History and Histamines

June 15, 2012

I’ve known many allergists in my time. The first – but by no means the strangest – kicked off each appointment by chanting a lengthy series of questions. I stared at the needlepoint representations of mushrooms on the walls of his office (stitching was his hobby, he beamingly told me) and struggled to calculate the average number of times I sneezed in a row or how itchy, on a scale of one to five, was my average skin-rash. One surprising item (along with, “Do you get up frequently in the night to urinate?”) was, “Do you tend to feel sleepy in certain rooms?”

Immediately, I thought of history class in high school, when no sooner would the door close than my eyes would feel heavy. I nibbled cookies behind a wall of books, doodled strenuously. Despite all this effort, my attention drifted. It was all I could do not to fall asleep. This wasn’t how I wanted it to go. I liked the idea of history and wanted to be good at it. With ambitions to become writer, I knew it was important. History was about people, and everything that helped me understand people should interest me. And though I didn’t have the words for it, even then I sensed the importance of context, of understanding who we are today in light of all that has come before. Most of all, to be a writer you had to be smart, and smart people knew history.

Guess I just wasn’t smart. And maybe writing was not for me, after all.

Later, I questioned that self-defeating conclusion. Who knew what building materials had been used in 1955 when they built that harshly lit and poorly ventilated wing of Jarvis Collegiate? Maybe my gluten allergy had already kicked in and the cookies were doing more harm than good. Or maybe the attitudes around me were proving as toxic as the school’s stale air. Back then, we learned history, not HERstory. In the early seventies, anything to do with women was relegated to a paragraph on “social history” at the end of every chapter of our textbook.

Without resorting to sugar, I pored, eagerly over these brief sections which described what people wore, what they did for entertainment, what they ate and at what time of day. They might mention how people looked after their health, how babies were born. Women were mentioned more often under social history than anywhere else, but really, it was by inference that I placed us in that realm. We were the ones with the narrow, domestic focus. We thought about art, fashion and other superficial matters. We were footnotes, addenda.

History glanced off me because I could not find myself in it. Myself as a girl, myself as an aspiring artist, myself as an ordinary citizen as opposed to as a politician or general. In my spare time, though, I devoured biographies, for here the personalities of history were in the foreground, and we heard about battles and parliamentary bills – not just for their own sakes – but in light of how they affected people’s everyday lives.

I wish I’d hated my history teachers; then I could have enjoyed a moment of vengeful triumph when I received the Alison Prentice Award for women’s history writing at a meeting of the Ontario Historical Society. But the teachers were not the problem. The curriculum was to blame.

So instead, I enjoyed the irony that this stone that (as it were) refused the builder should have become so central to me, and felt really proud to think that Outside the Box might be helping rectify the marginalization of women some small way. This summer has even seen a review in Canada’s History Magazine.

I’m also delighted to notice that things are changing in the education department. After the awards ceremony we spent time in the gorgeous Waterloo Regional Museum, which has a railway track running right through the middle. We saw video testimony of immigrants’ first moments in this country, punched a factory time clock, read a lexicon of teenagers’ slang for each decade of the 20th century. Even if textbooks are still about politics and battles, at least there’s a place where local kids can see themselves reflected, feel drawn in instead of shut out.

Another high point of my month was the Hamilton Jewish Literary Festival on June 3. Organized by Ellen S. Jaffe and Lil Blume the day included a reading and panel discussion as well as two workshops – oh, and lots of food. This redoubtable team always come up with projects make me feel energized and inspired to do more. The festival was a launch for Letters and Pictures from the Old Suitcase, a collection of poems and short prose pieces from new and established writers. I taught a workshop called Fictional Truth/Truth into Fiction, a theme that infused the whole day. These women have done an exceptional job of creating community among the contributors, a community which is constantly expanding because of their outreach projects. With their workshops and publications they have found a way to bring history alive by interacting imaginatively with it.

In the panel discussion Dr. Ruth Frager talked about collecting oral history. She pointed out that this is history seen from the ground. It is embedded in a point of view rather than delivered with the veneer of objectivity. Karen Shenfeld gave a fascinating, hands-on session on the history of Ma Jong, in which she shared the research she had done for her poem, “The Mazel Tov Club.” Here’s an interview with Karen on Open Book Toronto.

I’m happy to say I ate heartily at both events with zero rashes and .05 sniffles. Why am I not surprised?

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