Friday, December 30, 2016

The Garden of History: Viewing Sacco and Vanzetti Through a Lens of Trumpery

It's a New Year. I hope 2017 is not the year in which we say goodbye to the two century-plus long experiment in American democracy. Or, equally as worrying, the beginning of a political breakdown that will lead to social decay and widespread suffering. Unless we already that year in 2016.
            My novel "Suosso's Lane" was begun before a time of Trumpery -- here's an actual dictionary definition: "trumpery: showy but worthless" -- but set in an era with chillingly contemporary resonances.
            Back in 1920, the year the Sacco-Vanzetti case began, the America of almost a century ago was experiencing a period of heavy immigration and growing hostility toward immigrants. What is seldom remembered today is that fear and anger was expressed toward white-skinned people who came to the US from Southern and Eastern Europe -- Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Turks, Portuguese, and others. The single largest immigrant nationality then was Italian.
            It's hard to imagine Americans getting upset over people with Italian ancestry today -- take it up with Andrew Cuomo or Bill DiBlasio -- but prejudice against 'the Italians' was a major reason why a Massachusetts jury convicted two Italian immigrants of murder in 1920 after a bigoted trial offering absurdly thin evidence of their guilt.
            It's worth remembering the term "wop," a pejorative for Italian, stands for "without papers." When the young Joe DiMaggio began playing baseball for the Yankees, the other players commonly referred to him as "the wop."
            The pejorative term presumes a foreign national has not entered the country through legal channels. This was certainly the case for some immigrants during the peak period for European immigration, 1880-1920, though millions entered through legal channels in New York and other ports of entry.
            Today, people are branded "illegal" if they cross the border to enter this country by means that people in trouble or in need have always taken -- any way they can.
            They come in especially large numbers when economics are good here and bad elsewhere -- as was especially true for the Italians of Sacco and Vanzetti's time.
            But people from the rest of the world have always come to this country without legal permission. If those of us born in the United States were to trace our origins, I suspect a great percentage of us would find someone in our line entering the American mix without a stamp from Ellis Island, or its equivalent.
            Let's remember in particular that the USA was born in New England, that New England grew from the Pilgrim and Boston Puritan colonies, and that these English colonists who staked their claim to these new homes sought no permissions from the indigenous population and basically took what they wanted of the land and other resources they found here. An enormous number of Americans claim "Mayflower" or Pilgrim ancestry.
            Good on you. Yes, that means you're Americans. But you were never "legal." We the people of the United States of America were never legal.
            So a political movement whose appeal and power base thrills to the notion of building a wall strikes me as fundamentally hypocritical.
            Our unique history as a people, a citizenry, also means that there has never been any such thing as an American "nationality."
            If you try to picture "an American," what does he or she look like? You can't do it. You can only picture a group. The Americans have always been a picture of diversity.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Garden of Time: The Round of the Seasons

       The seasons, they go round and round, as the Joni Mitchell song puts it.
            Things can look, and seem, and even be so similar from year to year that we may conclude that we're not going anywhere -- or, as the song also puts it, or we're simply "back where we began." But we are. We're going to the end.
            Time is both cyclical and linear. That's the paradox that defines our situations as material beings, made from natural ingredients.
            Anne and I have often observed that it's hard to see how anyone can keep track of time without reference to children. We know how long ago some event took place by connecting it to the age of one or both of our children. Our time marks are the year our daughter was born, and the year our son was born.
            And we also know the truth of Mitchell's line that it won't be long before you and I, and everyone else, drag our feet "to slow the circles down."
            But they don't slow. They speed up.
            Some considerable number of years ago, when Anne and I were getting together as a couple, her parents and my parents decided they should meet each other. Someone called someone else. Anne's parents, the Meyersons, volunteered to travel from New York City, where they lived (and still do), to Long Island, where my parents lived almost the whole of their married life.
            They went out to dinner at a restaurant my parents chose, a place with a pleasant South Shore location by the water. That evening both couples made a happy discovery. They were a lot alike. The men wore ties and jackets. They were both white collar professionals working in the accounting field. The women both worked also, Anne's mother as a preschool teacher, mine in a Nassau County department office.
            And both families had three children; in each case two boys and a girl. Would my mother have shared the sentimental family secret, "Al wanted a girl"? Maybe not, at a first meeting.
            I don't know what they ate. My father would have ordered a beer and smoked a cigarette after dinner. He would have coaxed my mother to order a glass of wine. Chances are Anne's parents would have followed suit. Neither of her parents ever smoked, almost an oddity back then. My mother smoked on and off; quitting regularly or limiting herself to social situations (such as this one), slipping back into the habit, then quitting once more.
            The single, most obvious difference between them was religion. Or, perhaps religious 'background' is a better way to put it, since while my mother was a regular church goer, my father never attended church or said a word about religion. I can make a fairly long list of the common subjects on which my father never said a word and yet made himself agreeable in company. As for the Meyersons, as Anne's father once put it "we're both talkers."
            By all reports, both couples found the meeting reassuring. The circles moved on.
            Anne and I were thinking lately of that meeting when we discovered, not entirely to our surprise, that the carousel had cycled through a sufficiency of seasons to bring us to a meeting with the parents of the young woman with whom our son is living. We've known Emma for about a year and a half, and we've spent a fair amount of time with the young couple on vacations. So when Saul and Emma came to spend Christmas with us and go to my brother's house on Long Island, it was both convenient and natural for us to meet her parents, who live in Nassau County.
            The meeting took place at a restaurant; again, neutral ground. The party was swelled by the addition of Emma's sister, a high school senior. We had already heard a good deal about her family from Emma, and she no doubt prepped her parents about us, so no one was in great need of reassurance. We meshed well together at the restaurant and talked easily; another way of saying that nobody voted for Trump.
            We drag our feet, and yet the circles go round. Sometimes, though, we can find satisfaction in how those seasons pass and what grows and matures and begins again in their passage. This is one of those times. Having shared four decades together, Anne and I have now met the parents of the young woman our son is sharing his life with. All of that makes me happy.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Garden of the Seasons: The Last Twilight (and the Shortest Day) Between the Words

            At the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, what Irish harpist and singer Aine Minogue calls "the veil between the worlds" grows very thin, allowing for easier communication and contact between the realms of the living and "the otherworld." This is a Celtic traditional belief.
            The barrier between the realms, the songwriter and performer states on her website, "was thought to be lifted, the obstacles removed, the laws of space suspended, and communion with one's ancestors became a distinct possibility. They [the ancestral Celts] celebrated freedom from addiction to the purely visible, in the age-old premise of a life beyond this one, in which our ancestors are no further away than the next world. And that world itself being rather close by."
            In the millennia before the invention of electric lighting put an end to unavoidable darkness, people paid a great deal of attention to the periodic lengthening and shortening of daylight. The decline of the sun to the shortest day of the year signaled both the beginning of winter, and paradoxically, the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere and, therefore, the survival of everything in nature (including us) that depends upon the sun's bounty.  
            Those peaks and valleys in the journey of the sun-- the solstices -- are special times. Perhaps it's only a short hop then to the notion that interpenetration between the living and the other worlds is possible at these times.
            The "otherworld" of traditional Celtic belief comes in three forms: The realm beneath the sea or other waters. The realm of the dead called "Tech Duinn," or the House of the Dark One. The last, by far the most pleasing notion, is the land of eternal youth.
            You can run into "ghosts" more easily, Aine said last week during her "Solstice time" concert in Hingham, this time of year. Sometimes they are 'really' dead. Sometimes they are simply passing "between worlds."
            Here are some of the lyrics of Aine's song about the passages between these realms, titled "Between the Worlds":

And as you move between the worlds
Great sorrow will I feel
As first and last they journey same
Through nature's passageway

You're welcome, soul, to be with me
I'll happy be your guide
Teach to me what's been forgot
The old ways, by and by.
(Here's a link for more:

            At home we find ourselves playing Aine Minogue's music frequently this time of year. I turn to it earlier than to before the more straight-forward "Christmas albums." Even though solstice season and Christmas season are all mixed up with one another, and it's likely that pre-Christian societies relied on established festival seasons to layer in the holidays, saints days and other celebrations entailed by the new religion. Everybody in temperate climates, especially northern countries far from the equator, has always paid a lot of attention to this time of the year. The Romans had their "Saturnalia" festival around the return of the sun as well.
              We heard Aine Sunday evening at her "biennial" Winter Solstice concert at Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. The church is one of the oldest church building still in regular use in the country. The sanctuary's very old wood is very good to sound. Even while sound is resonant, the space is quiet. Aine called Sunday's audience perhaps the "quietest" audience she's ever had. Some of her programs she said, when we spoke briefly at intermission, have more laughter.
            "A quiet building," I suggested, "and a quiet time of year."
            In addition to some favorites from her repertoire such as "Spirit of the World," and versions of standards from the great Irish composer and harpist O'Carolan, she also played and sang a song by Leonard Cohen, one of the great voices the living world lost in the Plague Year of 2016. He called it his favorite song, Aine told us. The song is "If it be your will." Here are the lyrics for the first verse:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

            Hearing Aine Minogue sing this song, I sensed that the "veil between the worlds" might be slipping a touch for all of us for those few moments when one great singer and composer brought the essence of another 'departed,' but still great voice back into our world.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Garden of History: There Always Was an England

A Peek into "The English and Their History" by Robert Tombs, 2015

             What makes a country a country, a nation a nation? A relatively new book by historian Robert Tombs takes on the challenge of providing an answer for a piece of earth that has enjoyed (endured?) unbroken habitation for, according to these pages, 11,500 years. One way is to examine its history from the very beginning.
            The author's full examination of his subject in "The English and Their History" runs to 899 pages of text. No doubt he's left a few things out.
            But this book has me at hello because I find myself increasingly interested in accounts -- generally based on a few facts, some interpretation, educated guesses -- of what happens at the beginning of human histories, wherever and whenever those histories take place. And also of what happened during those "dark periods" when the paper trail of information has been sundered, or interrupted, or simply disappeared. The inhabitants of "the these isles" -- one of the book's interesting terms for the so-called British Isles is "archipelago" -- do not disappear, and habitation remains unbroken -- but the light of history goes out, or mostly out, in what we have learned to call "the Dark Ages."
            The term is an interesting one. At base it means we don't have a continuous written records. One existed at an earlier date. And the record resumes at a later date. But nobody, or not enough bodies, were writing things down in that dark period for a continuous and adequately detailed chronicle to survive. Which means, and here's the interesting part of the term "Dark Ages," that 'light' means writing. Written records. Literacy. Books. A "dark age" is when we don't have enough of them.  
            In Europe, including the British archipelago, the light of knowledge was first provided by the classical languages, Latin and Greek. These languages record the productions, reflections, narrative accounts, numbers, religious and ethical ideas, justifications or condemnations, views of oneself and one's neighbors that give us our notion of a "classical" period of history. The Hebrew and Aramaic languages add their records to the early history of Western civilization. Other streams flow from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Together these records are taken to constitute "ancient history."
            Some of these streams are religious in nature. The broader secular current of narrative, social, cultural, and practical life in western society finds its source in the classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans. The Greek and Latin languages long remained the intellectual bases of "civilization." To say that Western civilization went wholly dark after the fall of the Roman Empire and the web of literacy that connected its pieces and places to one another is of course an over-generalization.
            Still, we have a dimmer picture of the period that follows the extinction of classical civilization. And so I find myself drawn to accounts that promise to throw some light on what happened in Western Europe and other regions after the brutal, but remarkably productive (both materially and literarily) Roman Empire closed up shop and moved east. And also before it arrived.
            "The English and Their History" starts at the beginning. England (here meaning the land mass that includes Scotland and Wales) is a unique island, we are told: habitable, temperate, northern, suitable for agriculture. It has a favored geography compared to neighbors in northern Europe; fertile, productive, mostly flat, all that rain but not so cold. The south of England is particularly suited for agriculture, the material basis for civilization. In early geological ages Neanderthals and Cro-Magon lived on the same ground, but the world's geography was so different then there really wasn't a recognizable England. As the last Ice Age retreated, the melting created the "channel" in its present size around 6,500 years ago, wide enough to keep the neighbors from popping in all the time but close enough to the continent for easy trade. Signs of agriculture go back 6,000 years ago. The great ritual sites, of which Stonehenge is the most famous and dramatic, date back 3,000 years. In what is termed The Bronze Age,  2500-1000 BC, overseas trade begins. By the so-called Iron Age, 750 BC the island appears completely settled with an impressive population of two million. Massive hill forts (or ritual sites) have been erected. The signs of what's call the population's "Druidic" religion includes ritual killing.
            The Classical world gains knowledge of this place and gives it a name, "pretannike," which evolves into Britannic. The islands enter history through Mediterranean chroniclers in the first century BC, about the same time the European Celts do.
            Author Robert Tombs points out that while the ocean in recent history has proved a barrier to invasion, not so in the old days. The inhabitants could hardly defend, or even watch, the entire coast. Sea travel enabled large raiding parties, or armies, to arrive quickly with little chance of being observed. Many raiders, invaders, and conquerors did arrive. But the island suffered no large-scale replacement of one population by another. Successful invaders were new management; they moved into various parts of the island and often brought a lot of their friends. Then the populations mingled.
            The first recorded invasion is by the Romans in 43 AD. The Druids, the term used for the island's leaders, were defeated by 60AD, and a revolt by the warrior queen Boudicca put down. The Romans brought important, though not always permanent changes, and Briton was an imperial province for 15 generations. Rome brought straight paved roads, literacy, international networks, and eventually Christianity.
            The Saxons and other warrior peoples from northern Europe arrive from the 3rd century on. These are warrior societies who follow the old Pagan gods; their practices include sacrificing some captives to their gods, understandably appalling the more civilized Britons. According to Tombs, Rome does not give up easily, sending large numbers of troops to protect the island. But the empire comes under pressure all along its extended frontiers and despite pulling back troops to defend the homeland, in 410 Rome is sacked by the Goths. During this period -- so legend has it: we are in a 'dark' period for written records -- a British king named Vortigern recruits Saxon lords and their armies for defense, but (guess what?) they take over. During this extended period of Saxon invasion, Tombs writes, some 10 to 20 percent of the island's population consists of (or descends from) Germanic war bands. What's termed Romanized Britain is destroyed, the Roman city Londinium is abandoned. Some Britons flee the island for the continent, lending their name to the region still called created Brittany.
            We are firmly in a "dark" period" now. The books offers some demographic stats for this time. The average lifespan of those who survive youth lasts into their 30s.
            'Legend' -- once again, the 'dark' period means few or no written sources from this period -- gives rise to the story of an inspiratonal Romano-British king Ambrosius Aurelianus (note the Roman form of the name) who wins a great victory over the barbarian invaders at Mons Badonicus, possibly Dorset, around 500. This is the famous King Arthur. Other sources (not discussed in this book) refer to Arthur as a "dux bellorum" (Latin for war leader); some authors cite largely Welsh language sources for his connection to the Merlin legend.
            Tombs says his reported victory at most earned the Britons a generation of respite from Saxon pressure. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the island's first post-dark age historian of the old classical stripe, is the first recorder of the Arthurian legend in his 1136 AD history of England.
            But that's getting ahead of things. In this intriguing early "Birth of a Nation" chapter, Tombs has more to tell us about the Saxon period. During this time, 600-1066, to give it some dates, the island is divided into rival kingdoms. Northumbria around York; Mercia, midlands; East Anglia; also Kent, Wessex (west); smaller ones such as Lindsey in the east and Deira in the north. Their subjects come from no single uniform ethnic origin, yet during this period they become "the English."
            With the pagan Anglos, Saxons, Norse, or Germanic tribes (whichever term we to use for them) in power by the end of the 6th century, Europe's post-Empire power center, the Christian church becomes a factor. In 596 Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury to England to convert the Saxons. He was welcomed by King Aethelbertht to that rebuilt half-Roman town, a history given shape by the chronicler Baeda, known to history as "the Venerable Bede," a monk of the Northumbrian monastery of Jarrow. Bede saw the island's population as "a chosen Christian people." It took a while, some 200 years from Augustine's arrival for all of Saxon England to switch officially from the worship of Woden to Christian. Woten is downgraded in status to a great human hero. The church and its institutions do well in England, eventually owning 15 percent of its land as dynasties convert. Along with the church comes the return of literacy.
            And, this is an interesting point (and to me a new one), Tombs writes that the influence of ecclesiastical literacy combines with the local vernacular produces "Old English" writing. Most of us know of Old English only as the unpronounceable language of "Beowulf." (Some scholars call that language "Saxon.") Apparently a home-grown English variety of Saxon produced what Tombs and others call a "flowering" of written literature in Saxon England. "It became one of most developed European languages," he writes.
            Christianized Saxon-ruled England is recognized as "a single people in God's eyes," and given the descriptive "gens Anglorum" in the year 700. Arguably, this is where the nation's modern name comes from. But a wealthy, civilized region is a target, so we're not done with invasions and barbarians. The Vikings (the term means "sea adventurers") learn of rich lands to the south through trade and raid England and coastal Europe; developing a profitable sideline of selling slaves to Muslim kingdoms.
            In their first major incursion they loot the famous Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Subsequent invasions take control of two major kingdoms, Northumbria and East Anglia and part of a third, Mercer. Saxon England is rallied by Alfred of Wessex -- if you believe England first achieves unified "English" identity as a Saxon nation, here's your number one hero. The story, as told hundreds of years later, is that young Alfred, his nation suffering the ravages of the Vikings, "burnt the cakes" while his mind was on what to do about the Danes. He manages to unite the jealous 'English' kingdoms and defeat the Danes in 879. The Danes accept baptism but continue, but hold onto the East, called the "Danelaw." Alfred seizes London in 886, which Tombs regards as a reasonable birth date for the country most of us call England. Alfred, he notes, called his people "angelcynn," meaning 'English kind,' and their language was "Englisc."
            Alfred the Great, as he is known to later history, encouraged literacy, translated Bede, and began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle three centuries before, Tomb notes, any other European country produced a "high vernacular" of its own. He translated into this 'Englisc' language a classic by an earlier Briton, Boethius's "The Consolations of Philosophy," a book I remember reporting on in graduate school.
            But that's as far as I can go, given my theme is what we can know of the "dark ages" of the nation from which this one sprang and whose language we share. I am grateful to Tomb's book for giving me a surer handle on many dates and names and places. But when it comes to the fuller story of "A History of England" I have to confess that the information drawn that book for this post concludes page 35. Only 864 more pages to go.