Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Archives

I had never done archival research until a few years ago, when I went to the Walter Reuther Archives at Wayne State University in Detroit to do research for my novel Grand River and Joy. I did not go behind the curtains of that astonishing place, but I do imagine that it would look something like the photo above because when I went to the front desk and perused the listings and found the reference numbers for the items I wanted, I wrote them down on a piece of paper, handed the paper to the fine person behind the desk, and went to sit down (as instructed) and wait.
     Not long thereafter, a nice young man came along pulling a large dolly that contained five or six boxes about the size of the ones in those photos above, and he left them all beside me. Needless to say, I was stunned. I had never expected that I was making such an enormous request (it seemed routine to them), and I was amazed that they were willing to just walk away and trust me with the whole thing. So . . . nothing to be done but get to work. And I did. I spent a whole day, looking through all the papers that those boxes contained. It was fascinating, and much of what I learned that day about the changing neighborhoods of Detroit in the 1960s showed up in my novel in some form.
     Not all archives are so well-organized as this one, or as the many other professional archives that exist at museums and universities around the world. Many people have archives in their own homes, and I suspect they are more along the lines of this, below. Although, even that looks perhaps more orderly than what many of us have in our homes.
Partly in honor of my experience at the Walter Reuther archive, I made a character in my new novel into an archivist. I'm sure that there are all kinds of archivists, and that they work in a variety of ways, but one idea I got from my research about archivists is that their job is to go through documents and other items that people have left behind in order to organize, label, index, preserve, etc., but not necessarily to interpret. Not even to consider what the documents might be used for, or whether anyone will ever use them. Not necessarily to question their meaning, if any. Only to put them in an order that may possibly make them useful to someone else.

At any rate, that is the situation I created for the archivist in my novel, and it is a role she becomes a bit impatient with in the course of the story--that is, she wants to be the one to interpret, find meaning, weave stories about a found treasure, not only to preserve and present to someone else.
My novel is finished now, and in the hands of others who will now decide its fate. And in the meantime, I found an essay I wrote about 10 years ago that I want to revise, as I feel it has a great deal to say but did not quite fulfill its potential when I wrote it back then. Interestingly enough, it is about an experience I had when I opened a drawer in my bedside table that I had not opened in many years, and it is about the layers of memories I found there, a number of them painful. So I am now involved in my own archival task--but taking both roles: she who finds and organizes as well as she who interprets and story-weaves.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Message to Outer Space

No one knows what shadowy memory haunts them to this day. In this connection one might also add that one of the Heeresgrupe E intelligence officers at that time was a young Viennese lawyer whose chief task was to draw up memoranda relating to the necessary resettlements, described as imperative for humanitarian reasons. For this commendable paperwork he was awarded by Croatian head of state Ante Pavelic the silver medal of the crown of King Zvonomir, with oak leaves. In the post-war years this officer, who at the very start of his career was so promising and so very competent in the technicalities of administration, occupied various high offices, among them that of Secretary General of the United Nations. And reportedly it was in this last capacity that he spoke onto tape, for the benefit of any extra-terrestrials that may happen to share our universe, words of greeting that are now, together with other memorabilia of mankind, approaching the outer limits of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II.
 These are the words of one of my great literary heroes, W. G. Sebald, in his magnificent book The Rings of Saturn. In the first sentence from that passage above, Sebald is referring to those who survived a brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia--the perpetrators being Croats aided by Germans and Austrians. Below is the melancholy Sebald. With much to be melancholic over.
Without naming him, of course, Sebald is referring in the magnificent passage, to former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. Here he is.
Now tell me. Which of those two men would you rather share a beer with? This question is strictly theoretical, or hypothetical, since neither still resides corporeally on this earth.
     It is true that Waldheim, along with Jimmy Carter, was asked to record messages that were then loaded on the space probe that, to this day, is still en route. I don't think anyone knows what their message were, but I have not looked into that question extensively. It is also true that if you look on the UN website, for the bios of the former secretaries-general, you will find that Waldheim's does not mention his years in the Balkans (nor any of the other dark corners of his resume), though it does mention that in 1968 he was elected President of the first United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Litter Lady Has Met Her Match, and She's Getting Mad

The photo you see above is me in my idyllic days of litter collection. That photo was from the day I went out on a litter walk with a reporter from my local paper, and it was quite a jolly day.  When the article came out, I had much response from people I knew as well as strangers who recognized me when they met me. One woman, I remember, said she liked that I didn't "judge people," by which she meant the people who left the litter that I then picked up. And to a certain extent, that was true. I didn't care so much about Them, though I did wonder a little bit what the deal was with Them. What I cared about more was doing something small that could help the world and also make me feel I'd done something constructive. Aside from the clean-up aspect of the effort, my goal was to get recyclables into their proper containers and get glass off the street so it couldn't harm anyone or their tires.
     I have continued this practice, and when my husband walks with me, he helps out too, often spotting a "find" before I do, or a place to deposit it if we haven't taken a bag with us.The protocol for recycling is that the bottle or can has to be empty when it goes into the bin, and sometimes the bottles or cans I find are not empty, and so I empty them myself--into the gutter or some such, trying not to make too much of a mess. I myself do not drink soda or any of those other weird kinds of drinks that come in those bottles and cans, and sometimes it's hard for me to believe that people actually do drink them. Sometimes, if I'm feeling annoyed, I say to myself or my husband, "If they're going to buy this crap, and leave it by the wayside, they could at least drink the whole thing." Not the mellow, nonjudgmental litter lady of yore, you may be thinking.
      Anyway, sometimes I come across a "find" that poses a particular challenge.  For example, just yesterday, I spotted a can standing on the curb--I believe it was some kind of sparkling, flavored water--and it was unopened and entirely full. I could not for the life of me think what to do. I did not want to open the can and dump out the entire contents--thinking that perhaps a truly thirsty person might come by, see it, and actually be able to make use of it. So even though I had picked it up, I put it back down again. Another time--this was in the winter--I found a beer can that was mainly full, but the liquid was frozen into a kind of mush that I could not easily pour out. I had to let that one go as well. Sometimes people drink part of the drink, and then dump in a cigarette or two, so the liquid becomes a kind of nicotinic brew, which is particularly gross to dispose of. Today, however, I truly met my match. It was a bottle of that Lipton Ice Tea, and when I picked it up, I could see it had something in it that had to be discarded, so I opened it and tipped it over, and something really gross kind of oozed out. It looked a bit like a very thick, grainy Dijon mustard, and it struck me that this might actually be some form of human waste, and what was I to do now? I don't think it was human waste because (1) how could it get into that small-necked bottle? and (2) it didn't smell like human waste. Still, I did not know what to do with it--continue to dump it out? Drop it in a recycling bin without dumping it? No on both counts. What I did was set it down in a somewhat out-of-the-way spot. But I felt bad about it. And also mad.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

If Someone Had Told Me

About 15 years ago, I met D in a writing workshop. We were working so hard at learning to tell stories on the page and to discuss each others' stories in a respectful and insightful way that would help us grow as writers. I liked her right away. I liked what she wrote, and I liked her comments on my work as well as on the work of the others in the workshop. I felt like I knew her already, which we sometimes feel about people who are destined to become friends. Anyway, I told her that I would like to be her friend, and we did become friends, and our families got to know each other quite well, and we have celebrated many events and holidays together over the years. We have also read a lot of each others' work, as we were in a writing group together for many years. I would say that one of the identities we share is a literary identity.
We both have many other identities. Just to mention a few, we are both mothers and sisters and Jews and Oak Parkers; we are daughters; she is a teacher; I am an editor; I am a wife, and and she was too until recently. And then in addition to all these, we also share an identity of being writers.
The point of all this is that if 15 years ago, when we were sitting in that first writing workshop, thinking about words and stories, and how much we loved them, if some imp had come and whispered in my ear that 15 years from then, I would be going to a Super Bowl party at her house, I would have been incredulous but I would also have thought that this was such a ridiculous thing to say that I might not even wanted to waste any energy being incredulous.
     But things evolve and reconfigure. I have no understanding of the game of football. I am not, therefore, a football fan. For a number of reasons that I might go into in a different post, I have come to appreciate the physicality of it, and I also find some of the shots of the players' faces . . . eloquent. A story of sorts occurs on those fields, and although I don't understand it entirely--not nearly as much as I understand, say, M. Proust up there at the top of the post--in a few minutes, I am going over to D's for a Super Bowl party. Life dishes up many surprises. Does it not?