Archive for October, 2011

The Fig Tree

ثمرة التين , fig fruitsEither my freshman or sophomore year I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. To a certain degree Esther’s mental illness was something I could identify with and the turmoil of my thoughts at the time often found companionship with her words.

Luckily, that time is behind me now but, there is still one passage that has stuck with me. I think about it often as I now attempt to figure out the next step in my life. It so clearly illustrates my feelings and my fears about that next step. I’m working towards figuring it out but, in the mean time I’ll share the passage with you:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the top of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olypmic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

History Got Me Hooked

As a student I preferred to wander around from department to department. I took classes that covered topics I was interested in or classes taught by professors I wanted to get a chance to learn from. I was a history major on paper but, mostly a student of as many disciplines as possible. Struggling to understand the different frameworks in different disciplines was some of the most intellectual fun I had while at Mary Washington.

Being the type of student who cannot settle down I often had a love-hate relationship with my major. There are certain requirements that need to be met (my inner-rebellious student just freaks out at the work “requirement”) when studying history and sometimes I didn’t particularly care for those requirements. The people who saw me stressed out by my history classes often wondered why I was a history major in the first place? It is a good question and I’m still not completely sure why at times. The best answer I have come up with is history is what happened to grab my attention first.

Monroe Hall, Sunny Day 2A history class I took my freshman year was one of the first places I had a moment that you long to have as a student of anything. It was one of those revelatory moments where you see something you hadn’t seen before even though it had been in front of your face all along. Grok is still the best word I can find that describes those kinds of moments. Those moments take many shapes and forms but, you know it when it hits you. It is a brain high where your thoughts race. You understand something in a deeper more meaningful way. For me the insight was finally realizing how historians create (yes, create) history. I talked a little bit about it after my freshman year but, the words there don’t really do it justice. Perhaps because I’ve repeatedly come back to the same revelation in different ways that it is now even more meaningful to me. Throughout my K-12 experience the historical accounts written in my textbooks were unchanging facts to me. Why would they represent anything other than what had happened? History classes were about the content not about the process. It was in my first history class in college where we looked at many primary source documents that the very obvious truth of what the discipline of history is suddenly struck me. There is no magical record of all of history that is written by divine hand that we print out as truth. No, history is a struggle to piece together the past through various types of evidence. The struggle to understand what was going on at a certain time without injecting your own biases (a seemingly impossible task). The struggle to combine the evidence and your analysis to say something about the past. My freshman year was the first time I saw this process in a way I had never seen before and I wanted more of that feeling. Throughout the rest of my time at Mary Washington I would run into the feeling several more times. Sometimes in history classes, sometimes in other classes.

Being a history major frustrated me at times because it wasn’t always about the process and sometimes it was a bit too content heavy for me. At the same time there were some history classes where I found the content highly interesting and was less interested in the process outright. I suppose I contradict myself. I still have those moments where the reality of how history is written hits me all over again and I feel a little bit of that brain high. Maybe because writing history begins to get at the question, “what is truth?” and to me that is a compelling question.

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