And Speaking of Prejudice…

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Gregory trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Grief and Prejudice

A while ago I sat with an acquaintance, a devout Christian, discussing a mutual friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Our conversation centered on whether or not the individual’s grief had exceeded the bounds of normal mourning and become debilitating.

I’d held this same discussion only a few days earlier with another acquaintance, one who is Jewish. During that conversation, my Jewish friend had described to me her faith’s designated period of mourning, which, as she explained it, was far longer and more ceremonial than what most Western society considers usual.  As I listened to her explanation, I realized that the Jewish customs of mourning genuinely ministered to the survivors.

I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How wise to accept mourning, even deep and long-lived grieving, as necessary and healthful, and to provide ceremony and time for its passage! Why had I never encountered this civilized concept before?  My friend’s explanation of Jewish mourning rituals forced me to acknowledge that that we as a society were perhaps not doing our loved ones any favor by allowing them only a brief interval of grieving before insisting that they now “get over it”…“get back to normal”…”take an antidepressant med”…“stay busy to take your mind off it”.

During the second conversation about grief, this time with my Christian acquaintance, I mentioned this (to me) enlightened view of the grieving process. Nodding in response to a comment made by my acquaintance, I explained, “Well, a Jewish friend told me that in her faith…”  And although I know that I continued my explanation intelligently and comprehensively, I cannot now recall anything of what I said from that point forward in the conversation, because I found myself focused on only one thing: the expression of utter distaste that flitted across my Christian friend’s face the moment I said the word “Jewish”.  It was there and gone in an instant, but it was unmistakably there: the grimace of aversion the moment I said the word, “Jewish”.

I’m sure my own eyes must have widened in shock at response to what my brain had so clearly registered. Sitting before me was a sophisticated, intelligent, 21st century individual, one whom I was sure that, if charged with prejudice against Jews, would have vehemently denied it.  And yet a single expression unmistakably crossing a face had just clearly said otherwise.

Prejudice knows no sanity. The spiritual leader to whom my Christian acquaintance declares allegiance was born, raised, and lived a Jew. His name was not actually Jesus Christ; Jesus is a Greek rendering of his name, combined with a Greek title.  His Jewish name was probably Yeshua Ben Yosef.  And he, Yeshua, is the spiritual ancestor from whom all Christian faiths claim descent.  Yet more than 70 years after the horror of the Nazi death camps, I witnessed a Christian’s face betray utter distaste at the thought of a modern Jew.

As I think of it now, remembering, I am no longer shocked, although perhaps even more dismayed. Does prejudice never die?  Do the old hatreds never end?

I began the conversation with my Christian acquaintance discussing the topic of grief. And I ended it grieving — grieving the unbounded, undying continuation of hate and ignorance and prejudice.

The Retirement Guilt Monster

On behalf of a friend recently retired, I dragged out this discarded post and decided to publish it after all…

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I took early retirement, I was prepared for others’ envy. Envy – but not resentment.  That reaction surprised, even shocked me.

But there was another reaction for which I was unprepared, and it was not directed at me by other people, but all my very own: guilt.

It crept up on me slowly. For the first three weeks or so of my retirement, all I experienced was a lessening of stress – which was, in itself, surprising, since I spent the first week of my new-found freedom sick as the proverbial dog.  I’d actually become sick on the weekend prior to my last day of work, which happened to fall on a Monday.  Had I not been retiring, there was simply no way I’d have dragged myself into the office that final day.  I’d a night of abdominal pain so bad that I’d laid moaning and sleepless, so normally I would have called in sick. But the rules for State employees required that an employee be physically present in the office on one’s last day, so there I sat, finishing the very last of my work while waves of pain rippled through my abdomen.

Not an auspicious start to my retirement, but as I kept telling everyone, after that experience, I had nowhere to go but up. The illness passed and I began the half-dozen projects I’d determined on as soon as I retired, while new projects proliferated like rabbits.  I found myself constantly busy.

But after about three weeks, I began to feel that my “vacation” should be over. It was hard for me to recall that this was not a vacation; it was the second half of my life.  And that’s when the nasty little bugger began to tiptoe into my consciousness: guilt.

Why on earth was I so lucky, so privileged? What had I done to deserve this peaceful existence?  Never mind that I’d worked full-time since I was 18, sometimes (often)  for bosses so awful that they should have had a starring role in their own sitcoms; how was it that I had been fortunate enough to merit this freedom?

As the fall ended and icy, biting winter days began, and I lay in bed, snug and warm, while the people I’d once worked with struggled into the office. Guilt.  I had all the time in the world for errands; I was rarely rushed.  Guilt.  I got terribly sick again, this time with a horrible respiratory illness, and I didn’t need to call in sick or worry about the work piling up on my desk.  Guilt.   A couple of former coworkers called or e-mailed me with office problems that no one else knew how to solve.  Guilt.

The guilt feelings gnawed at me, limiting my enjoyment of my newfound freedom, until I finally grappled with them and wrestled them into submission…usually. I’ve learned that the days when time hangs heavy on my hands—when I’ve run short on projects, when there are few errands to run, when I have no “Master Plan” for the day—then the shadow of the Guilt Monster will sometimes loom over me.  Those are the days I have to recite chapter and verse of my “why it is okay for me to be retired” manual.  And when that fails to do the trick, as it sometimes does, I call upon my Inner Caretaker and find something to do for someone else—something to support a person who is still caught in the endless rush of work/home/school/children, and needs a helping hand as necessary chores pile up.  The sort of helping hand that I would once have been so delighted to be offered.

Reaching out to assist another makes the Guilt Monster slide into submission, at least for a little while. I am retired, not lethargic.  Productive, not idle.  It’s okay, dammit, okay!

Riding Past the Graveyard

I spent many years taking the bus to and from the office. Five days a week, wincing under the scorching summer sun in 99% humidity or shivering in the morning darkness while temperatures plunged well below zero, dashing through hailstones that began to fall just as I stepped off the bus, sliding across ice or slogging through snowdrifts, soaked and shivering when my umbrella turned inside out, furious when buses were late or broke down or completely failed to arrive because the regular driver had been co-opted to a training run….

It was rarely fun, but there were compensations, not the least of which was knowing that I was doing something, however small, for the benefit of Mother Earth. One less combustion engine on the roads – there I was, using mass transport in a city in which mass transport was, for the most part, pathetically inadequate.

Further compensations came in the form of what I referred to as my “bus buddies”: other dedicated riders, who, for a multitude of reasons, also braved the poorly-designed routes, the weather, and the many irritations of being a bus rider in a city with a terrible mass transit system. Over the years I knew many a great bus buddy with whom I shared conversation and laughter and even tears.  We persuaded one another to read favorite authors and discussed TV shows.  We supported each other emotionally through illnesses and myriad personal disasters, and celebrated joyous events, like engagements and weddings and  the births of children and grandchildren.  We commiserated over route changes and tardy buses that made us late for work.  We whined about bosses, spouses, intractable offspring and unpleasant in-laws. We looked at photographs of new homes. We doled out hugs when needed.  We criticized unfriendly drivers and lauded the ones we liked.  Bus Buddies were a great compensation for the frustrations of ridership.

However, probably the greatest compensation I found for the rigors of using mass transport was scenery. No, I’m not referring to meadows and vistas; those were largely absent as the bus lumbered through the grungy near-southside of the city and into the suburbs.  But there was a graveyard; two of them, in fact.  And one of them I inevitably found very entertaining.  Yes, you read that correctly: Entertaining.  It never failed to cheer me on my gloomiest afternoon.

It was an older section of the graveyard down by the road; most of the tombstones were bleached white, a little crumbly, small. But one stood out with startling clarity.  It appeared to be of brown granite or marble (I was never close enough to determine which.)  It was polished, shining, and very tall – probably five feet tall, at least.  It was a cylindrical monument with an odd, domed cap.

It looked, in fact, exactly like a giant penis.

Right in the middle of the graveyard.

The first time I noticed it, my reaction was, basically, “What were they thinking?”  What sort of family would erect (I apologize for the pun) such a monument on the grave of a loved one?  Then it occurred to me that perhaps this was their intention – a sort of character statement for the deceased.  Perhaps he — and I use the pronoun advisedly — had truly been a real dick.

Whatever the reason for that particular headstone, I always chose a bus seat where I could glimpse it as we drove past. And, as I say, it never failed to cheer me, and to draw a disbelieving laugh from those to whom I pointed it out.  Even now, writing this and remembering, I am smiling.  Or rather grinning.

Yes, despite everything, I always enjoyed riding the bus.

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

Taking Down the Christmas

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.

Word of the Year

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 sound 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 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?  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 to keep my attention focused on becoming more assertive.  And while I cannot now say that it changed my life, I can say with certainty that being reminded to focus on assertiveness did make 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 very, very 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.

Happy New Hope

In a very few days, a few hours, the clocks will tick over one more time, the sun will cycle across the International Date Line, the ball will drop, and all around the Western world we will hear shouts and cries of, “Happy New Year!”.

And nothing will have changed.

Oh, we’ll all awaken a bit wearier, perhaps hung over, a few hours older. Those who still enjoy and use a paper calendar will take down the old publication and hang up the new, possibly admiring the photo on the edition they chose. But the major things, the important things, will be no different.

Our problems from the old year will still be awaiting us, unerased, staring back at us from the bleary face we see in the mirror. Within a few minutes, a few hours of that clock tick, someone, somewhere, will have been born—or died. Bills from the holiday season will sit quietly awaiting payment, mostly on slender funds.  Children and pets and our elderly will require care, possibly needing trips to doctors and veterinarians at the most inconvenient of times.  The furnace will break down, or the water pipes freeze.  The same worthless politicians will sit in office, masquerading as world leaders.  Vicious on-line comments will be posted behind the perceived safety of a veil of anonymity.

The clock ticking, the joyful shouts welcoming a new year, won’t really have changed anything at all.

Except, perhaps, for our perception of hope. Hope is the one real difference made by that clock tick that purports to indicate that something new has begun.  The hope that this year will, truly, be different.  That the good things, the lovely things, the beautiful things will, this year, outnumber the bad.  That we will experience kindness and courtesy, not just from friends and family, but even strangers.  That our world leaders will take a deep breath, stop keying in threats and nastiness and name-calling on social media, and at least pretend to be mature human beings.  That a cure will be found for whatever devastating disease our loved ones are experiencing.  That no one will be homeless, or lonely.  That each of us will be given a fresh start, a second chance.

Hope is the only genuine difference of the new year–the one thing, ancient legend instructs us, left in Pandora’s box once all the evils invented by cruel gods had been unleashed upon humankind.

But in the original matriarchal myth of Pandora, before the shift in her legend created by the misogynistic writer Hesiod, her name meant not “all gifted”, but “all giving”.  She was not created by those same cruel gods to be unbearably gifted and seductive, but was a goddess in her own right, born from the earth itself, who came to bestow upon humans all the things necessary to life.

And, being a goddess, she would have understood that nothing—not fire, not food, not water–nothing is more necessary to life, to the very desire to live, than hope.  It is the very substance of the air we breathe, and just as necessary to our existence.

So, this year, when the clocks tick over, and those shouts of gladness ring in the airwaves, don’t be fooled that anything will have changed.

But never stop hoping that it will.

Dreaming in Technicolor

The first surviving photograph is dated from approximately 1826, and daguerreotypes were publicly available beginning in 1839. These are facts, incontrovertible. Those early processes used silver salts and sometimes metal plates, and the results were printed in tones of either sepia and ivory or grey and black and white.

How, then, prior to that, could people have dreamed in black and white when almost no one had ever seen the world that way? (Achromatopsia, a form of color blindness in which the sufferer sees the world only in shades of black and white, is the rarest form of the disorder, and my logical self bets that those in primitive societies who suffered this vision disorder did not long survive.)

Considering these facts, I’ve always wondered how the myth behind the question, “Do you dream in black and white?” evolved, unless it was a direct response to the invention of photography.  For about the last 200 years, I suppose, people who had seen a photograph might afterwards have translated the images of their dreams into monotones.  But why?  Why, when they had always seen the world in color?  Prior to photography, the only black and white landscape was seen by strong moonlight or firelight — candles and lanterns – and even in those pale lights, some very faint, washed-out color is discernable.  Few people living in the middle ages had ever seen a drawing done in pen and ink.  Why on earth then, I’ve always wondered, would people dream in black and white?  Why would anyone even ask that question?

I’ve always had a predilection for thinking through fables and urban legends this way. Just ask all the upset mothers who descended on my Mom when I, at the age of seven, announced to all my little playmates that there was no Santa Claus.  How, I asked them reasonably, could he get to all those houses in just one night? It wasn’t possible.  It wasn’t logical.  Ergo, Santa Claus was a myth.  (I was persona non grata at school for many weeks after this small fiasco.)

Then there is the currently popular “ you must sleep in a completely darkened room” fable.

Now look here, my logical left brain pronounces, it may have been years since I slept out under the stars, but I seem to recall that there were a couple of times when the full moon was pretty darned bright. Moreover, in those long ago camping trips, we had a campfire burning all night, even getting up in the wee hours to feed the fire until it burned very brightly.  I remember the dance of the flames against my closed eyelids.  And during those camping trips, we were keeping the fire up just for comfort and warmth–we weren’t using it as protection from marauding sabre tooth tigers or the odd prowling cave bear.

Our primitive ancestors would not have survived to be our ancestors had they been foolish enough to sleep in pitch-black darkness. Even deep within a cave, there was always a chance that some predator would arrive to claim the cave as its new den and make a meal out of handy little human snack packs.  A campfire was not a luxury, but a necessity.  And if our distant ancestors slept outside, then the waxing and waning of the moon added another layer of light to sleep cycles.

We humans are, I’ve concluded, programmed to sleep beneath varying cycles of soft, diffused and low, dancing light.

True, the lights we try to sleep under these days are different. I pull down room darkening shades against the ambient light from the nearby interstate highway  that filters into my second-floor bedroom.  I switch my Kindle to the blue-filtering setting when reading before bedtime.  But needing complete darkness to sleep is as big a fable as Santa Claus.

So the next time you hear that stupid question, “Do you dream in color or black and white?”, or lie awake with insomnia, wondering if  the light from your clock radio is to blame…think about it. Just think about all of it.

I bet you’ll fall asleep and dream in glorious, vivid color.

The Oak King and the Holly King

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.

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.”