Documented/Undocumented

I’ve been thinking more, lately, about history. About cosmic and cultural, political and personal history. About the way that people do and don’t keep records of any kind of history, how each documentarian shapes the way things are remembered or forgotten, and how each person on the receiving end of the documentation shapes it all further, given the multitudinous filters of experience, intelligence, and personality each brings to the process. School learning, book learning, deep research, and autodidactic learning all depend upon the vicissitudes of human understanding and communication. And a whole lot, also, on luck and succeeding history, since all of the learning can be lost or found many times over the decades and centuries.
Machinist's School Certificate

My family recently unearthed the above little slip of paper that marked my maternal grandfather’s completion of his first machinist training. Gramps had immigrated to the States some years earlier in search of work, and had kept busy and alive in the piecemeal way that [willing, as opposed to indentured or enslaved] immigrants have done since time immemorial, bunking in cheap rented quarters with other young immigrant men, laboring long hours for little pay, and playing greenhorn pranks on each other in the few hours outside of work when they weren’t downing a hasty bite of food or sleeping exhaustedly. His machinist training eventually led to his working at General Motors for quite a long time, even serving on the team that built the first Duck prototypes for the army. And then his life took various turns, over the years, and I grew up knowing him as a skillful carpenter and homebuilder and the hobby-farmer tending beautiful produce gardens and a handful of Cheviot sheep.

But of course I knew very little of his life story. I did have the privilege of sitting and quizzing my grandpa over dinner more often than most, since I rented a bedroom from him and Granny for the three years I worked near their home in between my undergraduate and grad studies. So I heard some of the tales, like the one about his flatmates sending each newest member of the household to town to buy “ten cents worth of Piggly Wigglies,” a silly quest after a mythical grail that afforded the rest the cheap entertainment of watching from afar as their victim tried in his broken English to persuade shopkeepers to hand over something that didn’t exist even if his speech could be deciphered, and the store owners eventually sending the series of foreign-born youths off, each now smarting with the same outsider embarrassment they’d all experienced in their early days in the US. I heard, too, of that uncle of my grandpa’s who had tried to dissuade him from going to America, and if he did, to at least be as wary and canny as possible because “those Americans will sue you for anything.” This was, mind you, not in the modern day that we generally agree is such a ridiculously litigious one, but in 1929 or so. (Apparently some things haven’t changed very radically in this country.) Still, I know only scraps of Grandpa’s whole biography.

I can at least say with conviction that I come by my stubbornness honestly. Despite the family pleas and warnings, Elias Omli sailed willfully ahead, and lived most of the rest of his life in the US of A. In those early times, he must have struggled immensely, yet found fulfillment enough in the life he forged for himself and later, his family, that despite his longing for the old country and one brief but unsuccessful attempt to reintegrate with the family in Norway when my mother was very small, he lived and died an American. Between those atoms of information he shared with any of us his descendants about his childhood and youth in Norway and the rest of his existence in the US, there was a whole, complicated, adventure-filled, and ordinarily colorful life, very little of which anyone really knows, or could know.

That is how we all exist. Even the most documented, celebrated, and historically dissected characters and the events in which they take part in life or death cannot be fully known, let alone understood, by anyone but themselves. If I’m any example, I suspect even such self-knowledge is pretty shallow in the long run. Having written and shared over 1500 posts here in Bloglandia, where I immigrated from the semi-real-world over 4 years ago now, I may in some ways be better documented than a few other people, should anyone care to sift through all of my imagery and verbiage at any point, but even in this, I share what I choose to share, and only my point of view on it all is represented, so that skew is also bound to be imperfect, if not a little disingenuous.

(I’ll at least aver that the stuff I tag as Fiction is really fictional, and leave determining the rest of it up to readers, who will of course interpret it at will anyhow.)
Island Log Book

Gramps’s story was unique, but not dissimilar from many others’ in history, whether they decamped to new homes and lives from their birthplaces or not, whether they had vocations that called them at an early age and flourished throughout their days or they followed more unpredictable routes. The fate of an individual is inevitably affected not only by his own choices and acts but by the natural and national events and changes that fall in his life’s path. The person who penned the Swedish grocery and supply list above, many years ago, did so as the manager of a remote coastal household for not only the family but probably also a handful of townsfolk who shared the responsibility for overseeing the safe arrival of boats and their occupants on that forbiddingly rocky shore. What this little slip of paper denotes is a glimpse into the everyday life of not just the one person who wrote it but of a small group of people whose names are no longer known and whose life stories probably exist, if at all, only in the bloodstreams of distant great-grandchildren, yet the quaint harbor town they once labored to keep in existence all those decades ago is today a thriving and colorful, lively place. New stories are born there all of the time, and I can attest that the dry goods and groceries now available there are, respectively, more plentiful than and as delicious as ever.

Individuals, communities and cultures all have their times of trial and those of triumph, some noticeably more of one than the other.
Digital illo from photos: Houses of Sorrow

A recent reminder of that came into my view when my spouse and I spent a few days in Halifax. It is as beautiful a part of the continent as I’d always imagined, and yet like the rugged coast of that Swedish island it certainly presents difficulties to the ships that approach it today, and all the more must have challenged the lives, safety, and ingenuity of all comers in days long gone. I loved exploring as a tourist and seeing, especially, the natural beauties of the area with all of its geographical wonders, sea-borne marvels, and magnificent greenery, and also the wide variety of architectural styles that hint at the multicultural roots of the region. Not surprising that the shores are dotted with lighthouses large and small, as well as the houses of those who tended them.

When at the waterfront of the city proper, I admired the old lighthouse and the humble buildings near it on the island most visible from the piers. For a lighthouse location, which is by nature placed in a potentially volatile coastal setting, it looks sweetly bucolic, ideal, and peaceful. Indeed, it is nowadays a quiet and pretty place, a heritage site in mid-restoration for its intended future as an historical park. But that heritage is far from peaceful, let alone ideal; like many other islands in such prominent coastal positions, it has a long and storied past as a fort, a military encampment and, even darker, as a prison and internment camp.

Some of those imprisoned on that place now known as Georges Island, Nova Scotia, were among the estimated 1660 prisoners out of 11,500 local Acadians expelled from their homes and lands en masse by British forces during the 18th century imperialist battles between English and French forces over New World territories. Three quarters of the entire Acadian population were deported in those times and thousands died in raids, counterattacks, and battles; others died under torture, of drowning on the deportment ships, of disease, or of starvation. And Acadians were far from alone in being imprisoned or worse on that pretty-looking little island.

Their own comrades, the Mi’kmaq (and other aboriginal Atlantic inhabitants), with whom Acadians on their arrival as French colonists are said to have lived quite equably, suffered on the island along with numerous captured French sailors and soldiers and any number of other “enemies” of the British rule. Something far less benign than a lovely coastal outpost of protective presence came to exist on this sorrowful promontory at the edge of the proto-Canadian world.

Can I look at this island in ignorant imagination anymore as a picture of vintage calm? Of course not. But I can also guess that there are very few acres of earth anywhere that are not stained with ancient cruelty and the blood of untimely deaths, whether of the innocent or not. It’s easy to sit in judgement from my place of comfort and call the expulsion of the Acadians an attempt at genocide or ethnic cleansing. Certainly, records and recollections of the historians present offer ample reasons that I should think there were all kinds of wicked intentions at play, from land greed to hatred of unknown races, from religious and political imperialism to maneuvering for resources. There were clearly personal elements involved, and as in all wars, military actions that turned into personal vendettas, fights over disputed borders into plundering and petty theft. Just as, undoubtedly, the aboriginal Atlantic peoples must have initially feared, and perhaps fought, the Acadians, and the French and British spent great resources and innumerable lives on their distrust and fear of each other and of the inhabitants of their intended expansion zones.

But earlier centuries’ worldview was also vastly different from today’s, all around the globe. Today, we have knowledge of a much larger and more developed world, of the richness of other cultures, even of the possibility of peaceful coexistence, and we have no excuses for not trying in every imaginable way to resolve differences without being exclusionary or  violent. But past times and people didn’t all have the advantage of our expanded view. Every cultural center or nation of significant size in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas has had its powers, each of them assuming a natural, if not divine, right of rule over all that they had not yet explored, by dint of their own isolated mastery. It’s not just that leaders, explorers, and conquerors themselves have seen it as their right, and often as benevolent duty, to claim ascendancy over whatever and (assuming they’ve managed to recognize indigenous residents as people) whomever they encounter, and to rule as they see fit. Those who write down history, or tell its tales, also continue to believe or disbelieve in ways that are unique to them, and the biases that sneak into our views are inextricably mixed into how we, and future generations, think about history.

What can I take away from these musings? Only the usual self-admonition that I look beyond what is visible. That I question and try to learn further, and not rush so quickly to the judgement that comes oh-so-naturally to me. That I ponder whether any slight thing that I do or say myself can perhaps help others, individually or globally, to remember the lessons of history, both bad and good, and to move forward away from our worst selves. We may remain undocumented in these attempts, as in so many other aspects of being small mortal beings, but I think that existence itself bears the marks of our passing as a document that will spell out the difference between annihilation and rehabilitation of our world.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

More Fun with Drawing Toys

Not much needs to be said here. I’m on another of my tangential rambles with my art practice, and what pleases me a great deal about crawling my way into the digital era is that not only can I document my work better than I used to do, I can retain it in numerous, widely varied states and play with it without nearly so much difficulty in changing my mind and erasing or altering things as I like. Talk about a bonus for a mercurial goof-off like me.graphite drawing

digital artwork from a drawing