I’ve been indulging in a lot of screen time recently. I know I’m not alone in this. But it somehow seems odd to spend so much of my time passively watching as history is happening right before our eyes. For a multitude of reasons, this year may turn out to be the most consequential year in modern world history, certainly in American history; and that thought is stressing me out. So, in search of answers, I have begun watching and reading about how other people have responded to crises throughout history.
There is currently a 24-part lecture series on Prime TV entitled “The Black Death,” and yes, it is about the plague that originated in China, and beginning in 1347, it devastated not only half of the entire population of Europe, but also its ruling institutions, including feudalism and the Catholic Church. But what fascinated me were the first-hand accounts, in both writing and art, as told by those who were living in the midst of it. Those who cared for the sick and then succumbed themselves; those who turned to prayer and self-flagellation, those who turned to hedonism or violence, those who were scapegoated for being Jewish, and those who tried to restore order and government.
During the next ten years, 75 million people perished. That is a staggering number. But it doesn’t tell us about the human story of that pandemic. We can only begin to understand the meaning of such events by opening ourselves to the accounts of those who lived and died or survived in such times.
Such traumatic experiences are not the only stories of interest to historians. Other stories, of a gentler sort, fascinate as well. Perhaps because they stand out in relief against the larger backdrop of social upheaval.
I recently watched “Anne Frank: Parallel Stories,” in which Helen Mirren reads from Anne’s diary, which is filled with what we might call the normal preoccupations of an adolescent girl in the 1940s. She writes freely and imaginatively of friendship, isolation, love, romance, having her first period and her desire to improve the world. Her death in a Nazi concentration camp at the sweet age of 15 is what makes her story so poignant and so tragic.
When such stories are intertwined with those of other victims and survivors, we feel the true significance of the Holocaust. The weight of those stories has helped to stiffen my own resolve to resist any movement toward a world in which such evil could ever exist again. Engaging with history and realizing that our own stories are part of the entire human experience can really help put things in perspective.
Today, we are living through our own historical moment — facing a worldwide pandemic; political upheaval; social unrest; continued racial injustice toward our own species and man-made environmental catastrophes that threaten to extinguish life itself.
So, how are we dealing with all this?
We all have stories about the disease that is crippling our society, keeping us in isolation, with little or no employment, unable to attend school, unable to make new friends or to date. Are your relationships stressed? Has the Black Lives Matter movement made a difference to you? Did you participate in the protests? How has your world changed? Are you worried about your health or that of your loved ones? Do you watch a lot of news coverage like I do, or post more on social media? Do you feel that you’re actively engaged and are trying to make a difference?
The most important question for me is, “What will I tell my granddaughter when she grows up?”
There are so many stories that when taken together will inform future generations, as well as scholars, about how we survived here on Vashon-Maury Island, while so many in other places did not.
Now is a good time to think about sharing your own experiences. The Vashon Heritage Museum, our island equivalent of the Smithsonian, has begun what it calls the “Vashon COVID-19 Archive Project.” A team led by historian Bruce Haulman has begun collecting such stories for a future exhibit. Working in collaboration with Voice of Vashon, they will be conducting video and audio interviews at several locations around Vashon-Maury throughout the month of July. Participants only need to be willing to share their stories, but artifacts such as masks and photos, even screenshots of social media posts may also be of interest.
For more information visit vashonheritagemuseum.org/covidarchive. Also, check Vashon Heritage Museum’s Facebook page for updates on the location for the interviews.
Be part of history.
Art Chippendale has lived on Vashon for 24 years with his wife Tania Kinnear. He has been active in community organizations and co-founded the group “Unifying for Democracy.”