A number of years ago I became drawn to the history of the UK during the World War II era. My attraction was not to the stories of war and heroism, or to battles, or to studying the actions of world leaders during that time. Instead, I wanted to know the stories of the ordinary, daily, lives of the people trying to make it through those wars years, 1939 to 1946 or a bit after. Long before a hint of a pandemic future, my interest in this period stayed strong and I, who have never stepped foot in the UK, got sucked in by the remarkable number of surprisingly good books and films that cover so many aspects of this time. My latest is a binge watch of a BBC docu-series first broadcast in 2012 called “Wartime Farm” in which an historian and two archaeologists filmed a year long re-creation of the Britain’s “other” war, the one concerned with keeping Hitler’s forces from using starvation as a weapon to overtake the UK as they had done in so many other European countries. Tractors, chickens, dairy cows, flax and wheat, making do, using everything at hand, and all aspects of life, including attitudes, were “weaponized” to keep Great Britain out of German control. What a tale.
Is it ever possible to truly understand an historical period not of our own experience? More than one biopic has sent me scurrying to thick biographies as a check or challenge to what’s been shown by the life depicted on screen, but all such endeavors are found to be lacking, full of inaccuracies of one form or another. Questions always remain.
This day-to-day slow crawl of a worldwide pandemic is history in the making as are the parallel, ongoing, worldwide political upheavals. I am continually struck by how our individual experiences vary wildly even when we attempt to reassure one another that we are all “in this together”. Since the pandemic enfolded the experience of those with jobs (i.e., paychecks) could not equal those who have lost their livelihoods or their businesses. Those among us who have contracted the virus, or have loved ones who have become ill or who died, are in a different boat from those of us staying sharply isolated, afraid, and remaining physically safe but possibly losing our mental grip.
A question for all times: how do we see our own lives in historical context even as we are living through it?
I have talked (socially distanced via Zoom) with a variety of people who declare that they have not been all that affected by this pandemic, people who have in one way or another still traveled, still retained close family contact. I find myself wondering about optimism or the opposite, falling down into dark rabbit holes. And what about so many of us who are experiencing bits of both at the same time? Despite our perceived commonalities, a car ride through neighboring communities already gives evidence of sharp change—closed businesses, ubiquitous masking, “For Sale” signs popping up on homes and pasted on to darkened empty windows, the residents or owners or proprietors already gone. When we can again roam freely, we will be stunned by the changes to places we hold dear in our hearts? There will not be a return to “normal”, only an arrival at a new normal, one we create as we move along. Our constant flying blindly into the blank state of the unknown then somehow emerging and trying to piece together what happened is our history.
Recently I took a class on historical pandemics wanting a glimpse of what previous humans suffered in the various forms of past plagues of plagues and epidemics. What did they know and how they were affected? It appears that Black Death survivors in the 1300’s, without knowledge of “virus” made common sense observations which some used to stay isolated and alive. Yet during this Coronavirus pandemic segments of current humanity, those with access to all manner of understanding of disease process, chose to ignore science and rely on their own opinion of what was “real”. Some of them became ill or died, but not all, at least not yet. Did we humans make progress only to yet again fall back into superstition and ignorance?
The more I try for even a narrow glimpse of truth through peepholes into the past, the more I am humbled at the vastness of the task. I feel like an ant trying to understand the magnitude of galaxies. My personal current history is a slow crawl of one day blending into the next, of isolation filled with questions, of not one iota of progress as the clouds and sun come and go in rhythms I also do not thoroughly understand. On second thought, that ant may be be far better equipped for the struggle than I who remains baffled.