Sunday, May 23, 2010

Handling Hazmat History


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...
I'm sad.

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."


ArtSparker said...

Hmmm, for me these things just seem to take their own time to pass through the system. It sounds as if it would be nice if the subject for the next book were Lewis and Clark's expeditions, or something else that wasn't so filled with murder and mayhem.

Margaret said...

Para-verse Fresca,
thank you. (Your yesterday was relevant to mine, though for different reasons.)

Historians and Writers are brave. Historical Writers are very brave.

The Crow said...

Margaret's last sentence hits the nail on the head, precisely.

History - our own, other cultures', the Universe at large - carries some very heavy emotional baggage. I hope it won't weigh you down for too long.

The Crow said...


I came visiting to tell you something I read today, but decided it was inappropriate, considering your low mood re: war.

However, maybe this will cheer you up. Bill Shatner's in a new-this-fall comedy titled "$#*! My Father Says", based on the series writer's Twitter site of the same name.

Of course, you probably already know about it, but I thouht of you immediately when I learned of it.


Jennifer said...

I very much like the idea of making room for sadness. It's an old friend and not always the most welcome, but it never leaves forever. Better to make some room for it, maybe brew it a cup of tea and give it a spot in the sun.

Fresca said...

Hello, all!

Feeling much better, thanks.
Humor restored.
And yes, the next book will be a fun topic--communications.

And then there's Bill's new show to look forward to. I usually only like him as Kirk, but I'm going to give it a look see, for sure.
(Thanks, Crow.)

Clowncar said...

I very much like the idea of history as a hazardous material (though am sorry it saddens you, and am happy you are feeling better). I have my own hazmat areas of thinking. Family history, the current Gulf of Mexico situation, etc. I download my own sadness in a similar way - into the grass from under a tree, while reading and watching the girls play.

Baseball helps too. But that's just me.

Though you do have a shiny new ballpark in your town, yes? As opposed to that horrid eyesore, the Metrodome. Have you been? Do you have any desire to?

rr said...

Rumi. Yes. Easier said than done, of course. But there are few situations where dogs don't help :-) So glad you're feeling friskier.

Fresca said...

CCAR: I fully intend to go see our new ballpark as soon as someone gives me a free ticket, which might not be this season...

I've seen two baseball games: the Cubs in Wrigley Field and the St. Paul Saints here.
Since the setting and the company are more important to me than the game, I wouldn't consider going to see baseball in an indoor arena, especially not our hideous Dome.

RR: Thank you for that reminder, from Rumi.
Yes. I hope I don't sound like I regret doing this book---it's good, it's just hard.

Probably one reason I got so low is that Joop was on bed rest (ha!) for a sprained back leg, and I was staying away so he wouldn't be encouraged to jump.
Such deprivation is bad for my health.

Clowncar said...

Ah, the St. Paul Saints. I'm a big fan of AAA baseball (we go to Sky Sox games down here). Cheaper, closer, the players playing for the love of the game. And unlike MLB parks, every visible surface is not covered with corporate sponsor advertising.