Yesterday afternoon, I spent four hours lying on a shady hill at the lake, enervated.
What's wrong with me? I wondered.
Is it the humidity? Menopause? Am I coming down with something?
The ground was cool under me.
A guy walked by with a brace of golden retrievers.
A fish splashed in the lake.
Oh, right, I thought. I'm sad.
I've spent two and a half months in the colonial wars. I've seen babies bashed against trees, horses shot, people who've been driven out of their homes drive others out in turn...
Lying there, I felt I was downloading sadness into the ground.
Gently, slowly, the earth absorbs the material of grief. It diffuses through the entire planet, one part per many billions.
It takes time.
A concentration camp survivor once said a lot of new arrivals to the camps died because they couldn't process what was happening to them quickly enough to adjust.
This is nowhere near that bad, of course. By six in the evening, I could get up and go home.
I should recognize by now what's going on when work leaves me so drained, but it always seems to surprise me.
I can be kinda slow about my own emotions.
I displace them, filter them through worrying about other things. Like, for this book, I've kept fretting about how long it's taking me to write:
"WHY is this taking me so l o n g ? What's the big deal. It's just a little overview. I'm sure other people could write it in half the time.
"Why aren't I more efficient?"
I haven't heard anyone talking about the cost of handling the past, but I'd like to.
Surely the past's emotional wallop hits historians all the time.
I'm only an accidental historian, but spending a lot of time in the past is emotionally expensive.
It's full of other people's suffering.
Of course, the present is too, but the emotion is spread out in real time. The past is condensed: it all happens at once.
I hit the worst slump was when I was working on Algeria a few summers ago.
I was reading Journal, 1955-1962; Reflections on the French Algerian War, by Mouloud Feraoun (left, link to site in French).
(The wipe-out is always worst when I meet people in their own words, and Algeria was a very expressive culture.)
Feraoun was one of those rare sane people in the madhouse of colonialism.
He was a teacher and writer who went around saying yes, Algeria must be independent of France; but how 'bout if Algerians keep some of the best of French culture instead of wiping it all away?
You know, just asking for trouble, right?
I'm reading his journal one hot August night, thinking what a lovely guy this is and how much I like him. And the journal just stops.
I didn't see it coming--the book had so much back matter, I didn't realize I was near the end.
The editor's epilogue reports that some French colonial goons lined this spotted owl up against the wall and summarily shot him.
End of story.
I spent the next week dragging around like I had lyme disease.
So, I don't know how to handle the hazards of history very well.
I stagger back, take a break. Look for beauty at a thrift store. Notice how much people love their dogs.
I think it would help a lot if I stopped deflecting it. That just makes it thicker, denser, heavier.
Instead I could greet it:
"Oh, sadness. There you are. I was expecting you. Please, sit here, while I carry on with my work. Here, by the open window, in the light."