The Oak King and The Holly King

(This Winter Solstice story first appeared on this blog on December 21, 2017.)

It is a night in prehistory, someplace in the area that will one day be called Britain. Those in this tiny village of mud thatched roundhouses live a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence, eking a few precious crops from the soil each summer season, hunting and fishing, gathering from the wild.  They pray each summer  for a bountiful harvest, that they might have enough to survive the coming winter.

The nights have been growing colder for many weeks now, but, what is even more frightening, they have been growing longer. The elders in the village say that this has happened before; many times, in fact.  The sun rises later and later, sets earlier and earlier, and each successive night lasts longer.  The elders have grown wise merely by the act of surviving so many repetitions of this occurrence.  And so they choose the largest, hardest, longest-burning oak logs and set them aside for what they know is coming: the Dark Night.  The Long Night.  The fearful night when Darkness overpowers the Light.  They set that hardy wood aside for the night when everyone in this little village will huddle together, seeking warmth, and desperately hoping that this time, this time once more, the Darkness will not win.  The unbearable, long night will end, must end, and the morning sun be reborn.

Gathered About the Yule Log
Gathered About the Yule Log

And as they huddle together about the bright light of that long-burning log, stories are told. Legends are born.  For the light of the log is like passion, like the heat of battle, and so surely it must represent a battle – the battle of Light and Darkness.  Perhaps it is two great Kings who are battling ,  or even Gods  (for there must always be kings and gods – someone, after all, must be in charge of all this.)   Perhaps one of these God Kings lives within the oak log itself, the oak twined with ivy, ivy which remains green even in winter, and with mistletoe, that mystic plant which appears growing high in the trees without reason or explanation.  This Oak King must be battling the Holly King, whose sharp, thorny green plant bears red berries like blood.

And what of the sun, the golden sun, the longed-for sun? Drawing perhaps on some misty memory of an ancient  sun-scorched land known only from legend, they recall the myth of  Nuit, starry Goddess of the Night Sky, from whose body each morning the sun was reborn.  Surely a God King must have a wife: a wife pregnant, laboring, struggling to give birth to the Sun.  A family — a family and history remembered even by those who have no memories of that land.  (It will be centuries yet before another small family will fly into Egypt, that ancient land of the starry Goddess…)

And so at sundown, the Great Battle commences: the battle for the very Earth itself. If the Holly King wins, the laboring Goddess will perish in childbirth, the sun never be reborn, and the Earth and all its inhabitants will die.

But the Holly King never wins. Time after time, battle after battle, he is slain, dying as he knows he must die: King, and God, and Sacrifice.  Darkness never conquers the Light.  And at the moment of dawn, the Queen of Heaven once again gives birth to the Child who is the Light.

And so it is that all the ancient legends blend, and twine, and intermingle, into this singular neverending Truth: that though the Darkness may gain sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes minutes, its reign upon the Earth and her peoples must always, eventually fade; that sacrifice and courage and wisdom enable one to battle through the long and fearful night; that the pain and toil of women who carry and labor the children of the Earth into existence allows us always to persist and continue.

And now in closing this ancient but always-new tale, I send (as Fra Giovanni once wrote in his Christmas Greeting, quoting the great Song of Solomon), “…the hope that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.”

 

The Word of Your Year

(Note: This post originally appeared on December 31, 2017, under the title “Word of the Year”.  An afterword follows this re-posting.)

I stopped making New Year’s resolutions well over a decade ago. I saw no point in setting myself up for certain failure; it was simply depressing, and merely reinforced my bad opinion of myself. (I feel the same way about goals.  Goals are something I set just to prove to myself that I am a failure.  I don’t set goals anymore, either.)

For a long time prior to that decision, I’d followed Robert Fulghum’s sterling advice: On New Year’s day, I sat down and wrote a list of every good thing I’d done in the previous year, backdated it, and called it my resolutions. This was eminently satisfying for a number of years, even though I knew I was sort of missing the whole “resolution thing” point.

So, casting about for some way to set myself some type of goal-yet-not-a-goal, I was struck by an idea: I could still forego a resolution, yet choose something—some character-building, life changing something, to focus on during the coming year.  Not a goal, I decided; a focus.  With that in mind, what if I chose just one word, one meaningful word, and attempted to concentrate on it throughout the coming year?  Not to accomplish it—simply keep it at the forefront of my mind, and make it active in my life.  One word was so little.  Surely I could do that much.

I liked the concept. One word, one focus, seemed like a challenge I could meet.  The trick, I realized, would be finding a way to make myself remember to focus on that word— to keep adding it to my life.  (Well, that, and picking my word in the first place.)

Amazingly, having come up with the concept, I found that my answers came easily.  I’d recently discovered that a lack of assertiveness had caused me a number of problems; assertiveness, then, seemed like a very good first focus word.  But how to keep it at the forefront of my mind?  How not to forget, not just the word itself, but the need to concentrate upon my focus word?  Ha!  That was going to be the real challenge of my not-resolution.

During that first year, I found that tricking myself into remembering my focus word was the best way to go. I took post-its and scraps of note paper and proceeded to hide them throughout my home in places where I knew I would not find them to easily, yet was sure to look.  Since I wasn’t about to turn the heavy mattress on the bed more than once a year, one of the notes emblazoned with “My Focus This Year Is Assertiveness” was pushed into the thin hollow between the mattress and box springs.  Another went under the couch cushions—I had been known, from time to time, to actually lift them up and vacuum beneath them (or at least search for loose change).  And, yes, one note, slipped into a plastic bag, went into the bottom of the vegetable bin in the frig!

And, amazingly, it worked. I came across those notes again and again throughout that first year and was forced to remember that I was supposed to be keeping my attention on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that it made a difference.  By the end of the year, I knew that I still had a very long way to go on learning to be assertive, but I was no longer quite the wimp I’d been twelve months earlier, either.

I’ve used many Focus Words in the intervening years, and I’ve learned to choose them carefully. The Universe, I’ve discovered, will cooperate with me—oh, yes, will it ever!  Choose Peace as a focus word, and every possible non-peaceful situation imaginable will be tossed at me like errant baseballs.  And, for the love of heaven, never, ever, choose Patience !

But, defiant in the face of overreaching myself, the focus word I chose for 2017 was Magnificent.

And it was.

Afterword: In 2018, the Word I chose was “Kindness”.  I learned, quite amazingly, that kindness is not just something we extend to others, but also that we must, humbly and with gratitude,  receive.  It is also something we must extend to ourselves.  I learned, too, that though I may behave in a kindly manner to another, requiring of myself that I treat them with courtesy and consideration, I’m often shamed to admit that true kindness from within my heart is absent.  I will carry this knowledge with me into another year, and hope to create and extend more true loving kindness to all.

 I’d love to have you share in the Comments what you choose as your Word of the Year for the upcoming change of the calendar.

 

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

Struggling Home

(A spooky little Halloween story told in verse.)

The square of light spilling from my window
casts liquid gold on the rain-drenched streets,
while angry winds, beating harshly sullen
reverberate like an army’s feet
and pound the night with a vicious fury.
An evening fit not for man nor beast,
I think–when, startled, I glimpse the outline
of someone walking the darkened street.

Sad Rain 3 cropHer silhouette bleared and fogged by raindrops,
small shoulders bowed unmistakeably,
a sodden figure that struggles forward,
the very picture of misery.
I know her!  She is my neighbor’s daughter.
Her father leads her a sorry life.
I wonder at her uncaring parent.
To send her out, and on such a night!

(For what she carries proclaims her mission;
 her father’s need, and the cause of strife.)

Her shadow moves from my light.  I hurry
up to the doorstep to call her in.
But I’m too late.  Though I call, no answer.
She cannot hear me above the wind.
And I wonder, closing my door quite slowly,
if any other might have the heart
to spare a thought for that broken figure
struggling home in the windy dark.

…That was last night, and I met my neighbor
on the street corner today.  I asked
if she, his daughter, had journeyed safely,
reaching their home with his liquor pack.
He stared at me from eyes deeply sunken,
his face unshaven, jaw gaping low.
He tried to speak.  Tears grimed down his cheeks,
and then, angered, bitter, confused, he moaned.

“Damn fool!” he cursed me, wiped tears, and whispered,
“my daughter’s dead–died two weeks ago!”

…It’s not rained since for a month.  Such clear nights!
Such nights as I’ve had no cause to think
of storms, or of that streetside encounter
when reason tottered upon the brink.
But clouds roll up, and the storm is threatening,
and I dare not look upon the street
where pall of night is illuminated,
nor lend an ear to the sound of feet.

I dare not open my door, nor listen,
nor gaze at gaps where the curtains part,
nor spare a thought for that broken figure,
struggling home in the windy dark.

 

 

 

Conspiracy Theories

I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories. I find them absolutely fascinating. Not that I am usually persuaded to believe them, but I am completely captivated by the sheer insane dedication to an idea and the endless amount of effort put into creating these wacko scenarios: NASA faked the moon landings.  The Grassy Knoll. (I’ve seen that one worked all the way back to the Prophecies of Nostradamus.)  The Philadelphia Experiment. Paul is dead. (How many people totally screwed up their treasured Beetle’s albums trying to prove THAT one?!)

What I find most intriguing about conspiracy theories is that there is almost certainly a germ of truth hidden somewhere in the midst of the often confusing, usually contradictory web of explanations. The strands of accurate, verifiable fact,  of possibility and probability, and of total misinformation are woven into a whole that veers about 90 degrees north of reality.

And yet… Governments, including the government of the United States, have and do consistently lie, cheat, steal and intentionally harm their own citizenry, often labelling as Top Secret what should have been fully disseminated.  Frequently this is done under the guise of “scientific research”.  Doubt it?  Read about the release of Top Secret documents (following a 1993 story broken by journalist Eilene Welsome, who later won the Pulitzer Prize) detailing the radiation experiments which America performed, without consent, on its own citizenry during the Cold War years from 1944 to 1974.  It’s really not so great a leap from those verified atrocities to “SARS and H1N1 were created as bioterrorism weapons”.

Perhaps the conspiracy theories which most intrigue me are woven about the dreadful morning of 9/11. I’ve read the contradictory accounts of survivors and the statements of witnesses who claimed their lives were threatened if they revealed what they had really seen.  I’ve watched video of experts tracing the path of the jets and proclaiming that events simply could not have happened as they were supposed to have done.  I’ve seen the videos of British announcers broadcasting the bizarre collapse of the untouched Building 7 before it happened.  I’ve listened to architects and engineers question why no forensic evidence was gathered–standard practice at the site of any disaster, yet one which was totally disregarded in this, the face of ultimate disaster–and heard these experts  state unequivocally that the Trade Center buildings imploded in a planned detonation.

And I might have just savored the conjecture and speculation and then dismissed all of it, as I usually dismiss conspiracy theories, but for one thing.

On the afternoon of 9/11, arriving home to find my daughter and her friend sitting in front of the TV, weeping, I heard the commentator discussing the President’s whereabouts. As I listened, he explained that President Bush had been at an elementary school, reading to a group of 7-year-olds, when the attacks happened. And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s surreal.  That’s like something right out of a Hollywood script!”

Years later, reading the 9/11 conspiracy theories, I suddenly recalled my reaction as I learned of the President’s whereabouts at that fateful hour.

And I wondered.

Prom Night

As women will do when gathered together day after day, when I worked in an office, we often found time to switch into “chat and gossip” mode. On one particular day in my memory, I recall that a supervisor had proudly displayed to a group of us ladies the prom photos taken of his oldest daughter. That sparked a discussion of school dances in general, and prom gowns specifically.

Each of the women present took turns describing her beloved senior or junior prom gowns and favorite dance dresses. I stayed on the periphery of this conversation, volunteering nothing, and fortunately each of the women was too wrapped up in fond memories of her own Cinderella moments to note my reticence.  My relief was enormous; I didn’t know what I would have said if they had turned to ask me about my dance dresses.  Made something up, perhaps – probably – because admitting the truth would have been humiliating: that I had never had a prom gown, nor even a dance dress.  I never wore one because I never went to a dance or a prom.  I did not go because I was not asked.  Without a date, a young woman of my generation didn’t have the opportunity to attend her own school prom.  She did not dare walk alone through the door onto the dance floor.

All of the women involved in the conversation that day were fifteen to twenty years younger than I. I knew that they could not possibly understand.  Contemporary young women would likely reel in disbelief and shock if faced with the restrictions we girls lived under in the late 1960s and early 70s.  If one did not have a date for a dance or a prom, one simply didn’t get to go.  I seriously doubt that a single girl would have been sold a ticket for her own prom—or, having wrangled a ticket, would not have been allowed to walk in alone. We, the overflow of plain young women without boyfriends or dates, simply bowed to the reality of the situation: we would not be asked, we would not attend. If we chafed under the restrictions, we were told that there was absolutely no point in railing against the situation.  It was just the things way were.

But somehow, at some point, it stopped being the way things were. The daughters of  “women’s libbers” and “hippies”, imbued with a sense of combativeness and personal worth that had been sadly absent in earlier generations, struck out on their own and refused to be tied to some male just in order to gain admission to their own school dances.  Happily single, they demanded tickets.  They bought their own corsages, slipped on their lovely gowns, tucked their feet into brand-new dancing shoes, and off they went.  Even if asked by a boyfriend to be their prom date, these brave young innovators sometimes refused to be coupled to one person and instead attended in groups of girlfriends, free to dance (or not) with whomever they pleased.

I not only admired those young women, but I was fiercely glad for them.

When my daughter and I went to a showing of the Disney movie Cinderella, I found myself biting my lip and blinking hard against tears when the title character is barred by her stepmother and sisters from attending the ball.  Later, as we left the theatre, I told my daughter, “That’s what it felt like, on the night of my senior prom.  That’s how I felt.”  Her own eyes sought mine in compassion and she squeezed my hand.

There were no fairy godmothers for the Cinderellas of my generation. And I had not the needed courage, perhaps, to change the sad state of my own affairs. But I have nothing but admiration for contemporary young women who neither need nor want fairy godmothers, nor pumpkin coaches, nor glass slippers—who reach out with no magic wands but that of their own self-assuredness and hard work to create the lives they want. And I hope every one of them dances, like the twelve dancing princesses of another fairy tale, long past midnight and until their shoes are worn through.

A Cultural Heritage

Decades ago, in the Lifestyle section of a local Sunday paper, I read an interesting series of articles about African Americans who were rediscovering the cultures of their heritage: the clothing, the music, the foods, even the religious beliefs of the tribes from which they had been stolen before being sold into slavery across the ocean.

The article described and pictured the magnificent, colorful woven cloths used in making African clothing, and the intricate music and dances which celebrated festivals and religious feasts. It discussed the complex oral historical traditions of various African tribes, and those which used written or pictorial histories.  It explained cosmetics and herbal medicines and child-rearing philosophies and recipes for cooked foods. It pictured beautiful works of sculpted wood. I found the entire series fascinating and instructive until very nearly the end, when one young woman was quoted.  She had committed to fully rediscovering her lost heritage, but finished by saying (and I don’t precisely remember the quote, but this is it’s essence) “I don’t think white people even have a cultural heritage.”

I put the newspaper down in dismay. Did it, I wondered, increase this young woman’s sense of self-worth to denigrate the cultures of other races; to blithely dismiss them, and to even deny their existence?

All these decades later, having taken DNA testing, I can confirm unequivocally my own cultural heritage. I know that the wild blends of color and fine weaving in the tartans of Scotland are part of that heritage (as is, god help me, haggis, surely the most ill-conceived dish ever to grace—and I use the verb flippantly—a table.)  I know that the astounding skirl of the bagpipes—agony to some ears, heart-stirring to others—are mine to claim.  The sculptures of Michelangelo and the paintings of Titian are tucked into another corner of that heritage, as are the marvels of many delicious pasta dishes.  I know that Marco Polo is not a swimming pool game, but possibly the reason that I have forever been an armchair explorer.  And I know that, sadly, the British genes I carry were quite likely those of people enslaved to the Roman conquerors who overran their land.  Slavery was once the cultural heritage of all people, everywhere; it was the norm.

In short, although I have not a single strand of DNA extracted from any black ancestor, I have just as rich, just as wildly beautiful and complex a cultural heritage as any of that stolen from enslaved Africans, dragged from their homes to the cruelty of western countries.

But my initial reaction to that long-ago quote in a newspaper article remains: Why was it necessary for the young woman to denigrate an entire group of people in order to bolster her own sense of self-worth and belonging? Why could she not rightfully reclaim her heritage without belittling that of others?

I still occasionally wonder if that young woman perhaps went on to explore the cultures of other countries, places outside those of Africa–especially those of people who, like her own, had been degraded and murdered and enslaved. Did she discover the photographs, some even carefully hand-painted, documenting the lost, rich cultures of the Native American tribes?  Did she learn about the horrors of Angel Island and how the Asian peoples emigrating to America were mistreated and vilified, right up to the shame of internment camps?  Did that young woman ever, in fact, realize that every race, every people, has a story, a past, a history of slavery, and a rich and fascinating cultural heritage?

If learning about her own stolen legacy did not, in fact, enrich and enlarge her mind, then everything she learned about her African heritage was, in the long view, an exercise in futility. For no form of learning is of value unless we can find a way to apply it to the world at large.

The Slave Cabin

When I was in my mid-twenties, I first visited and then lived for three years in Charleston, South Carolina. There was much I loved about the city; always a history buff, it was wonderful to live in a place where so much of U.S. history was tangible in just  walk down the street.  Battery Park, carriage rides, ancient graveyards, the city market, and Fort Sumter; gigantic ancient live oaks, Magnolia and Middleton plantations, Drayton and Boone Hall, flower-sellers in the streets, hearing the lilting, deep tones of the “gullah” still spoken by the descendants of enslaved people…  For one who loves history, it was a glorious place to dwell.

But the darker history of Charleston, from the indentured servitude of its earliest settlers to the hell that was slavery, was (at least in those decades ago that I lived there) rarely on display, especially to tourists. In the 1980s, racism was still casually accepted and rife throughout the city.  The large insurance company for which I briefly worked had to be forced by the head office in New York to hire its first African American agent.

History, as is often said, is written by the winners. But the truth is still out there, if one is open-minded and willing to search, to look.  And the truth of Charleston’s history came home to me in one swift and sickening moment when I was still just a visitor to the lovely city.

My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I had gone on a tour of one of the larger plantations—possibly Middleton or Magnolia, I think, although I don’t now recall precisely which one. Entranced, we moved from room to room in the mansion. I recall comparing in my own mind the luxury of modern, expensive homes to this gem from a previous century: admiring the beautiful, hand-crafted furniture and ceramics, the jewel-toned carpets on polished wooden floors; marveling over the cloudy, bubble-filled antique glazing of the windows; cringing over the lack of sanitation and the primitive facilities for preparing meals.  Our tour guide was a wealth of detailed information, and I was enjoying every minute of sightseeing until the moment when she took us through a door out into the nearby grounds of the mansion.  There, with a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the adjoining cabins—the homes, she explained, of the house “servants”.

Slave cabins.

Side by side with the main house, just a few steps away so that (one assumes) the occupants could quickly to enter the mansion each morning, stood a row of rough, log-walled, earth-floored shacks.

Coming from the relative luxury of the plantation house, the dichotomy was shattering. I felt physically ill as, separating from the tour group, I walked to the door of one of the slave cabins and looked inside to the gloomy darkness.

Never had the ugly reality of American slavery been brought home to me more forcefully then it was in that moment, standing in the dark doorway of a slave cabin on the plantation grounds. I reminded myself that in the unspoken caste system of slavery, the house slaves considered themselves a cut above the lowly field workers. But this—this was their reality.  A decrepit shack, smaller even than the log cabins of the first American settlers.  Four walls, a shake roof, a stone fireplace, an earthen floor. This was the home of the highest caste of slaves.

Each day, they walked from that degrading housing to the carpets and china and silver and glass of their owners’ mansion, to serve according to the whims of those lucky enough to be born Caucasian. Each day.

I’ve experienced many other sudden revelations of truth in my time on this earth—possibly, probably, just as vital, just as powerful, as that eye-opening moment of revelation of the unbearable ugliness of slavery.

But (perhaps because of my youth on that long-ago day in Charleston), few of those revelations stand out as powerfully, or as painfully unforgettable, in my memory, as the experience of standing in the slave cabin outside the door of the plantation manor.

Taking Down the Christmas

2017 Christmas Treet

Today, as I always phrase it, I “took down the Christmas”.

The fireplace mantel, deep in dust after four weeks covered in garland and lights and candles, shines once more under an application of lemon oil. The cheerfully-decorated wax taper candles—the ones that cost me so many hours of searching to find in a world that seems now to use only LED lights–have been wrapped in tissue and gently stored.

Outside, the garlands draping each carriage light have been removed. The Yule wreath once more resides on a hook within the coat closet, having been replaced with a sign celebrating the next holiday to come, St. Valentine’s Day.

The bright red placemats and napkins have been discarded to the laundry hamper, as have the decorated hand towels from the bathrooms. The live mistletoe, dry to brittleness, is wrapped in a paper napkin and carefully enclosed within a glass dish, where myth and legend say it will now protect my home from fire.

The cheerful Christmas cards have not been discarded; as always, I’ve placed them thoughtfully into the boxes of ornaments and garland. Next holiday season, as I once more take out all the precious Christmas décor, I will find them there.  I will sit and reread each of the loving, thoughtful sentiments, perhaps with a personal message added; I will look at the photographs enclosed; I will, perhaps, shed a tear, coming across the card sent to me by someone beloved who is now gone.  Then, and only then, will I discard the holiday cards, having once more relived the pleasure of receiving them and their loving messages.

The tree has been crushed down to its smallest size and crammed into the garage. Each of the boxes of ornaments has been specifically labeled (Breakable Ornaments. Unbreakable Ornaments.  Most Precious Ornaments.  Angel.  Stockings and Stocking Holders) and stacked in yet another corner of the packed garage.

The beautiful crocheted lace and cutwork tablecloth, handworked more than a half-century ago by the Italian great-aunts, has been delicately laundered and starched and pressed, and then folded into its special storage box. In its place once more resides the tapestry cloth given me a decade ago by my beloved late mother-in-law—just as beautiful and precious, yet different.

All the living room furnishings once again reside in their proper place. No more the rocker crammed up against the fireplace hearth; the green armchair blocking the path to the French doors.  Instead, there is space to walk a normal path through the room.

Everything is, in fact, brighter and cleaner and more orderly and spacious than it was just a few hours ago.

And sadder. Somehow, infinitely sadder.