This is an essay I wrote in 11th grade, for why I wanted to be a history major. As can be easily gathered from the essay, it is also why I am not one. This wasn’t a very academic desire. (Emotions =/= skill. I find myself weeping over the beauty of /or/ grinding my teeth over the awfulness of historical characters/research/events. And I can’t write papers. I know something isn’t right when I’ve finished doing research for a paper, but I can’t come up with a thesis–but a stream-of-consciousness poem.)
When I was eight, my father started a new tradition of reading to the whole family for an hour before bedtime. He read us fairy tales, science fiction, biographies, and adventure stories: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Day Boy—Girl Night.
I loved them fanatically, though I didn’t understand why. As a kid, my siblings and I would run around the back yard fencing with sticks, blowing on imaginary war horns, fighting desperate battles, and dying selfless deaths. I wished the world had orcs so we could fight them and be heroic.
Then one night my father read us some article in a history magazine. It was about the Alamo.
I cried, sitting on the bedroom floor in my pajamas, overwhelmed. I did not cry because it was sad, but because it was too beautiful. I realized what mattered was not the war horns and banners; it was things on the inside—things that were more beautiful than everything else in the world—and that were inside even boring commonplace people with no swords and capes. Real, normal people could not only be good and bad, but also…too beautiful.
It was strange, but I noticed that the people who were too beautiful were ordinary ones caught in the dark times when there was ugliness, injustice, and pain. But they were different. They were not overcome by it. They did not succumb to bitterness and hatred, something could not be taken from them, despite all the ghastly suffering. People like the POW in the death camp who took a beating for someone else, a middle-aged Dutchwoman in WWII who was sent to concentration camps for hiding Jews from the Nazis, a twenty-four year old facing her death from tuberculosis with courage and without bitterness, the Jews singing “Shema Yisroel” even as the Nazis herded them off. They stayed human when inhumanity surrounded them; they stayed sane in an insane world.
Sometimes my parents would get on a historical topic during dinner. I remember listening, rapt, my heart pumping, trying to soak up every word. I would listen very carefully whenever grownups talked about such things as what humanity had done, why they had done it, and the repercussions, good or ill, which ensued. I heard about the Japanese view of life that drove on the kamikaze, the effects on Korea, what the marines fought for at Iwo Jima, the Bronze Age cultures, why the Romans triumphed and then fell, the conversion of the Vikings, Mohammed’s conquest, Washington’s soldiers marching through the snow.
There is a part of me that so badly wants to learn as much as I can about the human race, both dead and living. I want to know the actions of people, their different beliefs and how it influenced their actions, and the legacy, good or bad, they have left us. I want to understand what has happened in the world and what is happening now–what was at stake then and what is at stake now. The past, like our age, has plenty of bloodshed and pain, and occasionally one stumbles across something (or someone) that is too beautiful.
And then I find myself an eight year old, crying on the floor in my pajamas.
I want to study history, especially the history of the rough times, after the fall of Rome and before the Enlightenment. There is a great beauty in the large sum of history: the masses–the exhausted peons. They were oppressed; they were poor; they didn’t get justice. They plowed the hard dirt: life stayed the same—father like son without hope of betterment. But they still held their feverish kids, and rocked them through the long dark night, waiting for the morning. They held on to the faith: they sweated, cried, prayed, and raised their kids.
the sun coming up after a dark night,
pulling covers over a miserable, hot, tired kid,
the quiet rain pouring over a dry-cracked field,
green shoots coming up in a scorched field,
rebuilding the broken walls of a village after war, singing their grating tunes as they sweat,
harvesting a full crop dead tired on a bright cold night.
Their sweat, their laughter by the fire, their sobs on a cold night,
waiting for the sun to rise in the morning,
waiting for the rains to come down,
waiting for the fever to pass,
waiting for the crops to grow,
exhaustion, persistence, struggling, rebuilding, bleeding, hoping, not despairing,
still bearing children and plowing the (rocky) fields, still laughing, still singing their crazy ballads.
Someone—the unseen living sap flowing through the wood that keeps the tree alive,
the wind in the branches, cooling sweaty faces, rustling in the trees, harbinger of rain
the melody behind the melody that dives through the folk music,
That kept them from despair, even when the rains didn’t come, and horrific wars dragged on, and the kids burned with fever, while they themselves were powerless.
but still marrying and begetting children, still rocking fussing two year olds, fathers plowing the dry earth coming home to hold their feverish children,
Waiting. Praying. Waiting for the rains to come, the fever to pass, the wars to end, the ravaging hordes to leave. Carrying on, through the golden horde, Black Death, 100 yrs war.
They waited. And carried on. And still sang, towards heaven.
THAT is why I want to study history
Not that that is what I’ll get, of course. We have fragments and pieces: a few half-preserved manuscripts, a few tales, a few ballads, some broken pottery and buried houses, a handful of voices speaking to us across the centuries. Memories, letters, diaries, photographs. And six billion living descendants.