Back in grad school, I wrote about early modern Europe. Personalities only occasionally shone through the fragile archival materials. When they did, I had a blast. Some 17th-century Puritans were vain, some petulant, some playful, some quick to anger. I wrote them as I found them. Those pages of my dissertation were the most fun to write, and to read.
Years later, writing a short history of a local church, I encountered a new constraint. True, the sources were more abundant, the personalities easier to reconstruct. Yet writing them as I found them demanded a different quality of care. This wasn’t investigative journalism of public figures, but an honest narrative of well-meaning, imperfect individuals, likely to be read by those same people or their widows and children. I struggled for diplomatic wordings such as, “His greatest strength was not in preaching but in pastoral care.” Had the beloved pastor in question died three hundred years earlier, I’d have felt free to say all sources agreed he was a lousy preacher.
In my current history-as-it-happens writing about polio eradication, fortunately, treating personalities with respect comes easily. The players are doing important and valuable work, policy or strategy disagreements are just that, and differences in temperament or style don’t tempt me to mockery. Debate may arise about who gets credit or which events merit coverage, but that’s a subject for another post.
We’re just back from a four-day escape to Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, our vacation home away from home. We walked our favorite walks and viewed our favorite views. The comfort of familiarity contrasts with the stimulation of last year’s visit to Greece, where everything was new to us.
Human senses tune into change, novelty, the unexpected. In Greece, grand edifices like the Temple of Poseidon grabbed my attention. Perception operates at a different level in a setting one knows well. In northern Door County, where every turn of the road is familiar, it’s the doe and fawn by the roadside who catch my eye. The particular blend of red, green, and yellow in this patch of woods, this particular week. The cormorant preening its feathers on a ledge fifteen feet from the observer. Sunbeams shooting straight up into the clouds from a purple sunset over the bay. The joy of novelty in a home away from home lies in the ever-changing details.
Personal or public life disrupts focus at times. My mind goes round and round, spinning conversations or retorts, refusing to go in a straight line long enough to produce a journal entry, let alone a blog post. Where does making art, music, or dance fit into times like these?
Processing. Words aren’t the only way to journal. One friend assembles a collage to work through grief, anger, and fear. Another dances in the kitchen.
Transforming. After National Guardsmen killed unarmed students in 1970, survivors channeled their rage into creating Devo and other independent rock bands in nearby Akron, Ohio. Click here for the Chicago Tribune’s “How the Kent State Massacre Changed Music.”
Recharging. A recent lunch conversation turned to the strain of caring for ailing relatives. One woman recalled the joy of escaping into her writing for three consecutive hours, her spirit revived by the respite for creativity.
“Girls Refuse to Work under ‘Zombie’ CSM,” the Toronto Globe and Mail reported in August 1944. Canada’s Zombie army of World War II is my latest gem unearthed in digging up family history.
When Canada joined Britain in declaring war on Germany in September 1939, the prime minister promised to send no one but volunteers into overseas military service. He feared repeating the turmoil over the draft in the previous world war, when French Canadians protested risking their lives for the British Empire.
The 1939 announcement brought a surge of volunteers for the Canadian Active Service Force. The next year Parliament authorized military conscription for home front service only. Draftees could choose to “go active,” but few did. Families of men fighting overseas scorned the non-combat conscripts as Zombies, not-quite-soldiers with no will of their own. The Globe and Mail reported, “Nice girls do not dine or dance with them.”
For what it’s worth, I haven’t confirmed any Zombie relatives, and I’d happily dine with one if I did. Lots more on the Zombies is here and here.
After six months failing to cure a pinched nerve, I told the physical therapist I was ready to graduate or flunk out. The therapy was wearing me down. He approved and brightened my summer with a lighter, maintenance routine.
There’s always more you could add to your life for self-care and self-improvement. Exercise, learn a language, eat right, meditate, and on and on. Trouble is, we all know there is a limit. If it isn’t hours in the day, it’s the stress of being more and more on duty, even if the duty is to oneself. Where’s the self-care in beating up on ourselves for all the self-care we aren’t doing?
Maybe if I’d gone further with physics or calculus, I could devise a formula to calculate the turning point between worthwhile and obsessive self-care. Perhaps economics offers a clue in the concept of marginal utility: the diminishing benefit gleaned from adding one more unit of whatever.
Not having mastered any of those disciplines, I give a lot of weight to trial and error. What leaves me sluggish or tense? What refreshes me? I used to journal three full pages a morning, come what may. Being more flexible about it improves my spirits, but skipping it two days in a row throws me off balance. There’s nothing like personal experience as a guide for where to draw the line.
Journalism, detective work, biography, historical fiction: Investigation is basic to them all. Fellow authors ask with a grimace, “But doesn’t your writing take a lot of research?” Absolutely! That’s much of the fun.
Where to begin? Instructors warn students not to use Wikipedia as a source. It’s unreliable; anyone can write anything there. On the other hand, anyone can correct errors and add new findings. It's often a great starting place. The guidance should be, don’t trust Wikipedia or cite it as an authority.
Anonymous tips give detectives and journalists essential leads for where to search and what questions to ask. The anonymous source carries no weight in a court of law, nor should it make news headlines outside of the tabloids. Like Wikipedia, it’s a beginning, not a conclusion. For any form of reputable research, we get pointers where we can. Then we set about the hard work of ferreting out the facts.
Click here for Wikipedia’s tips for using its site for research.
Job displacement, loss of privacy, climate change, radiation, cyberbullying: New technologies disrupt lives for better and worse. Tempting as it is to trace the shadow side of progress to the Digital Age or the Industrial Revolution, change has always wreaked some degree of havoc.
Take printing. Welcomed by all? Thanks to Rev. Scott Prinster for this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, which the Bard puts in the mouth of rebel Jack Cade:
“Be it known unto thee by these presence, that I am the besom [broom] that must sweep the court clean of such filth as thou art. Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown, and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.”
For about four weeks in fourth grade, I refused to go to school. My mom took me to a child psychologist, who gave me a bunch of puzzles (diagnostic tests?) that were a lot more fun than getting teased at Suncrest Elementary. One of my favorites was receiving four cards with related pictures and arranging them in order to tell a story.
Healthy minds were probably supposed to identify the one correct sequence to produce a logical narrative. The fun was that other orders were possible, too, and made for different stories. We humans appear wired for story. We shuffle the cards of our days to create one tale after another. Our dreams generate a narrative from a random set of memories or images.
I never learned what the psychologist concluded. Eventually I mustered my nerve and went back to school. All these decades later, I still delight in rearranging elements to create unexpected stories.
That’s me on the left, at Girl Scout camp.
Henry David Thoreau* wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .”
On the way home from an oil change last week, car maintenance being an essential fact of my life, I stopped on impulse to explore an unfamiliar footpath. Parts of it were well-worn tracks, other parts nearly hidden by undergrowth. Maples, yellow coneflowers, sudden descent into a ravine.
For John Garvens, living deliberately means pursuing your passions strategically. For Sarah Chauncey, it involves quieting the mind and letting matters unfold. For Nicole Wolfe, it’s a matter of focus and engagement. Merriam-Webster defines deliberate in terms of careful consideration, awareness of consequences, and steadiness or lack of hurry.
Awareness and choice are the warp and woof of living deep. Following my curiosity about a woodland path led to a chosen, unhurried half hour of awareness. Every such half hour sucks at the marrow of life.
*Factoid: His friends pronounced Thoreau with the accent on the first syllable, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son.
Pressing for Medicare legislation, President Johnson told press secretary Bill Moyers, “We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled and we promised it to her.”
Words are like people; they change and grow. Entitle is a prime example. At core, an entitlement is the grant of a rightful legal or moral claim, like the title to your house or car. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence refers to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.”
The shift in usage, from rightful to unjustified, dates from the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologists described narcissists as displaying a sense of entitlement. Politicians dropped the word “earned” from Roosevelt’s description of Social Security as an earned entitlement. Defenders of Medicare and Social Security say the programs aren’t entitlements; we’ve paid into them and earned them. Oddly, it has become an insult to call something an entitlement if the recipient is actually entitled to it.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.