July 4: 248 Years to be Grateful For

Of all the passages in my new novel Freedom’s Ghost, the one that readers have most often commented on is the scene in which an escaped slave is being offered his freedom and he recoils:

“My freedom ain’t yers to give,” he growls, “I have to earn it.”

It is a simple but profound sentiment, and one worth pondering as we celebrate the birth of our nation, the only one ever founded on freedom. In recent years, especially since the outbreak of protests after October 7, we have seen too many examples of those who take their freedom for granted, as if freedom were owed to them (and often as if their version of freedom empowered them to take it from others).

But their rights are not guaranteed simply by being present in America. Men and women with much more moral fiber and, I daresay, better knowledge of our country’s values and its value to the world, fought and died for those rights. Perhaps recent generations are too far removed from such struggles—today many never knew someone who fought in the great wars, let alone felt the
anguish of losing someone who died in the cause of liberty and democracy. Our affluence and shallow self-absorptions distance us from the challenges to liberty, and of liberty.

Freedom is not a jewel to be placed in some museum and admired from afar. It is a living thing, the prize possession of our country and its citizens. We need to take its responsibilities more personally. It is an affront to the noble freedom fighters of our past to assume we can simply let our military or government protect it. We will not value it if we do not nurture and defend it ourselves, in our personal niche of the country. It was why an escaped slave, despite being desperate for freedom, says it must be earned. It is why Franklin Roosevelt declared that “freedom cannot be bestowed, it much be achieved.”

Let us take time over this Fourth holiday to consider the special challenges that defending our freedoms, large and small, present these days, and give thanks to those who have protected them in the past. We should do more to deserve our ancestors.

Eliot Pattison

40,000 Years of Gratitude

For an enlightening Thanksgiving exercise, ask those celebrating with you for the one word that spontaneously comes to mind when thinking of the holiday. You are likely to hear responses as varied as turkey, family, traffic, Pilgrims, pie, laughter, cranberries, and love. My own word is the “past”. It is really my shorthand way of expressing gratitude for all we have received from our forebears. Gratitude is a word with an inherent past tense, for it relates to something already received, but as I grow older I tend to think of it as an affirmation that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. When I give thanks it is of course for family and all the little blessings that seem to grow more important each year, but it is also to the buried warriors, the Founding Fathers, the Civil War nurses, the discoverers of lands and medicines, the Native Americans, the monks and bards, the Roman mothers, the Greek hoplites, the astronauts and Tibetan lamas. It took all of them and so much more to get us, for better or worse, to where we are today, still breathing, and enlivening new generations. The present, and ourselves, would be empty shells without the past. In the words of Thomas Wolfe, “each moment is the fruit of 40,000 years.”

Our present is certainly not perfect, and nor was the past, But here we are, alive, the current participants in that long human journey, growing into the responsibilities of that trek, loving, and sometimes crying. There is suffering in this world, past and present, but it is leavened with those particularly human characteristics, kindness and joy. Now is the time to pause and acknowledge this. Wolfe also reminded us that “each of us is all the sums he has not counted.”

Do your personal sums and you will find many blessings. This is the season to not just enumerate them in our brains but to also embrace them in our hearts. Showing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways of expressing ourselves. Ultimately Thanksgiving is about sharing our human condition. From that sharing grows much else. In the words of an ancient Roman thanks-giver named Cicero, gratitude “is the parent of all other virtues.”

Eliot Pattison

History Is Us


“History is us,” an aged mentor at Indiana University once declared as he sought to convince me to switch to his department. “We can’t shake loose of it. We are nothing without it.” I realized recently that I could use those words to explain why I write The Bone Rattler novels. We are all defined by history and the twisting, arduous human journey it reflects. It’s in our blood, in our DNA, in every institution in our lives, even in the way we speak. It is the sole thing we own that can never be taken from us. History is our foundation. Without it we are a mere slate wiped clean each night, to be filled up by whatever disconnected, but trending, thoughts that social media algorithms throw at us the next day.

Life is much richer, much more fulfilling, if we connect ourselves to that journey or, in other words, embrace our history. I seek in my books to encourage readers to do just that, to lure them into experiencing lives that have gone before, into investing a personal stake in the past. That investment will pay huge dividends in the form of a more meaningful life, and a richer passage along your human journey. Stand on the deck of a square-rigged merchantman with the Atlantic slapping your cheek, wander a wilderness trail with a wise old native, feel the goosebumps as a lonely bagpipe pierces the night. Such experiences aren’t fiction, they are fragments of our past. Your DNA may have been there, may have had these very experiences, which in a way means you were there. We are each an amalgam of thousands of such experiences. Take a deep breath and consider which might be yours. Embark on this journey with me. We can’t know who we are without knowing who we were.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey, The King’s Beast

It is the Earth that Gives Strength


London seemed a miracle when I first saw it,” Ishmael suddenly said, “a wonder of the modern world. But it doesn’t feel like it anymore. I never would have believed men could banish nature the way they have here. In America, in Philadelphia or Boston or New York you are always close to trees and a quarter’s hour walk can always take you to farmland or forest. We shouldn’t be surprised there is so much cruelty in this place. Men are adrift here. They’ve cut their roots to the land. It is the earth that gives strength to a man’s heart, that enriches his spirit. Without that what is a man? An empty shell, kept busy with coffee shops, gossip, and fancy ribbon sellers”


I have always been fascinated by the tales of the Native Americans who traveled to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as emissaries or students. Some may have been overwhelmed by the material culture they encountered but I think others, after the initial novelty wore off, would have reacted the way Ishmael does in this scene in The King’s Beast when Duncan discovers him brooding over London from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Certainly the number of humans cut off from nature has grown exponentially since the 18th century. How has this affected the growth of the human spirit? How has it affected the acute sense of observation, the instinctive curiosity, the careful contemplation and lust for freedom that I believe was bred into the human by immersion in nature over thousands of years? Are there any residents of our contemporary cities who can claim to remain rooted in the natural world? We humans evolved to take feedback from nature, in deep, intuitive ways I think we do not fully understand. How many among us ignore that feedback, substituting that which we get from coffee shops, gossip, and today’s fancy ribbon sellers, meaning social media. Where is that natureless path taking our future generations?

During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing tens of thousands of Chinese citizens were imprisoned because their government feared they might engage in protests before the international media. As terrible as this was, the media at least had some visibility over that repression. Today there is no transparency whatsoever beyond the empty grandstands. These games are just an extravagant stage production put on by political commissars. It is heartbreaking to see our media obediently playing by Beijing’s script, and even more disappointing to witness how well-known Western companies are making the entire process possible with their massive advertising spending.

What is happening in Beijing is the opposite of the unity, integrity and personal achievement that the Olympics traditionally stand for. We are just massaging the ego of the greatest abuser of human rights on the planet, joining in a spectacle aimed at drowning out human rights critics while convincing the world that Beijing represents the new paradigm of global leadership. The splashy, tightly-guarded games are surrounded by a billion muzzled victims, citizens in a stifling lockdown that is more politically than health driven—not to mention the new prisoners who have joined the million-plus Tibetans and Uyghurs already suffering in prisons and concentration camps in western China. Do the leaders of our government, media and business truly understand what they have dragged us into? They have made us complicit participants in a carefully orchestrated Chinese opera, premised on the servitude not only of its own citizens but also of all of us in the West who have empowered it. Until these Olympics are over we are all Tibetans and Uyghurs.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey Bones of the Earth, Chapter Nine

(Inspector Shan arrives at the 404th People’s Construction Brigade on a rare family visitation day to spend time with his son Ko, a prisoner in the hard labor camp)


Ko was no longer counted among the high-risk prisoners, so he was not chained to a chair for the visit but rather allowed into a side yard, enclosed with razor wire, with other prisoners and their families. Mothers and wives wept. Fathers and sons clenched their jaws and tried not to glare at the armed guards as the thin, ragged prisoners filed in, some supported by other inmates. Half a dozen prisoners, the oldest, never had visitors but were allowed to sit at the perimeter and contentedly watch the brief, tearful reunions. The families of hard labor prisoners never knew whether a loved one would survive to the next visit. More than once Shan had seen family members collapse, sobbing, as they were greeted not by the prisoner they had come to see but by a certificate attesting to his death.

All of my Inspector Shan novels offer glimpses of life in the prisons, labor camps, and compulsory reeducation compounds that abound in the traditional lands of Tibetans and Central Asian Muslims now controlled by Beijing. Not infrequently readers suggest that I have exaggerated the severity of these sites for dramatic effect. No, I reply, my depictions are painfully authentic, reflecting the brutal intolerance and often nightmarish conditions that exist at such places. I am fastidious in researching these and other background elements that are reflected in my pages. Never in the history of the planet has such jack-booted repression been imposed so widely and so severely, made all the more ghastly by the fact that it is based not on criminal behavior but simply on culture and religion.

These tragedies make for poignant passages in my novels, some of which were painful to write precisely because I well understood their authenticity. I have been humbled to be able to present heroes in this shameful chapter in our human journey, and appalled to discover how the repression grows more severe with each passing month. Increasingly I am also appalled by the callousness of the West toward the treatment of the Tibetan and Muslim inhabitants of western China. The entire land of traditional Tibet has for all intents and purposes been transformed into a prison for Tibetans, whose freedoms have been systematically crushed. In Xinjiang province, millions of Muslims suffer harsh involuntary servitude, many of them forced to produce materials that are required for high technology products sold by China to the West. Most of our self-styled human rights advocates are quick to throw tantrums over high school bathroom signs but remain silent about these shocking violations of basic human rights in Asia. They prefer to shout about issues that will garner them the most social media attention, not issues of abject inhumanity. Ultimately they have grown more spiteful than compassionate.

This too is part of our human journey, which has never been a universal march toward goodness but rather the uneven path worn down by the struggle between ignorance and enlightened compassion. Nowhere in human history has this struggle been reflected more vividly than in Tibet during the past two generations, and tragically the experience of Uyghur Muslims is rapidly catching up with that of the Tibetans. I recall how in another century the citizens of our northern states were slow to act against southern slavery, in no small part because that particular servitude was vital to the supply of cotton for their fashions and tobacco for their smoking pleasure. Today that same hypocritical syndrome supports the horrific servitude in Asia. Apparently we can tolerate a few million slaves on the other side of the world so long as they keep up our supplies of cell phones and solar panels.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey Bone Mountain, Chapter Seven

(Shan is on a treacherous journey to return a sacred relic to its spiritual home, stalked by soldiers and murderers. They are passing through a barren, high-altitude landscape where all temples, shrines, and monks have long ago been annihilated by Beijing. Shan is losing hope but then he joins a group of Tibetan herders who bring him to a hiding place by a remote mountain meadow, where he observes a miracle)


Sometimes, Shan’s father had told him, people can live eighty or ninety years and only briefly, once or twice at most, glimpse the true things of life, the things that are the essence of the planet and of mankind. Sometimes people died without ever seeing a single true thing. But, he had assured Shan, you can always find true things if you just know where to look.
It was one of those rare true things they were glimpsing now. An ageless medicine lama gathering his herbs, a medicine lama who shouldn’t exist, in a field that had been forgotten for half a century, rising up like a ghost to confirm that once there had been wise, joyful old men who gathered plants so they could translate the magic of the earth to its people.

It is an intriguing challenge to consider what are such true things in this post-modern world, where truth itself seems to have become so ambiguous. I fear many of us have become blind to such perceptions, for to experience them requires a level of self-awareness and contemplation that our society seems to abhor. The challenge is worth taking up, however, because it can not simply enrich our lives but also tell us much about ourselves and the way we experience the world. The “true things” can vary greatly based on our personal context, but I find a surprising commonality when probing these breath-stealing experiences of others. Is it perhaps because they resonate in some deep pool of our DNA, like mileposts in our human journey? I suspect that the true things experienced by our ancestors five hundred, or five thousand, years ago would raise similar reactions in us—they have little to do with technology or material wealth.

Don’t look for a dictionary definition of such “true things.” Others may call them epiphanies or transformative moments, or just plain miracles. The test is whether you viscerally feel the miracle, or just admire it because others say you should. These moments don’t simply excite you, they reach deeper. They raise gooseflesh in your soul. They strike what I might dare to describe as a primeval chord.

Where are the true things left to us? As Shan has sadly learned, many have been destroyed by ravenous political and economic forces, although we are hounded every day by “false positives,” the daily declaration of the news you can’t live without, so-called unprecedented weather events or history-making words from some celebrity. If you haven’t already, you must learn to ignore such hollow pronouncements and search deeper for your particular true things. They are rare in a modern city, and they are nowhere to be found on social media. There is no text to guide us to them, no catalog or checklist of such wonders. Experiencing them requires an open mind and open heart, and often patient observation. They are intensely personal, yet they are spine-tingling because they link us to something greater than ourselves. In my travels around the world I have been blessed to experience a few. One would be the ocean in a raging storm. Can you name one of your true things?


Our Human Journey Beautiful Ghosts, Chapter Eight

(In trying to make sense of a series of murders and thefts with an unexpected British connection Shan stumbles upon a strangely Western-style cottage hidden in the remote Tibetan mountains. He explores the perplexing interior of the old home)


Under the photo on the fireplace mantel was a box with a glass lid displaying several medals and a calling card. “Major Bertram McDowell,” Shan read out loud. “Royal Artillery.”
“McDowell?” Yao repeated in a surprised whisper, and stepped to his side.
“The major was stationed at a trading post in Gyantse for a year,” Liya said over their shoulders. “He had always been a painter and a writer. In Tibet he began to compile material for a book, the first English book, on Tibetan art. When he asked to be taught as Tibetan artists would, a lama told him to sit in a meditation chamber with nothing but a Buddha for a week, that he had to expand his deity, let it reach his fingers.”
“A lama from Zhoka,” Shan suggested.
Liya nodded, still facing the photograph. “He never turned back after that week. He declined home leave, requested extended tours of duty. Eventually he resigned and the lama brought him here, where artists had helped the Zhoka monks for centuries.”
“Why would this place be so hidden?” Yao inquired.
Liya turned, not toward Yao but toward the little Buddha on the altar. “Study Only the Absolute,” she said.


Although this passage describes a fictional character, the army major from the early 20th century reflects the experience of many early visitors to Tibet. The British military excursion that brought the major to Tibet was not fictional, and the life of its leader, Colonel Younghusband, was changed forever by his experience at the roof of the world. Younghusband resigned from the army and dedicated his life to unifying the people of the world through religion.

I have long been fascinated by the way traditional Tibet released this spirituality in so many Western visitors. Was it simply that the isolation of the land, and the most remote, unique culture on the planet, somehow loosened inhibitions that had been bred into them? Was it because every Tibetan they met, whether government official, artisan or shepherd, was so intensely spiritual? Was it because the unimportance of material wealth in Tibet somehow shamed them, causing them to rethink their own ambitions? I don’t believe they were simply overpowered by the strangeness of Tibet, but perhaps they were stunned, and sometimes transformed, by the discovery of a world where no one hid their spirituality. Tibet, I believe, released instincts that had been suppressed by western culture. These aspects may well explain why, despite relentless genocidal efforts to crush it, Tibet has become something of a spiritual country that knows no borders.

Such tales reflect a questing spirituality within the human creature that has always been part of our journey. I believe, for example, that it was as much an element of Neanderthal cave art as the red ochre used by those ancient painters. I am convinced that this questing nature is in the human DNA, and although it may have been inhibited a century ago, today our shallow, instantly connected culture is virtually suffocating it. But ultimately it cannot be denied, at least not by those who seek to understand the long and amazing trek that led us to our current century. It was reflected in the placement of grave goods– a practice starting in Paleolithic times, just as it was in the way the ancient Egyptians translated mysteries of nature into animistic gods, and in the erection of stone circles and megaliths in so many ancient landscapes. Their particular quests took Zorastrians to the worship of fire, and Greeks to the construction of magnificent temples, further milestones in our passage.

Most cultures of our past never actually had a word for “religion.” Their belief systems were not some academic way of thinking, they were so intrinsic that they were the essence of these societies, and their people. I am not suggesting we should dissect any particular religion in search of new truths, but rather that we should recognize the vital importance of these spiritual quests in the human journey. Where are such soulful inquiries today? Those who speak of spirituality get mocked and negated with labels. When archaeologists study us in future millennia, will they conclude we worshipped our cell phones? I worry that many of us are detouring this path into a dead end. Perhaps it takes genuine courage to set aside our instant connections and pursue such quests today, and perhaps those quests will take us to new paradigms. We have learned from the sagas of our ancestors that it’s not about the destination, it is about the journey. Each of us must find our own way along that path, for we each have a different starting place, but the journey can teach us much about who we are, and perhaps help us better grasp the conclusion of the remarkable Jesuit philosopher-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”


Our Human Journey The Skeleton God, Opening Passage

If you would know the age of the human soul, an old lama had once told Shan Tan Yun, look to Tibet. Here at the roof of the world, where humans were so battered, where wind and hail and tyranny had pounded so many for so long, it was a miracle the human spark remained at all. As Shan gazed at the old Tibetan herder beside him, knee-deep in mud, grime covering his grizzled, weathered face, and saw the eyes shining back with the joy of life, he knew that he was looking at something ancient and pure. In Tibet souls were tried, and souls were tormented, but always souls endured.


I could have used any number of passages from the Inspector Shan series to invoke the perseverance of the Tibetan spirit but this one paragraph seems particularly apt. It reflects not only the spiritual strength that shines through in these ruthlessly oppressed people but also the ability of Shan, the battered former gulag prisoner, to perceive, and celebrate, the miracle of that strength. As we slowly untangle ourselves from the shipwreck of this past year, we are well served by such lessons of human resilience. Far too many of us have emerged with anger, helplessness or melancholy resignation over the many ways events of the past year have disrupted our lives.

My entire Shan series, reduced to its essence, might be characterized as an anthology of human resilience. Many of my characters have suffered in unimaginable, though sadly authentic, ways. They have been cast out of their traditional homes and livelihoods, seen their families torn apart and even massacred, witnessed their culture being systematically destroyed and their temples, monasteries, and religious leaders annihilated. Like over a million Uighurs living to the north of Tibet, many of them have been virtually enslaved.

These are tragedies that have been repeated again and again throughout history, which teaches that nations and cultures don’t survive because they are somehow institutionally immune to such forces. Those that survive do so because of the strength of individual humans. The Tibetans endure because they consider the hardships that beset them to be just a passing storm. Even though that storm has persisted for decades, they have hunkered down and pressed on, their eyes still bright with that joy of life.

This resilience can’t be taught, can’t be mandated, can’t be accessed by clicking a social media button or listening to one more political speech. It has to be tapped from within. It is not simply a vital element of the human journey, it is the enabler of that journey. Ultimately this resilience is that of the human spirit. It is what has carried humans through trying times since we first climbed down from the trees. It is how people have risen up out of plagues, death camps, wars, and persecutions to push humanity forward. It saddens me to see how many seem to be waiting to be told how to deal with this tumultuous year, as if they have grown disconnected with their own spirit.. We deal with it like one more passing storm. We need to summon our inner Tibetan.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey Mandarin Gate, Chapter Twelve

(Inspector Shan encounters a secret meeting of professors who have been transported to his remote town in Tibet because they had persisted in teaching about Chinese imperial history and Western literature. The leader of the group explains its purpose:)


            “We call ourselves the Vermilion Society after the color of the ink reserved for the old imperial courts. Keeping old ways alive. Professor Wu,” he said, indicating the bald man, “prints up Sung poems and leaves them on doorsteps. Professor Chou,” he said, with a gesture to the woman, “organized a production of an old play from the Ming dynasty. We’d sweep old graves if there were any here. We try to remember things from old China and record them. There’s so few good history books left, and it’s been decades since a true history of China was written. There are wonderful things from the dynasties, things that need to be remembered.”

            “The truest history,” interjected Professor Wu, “is that built on a thousand tales of the common man.”


Over thirty thousand years ago, flowers were laid at the grave of a Neanderthal man buried in a cave in what we now call Kurdistan. We know this because archaeologists have found the pollen of hollyhock, hyacinth and other flowers concentrated beside the bones. Ancient people were mourning at this grave, and leaving a token of affection. I would never dismiss them with a label of “cave men.” Rather they were early explorers in the human journey. They didn’t go extinct, they became us, as proven by the fact that each of us have about two percent Neanderthal DNA in our genome. It is wonderful that these early ancestors lingered over flowers and shared their beauty, but a touching tale of Neanderthal affection also lingers behind these ancient flowers. The bonds within family and community may be the most ancient of human values and have anchored families and societies throughout history –and, as we have now learned, prehistory.

Our post-modern world seems to steadily diminish such bonds, but those values remain intrinsically strong in most of us. The traditional Chinese world these professors speak of, and in which Inspector Shan was nurtured, was imbued with Confucian and Taoist wisdom and built around robust extended families. Despite the prolonged, deliberate efforts of Beijing to replace family with government as the foundation of personal life, those bonds persist and drive many of the “wonderful things” that need to be remembered. Even though he has no surviving family, their values, and their traditions, remain the source of Shan’s strength. In a society that has essentially banished uncles, aunts, and cousins through its repressive childbearing policies, Shan remembers those prior generations and their wisdom. In a crisis it is those time-tested values that lead him to justice, not the teachings, or laws, of his government. These are the experiences that drive our true histories.

As the old professors reflect in the above exchange, our history books are woefully inadequate. Even when they have not been hijacked by an author’s ideology, they still just provide sterile statistics and signposts from our passage. They report to us on politics and war but do little to convey the long, much more interesting trek of human experience. As Professor We suggests, that tale is a mosaic of life stories spanning millennia. History books begin with long-dead kings and ancient battlefields. The human tale begins with fossilized flowers.

Eliot Pattison


Our Human Journey Savage Liberty, Chapter 16

(Conawago speaks with Duncan as they gaze out over moonlit mountains near Lake Champlain)


“…We are lost if you don’t recognize that everyone in this drama is in their ending times. All of us here. You try to convince yourself that you are different from us, but you are not. The life of your Highland tribe is gone, as is that of the Nipmuc, and the Abenaki and soon the Iroquois. But it doesn’t stop there. The Jesuits have glimpsed their ending. They may be desperate, but they have more power than you think.”

            “Only the kings survive,” Duncan said after listening to the owl again.

            “No. You are wrong,” his old friend replied. “There is an ending time for them too. King George has America, King Louis thinks he can get much of it back. But they don’t know the people who have taken root here. Those people are beginning to grasp the truth that the tribes have always known. Nothing important in life has ever been granted by a king.”

            Conawago shifted his gaze back over the silver-gilded mountains. Minutes passed before he spoke again, in a slow, reverent voice. “There is no land like this land,” declared the old Nipmuc, who had seen more of the world than anyone Duncan knew. “There is no freedom like this freedom.”


One spring years ago I hiked over five hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail, alone, immersed in the natural world for several weeks. I experienced nature in ways I never had before, and as the days, and the mountains, passed by, I realized the wilds were strengthening me in aspects beyond the physical. I began to recognize an unfamiliar connection with the planet that to this day is still difficult to put into words. It brought an empowering sense of freedom but also a calm confidence, and deep gratitude for the endless beauty that surrounded me.

Those who have read my Bone Rattler books know that I endeavor to integrate the natural world into my tales. I have gone so far as to observe that the land itself is a character in those novels, and I am convinced that it played a profound role in shaping the American identity. I believe this phenomenon is not unique to our continent but has been present throughout human history, and cultures which have grown heavily urbanized and “tamed” all their lands, cutting themselves off from nature, have paid a price that has been little explored by historians and anthropologists.

The above exchange between Duncan and Conawago seeks to capture this dynamic, reflecting the wisdom of a long life rooted in both European and indigenous traditions.It is difficult to wrap words around this influence of nature but the quiet eloquence of the old Nipmuc at least offers a glimpse. “There is no land like this land,” Conawago declares. “There is no freedom like this freedom.” Those words could have been the motto for the American Revolution, although “nothing important has ever been granted by a king,” might have served equally well.

That land, that freedom, and that beauty is still available to us, and experiencing it can still be a powerful source of personal growth. Humans are more disconnected from their history than perhaps ever before. If you want to get closer to your ancestors, don’t just dig into books, venture into the wilds.

Eliot Pattison