The Gold in Them Thar Hills

Sequoyah,_Cherokee_inventor,_by_C_B__King,_1836

Sequoyah, Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet

I’m working on a new novel. Until this week, I would have said I was half way through with it, that I’d be done by the end of the year. After all, I have on paper great characters, Jews, African Americans, Cherokees, and a fascinating plot rollicking along to conclusion. Then this week I went on a research trip and realized I have to step back.

My husband – my most passionate publicist (sorry Laura De Silva) who pumps me up to everyone he meets – keeps telling people my new novel’s about the Trail of Tears but it’s not really. Over the last few years while I’ve written about the Southern Jewish Experience and how it intersects with the African American Experience throughout the 20th century, I’ve realized that my work has come to focus in general on American Racism, the great original sin here in the home of the brave, land of the free. But I needed fresh inspiration and so I turned to the previous century for that most primal element of American Racism, it’s treatment towards the First Nations, specifically, the Cherokee Nation during the crucible years from 1828 to 1838 which started with the Georgia gold rush and culminated in the Indian Expulsion Act and the Trail of Tears.

I’d got 40,000 words plus in. Considering my usual novel length isn’t more than the low 80s, I figured I’d got half-way through. But then this week, we took a trip to the mountains of Cherokee, North Carolina, and well, it changed the game considerably. Here’s what happened.

There’s a plethora of resources on what happened during that dark decade that expelled what’s known as the five civilized nations of native Americans on what amounted to a forced death march to their new “homes” in the wild west. The history is not hard to follow, there’s tons of it on record, and I found it great material to incorporate into a fictional realm. But I suspected there was something missing. Beyond the straight history, there’s lack out there of primary sources and a logjam of revisionist romanticism of who and what the Cherokee really were. I was looking for the former and having a hard time finding it. Then I visited Cherokee, North Carolina, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian there is a heart-wrenching experience. It begins with a video, brilliantly executed, retelling the creation epic of the Cherokee. There’s the water beetle and the water spider and the delivery by these most modest creatures of land and fire to humanity. By the time the story’s over and the narrator, a wise chief, tells you that these stories have been preserved by the Cherokee for hundreds of years despite the decimation of the people by whites and now, he is giving them to you, the audience, why you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved, even to tears. Then one walks the exhibits and they are stunning and moving and informative and the audience can only emerge humbled. You walk out of that place filled with respect and saddened at the sight of men in native dress on the tacky, commercial streets downtown posing for photos in front of “trading posts” with tourists for tips. Most importantly for me, I found in the museum library a primary source on Cherokee life during the era of my novel. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled by a missionary in Cherokee country for the express purpose of identifying the Cherokee as one of the lost tribes of Jews. They record six volumes worth of Cherokee cultural history along with collected letters of Cherokee chiefs from that era. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled between 1817 and the 1830s. Since most original Cherokee documents were lost or burned by settlers during the expulsion era, this is the best we’ve got. And I am delighted to have access to them. Since I’ve found them I’ve learned they’re essential reading for anyone studying Cherokee history. Why I couldn’t find them before underscores the abundance of fanciful books on Native Americans. For me the Payne Butrick papers were the needle in the haystack, the vein of gold hidden deep in the mountain cave.

If you are in Cherokee, NC, after the museum, you might attend an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills, an historic play performed by tribal members in an airy amphitheater worthy of Sparta. It is, let me warn you, not for the serious theater goer but perfect for the tourist who hasn’t studied Cherokee history. It’s interesting on one level, a hokey gloss on another, and ridiculous in part (Cherokees dancing at a hoe-down? Really?). Still worth going to. When we went, I was appalled at the steep stairs I had to climb up and down to my seat as I’m getting older and not too steady on my feet sometimes, especially when wearing wedgies. I cautioned said publicist husband to look out for me because if I fell down and toppled over a dozen other attendees, the injuries and lawsuits would be staggering. He said: “Well, maybe not, dear. We’re in a foreign country now. I don’t have a clue what Cherokee liability laws might be. . .”

And there you have it. Subtly, without your realizing it, when you enter Cherokee NC, you’ve entered a foreign country and the foreign country is on soil you consider American and yet it is and it’s not. Not at all. This is one of the most curious legacies of imperialism, no? And after you’ve absorbed all that, maybe you’ll recognize that that’s why that casino is down the street. And that’s why the police cars say “Cherokee Nation” on their sides.

One last thing. Every obvious Cherokee I met was uniformly polite, sweet, shy, kind of adorable. Their skin is not red but coppery, beautiful. There’s something about it that made me want to reach out and touch it, to caress a cheek or two. I’m not even gonna talk about that fantastic black hair. I thought it was a good thing I wasn’t young anymore or living in a different era or the beauty of these people could get me into a bucket of trouble.

And another thing. I didn’t see too many of them. Yet I was smack dab in the middle of Cherokee, North Carolina. What does that say? Where are they? Lost to history. Lost to decimation. Lost to genocide.

I have to add a different texture to my novel now. It might not be completed all so quickly. May the spirits of these beautiful people guide me. I mean them only glorification, compassion, truth. Amen.

What Exactly Is A Jewish Christmas?

I don’t know what my fellow Jews consider celebrating a Jewish Christmas, but I’m going traditional. The 3:45 showing of Hunger Games 2 followed by Chinese. Well, actually Asian Fusion and I’ll probably have the veggie sushi. Zen’s does sushi really, really well, after all. Not only that, we’ve found a friend who’s not Jewish to come with also. At first I thought, being of a certain age, Paul was a Christmas orphan. But he assures me not. He’s a Druid, claims he, and considering the magnificence of his garden, maybe he’s not even joking.

Christmas is a strange holiday for me. I grew up with it. I enjoyed it as a child, felt oppressed by it as an adult. When I became Jewish, nearly forty years ago, I thought I could be done with it once and for all, but it’s part of the culture. You can’t escape it. From the piped in carols at CVS that start before Thanksgiving to the parties and gift-giving orgies everyone around you delights in, it’s everywhere. So the wise thing is to adopt a ‘tude.

My husband long ago decided the Japanese ‘tude suited him. He celebrates whatever cultural elements of Christmas he can without doing damage to his identity. That means he loves singing carols, which he learned in school in the days before sensitivity to diversity. If he had a voice, I’m sure he’d be a member of some annual Halleluiah Chorus group a la our buds from Tokyo. When the season rolls around, never have I been so grateful that he’s tone deaf.

We don’t do a Hannukah Bush – that would be entirely too weird for us. In fact, we don’t give each other Hannukah presents, even when the holidays fall especially close to each other. I’m pretty vigilant at not confusing the holidays. Hannukah is Hannukah. That means menorahs and latkes. Christmas is Christmas. We all know what that means. In my house, the twain should not meet. But then my birthday is in early January, so I still get winter gifts and don’t feel like I missed out. Not sure if that accident of birth is cheating or not.

Anyway, when the Jewish Book Council asked me to blog three times this week, Christmas week, for their Visiting Scribes series, I thought, ok, I’d love it! But secretly, I worried the world was so busy no one would notice my blogs that particular week of crushing cultural solidarity. Then: all right. If that happened, I thought, it would be my willing neck in the diversity noose and maybe there’d be a blessing down the line.

Holy mackerel, though! My blog seems to have gained some traction! I wonder if it’s another cultural crossroads at work since the blog (and two more related blogs will follow) is entitled: Is your husband black? and concerns some curious questions I’ve had as an author who works in the field of race relations and the Deep South. Hmmm.  Read for yourself and let me know. . .if you don’t mind and Santa has given you a little leeway. . . http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/_blog/The_ProsenPeople/post/is-your-husband-black/

 
 

 

A Good Honest Horse

Sweet boy

Yesterday, I was watching old videos of my late horse, King of Harts, as he’s only been gone two weeks and I miss him. The earliest records a jump lesson we had together twenty-five years ago. My hair is long and in braids. I’m wearing my first pair of breeches, my first pair of riding boots and gloves. I’m so happy I look about twelve years old. I was thirty-nine.

Hart had just turned ten. I’d been given him to ride because he required a lot of leg and that was something I needed to learn to provide. I knew him already from cleaning his stall while he was in it. He had a habit of making me laugh by head-butting me all over the stall so he could catch a chance at knocking over the manure bucket and running out the half-cleared door. Other times, he’d rub his head up and down my trunk, pinning me against the wall. Everyone told me he scratching an itch. But I felt it was because he liked me.

The boy had quite a reputation in the lowcountry training circuit. He was a handsome lad, strong, very strong, and with a mind of his own. He was smart, talented, but willful. When he went to riding competitions, he was known to enter the jump ring and jump all the jumps with or without a rider and in the order he saw fit. He wasn’t dangerous. But he did have a sense of humor.

In that video of long ago, we’re first seen mounted up and under saddle. My husband, the videographer, asks: And who is this? Having already had my battles with that will of his, I reply: Mr. Heartache.  But that was in the early days. I had no idea what lay in store for us.

Over twenty-five years, that horse taught me joy and patience and loyalty and hard work. We had our disagreements at times and I lost quite a few. But he never held a grudge and oh, the times and sights we shared! The first snowfall in the Blue Hills, the Kiawah River levee at high tide, sunsets and mists and flocks of strange birds, coyote packs, deer, fox, the first sweet wildflowers of spring. We shared trail buddies and stable pals. The mounts of some of the best friends I’ve ever had or will have were his best friends, too.

We aged together. There was a time I figured out his human age in horse years and realized we were the same age that year and then he raced on ahead of me whether I liked it or not. I can’t count the times that happened literally while I was on his back. Once, we were galloping through a rocky wooded path all on our own and I went from two-point, with my head near his neck and my backside in the air, to sit back down on him to slow his pace, but he chose that moment to execute a flying buck, I assume out of spirit and fun. I popped right off,  landed on a pile of small rocks, and passed out. When I awoke, it was to the sight of his giant nostrils breathing air into me. It felt like he was giving me life.

Sometime over our friendship, we brokered a deal, I guess. He stopped being so willful, at least under saddle, and we became, blissfully, a team. He knew what I wanted from him and gave it. I knew what distressed him and made sure we steered clear. On the ground, he followed me, head down, wherever I walked. It could have been the carrots in my pocket.

He was himself til the end. Most of his life he spent in good flesh and with plenty of pep. It was only in the last few months that his topline caved and his ribs stood out. I wondered how he’d get through another winter and I suppose it’s a blessing he doesn’t have to try. But his spirit was still there. The last handwalk we took together, two days before he died, he headbutted me down the road for a bit. And when we turned and headed to the pasture, he clopped along with his tongue stuck out a little, which he always did, even with a bar in his mouth, when he was happy. He was thirty-five and I murmured to him that I loved my old man and thanked him for being a good honest horse.

They say a good, honest horse is one who does what he’s asked or tries hard to do it. A reliable horse. One who’s not going to get silly or hysterical and endanger himself or his rider. Hart might have been strong and willful and smart enough to think he knew best from time to time. He had a few rude habits, like the headbutting. He might try something sneaky once in a while, like drag a bale of hay by the string into his stall. He’d been known to think the person feeding him was taking too long bending over the bucket belonging to the guy beside him and pick up his own bucket in his teeth to bop the feeder over the head. But put the smallest child on him and he was a lamb. For my money, that’s as good and honest as a horse ever needs to be.

 

 

 

A Stranger in a Strange Land Comes Home

From the moment I land in Dallas, TX, I wonder how I’d come to such an alien place. Right away, the airport strikes me as strange. It’s a string of short buildings and runways, with at least one old fashioned control tower like the kind at Logan in Boston that used to guide my pilot daddy home to me in the ‘50s, and the whole thing is surrounded by winding parabolas of elevated highway like the landing field of a planet somewhere in another galaxy. I’m told it covers an area larger than Manhattan.

At least my driver, John Lacritz, feels familiar, standing there at baggage collection with a sign bearing my name. A good-looking gent, he answers all my questions about Dallas which granted aren’t very many (I’m tired) and stands by me at the hotel until he’s sure all the arrangements pan out.

But that ride into town. Flat, flat land as far as the eye could see and no vegetation to speak of either. No shade to break the wash of sun. A desert landscape, unfamiliar to this low-country girl whose eyes are filled daily with Spanish moss draping live oak, azaleas, palm trees, hawthorn, wisteria, marsh grass, water. My hotel is downtown but there don’t seem to be any buildings very close to it. It’s twenty storeys high or so like all the structures I see, but sits alone, by itself, in a stand of much higher buildings separated by an unnatural distance. I am disoriented. I think: wide open spaces that I love, don’t fence me in, where am I?

The concierge tells me my room’s on the 17th floor, the executive floor. I say, Oh, please, don’t put me so high up. He says: Oh no. Trust me. You want to be high up. We have the regional cheerleaders’ convention in town. . .

He’s right. I meet a Facebook friend, Carol Burrow Leos, in the bar for dinner that night and the joint is hopping, literally, with highly enthusiastic females of all ages, wearing glitter, somersaulting, legs akimbo, and every word they utter seems to be followed by an exclamation point. Mostly, though, they don’t talk. They laugh. They cheer. Loudly. Where am I, Carol? I think I landed in the center ring of a feminist circus training camp!

By morning, I’m ready for the opening reception at the Tycher Library of the Center of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. I wait in the hotel lobby for my ride over while buses fill up with last night’s cheerleaders who likely never went up to bed and whose pitch is as fevered as ever. God bless the young.

My new drivers are Brenda and Peter Marcus who, despite living in the US for 35 plus years, have not lost their South African accents, which charms me into feeling I really have left my home and inserted myself through some miracle of time/place shift into a foreign land, especially when Brenda tells me she finds my characters Dickensian, which warms the cockles of my old heart right up. Brenda and Peter also run Dallas’ Jewish Film Festival and when I tell them my first novel, Home in the Morning, is in development for film they surprise me with the generous offer of showing it at the Festival and take down my contact info to follow up. Did I say a foreign land? I think I meant fairy land, a place where wishes are granted, dreams come true.

We arrive at the JCC, enter. I find the place palatial, vast and appointed with all the bells and whistles any community could hope for and it’s then I realize I am home. From the organizing librarian, Nina Golboro, a pretty, trim, efficient young woman who has everything in perfect control, making sure the event rolls on smoothly, to the women of the donor reception, and the book club people to whom I make my speech, everyone welcomes me and chats with me in a way that feels natural, homey. I hear a great story I have permission to use in my future presentations from Meyer Denn, the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Education,and suddenly, I’m reminded why I enjoy the Jewish Book Network tours so very much.

You see, when we lived up North, I lived in a Jewish neighborhood with five synagogues, three kosher butchers, numerous kosher bakeries, restaurants, and caterers all within walking distance. In the old days, Brooklyn, New York had nothing on Brookline, Massachusetts when it came to Jewish life. That changed some over the decades, but still a haimische ambiance was always there, warm and familiar, permeating everything. Since I’d moved South – to an island yet, with my synagogue 30 plus miles away- I’d been happy living in my natural paradise but I miss sometimes the pulse, the comfort of Jews, of Yiddishekeit. And never so much as when I find myself somewhere, even somewhere as new to me as Dallas, in a crowd of Jewish book lovers where I feel quite suddenly, that stab of recognition: here, in this room, I am home.

I present that day to a bright, responsive crowd of about l00 souls. They listen to whatever bit of wisdom I have. They laugh at my jokes. I make up more. They embrace me. I embrace them.

Nancy Seigel drives me back to the airport and its short stack buildings without any departure screens ahead of security so that you don’t really know if you’re headed to the right gate or not until after you’re through. The ride is more of that same flat, unfamiliar network of concrete loops. But I’m with one of my people and in the back is her friend,Charlene Howell, a woman from Charleston, and because of all that, this stranger in a strange land is home long before she gets there.

At the Tycher Library

At the Tycher Library

Encounters With The Unexpected

When I left my home Monday for Baltimore’s Mercaz Dahan Center for Jewish Life and Learning at Beth Tifloh Congregation, part of my head happily sang, On the Road Again while the other half hummed with a measure of dread. I admit I enjoy presenting my work. Over the last couple years, I’ve crafted a talk that people seem to like quite a lot, so the dread wasn’t performance anxiety. No, I’d none of that.

There were layers and layers to what was plaguing me. I’d been to Baltimore twice before and each time, the security lines for the return trip were endless. I’d wait in a stationary position for half an hour in a line that simply did not move while people around me wailed about missed flights. On top of that, there were rumors of icy rain or snow on the day of my return which filled my head with unwholesome images of spending the night trying to sleep on Gate A5 chairs. But the vagaries of air travel were not my only concerns.

I was paired to present with Sonia Taitz, most lately author of The Watchmaker’s Daughter, universally praised by Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report, O Magazine, whoever else you want to come up with, whose curriculum vitae includes a law degree from Yale and a M.Phil in 19th Century Literature from Oxford, the Lord Bullock Prize in Writing, etc.etc.etc. You can find the definition of the etc’s at http://www.soniataitz.com. Now, I don’t even know who Lord Bullock is, or more likely was, but I’m intimidated. Her book is a memoir of growing up the conflicted child of Holocaust survivors, one critics laud as both funny and heart-wrenching. Not only that, she writes a regular column for Psychology Today.com.

Oi, I thought. Forget intimidated. This woman plain scares me. Then I note in one of my emails from Sandy Vogel, the savvy Director at Mercaz, and Debbie Liebowitz, her irreplaceable assistant, that Sonia Taitz is the opening act. What???? For me? How am I going to follow all that?

Double Oi.

Well, I get to Baltimore swiftly enough and am picked up at my hotel by Sandy Vogel to have a nice kosher Chinese dinner before the show. I chew a couple of GasX to quiet my stomach if not my nerves and off we go.

There are two women waiting for us at the restaurant. One introduces herself as Lynn, The Driver. The other, a handsome, petite woman with auburn hair and startling eyes, warmly greets me and tells me she’s Sonia. Quickly two other women enter, Debbie Liebowitz, and the brilliant book club facilitator who will be introducing the authors, a woman who’s also created stimulating question guides for readers of the texts, Halaine Steinberg. We settle into a delicious meal and along the way, the penny drops. With suave aplomb, I interrupt somebody to loudly stutter: Oh! You’re THAT Sonia? Sonia Taitz?

Despite my clumsiness, we get along like gangbusters and I learn also that The Driver is Sonia’s old friend who’s offered to squire her about, Lynn Auld Schwartz, a playwright and twice winner of the Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, who can be found on her website http://www.writerswordhouse.com, where she offers writing workshops, private coaching, and story development editing. This lady’s remarkably pretty too with strawberry blond hair and a perfect Renaissance face and she’s sweet and self-deprecating and suddenly instead of having new causes of intimidation, I’m beginning to feel quite at home and comfy, one of the girls, so to speak. Quite unexpectedly, I’m flying with eagles.

Eventually we get to the synagogue. I’ve visited smaller college campuses. It’s huge. It’s glorious. Think wide marble hallways and towering glass windows and doors. It’s modern orthodox. I’m accustomed to Brookline, Massachusetts’ orthodox congregations, uniformly in old stately buildings conducive to holiday cramped quarters. At Beth T’filoh, there’s space and beauty enough to imagine how high the soul can soar.

As we settle in to make our presentations, I tell Sonia it’s really not proper for me to be second. I am definitely her warm up act. After all, let’s be real here, you can’t trump the Holocaust. Not even with One More River’s Klu Klux Klan violence and historic 1927 Mississippi flood. Besides, my talk has a lot of laughs and that’d feel unseemly after what I imagine her talk will be like. She demurs. Tells me her talk has laughs, too. But whatever I’d like. I insist.

So it’s settled. I make my speech first and the crowd of 50-60 people seem to love it. Yay. Then Sonia takes the podium. And dang, if she isn’t right! Her story is full of humanity and wit and wisdom and charm and yiddishekeit along with the tragedy of the 6 million. It’s more about resilience than being crushed. I think that’s unexpected encounter number. . .four?

When I get to the airport the next day, nearly two hours early to satisfy my fears, I have another surprise. There’s no one there. I mean there are security agents galore but no passengers. My line is a single other person ahead of me. And the skies are clear and dry.

As I travelled swiftly home on a (thank God) non-stop flight, I had time to replay my last 24 hours of unexpected revelations and I decided the best one was this: Never judge anyone by their C.V. alone. It’s the person that counts.

Now, why didn’t I know that?

Mercaz Dahan Jewish Learning Center

That’s Debbie Liebowitz, moi, and Sandy Vogel. Unfortunately, Sonia and Lynn left before we remembered to take a photo! Dang!