Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Ghostly Reassurance for America from the 1400s and My Cellar

He came out of nowhere, suddenly appearing in a locked and empty room in my cellar. My family swears that the room was locked and empty until the week before Christmas when one of them opened the door to hide Christmas presents. Only that one family member had a key to the locked room and had always had it. There was nothing in that room until this moment of opening the door to hide presents.

When the door was unlocked, there he was. Or, more accurately, there was his picture, a framed print of a figure from a tomb rubbing, a sombre sandy-gold figure on a black background. He certainly hadn't been hanging in the cellar before. And the neighbor next door who has been in and out of this house since childhood says she never saw his picture on the walls here, never in 55 years.

"Is it a message?", my family member asked after we had determined that there was no humdrum explanation for its appearance.

I had to think about that and do some research.

The answer? That's exactly what it is, a message.

A label on the back of the print explains that this is Sir William Laken of the 1400s in England, a member of the three-man King's Bench of High Justices and a respected attorney throughout a long career. Knowing a bit about the English ways at that time, I realized he wouldn't have been on the King's Bench without also being a politician. Was this a message for me, a lawyer and politician? Something like, "You had better get back to work even if you are 80." 

No, it's not about me.

It's about you. It's about all of us. But it's especially about America, an America currently torn in two by suspicions about the 2016 election, great partisan conflict, racism and other -isms, terrible fear, clashing values, and a recognition that the man about to be sworn in as president did not win the election. He's frightening even members of his own party with his refusal to follow any of the norms of our political life and to honor the obvious fact that Russia is still our enemy, even though just a mischievious minor player on the world stage, but one that is still armed with nuclear weapons and now electronic ones.  

The message from the ghostly picture is about all of this. It's also a message for a world dismayed as it watches America careening on a wild path, threatening to destabilize all kinds of international alliances on which the world has been relying.

In the face of all the dismay and anxiety we are experiencing, the appearance of Sir William Laken brings great reassurance. For one of the most notable aspects of his life is that he lived at the time of the infamous War of the Roses, a rending war of succession that tore England apart for half a century. Laken didn't die in the war as did may of the nobility and upper classes. He died peacefully in his own bed. He managed to be a player in English government and politics but never got chewed up in the machinations of his time.

More relevant for us is that England too survived the War of the Roses. The war did not destroy the country. To the contrary, its ferocity so decimated the upper classes that it broke their medieval hold on the "peasantry", opening the way for a free people able to leave the land and learn new things, opening the way to the rise of a merchant and artisan class, opening the way to the Renaissance. 

If England could survive the War of the Roses and the two sides make peace, we Americans too can survive the conflicts that now simmer across our country and threaten disruption and even violence. Hopefully our present wobbliness doesn't lead to full collapse and we can instead avoid the fifty years of civil war that England suffered. But come what may, America is going to make it through.

For consider what America has been and can still be:

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door," says The Lady who welcomed all our ancestors to the safe harbor.

"The last best hope of mankind." Ronald Reagan.

"That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." Abraham Lincoln.''

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Franklin Roosevelt.

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others." Winston Churchill.

Even more apt: "Americans always do the right thing. But only after they have tried everything else first." Churchill again.

"The torch has passed to a new generation". John Kennedy.

"We shall overcome." Martin Luther King

"Si se puedes." Cesar Chavez. 

"Yes, we can." Barack Obama.

And my sentimental favorite: "God takes care of dogs, drunks and the American people," well-said by that famous commentator Anonymous.

It's good to know that the dogs and the drunks are also going to be okay.

Happy New Year to you from me and Sir William Laken. We give John Kennedy's torch to you. Keep it burning and pass it on.

The Battle of Tewkesbury, 1471. Some day I'll write about why spaghetti and the long bow are important in history.

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