternal flame that was never allowed to go out. These attendants took vows of chastity and devoted themselves to religious tasks that were off limits to priests and other men. Vestal virgins could be easily identified by their elaborate hairstyles composed of six intricate braids which were artistically wrapped around the head.
A few years ago, professional stylist and amateur archaeologist Janet Stephens became interested in just how the hairstyles were physically possible. She practiced on dozens of mannequin heads, but despite her laborious attempts, none could hold the shape for very long. She ensconced herself in college research libraries, looking at everything she could find about hairstyles of ancient Roman women. As she soon discovered, until very recently, most scholarship has been conducted by men who had little interest in the fashions of women other than the very elite, and even that was scarce. For seven years, Stephens came up empty handed in her research and frustrated as she continued her attempts at re-creation on mannequins.
Until one day, she happened upon a little fragment of a mention from an scholar who had been writing several hundred years prior. This scholar mentioned a long needle that was made for both embroidery and for sewing of hairstyles. With a little more detective work, Stephens was able to track down the type of embroidery needle. Excited, she tried it on her wigged heads and voila! It worked!
Not completely content with her discovery, Stephens wanted to try it on a “live” head. She placed an ad in the college paper asking for models. One woman answered and through what was surely trying for both of them, the hairstyle was finally achieved:
First, Stephens found, the Vestal’s hair would be separated into sections, each of which would be braided into six separate braids, including a pair of cornrow braids that ran flat across the head above the ears. The hair around the hairline would then be wrapped around a cord, which would then be tied at the nape of the neck. Leftover loose hair from around the face would then be weaved into a final, seventh braid.
Next, the first six braids would be brought around the back of the head and tied in pairs in half square knots. The ends of the braids would then be wrapped up to the front of the head and secured to the cornrow braids above the ears. Then, the seventh braid would have been tucked up and coiled at the back of the head underneath the knotted braids.
The entire process takes about 35-40 minutes, but Stephen feels that two slaves were probably able to do so in about ten minutes. Interestingly, she also discovered that only women with waist-length hair had enough hair to achieve the style.
Check out Janet Stephen’s YouTube channel to watch her fascinating work on the “vestals” and many other ancient hairstyles.
I don’t know about you, but when I go to bed at night, my brain goes into Super Worry Overdrive. I worry about my bills, my kids, my first drafts (like Anne Lamott, I am afraid someone will find my unedited work and will assume I have committed suicide when I realized my talent was gone).
One of my favorite Tumblr’s, This Isn’t Happiness, recently posted a list of things very intelligent people worry about. Spoiler Alert: Whether they can continue to continue paying for HBO is not on the list. I had to look up some of the things they worry about. Suddenly, whether my cats need therapy or not (they do) is not as pressing. Apparently, I, and you, have more troubling things to keep us on edge:
- The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
- Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
- That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
- That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
- That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist
- Genuine apocalyptic events. The growing number of low-probability events that could lead to the total devastation of human society. – Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society
- The decline in science coverage in newspapers. – Barbara Strauch, New York Times science editor
- Exploding stars, the eventual collapse of the Sun, and the problems with the human id that prevent us from dealing with them. — John Tooby, founder of the field of evolutionary psychology
- That the internet is ruining writing. – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist
- That smart people—like those who contribute to Edge—won’t do politics. –Brian Eno, musician
- That there will be another supernova-like financial disaster. –Seth Lloyd, professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering at MIT
- That search engines will become arbiters of truth. —W. Daniel Hillis,