At some early age I glimpsed that my entire universe was as miniscule in the grand scheme of things as the gnats I batted away on sultry summer days. It dawned on me that countless other children like me had come and gone, century after century. I’d discovered history.
The bravery of people in bygone eras entranced me. Would I ever dare embrace such trials and tribulations? I painstakingly mastered the johnny-cake recipe in my third grade workbook, sealing my bond with kids who had traveled up-river on rafts and through prairie grass on covered wagons, once-upon-a-time.
But it wasn’t long before I realized that history was mostly about a million incarnations of suffering, brought on often enough by natural disasters, but most consistently by human beings. Children no different from me had endured unimaginable cruelty, wrought by the larger-than-life kings and generals who clearly ran history. The king’s selfish whims, announced in his far-away palace, controlled children’s lives while the children had no control over the king’s. It seemed capricious to me, as indeed it is.
Another great irony eventually struck me. Looking back at history, you knew what was coming. You knew when the tidal wave was going to arrive. But living forward, you never knew the next moment, so you just cluelessly carried on with your all-consuming routines. No matter if the monster waited stealthily on the sidelines, ready to pounce and destroy, and carry you into an entirely new reality.
Anything might create the upheaval. Historical crises seemed to arrive in grand, random spurts: Viking raids on peaceful villages, slave traders carrying off your neighbors, forced marches of the Cherokee, blood baths of the Civil War. Could my own all-absorbing life be similarly disrupted? It seemed as improbable as a fairy-tale, yet history was not reassuring.
Like many young girls, I was haunted by Anne Frank’s diary. The ordinariness of her routine, the complete absorption in her relationships. I knew what was coming. She did not.
But would it have made any difference? Don’t we all just carry on because that’s all we know how to do?
After giving birth to my daughter I gazed out the window of my hospital room at the thick smog, and wondered whether I’d had the right to bring a baby into this toxic environment we’d managed to create for ourselves. But then I was swept into the daily acts of changing diapers and sweet walks to the park.
Pregnant with my son when Chernobyl leaked its poisons, I was overrun by terror for a few moments. I asked myself as I watched my daughter rolling down a grassy hillside: was life as we knew it going to finally wind to a halt? Then I returned home to cook supper.
At my son’s christening I suddenly choked up as I prayed for the end of the arms race. But then I forgot to care. I threw a wonderful party.
How much does it matter that in all those centuries before radio or television or internet, wars and witch hunts and pillagings and massacres usually arrived out of the blue? Did people behave any differently when the dead body was actually hanging from the scaffold right in the town square, or soldiers were going door to door, as long as it wasn’t their own?
What is this disturbing yet oddly endearing survival strategy human beings have always had, to be convinced in the midst of creeping disaster that what really matters is whether there is enough salt in the soup, the baby has been burped, or a stitch has been dropped?
These kinds of questions have been much on my mind lately because I have observed how so many of us are managing to live our daily lives while we sense cataclysm welling up all around us and among us, unseen, and eerily reminding us of history we had relegated to textbooks.
Already in our neighborhoods, immigrant mothers hole themselves up with their anxious children, afraid to venture out to the grocery store. Epic cataclysm has already arrived for Syrians and millions of others, as they flee murderous violence, only to find themselves tossed about by edicts and the brutal whimsy of powerful strangers. It seems as if half the world is on the move, and the other half is terrified of being robbed of their own sense of normalcy. Are these normal times for some but not others? For the lucky, but not the unlucky?
Meanwhile, what have I been doing, besides re-learning the drop-in-the-bucket skills of political activism? I’ve carried on, as we all do when the calamity has not yet marked the portal of our own house. I’ve welcomed a new grandchild into the world. I’ve invited old friends over for home-made pizza. At the learning center where I spend half-days, I’ve hunkered down at my computer to write reports, and coaxed a sixth grader to put together a coherent paragraph. I’ve Skyped with my daughter and her baby, who is beginning to smile at me from three thousand miles away.
But I am as baffled as ever. How is it that all normal activities do not grind to a halt while we engage with the dragon breathing fire at the city gates? What amazing adaptability human beings are graced with! Is this how we have survived history’s sweeps, and will survive them yet again? Or is there something new that is called for, a lesson we are finally able to learn?
You might enjoy reading my book exploring childhood experiences and insights, Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time.Visit www.annebernardbecker.com or https://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X