Writer’s Block and History Lessons

I have been wrangling with writer’s block. I think the events of the past couple of weeks have been so dark that stringing sensible words together has simply felt like too much. I’m going to try though, to see if I can find my way back to what’s been my most reliable tool for processing, even when I’m faced with what seems impossible to process. Not writing is bad for me. Here goes.

Tanks move in formation near the border with Gaza on Saturday near Sderot, Israel.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Rockets fired by Palestinian militants from Gaza are intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense missile system in the early hours of Sunday.
Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

For what feels like the umpteenth time in my life, I’m witnessing another horrifying eruption of violence in the Middle East. In the midst of the endless hatred, innocents are dying. I know that many people in both Israel and Gaza want to live in peace. But that never seems to be enough. I will never understand how mowing down civilians can be seen by anyone as an avenue to achieving anything. In the end, the random gore just hardens the resolve of the perpetrators while adding new furious recruits to their ranks. I recently read a quote from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist whose views invited criticism from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. I’m not an authority on her scholarship. But I’m trying to hang on to this concept in these fraught times. In his book, “Hope Dies Last,” the great author Studs Terkel tells us, “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.” He then relays a collection of oral histories by Americans from all walks of life and their never-ending hope in the spirit of activism, commitment and the determination to resist.” I’m sure that’s true for people everywhere. I hope so…

Moving to the domestic front, there’s the astonishing dysfunction going on in what at this point, I sarcastically refer to as the U.S. government. A handful of fringe representatives have managed to halt the functioning, pathetic though it may have been, of the House of Representatives and at least a chunk of the Senate. First we have the fired House Speaker who needed 15 rounds of voting to be elected by his own majority party. Then, after a contest between two representatives, neither of whom acknowledge the legitimacy of the 2020 election, despite all evidence to the contrary, we have the ultimate winner of that poll. Jim Jordan, is an Ohio representative, who in sixteen years in the House, has been consistently rated as one of the most ineffective legislators in that body.

Jim Jordan – Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

His primary goal seems to be pushing every bill as far to the right as possible. Who votes for this person? Moving to the Senate, we have Tommy Tuberville, who took office in 2021, the football coach senator who is holding up all military appointments because he opposes the Pentagon’s abortion policy. I thought his party was the “support the military” flagbearer. And just who votes for this guy? I have no idea, as the government barrels toward another shutdown deadline, how there is hope for any resolution to this chaos. These supposed lawmakers hold the wellbeing of millions hostage to their brinkmanship. But what do I really know, living here on planet Earth, instead of in an alternate universe? Their fierce loyalty to their party leader is another inexplicable conundrum to me. How is it possible, that after being charged in four separate criminal cases in just over four months, facing over ninety separate charges, that someone’s presidential poll numbers increase? One of those “what’s wrong with this picture” moments? I can’t fathom what I’m missing. I remember the quote, “one person can make a difference.” I didn’t think that statement applied to a destructive goal rather than a beneficial one. Of course, in this case, I suppose there is always a major personal benefit to Individual 1, whose name I can’t bear to write. What a moment in history.

In an effort to distract myself from the miserable news, I chose to watch The American Buffalo, airing on PBS in the U.S. I suppose I could have selected lighter fare and I admit, I watched all four episodes of “Beckham” on Netflix in a binge moment. But the fact is, I prefer to read and watch historically-based books and films, largely to find context and perspective which help me find equilibrium in difficult times. Certainly the wanton destruction of the buffalo, inextricably bound with the genocide of native tribes in this country, is a reminder that history is filled with examples of inhumanity and myopic greed. The bison population, estimated to be 30-50 million at the beginning of the 19th century were reduced to 100 wild individuals at the beginning of the 20th century. Their fate and ultimate survival is a reminder of how the tides of history can push whoever is in the way of the powerful and the often heedless, to the brink of extinction. Now in the 21st century, parallel comparisons can be drawn between the past and the current issues of our time. The series is excellent and insightful, despite not being the lightest entertainment fare. One of the significant figures featured in this program is Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief, who lived during the tumultuous decades of buffalo annihilation and the genocide of native peoples. I recommend the following book which relates his remarkable story.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to get myself to Yellowstone National Park. Home to more than 60 mammal species, the bison is the largest grazing animal to wander that land. Of course, its numbers are a mere sliver of what they once were, but seeing their majesty and recognizing the miracle of their survival is a profound experience. I was there during rutting season when mating is the sole focus of the males who can forgo eating to procreate. They’ll never be what they once were. Nonetheless, their presence and tenacity is a sign of hope in dark times.

A photo from my Yellowstone trip
At Yellowstone

I just finished reading another book which focuses on the Osage tribe, a people who became fabulously wealthy during the early 1900’s when oil was discovered under their reservation in Oklahoma. The book, fairly well-known now, is Killers of the Flower Moon.

The unexpected but welcomed tribal wealth spurred a killing spree by greedy opportunists who wanted control over the seemingly limitless profits available. The story is another example of myopic greed, lack of vision and inhumanity, which in this current time of profound climate change, is still so relatable. Those who continue to press for fossil fuels and drilling in pristine natural reserves, turn a blind eye to anything but instant gratification and the acquisition of profits. The recently released film based on the book and directed by Martin Scorsese, will hopefully illuminate the consciousness of people who might otherwise not learn about that instructive moment in time, so comparable to the present. Is there really “nothing new under the sun?” Seems not.

Today, where I live, it’s a beautiful fall day. I’ve worried about whether any brilliant fall colors would show up as they have in the past, primarily because we had such a dry, hot summer. After a few rain events, we’re finally getting a more normal autumn, despite the obvious stress on many trees throughout the area. These thoughts are a luxury. No bombs are dropping where I live and no one is coming to kidnap or kill me.

The war is still happening in Israel, in Gaza and in Ukraine, too. Other less publicized conflicts are raging throughout the world. The House of Representatives is still missing in action. Do I still have writer’s block? Probably. Did I manage to make sense of anything by thinking about history? Maybe.

So these are my golden years. As I often say, what’s next?

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