Research Progress Notes – Week of January 14th

This week started off very productive and then I just lost steam.

I’ve continued my work on the Geniza documents, looking for instances of spices traded in Sicily. And I’ve found some really interesting stuff. I think, for instance, that there was a pretty substantial shift in the trade of spices when the Normans came to Sicily – the Geniza documents practically cut off at this point. I don’t think that trade suddenly stopped, but I think the fact that Sicily and Egypt were now controlled by very different regimes interrupted some of the relationships between merchants. I’m also seeing that the trade of medicinal spices in Sicily substantially predates the translation of medical texts – this was kind of my first research question in what became my dissertation, because we have this expectation that writing conveys knowledge and so people don’t know about something until they have writing about it. But I think knowledge and culture definitively predate writing, and Sicily was already importing and using these medicinal spices long before texts about them were available in Latin. In fact, it seems like some spices stopped being imported, and that’s the real shift – aloe, for instance, doesn’t seem to have been in demand by the late 12th century, even though it was a constant feature of trade records in the mid-11th century. And information about these spices was definitely coming from more than just the writings that were available in Arabic – myrobalan, a kind of highly acidic plum, was a staple of imported medicinal goods even in the late-twelfth century, but it’s not mentioned in Galen or Dioscorides (two of the major classical sources of medicine), and I have to investigate whether it comes up in later Arabic works, like al-Razi.

Then I maybe got too ambitious. The difficulty in drawing any conclusions about the full picture of Sicilian trade is that my Arabic sources, which have a lot of detail, are from about 100 years before the period I’m really interested in (although they make a good comparison point), and my Latin sources, although they’re from the right time period, have almost no detail. So the two sources are kind of just missing each other – they help create a picture, but it’s very much incomplete. So my thought was that it would still be worthwhile to map out all the instances of spices that I have into a spreadsheet and try to observe some trends. But this work is so tedious and exhausting I’m barely able to start. I think it will be really useful, but I might have to take a huge mental break before I start it – I might also need to be away and on my own for a bit so I feel like I have no constraints and can just sit down with a hot drink and emerge three days later with a dataset.

And then life kind of got in the way again. So doing research with kids is hard. My backup care benefit, which I get through my university, won’t allow me to request care for more than 5 consecutive business days, so I decided to schedule babysitters for all this week and next week, minus Wednesdays. And then my babysitter canceled on Thursday and, even though the service was able to find a replacement, she didn’t get to my place until 10:30, so I got started very late. And while having care is amazing and what makes this doable, even when I have it I always have a timer in the back of my mind. I have twins. It’s hard to leave the house with them because there’s a lot to get together, and it’s harder in the winter because there’s even more stuff and moving around outside with a double stroller when it’s cold is really hard (I went on a walk earlier in the week and nearly froze my hands off). Don’t even get me started on stairs. So I feel like anything I need or want to do has to happen while the babysitter is here.

Monday and Tuesday I was energized and efficient. And then Wednesday I accepted that I wasn’t going to get anything done (I managed to wash but not fold the laundry). But Thursday kind of caught me off guard – I was starting to get really tired from switching quickly from one thing to the next, work to caretaking to making food for myself to cleaning up to sleep. Even rest was scheduled, and there is no sense of ease or relaxation, no room for error because I don’t want to waste time. Breaks are scheduled, and fun is not on the docket. So as Thursday went on, especially as I realized that all I really have left to do is put together this spreadsheet, I just completely lost energy. So Friday is here and although I’ve done a little – I went back into the books I’ve been reading this week and cleared up some useful terminology, took a few more notes for citations later – I’m pretty much useless today. I’m really leaning on the babysitter – which I recognize is literally why she’s here, but still – I can hear my child making a fuss and I simultaneously feel like I should help and also know I have no energy. This is a clear sign that I’ve crashed. I’m not a broken down shell of a person, but I’m not able to be productive either. And once I’ve reached this point, even my usual relaxing activities aren’t going to help (and I’ve about had it with the internet). I can also tell that I’m getting sick, which is the biggest reddest flag that I need to do something differently. No, I’ve reached the point of full detox (lol detoxes are bullshit) – I need to stop trying to do work for a couple of days and actually get out of the house for a non “productive” purpose. IDK maybe take my kids to the park.

Recognizing the extent of my mental knots, I’m not just feeling constrained by work and childcare. I’ve done a lot of what I call “housekeeping” this week – the kind of tasks that are part of the upkeep of your life that keep things running, i.e. the worst tasks. I spent over an hour on the phone with my health insurance company trying to figure out the remaining balance I owe to the hospital where I delivered back in August. I had to deal with some issues related to our apartment. It suddenly hit me that I needed to prepare a few more logistics for my trip to London, like how I’m going to be able to use my phone while I’m there (pro tip, do not use global calling if you’re abroad for more than a week). I need to start thinking about my Sicily trips, and reserving flights to LA for when I’m doing work at the Huntington. I need to make sure I get to see the people I need to see in New York before I leave again. These things are inherently stressful for me. And behind all of this I still have a lot of reluctance about going to London. So more than just feeling like my work time is precious, I have a lot of anxiety-inducing thoughts building up behind whatever is at the forefront of my mind.

Next week is my last week before I’m off to London. The kids will be going back to California (which means I get to see their dad for a day). I want to finish my work on the Geniza and hopefully outline the next set of work I’ll need to do.