Xerxes can’t sleep

Lauretta Duinkerke
A hallway from history

I’m a lazy writer. It was almost a year ago that I spoke to the editor of a superb magazine about history. “Most people don’t like history,” he said, and I may have heard the word “boring” in that conversation as well. What did he mean? History? Boring?

Do you mean most people find the incessant rattling off of dates and place names more like a lullaby than a gripping drama? You wouldn’t be alone if you thought this. King Xerxes from the book of Esther had insomnia problems, so he got out a history book to read. But, before you take out a prosaic history book as a last resort on a sleepless night, hear me out. I might be able to persuade you otherwise.

It seems the reason most people despise history is two-fold. Firstly, there’s the problem of the classroom. It’s a hot Friday afternoon. The P. E. class is hitting little green balls with sticks on the tennis court. The art class is sitting in the shade of trees sketching. The school band is rockin’ it in the room down the hall. In the Science lab they’re blowing stuff up. In Bio they’re dissecting worms. And you’re sweating in the heat, surrounded by sheets of paper with tiny writing, hearing the monotone of your history teacher telling you something about 450,000 people signing the Solemn League and Covenant in Ireland in September 1912. You can’t count that number on your fingers and toes. How did they make the number so exact? A fly buzzes over to your desk. You swat it. Ooo, fly guts. Huh? What was that? No wonder you hate history.

You see, for most people history is nothing but a boring class to be put up with. One must regurgitate scraps of information onto an exam paper at the end of the year. It’s dead. It’s boring. And no wonder.

Secondly, there’s the question of usefulness. As far as I understand (forgive me if I’m wrong), there’s always been a war waging between those in the Science/Mathematics, white coat camp and those in the Literature/History, mismatched motley camp. Without Science where would we be? We wouldn’t know what those fluffy clouds are, or how our digestive system functions, or what chemicals we should mix to cause destruction. And how could we count without Mathematics? Or determine the height of a tree without having to climb it with a measuring tape? Or figure out the frequencies for musical notes? We’d be lost. We wouldn’t have been able to determine the diameter of this earth. We would have missed His design stamped all over creation.

Who needs scribbles on a page anyway? Why analyze novels? Why all those essays? What a waste of breath! Who cares about the theme of a poem? Or who won the battle and why? It’s not going to help us, is it?

These are rhetorical questions. I don’t have all the answers. But where would we be without the written word? How could I understand human nature without Leo Tolstoy? How could I laugh at social quirks without Jane Austin? How can I understand the present and the future if I can’t understand the past? And besides, there’s more to this earth than matter. There are people. They call it the humanities for a reason.

History is like a large palace with a hallway so long you can’t quite see the other end. And there are doors in this hallway. You open one and find yourself hiding behind a trench with a hard, green hat on your head (like one we have at home), dodging bullets in World War II. “Phew,” you think as you close the door quietly behind you. “Lucky I missed that one!”

You enter another door. A candle flickers in the room. The wind rattles the windowpanes. A woman in a hat with a feather in it is standing in the line in front of you. “What are they signing? Oh yeah, it’s that thing I learnt about in history class once … the Solemn League and Covenant.” You peer at one man. He has blood dribbling down his arms. He’s signing in his blood. You see numerous red signatures amongst the black ink ones. “This is real,” you think, as you quickly make for the door. “They mean this …”

The 78th door down the left side takes you into the opulent court of Queen Elizabeth the First. Your corset is so tight you can’t breath. Or, if you’re a man, you look down at your hideously tight pants and pointy shoes. You meet her. You experience this life, if only for a moment, and begin to understand the politics and ins-and-outs of her court.

Further down this hallway, in another room, you find yourself in a hot middle-eastern town. Kids are playing in the street. A group of men with long beards stand talking in the market pace. A merchant comes by leading a camel packed with bags. “Smell-y!” you think, turning away. You walk through the streets. You see bread rising in the sun. You enter a house. There’s a workshop at the side and a man is crafting something with wood. He looks up and smiles.

You see, it’s through history that the reality of those crosses on a hill hits me. The darkness that night. The tombs breaking open. It’s true. It happened. He walked this place. Some time in history.

I’m not trying to set history up as number one, or even close to it. But like Xerxes, when I read history I find myself in the middle of something big. I can’t sleep. Who first owned my 1924 piano? Who else’s fingers danced along the keys? How much coal has my old bucket held? Who else sat in that chair or used that old phone? What was it like to be aboard Sir Frances Drake’s pirate sh … I mean, exploration ship? History is full of stories. It’s about people. People who have sweated and toiled and laboured, worked the land, built empires and broken down strongholds. Who were they? Why did they do that? What are their stories, their histories?

I always thought I should have been born in another time. My costume box is always growing. Old things clutter our house. But I shall have to remain content with sitting by the fire and thinking of people long ago.

Lauretta Duinkerke was born in Hamilton (pop. 190,000).