Tomorrow we shall sing “The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered.” And what an old year. What a horrible old year.

It was no 2012/2013 by any means. But it was a year in which I saw some of the worst of human beings – torches in the streets, a Nazi on the corner, a pall upon the nation. It was a year in which I marched in the streets, resisted however I could, and felt drained by the enormity of it all. It was a year in which my dream stopped short of reality and I had to stop. Reconfigure. Figure out a new dream.

I have been fortunate in my life and have held many jobs that spoke to my soul. This year I had to give one up because the swamp – it had to be drained. Yet I received some validation for all I had worked for, and landed on my feet thanks to a dear friend who was being drained as well.

This is a brave new world for me. I have had to put my writing, my research, and my dream of finishing the next book on hold for a time. But at least I can say “next book.” Thanks to another dear friend, the first one is to be a reality in the new year. It still feels unreal to me – me, whose main work has ever been ephemeral. But this will be real. Tangible. Knowable. I only wish it had come a few years before so that the two people who made it possible – made me possible – could have seen it.

My hope is that I can regroup and continue my writing. It is a story that must be told, and I must be the one to tell it. What form it will take, I do not yet know. But I vow to see it through.

So a toast to the old and a hope for the new. Let us hang sorrow and cast care away.

God send us a happy new year.

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Some thoughts about following a dead man.

Historians are supposed to be objective. We are supposed to let the sources speak for themselves and not manipulate them to our purposes. We are supposed to remain removed from our subjects of study.

All of this is good. And it makes for great history.

But there are times you meet someone long dead about whom it is hard to stay completely objective. Because, you see, historians can and do fall in love with the past. Not a romantic love, mind you. But a kinship. Maybe more like family. I mean – you insinuate your way into their lives like a family member, and in many cases, you know more about them than their current family does. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.

And I pursue Eben Stoddard.

So it is that today I found myself walking through Portsmouth, New Hampshire trying to find the essence of a young sailor who cast his lot with the Union and found a berth as volunteer Acting Master on the USS Kearsarge. He lived here for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love here – though it was a love fraught with difficulty and frequent separation. It was a love that did not survive his post-war occupation which found him away from his wife and family more than he was with them.

He moved his young wife from Portsmouth to Portsmouth. New Hampshire to Virginia. He spent days, weeks, months away in his job as a wrecker – traveling as far as South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Africa to do his work. They had a child – a girl – in 1870, and a boy in 1880. But by then I guess his wife had had enough and went back to her Portsmouth with the children.

I visited her home today. I’m as fascinated with her as I am with him. I don’t pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I can’t know how difficult the marriage may have been. I don’t know who was at fault, though I suspect it was a shared fault. They divorced – which was not common. But then they remarried. Each other. The pension files tell a terse story – it was for the insurance.

Her claim was denied.

He died alone at Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island – no longer able to work in his adopted home of Norfolk, Virginia. His company had been bought out by Merritt & Chapman, but in any event he could barely walk and barely hear – the notation said ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.

On that intake page at Snug Harbor she was an afterthought – added as next of kin after almost anyone else. I doubt that they saw each other much – if at all – after he arrived there in 1898. He lingered on until 1902 – active at first, being allowed ‘leave’ for days or weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all.

I don’t know yet if he saw his children during those years. The daughter went on to marry and have a nice life as far as I can tell.

The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father. But he was in a mental institution with no next of kin known. Father and mother both long dead. Sister moved on. I had hoped to find the son today as well – to stand there and say ‘I know who you are. I know from whence you came, and I am here to honor you’ – but perhaps that is for another time.

And she died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was presumably sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. I have found her mortal remains nowhere.

But for today – I honored their young selves – Eben and Ellen. Full of hope, hopelessly optimistic and looking into a future that neither one of them could ken. I walked through the streets of Portsmouth as much a ghost as they were. I was half-bemused, letting them lead me to the places I needed to see. My GPS was turned off. Instinct was turned on. And I found them there. And I will find them elsewhere. Until they tell me that I have followed them enough.

He was a hero by any accounts. He commanded the aft pivot of the Kearsarge in the battle against the Alabama. But that was a few short hours in his life. The rest of his life was spent rescuing ships, cargo, and human life from the clutches of the sea and shore.

But he couldn’t rescue what had been with his wife and family. Because all heroes have their faults.

As do historians. But I’m going to try to tell their story as best I can.

It’s what I do.

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Such a very long time.

This place used to be my solace. My happy place. My escape. My mental workout room. But like any home – if you don’t practice constant maintenance, it can fall into disrepair.

I think I found a family of voles living in my tag cloud. And don’t get me started on the cobwebs in the archives.

But in the past three years I have written and defended my dissertation, lost my father-in-law, father, and mother. And I found I could write about none of it.

But old habits die hard. I find myself within these virtual walls again – running my fingers over the posts and considering a new interior design.

Who knows what might happen?

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….And it’s still snowing….

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Actually – I am homeward bound at the moment – somewhere just south of Alexandria on the last stretch through to Richmond. Train this time – and really, my preferred way to travel. There’s something relaxing about rail travel (though not so relaxing in the rail stations – but no matter, they are only in-between places – a means to an end). We’ve had several lovely days in New York – days that seemed to stretch well past the five we had allotted into a timelessness that is the hallmark of any really good escape.

We have begun making New York City in January something of a tradition now – in the past 3 years. It began by happenstance, in the final frantic days of the Monitor Center preparations with some filming at Martha Stewart’s studio of all places – as well as a transcendent show at the Bowery Ballroom with friends new and old. By the time we found ourselves here again the second year – it really had become a tradition, I suppose.

And so we continue it.

Many people do not understand our kind of vacation with its aimless, organic pace. We try not to travel with much of an agenda – no more than one or two set goals, and even then they are almost always malleable. We do not go with the express notion of checking off one more tourist destination or event off on our to-do list, though there are times when we accidentally log one or two. (Case in point – cold rainy day translated to random warm theatre and a lovely surprise afternoon with Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly that we never would have actually planned to do.)

We go to escape, whether it is into the warmth of a well-loved place or into the static electricity of the always awake. We go to wander through streets both familiar and unfamiliar, with the freedom to stop anywhere – for any length of time, and for any reason. To watch the people and the skies and to hear the sounds both lyrical and cacophonic. To drink in the surroundings and talk or not talk for as long as we want to.

We just go.

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Well – here I am at AAM in Philadelphia and am in the midst of a technology tutorial about Google mapping. I can see that this could be awfully darn cool for my historical visualization project and I’m just wondering if my volunteers would be interested in learning this?


View trail of the monitorkitty in a larger map

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So I bought a cute little Linux netbook for my mom.

She now has my old Toshiba and I now have the cute little Linux netbook. Funny how things work that way. Anyway, I’m putting it through its paces in a Barnesy Noble coffeeshop.

I fully intended to be in a Borders coffeeshop, but the fates conspired to place a certain former archivist/convicted felon in the Borders coffeeshop – hence I am here, computing in the cloud.

We returned from Christmas in Tobacco Town last evening. It was a wonderful few days – actually starting in Williamsburg with the extended Holloway clan – then continuing onward to Winston and Greensboro for a few days. I think I shall write more about the weekend when I’m on a bigger keyboard – as this ickle thing makes my fingers appear giant. Forgive me for any typos!

Back to this little netbook – it’s an ASUS – and I think its a EeePC 900 – at least that’s what it says on the case, but it doesn’t have the webcam that the 900s come with – so I’m guessing that this is a special thing for Target. Like I said – it runs Linux – which has been an interesting new frontier for me – and it has no modem, which is why I now have it and my mother doesn’t (yes – there are people still on AOL and dial-up). But at just over 2 pounds – it does make for a perfect little travel companion and actually fits into the black hole (Jim’s term for it) of my purse.

So this is a test drive post – full of syntax and fury, signifying nothing. Enjoy.

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It seems as though I barely have time to think anymore – and just when I think things are slowing down they speed up exponentially.

I did bring some of it on myself – and willingly so. How could I not go to England, Scotland? While my credit card temporarily creaks under its new load of charges I will long be able to recall the experience of visiting the collections storage areas of the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, the Glasgow School of Art, and the Chesterfield Museum…does it sound trite to say that those experiences were priceless? To walk the streets of Norwich with the man who has revitalized them, and to be ravished by the sounds of evensong in the cathedral on a perfectly crystalline night…to stay on a farm on the Duke of Devonshire’s estate…can one really quantify that in dollars and pence?

To see old friends in a foreign land – to be savaged by the gales on the Royal Mile and slip so easily back into the Babbity Bowster in Glasgow…to gaze at the North Sea, shed a tear in the village of Eyam, and be received by the Lord Mayor of Chesterfield…how could I not?

So I have been silent for a time…but with good reason.

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…that i hate things that sting? without provocation?

yeah.

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We drove to the end of the land, to a land where we don’t belong, yet we are welcomed. To a land where the view is sublime, yet the surroundings sobering. Where the flood robbed him of furniture, but not of spirit.

We entered the home of a genius – no furniture – but consumed in art. Stacks of paintings – boxes, closets, walls…full. Each as wonderful as the first, the last. Each an incredible discovery. Each one a blessing.

And he gave me three paintings…I wanted to pay. I wanted to give him something in return – yet he would accept nothing – saying that at nearly age 90 he had provided for himself, though I am unsure just how. And I worry.

I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to let the world know that this….this…is why I do what I do.

This is why we all do what we do – and why my colleague Tom is a giant among men, and why we all need to continue…to continue.

And I feel so unworthy. And I feel so desperate to do something.

And I feel so lucky.

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