I keep telling myself, and am told by others, that I ought to write more, particularly as one of the principal parts of being a historian is the ability to write effectively. And to make progress in writing one must, as St. Augustine wrote in one of his letters, write, and write a lot, as the prolific Bishop of Hippo certainly did.
So as part of my attempt to write more I shall, insha’allah, begin writing weekly (possibly more but I dare not promise beyond that) installments of vignettes and anecdotal remarks from my week, perhaps brief commentary on whatever primary sources I’m reading in a given week (perhaps also secondary materials if it’s interesting enough). I find that blogging is a useful medium for collating and ever so slightly refining ideas that I would otherwise let flit off into space or consign to a Word file or a notebook; the public-ness of a blog compels me to give slightly more thought and attention to the things I write. Not a lot- blogging is, as advertised, push-button publishing, and like pretty much all the instant conveniences of modern life, quality suffers accordingly.
Still, the fact of writing in a public forum, and being somewhat conscious of it (but only somewhat: blogging still feels half-private, as I neither see the audience face-to-face- or very few members of the audience- nor the work itself in a physical, publicly accessible form) shapes how I write, and I think probably for the better. Then there is the whole interesting matter of one’s blog becoming part of one’s personal archive, here for all to see, alongside the stacks of books, papers, bits and pieces and odds and ends that you do not see.
But that’s a whole other matter.
1. While walking to my favorite café in our venerable Old City I was met, as I often am, by a homeless man. Knoxville has a large homeless/transient population, larger than anywhere in the ‘First World’ I’ve lived. This man struck up a conversation with me, seeing me carrying a couple heavy tomes under my arm: ‘What you studying?’
‘Oh yeah, I love history. What part?’
‘Ah-’ I am immediately reminded at this point of a homeless person I gave a lift to a few months ago (yes, mum, if you’re reading, I occasionally pick up hitch-hikers etc., but you knew that already…); at this point in the what-do-you-do exchange, the homeless person asked quite pointblank, ‘What do historians do, anyway? Anything?’ Ah, yes, um…). I continued: ‘Medieval stuff mostly.’
‘Oh, my favorite is Ghengis Khan.’
‘My era is a little earlier, mainly.’
We proceeded to speak briefly of the joys and travails of history, and my new friend encouraged me to stick with it. He then asked me for a little change so as to buy himself a beer for St. Valentine’s Day. I admire honesty so I gave him, I think it was, a dollar fifty. Not having anyone else to buy a beer for on St. Valentine’s, I was actually glad this time to do so. We parted company.
There is a whole dialectic of do-I-give-money-to-homeless-people, but I will not engage it here, other than to say I usually do. Cf. St. John the Almsgiver. Caveat lector– he’s a bit radical, might make you a little uncomfortable. At least that’s how it is for me.
At any rate I had been in a rather bad nasty mood- long, dull story that only reveals my propensity for anger under frustration- and this particular man, somehow, helped relieve it.
2. Also seen today, first on Gay Street then later when she was walking along Chapman Highway across the river: a lady who wears red and black, in a sort of uniform that looks like a cross between a traffic attendant and a nineteenth century zouave. Very impressive. She also had a baton which she was swinging both times very deliberately.
3. Sitting in the coffee house studying I overheard the people next to me talking about the church shooting in Knoxville last fall. Turns out one of the women sitting there was in the church when it happened, and she proceeded to describe it in detail to her companions, and to me the unintentional voyeur listening at the table over.
One of her companions was very adamantly in favor the death penalty, swift and immediate; she wasn’t so sure. It was complicated, she said: being at the intersection of death and life (I paraphrase), in the moment when the bullets are- literally- flying and you are thinking about the most trivial things and the most serious things- that man has on a nice tie, is this women lying over there going to die right here should I help her where are the kids? I don’t know how I feel towards that man. Being there changes things.
What I wanted to say but did not say and probably it’s best that I didn’t, because after all I really know nothing: but if we condemn that man to death (as he surely deserves) we condemn ourselves to death, don’t we? There is blood on my hands and on yours; I silently participate in a deeply violent and bloody order of things and it almost never weighs on my conscience. And I myself know myself to have the murderous anger and rage inside of me; hell I felt it this very morning over the dumbest thing and then was angry at myself (angry again!) for my stupid brutish anger. It’s there in all our blood; it’s I who lashed out against God on the tree and cursed him and hoped to die- that will show them/Him! So all I can say and I have to say it over and over and over again is: Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. What else can we say?